Need to Visit My 50th State: North Dakota

North Dakota, inspire me. Image: Wikimedia Commons by user TUBS via CC BY-SA 3.0
North Dakota, inspire me. Image: Wikimedia Commons by user TUBS via CC BY-SA 3.0

This summer my family and I have done quite a bit of travel. In fact, we recently wrapped up an Alaskan cruise that included driving from Colorado to our cruise port in Vancouver, British Columbia. And back. At the tune of 1500 miles and 2 days in each direction.

There were numerous benefits to our driving instead of flying to include the cost savings and the ability to be liberal with our packing since we didn’t have to pay extra to check luggage for a flight. Obviously driving took more time but we looked forward to seeing a new part of the country: the Pacific Northwest.

The most appealing reason for my husband and me was the chance to “check off” more states. Before the road trip, my husband had been to 48 of our 50 states (all but Oregon and Alaska), while I had been to 47 of them.

Continue reading Need to Visit My 50th State: North Dakota

2015 Heels and Wheels Puts Women Behind The Wheel

2015 Jaguar F-Type Convertible, Image: Nicole Wakelin
2015 Jaguar F-Type Convertible. Image: Nicole Wakelin.

There are dozens of automotive events held throughout the year, with journalists and bloggers invited to drive and learn about a brand’s latest offering. Heels and Wheels is unique because not only does it have cars from different companies all in one place, but it’s also only for women.

It isn’t so much about excluding men as it is tailoring a program specifically to women. All the attendees are women and so are most of the presenters. You might think cars are a guy thing, but this event proved that women are just as excited about cars.

There was quite a list of vehicles for us to drive and they covered every possible car buyer. There was a Jaguar F-Type convertible that runs $105K and, although it may clean out your bank account, it will be worth it for the thrill of driving it on a twisting road. It is the essence of a sports car with looks, power, and a delicious sound.

Those who still have kids in the house will appreciate the Kia Sorento and Nissan Murano. Both of these cars were favorites with the moms because they are manageable crossovers with good mileage, plenty of room, and great styling. The pair have been completely redone for this model year, so you’re getting the latest and greatest in safety and technology all for about $40K.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Even if you have kids, you might be someone who wants a car somewhere between the sporty Jaguar and a utilitarian crossover. The Buick Regal GS was a surprise, providing a very upscale driving experience. This is not your dad’s old Buick. It’s way better and you will be impressed by how much the brand has to offer. Roomy, luxurious, and very responsive, the Regal is a worthy family sedan.

Also in the mix were two muscle cars from Dodge. We had a chance to drive both the Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack and the Dodge Challenger 392 Hemi Scat Pack Shacker. These were my personal favorites because I simply love a muscle car. There’s an older generation Charger parked in my garage, so I’m completely biased. These two are much more powerful than what I drive and they made me want to buy a new car.

We’re talking 485 horsepower with all the brash, in-your-face looks and sound that a car can muster. The Challenger would be tricky with kids, but the Charger is your chance to own a family sedan with serious attitude. Both make you feel like you own the road and, this part I love, both had a woman engineer at the helm.

Alison Rahm. Image: Nicole Wakelin.

Alison Rahm is the chief engineer behind these two muscle cars and they are, like some people say of their pets, her babies. Sure, her babies happen to have enough horsepower to blow the doors off of other cars, but that suits her just fine.

Heels and Wheels 2015 was a chance to drive a great selection of cars and talk with a diverse group of women, each with their own preferences when they’re behind the wheel. No two of us were looking for the same thing in a car, which is why there are so many cars out there in the first place.

The lesson here is to get out there and drive when you’re looking to make a new purchase. Try out every car you like and see if it’s really what you want or if it’s not what you expected. Whether it’s a Jaguar, a Kia, or a Dodge, there’s a car out there for you that’s a perfect fit.

My travel expenses were covered by Heels and Wheels to attend this event.

How to Actually Drive Across the USA Hitting All the Major Landmarks

Image credit: Brian DeFrees' road trip route
Image credit: Brian DeFrees’ road trip route

Periodically this year, I’ve seen the image above posted to Facebook purporting to be “how to drive across the USA hitting all the major landmarks.” Except it’s not very good at it. The image alone doesn’t even make much sense! What counts as “major landmarks”? Apparently there are none in Boston. It looks like a great trip, but I don’t think it qualifies as advertised.

What the image really shows is the route taken by Brian DeFrees across 32 states in 55 days, taking 200,000 photos and turning them into a video. It’s pretty cool—you should check it out. But the video and visiting friends were his main priorities, not “hitting all the major landmarks.”

So could you do that?

It’s going to be a longer trip.

Here’s a shot I took at creating such a path for you, assuming you have quite a bit of free time on your hands, as it’s going to take weeks. Brian’s trip took 55 days, and it skipped a lot of states. How long this would take you depends on how long you stayed in a given spot, of course, but you’re looking at 222 hours (more than 9 days) of driving time alone.

Image credit: Ruth Suehle; created with Google Maps
Image credit: Ruth Suehle; created with Google Maps. Click to enlarge.

