Knowing and Using Your Resources

As the calendar pages turn from July to August, our days in Ocean City get down to a handful, and the start of our “Big Adventure” is just weeks away! Once we get back to Long Island next weekend, we’ll have a couple of weeks to get clothes together, schedule the car to be checked out, take care of visits to the Doctor and Dentist, take care of nail and hair appointments, and see our kids before we leave. Then on Sunday, August 21st, with the car loaded, off we will go. A combination of sadness (that we are leaving the life we love in Ocean City), excitement (that this trip we have so long dreamed about and planned is really here), and trepidation (are we nuts to embark on 2-3 months of driving around the United States????) is our current state of mind, but we know that once we get on the road, we’ll have a great time!

Recently, a friend who has been following along with this blog asked a question about where to get information. He too wants to embark on a retirement trip, but he just didn’t really know where to start. It started us thinking about what our process has been, and thought some might find it interesting to take a look at some of the tools we have used along the way. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but just some ideas we have used to get a handle on some of the places we want to visit and how to get there.

image1 – The AAA. As long time members of the American Automobile Club, we have always used AAA Maps and Tour Books as our road trip bibles. If you are of a certain age, you will understand what we mean when we say there is just something about watching your progress on a paper map that seems to define a road trip. Luckily, some of the best paper maps you can get, are published by the AAA, and are a perk of your membership. In addition to the maps, the tour books have a wealth of knowledge about tourist destinations as well as hotel and restaurants listings in the area. If you are an AAA member, you can order maps, tour books and even triptiks (route directions) online. You can also just stop into a local AAA office (doesn’t have to be the state AAA you are affiliated with) and pick up maps, tour books, and even triptiks. Having a paper map in front of you so that you can check the location and relationships between places you want to visit is a must when planning a trip, and the tour books will give you valuable information about the places on your trip and be very helpful in deciding what you want to visit. If you are a member, stop in and pick up a couple of maps and tour books and start planning. If you are not a member, consider joining, as the price of your membership will be well worth it for the information you can get. (aaa.com….yearly membership $52)

image2 – Atlas – Because many people would not consider a road trip without a comprehensive road atlas, we purchased a Rand McNally Road Atlas. This one volume contains maps of all 50 states and lower Canada and assures us that we will always have a map showing our location, wherever we are in the US. The scale is smaller than the AAA maps which sometimes makes it hard to figure out exactly what you’re looking at, but sometimes makes it easier to see the relationship between two destinations. While we’ve used this volume a lot in our planning, for our actual trip we think it will take a back up roll to the bigger scale AAA maps.

image3 – Books – One of the things that you need to do when you are planning a road trip, is to decide what you want to see. If you have a “bucket list” of places that you want to include (like Frank wants to see Mt. Rushmore and Sue Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon), it will make your planning easier, as you already will have destinations in mind. If your “bucket list” is empty, or if you need more information about places, there are thousands of travel books you can purchase via Amazon or at a book store like Barnes and Noble that will help you flesh out an itinerary. Two that we have used are, “1,000 Places to See in the US and Canada Before You Die” (Workman Publishing, NY) and The New Roadside America (a Fireside Book published by Simon and Schuster, NY). The first covers everything from National Parks, historic sites, scenic byways, and the like, while the second will lead you to the odd things…like the biggest thermometer, ball of twine and those kind of offbeat attractions.

