When traveling, do you like to plan every detail or relax and go with the flow? Lisa used to be a thorough planner, but found that all that planning did was make her miserable and stressed. She has learned that she can’t plan or predict when interesting or memorable things are going to happen, so she just has to put herself in the way for them to happen. How that approach to travel relates to our life on the road, highs and lows from the first month of road life, and the Road Tripping in America road trip playlist.
Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia
This is Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa and this is Paul and we’re in search of the continuous road trip. This is series two, episode two: planning for spontaneity.
Today, join us as we reflect on planned vs. spontaneous travel and how that translates to our life on the road. We’ll also share our highs and lows from the first month of road life. And finally, we’re introducing the Road Tripping in America road trip playlist.
This episode was recorded in Colorado’s San Juan National Forest while an afternoon thunderstorm taps on the roof, OHVs drive by on the road outside, and I’m a little hoarse from huffing it out on a mountain bike trail earlier today.
In 2009, I took my first trip outside the US and Canada to Paris and the Champagne region in France. Before the trip, I was convinced that I had to learn every single thing there was to see, do, and eat AND learn the French language in order to make the most of the trip. I bought multiple travel guides and read them all cover to cover, marking up interesting parts, bending down page corners, highlighting streets on a detailed Paris street map in colors that corresponded with the guidebooks, of course. I did a ton of research to find the most affordable way to do things, like getting a Paris Museum Pass and what were the least busy entrances to the big museums. I took a French class for a few months, hustling over after work each Wednesday night, eating takeout dinner (OK, usually just slurping a well-balanced sugary concoction from Jamba Juice) on the el ride to Logan Square and then getting home late at night. I treated vacation prep like a part-time job. It was exhausting.
Once we arrived in France, I tried to keep us on my daily schedule. We went to the Louvre and many other museums, to Versailles, to Reims and Epernay. We walked the majority of the highlighted streets on my map and visited the beautiful parks and saw just about every major church and walked through the excavated foundations of ancient Paris. We rented bikes and biked through the Champagne vines, yielding to the trucks hauling loads of grapes that had just been harvested, seeing clusters of grapes squished in the middle of the road like fruit roadkill. It was great, but of course we (quote) missed things, because sometimes we just wanted to relax, or I tried to pack more than realistic into a day, or places were closed for renovation or private events. And I stressed over the things we missed.
The museums, churches, parks, those are the kinds of places where visitors will have similar experiences. Restaurants are where our trip stories can diverge. My favorite restaurant experiences did not come out of my pile of guidebooks. One was a recommendation from our apartment rental guy – he suggested his favorite local place, Le Barbouille, where we had a classically French bistro meal and good basic wine, just a casual experience that gave us the warm happy feeling of being locals. Another was a pizza place around the corner from our apartment, where we chatted with the charming owner’s relative and played with her two little dogs while we ate delicious Neapolitan style pizza. And we still talk about the lunch we had in the little village of Ay, where we biked from Epernay and where we could not verbally communicate with the staff at all but managed to get two of whatever the daily lunch special was and two Heinekens, because the only sign they had in the bar was a Heineken sign and Paul pointed at it and held up two fingers. I don’t even know what we ate, but it was delicious. And my favorite Paris lunch was on the banks of the Seine, when we got a baguette from a shop that sold multiple varieties of baguettes, some butter, and two individual bottles of wine and ate while staring at Notre Dame from the river level. We didn’t go to any of the restaurants I had highlighted in the guidebook, but we ate amazing food the entire time. And when I think back on the trip, I think of these experiences before I think of the Mona Lisa.
As is probably obvious from my comments about communication difficulties, all my efforts spent learning French didn’t get me beyond the very basics, but it did give me the oppressive feeling that I SHOULD be able to communicate with others in French, since I spent a few hundred bucks and many hours trying to learn, and the associated mental strain probably made my attempts even worse. Trying and failing to learn French was more frustrating than just going in with the basics and a Rick Steves phrasebook. Which, let’s be honest, I also had and did not use on the ground for fear of looking like a tourist.