The biggest task here, of course (other than 222 hours of driving), is choosing what counts as a “major landmark.” It’s impossible to let somebody else make your dream road trip itinerary. That list of perfect landmarks is going to be different for everyone, depending on whether the car’s occupants love art or nature, lighthouses or lakes. For this list, I tried to create a balance that included:

– Traditionally “major” landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty or Golden Gate Bridge
– Nature stops, like Yellowstone National Park
– History stops, like Gettysburg National Military Park and The Alamo
– Science, like Cape Canaveral
– Arts, like the Philbrook Museum of Art and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
– What Trivial Pursuit would call “sports and leisure,” like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Churchill Downs

It’s a well-rounded road trip. You can use this map to see the list of places I chose. In larger cities like New York or San Francisco, rather than suggest every possible place you could visit, which would be lists of their own, I picked one highlight. Doesn’t mean the rest aren’t great. And it ends with Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont, on the theory that you started with Maine, not because Vermont isn’t an amazing state with a ton to see, but because after all of that, you deserve ice cream. And the Ben and Jerry’s factory is a really fun visit.

The second goal was to visit every state, even if it wasn’t much more than a drive-through. On a road trip, the best stops are the ones you didn’t know you were going to find. Long, blue stretches on this map are just undiscovered adventures waiting to happen.

However, this is the part where I have to note that upon a final pass, I discovered I neglected Michigan. My utmost apologies to the land of people who are the masters of navigation by pointing to their hands. You don’t need this map. Just stretch out your arm and call it the country. You have the necessary experience to make it work. For the non-Michiganders who need to get that state into this trip, you can hit up Hitsville, USA, the home of Motown. I have never had a more enthusiastic tour guide. You won’t regret it.

If you’re ready to start planning your own drive, check out my two secrets to planning your best road trip adventure. And then get driving!

The 2015 VW Golf GTI: The Hot Little Car That’s Big Fun

Image: Nicole Wakelin

I learned how to drive a stick, or manual transmission, back when I was in college. It was after someone totaled my car and I was buying a new one on a budget. I saved $500 going with a manual so I learned, on my brand new 1991 Jetta GL, and the car lived to tell the tale. When I got behind the wheel of the new 2015 VW Golf GTI I was reminded of why everyone should learn how to drive a stick. The answer is one word and that word is fun.

Now, I’m not going to say the actual learning bit is fun. That’s kind of terrifying as you try not to roll back on hills, and embarrassing as you stall in front of your friends, but it is so worth it. It’s worth it so you can get behind the wheel of a car like the VV Golf with a manual transmission and see just how much fun it can be to drive. That’s exactly what I got to do at this year’s Volkswagen full-line drive.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

It’s available as a 6-speed automatic, but, really, if you’re going for a hot little turbocharged hatchback with 210 horsepower, then you need the 6-speed manual because that’s where the fun lives. It’s right there, in that little knob that looks like a dimpled golf ball (cute, Volkswagen) and you hold it in the palm of your hand.

If you know how to drive a manual transmission, then you totally get me. There is something empowering about revving an engine hard, taking it up to that redline, and then shifting gears. The car doesn’t do the work for you, deciding when it thinks you should shift as if it knows better. You do the work for yourself and in the Golf GTI it’s work that will make you all kinds of happy.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

The thing is, in a car like the Golf GTI, it’s not fair to call it work because it’s just too darn fun. Some manuals are difficult, with finicky shifts and touchy pedals, but not this one. Within just a few minutes I was cruising the winding roads of Virginia with my driving partner, Julia Coney of All About The Pretty.

Both of us were in love with our bright red Golf GTI. This is the sport-tuned version of the Golf and it loves to be driven. We also thoroughly enjoyed our time in Virginia and The Salamander Resort which fellow blogger Carissa Rogers fell in love with during the trip.

I say “our” Golf GTI because we both wanted to drive it home. In fact, Julia loved it so much she was seriously considering buying one when the program was over! I took a different approach and decided to see how seriously they took that VW commercial where the guy licks the handle of the VW he wants so no one else snags it from the lot. Sadly, it did not make the car mine.

You’ll get some stellar fuel efficiency while you’re having fun since the Golf’s 2.0-liter inline four cylinder is not thirsty. Its 25 city/34 highway EPA estimates will have you driving past the pump more often than you stop.

Not only will it save you money at the pump, it won’t break the bank with its $24,995 starting price. This includes a leather-wrapped, multi-function sport steering wheel, 18″ Austin alloy wheels, 5.8″ color display touchscreen, Bluetooth, and LED fog lights. If you want it completely tricked out, it can still be yours for under $30K.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

Driving shouldn’t just be about getting from point A to point B. I know, a lot of the time that’s all it is when we’re rushing from one thing to another, or stuck in rush hour traffic. Driving isn’t so fun then, but the right car can make dull driving bearable, and good driving absolutely joyous.

And that’s what the VW Golf GTI is all about. It brings the joy to driving. If ever there was a car that was made to be a manual, this is that car. This hot little hatchback looks good, is comfortable, handles beautifully, and on a warm summer day with the sunroof wide open, it’ll make you want to keep driving until you run out of road.

Volkswagen covered my expenses to attend this event.

Billboarded to Death: Adventures on a Road Trip

Photo credit: Flickr user via CC.
These “See Rock City” barns dot the landscape in a north-south line from Ohio to Alabama. I saw several on the 300+ miles I spent on I-65 and I-59 last week. Photo credit: Flickr user via CC.

A couple of years ago I posted about some of the mind games I play while bored on a road trip. During a similarly long road trip in June, I enjoyed seeing some unique kitschy ways to advertise tourist traps such as the “See Rock City” barns in northern Georgia.

In traditional geeky fashion, I got to thinking about some of the other attractions in America that start advertising about 200 miles before drivers will actually reach them, in the form of billboard…after billboard…after billboard.

