November 2021 - Starr Tours & Charters

Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2021 – Eastbound

Presenting the second half of our 2021 Cross Country Adventure recap by Starr Tour Director Gene Gray! (Click here to read about their Westbound journey.)

Day 15: Sunday, September 19, 2021

Once we departed LA, I began by telling about the history of Las Vegas including some Las Vegas trivia. Did you know there are 62,000+ hotel rooms in Las Vegas? I then showed a 50-minute History Channel documentary titled “Las Vegas”.

We stopped at a Walmart in Barstow, California for a bathroom and shopping break. Everyone stocked up on breakfast foods and snacks for Las Vegas. Walmart continues to be an important stop on our Cross Country trips!

An hour later, we pulled into the Baker, CA Travel Plaza. The Travel Plaza is all indoors, fully air-conditioned, with plenty of seating. This is an excellent lunch stop in the middle of the California desert with outside temperatures hovering at 91°.

Once back on the road, I played the movie, “Viva Las Vegas” starring Elvis Presley and Ann Margaret. It’s a “B” or “C” movie at best, but the music is great, and it takes place in Las Vegas.

Upon arrival in Las Vegas, Walt took us on a little riding tour by driving to the northern end of Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip) and turned south so we’d be passing all the major Las Vegas Hotels. The mini tour culminated at the Las Vegas Sign on the southern end of The Strip. Many took photos of this iconic sign. After checking in to the New York New York hotel, I hosted a walking orientation for our guests to learn their way around the hotel

No report for tomorrow. Everyone has different plans and Walt has some time off. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!”

Day 17: Tuesday, September 21, 2021

It was good seeing everyone after nearly two days apart as we departed Las Vegas. Everyone had a wonderful time – many took the Hoover Dam sightseeing tour, others saw a show, most enjoyed sleeping in, and quite a few walked from hotel to hotel to see all the unique attractions in each. On one hand, it was sad leaving Las Vegas. On the other, we were all looking forward to leaving city life and getting back to nature.

On the bus, I celebrated our reunion by playing songs that were requested on Day 1. I also played the DVD “The Harvey Girls” that explained the influential role of women waitresses in the Fred Harvey restaurant business between 1880 and 1960. Fred Harvey revolutionized the food business out west which included the Grand Canyon. He set up very strict and respectable rules for all women he hired and paid them a very high salary in a time when women were not considered part of the work force. Everyone enjoyed this documentary.

We arrived at our lunch stop, The Roadkill Cafe, on Historic Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona. Their slogan is “You kill it, We grill it”. The Cafe is a marvelous piece of Americana. The food was delicious, and I thanked the staff many times for all their efforts on our behalf. Many went shopping in the Roadkill Cafe’s unique gift shop and then walked next door to the General Store which sold Route 66 gifts and all sorts of items. Everyone really enjoyed this oasis in the desert.

We were an hour out of Flagstaff and our Drury Inn. Once on the bus, I played the IMAX video titled “The Grand Canyon,” a wonderful film providing an overview through the past 4,000 years of how man existed in this rugged environment. The movie concluded as we entered the city limits of Flagstaff, the gateway to the Grand Canyon.

The Drury Inn was very excited to welcome us. Our early arrival gave us some quiet down time. After all, we had been burning the midnight oil the past few days. We were all excited to leave first thing tomorrow morning for the one and only Grand Canyon.

Day 18: Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Today was a spectacularly GRAND day. After a wonderful buffet breakfast at the Drury Inn, we boarded the bus for our 90-minute ride to Grand Canyon National Park. Grand Canyon National Park is the second most visited National Park in the United States (Great Smoky Mountains National Park is first) and one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World (along with the Northern Lights and Mount Everest to name three). During our ride, I showed the Grand Canyon National Park’s Official Visitors’ Center movie titled “Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder.” It’s a great introduction to everything the Grand Canyon has to offer.

We entered Grand Canyon National Park at the Eastern Entrance. Our first stop was Desert View and the famous Watchtower. It was designed by Architect Mary Colter in 1907 and constructed by the Santa Fe Railroad. It was completed in 1932. Desert View is the perfect introduction to the Grand Canyon. The bright sun from the east and dark blue sky from above accentuated the brilliant display of colors that make the Grand Canyon so surreal. Pictures never can do the Grand Canyon justice. One has to be here and experience this natural masterpiece for themselves. Quotes from tour guests from the Desert View overlook include “Awesome,” “It doesn’t look real,” “I can’t believe what I’m looking at,” “It’s unbelievable!”, and many more thoughts of astonishment. I say, “You have to see it to believe it.”

We continued West to other unique and powerful overlooks. Moran Point is a geologist’s paradise. All the layers of rock from 270 million years ago at the top (the Coconino Sandstone) to 1.5 billion years ago at the bottom (the Vishnu Schist) are exposed and can be identified. Yavapai Point has great views of the two main hiking trails within the Grand Canyon; the South Kaibab Trail to the east and the Bright Angel Trail to the west. From Yavapai Point, you can also see the Kaibab Suspension Bridge that was built in 1928 for hikers to cross over the Colorado River to reach Phantom Ranch, where they can spend the night. You can also see the green trees of Indian Garden, the only place on the Bright Angel Trail with access to water – so vital for survival while hiking in the Canyon.

Village Walk, Grand Canyon Village

Our morning tour concluded at the Grand Canyon Village that houses the two great Grand Canyon Hotels; the Bright Angel Lodge and the El Tovar Hotel. More marvelous views of the Canyon can be seen from the .3 mile Canyon Rim walk that connects both hotels. And the Village hosts the best restaurants in the Grand Canyon; the El Tovar Restaurant, the Bright Angel Lodge Restaurant (that seats nearly 200 guests), and the quaint Arizona Room Steakhouse at the Bright Angel Lodge.

After lunch, Walt, who continues to do a fabulous job, drove us to the General Store for final Grand Canyon souvenir and gift purchasing. Our final stop was the Visitor’s Center Complex and Mather Point, another breathtaking view of the grandeur of the Grand Canyon. At Mather Point, one can see for miles in all directions. Mather was the first Director of the National Parks Service and fought tirelessly for years to get the Grand Canyon protected and under government control. Despite some inconveniences due to COVID, we all knew that the purpose of today was to experience the Grand Canyon as completely as possible – and this was exactly what we did. We all experienced sensory overload and were overwhelmed with the awe-inspiring beauty of the Grand Canyon.

Mather Point Overlook

We flopped into our seats on the bus and traveled back to Flagstaff in reflective silence.

Day 19: Thursday, September 23, 2021

We left Flagstaff and continued our journey on Arizona Highway 163 North toward Moab, Utah. Being in Navajo Territory, our clocks turned one hour ahead. Despite residing in Arizona, the Navajo always change their clocks and stay on Mountain Time. We are consistently surrounded by beautiful rock formations of brilliant colors. The scenery extends as far as the eyes can see. Most of the area we’re driving through is Navaho Territory and at times, you can see homes in need of repair. Their vehicles appear old and rusty. The land is hard and dry – desert conditions. There are no shops for miles. This looks to be a very sad and difficult way to exist.

I showed the DVD, “Arches National Park,” from the Official Visitors’ Center. It provided an excellent introduction to Arches and what we have in store for tomorrow. I further discussed that Delicate Arch, the park’s signature piece of sculpture, is not accessible by vehicle and visitors must hike four miles mostly uphill, to see it up close. We will not be taking the time to do this, but we will stop at a place where one can spot Delicate Arch from a mile away.

We arrived at Sand Island Recreation Area to eat lunch. Everyone disembarked and ate their lunch at one of four covered picnic tables or found a comfortable rock to sit on. The scenery was beautiful. We were surrounded by magnificent rock formations and the cool flowing San Juan River. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their boxed lunch from the Aspen Deli. We each had a sandwich, chips, a cookie, and a bottle of water. After lunch, some of us dipped our feet in the San Juan River. Most took pictures. Everyone agreed this was a wonderful place to eat our lunch.

Continuing our travels to Moab, I played quiet Native American tunes on the bus as some people slept and others relaxed. We completed our journey to Moab and the Aarchway Inn. After an hour to refresh, we boarded the bus for a five-minute ride to our Canyonlands By Night Dinner and Cruise.

