The Ultimate Road Trip

The call of the open road.  Some people hear it as just a whisper, a faint cry from the subconscious to get out there and look around.  Others hear a bellowing voice, a call to action to discover new lands near and far.  Rob and Jan from Denver, Colorado heard it loud and clear and, boy oh boy, did they answer the call.  I discovered Rob & Jan’s adventure online a month ago.  The two “empty nesters” had Tweeted about their recent stop in the Grand Canyon and linked to a post on their Facebook page.  They were a month into a 7-month journey around the US with a goal to visit 50 of our nation’s parks.   Intrigued by the fact that RVers were embracing the digital age full throttle, I asked them for an interview.  Enjoy!

Rob & Jan with Ranger Jay Snow in Death Valley National Park.

Hi, Rob. Thanks for agreeing to an interview. I’m sure my readers will enjoy hearing about your adventure. Can you tell us when/how this project began?

The idea germinated around Christmas time at our apartment in Denver. Our son planned to relocate to Columbus OH early in 2010 and we decided to relocate to Florida. But we could not believe after 2 years in Denver how many parks we had not visited – all the spots around Moab, Grand Tetons, Glacier, Yellowstone.

Who had the idea to search for sponsorship?

The core idea for the Tour was Jan’s – she said we should get an RV and visit them to see if we liked RVing. The more we talked about it, the more it turned into a big project: National Park Tour 2010.  I got busy and wrote a pretty good marketing plan, as it so happens there was an RV show in Denver in early January. We visited several RV manufacturer’s there, and got a lot of encouragement. But we were warned that RV companies are not marketers, they are manufacturers. We had an introduction at Mercedes Benz (MBUSA), and knew they made the Sprinter Van used by several RV companies to outfit as a Class B.

We got lucky. MBUSA was in the process of bringing the Sprinter brand back into their lineup under the Mercedes badge, taking the brand back from Dodge Ram. We happened to hit them with our idea at just the right time. Preparation meets need. Sponsorship. MBUSA worked with Airstream (good branding combination) to outfit an Airstream Interstate for us.

What is the goal of this journey?

First and foremost is to let people know that the Sprinter Interstate is a great means to getting out there and seeing America, especially the National Parks. Our personal goal is to visit every National Park you can drive to in an RV, including Alaska. Plus we hope to launch a new career for Rob as a travel writer and photographer. A side benefit is that we are discovering the RV lifestyle and whether it suits us or not.

I’m about to embark on a 6-day road trip from Los Angeles to Central Oregon and back again. Finding which roads to take, where to stop along the way, and what spots I’ll have to skip due to time constraints has been both exciting and frustrating. How did your route come together?

We feel your pain, Kolby. We knew up front that we had to focus exclusively on the National Parks or we never would have made the project a reality. There is just too much to see and do – there will always be regrets about not being able to stop and see everything. For example, we really, really, really wanted to visit Page, AZ to shoot the Antelope canyons. So you have to make choices, and we made ours early on as the genesis of the project.

The route planning was a challenge – but we figured we had to plan it to avoid early-to-mid summer in Alaska (we are not fans of bugs!!) and needed to be in the the northern parks in the fall. Since we lived in Denver when we planned this, it made sense as our starting point. Our apartment lease was up at the end of April, so we figured Colorado and Utah parks would be warming up by then (not necessarily so – we started in snow and got snowed on as far south as Bryce Canyon). Then the logistics of being finished by winter determined the rest of the route.

Do you feel that 217 days is enough to see everything you’ve planned to see?

We’ve found that there is never enough time to do all that you want to do, or could do. Again, it’s choices that have to be made. Is 217 days enough to do what we hoped to do? Yes. Would we like to have more time? Yes, too. It would be great to spend a month in Alaska. And two weeks in Yellowstone. But that is not what the trip is about. We set out to discover the parks, the people who work there, fellow RVers and those serendipitous meeting of people along the way. That’s what is happening, so no complaints here. As Jan reminds us regularly, while it is disappointing to leave one place, it is equally exciting to get to the next place. Every park is unique, they all have their mysteries and surprises. And the people we meet are of an endless variety, so many great stories out there. Lots of people are living very unique lives, and it is great to connect with them and hear them tell of their journey.

Have you had to make any major modifications to your original plan since you started this journey?

No major modifications in terms of timing or route so far. And barring any emergency, we don’t expect any at this point. Things just seem to be working out. For example, our daughter announced a new grandchild arrival – but it’s not due until second week in December. And we are officially done on December 2nd.

Jan near Capitol Reef National Park

According to your website today, you’ve traveled 6,624 miles in 49 days of travel, visiting 15 National Parks along the way – not even a quarter of your total journey. Have you begun to realize on how big of an adventure this is?

Actually, it is still sinking in. It does not feel like we’ve traveled that far – and we know we’ll exceed our original mileage estimate of 20,000 miles by about 10,000 miles. As we look back on the photo albums and Facebook postings we’ve created, it is beginning to hit us that this is a BIG adventure. We don’t have much time to reflect on that because we are always busy – scoping out the parks, managing the daily routines, creating content, responding to growing amounts of email – plus all the hiking, regular shopping for supplies. Oddly enough, we don’t feel rushed. And we’ve lost weight – a good thing! We’re getting pretty fit on this journey.

Do you see your trip as life-changing?

You bet it is. We’ve essentially gotten rid of pretty much everything we own that is not with us in the Sprinter Interstate. We’ve talked for over 15 years about living a simpler, less cluttered life – the idea that less is more, and we’ve done some of that. But not as totally as we have now. And it has been a discovery that what we thought is true is indeed true. Jan can make an oasis home wherever we are, with whatever we have. And the reduced stress and much better peace of mind is all that we read it would be.