I present to you a list, in no particular order, of some of the more familiar ways to be billboarded to death. I have seen several of these billboards personally and I consulted with other GeekMoms to include those in parts of the country with which I’m not familiar.

Let us know how many of these you’ve seen! (And how many of you get so sick of the billboards, you choose NOT to stop?)

1.) Wall Drug – Wall, South Dakota

Like I'd said in the text, I didn't have any good pictures of Wall Drug. This is my bad picture from through a bug-splattered SUV windshield. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I didn’t have any good pictures of Wall Drug. This is my bad picture taken through a bug-splattered SUV windshield. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Believe it or not, I’ve been here. My family took a trip to the Black Hills area to see Mount Rushmore, among other attractions, and like so many others we were suckered into pulling over to see check out all the hype. The billboards started for us as soon as we hit I-90 West in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at Exit 396. Wall Drug is at Exit 110. You do the math.

I first heard of Wall Drug while in college, having read Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need. The account of him refusing to stop at Wall Drug is hilarious, and we were in a similar situation in 2010. My husband and I bickered for 250 miles about whether we were going to actually pull off the road and see this place. We compromised and pulled off the interstate to drive past Wall Drug, but did NOT stop! Besides, we had our dog with us and the attractions didn’t seem too pet-friendly.

I don’t have any good pictures of the billboards, but this blog post has a nice collage and a better explanation of what a visit to Wall Drug is like. The billboards don’t have many words—several just say “Wall Drug.” or “Visit the T-Rex at Wall Drug,” so your curiosity is quite piqued by the time you get to Exit 110.

Of course, you think it’s a drug store, which it is in part, but there’s so much more! You’ll have to visit to fully experience all it has to offer.

2.) South of the Border – Dillon, South Carolina

The South of the Border billboards don't offer any information about what it is. They just constantly implore you to just STOP THERE! Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Many of the South of the Border billboards don’t offer any information about what South of the Border actually is. They just constantly implore you to STOP! Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in elementary school in Virginia I remember friends coming back to school after summer break, donning black t-shirts with the words “South of the Border” splashed across them in fluorescent colors. I never went south on family trips because all of our vacations were to points north for some reason, so from about 1980 through 2002, I never knew what South of the Border actually was.

In 2002, while heading to Melbourne, Florida for our 4th military move, my husband and I began to see the billboards on I-95 South just across the Virginia/North Carolina border.

In the lower right corner of the billboard is a countdown of how many miles to go until you reach South of the Border. Many of the billboards offer a hint of what’s ahead: Mini Golf! The Africa Shop! Leather shop! Hot Dogs! Fireworks! But most of the billboards simply bug you to stop . My favorite kitschy South of the Border billboard is “You Never Sausage a Place.”

Wikimedia Commons has a catalog of billboards for your campy enjoyment.

Travel about 180 miles south down I-95 through North Carolina and the billboards become more and more frequent. Kids in the car will get excited like my nephews did on a 2007 trip we took to Florida. Cross into South Carolina and you’re greeted with a very campy, fluorescent-colored rest area complete with a sombrero water tower.

Every time I've ever passed this place, it seemed empty. I'm not sure when this Wikimedia photographer passed here. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Every time I’ve ever passed this place, it seemed empty. I’m not sure when this Wikimedia photographer passed here. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Hmmmm…frankly, the place freaked-me-the-heck out. I’ve never stopped. There never seemed to be a lot of cars and the campiness always made me suspicious.

As a piece of history, though, there’s some cultural significance. South of the Border was once a popular watering hole during a time when North Carolina’s Robeson County to the north was a dry county, meaning that alcohol sales were prohibited. Customers drove to Dillon to get their fill. The town’s geographic position at the crossroads of I-95 and U.S. routes 301 and 501 made it a popular stop, especially for vacationers heading to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Today, South of the Border is so big it has its own infrastructure, fire, and police service. Visit its official website here.

3.) Ron Jon Surf Shops – Assorted Locations

Really? Only 183 miles to go? Don't worry, Ron Jon's won't let you forget before it will remind you about every 3-5 miles all the way down Interstates 75 and 95. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
Really? Only 183 miles to go? Don’t worry, Ron Jon’s won’t let you forget; billboards remind you about every 3-5 miles all the way down Interstates 75 and 95. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

I can only speak for the Cocoa Beach, Florida location, although I have seen a few billboards for outlets in Panama City, Florida and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I’m guessing the company took advantage of the numerous highways leading to central Florida to do its billboard campaign on I-75, I-95, I-4, and Florida’s Turnpike.

Ron Jon Surf Shop was founded in 1959 in Ship Bottom, New Jersey and not long afterwards set up an outlet in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Ron Jon’s in Cocoa Beach is pretty massive. According to Wikipedia, the Cocoa Beach location is currently the largest surf shop in the world with over 50,000 square feet of surfing, skating, and other tropical-themed paraphernalia. You can’t miss the building. It’s huge and brilliantly painted. For the 3 1/2 years that I lived on the Florida Space Coast, Ron Jon’s was the go-to attraction for our numerous visitors. It’s open 365 days a year, 24 hours per day…for your convenience!

Is this worth all the billboards? This is probably the one thing on the list that’s close to being worth it. Buy anything in the store and you get one of those ubiquitous stickers free of charge.