Dinner was buffet style and included corn, beans, potatoes, mixed vegetables, BBQ chicken, BBQ beef, and BBQ pork. The food was tender, moist, and delicious.

The Canyonlands by Night Cruise was magnificent. It is hard to explain in writing. Everyone must experience this in person. At first, a guide trains you to use your imagination by looking at the colorful sandstone rock formations. Emboldened on the rocks, one could imagine ET, the Wicked Witch, Frankenstein, and a Dachshund, to name a few. As the light of day faded into total darkness of night, one could look up and see millions of stars shining down brilliantly, a sight we rarely get to see living on the east coast. Then the light show began. Spotlights lit up sections of the Canyon walls. Music played as the narrator told stories of Moab and the Colorado River. It was a complete multi-sensory experience that put you in a state of total relaxation. Following the narration, we floated down the Colorado River in silence with only the sounds of music until we arrived back at the dock. All of us came off the boat raving about this magnificent show.

Setting off on the Canyonlands by Night Cruise

Another fabulous day with many different experiences! This seems to be the theme of this Cross Country Vacation.

Day 20: Friday, September 24, 2021

It was still dark outside when we departed the hotel for our five-minute ride to Arches National Park. Our first stop was the La Sal Mountain Viewpoint, the perfect place to see the sunrise – and it was magnificent!!!

Arches is so beautiful. Huge rock formations surround you at every turn. We stopped at 7 stops and spent over four hours enjoying this unique National Park. Balanced Rock now stands alone after its adjacent balanced rock eroded away and fell in 1976. Arches is constantly evolving and one day, perhaps in a mere thousand years, the arches we see today will be gone, replaced by new formations. Balanced Rock is 128 feet in height and weighs 3,600 tons. We all took many photographs.

Our longest time at Arches National Park was spent walking/hiking within the Windows Section. The pathways are unpaved and consist of uneven steps, petrified sandstone, and rocks mixed with dirt. That did not prevent many of us from climbing the paths to Double Arch and North and South Window to stand beneath these unique formations. The hikes provided us with wonderful exercise. It’s the only way to experience Arches, by getting up close and personal. Everyone enjoyed the 45 minutes we had to experience the Windows Section of Arches National Park.

Windows Section of Arches National Park

Our final stop was the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint from which we were able to photograph the Park’s most prominent feature, Delicate Arch. Delicate Arch is the face of Arches National Park. It is seen on the cover of all publications and Arches National Park souvenirs. Although Delicate Arch stands a mile away from this viewpoint, we were all able to take many fine pictures. We then rode back to the Visitors Center for souvenirs and to get our Arches National Park Stamp for our National Parks Passport Book. We were soon on our way, saying goodbye to Arches National Park, and hello to Colorado.

Being near Iowa, the place where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash in February 1959, I played Don McLean’s “American Pie” followed by two Buddy Holly songs. I then played the first hour of “The Buddy Holly Story” starring Gary Busey, who won Best Actor in 1978 for this role.

Our lunch stop was at the Mesa Mall in Grand Junction, Colorado. We easily found the food court which offered many different choices. It was another perfect lunch stop.

Once back on the bus, I showed the second half of “The Buddy Holly Story.” The ending emphasized Holly’s love for his wife, his music career, and for life. He was only 21 years old when his life and career were tragically cut short.  We were now approaching the most scenic part of our ride through the Rocky Mountains. The green of the tall Ponderosa Pine Trees against the gray and red colors of the rock was a brilliant visual. The mountains rose to different heights as we climbed to over 11,000 feet in elevation. A swiftly running stream accompanied I-70 on our right for close to 100 miles. People were seen rafting in the rapids. John Denver music serenaded throughout the bus; “Rocky Mountain High,” “Poems, Prayers, and Promises,” “The Mountain Song,” and many others. Between the sheer beauty of the Rockies and the calming effects of the music, we all were able to experience this magnificent section of highway to the fullest.

We arrived at the Drury Inn Denver and everyone was happy and tired. We had gotten up early to be at Arches National Park by 7:00 AM. We saw the magnificent sunrise, climbed rock, dirt, and sandstone paths leading up to the different formations, had a good lunch at the Mesa Mall, overloaded our visual and auditory senses riding through the Rocky Mountains, and we made it to the Drury Kickback. Today was another rewarding and successful day.

Day 21: Saturday, September 25, 2021

Everyone commented they had a wonderful rest last night after our active day yesterday. We boarded our bus for a ride into unknown territory culminating in a lunch stop in Fort Laramie and our visit to Mount Rushmore.

After a few morning songs, I showed the video, “Mount Rushmore” created by the History Channel. It provided all information about Mount Rushmore from conception to completion including authentic footage of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Gutzon Borglum created the initial scale models of his vision while his son, Lincoln, supervised the sculpturing and saw the project to completion. Mount Rushmore opened to the public in 1941.

We found a really fun rest stop with a convenience store that sold all things Wyoming gifts and souvenirs. It’s actually a combined Sinclair Gas Station, convenience store, hotel and resort named “Little America.” Outside sits Dino the dinosaur with a saddle on its back encouraging patrons to climb aboard, which many did!

Fun with Dino the Dinosaur

We were riding through open prairie as far as the eye could see. After a quiet session on the bus, I played some western music. We could almost imagine the sheriff and his posse riding on this rugged terrain to find the outlaws. At noon, we arrived in Fort Laramie, Wyoming for our lunch stop at Vickie’s Saloon.

Vickie’s Saloon is directly out of those Western Movies. As you enter, the bar is on your right and runs the length of the saloon. The pool table is in an adjacent section on your left and the jukebox and piano sit on a wall towards the rear. Vickie put up signs to the public saying the Saloon was closed on Saturday from 11:30-1:30 PM. We knew we had the place all to ourselves. Vickie’s Saloon is relatively small, with a legal capacity of 78 patrons at one time. Signs on the wall also indicated the Saloon was up for sale. Vickie shared she’s owned it for ten years and wants to retire and travel.

Vickie of Vickie’s Saloon and Gene

Vickie greeted us with open arms as we entered. Two guests selected songs in the jukebox and some began line dancing on the dance floor. A festive atmosphere ensued. Although lunch took a bit longer than anticipated, mostly everyone had a magnificent time. We departed Vickie’s after taking group pictures with Vickie, outside her Saloon, and wished her luck in her impending retirement.

Final group photo with Vickie in front of her Saloon

We were on the road to Mount Rushmore, one of the most anticipated attractions of this Cross Country Vacation.

Dry arid land soon gave way to the Black Hills as we crossed into South Dakota. Being off the interstate, we found the smaller state highways to be just as fast with speed limits averaging 70 mph.

After paying our entrance fee, we parked our bus next to the entrance. We were the only bus and we were able to maximize our time at Mount Rushmore. After entering, we walked through the pathway of flags (flags from each state and each U.S. territory) and looked up. The skies were a clear blue, the sun off to the western sky. We were able to take many fabulous photographs of the Gutzon Borglum’s Fab Four; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Many chose to take the Presidential Walk. The National Park Service constructed a magnificent walkway so visitors could get up close to the Monument. The circular walkway has many steps and is about a half mile in length, and the close-up views are spectacular. We were able to shop in the Mount Rushmore Gift Shop and we departed Mount Rushmore for our half hour ride to the Best Western Hotel in Rapid City.

Day 22: Sunday, September 26, 2021

Today we set off for Badlands National Park, our final National Park for this trip.

Our first overlook stop was The Pinnacles. This awe-inspiring view depicted pointed spires lined up in rows stretching as far as the eye can see.  At the next overlook, a bighorn sheep feeding 50 feet from our vantage point stole the show. The third stop was Prairie Dog Town. Prairie Dogs can be seen guarding their maze of tunnels against all possible invaders and heard making sounds to warn other Prairie Dogs when they feel threatened. The fourth stop was beautiful Panorama Point, a magnificent 180° view of the rugged terrain of the Badlands and a perfect place to conclude our tour. We stopped at the Visitors Center to purchase souvenirs and get our National Parks Passport Books stamped. Blue skies, temperatures in the low 80’s, and prairie winds blowing at moderate speed added to our complete enjoyment of our visit to the Badlands.

