There were only a couple of more weeks to go before the start of our trip and we were getting anxious. We were still debating on which day to leave as our 1st couple of stops at Great Basin NP and Cedar Break NM might still be snowbound before Memorial weekends; but we didn’t want to wait too long as Utah could get very hot in June. We adjusted our itinerary countless number of times but, with the help of Microsoft Streets and Trips, it was easy.

As a part of our planning, we joined the AAA so we could get all the paper maps we needed for the trip and roadside emergency service if necessary. Even with the two GPS devices we were bringing and a laptop with digital maps, we still felt safer and more comfortable with paper maps. We also tried AAA’s trip planner online (triptik) but didn’t find it to be useful for such a long trip. However we brought our itinerary from Microsoft S/T into an AAA office for them to prepare the triptik for us and, to our delightful surprised, within a few days we received a heavy box from the AAA. In it, it had of 8 spiral-bound triptik books with our itinerary, direction, regional maps, and some brief descriptions of towns near our route. It also had tourbooks and maps for all the states/provinces we would be visiting. I especially appreciated that someone manually with a highlighting pen, traced our route and stops on an United States map. We made a duplicate of it and gave them to our parents so they would know where we would be going. That was great.

We didn’t actually use the triptik books much as sometimes they were buried in the van and we couldn’t find them. We also didn’t use the directions from Microsoft Streets and Trip as we liked the challenge and adventure of finding our own ways. We mainly used paper maps to figure out where we would like to go and kept the Garmin GPSMap 60C on to keep track of our position and for detailed maps when our paper maps weren’t sufficient. That worked out well. The tourbooks were helpful to locate campgrounds a couple of times at the beginning but as we got used to finding places (by signs on roads, by symbols on maps or just by asking) to stay, we didn’t use them much anymore.

Also we were struggling with the idea of taking a toddler and a baby on this long trip ourselves, not to mention our parents were not encouraging us either. We have never even taken such a long trip ourselves as adults. The longest trip we had taken so far was our two-month-long honeymoon around the world. Then when Kadia was a baby, we took her on trips to Banff, Caribbean, and Greece. Now with two, the responsibility doubled. What happened if they were sick? Were they too young to be traveling so far? Would they be able to enjoy the trip? Would Susan’s parents need us because Susan’s dad had a heart attack a couple of years back? Should we wait for a few years? Would I lose my job even though FMLA was supposed to have job protection? There were many reasons not to go. So should we?

Another thing we worried about was the financial burden of the trip on us. Three months without pay would not be easy. The California FMLA would be of some help with 6 weeks of money equivalent to unemployment pay. However, for this to work, we would need to keep our budget to a reasonable amount. We knew that in order to stick to our budget of $100 per day, we would have to camp and cook a lot ourselves. Luckily we had a lot of experiences with camping and have done a couple of 10+ days camping trips to Southwest and Northwest with Kadia and we enjoyed the trips. We might be able to do it.

With a workable budget, we listed out our reasons to go:

  • It is a great opportunity to spend quality and quantity time as a family.
  • Kids are too young to complain or said “are we there yet?”
  • Kids still think spending time with their parents is cool.
  • We may not have another opportunity to go again.
  • We want to do it before kids may not want to spend time with us and before we are too old to travel.
  • We are a little crazy sometimes

Finally, we decided to go for it and what a great decision that was. We had such a wonderful time that we are already planning for our next long trip to Alaska maybe in another couple of years. Kadia still often mention about THE trip and want to go again. If you find yourself debating on going off to a trip like ours, I would highly recommend it. We had a dream and we fulfilled it; we will never have regrets. Send me questions if you don’t find what you are looking for in my blog yet. I have a lot of other things I want to write but I may not get to your topics, if ever, for a while.

A few pointers for now:

  • Don’t over-plan. We only had a rough schedule just to gauge the amount of time we need. We never intended our itinerary to be our bible.
  • Keep a flexible schedule and be open-minded. Something unexpected will always come up on a long trip. Welcome them and adjust your plan.
  • Don’t drive at night in unfamiliar places. We didn’t go to cities much but out in remote areas, we avoided driving at night as animals can be deadly as a light pole in the dark.
  • Always carry paper maps; don’t depend on electronic maps completely
  • Enjoy yourself and let the trip to take you places you have never heard of before.
  • Finally and most importantly, bring your common sense with you. Safety always comes first. Trust your gut feeling and err on the safe side.