4.) Rock City – Lookout Mountain, Georgia, near Chattanooga, Tennessee

The idea to paint barns came during the Great Depression: if a farmer was willing to advertise for Rock City, he/she could get a free paint job. Photo: Flickr user brent_nashville via CC.
The idea to paint barns came during the Great Depression. Farmers willing to advertise for Rock City got a free paint job. Photo: Flickr user brent_nashville via CC.

The Rock City advertising story is a very interesting one. In this case, we aren’t going to see a ton of billboards, but rather barns and buildings along the roadsides painted black with “See Rock City” in white.

Go back nearly 80 years. In 1932, Georgia entrepreneur Garnet Carter opened his wife’s landscaped gardens on Lookout Mountain to the public. He came up with a win-win arrangement for depression-era farmers. He hired a young painter named Clark Byers to find barns along the well-traveled highways leading into the Chattanooga area. The first barns to be painted were along U.S. Highway 41 in northern Georgia. In exchange for the barn owners receiving tickets to Rock City, a free paint job for a barn, and some Rock City souvenirs, Byers painted huge slogans all along the countryside. It’s some of the most iconic advertising in America.

For the next 30 years, Byers painted more than 900 barns in 19 states with variations on the “See Rock City” theme. These barns have been sources of backseat kids’ games and overall intrigue for generations of motorists.

With the passage of the National Highway Beautification Act in 1965, areas closest to interstate highways had to undergo federal advertising controls and one of the provisions deemed that “See Rock City” barns closest to the interstates had to be repainted. Byers himself did much of the repainting, but he was getting older and in 1969 he retired to northern Georgia.

Today, “See Rock City” barns are still found along rural roads and along interstate highways when the barns are more than 1,000 feet from the roadways, especially along I-24, I-75 and I-59 in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.

Read more about the history of the Rock City barns at their website.

Is Rock City worth all the billboards? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve never been there. A couple of my friends who have been there attest that it’s very pretty.

5.) Winchester Mystery House – San Jose, California

The Winchester Mystery House is advertised all over California. It's an architectural oddity that is chock full of history.
The Winchester Mystery House is advertised all over California. It’s an architectural oddity that is chock full of history.

I’ll say up front that I’ve never visited the Winchester Mystery House, nor have I seen the billboards. But my west coast GeekMom peeps tell me that the billboards are still out there and that the house is still open to the public.

There’s an interesting story behind this tourist attraction. Sarah Winchester is the widow of rifle baron William Winchester. After William’s death in 1881, Sarah started construction on a mansion rich in Victorian architecture and woodworking.

The mansion’s construction continued from 1884 through at least the 1906 earthquake that knocked the top three floors off the house. That earthquake explains such oddities as the stairs to nowhere. The stairs’ destination was destroyed by the earthquake. There are rumors that construction continued through Mrs. Winchester’s death in 1922, but this blog post by Katy Dickinson cites some historians who have proven otherwise.

How many of you have see these all over California? Image credit: Katy Dickinson, used with permission.
How many of you have see these billboards all over California? Image credit: Katy Dickinson, used with permission.

A lot of paranormal activity is thought to surround the house. Mrs. Winchester believed that continuing construction of the house would keep the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims at bay, so when construction stopped, the ghosts took up residence.

Is it worth all the billboards? GeekMom Marziah says, “It’s smaller than you’d expect, but it was still cool to get to see it in person.” GeekMom Jenny says, “I love the Winchester House. Been twice!”

Have you visited any of these attractions? What do you think? Which ones are worth all the billboards and which were disappointments?

Waze: Exciting News for This Exciting App

Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.

Thanks to a tip from a friend from the Washington, D.C. area, I decided to try out the Waze community-based navigation app on my most recent road trip. I honestly didn’t know much about it, being that I live in a less-metropolitan geographic area.  I tried it on a couple of local trips earlier in June, and I didn’t get much out of it.  I’ve relied on the CoPilot Live app more recently, and it seemed to have worked well for me.

But I didn’t give up—last week I made an almost-1000 mile drive from Florida to West Virginia. Somewhere around Knoxville, where I hit some traffic, I decided to give Waze a second chance.

I’m glad I did.

Waze started in Israel in 2008 and when it crossed the pond to the U.S. about two years ago, it took the app world by storm. In 2013 it was awarded the Best Overall Mobile App by the Mobile World Congress, thus cinching its position as a must-have app!

I’ll get to the local metro features momentarily, but I just want to share with the world how awesome it was traveling on Interstates 40 and 81 and being among other Waze users—called “Wazers”—as we shared traffic, construction, and hidden police information. My experiences so far have been with long-distance driving; there’s much more it can do in heavier traffic and in areas with more “Wazers.”

You start out as a "baby Wazer". Can you see the pacifier in my icon's mouth? Luckily, that only lasted for 100 miles...a mere 90 minutes on I-40. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
You start out as a “baby Wazer.” Can you see the pacifier in my icon’s mouth? Luckily, that only lasted for 100 miles…a mere 90 minutes on I-40. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.

So I’m driving down the highway; the Waze app is running happily on my iPhone (which is mounted to my GripGo mount). Every once in a while I would encounter icons such as these ones pictured.

This is a great all-encompassing graphic, showing another Wazer along with two upcoming hazards. In both cases, the hazards were vehicles stopped on the shoulder. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
This is a great all-encompassing graphic, showing another Wazer along with two upcoming hazards. In both cases, the hazards were vehicles stopped on the shoulder. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.