Badlands National Park

Wall Drugstore was a short ride from the Badlands and our lunch stop. Wall Drug sells everything from Cowboy Boots to health aids, souvenirs, and jewelry. Twenty-three average-sized themed shops are connected by a series of doorways and hallways. It’s a shopper’s dream for gift purchases, unique items, and necessities. In addition, Wall Drug has a cafeteria that seats 590 people. After a short wait on a line, you give the cashier your order, pay for it, and within five minutes, your order is ready. The cafeteria is fast and efficient, and the food is delicious. Everyone appreciated the two hours they had to eat and shop in this must-see establishment.

After lunch, we traveled 230 miles to the Comfort Inn in Mitchell, South Dakota. I played the movie, “La Bamba,” the story of Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ritchie Valens who, at 17 years of age, was killed in a plane crash with Buddy Holly. Valens had a short, powerful, and very influential music career. His plane crashed in Iowa, the state we will arrive in tomorrow. Everyone enjoyed the movie very much.

After a rest stop, we traveled the final hour to the Comfort Inn. Four restaurants surrounded the parking lot of the Comfort Inn so many made plans with each other to have dinner together. Tomorrow is a day of travel. Tonight is a night of celebration and a comfortable night’s sleep.

Day 23: Monday, September 27, 2021

A five-minute ride landed us at the iconic Mitchell Corn Palace. It’s a large arena with a seating capacity of over 6,000. It’s the center of activity in a small South Dakota town with a population of just over 11,000. Its uniqueness comes from its giant wall murals made solely out of corn of many colors. As we entered, two people were tearing down the outside corn mural from this past year and will be replacing it with a brand-new mural for next year. The beautiful murals inside the arena remain the same.

Corn Palace

Everyone enjoyed their time at the Corn Palace and bought gifts in the Gift Shop. We departed Mitchell before 9:00 AM for a day of travel through three states, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. I played a few morning songs and we had some quiet time. Since our destination was Iowa, I showed the movie “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones.

The movie set and field for “Field of Dreams” are now a major tourist attraction, located in Dyersville, Iowa, just 25 miles west of Dubuque, Iowa, where we will be spending the night. In fact, we pass the Exit for Dyersville on our travels. Major League Baseball held its first regular season game on a new field adjacent to the movie set with major league dimensions on August 12, 2021. The game featured the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox and was a home game for the White Sox. Many home runs were hit in the game and the White Sox won it 9-8. The players were introduced by walking through the corn field (similar to the movie) and wore uniforms resembling the 1919 baseball teams. The new field in Dyersville has a seating capacity of just over 8,000 and tickets cost upwards of $1,400 each. MLB has already scheduled the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs to play in Dyersville in August 2022. All enjoyed the movie and applauded its conclusion.

We had a fabulous lunch at the Ranch Restaurant in Fairmont, Minnesota. Sally, the owner, set up a private room for us and had three servers taking our orders upon being seated. Everyone raved about their delicious lunch and the efficiency of the staff. I was told many times that this restaurant is definitely a “keeper” for future Cross Country Trips. We were back on the road again in just over one hour.

We arrived at the Holiday Inn Dubuque and look forward to a good rest followed by two days in “The Windy City.”

Day 24: Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The town of Dubuque borders the mighty Mississippi River so almost immediately following our departure, we crossed the bridge that spanned the Mississippi. We were now in the state of Illinois. I played “Proud Mary” by both Creedence Clearwater Revival and Tina Turner. Everyone was awake now!

After a brief rest stop, we were closing in on Chicago. It was time for Frank Sinatra to serenade our arrival with “My Kind of Town” and “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town.” Walt dropped us off at the Chicago Navy Pier located on sparkling Lake Michigan and consisting of many restaurants, shops, and attractions. We had another beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the 70s. It was a perfect combination for everyone to enjoy their time at the Navy Pier, both inside and out, with plenty of time to eat lunch and stroll around the shops that feature everything Chicago. Many rode the Centennial Ferris Wheel for magnificent views of Chicago and Lake Michigan. Most enjoyed strolling on the Pier enjoying this beautiful September weather in the Windy City.

Our next attraction was The Ledge, the magnificent Skydeck Chicago at the Willis Tower. Stepping out onto The Ledge feels like being suspended in air. One can look down and see the streets of Chicago 103 stories below. The wonderful people in charge of crowd control gives everyone two minutes to enjoy (or fear) this fascinating experience. They will even take pictures of you on The Ledge. Those that did “Step Out” really enjoyed it. But it’s not for everyone!

In leading our tour guests to the Skydeck Elevators, we pass through a wonderful interactive museum of everything Chicago. Many had fun taking pictures at Wrigley Field, with Oprah, the Obamas, and on the Chicago EL. The elevator ride to the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower takes one minute. Once on the Skydeck, the views were stunning. We could see for 50 miles in all directions on this beautiful clear day. The elevator down lets you off at the Willis Tower Gift Shop. Across the street from the Willis Tower is a Route 66 sign since Chicago is the beginning of Route 66. Many enjoyed taking pictures of that as well.

Chicago Museum in the Willis Tower

We checked into the Fairfield Inn, our hotel for the next two nights. Everyone enjoyed walking around Chicago and dinner as well as the energy this wonderful city provides. We look forward to a wonderful day touring this third largest city in the United States tomorrow.

Day 25: Wednesday, September 29, 2021

We had the unusual opportunity to “sleep in” this morning. Breakfast hours in the Fairfield Inn ranged from 6:00 to 10:00 AM and our tour of Chicago wasn’t beginning until 10:00 AM. Walt is enjoying a day off today.

The two Trolleys arrived a little before 10:00 AM and we all hopped aboard. We began by heading South on Michigan Avenue, past the Wrigley Building, across the Chicago River and past Millennium Park. Our guide told us about the Bean, located at Millennium Park – it’s a huge bean shaped shiny structure the size of a bus and hollow on the inside. It’s great to take kaleidoscopic pictures from underneath. We continued past Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears (for now), past the Field Museum and the Chicago Aquarium. We stopped for photos overlooking the great Chicago Skyline. The tour continued on the North Side of Chicago with stops at iconic Wrigley Field where we got out to take pictures and beautiful Lincoln Park where we entered the Lincoln Park Conservatory for a brief picture and use of their facilities. The Trolley Tour is a great way to introduce this fabulous city from land. The two and a quarter hour tour was enjoyed by everyone.

Group photo in front of the Chicago skyline

We were dropped off from the Trolley Tour at The Shops at North Bridge, a mall with a diverse food court and nearby the Wendella Boats where we would meet for a 2:30 PM boat cruise.

The Chicago River Architectural Cruise was truly the highlight of the day. Blue skies, little wind, and temperatures in the upper 70s made this a most comfortable and enjoyable cruise. We all sat on the top open desk while Zach, a brilliant 23-year-old guide, enthusiastically described and shared stories about every building we passed. He also provided many fun facts and proudly recited historical information about his city. People have said the best way to see Chicago is by the river, and today proved this correct.

The highlight of the Chicago River Cruise was going through a lock into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is five feet above the Chicago River so in order to pass from the river into the lake, one lock closes while the other lock leading to Lake Michigan opens slightly. At this moment, 80,000 gallons of water begin to flow into the river lock bringing our boat up five feet to smoothly sail into Lake Michigan. This was so cool to watch and experience from the boat. We toured Lake Michigan and the magnificent Chicago Skyline while Zach described each of Chicago’s more prominent buildings. He highlighted the Willis Tower as the grandest in architectural design. Everyone found the Boat Cruise informational, entertaining, and fascinating.

We took a slow walk back to our hotel. Many stopped at Garrett’s Popcorn to purchase a special treat to take home with them. We now had over an hour to relax before we needed to meet once again to take a short walk to dinner at Gino’s East.

Chicago is a very impressive city. One guest who didn’t particularly care for large cities, shared how amazed he was with the cleanliness of Chicago. The streets and sidewalks were free of debris. Flowers and different plants sat in large cement pots added beauty to the sides of the roads. The people here are friendly and very proud of their city.