There are a lot of people we’ve met that have given up big corporate jobs and bennies and are enjoying this kind of a lifestyle. They’ve all encouraged us to do the same. Others have been hammered by the recession, and it caused them to make major life changes that they are finding more rewarding than what they had before. The common refrain seems to be “we should have done this a long time ago.” We agree!

I imagine you must feel that you were shot out of a cannon when you began this adventure.

Good turn of phrase – it sure fits us. We did feel that way, because so many things came together at the last minute. And because we picked up the Sprinter Interstate at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, OH, we had to drive it back to Denver to load it up with our stuff before we officially hit the road. Fortunately, Forever Resorts put us up in their Holiday Inn Resort in Estes Park for the first 3 days at Rocky Mountain National Park. That really helped us calm down and relax in our roomy suite, so there was not the pressure to immediately go “full time” in the RV.

Last year, I completed a goal of hiking 100 times in 240 days. With each hike, I would photograph myself with a numbered card representing the hike number. Do you have any similar rituals on your journey?

That is a great idea, Kolby. We met a father & son team touring Route 66 in a little Scion XB and a tent and they had a photo ritual with some silly doll thing. But it worked! Our ritual is to connect with at least one Park Ranger on day one, and figure out a less-traveled hike or location in the park to visit. Two hikes are also a ritual – one short and sweet, one long and hard, if they are available. Jan, though, has the coolest ritual – she is getting her National Park passport stamped at each park – including those with 2 locations for 2 stamps; and she sends our 2 year old grandson a postcard from each park. Without fail, as our daughter Brooke is tracking our route on a large map, creating a memory piece for our grandson.

Every year, thousands of “empty nesters” have embarked on long RV journeys, but I haven’t heard of many using social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook to share their experiences. What inspired you to use these services?

My career background is 30+ years in marketing, so we knew the value of the social media. Plus our daughter and son were big proponents of leveraging the web to attract followers. We created our own blog, Facebook and Linkedin sites before we got sponsored. Once we began the Tour, though, all the web-based communications was turned over to Cargo, the marketing agency for Mercedes Benz Sprinter. We create the content – Facebook posts, Facebook notes, Picasa albums, YouTube videos – and Cargo manages the distribution and promotion. Plus we also Tweet regularly. We’re extremely fortunate to have this backing; there was no way we could be doing all that we do plus handle that (despite thinking we could in the beginning.)

When I travel, I tend to bring my laptop so I can send out updates from the road and stay connected to my friends and family. Sometimes though, I’m not sure if staying connected is the best for my well-being. There are times where I’m glad that there’s no cell service or Wi-Fi.

We agree. There is a peace and a solitude that is muy importante that comes from total disconnecting. We’ve experienced that a couple of times, in Big Bend for example. Although we are responsible for providing daily content to Cargo, being totally disconnected was a good experience once we accepted the hard reality of no connectivity.

I know you have shared a lot with others on your website, Twitter and Facebook, but do you keep a written journal of more personal thoughts and experiences from this adventure?

We are trying. Jan has started a personal journal. And I have a ton of thoughts and impressions that if I don’t start writing them down will be lost forever.

Rob & Jan on Lake Saguaro, Arizona.

Planning can only go so far for a major trip. I imagine you have had many unexpected surprises, both for the good and bad.

We had expected to spend more time at the RV in the parks, cooking meals outside and interacting with other RVers. But we’re finding our days in the parks are long, and we get back well after fellow RVers are done for the day. That’s not good or bad, just different than we expected a “normal day” would be. We don’t have any normal days!! Another surprise has been the encouragement of fellow RVers – they all think what we are doing is wonderful (we agree.) A big surprise has been the long-forgotten acquaintances that have come out of the woodwork and now following us. One of them dates back from our wedding in 1975. Finally, the driving experience of the Sprinter Interstate is way better than expected. Whether a short 4 hours or a long 10 hours, we don’t experience road or driving fatigue. A very comfortable and car-like drive. We love it.

Your photos are incredible!

Well, thanks for the compliment – glad you are enjoying them. One of my expectations on this journey was to become a better photographer, and I can see how that is happening as we go along. Olympus partnered with us, as they are partners with the National Park Foundation and were intrigued with our project. They have been great to us – very generous. Like Mercedes and Airstream, they realized we had a pretty good story to tell.

What camera/lenses do you carry?

I already had an Olympus E-620 DSLR, but knew I wanted some high-quality glass. When they asked us what equipment we wanted, I made this list of lenses and was starting to expand on that. Then it hit me: who would know more about what we need for an adventure like this than Olympus? So we asked them what we should have. They responded with 2 great – absolutely great lenses – the Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm F2.8 – 4.0 SWD and Zuiko Digital ED 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 SWD. Then they added an E-PL1 as a back-up for my E-620 with a converter to allow me to use the full size lenses on it should I need to. In addition, they sent us a teleconverter EC-14 that doubles the lens lengths when attached – in effect, making my 200mm a 400mm. Included in the package they sent also a superb pair of binoculars which Jan uses extensively, and a digital voice recorder to assist us with notes in the field. Amazing folks at Olympus – we are proud to be associated with them.

The glass immediately improved photo quality and I found myself working harder at composing photos that would make Olympus proud to be associated with us. And I’m still working on that!

Do you have any plans on publishing a book on your journey?

Yes, we do. Our current plan is for a large-sized coffee table book, heavy on photos and written excerpts of our experiences “on the trail.” We also think there might be room for an RV-focused book about our experiences and what we’ve learned from this odyssey. The other item we are planning is a uniquely over-sized limited edition calendar, for 2011 and 2012.

Finally, can you give any advice for those looking to plan their own odyssey?

Have a purpose and stay focused. And quit thinking about it – get up off your duff and do it. As in now. Without delay.


To follow Rob & Jan’s journey, check out!

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