The pink “Wazer” icon was heading towards me on I-40. It has a crown on its head, designating it a “Waze Royalty”—the top 1% of high scorers in whatever state I’m in (Tennessee, in this case). There are varying levels of “Wazers”; I had to endure 100 miles of being a baby before promoting to a “Wazer Grownup.”

Those exclamation points are identifying hazards. If you tap the icons—easy to do with my GripGo mounted-phone—a pop up window will provide more information.

It's easy to tap the screen to get more information about hazards. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
It’s easy to tap the screen to get more information about hazards. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.

You can also get information about hidden police cars and road construction. While I’m not suggesting that drivers spend too much time on his/her phone, for what it’s worth, it’s very easy to mark locations for this information. Three taps on the phone, and you’re done!

The police car information was very helpful and pretty accurate.

In more densely-populated metropolitan areas, there is quite a bit more utility for users. The more Wazers there are in an area, the more information becomes available. You can easily connect Waze with your mobile Facebook app and you’ll automatically be friends with those drivers. Waze will alert you when your friends are on the road, and you can chat with them (which I don’t recommend if you’re the driver). I enjoyed sending “Beep Beep”s to my friends, which only takes two taps on the iPhone.

Waze will measure your device's speed in your vehicle and use it to determine traffic patterns in congested areas. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
Waze will measure your device’s speed in your vehicle and use it to determine traffic patterns in congested areas. Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.

GeekMom Helene, who lives near the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metro areas, isn’t that happy with Waze’s chat function. Her app pops up the chats if any of her friends are within a certain range. She finds that distracts her from trying to get to her destination.

GeekMom Kristen provided me the following pros and cons of using Waze throughout the Los Angeles area. And I quote….

  • Nearly everyone I know in LA loves Waze.
  • I use it every day, even for places I know the way, because she’s taught me new ways to get to work, to the studio, and home. After a while it anticipates where you’re going. I nearly squeaked with delight the first time it said, “Good afternoon! Are you on your way home?” It recognized that I go to the same place every Tuesday at 3:00pm.
  • As an LA driver, the most shocking thing about Waze is how often she tells us to take the freeways. I usually avoid them like the plague—but it turns out that even when they’re jammed sometimes, they’re still the fastest route.
  • Another reason I use her every time I get in the car—unbelievably accurate ETAs.
  • Downsides: That thing where she anticipates where you’re going—if you’re going someplace different than usual and don’t notice she’s asked you if you’re going to your typical place—she will override what you’ve plugged in. I discovered that a couple of times in the beginning. You know a, “Heyyy wait, why am I turning on Olympic?”
  • She will also take you down side streets—which at time has been a revelation—“I’m bypassing all the traffic on the main road!” But I wish she was more intuitive about what side streets have traffic lights. Often she will send you up a side street, telling you to cross a major thoroughfare. Or make a left onto one. Uh, yikes, and hello extra ten minutes added to commute.
  • I love points—it appeals to the gamer in me—and when I’m the passenger I’m always yelling when we get points. My husband will say, “But you don’t GET anything!” My response: “You get POINTS!”**
  • I love her. Yes I said her. Google better not [mess] her up.

**Waze awards you points based on how many miles you’ve traveled with Waze, how many friends you have, and how often you report items such as traffic jams, gas prices, and map problems.

My Waze is all Grown Up! After the first 100 miles you shed the pacifier and can choose a custom Waze icon. Do you like my sunflower? Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.
My Waze is all Grown Up! After the first 100 miles you shed the pacifier and can choose a custom Waze icon. Do you like my sunflower? Screen capture: Patricia Vollmer.

In a timely twist of fate, as several of us GeekMoms were discussing our adventures with Waze last week, Google was busy finalizing their acquisition at the tune of just over $1 billion!

Well, as Kristen suggested above, we hope that Google does a good job with Waze.

Waze is available for free download for the iOS, Android, and J2ME platforms.

The Two Secrets To Planning Your Next Great Road Trip Adventure

The secret to a great summer road trip is so simple, it can be summarized in two steps:

1. Plan
2. Get lost

My family is road trip people–both the family in which I was the child and the family in which I’m the mom. My husband and I have been road-tripping together practically since we met. The first was fairly early in our relationship and from South Carolina to Philadelphia in his 1993 Ford Ranger. I remember my mother saying if you can stand to be in the cab of a pickup with someone for that long, the relationship will probably work out.

After that, they started getting names, starting with The Great Western Adventure (part 1, then we flew north for part 2), and going on to include The Great Northern Baby Adventure, The Great Germany-Italy Adventure (we cheated and took the train from Munich to Venice), and The Final Shuttle Launch Adventure. I recommend all these paths to your own Great [Fill in the Blank] Adventure.

Most recently we embarked on The Great No-Child Adventure of 2012. We planned it in two weeks, which is practically spur-of-the-moment spontaneity when you have two little kids. It helps that we left them at home, as this trip’s name implies.

Step 1: Plan

What I mean by “plan” is “create serendipity.” Don’t sit back and wait for magic. Bring the magic to you, and put yourself in a place for the great happy accidents to happen. We could have just launched off for New Orleans, Memphis, and points in-between, but without a little Google-assisted planning in advance, I’d never have known about Birthplace of the Frog, the Jim Henson’s Delta Boyhood Exhibit. And without that discovery, the docent there never would have sent us to Connie’s Kitchen, which may not look like much, but certainly will always be remembered as some of the best road trip food we have ever, ever eaten. (They put sugar in the collard greens. This is genius.)