Walt joined us on his day off for dinner. Dressed in shorts and a regular shirt, no one recognized him! Walt shared how he spent his day. After cleaning the bus, he walked to the Chicago Navy Pier, rode the Centennial Ferris Wheel, rented a bicycle, and rode back to the Willis Tower where he had his picture taken on the Ledge. We were all thrilled he was able to join us for dinner. Walt is an amazing bus driver and always gives 100% to caring for each and every traveler – and their luggage!

Our tables at Gino’s East were all set up for us as we took our seats. Before everyone was seated, a large bowl of salad was placed on each table. The salad was followed by a plate of hot wings that we passed around the table for each to enjoy. Our next appetizer was Gino’s famous hand-rolled spinach and mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce. Mmmmmm!!! By this time, everyone was beginning to slow down and feel full.  A few minutes later, the Chicago Deep Dish Pizza made its entrance. We were offered a slice of plain, mushroom, or pepperoni. The Deep Dish Pizza was thick, moist, and tasty. The mozzarella cheese stretched with every bite. Many used a knife and fork while some broke pieces of the pizza off with their fingers. It’s difficult to pick up and eat. The crust was crunchy and tasty. One slice was all most people could handle at this time. However, soon a few thin crust pizzas appeared on our tables.

After a dessert of homemade brownies and chocolate chip cookies, we all made our best efforts to roll out of our chairs! Prior to getting up, everyone showed their approval with dinner by resounding applause. I made a short announcement thanking our servers and providing details for tomorrow morning. We all took a leisurely walk back to the Fairfield Inn.

Today we enjoyed getting to know Chicago in a more intimate way. Tomorrow we’re up early to travel to Cleveland and maximize our time at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame before our “Farewell Dinner” (hard to believe our Cross Country Trip is coming to a close) at the Hofbrauhaus.

Day 26: Thursday, September 30, 2021

We departed Chicago at 7:00 AM in order to arrive in Cleveland as early as possible and maximize our time at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

It’s hard to believe today is our final day of attractions with 38 marvelous travelers who are now good friends. As in any trip, we’ve overcome a few bumps in the road, but we all stuck together and cared for each other. Masks were always worn, and nobody got sick, not even a cold!

I played “My Kind of Town” as we departed Chicago. I then refocused by playing songs performed by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees. After a rest stop, I played the movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the sad story of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, who died of HIV at age 46 in the height of his career. The movie was interrupted with our lunch stop and was completed after we were back on the road.

We arrived in time to offer over two and a half hours to enjoy the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The brilliant, mostly glass, architectural masterpiece was designed by I.M Pei and opened on June 7, 1993. We disembarked the bus and were provided wrist bands upon entering. We spent the majority of time watching films, reading showcases, and listening to music. Featured exhibits honor the Influencers of Music in the early 20th century, provide history and photographs from Rolling Stone Magazine, and showcase instruments, clothing, and fascinating information on hundreds of Rock & Roll performers. Monitors are in place at every turn featuring musical performances of the singers wearing the clothing or playing the instrument on display. One guest described their experience at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame “as spending a few hours reliving my childhood.” Many were able to see the Hall of Fame Inductee Plaques and shop in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Gift Shop. Everyone enjoyed their time at this magnificent museum.

Walt had taken our luggage to the Drury Plaza Hotel while we were at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He returned before 5:45 PM to pick us up and drive us one mile to the Hofbrauhaus, our venue for our Farewell Dinner. The Hofbrauhaus is the most organized and efficient restaurant one could ever experience. Upon entering, we found our name and dinner choice printed on a card that we brought to our table. We all sat in tables of eight and had plenty of room. Drink orders were immediately taken. Salad with a Bavarian Pretzel was served next. Our main dinner choice soon followed. The servers catered to our every need. A generous piece of Apple Strudel was placed in front of us for dessert. Everyone was extremely satisfied. We were able to talk, laugh, and enjoy each other’s company in a relaxed atmosphere with good food and drink for one final night together as the 2021 Cross Country Travelers.

It’s always bittersweet to end a fabulous trip and go home. This is what we’re up against tomorrow.

Day 27: Friday, October 1, 2021

After Walt and I meticulously placed all luggage in the luggage compartments according to drop-off points, we were on our way home and preparing to say goodbye after 27 days of friendship. I began the journey home by playing “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel.

I then led a summary of all 27 days of this magnificent trip. Highlights included memories of the Canyonlands by Night Boat Cruise and Light Show that most agreed to be this year’s #1 attraction. Our lunches each day were completely different; from all of us enjoying one restaurant like The Ranch Restaurant in Fairmont, Minnesota to purposely stopping at an exit off the interstate where four different restaurants were positioned side by side. We ate lunch outdoors at the Painted Desert National Park in Arizona as well as along the banks of the San Juan River in Utah. Unless part of an attraction, our goal for lunch was to be served, eat, and back on the bus within an hour and we were able to achieve this goal every time except once.

We arrived at the Oakmont Plum Rest Area off of the Pennsylvania Turnpike for our first stop. Walt and I organized a little ceremony to honor all of our fabulous guests in completing this 27 Day Cross Country Trip. Following the ceremony, we boarded the bus and continued east.

I handed out the Starr survey asking guests to evaluate many facets of our Cross Country trip including all hotels. Everyone worked diligently on this and handed me their completed surveys sealed in an envelope. Since we all were completing a bucket list of sorts on this Cross Country trip today, I played the movie “The Bucket List” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

After, I began a musical review of our trip. I purposely played specific songs throughout the trip depending on our location at the time. Guests made many requests for songs that I played or downloaded from iTunes. Our most energetic song for the 2021 Cross Country trip was undoubtedly “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. I thank Cheryl and Hattie for this request. And once again, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” received the most applause as the patriotic song of the trip. The music helped make this trip as special as it was.

After our final rest stop, we arrived in Bensalem, thus officially completing our journey across this beautiful country. Sandy was waiting with a “Welcome Home” sign and enthusiastically greeted us. She also boarded the bus and offered words of praise. To quote a famous writer in the late 16th century, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Everyone was hugging each other and saying their goodbyes for now. We had made it, despite the constant cloud of Covid in the back of our minds.

Our experiences were vast. Our 27 days were all sunny and warm with clear blue skies. Who would ever have expected perfect weather! We had magnificent tour guests who cared about the welfare of each other. We stayed healthy. We wore our masks to keep us and each other safe. We completed our entire itinerary and more. The 2021 Cross Country Trip was a complete success!  A big shout out goes to the hardworking Starr Staff, Nancy, Dawn, and Audrey for a magnificent itinerary and great support and organization.

Our outstanding driver, Walt Deminski, was the most important person and key ingredient to the overall success of the Cross Country Trip. Not only did he accomplish all the driving, he expertly handled every piece of luggage – checking off each piece daily before putting them into the luggage compartments beneath the bus. After a long day of driving, Walt spent the hours before going to his hotel room washing the outside of the bus, sterilizing the inside of the bus, and washing the floors and removing garbage. Walt’s efforts were instrumental in all of us maintaining our good health and safety throughout the 27 days. In addition, he is an extremely caring and generous person who proudly presented hotel baggage handlers each day with state lottery tickets to show his appreciation for their work. Walt is a professional in every sense of the word and the 2021 Cross Country Travelers were truly blessed to have him for our Cross Country Driver. Thank you, Walt, for making this trip so successful.

Starr Driver Walt and Tour Director Gene in Badlands National Park

Gene Gray, Starr Tour Director


This part was added by Starr’s Sandy Borowsky:

How could we finish a report like this without paying tribute to its author, Tour Director Extraordinaire, Gene Gray. Gene has been planning this trip since the day his last Cross Country trip returned in July 2019. He spent countless hours making sure every detail was prepared – every t crossed and every i dotted. In my 23-year tenure at Starr, I have never met a more devoted, loving and special Tour Director. Gene treats every tour guest (and every driver) like family. This creates the most wonderful experience for everyone onboard. When you travel with Gene, you don’t just experience the destination – you have a wholistic experience that includes sensory (music, movies), friendship, stories and history, and so much more. All of this combines to make the most special memories that will truly last a lifetime. We thank you Gene for your dedication to Starr and this Cross Country tour and we look forward to your 5th journey across our great nation in 2022!