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4 – Google and the Internet – We live in the age of information at our fingertips, and much of the info you’ll want to plan your trip is available via your computer, tablet, or even smart phone. Google will lead you to just about anything you have a question about, and virtually everything has a website these days. Want more info on the Grand Canyon? Type it into Google and go right to the Grand Canyon National Park’s website. While it’s nice to have books in hand, the reality is that you can find everything you need on the internet.
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5 – Trip Advisor – While we are talking about web sites, we’d like to single out one that has provided us with lots of information and advice. Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) is virtually a one stop destination for travel information. From hotel, restaurant, and attraction reviews, to information about the area, even to listings of hotel and apartment rentals, Trip Advisor is a great source for travel information. Just put in the area you are interested in visiting, and Trip Advisor will provide you a complete overview. In addition, hit the MORE button on the top of the page, highlight TRAVEL FORUM and it will open up the Travel Board where you can ask questions and get real advice from fellow travelers! From Cities and States, to National Parks and Historic Sites, to every kind of trip (like Road Trips), you can find a forum that covers exactly what you are looking for, populated with knowledgeable travelers looking to help their fellow travelers. A great resource.

image6 – Google Maps – Looking at places on a map gives you an idea of where they are and the relationship of places to each other, but how do you know how long it will take you to get from say Chicago to the Black Hills? This was the position we were in when planning some sections of our trip, and we found an easy way to get a ball park estimate was to use Google Maps. Enter your starting point and your destination, ask for directions, and it will tell you not only the mileage but give you an idea of the driving time. Now, we know that it’s not fool proof, but we think it’s a good way to get an estimate so that you can make some decisions based on facts.

7 – Hotel Apps – If you have a smart phone or a tablet you can travel with, hotel apps are a great way to see what’s available and even to make reservations. At the present time, I have apps from Best Western, Hilton Honors, and Choice Hotels on my phone, but there are many others. If you’re going to be traveling a lot, not only do these apps help you find lodging, but by joining their programs, you may even get free stays!

image6- GPS – While we like printed maps, we always travel with a Garmin GPS on our dash. It’s very handy when you are trying to find a hotel or site that you have an address for, and good to give you an idea exactly where you are. In addition, ours tells us what the local speed limit is, how fast we’re going, and also keeps us updated on traffic. We don’t depend on it totally, as we always try to have maps as a reference, and I’ve read on the internet that using a GPS in the American Southwest is iffy at best, as they are notoriously inaccurate there for some reason, but it’s a good tool to have in your tool box.

So there it is…some ideas from us, and how to go about planning and executing your trip of a lifetime…or perhaps just a trip down to Florida in the winter to avoid the January and February freeze! Probably the next time you hear from us, we will be on the road, but now we have to continue packing up the Ocean City house, and get ready for 2 weeks of trip preparation!

Our Big Trip Update

imageSo, the last time we talked about our “Big Trip”, we told you that because of a need to make certain reservations now or not be able to stay where we want to, our trip had taken on some real details. We will be leaving Long Island on August 21st…two months from tomorrow… and heading west, so this is becoming more and more real! Since our last update, some of our reservations have changed and more of the early part of our trek has been further fleshed out.

imageOriginally, the only place we could originally get in the Grand Canyon was a room at the Yavapai Lodge, this was definitely not our first choice. While it is indeed located at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it is not ON the South Rim, but is back about a 1/2 mile. As everything else at the Grand Canyon was already booked for our dates, we felt fortunate that we were at least in the Grand Canyon and not miles outside of the Park. Frank had read online advice from many folks that said to grab something, and just keep on checking back and see if something better opens up, and that’s exactly what we did. After checking back on almost a daily basis, we were rewarded with exactly what we wanted. We now have reserved a cabin at Bright Angel Lodge, which is literally feet away from the rim of the canyon! Sunrises and Sunsets will be much easier to enjoy from that location!

We’ve also fleshed out our stay at Yellowstone a bit and have booked one dinner at the Lake Yellowstone Lodge, a boat tour of Yellowstone Lake, and a Lake Butte Sunset Tour, the vehicles for which are classic Yellowstone “Yellow Buses” from the 20s and 30s. This along with exploring things like Old Faithful on our own, and seeing the varied wildlife in the park, should make for two unforgettable days in America’s First National Park!