Although we live in Silicon Valley, we have not been on the leading edge of technology, mainly because I don’t like to carry things with me as I tend to lose or misplace them sometimes. Also I find them to be restricting as opposed to be liberating: I yearn for freedom. However, for this trip, we decided to be on the safe side and, of course, to keep a lasting memory of our trip.

We decided to carry two cell phones with us. We had an AT&T/Cingular digital service. We thought we would be safer with them in case we would get stranded. As it turned out, a lot of places we went did not have digital signal (at least not AT&T/Cingular). I guess they only put cell towers where there would be a lot of usages (a.k.a. people). Well, if there were a lot of people, then we wouldn’t be stranded even if we didn’t have a cell phone. As we were driving through the country, there were lots of places we didn’t get any signal, especially in the Midwest where population density was low. Even in some National Parks, we didn’t get any signals. So don’t be fooled into thinking that you will be safe with a cell phone. Next time, we will bring a phone with analog capability.

As another safety precaution, we decided to bring a couple of GPS devices with us. Why two, you ask? It was because I already had them. Although I am not a gadget person, I have been using them for a year to keep track of places we traveled to. I also wrote software to display where we went, how fast we were traveling by distance and by time (great for bike riding) and where each picture was taken on a Google map. For this trip, we took both Magellan eXplorist 500 and Garmin GPSMap 60C. I liked the eXplorist for its small size, external memory support and unlimited track points storage but not its proprietary battery. I liked the Garmin for its user interface and standard battery but not its lack of external memory and only 10,000 points of track storage. Garmin has since released GPSMap 60Cx which has external memory support but from what I heard, it still has the limitation of 10,000 points. I also ordered an external antenna, Gilsson, for the GPSMap 60C so we could use it in the car as both devices did not get great reception in the car. The antenna worked great on the trip, allowing us to know where we were at all times (except in big cities like Chicago and New York).

It took me a while to figure out how to use both devices. After about a few weeks, I kept Garmin in the car to keep track of driving and carried the eXplorist 500 for hiking. I downloaded the Garmin tracks about every 4-5 days and uploaded new map regions to it and for eXplorist, I only had to charge it after 2-3 hikes as it had enough storage for me to save each hiking track. The downloading map part for Garmin was easy and fast; the downloading map part for eXplorist was slow and less flexible. However, it did have external memory (256 Mbytes) so I only downloaded one time where we would most likely go hiking and didn’t bother to download new maps to it again. It worked for us as we were mostly only using it to keep track of where we were going but not depending on it to find our destination. Always carry a compass and a paper map in the wilderness.

For software, we used Garmin Metroguide North America and Garmin MapSource TOPO USA for GPSMap 60C and Magellan MapSend TOPO for eXplorist 500. Because we liked the adventure of finding our own ways to places so navigation capability was not high on our list of must have. However, we did try to use the GPSMap 60C for navigation a few times with various successes and failures. We downloaded the route from Bryce Canyon National Park to Arches National Park but when I tried to activate the route on the device, it kept failing with an error of not being able to find a road. We also downloaded a route from Cleveland to my Aunt house at Columbus, Ohio. When we got close, it kept asking me to make a turn where there wasn’t any street to turn. However, when we were Vancouver, we had to make a detour because of traffic, I asked it to reroute me on the fly and it did a good job that time.

We did find the ‘FIND’ feature on the GPSMap 60C useful to look for gas station and grocery stores. However it would be better if it can list the gas stations in the direction where we were heading first as opposed to places we had just passed. Also it would be great if it can tell us where the cheapest gas was at. I know there are some services offering such service but we didn’t need to know the exact price just a general trend for the last year. It would be a good indicator. For example, when we crossed from one state to another state, we always found surprises. Some information was outdated but it bailed us out a couple of time looking for a gas station. Use them with the expectation that it may not work; don’t bet your life on them.