Travel Planning 101

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Charlotte, NC to Clarksville, TN
As much as we've traveled in the past few years, you'd think we'd have it down pretty well. One aspect that we haven't quite mastered is planning, in particular, striking a balance between too much and too little. We enjoy the spontaneity of meandering wherever the road (or the letterboxes) lead us, and yet we are both organizers at heart.

At the end of our 25-day trip to the Midwest in August and September, we were committed to arriving in Tallahassee for a family event on a certain date, so we couldn't fly by the seat of our pants on that trip.  For the first time in at least 10 years, we had all our hotel reservations booked and even a tentative daily itinerary before we left home.  Because we had identified some places we definitely wanted to visit, like Isle Royale National Park, some days were more pre-planned than others. Then we filled in the spaces with places we stumbled upon as we traveled like the fascinating International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota.
And still we fumbled a bit, discovering too late that we had driven near and missed some appealing destinations. Our attempts to juggle numerous information sources on the fly were less than successful.  A national park book, a guide to scenic drives, roadside attraction app, historic site app, letterboxing app, and a few others led to a bad case of information overload. Inevitably we would forget to consult the perfect source that told of something interesting right around the corner.
In addition, we occasionally realized that we were accidentally revisiting places we had been before. This hit and miss track record inspired us to try a new four-step approach as we planned this trip to the West.
Some of the roads we've traveled in Missouri
Step 1. Document where we've been.
Our first strategy was to develop a database of places we've traveled on previous trips. But we didn't turn to a computer application; we went low tech. We bought a copy of the excellent 2012 AAA Road Atlas for the US, Canada and Mexico. Using our old travel journals and blog posts along with a highlighter, we began creating a "places visited" map for each state. Since we don't have journals for all our previous journeys, our records are incomplete, but still a big improvement.

Step 2. Decide what we may want to see.
The next step in this new planning regime was to review in advance all those sources we had tried to consult simultaneously while traveling. With a list of all the states we're visiting on this trip,we went through each book and identified places we thought would interest us. After all the possible sites were selected, we compiled a list for each state, dividing the list into general geographic areas. Then we copied and pasted information about each of the points of interest-- address, hours, summary description. A simple highway map was added to provide a quick view of where the sites are relative to each other and to main highways. Basically we developed our own custom guidebook, nicely spiral bound with our letterboxing binding machine. 
Step 3. Put it all together.
Once we had all our data collected, all we had to do for each state was look at the map showing where we've been, check the places we want to see, and try to mark out a path that takes us along some new routes to the new sites. That's not to say that we'll never return to a location, but at least it'll be intentional. Our recent discovery that someone planted a letterbox on one of the old heaps at Carhenge, for example, might just be enough to draw us back to that funky Nebraska attraction.
Step 4. Plan a week ahead.
In an effort to strike a balance between "controlled spontaniety" and rigid planning, we try to make plans and hotel reservations a week ahead. In theory, that should mean we need to plan one additional day each day. How this will work in practice remains to be seen.

Today's Highlights
Today was one of our days of excess windshield watching as we barrel across the East to reach the beginning of our journey. Since our North Carolina letterbox was waiting to be planted, we did take time to visit South Mountains State Park, billed as the park "where the piedmont meets the mountains." Nestled deep in a forest straddling the boundary between these two diverse ecosystems, South Mountains SP sits 22 miles from the town where it receives mail. Elevations within the park range from one to three thousand feet, and landforms vary from flat valleys to steep rocky slopes. 

On this mild fall day, the trails were carpeted in crunchy leaves and a colorful leaf canopy shaded our way as we hiked along searching for a handy hiding spot. The Chestnut Knob trail provided just the opportunity we were seeking. The park is home to an 80-foot waterfall, but sadly we didn't have time for the four-mile hike to see it. We are definitely interested in returning to this beautiful park. 

South Mountains park offered an interesting example of a handmade habitat. Although a number of species of birds and small mammals depend on cavities in decaying trees for their homes, humans tend to find such dying trees undesirable and chop them down, leaving these animals homeless. Park officials built and mounted an owl nest box to attract owls who have no other shelter. They even offer copies of the construction plans for this box, which has been used by screech, barn and barred owls. In areas where these birds are plentiful, they apparently are easily attracted to the boxes and will occupy them rather quickly. Many such plans are available on the internet if you want to invite some of these fascinating creatures to your back yard. 

Along I-40 between Asheville, NC, and Knoxville, TN, we ran smack into fall. Driving through this mountainous area, we were treated to mile after mile of forested mountains painted in autumn splendor. At least, I was; poor Ken slept through this leaf-peeping glory as he tried to catch a nap before it was his turn behind the wheel again. Late afternoon gave way to early evening as we pushed westward across Tennessee on I-40, moving over to I-24 in Nashville. We drove with a blinding reminder of one of the hazards of westward travel-- the afternoon sun. Just short of 500 miles after we left Charlotte, we finally arrived at our resting place in Clarksville, TN, about 8:30. Tomorrow, we'll move on toward Missouri, spending the night in Springfield.
One of South Mountains State Park's many trails


  • Miles driven:  494
  • Letterboxes:  F 3, P 1
  • Weather:  Sunny, 50 to 77°
  • States:  2 (NC, TN)
  • Gas (premium):  $3.95/gallon (Lincolnton, NC); $3.51 (Cookeville, TN)
  • South Mountains State Park:  18,000 acres
  • Trails in SMSP:  19 
  • Leaves on trails we hiked:  362,891
  • Hues of autumn:  2,453


  • Miles driven:  827
  • Letterboxes:  F 5, P 2
  • States:  4
  • Temperature range:  50 to 80°
  • Gas prices (premium):  $3.51 to $3.95
  • National battlefields:  1
  • State parks:  1