We have also looked closer at the days leading up to our two night stay in Yellowstone. The amount of reading you have to do, the number of maps you need to consult, the websites you have to check, and the mileage and time calculations you have to do to have a successful trip can be mind boggling! But, when it’s a trip you have been dreaming and talking about for years, it all becomes worth it! One of the things that will be included on those days leading up to our Yellowstone visit will be one of Frank’s main Bucket List items on this trip, Mount Rushmore!

imageHis desire to see Mt. Rushmore in the flesh, probably stems from seeing Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint climb across the faces of the presidents in the Hitchcock classic, North by Northwest. Frank found an interesting article recently dealing with what was actually filmed on site, and what was shot back at the studio. Of course, it would seem fairly obvious that someone like Cary Grant was not actually dangling from Lincoln’s nose on the real Mt. Rushmore, but apparently the head of the National Park Services was fearful that back in 1959, some folks might think he was! It seems that the permit that Hitchcock and the crew were given for the scenes they filmed at Mt. Rushmore contained specific language detailing what the film makers could do in scenes shot on site, or in the studio using mock-ups. The reason for this language lay in one simple fact: master film director Alfred Hitchcock had long wanted to film a movie involving the “Shrine of Democracy,” but the Park Service had concerns about the memorials potential “desecration.” After seeing a preview of the movie before it’s public release, the head of the service wrote, “The phony studio shots leave the average customer with the idea that the scenes of violence were staged on the memorial itself.” Kind of hard to understand that logic when 60 years later we have seen everything from the Empire State Building to the White House destroyed in movies, but the Park Service actually tried to have the release of the movie stopped…obviously that didn’t happen. You have to wonder how many of the tourists who have journeyed to Mt. Rushmore over the almost 60 years since the release of the movie, have done so for the same reason we are… because they saw North by Northwest. In hindsight, perhaps the movie they feared so much, was the best publicity a monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota could have gotten! As Cary Grant playing Roger Thornhill, the advertising executive protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest says, “Ah, Maggie, in the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie, there’s only the expedient exaggeration!”.

So, anyway, Mt. Rushmore is the first major stop of our adventure, and as we said, we have fleshed out some of the days leading up to our visit. Leaving NY on August 21st, we will journey out Interstate 80 to Chicago, then head slightly north until we join up with Interstate 90. Depending on weather, the road conditions, how we feel, and what we may want to stop and see along the way, we figure it will take us the better part of 4 days to reach South Dakota. We are planning our first stop in South Dakota to be in Murdo, and then the next morning, we expect to hit our first National Park of the trip, Badlands National Park, on our way to Mt. Rushmore. Next we reserved two nights in Keystone, South Dakota which is right in the heart of the area with easy access to Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills National Forest. After our two nights in the area, we will head out, hopefully hitting Devils Tower National Monument and detouring north to pay a visit to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. We hope our stop that night will be in Sheridan, Wyoming and then the next day we will head into Yellowstone for our two days there.

imageTo be honest, this kind of planning is definitely not our style. We are more the type of folks that get into the car, have a rough idea of where we’re going, a general idea of our time frame, and then take off, stopping each night in hotels we find along the way in the AAA Tour Books. What we have discovered though, is that when your trips include National Parks and Monuments, unless you want to drive around half the night looking for a place to stay, you really have to plan ahead. So at least on this first leg, we have been forced to make hotel reservations, figure out how much mileage we’ll cover each day, and what we’re going to see. Hopefully the next leg of the trip, will leave us a little more leeway to wander, but we will see when we soon take a closer look at the two weeks between Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. We’ve already looked at the maps and are thinking about the next leg taking us to the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City, Denver (perhaps a baseball game there), Pikes Peak, and maybe even Vegas. We don’t want to give away too much of the “adventure” of this trip, but just thought you might be interested in a bit of the planning we’ve put in. Only time will tell if our trek between leaving Yellowstone on August 30th, and checking into the Bright Angel Lodge in the Grand Canyon on September 14th will be as planned, or more free form. Only time will also tell if our plans will all work out, or if we will be doing some “flying by the seat of our pants”. Stay tuned!