November 2022 - Starr Tours & Charters

Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2022 – Eastbound

Presenting the second half of our 2022 Cross Country Adventure recap by Starr Tour Director Gene Gray! (Click here to read about their Westbound journey.)

Day 15: Sunday, September 18, 2022

Loud groans reverberated from our guests when I announced we were beginning our journey Eastward. I played “Viva Las Vegas” by Elvis which instantly improved the mood. I provided many interesting facts about Las Vegas and how it got its start. Then I showed a 50 minute documentary from The History Channel on Las Vegas. Most people watched with interest. We soon arrived at our rest stop, Walmart in Barstow, California. I mentioned that since meals are expensive in Las Vegas, including breakfasts, they might want to stock up on a few items.  

Once back on the bus, I reviewed my ten page Las Vegas packet in detail providing ways to get around the three mile Las Vegas Strip, unique opportunities to experience in each hotel, and much more. I answered a few questions as everyone formulated their plans for the next day and a half. We arrived at the Baker Travel Plaza in Baker, California for lunch. We had a choice of five restaurants and 45 minutes later, boarded the bus for our final approach into Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Raiders were in the 4th quarter of their football game at Allegient Stadium across I-15 from our hotel. I asked the tour guests to remain on the bus while I got the keys. The line for Hotel Registration stretched around the corner and could have taken up to an hour. I took a deep breath, walked up to the desk, and asked (begged) for our keys. The keys were all ready and rubber banded together. Within two minutes, I was walking out to the bus and handed each guest their key! Lucky us!! 

Everyone was now on their own and accordingly, this will be my last journal entry until Tuesday morning because what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas! 

Day 17: Tuesday, September 20, 2022

We left Las Vegas exactly at 8:30 AM. The tour guests were abuzz about the shows they had seen, the fine restaurants they had eaten in, the tours they had taken, and the miles and miles of walking they had done. Many had visited Fremont Street and were sharing stories about its “different” atmosphere. Everyone had an exciting time in Las Vegas.  

We were all tired as we traveled through the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountain Chain and began climbing in elevation. I showed the documentary video titled “The Harvey Girls.” Fred Harvey, beginning in the late 1800’s, hired single women between 18 and 30 years old to serve food to travelers in the restaurants he built adjacent to the Santa Fe Railroad train stops in Western United States. Most of the guests enjoyed this film that told the story through interviews with real Harvey Girls as well as actual film footage from the early to mid 1900’s.

We arrived at the Roadkill Cafe on Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona just past noon. Aaron was holding open the door, greeted us, and instructed us to take a seat at any table that had water. Within a very short time, we were delivered the food we had preordered. After eating some very strange dishes, we had time to shop at the General Store next door and play in the old western town facsimilea adjacent to the restaurant. Everyone enjoyed this lunch stop along Historic Route 66. 

Roadkill Cafe

Shortly after lunch, we arrived at the Drury Inn in Flagstaff. The remainder of the day and night was on our own. Almost everyone chose to stay in, relax, and enjoy the Kickback for dinner. We were all looking forward to visiting our second National Park tomorrow, the Grand Canyon. 

Day 18: Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A light rain was falling in Flagstaff as we departed the Drury Inn for the Grand Canyon. Low lying clouds covered the mountain peaks. The weather forecast showed a 30 to 60 percent chance of rain at the Grand Canyon. I played the Grand Canyon National Parks video to introduce the Grand Canyon to our guests. I also shared many interesting facts about the Canyon’s geology such as the youngest layer, the Kaibab Limestone, is 250 million years old while the Vishnu Schist at the bottom is over two billion years old. I also identified the Grand Canyon as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and as the number two most visited National Park (next to The Great Smoky Mountains) in 2019.  

As we approached the National Park, the fog became so thick, Fernando needed to slow the bus down to a crawl to navigate us through. We were always hopeful that the weather would eventually cooperate, however, I emphasized that we were going to view a totally different and wild side of the Grand Canyon and the colors and shadows would be constantly changing. We arrived at the entrance and received maps and brochures for all of us. We stopped at the Desert View Overlook for our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon.

The clouds were low over the Canyon making it initially difficult to see the entire view. But we did have a fabulous view of the Colorado River meandering a mile below. The clouds were constantly moving thus revealing different colorful scenic views with every look. Despite the light drizzle and limited visibility, we were able to experience the massiveness of the Canyon.

We began our 25 mile tour towards the Grand Canyon Village by stopping next at Lippan Point. The low clouds did little to lessen our enthusiasm towards this view that displays the colorful layers of the Canyon’s geology. We then stopped at Moran Point where one can see the Canyon’s magnificence in all directions. The clouds were rising which allowed us to experience the brilliance of color. We continued onto the Grand Canyon Village and lunch at the Bright Angel Lodge.  