My two favorite sites for planning such adventures are WikiTravel and Roadside America.

WikiTravel tells me the basics. Am I going to hate having a car in that city? What are the must-sees on every tourist’s list? I generally browse the restaurant listings, and they often tell me one very important thing. If the list has only five restaurants, and two of them are Ruby Tuesday’s and Subway, I should find another town to eat in. Sometimes, though, they list a gem that I don’t find on any other list.

Roadside America is where the real created-serendipity happens. Frommer’s and Lonely Planet won’t tell you where to find the Sacred Shrine to Bon Jovi or a shell-shaped Shell station. The best thing we wandered into on this trip was The Minister’s Tree House, which is the sort of edifice that simply defies explanation. No photos could do it justice–nor describe the special feeling of a piece of construction that’s never met a building code.

Use the “My Maps” function in Google Maps to start creating your road trip map. Lay down points for the odd things you find in Roadside America, places your friends have recommended, places you want to eat–anything that’s important to you. Color code them so that they’re easy to recognize when it’s 9 p.m. in the backwoods of the Mississippi Delta, and you’re trying to figure out where to stop for the night. If you look at the map I created for The Great No-Child Adventure of 2012, you’ll notice the color-coding starts to fall apart. Those are the items I added from my phone while on the road. It’s never too late to plan a little more serendipity!

Step 2: Get lost

But once you’ve planned for your serendipity, it’s time to get off the path and get lost. Find the most interesting road that intersects as many of the points on your map as possible. Hint: it’s probably not the interstate. Sure, there’s a chance that you’ll try to find a park you had on your map, miss the turn, take a bridge, and end up accidentally in Arkansas–a state that wasn’t even on your road trip plan–in the middle of a farmer’s field looking back at Memphis, where you intended to be. But that’s what road trips are about. Take a picture and figure out how to get back on track.

And of course, just because it’s not on your map doesn’t mean it’s not in the plan. You might find an interesting brochure at a road stop, or have a conversation in a McDonald’s with a stranger who recommends a private collector’s car museum you can get to. (Note that the very few reasons you should be in a fast food restaurant during your road trip include Ronald Reagan’s head and Sanders Cafe, aka the first KFC.) Never have a plan you can’t get out of.

After years of doing it both ways, my recommendation for hotels is to book it on the road. The only hotel I booked before this summer’s road trip was one in New Orleans, which had two very appealing features: it was within walking distance from Bourbon Street and had free parking. Other than that, I used my phone to Priceline hotels. I sometimes consulted the Marriott and Hilton apps (hotels where I have reward points) and the Travelocity app, but Priceline was the winner for us almost every time. At around 8 or 9 each night, we’d see how far we’d gotten, decide where to stay for the night, and I’d get on the phone and find a hotel.

The implied corollary to step 2, of course, is “don’t be a priss.” The planned serendipity of flexible road tripping means your car will get dirty, and you could end up sleeping in a hotel with a cranky night auditor, hard mattress, and slightly peeling wallpaper. Let it go. If you need turndown service, four-star dining, and scheduled entertainment, road trip adventure is not for you. But if you’re willing to trade creature comforts for adventure, grab your keys, and let’s hit the road.

Lonely Planet Offers Road Trip Guide Books

Image: Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet, home of excellent travel advice and an active travel community, has been publishing some new books, both of the coffee table variety, and of the road trip guide variety. Their latest offerings include books to guide you around places in the United States, such as California and New England, and around European countries like France and Ireland.

Lonely Planet’s full color Best Trips series has many books to help you plan your trips or whet your appetite for a dream vacation.

It has long been my opinion that the best way to experience a location is by car. Public transportation is great, but doesn’t let you get to the smaller towns and out of the way sites like National Parks or a friend’s house. Cruises are a heck of a lot of fun, but usually the boat itself is more the destination, with only a sprinkling of experience with the geographical destination. With a car, you have spontaneity, flexibility, and often a cheaper overall cost, even if you have to rent the car.

Image: Lonely Planet

Each of the books in the Best Trips series is organized to help you best plan for your road trip. You can start from a hub city, or just follow along the marked roads. The detailed maps of all of the trips let you see how long you should allow for each trip, and also how close different trip ideas are to one another. Plenty of planning help is there, including when to go, if visas are needed, where to rent cars, how much gas will cost, and what kind of experience each of the trip ideas will give you. The European books each come with a pull-out map for use while driving. Not everyone’s smart phone will work in Europe, so the old fashioned method of navigating by map is still important to plan for.

Each trip also gives you driving directions, so you won’t feel lost. It also points out interesting things to see along the way. The best-of-the-best places to eat and sleep along your route are also highlighted. All the guides also come with Essential Driving Guides, which help you drive in Europe or avoid problems in the U.S. For the non-English speaking countries, there is even a Language Guide helping you with some basic tourist and car vocabulary.

Summer is a great time for road trips, so start your planning now!

Lonely Planet’s Best Trips books retail for $22.99 for the ones of the United States and $24.99 for the European versions. Available now are the versions for California, New England, the Pacific Northwest, France, Italy, and Ireland. Figure out your destination now, and get the book!

Note: I received several of these books for review purposes.

Dragon*Con Diary: First Impressions

Phew! I made it! Pardon the hurried cell phone photo. This was just the beginning of a weekend of intense geekery! Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Just call me the Con N00b. Or the Con Virgin. Whatever you want to call me, when I offered to participate in the Geeky Parenting panel at this year’s Dragon*Con, I didn’t realize how big an event it was. I could have tried a much smaller con first, but why would I want to do that when I had the chance to be part of one of America’s biggest geek parties?!?