It was an eye opening experience. All that planning did was make me miserable and stressed. Over the years I’ve managed to chill out and consciously dial my travel planning approach back to something that is a little more balanced between planned and spontaneous. What makes me happiest is to do a little research in advance – is the time of year we’re planning to travel bad or good for any reason? Where should we stay? Are there any absolute must-see things? Anywhere I absolutely have to eat (or go) that requires a reservation? After making sure housing and must-do things are lined up, I just like to wander around and ask for recommendations and see what we find. There’s actually a French word for this that I learned much later – flanerie: strolling aimlessly to enjoy life. I’ve learned that I can’t plan or predict when interesting or memorable things are going to happen, so I just have to put myself in the way for them to happen.
And this has gone badly a few times…but once survived, those make for interesting stories too. Interesting stories for another time…
When it comes to asking for recommendations, I used to ask people what the best thing to do was or what the best restaurant was in the area – to me I was asking what was the best to THEM, but I realized that I was getting generic answers, that people were reaching for things that others thought were the best or that were popular or well-reviewed. I got better and more enthusiastic responses when I started asking people what their favorite thing to do was or what their favorite restaurant was. But possibly an even better angle is what I was asked by an experienced beer drinker named Bob (seriously) that we chatted with at our favorite dive bar, the Town Pump, the day before we left Fort Collins. Bob asked us what we liked doing in Fort Collins. I really like that perspective and I’m going to try that out next.
So bringing the old travel planning approach back to today – it applies to our life on the road just like it applies to shorter vacations.
After our first few days on the road that you joined along with last time, we met friends in Palisade, CO to celebrate our friend Charlotte’s birthday and the start of our trip, at a much higher standard of accommodation and daily spending than we’ll typically be enjoying. It was a great combo of planned and spontaneous travel. I knew that I wanted to visit wineries in Palisade, though I didn’t really care which ones, I knew that we needed to get a place booked since there are just a couple hotels in town, and I knew that I wanted to eat at Peche, a creative local restaurant where it’s best to have reservations. Anything else, I was just going along for the ride. Of course, Charlotte is a much more extensive planner than I (now) am, so I was totally coasting on the fruits of her labor, let’s be honest.
Colorado fruit and wine country is centered in the town of Palisade, near Grand Junction. Palisade is a small town with a few restaurants, a distillery, a brewery, a very classic dive bar, and a couple hotels. The main events are winery tastings and shopping at fruit stands/farmer’s markets. It’s a quirky little town. There are no Ubers or Lyfts or cabs, but there is Mark. Mark is the town’s pedicab driver. He has lived and pedicabbed all over the US (favorite place to drive a pedicab was Austin, TX; least favorite place was Chicago). Mark pilots a pedicab that can seat up to four people and is decked out in flashing lights and sound system. He estimated that he can bike a hundred miles a day on a busy day, in a small town. It’s a very fun way to get back to your hotel from the brewery or distillery or dinner downtown.
The wineries and orchards are gathered around the mouth of the Grand Valley, where the Colorado River first flows into the valley. It’s an improbable place for a fruit and wine region – the area around the river is lush, but desert and badlands quickly take over the farther from the river you go. It’s a difficult place to grow fruit and wine – in addition to water challenges faced by the west in general, there was a really badly timed frost that killed a majority of the buds this winter, basically wiping out this year’s grape crop. According to the Colorado Sun, 70% to 100% of the grapes in Colorado’s prime wine-growing areas were destroyed by the cold this winter. But even if they had developed, there was a chance the grapes would be infected with smoke taint, thanks to last year’s wildfires, so 2020 for Colorado’s grapes was about like 2020 for the rest of the world.
But the winemakers are undeterred. They’ll buy grapes from elsewhere this year or use surplus juice from previous years and try again next year. And the wine is great, it’s worth fighting for. I felt that the reds and roses were the strongest, but there’s such a wide range of wines (and meads, and fruit wines) being made in the area that there really is something for everyone’s taste.
It was too early for Palisade peaches and the amazingly sweet cantaloupes that grow nearby, but we’ll be picking those up from one of the little stands that pop up all over Colorado in July and August, and get our fill for the year. The farm stands all had that expectant, impatient feeling of biding their time until their crop and customers arrived for the season.
