We decided to take the trip about a year before it started, and at that point began trying seriously to figure out where we'd go. Our first idea was that, with seven whole weeks at our disposal, we could just lay out a kind of general outline of where we wanted to go, make no reservations in advance, and be free to stay a longer or shorter time in any given place, as the spirit moved us. We'd also be free to make unanticipated revisions in the outline at any point.
But we soon found that our list was too long and too specific to support such a casual approach. There were several national parks on our list, none of which we were willing to miss. For many of these, the only reasonably convenient accommodations were inside the parks, where the rooms had to be reserved very far in advance. We wanted to travel in the spring, to avoid the heat and crowds of summer, but we found that some parks were often under snow until the middle of May and didn't open their lodgings before that. The outstanding example was the lodge at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which would take reservations no earlier than May 15. The nearest alternative (for non-campers like us) was more than 40 miles away.
So we had to make reservations at the North Rim, and, since Bryce Canyon and Zion were only a day's drive away, it made sense to make reservations there too. Yosemite, which we expected to reach four or five days later, had only two motels (under the same ownership) outside the western entrance, and their websites made it look as if early reservations were the only way to be sure. Here again, the available alternatives were miles away.
Since we knew when we'd have to arrive at the national parks, and we knew where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see on the way there, we knew within a few days what our starting date had to be, and it was pretty clear just when we'd have to reach each destination along the way. One of these was New Orleans, and we could see that, in order to fulfill what was already becoming a pretty specific plan, we'd have to stay there on a Friday and Saturday night that just happened to be one of the two weekends of the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival. There was another reservation it would behoove us to make as early as possible.
Eventually, we realized that it would make the most sense to fill in the dates between these fixed points with advance reservations. The casual flexibility we'd hoped for was gone, but that was for a good reason: we really wanted to see all these places, and there was no other way we could be sure of doing it.
Besides, making the reservations in advance gave us some additional advantages in compensation. We were able to shop for the best prices. We were sure of getting the kind of room we wanted (i.e., non-smoking and with a large enough bed, or beds). Finally, we knew that we wouldn't arrive somewhere tired and hungry at the end of a long drive and begin a long and possibly fruitless search for a room. So, during the summer and fall of 2003, we made all our reservations from the beginning of the trip to the point when, after seeing Badlands National Park in South Dakota, we would have completed our list and be heading for home.
To find lodgings we used AAA tour books, Frommer's National Parks of the American West, and a few websites (one of which was also Frommer's). I made some of the reservations on the Net and Dorothea used the telephone to make others.
I used the same sources to look for likely-sounding restaurants in the towns we intended to stop in. With one exception (Elizabeth's Restaurant in New Orleans), we didn't attempt to make dining reservations in advance, but I listed the restaurants in the pages of the "daybook" I had begun to compile.
Using Microsoft Streets & Trips to work out routes and distances, I put together a Daybook containing one or two pages for each day of the trip, with the following information:
I kept working on the Daybook (along with other things) right through the winter and it was completed only a few days before we left.
Wishing to free ourselves from the tyranny of film and the associated costs of development and printing, we decided well ahead of time to buy ourselves digital cameras, and did so in September, 2003, so that we'd have plenty of time to get familiar with them before the trip began. (Both cameras had been taken off the market and replaced with newer models by that time, but since the marketplace life, as distinct from the useful life, of a digital camera is currently measured in months (and may soon be measured in weeks) that was only to be expected. Both cameras are working well and we expect to get several more years of service from them. If you're interested in more details about the equipment we took with us, the next FAQ is about that.
We also bought a a couple of other items that we found useful on the trip:
We left home with (besides ourselves) all of the following in the car:
If I'm counting right, that comes to 14 items of luggage, in addition to Dorothea's large purse (which had room for her small camera in its snug case). The advantage of having so many small or moderately-sized items was that we could distribute them in the back of the station wagon — with the back seats folded down — without blocking the driver's view through the rear window. The wagon had a cover that could be pulled out to hide everything in the cargo area, and Dorothea found a cloth to cover the items in the back seat. That made us feel better at those times when we had to leave the fully loaded car in a parking lot.
The night before we left, we experimented until we found the right place in the car for each item, and before we forgot the scheme I made a diagram of it. Even in our tranquil suburban neighborhood we felt that it would be tempting fate to leave the car loaded all night. That diagram saved us time the next morning, and we were glad of that because we had to load up in the rain. I took the diagram along, but by the second day we had the system memorized and never needed it again.
Having a lot of small items also meant that we needn't risk our backs getting them in and out of the car. Most motels had luggage carts, on which we could pile the many bags we needed to take inside. We decided early on to risk our winter coats, boots, maps, and books by leaving them in the car at night. I would stuff my camera into the backpack, if it wasn't there already, and put that on my back. Dorothea carried her purse and the briefcase. We became quite practiced at stacking all of the 7 or 8 remaining items on a luggage cart, though some carts were in questionable shape and groaned under the load.