Along with GeekMoms Ruth and Mandy — both of whom have many years of Dragon*Con experience — I will be writing about my geek-out-filled weekend at Dragon*Con. Some of our posts will be titled “Dragon*Con Diary”, such as my own posts about my first experiences in geeky cosplay, bringing the kids to Dragon*Con despite many warnings of what it might be like, and our family’s great times with the Kaleidoscope, YA Lit, Space, and Science tracks.

This is for posterity, so be honest, how do you feel?” I came away from the weekend with some great memories and met so many great people. It was phenomenal seeing people of all races, genders, orientations, and fandoms hanging out and having fun without prejudice. The “track” concept turned a con of some 50,000 attendees into a more manageable experience, by choosing which fandoms/geekdoms you wanted to stick with. We quickly became acquainted with the directors and staff of our favorite tracks. My husband and I very much look forward to going again.

For now I want to start with my first impressions, because they’re worth writing down. Enjoy a timeline of my Friday morning journey to Dragon*Con as we scrambled to make it to the Geeky Parenting panel.

Continue reading Dragon*Con Diary: First Impressions

Summer Travel Fun: Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park

This is officially called "The Confederate Memorial on Stone Mountain". It's the largest relief carving in the least until the Crazy Horse Monument is finished. We all know who the guys are...who knows the horses' names?

Last weekend the family headed up to Atlanta for some fun sightseeing.  We had tickets to an Atlanta Braves baseball game on the Sunday afternoon of that weekend, but otherwise we sought out family-friendly, educational activities that wouldn’t break the bank.

What to do…what to do…?

Most families staying in downtown Atlanta would have considered the Georgia Aquarium, the CNN Center tour, and/or the World of Coca-Cola.  Zoo Atlanta would have been a good option too…if it weren’t for the incredible heat.

My dear husband, in his typical train-fan fashion, knew of a tourist scenic railroad in the area.  So that’s what we sought to do.  We decided to grab some same-day tickets to the Saturday night Braves game, and then headed out for the day to Stone Mountain Park which is about 15 miles east of Atlanta.  We weren’t quite sure what to expect — several folks at the hotel breakfast area told us we’d have a good time and that there was “so much to do!”.

Those folks were right!  Stone Mountain Park is very beautiful and there was no shortage of things to do!  We didn’t quite dress for hiking up the mountain (and my husband’s back wouldn’t have been to happy with it either), but we were able to enjoy the scenic train, the skytram right to the top of the mountain, a ferryboat ride, and a fun — touristy — lunch where our yeast rolls were thrown to us by our servers!

A view of the "Memorial Lawn" - laser light shows are held every night at 9:30pm during the summer. We'd have loved to have seen one; apparently their lightshow rendition of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is pretty well known. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

We really enjoyed the Civil War history that’s been memorialized at the park — of course there’s the beautiful bas relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (and their horses!).  There is also an antebellum mansion to tour, and a Confederate Museum.

Continue reading Summer Travel Fun: Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park

Summer Road Trip 2011!


The Lincoln Memorial. Photo: Jenny Williams

I’ve loved taking trips ever since I was a kid. My mom always made it fun for us, and we were fortunate to not get car sick. I loved seeing new places, and getting a change of scenery, literally and figuratively. I’ve always wanted my kids to see as many parts of the country as possible, and frankly, we’ve done a pretty good job of that so far. But there were still areas of the country and important sites they hadn’t seen.

This summer we took a 40 day road trip around the country. It morphed from a trip to my 20th high school reunion into a reunion/wedding trip into just a wedding trip (the reunion got scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend). But the wedding was in Wisconsin, and I figured that if I was going to drive 2/3 of the way across the country, I might as well drive the rest of the way. So 21 states (and a district) and almost 6000 miles later, we completed our long trip. My husband joined us for the first and last weeks, but it was just the kids and me for the middle portion.

I kept a fairly detailed blog throughout this process, Around the Country in 40 Days, and also I took over 1200 photos, many of which I put up on Flickr. Along the way we saw family, friends, museums, cemeteries, battlefields, and government buildings. We played games, walked for miles in the heat, had great conversations, and learned so, so much.

There are many areas of the country that the kids still haven’t explored (the northeast, the northwest, and, well, Kentucky), but I hope to remedy that sooner rather than later. Of course they also still haven’t seen Alaska or Hawaii, but then again neither have I. Those are the only two states that I am missing, and I hope to explore them together.

If traveling around the country in a car with kids is something you’ve considered, or even attempted, let us know in the comments! My mom thought I was crazy for taking this trip, but most other people thought it was a fantastic idea, and often were envious. Because it was so long, it was both wonderful and challenging, something to both savor and endure. What have your family road trip experiences been like?

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How to Make a Long Drive Interesting With Technology

Our wonderful Toyota Prius, on a ferry at Fort Fisher, NC, July 2007. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

I have a geeky obsession.  I’m sure I wouldn’t be a GeekMom without at least one of those, right?

Our family has a 2006 Toyota Prius, which we absolutely LOVE!  Sometimes Dave and I wish we had a Mustang instead for the coolness factor, but the practical side of us really appreciates having this car!  All the techno-gadgetry is a Geek Dream come true!

