Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Road Trip Planning

Road Trippin’--Planning
with Steve McCarthy
I get asked on a regular basis, “How do you come up with these trips?” It’s not like you can go to AAA  and ask for a triptych (their name for route instructions) that won’t follow the dreaded interstate. The AAA just isn’t set up that way. To be fair, it’s not what most people want from them. Typically, even if you want to get to some odd ball place, they’ll connect Interstates as much as possible. Google Maps will do the same. So, just how do we go about planning, and how much planning do we actually do? Aye, there’s the rub as the Bard was wont to say. How do you balance planning and St. Serendipity? 
First,you start with the right attitude. Anal-retentive scheduling is out. Don’t commit yourself to a time frame. Having said that, understand that sometimes, a degree of scheduling/planning is needed. Take the trip we’re taking the middle of this month. Olympia, WA for my dad’s 86th birthday (he’s doing great, thanks for asking). Now we’ve done this before. Lots. We’ve done the I-Yucky-Five, glorious Hwy 395, wonderful 101, all the standard ways. How can we make this one different? 
St. Serendipity to the rescue. Constant Reader will remember that I’m a bit of a train nut. A Foamer in the lingo of trainspotters. It’s genetic. My Great Grand Father AND his father (on my mom’s side of the family) before him were railroaders. Great Gramps was an engineer on the old Denver and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge in Colorado. He was also killed in a train wreck. I have his railroad watch, the only thing that my grandfather had from his dad. OK, so that’s cool you say, what of it. As usual, there’s more. 

Several years ago, an acquaintance on www.trainorders.com, a site for us Rail Geeks, upon hearing my Great Grand’s story, did some hunting. Sure enough, he found on the internet (where else?) the Eagle County, CO website, which had the story of the wreck (http://www.cogenweb.com/eagle/obits/r-obits.html) . What’s even better, it identified pretty much exactly where the wreck took place. How totally bitchin’! With this info, I typed it into good old Google Maps, and Hey Presto! there was Pando, CO. Using the write up that described how the conductor, who survived the wreck walked two miles to Pando to report the wreck, and further describing an embankment and road cut, I used the satellite feature, scrolled up two miles (there is a scale on the map!) and damn, there’s the tracks, there’s an embankment and a road cut, right at the end of an esse curve. This has to be the spot. Now here’s the real kicker. It’s just off US Highway 24! Damn, we can drive right there! But, even using the interstate, it’s a 14 hour drive. Not gonna be a day trip. 
So, how we gonna do this? Shoot for direct? NAH! Of course not. If you’ve learned anything about us, you know direct just doesn’t cut it. Remember the Great Turquoise Trek of a few years ago? OOOH! Monument Valley! That’s on the way to Colorado. Mostly. Lessee, what else. Hey, how about a return to Chama? Hmmm, I says to meself, what else is there? Hey, Durango! There’s another tourist railroad there, we haven’t seen it...PERFECT! So now, you can see how things come together. 