We had two hours to eat and enjoy the beautiful views of the Canyon Rim. The low clouds had lifted completely, and the sun began shining through, creating beautiful ever-changing views. We continued our Grand Canyon Tour at Yavapai Point where you could now see for miles in all directions. One can see the Suspension Bridge that was built for hikers crossing the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch where hikers can register (15 months in advance) to camp for the night a mile below. The views were magnificent. Our final stop was Mather Point and the Visitors Center Complex. The sun was shining brightly now highlighting these breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon.  

Village Walk, Grand Canyon Village

We departed the Grand Canyon having experienced its magnificence with a variety of weather conditions. We were all tired and extremely satisfied with this fabulous day. It was now time to relax with the Drury Inn Kickback and get a good night’s sleep.  

Day 19: Thursday, September 22, 2022

After a very good breakfast, the owner of the Aspen Deli delivered our bag lunches. I handed out a bag to each guest and we departed Flagstaff to travel north on Arizona Highway 160 through Navajo land. Weather-beaten houses and older pickup trucks dotted the dry, desert land. We soon turned onto Arizona Highway 191 and began traveling northeast towards the eastern corner of Utah. Beautiful canyons along with open desert land as far as the eye could see alternated dominance of the landscape. We continued to pass Navajo homes in disrepair that dotted the scenery. We stopped for a short rest stop at the Navajo owned Shonti Marketplace in Arizona. Masks were required per Navajo mandate. Most made a small purchase and returned to the bus.  

I played many songs by request from many tour guests. An hour later, we arrived at our lunch spot along the San Juan River at the Sand Recreation Area near Bluff, Utah. We ate at picnic tables along the river surrounded by red cliffs made of sandstone. Beautiful sunshine and dark blue skies added to the magic of this area. Everyone enjoyed their bagged lunch and took many pictures of their beautiful surroundings. 

Sand Recreation Area along the San Juan River

Following lunch, we completed our travels to Moab, Utah. While on the bus, I played the Arches National Park DVD that is shown every half hour at the Arches Visitors Center. The guests gained a wonderful insight into the many wonders and scenic beauty Arches has to offer.

We arrived at our hotel, the Aarchway Inn, after a brief scenic rest stop surrounded by high cliffs that provided beautiful photo ops. After check in, we had time to relax and refresh before traveling a short distance to the Canyonlands By Night Dinner and Cruise.  

We arrived at the Canyonlands By Night Dinner and Cruise early enough to visit the Gift Shop. Dinner was a delicious buffet with a salad bar, barbecued chicken and pork, pulled roast beef, potatoes, vegetables, dessert, and soft drinks. The serving staff then took off their aprons and transformed into the cruising crew. We were led down a few steps to the open-air boat equipped with 144 chairs neatly arranged in 18 rows of 8 chairs per row separated by an aisle down the center.  

The sun had just set but the skies were light enough to appreciate the beauty of this region. We motored upstream in the Colorado River surrounded by the cliffs of Arches National Park on the left and Canyonlands on the right. A fantastic narrator provided interesting facts about Moab, the Colorado River, and encouraged us to use our imaginations as he used his powerful laser to point out rock formations that might resemble a dog, a witch, and even ET! Soon, it was dark enough and we had reached the area of the river where they began the light show on the rock formations coinciding with a prerecorded narration. It was magnificent to watch as the narrator told us about the history of this region of Utah along with spine-tingling patriotic music of today. By this time, the stars in the sky were putting on their own brilliant show making this an emotional and personal experience for each of us. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this entire evening.

Canyonlands by Night Cruise

We returned to our hotel to get a short night sleep in order to experience sunrise at beautiful Arches National Park. 

Day 20: Friday, September 23, 2022

The Aarchway Inn served a very good hot EARLY breakfast buffet allowing us to depart in the dark for a short ride to the Arches National Park entrance. At the entrance, we received maps and continued on to the Courthouse Viewpoint to witness the magnificent sunrise at Arches National Park. It was an absolutely incredible experience and worth getting up early! 

Windows Section of Arches National Park

The sky was a dark blue and the sun was shining brightly on the rock formations causing their brilliant colors to sparkle. We stopped at Balanced Rock and took many pictures including a group photo. We continued onto the Windows Section and spent an hour hiking trails to infamous Double Arch, North Window, and South Window. We also took pictures of the Parade of Elephants rock formations. Our next stop was to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint. Here, you can see the iconic Delicate Arch from a far distance. To see it up close, one must hike over two miles uphill which needs over three hours to complete a round trip. Our final stop was the Visitors Center. We had time to shop and enjoy the museum. It was a perfect day to explore Arches National Park in its infinite beauty. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Balanced Rock at Arches National Park

We departed Arches and traveled into Colorado continuing on towards Denver through one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the world, the Rocky Mountains.  

“Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver was echoing throughout the bus as we admired the colorful rocks, the high mountain peaks, and majestic Ponderosa Pines. We climbed to an elevation of 11,100 feet as we crossed the Continental Divide sixty miles from Denver. We passed the well-known ski resorts of Aspen and Vail. Sheer beauty dominated every curve in the road. Our entertainment today was looking out the bus windows and listening to the music that reinforced the scenery.  

Tonight we slept at another Drury Inn – in Denver. Today, we overdosed on the magnificence of America. From Arches to the Rockies, it doesn’t get any better – unless you’re heading to Mount Rushmore as we are – tomorrow! 

Day 21: Saturday, September 24, 2022

After a fine Drury Inn breakfast, we departed Denver and headed North toward Wyoming. The weather was beautiful, and the sky was a deep blue for as far as the eye could see. We crossed the Colorado border into Wyoming and stopped at “Little America” in Cheyenne, the Sinclair Gas Station that includes a store with clean bathrooms. Outside was a green dinosaur with a saddle that many tour guests enjoyed getting on and posing for pictures. Everyone enjoyed this rest stop. 

Starr Driver Fernando Berrios having Fun with Dino the Dinosaur

Continuing on to our lunch spot at the Fort Laramie American Grill, I showed the History Channel’s documentary “Mount Rushmore.” It tells how Gustav Borglum was chosen to create this marvelous sculpture and his obsession with its completion. It was an excellent introduction to Mount Rushmore.  

We arrived at the Fort Laramie American Grill and the owner waved us into his dirt parking lot and welcomed us. He had closed his restaurant to locals so we had it all to ourselves! We walked in and everyone took a seat at four long tables with eight chairs at each table. The maximum capacity in this small establishment is forty, so we basically filled the place. 

Today’s lunch took much too long. The poor service and extremely slow cooking overshadowed the hot, fresh food that was finally served.  

After lunch, we continued our travels north into South Dakota’s magnificent Mount Rushmore National Monument. Since we’re traveling towards Iowa, I played the movie, “La Bamba,” the story of Ritchie Valens who died in a plane crash in Iowa on February 2, 1959. He was only 17 years old. Don McLean dubbed this “The Day the Music Died.” The movie was entertaining and heart wrenching. Most everyone watched intently.  

Mount Rushmore is always a highlight of every Cross Country trip. The weather was perfect for viewing today and the pictures were spectacular. Carvers is a huge restaurant just to the right of the entrance. The equally large Gift Shop is to the left. Walking straight ahead takes you over a bridge with flags and plaques identifying each state and territory of the United States. You are now standing on the large overlook facing this majestic work of art. The four Presidents; Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln, stare heroically with great confidence. Many guests walked the Presidential Trail, a challenging walk that circles underneath the Monument where the greatest views of each President can be seen. The many steps involved make the trail challenging. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their time at Mount Rushmore National Monument.  

We then traveled to the Fairfield Inn in Rapid City, South Dakota. We arrived after dark, but the entire area was well lit. This Hotel is beautiful! Two fine restaurants are within steps of the Fairfield Inn; Perkins and Sliders.  

Today was another wonderful day. Seeing Mount Rushmore completed a huge bucket list item for our guests. Tomorrow, we tour our fifth and final National Park of this Cross Country trip, the Badlands of South Dakota.  

Day 22: Sunday, September 25, 2022

We departed for Badlands National Park under sunny blue skies. Upon arrival, we received maps for each of us. We stopped at four distinctly beautiful viewpoints and the Visitors Center. Pinnacles Viewport displayed multicolored sandstone mounds all eroded at different rates. The Basin Viewpoint featured Prairie Dog Town. Prairie Dogs could be seen guarding their tunnels from intruders and predators and squeaking to each other in communication. They were cute but could get viscous if confronted. Many deer were spotted eating grass along the sides of the road. The Homestead Viewpoint featured colorful mounds of sandstone along with prairie land with high green grasses. Settlers once lived in this section of the park. The Badlands is beautiful, diverse, and wide-open. The air is clean and crisp as every breath is a feeling of freedom. The Badlands, as with all National Parks, has to be experienced to be appreciated. Everyone loved their tour of Badlands National Park and most bought mementos at the Visitors’ Center. 

Badlands National Park

Next, we traveled to Wall Drug, the amazing all-encompassing tourist trap in the country! Ted and Dorothy Hustead opened a pharmacy in 1931. It began attracting travelers to Mount Rushmore only after Dorothy’s idea of advertising free ice water on billboards. Today, 23 shops under one roof including a restaurant that seats over 500 patrons, attracts travelers from all over the world. Everyone enjoyed their lunch and shopping as they returned to the bus carrying another package.  

We traveled for three hours, stopping once at a Phillips 66 Travel Plaza, before arriving at the Comfort Inn in Mitchell, South Dakota. I planned to show a movie during this ride, but since many were sleeping, we continued in silence until our rest stop. We all needed this down time after experiencing so many once-in-a-lifetime attractions during the past few days. 

