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Caspar 3 September 2014

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Home again, home again, jiggedy jig. Pi the Cat recognizes us, and all's well in our world.

Now, about Trip Planning and Prius Driving.

As I have gotten older (and, arguably, more experienced as a traveler) I have come to the conclusion that there are two styles of travel: spontaneous, and well-planned. 

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Plan Your Dive, Dive Your Plan

This trip, planned to be 21 days and 5,100 miles long, at the end of the summer travel season and to some very busy destinations, was a natural for careful preplanning. We knew where we were sleeping on 19 nights, and the only “bad” place we stayed was the one place we didn't have lined up before we started out that morning: Lincoln, Nebraska.

The tools for this sort of planning are so much better than ever before. Google Maps and Trip Advisor are amazing resources. Yelp is good for restaurants. (With both of the 'review' sites, take the comments with a teaspoonful of salt; some 'reviewers' are whiners, and their whingeing should be discounted or ignored. Anyone who's worked in a Visitor Serving Facility – that's any restaurant or lodging – knows that there is a certain class of people that cannot and will not be satisfied ...and they appear to get their jollies writing nasty reviews. For the most part, if one arrives prepared to be delighted, one will be delighted. So read the reviews that are written by people who come prepared to be pleased, looking for hints about the best available rooms, dishes, experiences. And DON'T WHINGE!)

Before starting out – for the whole trip, or just for the day if some details aren't tucked in – make sure you know what delights exist along the route from where you are to where you want to be that night. Google Earth is wonderful at showing you the unexpected pleasures. Use Google maps or some similar tool to bend your route to include the best. We avoid interstate highways as much as we can because (1) they aren't fun, (2) they aren't efficient, and (3) two lane highways often get your there faster, safer, and more enjoyably, in particular if you want to see anything interesting along the way. (Remember, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was principally designed for Homeland Defense, not pleasant travel.)

Here's what the map for a typical day might look like:

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I'm not going to try to tell you how to use Google's maps, but here's a hint: Google will assume you're in a hurry, and route you via Interstates. You can pick the blue "route line" up and drag it to where you want to go. The "side trip" from Mountain Home (where we left I-84) up through the Sawtooth Mountains (note the squiggles?) to Idaho Falls was spectacular -- high desert, and the wonder of Craters of the Moon -- and it likely cost us 20 minutes.

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Take Your Time

Travel is more about the going than the getting there. Allow yourself extra days, so you can stop and smell the flowers. For us, 500 miles is a really long day ... and so we scheduled only two such days. On days when there really isn't anything to see -- I'm thinking about you, Iowa -- we plan to stop and stretch, and usually change drivers, every two hours.

Once at our destination, we prefer not to drive to dinner ...and so the choice of lodging is often conditioned by the choice of eatery. As I noted earlier in this blog, good food is available nearly everywhere, assuming you aren't finicky. More and more restaurants are honoring their local providers and trying to provide fresh, local fare. If you end up at a franchise joint, shame on you! Why not just stay home?

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Think Like the Natives

On our way out of Idaho Falls, we saw a sign, "Tourists: Don't Make Fun of the Natives" and that's great advice. Especially in the American West, one of the enduring questions (as one drives across miles of empty high desert in Nevada) is "Why would anyone live here?" (Mostly, nobody does.) But some do, and undoubtedly they have good reasons. Try to find them. The road from Idaho Falls towards Jackson Hole winds along the Snake River -- indeed, that swooping line of I-84 in the map above follows the Snake River; it's a great river -- through broad irrigated fields of alfalfa and hay, and while habitation is sparse, the folks who live here say the same thing we say in Caspar: "Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?" 

Not to put too fine a point on it: if you live anywhere near a tourist route, you can bet that somebody just went whizzing by saying "Why would anyone want to live HERE?" Rejoice if not too many people do. 

One of the best ways there is to make yourself miserable on a trip is to be inflexible. In particular, trying to adhere to any kind of food regimen is calculated to cause problems. People in Idaho Falls and Platte, South Dakota, are not vegetarians. In Wisconsin, cheese is a vegetable. If you can't give up your prejudices and join with the locals, you are probably better off not traveling. 

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Finding Good Beds and Good Food

I have already mentioned Trip Advisor and Yelp (and not to be put off by whiners). Google "best breakfast in Rapid City, SD" and you're likely to find yourself eating great food with the locals, and -- this is important -- being treated like a local. 

I am partial to "1950s style motels" -- you know, the kind that are locally owned and have been around for a long time -- but on this trip, we experienced the benefits of a large international arrangement that cares about a standard of service. AAA used to manage this function, but their attention has dwindled. The best places we stayed were Best Westerns. If you join their loyalty scheme and reserve using their website, you get a nice price break ...and usually, one of their nicer rooms. And they are everywhere. 

Sometimes -- like in our travels from the Black Hills to Richland Center -- there isn't any place that suggests itself as a likely midway overnight. Here's what I did: I figured out the midpoint in the two day trip, fired up Google Earth, turned on Lodging, and started a systematic search. Well off the line of shortest travel, I encountered Molly's B&B in Platte, SD. I Googled Molly's, gave her a call, liked what I heard. When I asked "where does one find a good dinner in Platte" she emailed me the Platte Chamber's list of (not very exciting) choices, but when pressed (gently) she said, "Or I could cook dinner for you..." And she did: one of the best dinners we had on the trip ... and she didn't charge us enough!

Moral: make room for serendipity. That's the biggest danger in careful planning: that there will be some wonderful opportunity that gets passed by. Taking weeks, or (as for this trip) months to do the planning, extends the pleasure of traveling and also intensifies the delights encountered along the way. 

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Travels with Prius

Our trusty steed on this trip was our 2010 Prius. Permit me to sing her praises. 

As a couples' traveling car, it's hard to imagine anything better. Our overall mileage was 50.9 miles per gallon, and that included lots of 75 and 80 mile per hour Interstate driving, and elevation changes, up as high as 11,600 feet with all the attendant ups and downs that implies. Our worst mileage days were from Vernal, Utah to Winnemucca, Nevada – hot, desert, mostly interstate, average speed 64 mph – and the first day, with a third person in the car, up the coast, over the Coast range and ups and downs, from Caspar to Gold Beach – average speed, 47. The Prius loves National Parks, with reduced speed limits. Buying seven or eight gallons of gas once a day is simply not objectionable.

As to comfort: I am finally completely converted to air conditioned travel. And even with a break every couple of hours, travelers' butts are going to be numb after 450 miles of traveling, I don't care what kind of seat they're sitting in. As a 70-year-old I expected the sitting to be much harder than it was. What I don't get: all the guys driving RVs and 5th Wheels: they always look so grim, and in any kind of crosswind (common in the West) they're constantly fighting their big vehicles' tendency to whip. All that for the pleasure of living just the way you live at home? Then ... why travel? And watching them fill up with 20 gallons of gas (and knowing they get maybe 12 mpg) ... well, I'd rather spend that $100 on a nice fresh bed and a nice breakfast.

In addition to air conditioning, the navigation system is a wonderful amenity. Not only do you get knowledgeable directions that take one way streets and local traffic conditions into account, but you get a good sense of the time your day's drive will take ... so you know how much time you can “waste” enjoying something unexpected along the way. And you end up driving straight to your destination without any frustrated searching. 

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