Cross Country Adventure by Bus 2021 – Westbound

Our 2021 Cross Country trip (during a global pandemic!) went out in September! It was a huge success, and everyone remained healthy throughout the trip – not even a common cold! Starr Driver Walt Deminski and Tour Director Gene Gray led 38 travelers across our great country over the course of 27 days. On each of our trips, the Starr Tour Director is responsible for providing a day-by-day summary of every aspect of the trip. Gene’s reports always offer a fun and vivid retelling of their adventures. It’s clear that Gene goes above and beyond to make sure his tour guests are well informed and entertained. For your reading pleasure, here are Days 1-14.

Stay tuned for the second half of their amazing “Journey of a Lifetime”!

Overnight Tour Summary Report – Cross Country 2021

Date:  September 5 – October 1, 2021
Tour Director:  Gene Gray
Driver:  Walt Deminski
Coach #: 205


Day 1: Sunday, September 5, 2021

All tour guests arrived early and without incident. In Bensalem, once everyone was onboard and seated, Starr’s owners, Alan and Renee Glickman came aboard and Alan delivered an inspiring sendoff message telling our guests that they were in good hands and sharing how tremendous this trip would be, and that one day they’d love to do it! With Alan and Renee still on board, I asked everyone to stand up, wave their flags, and partake in Whitney Houston’s version of the Star-Spangled Banner. All stood and most sang along with Whitney. We were now officially ON OUR WAY!

Starr co-owner Alan Glickman

I played “America the Beautiful” by Alicia Keys and Ray Charles. I reviewed the Starr Welcome Letter and showed the Starr Safety DVD. I spoke adamantly about the importance of wearing masks, not only for our individual safety, but the safety of everyone in our group. Safety is, without a doubt, our #1 priority with “fun” way down the list at #2. We must all stay healthy together.

We arrived at the Peter Camille Rest Stop on I-76 for a twenty-minute break. I emphasized that “being prompt” was the key to success for this trip (actually any trip). Everyone was back on the bus on time. I can already see we have a wonderful group.

I proceeded to review the individual papers I included in the packet of information I created for each tour guest. This packet includes the itinerary for each day and a list of restaurants for meals on own. Maps of the area were also included. A six page “Things To Do in Las Vegas” was also part of the packet. To my delight, many guests heeded my second pre-trip letter and already booked a show in Las Vegas for at least one night. We were now ninety minutes from our lunch stop and I kept quiet until after lunch, giving everyone the space to do their own thing.

Lunch at Hoss’s Steakhouse in Bedford, PA is a perfect stop. They seated us immediately, served us immediately, and we were all finished within an hour. The food was delicious and guests could order the extensive soup, salad, and dessert bar, a menu choice, or a combo of both.

I began showing the 1979 movie produced for ABC Television titled “Elvis” which told the history of his life. It was created two years after his death. This was to prepare us for Wednesday, the day we visit Graceland. We rode quietly for the final 2.5 hours after our rest stop to the Drury Inn and Suites in Grove City, Ohio. We arrived in plenty of time to enjoy the Drury Kickback which included three free beverages. Everyone seemed to perk up in a hurry! It was a very successful first day and we look forward to our day in Louisville, Kentucky tomorrow.

Day 2: Monday, September 6, 2021

The hot breakfast buffet at the Drury Inn was a great way to start the day. We departed Grove City and drove south to beautiful Louisville, Kentucky. I honored our many Veterans on board by thanking them and playing the Armed Forces Medley. I played songs related to Kentucky (“Kentucky Woman” by Neil Diamond and “Kentucky Rain” by Elvis to name two). I played a few baseball-related songs (including Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” skit) in preparation for our on time arrival at the Louisville Slugger Bat Museum.

After we took group photos in front of “The World’s Largest Louisville Slugger Baseball Bat” which adorns the entryway to the Museum, we were led to our lunchroom where boxed lunches from Subway were sitting on the table and waiting for us to take.

Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum

The Guided Tour of the bat factory was terrific. Multiple monitors in strategic locations displayed closed captioned videos to explain the bat-making process. Our Tour Guide filled in additional information. Did you know that the wood used in bat-making comes directly from the forests of Pennsylvania? Or that each ball player uses upwards of 100 wooden bats per season? Upon conclusion of the Tour, we each received a miniature Louisville Slugger Bat. Everyone really enjoyed this tour.

Our next stop was the Evan Williams Bourbon Tour. Eighty percent of the world’s Bourbon is made in Kentucky and Evan Williams claims to be the world’s best. The Guided Tour was fascinating. The Tour focused on four parts; the life of Evan Williams and the process of making Bourbon in his distilleries, which began in 1935, were the first two topics. The third section of the Tour was taste tasting four of their most famous Bourbons. We entered a mini bar and sat at a small table adorned with four small sipping glasses generously filled with Evan Williams Bourbons. Our Tour Guide explained the importance of sniffing Bourbon twice prior to tasting; first with your mouth closed and then with your mouth opened. He described the differences among the four types of Bourbon as we tasted each one at a time. Following the tasting, we were ushered into the Bourbon Store (the fourth component) where many purchased souvenirs along with bottles of Evan Williams Bourbon. We concluded the Tour by stumbling, err, walking to the bus for our fifteen-minute ride to the Drury Inn Louisville East, our home for the night.

The Drury Inn was prepared for us and everyone enjoyed dinner at the ever popular (free) Kickback that featured pasta in Alfredo Sauce, strips of tender chicken, baked potatoes, and salad items. Everyone was totally satisfied. I walked to my room leaving many tour guests talking and laughing together. Today was an absolutely wonderful day.

Day 3: Tuesday, September 7, 2021

What a great day from start to finish! Since we were eating breakfast at Churchill Downs, I encouraged everyone to eat lightly at the Drury Inn. We arrived at the Churchill Downs Backstretch Tour a little early, but Murray, our tour guide, was waiting for us. We were all disappointed to learn that there were no horses on the property due to vast construction on the track. Murray said this had never happened before and horses were always here training from February through November. The horses will be returning Thursday. Instead, Murray told us we’d be meeting a retired jockey named Charlie Woods Jr. whose career spanned from 1974-2009. Charlie was magnificent. He began speaking during our breakfast and stayed with us throughout the conclusion of the Backstretch Tour. Charlie’s career peaked with many victories during the 1980’s. He now has an artificial hip and told us jockeys suffer many injuries. Charlie complained he was gaining weight, but he was a small man of 5’4” tall and weighed 120 pounds. Everyone was endeared to him, many received his autograph, and everyone took a picture with him. Murray was also terrific, and we ended our Backstretch Tour by taking a group photo (with Charlie) in front of the starting gate that is only used for the Kentucky Derby.

Our Cross Country Group – Starr Driver Walt Deminski far left, Tour Director Gene Gray far right, and retired jockey Charlie Woods, Jr. center with black jacket and red shirt.

We rode around the block to the entrance to Churchill Downs Racetrack. We all took pictures of the iconic entrance that has a statue of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro who is actually buried under the statue. Our tour consisted of the history of the Kentucky Derby and a walk into the lower grandstand of the racetrack, the same walk the horses take as they enter for the races. Our guide showed us the famous spires that are now protected by the Federal Government as a U.S. Landmark. He pointed out the winners’ circle for the Kentucky Derby and explained that each winning horse receives three things; a gold medallion, a blanket of roses, and a check for $1.5 million. Following the tour, we were ushered into the 10:30 AM showing of “Churchill Downs” a powerful 360° movie about the history of the racetrack through the years. We sat on swirling stools in the center of this gigantic theater. Our final 45 minutes was spent in the gift shop and playing in the magnificent museum that honors the greatest horses that have ever raced!

Fun fact: Secretariat, the greatest horse of all time, won the Triple Crown in 1973 by breaking records in all three races. After Secretariat’s death, they did an autopsy that showed his heart weighed 22 pounds when a normal racehorse’s heart weighs only 8 pounds. Secretariat’s greatness came from his ability to take in more air during a race and pump his blood faster throughout his body.

We departed Churchill Downs and headed West towards Nashville. At the 65-mile marker along I-65, the clock on our electronic devices suddenly jumped back an hour. We were officially in Central Time and will not return to Eastern Time until Day 26.

We arrived in Smith’s Grove, Kentucky for an easy lunch stop. I played a set of Country Music tunes as we drove the final hour into Nashville, the Country Capital of the world. We arrived at the Wingate Nashville Airport Hotel and checked into our comfortable rooms.