The Comfort Inn in Mitchell welcomed us and we had four restaurants to choose from by simply walking across the parking lot in different directions. Some of us even did our laundry.

We experienced our fifth National Park today on this magnificent trip. Tomorrow is one of our four longer days of travel landing us just four hours from fabulous Chicago.

Day 23: Monday, September 26, 2022

We boarded the bus and traveled just two miles to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Our guide was Troy, a 31 year trustee of the Corn Palace. He spoke with so much enthusiasm and pride about his beloved Corn Palace, explaining its history, the many performers who had played here, and the many events that occur here. “Just this past Saturday,” he explains, “we had a tractor pull event for kids up to twelve years of age. Kids and families attended from ten states, and it was a great event!” The Mitchell High School basketball team also plays here. Troy explained to us about the fabulous murals made of corn and rye that hang in the Corn Palace. We learned that each has an important historical significance related to South Dakota. It was an excellent tour lasting about 20 minutes and ending, of course, at the gift shop.

Corn Palace

We began our longer day of travel towards Dubuque, Iowa. Fall is in the air with morning temperatures in the 40’s. I introduced “The Buddy Holly Story” by playing a few of Buddy Holly’s hits. Then I showed the movie. Many watched, some slept, and others kept themselves occupied with games and puzzles. Portrayed by actor Gary Busey, Buddy Holly rose to fame quickly. Two of his most famous works were “That’ll be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.”Buddy Holly was one of the initial inductees into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His death, along with that of Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, occurred on that fateful day, February 2, 1959, and defined as “The Day the Music Died” by Don McLean in his hit song.

We stopped briefly at a Love’s Travel Plaza and continued on to Fairmont, Minnesota for our lunch stop at the Ranch Restaurant. Its owner, Sally, prepares an entire room in the restaurant just for us!

We continued traveling into Iowa. Dyersville is where the movie “Field of Dreams” was made, and we pass Dyersville en route to Dubuque. I showed “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones. Most guests watched this classic movie intently. After, we arrived at the Holiday Inn in Dubuque. Some tour guests chose to explore Dubuque which sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. Others went to dinner. Dubuque is a small town with much charm.

After a longer day of travel, we look forward to two nights in America’s third largest city.

Day 24: Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Holiday Inn provided a wonderful, private breakfast buffet in their Clarion Room. We departed Dubuque and immediately crossed the mighty Mississippi River into the state of Illinois. Chicago was a few hours away. Frank Sinatra serenaded us with “Chicago, Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town.” I showed the History Channel’s documentary on “The Sears Tower.” It depicts the building of Chicago’s tallest building which will be our 3:00 PM destination known today as the Willis Tower. Many enjoyed this video. After a brief rest stop, I played a few more Chicago songs as the beautiful Chicago skyline began looming in the distance.  

Fernando dropped us off at the Chicago Navy Pier. The skies were sunny with puffy cumulus clouds over Lake Michigan. The temperatures were in the upper 50’s. Some guests walked the pier both inside and out. Some rode the Centennial Ferris Wheel for magnificent views of Chicago and Lake Michigan. Everyone ate lunch. I saw many trying the Chicago Hot Dog with The Garden or the Italian Beef. Some bought a small bag of Garrett’s Popcorn featuring the Chicago Mix. To enjoy Chicago completely, many realized the sense of taste is as important as sight and sound. Everyone enjoyed their time at the Navy Pier.

Fernando had dropped off our luggage at the Fairfield Inn and then drove us across town to the Willis Tower. We all stayed together until we reached the lower level, and I passed out the tickets. The Museum that leads to the elevator that takes us up to the 103rd floor continues to undergo improvements and new construction. Everyone had a fun time taking pictures in front of the Chicago skyline, Wrigley Field, with Oprah and the Obamas. We walked right onto the elevator and took marvelous pictures from up to fifty miles in each direction from the top of this skyscraper. Next, many walked out onto The Ledge. It’s an inch and a half thick glass that juts out over the streets of Chicago, 103 stories below. Many pictures were taken and those that dared to experience The Ledge had a great time.  

After checking into our hotel, everyone was now on their own to follow my many restaurant suggestions and map directions to walk successfully around downtown Chicago. We look forward to sleeping in due to a later start to our day and enjoying a full day in Chicago tomorrow. 

Chicago Museum in the Willis Tower

Day 25: Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Breakfast was a wonderful hot and cold buffet. The Aires Trolley pulled up to our hotel and we boarded to begin our tour of this fabulous city.  

Jun-te was our driver, the same entertaining man who had driven former Starr trips. His driving skills were excellent, and his narration was interesting and kept us entertained. We drove past the hotel in which Oprah lived on three floors. We passed a church on the Magnificent Mile that had a five year waiting list for weddings along with a mandatory $5,000 deposit that you’d lose if you changed your plans. On the North side, we disembarked briefly at Wrigley Field to take pictures in front of this iconic stadium, and we stopped briefly at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Jun-te was constantly sharing facts about his beloved Chicago causing everyone to enjoy this tour.