Back to good ol’ Google and again, hmmm, do we want to stay in Williams (again) ? Well, what else is there. Can we get closer to Monument Valley? Hey, The Cameron Trading Post! Home of the Great Turquoise Trove! They have a motel! If we get up at O’Dark-Thirty, we can get to Monument Valley at Sunrise! Imagine the photos we can take! OK, perfect so far. but wait, there is the inevitable fly in the ointment. It’s Mid-July when we’re doing this. Peak tourist season. We’re betting that both Cameron and Durango are pretty popular places in the summer. Each is an easy drive from the last place (eight hours from Monrovia-Cameron, 5 hours further to Durango, giving us plenty of time to see other stuff on the way to Durango, stuff like the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings?) so are ideal as far as timing, but, what about rooms? Hmmm, maybe some pre-planning is needed. Not hard to do these days. I called Cameron (using the number on their website) spoke to a very nice young lady, and Bob’s yer Uncle, reservations for the night. Same with a motel in Durango. The other benefit of preplanning is that in the Wonderful World of WWWdotEverything, you can find out just what a fleabag/palace your proposed resting place is. Maybe. Sometimes, reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt. Lone, excessively negative reviews are often someone with an axe to grind. OK, the place wasn’t up to their lofty standards. So the place wasn’t a five star experience. Some of the neatest places we’ve stayed have been way low on some lists. Learn to read between the lines. 
OK, so we have two stops planned. A third stop also appeared as a possibility. Marianne has a cousin she rarely sees in Redmond, OR. It’s on the way. Hey, how about a night there? OK, that’s a good idea, even if Redmond is a short hop to Oly. Now comes the hard part though. 
First, what else do we want to see? Hmm, we go right by Bonneville. That has to be a stop, even if it’s just to look at the salt flats. No racing that time of year, but hey, it’s BONNEVILLE! A Holy Shrine to Speed! Anything else? OOO! In Ely, NV, there’s another neat railroad. That becomes a possibility. Now, planning and schedules raise their ugly heads. At this point, a lot is going to depend on how the day goes. We have essentials (Pando-the raison d’etre for the trip, Cameron and Durango--because they’re more or less on the way, Redmond-family) planned. Anything else is gravy. They come under the heading of “it would be nice.” 
From here on, the planning has to be more flexible. That’s why you take some good maps (morre on that later). GPS is not gonna help you off the main routes! It’s also not a substitute for common sense. Remember, it was that poor truck driver’s GPS that told him that the best way from Palmdale to LA was over Angeles Crest. His brakes failed and two people died when he hit that book store in La Canada. As a guide, using Good Ol’Google, we picked Green Valley, UT, and Wells, NV as places to stop. Why? The driving time is doable, if a bit long (By the way, google REALLY over estimates drive times. They’re figuring drive time for the guy in  the mini van who tucks his ironed pink polo shirt into his ironed khaki shorts. Us Road Trippers drive a bit more, uh, briskly, shall we say, especially on the twisty bits) and are large enough to have a selection of motels. The need for reservations is pretty low, so although we have a “plan,” if we get tired early, or a get burst of energy, or just want to stay somewhere else, we can. 
The other neat thing about Google Maps is their adjustability. They will always give you the most direct route. But, you can use your mouse to drag the route to a different road. This gives you a lot of flexibility in planning, and it still gives you a ballpark idea of how long it might take to meander. 
Now I have to tell you that Google Maps is not infallible. This is particularly true with back roads. It’s tough to tell if the road is paved and not all of their mapping has been done with the little spy car with the camera on it. It’s important then to have access to some good maps. It used to be Thomas Bros. but since they got bought out, many of the neat back roads disappeared. AAA maps also lack the detail drivers like us need. Right now, the best map books are by Benchmark. Naturally, Autobooks carries some of them and can get others. These are REALLY detailed! They can also save plenty of grief because they’ll tell ya if a road is closed seasonally. If you do any winter road trips, that is essential info! The main problem with them is twofold. First, they are big! That makes them a bit tough to use in a small car. Second, they aren’t spiral bound, so you can’t flip them back, making them even bigger and even harder to use in a small car. Still, they are good and worth the $25 or so that they cost. 
So, planning is important. Over planning is the road to disaster. Don’t try for split second timing, and don’t be afraid to take a road that looks better than what you’d originally thought of. Get reservations if you need to but make absolutely sure you understand the motel’s cancellation policy! Some will ding you for the entire night’s stay if you cancel late! That may mean the same day you were to arrive! It’s a bit draconian, but hey, read the fine print! 
Wish us luck! We’ll of course chronicle our 4000 mile odyssey so stay tuned, the next few columns should be pretty interesting. And just so you don’t think we’re totally crazy, we’re wimping out and taking the ‘Stang. The Blue Meanie in Arizona in July? Not gonna happen.