Travel spotlight: Trip around country memorable for unplanned things

01/13/2013 12:00 AM

01/11/2013 12:46 PM

This is the finale of an occasional series of dispatches from two Sacramentans on a minivan voyage around, over and through the country.

This is how we came to be 650 feet beneath Hutchinson, Kan.

See, we started out in the morning from Salina for Dodge City, angling on a diagonal route through Great Bend and Larned.

Our GPS device, however, sometimes has a mind of its own. It decided we should pass through Hutchinson, and before we realized it, we were heading down Highway 135 instead of Highway 156.

Thus diverted, we looked for something to see in Hutchinson, and eventually found ourselves at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, one of only three working salt mines in the world you can tour.

The mine folks equipped us with hard hats and "rescue respirators" that, we were assured, no one in the history of the mine had ever had to use (which begs the question of how they know they work.) We then took a seemingly-interminable-but-really-only-three-minute, pitch-black elevator ride 65 stories below the Kansas sod.

Our tour through the 920-acre complex included a train ride and a tram ride; videos about how salt is mined; a stroll past a very secure storage facility for films, computer data and other archived material; an opportunity to fondle a 3-ton cube of solid salt; and an admonition not to lick our hands after touching any of the salt because the miners didn't always use the mine's portable potties.

And all this because we took a wrong turn out of Salina.

But that's how it is when you drive around America, seeing stuff. That's what my wife, Ceil, and I did for slightly more than two months last year.

We drove around – 30 states, 11,472 miles, in a minivan – and saw stuff.

We toured national parks in the desolate badlands of North Dakota, along the rocky shores of Maine and in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

We stood in a Minnesota bank that was robbed by Jesse James and in the Missouri house where he was shot in the back and killed. We visited the homes of three presidents, and three homes of Mark Twain. We saw where both the Revolutionary War and Civil War began, and ended.

We paddled a canoe through a South Carolina swamp, swam in Walden Pond and climbed a 100-foot-high earth mound constructed by American Indians 1,000 years ago in Illinois. We camped in the lava beds of Northern California, along the Snake River in Idaho, and in the Green Mountains of Vermont. We slept in a part-hotel, part-college dorm in Kenosha, Wis., and in a handsome, century-old house in the heart of Richmond, Va.

We learned how witches were interrogated in the 17th century; how cannons were fired in the 18th century; how cotton cloth was milled in the 19th century; how submarine design was tested in the 20th century, and how chocolate candy is made in the 21st century.

And we saw museums devoted to dinosaurs, potatoes, bison, whales, clocks, circuses, baseball, rock 'n' roll, movie monsters, quilts, guitars, salt, the slave trade, orphans, fun and games, the Pony Express, Vikings, Dodge City, North Dakota, Roger Maris, Edgar Allan Poe and Superman.

The last on this list is of course in Metropolis, which turns out to be in Illinois.

It was a trip that did not lack in variety.

If the itinerary was eclectic, however, the planning behind the expedition was simple. Even before we retired a few years ago, we had talked about taking a long road trip to see all those places in the United States that, when someone would mention them, one or both of us would say "yeah, I'd like to see that one day."

Then we would see the rest of the world for dessert.

We took three warm-up journeys to specific regions of America, the longest of which was a month through the Southwest and South.

Late last summer, we were ready. We each made our bucket lists of places we really wanted to see: Niagara Falls, the National Quilting Museum, the Baseball Hall of Fame, Gettysburg. We mapped out a generally circular route that would take us to them. We consulted guide books and websites, and added potential attractions along the route. And then we took the back seats out of the minivan, put in a wooden platform under which we could store our gear and on top of which we could sleep when camping, made sure the credit card limit was relatively unburdened and hit the road.

We traveled with a few previously agreed-upon rules. If one of us saw something that looked interesting enough to investigate, the other would accede.

We generally avoided big cities and, when possible, major highways. Our initial route was to be only a guideline, not a writ-in-stone course from which we could not deviate. We would endeavor to limit the amount of driving in any one day. We would be thrifty, but not penurious, when it came to lodging and admission costs.

And I would not play the harmonica.

It worked out well. We saw 81 of the 184 things on our pre-trip list, including all 23 of our must-see destinations. We visited another two- dozen cool sites we hadn't planned on, or didn't even know existed.

The biggest city we spent time in was Milwaukee. We dropped Georgia from our route altogether, in exchange for more time in Colorado.

We drove more than six hours only one day, and that was through eastern Oregon, where, trust me, there is nothing to stop and see. We stayed pretty close to the budget.

But with all the planning and rules and success at seeing stuff, it's the unexpected moments and little pleasures that really made this trip memorable: Standing alone one crisp morning on a covered wooden bridge in Missouri that had once been part of the nation's first transcontinental highway. Watching a herd of wild horses roll around in a water hole just off the road in the North Dakota badlands. Swimming in a sparkling ocean near the North Carolina hill where the Wright Brothers first took wing in 1903. Spotting a one-horse surrey in the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish Country, complete with a can of Mountain Dew nestled in its cup holder.

And much as we tried, mostly successfully, to avoid crowds, there was also delight in eavesdropping on other tourists. Such as the little kid looking at dinosaur eggs in a Montana museum, and solemnly saying to his dad, "If we ate two of those, we'd be full!"

I should point out that we encountered very few jerks or bozos. Ceil attributed it to the essential goodness of most people.

She was probably right. When we were lost, which was more than once, or when we sought advice for dining, camping, parking, finding a restroom or anything else strangers ask other strangers, people were unfailingly friendly and willing to help. And over and over, we were struck by the fact that so much of what there is to see in America has been preserved and is protected by individuals, not governments or other institutions.

For example, during a film we watched at a visitor center about how Great Smoky Mountains National Park came to be, the narrator pointed out that in the midst of the Great Depression, schoolchildren from North Carolina and Tennessee had contributed their pennies to help buy land for the park.

That's the kind of thing that makes America a pretty cool place to visit.

Even if you end up in a salt mine.


TIPS FOR A LONG TRIP AROUND AMERICA

Plan ahead but be flexible. We set out with a general route and a wish list of things to do and sites to see, but weather, unexpected closures and over- estimating how much we could do in a day changed things. So once we were on the road, we planned a few days ahead with backup ideas ready in case something fell through.

Join the club. Our AAA discounts saved us a bunch of money on admissions, and the discounts for hotel rooms almost covered the exorbitant tourist taxes the local yokels invariably impose on their guests.

Take a pass. A National Parks Pass costs $80 and is good for a year from the date of purchase at all U.S. parks and monuments, and even a few state parks. I figure the pass saved us more than $100 in admission and discounts, over and above the initial $80 cost. You can get one at the first national park or monument you visit.

Chain yourself. Pick a hotel chain you're partial to, join its loyalty program and seek its properties out while traveling around. It's pleasantly surprising how many little perks you get, and the points for free stays and other stuff add up fairly quickly.

Eat cheap. Unless eating is the reason you travel, hit the grocery store rather than the restaurant, particularly at lunch. We often got to eat in settings that made peanut butter and jelly taste way better than they do at the kitchen table.

Take a break. After a month on the road, mental as well as physical fatigue can set in. Halfway through our trip, we rented a house for four days from an online vacation home site and settled in. One of the days, the only time we left the front porch or living room easy chairs was to get something from the kitchen. When we hit the road again, it was almost like starting fresh. Almost.

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