We were dropped off at the Shops at North Bridge for lunch. Guests could eat in the food court on the fourth level or walk to many other fine restaurants along Michigan Avenue. Many just chose to explore the Magnificent Mile and some of its fine stores. The Magnificent Mile in Chicago can be compared with Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and 5th Avenue in New York for great shopping.  

Everyone met on time at the Wendella Tours and Cruises in front of the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue. I handed each person a ticket for a cruise on the Chicago River and into Lake Michigan. We walked down the 62 steps to the dock and boarded the boat. We mostly took seats on the upper level to maximize our views despite the cold but sunny weather conditions.  

Cruise on the Chicago River

John was our Guide and he was terrific. He told details about every building along the Chicago River such as their height, their owners, and costs involved. We rode through the lock into Lake Michigan which lies three feet above the Chicago River. People were comparing this to the trip through the Panama Canal. Once on Lake Michigan, John talked about the Skyscrapers in view such as the Hancock Building and the Willis Tower. He pointed out that Chicago gets its water from Lake Michigan and one filtration plant is built twenty stories below the ground. Everyone loved the Wendella Tours and Cruises Architectural Tour and came away with an even greater fondness of this wonderful city.

We all easily walked back to the Fairfield Inn on Michigan Avenue to Ontario Street. After a short rest, we met again in the lobby and walked to Gino’s East for dinner. We were given the entire upstairs room and spread out at many tables. The food began being served. Vegetable sticks, hot wings, salad, pasta, Chicago deep dish pizza, and thin crust pizza were delivered to each table until no one could eat anymore. Cookies and brownies rounded out dessert. It was an Italian feast Chicago-style, and everyone enjoyed their food. Many tried the deep dish pizza and liked it. Following dinner, we all rolled three blocks back to our hotel for the evening.

Tomorrow is an early departure so we can maximize our time at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame.  

Day 26: Thursday, September 29, 2022

We departed Chicago a little after 7:00 AM to maximize our time at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. On the bus, I talked about the history of the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, why Cleveland was chosen for its site, and who were the initial 1986 Inductees as well as the current 2022 Inductees. I then played a song by each of the 2022 Inductees; Carly Simon, the Eurythmics, Lionel Ritchie, Dolly Parton, and Pat Benatar. Our devices and time pieces soon changed one hour ahead into Eastern Time. We had not been on Eastern Time since Day 3! 

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

On the bus, I showed the award-winning movie about the rock group that was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 titled Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a powerful movie starring Rami Malik as Freddie Mercury and chronicles the story of Queen through the Live Aid Concert in 1985. After, I played songs from each of the 2022 Rock N’ Roll Inductees as well as songs from the original Inductees in 1986. We soon arrived in Cleveland.  

I secured the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame wrist bands and handed them out. We entered and took the escalator down to the lower level to begin our tour in the Ertigan Memorial Hall. Showcase after showcase of outfits worn during concerts, musical instruments used, and original handwritten songs (among other items) could be seen for each of the Rock N’ Roll Inductees. Films and videos accompanied many of the exhibits as well. The Beatles “Get Back” Rooftop Concert was still being featured until October so I plopped myself down in front of the big screens and enjoyed the music. We all had a very special and unexpected surprise – Rock N’ Roll Hall of Famer, John Mellencamp, was performing live and in concert on the stage inside the Hall of Fame lobby! A huge crowd had gathered to listen to him. Many of us saw the concert and heard him sing his big hit song, “Jack and Diane.” It was clear that everyone had a great time at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. 

Getting ready for Rock N’ Roll Hall of Famer, John Mellencamp, to perform in the Hall of Fall lobby at Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

From the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, we rode around the corner to the Hofbrauhaus for our Farewell Dinner. We were warmly greeted and led to our reserved section of the restaurant where we sat in groups of seven or eight. When our drinks arrived, we all had a toast to continued good health and a fabulous “Trip of a Lifetime.” We were served a Bavarian Pretzel and our pre-chosen main course. Our Farewell Dinner concluded with a delicious piece of delicious German (of course!) Chocolate Cake. We enjoyed both the food and the warm camaraderie among new lifelong friends.  

Tonight’s Drury Inn in Cleveland is unique. It is a converted school with 20 foot high ceilings. Everyone said their good night wishes for the last time on our 2022 Cross Country Trip. 

Day 27: Friday, September 30, 2022

We all enjoyed our final Drury Inn breakfast and we ate it in the Teacher’s Lounge! A good thing was that no one had to be sent to the Principal’s Office! We were on our way home. Simon and Garfunkel serenaded us with “Homeward Bound – I wish I was Homeward Bound.” 