Our tour guests had two wonderful hours to stroll around the beautiful Gaylord Hotel. We walked in as a group in order to secure maps while I oriented them to where we were on the map so they’d be able to easily find their way out. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed strolling the magnificent indoor forests, waterfalls, and shops. They each found a nice place to eat dinner.

Next on our schedule was a show at the Grand Ole Opry. This was a lively and wonderful show featuring six talented acts including one funny comedian. The music was terrific, and everyone had a wonderful experience, whether they were fans of country music or not.

Everyone had a wonderful day as we returned to the hotel to sleep. We needed to be up early tomorrow for Elvis.

Day 4: Wednesday, September 8, 2021

We departed and headed West on I-40 to Memphis. I played a plethora of Elvis tunes and took requests from our guests.

Graceland is the second most visited house in the United States, bested only by that large, white home in Washington DC. Upon arriving, I secured our tickets from the Visitors Center and walked back to the bus to hand out Graceland tickets, $15 lunch coupons, and maps to each tour guest. We had 4.5 hours to enjoy the complex of museums and home.

Most tour guests ate lunch immediately upon arrival. Some chose to view the Pre-Show film about Elvis and shuttle across the street to tour the Mansion first. The Pre-Show is a short film intended to teach about Elvis’ major life moments. Then, you walk out a different door and walk towards the shuttle that takes you across the street to Graceland. Very friendly employees equip you with an iPad and headphones that will provide narration for each section of the 23 room mansion and outside grounds that are open to the public. Since Elvis was always very private in nature, the upstairs bedrooms will always be closed to public viewing out of respect.

Upon entering Graceland, one immediately can see the huge living room featuring a ten-foot sofa surrounded by elegant furnishings, a large television set, and a picture of Elvis. On the left is the dining room featuring Elvis’s and Priscilla’s wedding china. The narration continues to direct you downstairs to the billiards room and 3-TV room where he would watch three programs at a time on his luxurious furnishings. Each room is beautifully decorated in a different theme at no regard for expense. The entire tour is fascinating and breathtaking and is a must see. The approximately 75-minute tour concludes at Elvis’s gravesite surrounded by the gravesites of his departed family members who he always showed loving devotion. Elvis died at 42 years of age in 1977. If still alive, he would be 86 years old.

Once shuttled across the street, we were able to stroll through the many museums that now permanently hold Elvis’ cars including the iconic Pink Cadillac he presented to his mother (who actually couldn’t drive), his many unique outfits he wore while performing, and one museum devoted to his hit records and many movies. Videos of Elvis looped at almost every turn, and it can take multiple visits to see each one. The trustees of Graceland have created a magnificent tribute to Elvis, a tribute truly fit for a KING!

Elvis’ pink Cadillac

All tour guests walked the half block to famous Beale Street for dinner, drinks, and entertainment. Many formed new friendships and dined together. Beale Street was alive with loud voices and music flowing in every direction. Today was another perfect day.

Day 5: Thursday, September 9, 2021

Our Hotel was fabulous. It is a block from Beale Street and very convenient. In fact, they put ear plugs in each of our rooms so we’d sleep well. However, we never needed them and many saved the ear plugs as souvenirs.

It was 6:05 PM on Thursday, April 4, 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Since the Lorraine Motel was just a short drive from our hotel, Walt and I arranged for a photo stop before leaving Memphis. This was a pleasant surprise for our travelers!

The Lorraine Motel has been converted into The National Civil Rights Museum. Two Cadillacs used by King in 1968 sit in the parking spots below the balcony from which he was assassinated. A circular marker adorns the balcony railing at Room 306 where King last stood. It’s an extremely solemn and surreal experience that I can only compare to standing on Dealy Square in Dallas.

The Lorraine Motel and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s two Cadillacs

We left Memphis and began our day’s ride to Oklahoma City on I-40. I played “Abraham, Martin, & John” by Dion, a sixties song honoring Lincoln, King, and both John and Bobby Kennedy. I concluded the set by playing “We Shall Overcome,” performed by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary. After a quick rest stop, we continued onto Alma, Arkansas near Fort Smith to our lunch stop. I showed the movie, “Ray,” starring Jamie Foxx, on our big screens. “Ray” depicts the life of Ray Charles. This is the perfect movie for where we are in our trip. His music fit in perfectly with the R&B bands we listened to in Memphis last night. Ray was a first-year inductee into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland which we visit on Day 26, and Ray Charles is being inducted this year into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the city we departed from two days ago. All tour guests watched intently and enjoyed the movie.

We arrived in Alma, Arkansas for lunch. Back on the bus in under an hour, we continued our travels.

We crossed into Oklahoma. The song began. The tour guests sang. By the end of the song, we were all spelling the name of the state!

Next, we stopped in Okemah, Oklahoma for a break. Okemah is the childhood home of folk singer Woody Guthrie. So, I spent the final hour of our journey today playing folk music beginning with “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. The tour guests sang along with the many songs that have been engraved in our lives since childhood.

We arrived at the Hampton Inn OKC Northwest in very good time which allowed Walt to drive about half of us to the nearby Penn Square Mall for dinner and shopping. Today was a relaxing day of riding with a movie and music that was enjoyed by everyone.

Walt is doing an absolutely amazing job. He’s extremely thoughtful, always thinking ahead, and takes care of the bus like no other. He keeps the bus spotlessly clean and handles all technical needs like a pro. Walt treats all travelers with great respect. It is a pleasure traveling with Walt at the helm. He is the definition of a professional driver!

Day 6: Friday, September 10, 2021

Breakfast was delicious and the hotel was very comfortable. Walt made the suggestion to stop at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, site of the Oklahoma City Bombing on April 19, 1995, for a brief stop. Everyone was delighted. I told the story of that fateful day on the ride over. We disembarked and a National Park Ranger was available to give us a short briefing about the symbolism of this Memorial. There are 168 chairs, representing the 168 people killed, arranged in unique order and size to represent each life lost. It was a very somber moment of our trip.

Our guides were waiting for us as we all entered the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. This is such a brilliant museum with paintings and bronze sculptures created by Western artists such as Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, and former New Jersey resident Charles Schreyvogel. Our guide pointed out details in artwork that were unique to each artist. We also experienced clothing made from all beads and one particular jacket made from porcupine quills. All guests loved this museum! Lunch was delicious and included a beautiful display of sandwiches, chips, pickles, cookies, and drinks.

As we departed the museum, we saw our first “Historic Route 66” sign. Nat King Cole sang for us for the next three minutes. Traffic was light and moving as we made good time towards our rest stop, 26 miles from the Texas border.

I began showing the movie that takes place in Texas, “Hidden Figures.” It is the true story of Katherine Johnson, the black mathematician who saved the NASA program’s liftoff of John Glenn in February 1962. I paused the movie when we crossed the Texas Border to play “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. Everyone clapped and sang along and then we finished the movie.

We arrived in Amarillo and, after checking into our hotel, we boarded the bus to travel to dinner at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. Upon disembarking, we lined up in front of the Ranch for a group photo. Once inside, we were seated to the right of the Contest Table, prime seating! Unfortunately, no one dared to eat the 72-ounce steak with all the fixings tonight. Most of us couldn’t even finish our delicious 16-ounce steak or chicken with a salad, beans, baked potato, dinner roll, and piece of cheesecake for dessert.

The atmosphere at the Big Texan Steak Ranch is ultra-casual. We sit on chairs at long tables seating 16 people. Looking around, many moose heads hang from the rafters. Guitarists come around and play and sing for you. It is extremely festive with a hard-working staff that takes pride in handling all your needs. Following dinner, you can wander into the Gift Shop and take a look at the live rattlesnake in an aquarium. You can shop for Texas and Route 66 souvenirs. You can take a photo sitting in a gigantic chair or holding onto the bars in a jail. We had an hour to play and all had a wonderful time.

Today was a full and exciting day filled with great experiences. We look forward to tomorrow.

Day 7: Saturday, September 11, 2021

As today is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it was important to pay tribute to those who lost their lives and to thank those who saved lives. I played “America the Beautiful” by Barbra Streisand and the song “Let’s Roll” by Neil Young depicting Todd Beamer’s heroics on Flight 93. I concluded the memorial tribute with a moment of silence.

