Als ich wisse das Morgen der Erde enden wuerde, immernoch wurd ich mein Apfelbaum pflanzen.

Even if I knew the world would perish tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree. - Martin Luther

"Factory work's easier on the back, and I don't mind it, understand, but a man becomes what he does. Got to watch that. That's why I keep at farmin' although the crops haven't ever throve. It's the doin' that's important." Madison Wheeler in Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Planning an Epic Adventure

Some folks like mystery and the unknown - they prefer to just put themselves on the road and see where it takes them.  I, on the other hand, am a planner.  The thought of hauling my children cross-country without knowing where we're headed, where we're staying, or what we'll be doing makes me extremely anxious.  Part of this anxiety is rooted in my own childhood travels.

My parents were both educators, so we did a lot of traveling in the summer.  We took two lengthy out West trips, and many smaller East Coast and Southern states trips.  I loved these adventures as a child, and as an adult I recognize how much I learned, and how closely those trips tied me to my family.  There's nothing like 8 uninterrupted weeks in the same vehicle to create some pretty strong family bonding.  As my grandmother would say, we built a lot of memories.  And, after all, shared experiences are what tend to keep us bound together.

As with our trips, my mother is the major planner.  However, unlike me, my parents have always been more comfortable traveling with a very loose plan. In fact, my Dad far prefers to not have too much planned.   They start out with a general itinerary, but change and adapt it as they go.   They don't know where they're staying most nights - they often only having camping reservations at the major National Parks.  Most of the time, this works really well, and there are definite advantages to not having reservations - you can stay as long or as short as you'd like at each location. Sometimes though, not knowing where you're staying can create some problems.

One of my least favorite childhood memories is of not being able to find camping near Yosemite.  We'd discovered fairly early in the day that the National Park campground was full, but still decided to spend our day exploring Yosemite.  When we eventually left the park we had great difficulty finding another campground.  Eventually, sometime after midnight, and after being lost driving in the dark on back roads, my Dad pulled the motor home over on the side of the road, and we collapsed in exhaustion.  We didn't even bother to set up beds.  We just said a prayer that we weren't going to be woken up by some angry land owner, or a local cop.  I also remember several times getting the last, or next to last camping spot at a place we really wanted to see, and several other times of staying at some really shady campgrounds.  These experiences left a deep impression on me; so when we travel, we usually have reservations at campgrounds I've vetted before we leaving.

When we're planning a major trip we start some general planning and thinking at least two years out.  Once we've picked the region, I gather information and we have a family meeting.  I lay out the major options - usually National Parks and cities - and everyone gets to give opinions of what they'd like to see.  I also take note of places that are priorities to make sure those locations get several days in our trip plan.  At that meeting, we also make a general decision of approximately how long we'll be gone.  Then the real work begins.

My mom is a great resource in planning.  Frequently, my parents have been to the places we'd like to see, and she always keeps very detailed journals on their trips so she has lots of information and suggestions about roads to travel, places to stay and things to do while we're there.  One of our first steps is to get out a U.S. map (or regional map if it's a smaller trip) to plot out our major stops.  When we have this map meeting, my mom also points out other smaller stops that I might not know about, but that are worth seeing.  We also consult our National Parks book to see what places we might want to see in each state.

After this general overview I do some online planning.  First, I go to the state tourism websites and request their travel information.  Usually, they send free maps, travel guides and brochures.  (Tip - use Google Chrome for your search and you won't have to retype your address each time.  Auto-fill will do the job for you.)  Then, I go to each National Park web site and request park information.  Most parks will still send you the park newspaper and brochure for free.  Some parks have stopped sending out free info because of funding, so in some cases you might need to send a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) to get the information you need.

I then use MapQuest or Google Maps to start getting a sense of how long it will take us to get from place to place.  We've discovered that a driving day (one where the main objective is to eat up miles) should have no more than about 8-9 hours drive time, and that a touring day (one where we're transitioning between major parks but still seeing things on the way) is best kept to 3-4 hours drive time.  We also factor in an extra hour to hour and a half for rest stops, gas refills and lunch breaks.  While I'm working with the maps, I use the lodging option to make note of camping possibilities along our intended route.

At this point, it's time for another meeting - this time usually just with the Woodsman - where I share my research and we hash out the nitty gritty of what day we'll be leaving, what dates we'll be at the major parks, and how many transition days we'll leave ourselves between parks.  Once we've made those decisions, we meet together again as a family to review options and make sure that everyone is going to get to see the places he or she really want to see.

Then I head back to the computer to book lodging for our major stops.  We try to camp at National and State Parks for the majority of our lodging.  Not only is it usually significantly cheaper (typically between $10- $20 per night), but there is also usually ranger programming (guided hikes, talks, kids programs and campfire programs) that happen right in the campground.  It's also usually quieter, and darker than when staying at a commercial campground.  On the flip side, there are usually no showers, and sometimes just pit toilets - but we're not expecting the Hilton so it works.  It can be hard to secure the campsite you want at National Parks, especially if you're traveling in the summer.  I make sure that I know the dates we want to camp by January 1st of the year we're traveling - this is typically when most parks begin taking reservations.  I've found the easiest way to make reservations is to use and The process is simple, and you can usually even see pictures of the campsites.  Do your research before attempting reservations.  You'll want to read about the campgrounds on the National Park web pages (usually found under the Plan Your Visit and then Reservations and Fees tabs).  Don't forget that there are also many excellent National Forestry and BLM campgrounds, although they're usually primitive camping.  Make sure you're certain of your dates, and make sure you know which campground you want (most major parks have several campgrounds) because there is a reservation change fee if you change your mind, and sometimes that fee is as much as the campsite.

After securing all of the major places, I start to do deeper reading about each park, and I also do more reading about some of the smaller places we think we'd like to see.  I also read reviews of possible commercial campgrounds for our travel days, and write down contact information so I can call ahead when we're on the road to make sure they have space for us.  I also make reservations for weekend nights and major holidays (like 4th of July) - even the commercial places often are running close to capacity on summer weekends.

Once I have everything gathered and printed I read and read and read and read.  We repeat the family meeting process when I find something new and interesting, and sometimes we have to make choices about things we need to cut from our itinerary in order to fit in something new or negotiate added days if we find something we just can't miss.  One thing we don't plan out too closely is the on the way home trip.  Once we start heading towards home we like the flexibility to extend our trip, or cut it a bit shorter.  This seems to work for us.

If I find things that I know we really want to do, and for which it might be hard to secure tickets, I'll also book those (boat tours, cave tours, etc.), but we usually leave the daily plan open ended and don't make those decisions until we're actually in the park.   As I'm doing this planning I use a notebook where I record all of the confirmation numbers and contact info.  I also plot out where we're staying on a calendar.  These two tools help me keep everything clear in my head while I'm planning.

Anyone can take the kind of trips we take - just get started early, read lots of information and talk to folks who've been there if you can.  Trust me, the payoff is well worth the effort. No matter when you plan to go - it's time to get started.  I'm already working on our next amazing adventure.  So, where's your next adventure going to be?  


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