I summarized our 27 days, played a few songs that coincided with specific days, and then to a break to let everyone rest. Before arriving at our first rest stop, I handed each guest my 8 page Cross Country Statistics packet. Everyone was surprised and delighted at this gift. At the Oakmont Rest Area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I led our annual farewell ceremony and gave a speech thanking everyone for their excellent participation and enthusiasm each day of the trip. I concluded by handing out special Cross Country Awards to each guest. Again, everyone greatly appreciated this added surprise.  

Back on the bus, I passed around Starr’s Cross Country Survey QR Code and explained the procedure. We soon arrived at the Sideling Hill Rest Stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for lunch and after, we were on the road again. I played a few patriotic songs and a few favorites that sparked memories of our trip. After a short rest stop at the Valley Forge Rest Area, we arrived in Bensalem after traveling exactly 7,021 miles in 27 magnificent days. We were now saying our sad goodbyes. Parting was such sweet sorrow! 

Sandy Borowsky, Starr’s VP of Tours and Alan’s daughter, greeted us on the bus with a warm welcome home. Since everyone disembarking needed multiple trips onto the bus to remove all their belongings and to say their goodbyes, it took some time for all guests to disembark. When all guests had boarded their shuttle or got back in their seats to continue to their drop off location, we continued on to Cherry Hill and then Hamilton. 

The trip in its entirety was magnificent. Everyone grew to respect each other and look out for one another. We all agreed this Cross Country Trip was definitely a “Trip of a Lifetime.”  Gene Gray, Starr Tour Director

Gene Gray, Starr Tour Director

Cross Country Adventure by Bus 2022 – Westbound

Our September 2022 Cross Country trip just returned with Gene Gray at the front and Fernando Berrios at the wheel! Our Starr Driver and Tour Director (Fernando and Gene, respectively) led 31 travelers across our great country over the course of 27 days. This was Gene’s 5th trip and the 1st for Fernando! Seeing their smiling faces when the trip returned was proof enough that it was a success!

On each of our trips, the Starr Tour Director is responsible for providing a day-by-day recap of every aspect of the trip. Gene’s reports always offer a thorough and real retelling of their adventures. It’s clear that Gene goes above and beyond to make sure his tour guests are well informed and entertained but you can see for yourself.

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 2022

Date: September 4-30, 2022
Tour Director: Gene Gray
Driver: Fernando Berrios
Starr Bus #: 206


Day 1: Sunday, September 4, 2022

All shuttles arrived on time and all tour guests boarded the bus without incident. Alan Glickman, Starr’s owner, was waiting for us in Bensalem and gave an inspiring speech to send us on our way. This will be my 5th Cross Country and I am just as excited as my 1st time! I played our first song of the trip: The National Anthem performed by Whitney Houston. Everyone stood and waved their flags – it was a special moment! Alan wished us a safe and wonderful trip and we drove out of Bensalem at 8:40 AM to begin our “Trip of a Lifetime.” 

After reviewing the Starr Welcome Letter and showing the Starr Safety Video, I honored our Military Veterans on board. 

We stopped at the Lawn Service Plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for a short rest stop. Afterwards, I briefly reviewed our 27 day journey using the Cross Country Booklet I made for our travelers. I answered their questions and gave them time to digest all the information.  

We soon arrived at Hoss’s Steakhouse, our lunch stop. Hoss’s is always wonderful as they seated everyone within minutes and served us just as quickly. And the food is delicious. We were back on the road in an hour.  

We soon arrived at Hoss’s Steakhouse, our lunch stop. Hoss’s is always wonderful as they seated everyone within minutes and served us just as quickly. And the food is delicious. We were back on the road in an hour.  

Following lunch, I showed the movie “Elvis” to get us into the Elvis and Graceland spirit. Most watched with keen interest. The video is the 1979 movie created for ABC Television two years after Elvis’s death. The movie, starring Kirt Russell as Elvis, is extremely well done. This took us into our final Rest Stop of the day in Belmont, Ohio and finally to our Drury Inn in Grove City, Ohio at exactly 6:00 PM.  

I handed out the room keys inside the lobby of the Drury Inn and the tour guests were on their own to enjoy Drury’s Inn’s Kickback (free dinner & drinks) which everyone took advantage of. All our travelers (including Fernando and me), had great anticipation of what lies ahead. It was a perfect first day and orientation to this Cross Country adventure.  

Day 2: Monday, September 5, 2022

We all enjoyed a wonderful Drury Inn Buffet Breakfast and boarded the bus one person at a time due to a torrential driving rainstorm. Once safely onboard, Fernando carefully began driving south towards Cincinnati and eventually our first attraction, the Louisville Slugger Bat Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.  