Our first stop was Cadillac Ranch, an artistic sculpture consisting of old Cadillacs dated from 1948 to 1961. Each vehicle is inserted halfway into the ground with the tail fins sticking high into the air. Created in 1975 by three hippies from San Francisco, this is truly a different form of art. The Cadillacs have been stripped completely over the 45 years since this was created. Spray paint sits on the ground encouragingly all visitors to add to the already thick layers of paint. Our guests enjoyed this roadside attraction very much. It’s a must see!

Cadillac Ranch

I played the conclusion of “Hidden Figures” as we crossed into New Mexico. After a rest stop, I played the 50-minute documentary entitled “Route 66.” It depicted great footage of the 1920’s through the 1950’s, the heyday of the Mother Road. We are driving through a stretch of flat lands where you can see for miles in all directions. The land is dotted with green/yellow grasses and small green bushes at an elevation of 5,800 feet. There is not a trace of civilization around this barren land.

After a second brief rest stop, we meandered through beautiful mountainous terrain, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, that led into Albuquerque. We soon arrived at the Sawmill Market in Albuquerque for lunch. This was a magnificent food emporium with dozens of small food kiosks. Food from a dozen countries was represented here along with specialty burgers and pizza. The dessert kiosks put pounds on you by just looking at them. Plenty of seating was available both inside and outside. There also was a very good band playing outside as well. This was, without a doubt, the best lunch stop on the trip and everyone raved about the large variety of different foods to choose from.

The Sandia Peak Tramway was our next stop. The skies were a clear blue offering visibility for miles and miles. The views were breathtaking. We all crowded into the tramcar (50 person maximum) and climbed 15 minutes at 12 miles per hour until we reached the Sandia Peak at 10,378 feet. We walked around the boardwalk paths to many different viewpoint and it was impossible to take a photo that wasn’t beautiful.

The view from Sandia Peak

Once down to a mere 5,000 feet above sea level, we drove to the Drury Inn. Walt had already dropped off our luggage so I just handed out the room keys and everyone was on their own. The “Kickback” was beginning shortly. Another wonderful day with many different experiences!

Day 8: Sunday, September 12, 2021

Today Walt has a day off so we were picked up by a friendly driver named Thomas from Herrera Coaches. He safely drove us to the Balloon Museum for us to learn about the history of ballooning. The first balloon launch was in Versailles when the King of France questioned its safety and sent up animals. The sheep and birds landed safely thus encouraging man to launch next. The museum is very interesting and was enjoyed by all.

Next, we visited Old Town Albuquerque with its many unique shops and restaurants as well as many places to purchase souvenirs of Albuquerque and Route 66.

The Pueblo Cultural Center was another different and very interesting experience and we were lucky to be there for a performance! The Dancers performed to the beat of the drums and the chanting of four singers and represented gratitude to the Earth for all it provides. It was interesting to watch! Following the performance, our Tour Guide led us around the fascinating museum explaining the history, culture, and traditions of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. He covered 800 years of history in one hour like a college professor. We all enjoyed the Pueblo Cultural Center thus completing another day of wonderful experiences.

Native Dancers at the Pueblo Cultural Center

Day 9: Monday, September 13, 2021

We continued west and stopped at the Navajo Travel Plaza for a rest stop. This is the best rest stop since it has all kinds of jewelry, blankets, and souvenirs at very reasonable prices. Soon after departing, we crossed into Arizona and our clocks went back one hour. I played the video that is shown at the Petrified Forest National Park auditorium on the bus. I explained about purchasing the National Park Passport Book and stamping their book at each National Park we visit. Of course, I played Western songs since we continued riding through the desert.

We soon arrived at The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park. We stopped at the Visitors Center and many of us bought the National Park Passport Book and self-stamped their book. We stopped at the first overlook upon entering the park as an introduction to its magnificence and everyone had difficulty believing the beauty of the land, with vibrant colors in all directions. Our second stop was for lunch at the renovated picnic area. Everyone really enjoyed their boxed lunch from Panera that included a sandwich, a pickle, a chocolate chip cookie, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water.

Some of the colors of Painted Desert

We stopped at two more overlooks in the Painted Desert before crossing into the Petrified Forest. One stop in the Petrified Forest featured petroglyphs (writings) created by Pueblo Natives 2,000 years ago. Our second stop featured a long-petrified log bridge that once spanned a river. Today, the National Park Service has reinforced the bridge with concrete so it won’t collapse. Our next stop was the Crystal Forest where many chose to take the ¾ mile circular hike into the backcountry to experience Petrified Wood at its grandeur. You see large pieces of petrified wood with brilliant colors sitting on the ground. Some are large enough for a group to sit on which is where we took a group photo of our hikers. The hike was scenic and invigorating.

Our final stop in Petrified Forest National Park was the gift shop and Visitors Center at the south end of the park. We then boarded the bus for our drive to beautiful Sedona, Arizona, the town of the breathtaking red and orange cliffs.

Our host for the evening, Holiday Inn Express in Oak Creek Canyon, is a wonderful hotel situated among many restaurants within easy walking distance. Everyone marveled at the massive cliffs and colors that surrounded us. Tomorrow, we are looking forward to our Pink Jeep Tour into the badlands (rugged terrain) of Sedona.

Day 10: Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The morning sun on the massive orange and red sandstone rock formations was inspiring. We divided into groups of six or seven for our Pink Jeep Tour and boarded our pink jeeps for our backcountry ride in Sedona.

The Pink Jeep Tour was absolutely invigorating. We each sat holding on as the Jeep rolled over large rocks that felt like mini boulders. A few times we were moved out of our seats. Our drivers told stories about Sedona and explained the plant life and beautiful scenery. All six jeeps rendezvoused at a particular spot. This is where we all got out of the jeeps to stroll around. It was here we took gorgeous pictures including a group photo with the red rocks in the background. We then bounced, rocked, and rolled back to Sedona, thus completing our tour. It was really exciting, and everyone loved this experience.

Rumbling over the rugged terrain of Sedona

We left beautiful Sedona and traveled from an elevation of 4,500 feet to 2,000 feet towards Scottsdale. We began to see Saguaro Cacti along the road as we descended lower than 3,000 feet. We were in the Sonoran Desert, the greatest desert environment in the United States to see these massive 40-foot Saguaros. By the time we got to Scottsdale, the temperature outside hit triple digits and was going up to 107° during our stay.

Old Town Scottsdale is three city blocks long with a few stores and restaurants on either side of a four-lane major thoroughfare. We exited the bus to 106° temperatures and ate lunch.

We returned to the bus and traveled two blocks to the Western Spirit Museum. We were greeted by four knowledgeable and enthusiastic docents who gave us magnificent tours of the many western figures, sculptures, paintings, and artists on display. My favorite was a combination tomahawk at one end and peace pipe on the other used by Meriwether Lewis on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Whenever Meriwether met new groups of Native Americans, he would show the tomahawk but play the peace pipe and hope they’d cooperate. And it worked. The 90-minute tour seemed to fly by and was greatly enjoyed.

The Drury Inn in Chandler is our hotel for the night. Today was another successful day filled many with different experiences. Tomorrow, California Here We Come!

Day 11: Wednesday, September 15, 2021

We departed Chandler and proceeded west to San Diego. After playing the theme from Rocky to get us going, I put on the DVD “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton. The very first McDonalds, before Ray Kroc took ownership, was located in Pasadena, California and run by the McDonald Brothers. This is the story of how Ray Kroc, played by Michael Keaton, built his McDonalds Empire. Our tour guests seemed to enjoy this movie very much.

After a brief rest stop, we continued our 85-mile ride through the Sonoran Desert to the California State Line. The Beach Boys welcomed us across the California border with “California Girls” and “I Get Around.” Al Jolson added “California, Here I Come.” We continued riding through the Mohave Desert. For many miles, we passed mounds of sand as far as the eye can see like in Lawrence of Arabia. The outside temperatures kept rising. Soon we reached El Centro, California, for our lunch stop. 

The temperature was a balmy 106° here in the Mohave Desert but all establishments were really close to where Walt was able to park the bus. Everyone enjoyed their lunch and in less than an hour we were back on the bus to complete the final 70 miles into San Diego.

