Nov 28, 2007

Prep and Pack

Merlin Packed in BackseatEvery journey begins with the first step, and a road trip of 6,200 miles begins with rolling out the driveway, but the preparation for every journey begins with the decision to go. When the Michigan wedding invitation surprised me last summer, I was suffering with a persistent sinus infection exacerbated by that long west coast flight to Paris, and was in my usual post-flight never gonna get on a plane again funk. But the photo booth magnet with the cute couple imploring "Save the Date" convinced me I had to attend. I RSVPed on the wedding wedsite and began figuring out how to get there. It’s always difficult for me to fly to Detroit, mostly because direct flights to London are 1/3 the price (a reason lost on my mom, who insists on living near Detroit). A helpful voice in my head suggested, “You could drive…” and the idea snowballed. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good, even great, idea. The more people I told, the more the idea was encouraged. The world became divided into people who love long road trips and people who thought I was crazy. Just like whenever we think we are first to discover a new book, plan a trip to a secret location, or suffer an accident or illness, everyone suddenly has a personal story to share. Apparently, almost everyone in California drove here from somewhere else. Many people have driven America coast to coast, or have always wanted to someday. The local long distance drive winner is a Marin labyrinth pal who moved her family by car from Louisiana to Alaska several decades ago, with toddlers.

An obvious first stop for an across America road trip is AAA, locally the California State Automobile Association. I adore maps, and a have lifetime AAA membership just for the all-the-maps-you-can-eat option. Their motto, Dream, Plan, Go! resonates nicely with my travel philosophy. They never say I’m crazy when I take in my map request list. I’ve found their travel drive time estimates maddeningly accurate. Their current USA map states San Francisco to Detroit is 36 hours. Six six-hour days seemed almost too easy. I turned to the packing checklists.

Yes, I’m a confessed list maker. Externalized memory leaves more room for creative thought. Besides, I hate trying to figure out how to say band-aid or kleenex in a foreign language; FYI: It’s Band-Aid® and Kleenex®. Over the years I have refined succinct travel lists for photo expeditions, foreign travel, conference presentations. There are two Merlin outing checklists, day-trip and overnight, and a stay behind at home dog-sitter checklist complete with vocabulary list (500+ distinct words and phrases). The Merlin’s Road Trip checklist required a creative merging of extended weekend getaway and photo outing with Merlin overnight, plus wedding clothes. The good thing about packing a car versus an airline carry-on, is that you can take as much as you want. The bad thing about packing a car for a trip is that you think you can take as much as you want. Merlin comfort had priority, followed by camera gear. The front passenger area got all the maps, GPS, cellphone, snacks. The way-back cargo area got a winter sleeping bag and Merlin’s down vest, in case we both ended up napping in the car, on purpose or stranded. Yes, I’m the person who always has matches for candles and a Swiss Army knife in my purse. Plan for contingencies. Tertiary back-ups. Packing for a California visit to the American Midwest, is alarmingly similar to preparing for a third world country, without the electrical plug adapters. Extra vitamins, strong tea, sturdy shoes and enough clothes to not have to do laundry more than once in a hotel sink. Rain-gear. Snow-brush windshield scraper. Driving gloves. Dog food, people food, non-high fructose energy drinks, gallon jugs of water. OK, the water was for Nevada. Michigan is the water, winter, wonderland.

For travel checklists newbies, two good sources of ready-made checklists are REI and Rick Steves’ Travel Tips. What’s your favorite essential Road Trip item?

Nov 14, 2007

Blog Bogged

My intention to post a travel blog every day while driving solo across America turned out a tad ambitious. Driving 300-500 miles each day was fine, but frequent stretch and sniff stops, minor diversions, and finding dog friendly wi-fi lodgings each evening left little time for coherent writing. Hotel room arrival involved finding enough electrical outlets to recharge computer, camera, phone, bluetooth headset, iPod, and me. Solo human and canine care had to be woven into the familiar digital workflow of downloading photos, checking email, backing everything up, and googling specific details for the next day’s itinerary. The route emerged from local maps, state travel guides, old magazine clippings, labyrinth location printouts, and brochures from the hotel lobby, plus online and on the ground research. It took a few days to refine unpacking and repacking the car each day. We were up, packed, and underway as early as possible every morning, which wasn’t as early as I would have liked. Most writers agree that the best time of day to write is upon waking, when consciousness floats out of dreamspace pulling a bargeload of incredibly imaginative ideas back into tangible reality. Most travelers agree that the best time to get on the road as soon as you’re awake, helped by a good breakfast and hot coffee, to get a clear, strong start on the day. Considering I’ll write right through to lunch once I get going, Merlin and I decided the road trip asserted priority. Even without morning journaling, we were often the last vehicle to leave the parking lot, by an embarrassing 9 am. Looking at the USA map on the third day, I began to get nervous about missing the wedding. My leisurely extra half week buffer began to look like a week too short. We had known it would get dark earlier as we approached winter, but we underestimated how dark and how early as we looked for lodgings in the late afternoon twilight, stopping far before our projected destination city each night. And we kept losing whole hours to silly time zones crossings. Zap. Plus, it snowed. So, although we may give away the ending by announcing that we survived and are now back home, (friends, applaud here) we remain driven to share our journey. Here follows postings of scribbled notes and snapshots, with fleeting observations and sudden insights from slick travel brochures and crooked photocopies about the most amazingly unbelievable local attractions. Thanks for riding along on Merlin’s Road Trip.