I began the ride by playing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” by BJ Thomas. Many guests were singing along. Since today was about baseball, I played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and Abbot and Costello’s epic skit, “Who’s On First”. As we continued south, the rain came to an end and bits of sunshine began peeking through the clouds. I played the movie “The Babe” starring John Goodman as Babe Ruth. It was a powerful movie about this larger-than-life baseball hero both on and off the field. Most of the tour guests watched intently and thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Following the movie, which ended with some applause, I gave everyone an assignment for the Louisville Slugger Bat Museum; to find Babe Ruth’s actual baseball bat and pick it up. Many groaned about my teacher-side coming through (wink wink). 

Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum

After a brief rest stop, we arrived at the Louisville Slugger Bat Museum. We first took the obligatory group photo under the giant baseball bat that adorns the entrance to the Museum. We were directed to the second floor where boxed lunches awaited our arrival. Our guided tour of the Louisville Slugger Bat Museum was fabulous. It delved into the entire baseball bat making process from finding the perfect trees in Pennsylvania to signing contracts with professional ball players for personalized bats with their unique preferences. The tour also taught the history of the Hillerich family and the fascinating occurrences that lead them to making baseball bats as early as the 1870’s. Everyone enjoyed the tour very much and each person received a miniature Louisville Slugger Bat as a parting gift for taking the tour.  

After enjoying the museum and taking pictures holding Babe Ruth’s bat, we rode to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, just three blocks away. We divided ourselves into two groups of 16 and enjoyed a fabulous guided tour of the Bourbon making process along with the history of Evan Williams who began making Bourbon in the 1740’s. The tour was extremely creative combining short movies, brilliant information from our tour guide, and wonderful peeks into the machinery needed to make the Bourbon. It concluded with a taste testing experience of four Bourbons aged from one year to 14 years. Of course, the longer a Bourbon is aged, the better it tastes, and the more expensive it sells for in the gift shop! And the Gift Shop is our last stop of the Tour. All tour guests enjoyed the entire Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and many left with a bottle or two as “souvenirs.” 

Tonight’s hotel, the Drury Inn in Louisville, was only fifteen minutes away. We arrived by the Kickback which everyone enjoyed. We were able to relax after a wonderful day filled with Bourbon and Bats. Tomorrow, we will visit the horses.

Day 3: Tuesday, September 6, 2022

This morning everyone was able to choose where they would eat their main breakfast; here at the Drury Inn or at Churchill Downs during our Backstretch Tour. Most chose the Backstretch Tour and only ate something light at the Drury.

We arrived at the Backstretch Gate following Murray’s perfect directions he provided me over the phone. Murray is the most knowledgeable local Churchill Downs Tour Guide. He greeted us and began sharing magnificent information about what happens with the horses and personnel on this side, the backstretch side, of Churchill Downs. One would only need to look ahead in order to see horses being shod (a ferrier, or blacksmith, puts a new set of shoes on each horse every 30 days on average). Horses were also being totally bathed with soap and water following their workout for the day. Many were being trained to run on the Churchill Downs Racetrack. These horses were mostly two-year-olds being trained to run in the 2023 Kentucky Derby as a three-year-old. It was magnificent to watch the hustle and bustle of this mini village filled with action and marvelous animals.  

Churchill Downs provided us a breakfast that consisted of eggs, bacon, sausage, and choice of beverage which everyone enjoyed.  After, we completed our Backstretch Tour by watching the horses run on the iconic track and taking a group photo in the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby. Murray was absolutely fantastic, and everyone learned a great deal.  

The Barbaro Memorial Statue in front of the Kentucky Derby Museum

Next, we drove around the block to the entrance to Churchill Downs and took a group photo at the famed statue and gravesite of Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby Winner buried beneath the statue because his owner wanted him to always be available to the public. We had a wonderful 30 minute tour of Churchill Downs by an extremely knowledgeable guide including a walk out to the racetrack and to the grandstands. On Kentucky Derby day, there could be as many as 120,000 people in attendance enjoying mint juleps, betting, and cheering their horse to victory. There was lots of construction here that is expected to be completed in two years. Primarily, they are rebuilding the horses’ entrance leading to the Racetrack.

We departed Churchill Downs and began our travels into Central Time, which took place 50 miles west of Louisville. We stopped for lunch at an exit in Smiths Grove, Kentucky and most chose Schlotskys, a fast-food sandwich, burger, and pizza restaurant for lunch. The service was fast, the people were friendly, and the food was delicious. We were all done eating within 45 minutes and continued our travels into Nashville only an hour away.

Our Nashville Hotel is the Hyatt Place Opryland. It is located five minutes from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry. Our keys and rooms were all ready upon our arrival and all luggage was immediately delivered to our rooms. The hotel staff was extremely friendly and welcoming. Many tour guests commented on their beautiful rooms.