Last week I drove from the Florida panhandle up to Long Island to pick up the kids from their grandparents’ house, where they had spent the 2nd half of July.  This meant two days of driving all. by. myself.  I actually welcomed this, it was a beautiful drive — particularly among the pecan farms of eastern Alabama, and I had minimal traffic and weather problems.  I was well rested, and made sure to eat healthy foods on the road so I didn’t have food comas or tummy troubles on the drive.

I try to keep my brain engaged on my drives with geeky tasks like mentally calculating what time I’d need to stop for gas, and with the Prius and Garmin GPS I had not one but two additional mental exercises that kept those dull kudzu-covered stretches of I-85 tolerable.

Activity #1: Guess What Time I’ll Arrive

Garmin GPSes feature a definitive arrival time. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

I have a Garmin StreetPilot c340 GPS, circa 2006, I guess.  It’s older, but it still works.  We updated the maps in 2008 but haven’t done it since.  Unlike our Honda Pilot’s built-in GPS system which tells us how many hours/minutes until our arrival (independent of what time it is), our Garmin presents in the lower left corner the calculated arrival time.  This is great because I can pass along this information to friends and family when I’m getting near my destination.

That anticipated arrival time isn’t very accurate when you pull out of your driveway at 7am with an 11-hour drive ahead.  Last Wednesday I decided to try to arrive at my sister’s in North Carolina as close to the arrival time shown as of 6:15am Central Time.  The arrival time shown when I pulled out of my driveway: 6:08pm Eastern Time.

Equipped with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sodas, water, fruit and nuts, I only had to stop for gas and bathroom breaks, and didn’t even feel the need to buy any food on the road.  I only needed to put gas in the car every 300-350 miles, so I attempted to stop every 150 miles or so just to keep the blood circulating.  Every other stop was a gas stop.

When I stopped — whether for gas, a restroom break or even at a traffic light in some of the small towns I drove through — I’d see that arrival time tick upwards and I’d get frustrated.  When I’d cruise on the interstates at 5-7mph over the speed limit, I’d happily see the minutes peel off the arrival time…about 5-6 minutes per hour.

I arrived at my sister’s house at 6:13pm Eastern Time, only 5 minutes later than the GPS predicted I would.

Once the kids were in the car with me for the return trip, there was no way I could keep up with such an activity.  Similarly, taking I-95 paralleling the Northeast Corridor on Day 2 made it tricky.  I arrived at my destination on Long Island 1 hour, 40 minutes later than the time predicted when I left central North Carolina that morning, thanks to the evening rush hour.  But on Day 1 it was fun and kept my brain engaged!

Activity #2: Maximize the Mileage

Note the average mileage at the bottom of the screen.  This is why it’s wonderful to own a Prius! Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Having a Prius means having that nifty screen in the center of the dashboard that can continuously update your mileage.  It’s admittedly quite a distraction when you first get the car, but now I’ve learned to tune it out and pay attention to the road.  On this trip, however, I was greeted with incredible mileages and it made me return my attention to the console.  And it became somewhat of a challenge for me — how high can I get this mileage???

I wrote about this a little bit last week. This picture was taken at a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike on Day 2 of the trip. The previous day only averaged about 45-48mpg, so I was particularly surprised at this.  I’d NEVER seen the mileage this good in all the 5 1/2 years we’d owned this car.  With a Prius, the braking action returns energy to the battery.  On I-95, the New Jersey Turnpike and in New York, there was plenty of braking as the traffic was very tight, but moving quickly.  This means more battery use, less gas use.

It turned out my route between Washington, D.C., and my destination on Long Island provided the ideal conditions for maximizing the Prius’s mileage: not too fast, not that much terrain, and plenty of soft braking action, which is more fuel efficient than hard braking/stopping, such as at traffic lights.

There were off and on rain showers, which isn’t as great on the mileage because the windshield wipers and headlights were on…those accessories compete with the engine for battery energy.

However, the temperatures weren’t that high for most of the route, and this meant little-to-no air conditioning.  Also good for the mileage!

If you are a hybrid vehicle owner and would like to learn more about how to maximize the mileage, check out this list of tips.

Now we’re all home again safely, with no more travel for a few weeks.  There’s another trip coming up, but it’s just a quick weekend jaunt up to Atlanta for some sightseeing with the kids…

I Spy A Quiet Car Ride: Scavenger Hunts on Long Trips

Are you headed over the river and through the woods to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday? Here’s a road trip trick for geek kids that makes the time pass by faster and doesn’t require any batteries or headphones.

Photo: Scholastic

Go to the library a few days before your trip and check out two copies of the same book. This game works best with scavenger hunt type books, like any from the I-Spy or the Lookalikes series.

Ignore the confused look that the person at the circulation desk gives you when they see that you’re checking out two of the same book. Assure them that you are not crazy, just strategic.

Then once you’re underway on your journey, pull out your duplicate books and give one to each child. It works best if one is in the front seat and one is in the back seat. They take turns asking the scavenger hunt questions.

It should sound something like this, “On page 3, can you find two blue trucks?” Then a long silence. Then an excited, “Yes! One on the top left corner, one in the middle, next to the rooster!”

This makes the art of hunting through detailed pictures so much more interactive and takes care of those little people who are not old enough to read the list of items that are hidden in the picture. I’ve found my kids have loved this game, stumping their siblings, from the time they were young until even their early teens.

If you’re lucky, maybe having kids who got along on the drive to grandma’s house can be the thing you’re thankful for when sentiments are shared around the Thanksgiving table.