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From the heartland to Hollywood

On the Oscar road: Dams and damsels

Oddsmaker Johnny Avello's big board at Las Vegas' Paris Casino gave
Oddsmaker Johnny Avello's big board at Las Vegas' Paris Casino gave "A Beautiful Mind" the lead, with "The Lord of the Rings" in fourth place, 6-to-1 odds.  

By Kendis Gibson
CNN Headline News

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- A wake-up call at 3:30 a.m. in Albuquerque, New Mexico, made for a rough start to Day 4 of our cross-country journey to the Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

We left the city having seen mostly highways and hotel hallways. But the car trip that day was well worth getting up for.

Our trek across the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona was the most picturesque part of our week-long journey so far. At one point, we pulled into the breathtaking Painted Desert. That's where we met a park ranger, Pat Jablonski, who was more than happy to talk about her Oscar picks.

Jablonski lives on the grounds of the Painted Desert and her nearest movie theater is 90 miles away. Still, she was easily one of the biggest movie fans we've met on the trip.

After leaving the park, we got back onto the road and popped "Training Day" into the DVD player. We spent 100-plus miles marveling at Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke's Oscar-nominated performances as we rolled through Winslow, Flagstaff and Kingman, Arizona.

  Day 1:  Crawfish, Mentos and best pics

  Day 2:  A stop in 'Spacek City'

  Day 3:  Talkies at the Tascosa

  Day 4:  Day 4: Dams and damsels

Later, we stopped for pictures and picks from tourists at the massive Hoover Dam. Most of them said they hadn't seen the nominated films. But a tour guide from Arkansas cast her best-picture vote for "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

Please, no wagering

A short drive later, we rolled onto the Las Vegas Strip.

We chatted with Johnny Avello, oddsmaker at Bally's Paris Casino. He has set odds for the Oscar horse race -- and "A Beautiful Mind" was leading when we checked in with him, with 2-to-1 odds.

You can't actually bet on the winners in Vegas; it's illegal to wager on an event with a pre-determined outcome. Avello told us his Oscar odds are "strictly for entertainment."

Next, we determined that there was one thing we couldn't leave Las Vegas without doing. No, we didn't gamble, unless you count the time we jaywalked across the dangerously congested Strip.

We wanted to go to a drag show to get the divas' opinions about the Oscars.

Two hours and a lot of quick negotiations later, we found ourselves backstage at the "La Cage" review at the Hotel Riviera. Between numbers (and costume changes) the divas themselves -- whose stage personas include Tina Turner, Joan Rivers, Whitney Houston, Reba McEntire and Madonna -- were nice enough to tell us their Oscar picks.

Two of them picked "Moulin Rouge" (for some reason, we weren't surprised). Two of them picked "The Fellowship of the Ring" The star of the show, Frank Marino, said he hopes "Monster's Ball" will do well on Oscar night "because of Halle Berry, of course." Maybe the review can add a Halle Berry impersonator.

As all things must, our trip cross-country is coming to an end Thursday when we thankfully roll into Los Angeles. While it's exciting that we'll soon reach Hollywood, right now I'm more excited at the thought of six hours of sleep.

Watch Kendis Gibson's reports from the road to Oscar, daily on CNN Headline News.



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