Is it wise to try to grow water intensive crops in this area? Is it wise to fly in crops from other countries in the winter? That’s an ongoing debate that we’re not gonna have here. Because when you taste this stuff in season, you know there’s something special here and you understand why they do it.
So we floated through the days, living in luxury and gluttony, until we had to say goodbye to our friends. After we rolled out of Palisade, spoiled and quite a few pounds heavier, the agenda was completely open and the spontaneous approach kicked in.
We aren’t planning to do much planning in advance. And how that’s working out on the ground is – mixed so far. Can we chalk this up to it being July in Colorado, when everyone is out chasing their summer vacations in the summer vacation state? Maybe. We’re having a hard time being spontaneous in places we didn’t expect it. We couldn’t find a free or paid spot in Ouray, CO on a day when it was 55 degrees and raining with a flash flood alert in effect. The place was swamped. We couldn’t pay any amount of money to stay at a state park with showers. All campgrounds managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife are now reservation only, and reservations can be made by phone or on the clunkiest website you’ll ever try to navigate (even worse than recreation.gov), but most of these sites are far out of cell range, so they sit partially empty because you can no longer just roll in and get a site that day. Colorado does many things right, but this is not one of them.
After spending some time in Ouray, Telluride, and Silverton, the feeling of these places right now is stifling, and it’s not just due to the heat wave we’re having right now. There are so many people packed into these small historic towns which are themselves wedged into narrow mountain valleys. Per The Colorado Sun again, Colorado tourist towns like Telluride are currently asking their tourism boards to stop advertising and to spend their ad funds to improve the infrastructure for those who support the places the tourists are being drawn to instead – on housing and better support for workers – because they just can’t keep up. The towns are at or over capacity. Often I’ll read a story like this and wonder if the situation on the ground is being exaggerated, but based on my recent experience in these three towns, it’s very real and something has to give. These places are almost too packed to function, no matter how many people the restaurants hire. So know that of course these are cool places, but maybe save your visit for another year.
Outside of these few places that have been challenging, we’re having a lot more luck with remote BLM sites that involve some effort on difficult roads to get to and where you won’t find a toilet or shower for days. Those have been exactly what we hoped for – quiet, beautiful, peaceful.
We’ve been cross referencing All Trails and the dispersed camping maps looking for a pattern of – where are there great trails next to dispersed camping sites, and that has been working out so far.
Like the edge of Grand Mesa, on Lands End Road, where we found a dream dispersed campsite overlooking the Grand Valley and spent the whole day watching the light move through the valley, highlighting different remote peaks, canyons, and mesas depending on the sun angle, capped by a double rainbow sunset and the lights slowly turning on in all the communities throughout the valley – from Palisade to Clifton to Grand Junction to Fruita. We mountain biked through a herd of confusedly (aggressively?) mooing cows and found 55 varieties of wildflowers, many that I’ve never seen before. At night we picked out constellations and the milky way in the sky and the white flowers on the ground reflected the starlight and made their own constellations, which are different every season.
(Grand Mesa birds and wind in aspens)
With all the wildflowers on Grand Mesa, it was also a bug mega festival, and bees and flies and every other kind of buzzing insect were zipping around chaotically, all day and night, like flying cars in futuristic movies, each bug its own lane on its own journey to its chosen flower. And the birds were there for the feast as well. It was like watching a complicated, beautiful play.
(Grand Mesa water and bugs)
Another great place where the maps overlapped was Norwood’s Thunder Trails system, where we basically had 20 miles of swooping, make-you-feel-like-a-kid-again mountain bike trails to ourselves for four days and nights and saw so few other people that the buzzing of the flies, the yapping of the ravens, the wind blowing through the pines, started to sound like distant voices to our humanity-starved ears.
(Norwood ravens and wind)
In the slow, hot afternoon I watched an ant crawl up a blade of grass, all the way to the end, the tip of the blade bending and almost touching the ground the closer to the end the ant got. At the tip of the blade, millimeters from the ground, the ant turned around and walked back down the blade of grass to the root of the clump, then did the same thing on a different blade. At the end of that one, the ant stepped off the blade like a person stepping off a train and continued on his journey to somewhere and the blade sprang back up into the air. This beats watching HGTV any day.