The Hilton Gaslamp Hotel is in the heart of the Gaslamp District of San Diego. It is a beautiful hotel! The staff at the hotel were extremely friendly and eager to please us. Bellman Ray got our luggage labeled and delivered to our rooms while concierge Mark gave me restaurant maps of the area for everyone. These maps outlined over 50 eating establishments on 5th Avenue, one short block away. Everyone went up to their room to refresh before our night out on the “Old” town.

An hour after our arrival, we departed for Old Town San Diego. The temperatures were a chilly 72° but felt so delightful! San Diego has the most consistent climate in the United States with average yearly temperatures of 77° with less than 8 inches of rain. Old Town is quaint with many restaurants and shops with Mexican flair. Live music can be heard and viewed from many places and restaurants. It is a festive atmosphere filled with color, wonderful restaurants, and unique shops. We all thoroughly enjoyed Old Town San Diego.

Another wonderful day was enjoyed by all. We look forward to the famous San Diego Zoo tomorrow.

Day  12: Thursday, September 16, 2021

There are many opportunities for breakfast including the wonderful Cine Deli across the street. Many called their breakfast order in to the Cine Deli at 6:00 AM and walked over to pick it up. Others bought fruit and muffins in Old Town San Diego. All were on the bus on time for our short ride to the San Diego Zoo.

Before entering the San Diego Zoo, we took a group photo in front of the giant statue of the first lion cared for by officials back in the 1930’s which gave rise to the zoo concept. We then went through the turnstiles and hopped on the Bus Tour, a 35-minute guided tour around the park. Following the Bus Tour, everyone was on their own to explore this magnificent zoo.

The koalas were on everyone’s priority list. Despite sleeping for 20 hours a day, they looked so adorable perched in their tree without a care in the world. We all took wonderful pictures of animals eating. It must have been feeding time at the zoo. The time seemed to fly by and before we knew it, our 4 1/2 hours vanished. We headed back to the hotel to relax and refresh before heading out to our San Diego Harbor Cruise.

The two-hour San Diego Harbor Cruise aboard the Spirit of San Diego was relaxing, informative, and displayed unique landscapes like no other. We cruised past the United States Naval Base complete with battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, and a hospital ship. We passed a seal experimental feeding ground and saw dozens of seals lying out on a wooden walkway. We cruised by Navy helicopters and fighter jets sitting on the ground awaiting their next mission. The setting sun was putting on a spectacular show over the Pacific Ocean. One thing is for certain; the United States is the most powerful nation in the world, and this cruise proves part of this statement.

We returned to the hotel and many went out to a nice restaurant within two blocks of the Hilton Gaslamp Hotel for dinner. This hotel is in a perfect location for our needs with many different amenities within a short walk.

Today was another wonderful day filled with new and different experiences. Tomorrow we look forward to heading into the City of Angels, Los Angeles.

Day 13: Friday, September 17, 2021

Breakfast was on our own again this morning. Again, the Cine Deli across the street from the Hilton Gaslamp proved to be a welcoming spot for most. The food was delicious, the prices were reasonable, and the takeout service was quick.

We began our drive north towards Los Angeles. After playing “Hotel California” by the Eagles and “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys, I played three television episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Everyone enjoyed the comedy relief and the show brought back memories. Tomorrow, we expect to see the street in Hollywood the Clampetts drove down during the opening credits of the show.

We arrived in Yorba Linda, the birthplace and Presidential Library of Richard Millhouse Nixon where we were met by three extremely knowledgeable and passionate guides who were prepared for our tour.

We began the Nixon Tour by going outside the museum to the 2,000 square foot home that stands alone where Richard Nixon was born. The home was built at this location in the early 1900’s and the Presidential Library was constructed around it. We toured the inside of his home where pictures of the Nixon family adorned the walls and the home’s original furnishings filled the space. Once outside, we passed by the gravesites of both Richard and Pat Nixon which are marked by black granite foot stones before re-entering the Presidential Library and Museum.

The museum is brilliantly done, and the tour was magnificent. Nixon’s major accomplishments as President are highlighted. His work for women’s equality, the environment, world peace (his China tour), and ending the Vietnam War are creatively detailed in large separate rooms. Towards the end of the tour is a large room dedicated solely to Watergate and his resignation as President. The museum honestly portrayed all aspects of the Nixon years, including a room dedicated to the major protests of the Vietnam War and social issues that plagued the United States. This is a fabulous attraction that brought back vivid memories of our lives some 50 years ago. Our tour guests confessed they were not looking forward to this attraction but upon departing, wished they had more time to thoroughly explore the Nixon Museum!

Walt drove us a mile to a new shopping and restaurant center named the Yorba Linda Main Street. Many different restaurants in close proximity were available to us. There was a burger restaurant, a cafe, a healthy smoothie shop, and many more. Comfortable outside seating provided us a great place to eat. This was another perfect lunch stop.

Once lunch was finished, we drove an hour and checked into the Hilton Garden Inn in Burbank, California. We were warmly welcomed by four Hilton staff members as being their first tour bus since prior to the pandemic.

Tonight, Walt graciously drove 22 of us to the Universal CityWalk, a festive restaurant row with many unique Los Angeles retail stores that surrounds Universal Studios. Many enjoyed a relaxing dinner at Bubba Gumps or Margaritaville while others ate at a faster-food establishment. Everyone enjoyed strolling into the shops such as Universal Studios Gift Shop, the Los Angeles Dodgers Team Store, and many clothing stores. People watching was also fascinating.

Today was another different and fabulous day. We look forward to our Guided Tour of Los Angeles tomorrow.

Day 14: Saturday, September 18, 2021

Judy Parisi, our Los Angeles Tour Guide in 2018 and our guide for today arrived and we happily welcomed each other with elbow bumps! Judy brought fellow tour guide, Jane, with her so we got two experts for the price of one! We represented their first tour since February 2020 and both were so eager to get back to work.

It was time to enjoy this beautiful day in L.A. and learn all about this marvelous city. Our first stop was the Hollywood Bowl – even though we were not allowed to enter the arena, Judy and Jane shared their experiences of seeing many fabulous events here. Judy then took us into Hollywood and the TCL Theater (formally the Grauman Theater) and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We all disembarked from the bus as Judy and Jane led us up the stairs that the stars use that lead to the Dolby Theater, home to the Academy Awards (but no red carpet for us, although I thought we deserved one). We then walked to the spot where the HOLLYWOOD sign was visible and took numerous pictures. Judy explained that each letter of the Hollywood sign was 45 feet in height and donors paid over $25,000 to restore each letter. Alice Cooper of Kiss, for example, bought the first “O” in memory of his friend Groucho.

Everyone was given time to walk around on their own to see the Walk of Fame and shop for souvenirs. Some were able to get their name spelled out on a star and have their picture taken with it. Following the Walk of Fame, Judy took us in to Beverly Hills. We were able to disembark and take pictures of the infamous Beverly Hills Sign. To our surprise, Ringo Starr of the Beatles, in 2019, donated to Beverly Hills a silver statue of two fingers in the shape of a peace sign with the words “Peace and Love” etched below it. Many of us enjoyed Ringo’s statue over the Beverly Hills Sign. Continuing our tour, Judy and Jane shared iconic stories about the stars. We passed Rodeo Drive to to the iconic Farmers Market. We had 90 minutes for lunch and shopping. Many bought their lunch from McGees, the original food stand that began the Farmers Market back in 1932. McGees makes a wicked corned beef and pastrami sandwich.

Gene Gray, first Starr Tour Director to get his own star on the Walk of Fame!

Following lunch, Judy took us past the remnants of the Ambassador Hotel, in which Robert Kennedy was shot on June 6, 1968. It is now a unified school system for grades K-12. We drove past MacArther’s Park as Donna Summer began singing the song with the same name. We passed the Los Angeles City Hall which was the backdrop to the beginning of the early Superman episodes (“It’s a bird, it’s a plane,……”). It was a magnificent tour enjoyed thoroughly by everyone!

Once we returned to the Hilton Garden Inn, everyone was on their own to enjoy the remainder of the day and evening. Today was another in a string of magnificent and unique experiences. We look forward to Las Vegas tomorrow.