And so what if we couldn’t camp in Ouray and pack into the bars with the other vaccinated people (right? Right?). Instead we found a fantastic rough gravel lot outside Silverton and parked Bob in between low pines while the rain poured down hard enough to trigger flash flood warnings and it was so cold the hail didn’t melt but just piled up on the ground and the RVs around us ran their generators and.. oh wait, that was one of the bad ones.
(Silverton rain and generators)
I’m a little scared to talk about these places after seeing the number of people crowding the classic mountain towns recently, but I’m also confident that these places are small and out of the way enough that they’ll be OK. Any place that requires a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling dirt road ride to access in a town that doesn’t have a multi-million dollar national ad campaign should be OK.
While it has been frustrating at times, I also really appreciate that we have been pushed to go a little further and not just take the easy option. And the good days far outnumber and outweigh the tough days.
I’m sure a lot of this current busyness and inflexibility is covid-related, both the challenges everyone is very familiar with and people’s eagerness to get back out there again, all at the same time, with all the new toys they acquired over the last year. I hope this is temporary though. I really hope that the ability to travel spontaneously doesn’t disappear.
Back in the day, when people drove Route 66, they didn’t make reservations along the way. They stopped when they were tired, or in a welcoming town. They found a motel with a vacancy sign and they asked how much the rooms were and if the price was good, they stayed and if the price was bad, they went to the next hotel. Finding something unexpected, exploring, learning new things – that’s the very core of what drives us and it’s much harder to find if the trip must be planned in advance. If we have to spend a year learning French, then we’re screwed.
At the end of each month on the road, we’re going to look back at our highs and lows for that month.
Paul: Biking in Norwood was a high. We didn’t see anybody on the trails, just a handful of others on the road through. I could have spent a few more days biking around if not for my low – which is water. Water has been tough. I rarely feel like we’ve had excess water. We’re always low. It’s worked out fine, but we’ve rolled out of multiple campsites entirely empty and in need of a refill and they’ve been tough to find. We’ve been to multiple grocery stores that are sold out of gallons of water. We’ve only found one camp spot with a water source. On the other end, the night between Silverton and Ouray was just too much water falling from the sky. Too much rain. We haven’t experience that sort of biblical soaking since we moved to Colorado. I’m keeping a closer eye on the weather and I can’t wait to fill our new 7-gallon jug.
My high, besides the great campsites and swoopy mountain bike trails we’ve found, is definitely the motion sickness bracelet. I get really carsick when I’m riding in a car, and that, plus the fact that I love to drive and Paul does not, is why I usually drive. But sometimes Paul needs to drive. After a float down the Colorado River, I still had my motion sickness bracelet in my purse when Paul drove up the windy road to the top of Grand Mesa. I don’t care if I’m only getting a placebo effect from them – the fact that I can ride in the car without being on the verge of puking the whole time is a huge advancement.
My low – you know it’s going to involve something bathroom related! So my low was definitely pooping in the tent on Grand Mesa. There were so many mosquitoes – clouds and waves of them coming at me whenever I tried to dig a hole, spreading out into attack formation as they pulled within a few inches of my skin, so many that I had no chance of swatting them away. They didn’t care about bug spray. They were hungry. We had the tent set up and I realized that was the only way this business was going to get taken care of. But as I was using a go bag in the tent – that definitely felt like a low moment.
Are you the type of person who creates playlists for your trips and vacations? I am and I thought it’d be fun to share what we’re listening to with you. There’s a new page for road trip music playlists on our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com, that we’ll update regularly. The first playlist features songs that have us rocking right now from bands like The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Lord Huron, and more. Check it out for your next road trip and let us know what your favorite road trip songs are too.
Next time: ruins, making a podcast in the wilderness, and the great evolution of our stuff.
Until then, visit our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com, for more. If you are enjoying this podcast, please subscribe to it and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Thanks for listening!