Our next visit stop was the Gaylord Opryland Hotel where we were able to stroll around, enjoy the magnificent decor, do some shopping, and grab a small bite to eat. At 6:00 PM, Fernando drove us to the Grand Ole Opry for our show. There was plenty of time for tour guests to shop in the Gift Shop prior to curtain. The Grand Ole Opry presented another lively show with eight acts; opening with the old country & western band, “Riders in the Sky” and closing with Pam Tillis, the talented daughter of Mel Tillis. It was great seeing a live show! 

It was a magnificent day. Tomorrow is another early day as we travel to Memphis to spend the day in Elvis’s world. 

Day 4: Wednesday, September 7, 2022

We were scheduled to depart at 7:30 AM so we started breakfast at 6:30 AM. The Hyatt presented a delicious buffet breakfast with eggs, ham, sausage, potatoes, cereals, and waffles. Everyone enjoyed their breakfast followed by our departure for Memphis.

Elvis was the music of the day. Tour guests requested Elvis songs for the first 30 minutes of our journey. Since Johnny Cash also got his start in Memphis, I showed the movie, “Walk the Line” starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. Most of the tour guests watched intently.

Starr Tour Director Gene Gray (left) and Driver Fernando Berrios (right) enjoying the Elvis Experience Tour of Graceland

We pulled into Graceland as the clouds disappeared and the sun shined brightly. I picked up the tickets and $15 food vouchers and handed them out to the tour guests waiting by the bus. Everyone was now on their own to enjoy Graceland and Elvis to the fullest.

Most of the tour guests first chose to use their food voucher and eat lunch at Vernon’s Smokehouse. Many shared that the food was delicious and substantial. Some immediately took the shuttle across the street to the Graceland Mansion for their tour. Before entering the shuttle, we were provided with a headset and tablet that is programmed with room-by-room narration of Graceland. Upon entering Elvis’s home, an elegant living room with a full-length sofa, baby grand piano, and a large 1950’s RCA television set sits on your right. The grand staircase leading upstairs to Elvis’s bedroom (totally off limits to everyone except the curator, Priscilla, and Lisa Marie) is straight ahead. The magnificent dining room with a table set for 10 and a beautiful chandelier above is to your left. The narration continues to provide details of the kitchen, downstairs to his television and billiards rooms, and finally the famed Jungle Room from which Elvis actually recorded an album titled “Songs from the Jungle Room”. Elvis had sixteen television sets throughout Graceland. The tour continued to other buildings outside including his racquetball court and concluded in the Meditation Garden where the gravesites of Elvis and his family are tranquilly displayed. An eternal flame sits behind Elvis’s grave. 

Back across Elvis Presley Boulevard, six magnificent museums and six gift shops await the visitor. Included in the many museums are Elvis’s iconic cars, the many glitzy outfits he wore on stage, and plaques representing his hit records and movies. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their time at Graceland whether they were Elvis fans or not.

Elvis’ pink Cadillac

We arrived at the Doubletree Hotel in Memphis at 4:30 PM. The keys were ready, and I handed them out to the tour guests who were now on their own to enjoy Beale Street, blues music, and a fine restaurant. Most rested awhile before taking the three-block walk to Beale Street. Some stayed close to the hotel to enjoy a restaurant nearby. Beale Street, closed to vehicular traffic, was bustling with many locals and visitors accentuated by many bikers on motorcycles. Perhaps a hundred cycles were permitted to park inside the pedestrian Beale Street. Our tour guests enjoyed their evening and returned to the Doubletree very enthusiastic.

Today was another wonderful day filled with fabulous attractions, history, and new experiences.

Day 5: Thursday, September 8, 2022

The Doubletree Hotel by Hilton served us our own private buffet breakfast consisting of eggs, bacon, sausage, fresh fruit, and biscuits with gravy. It was plentiful and delicious.

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

Before departing Memphis, we stopped to pay our respects to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel. It’s a sacred memorial that highlights the balcony adorned with a beautiful wreath from which he was assassinated. King’s two Cadillacs are resting beneath his balcony. There’s also a solid line on the ground that leads to the window from which the assassin shot the rifle. It’s a fitting Memorial to a great American leader. Everyone thoroughly appreciated this stop.

We departed Memphis and immediately crossed the Mighty Mississippi putting us officially in the western half of the United States. We were now in the state of Arkansas. I played a few songs by Dolly Parton (by request) and Ray Charles. I followed the music by showing the movie “Ray” starring Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles Robinson. Foxx won the 2004 Best Actor Oscar for his role as Ray Charles. Tour guests intently watched this dynamic portrayal of a musical genius battle with heroine that almost cost him his career and marriage. Midway through the movie, we stopped at a Loves Service Plaza for a short break. We drove for another 180 miles, completed the movie, and pulled off of I-40 at Exit 13 in Alma, Arkansas for our lunch stop.

The tour guests had many choices for lunch. Clumped together were Burger King, KFC, Subway, and two more across the street. We were back on the bus and ready to complete our journey into Oklahoma City within 50 minutes.

During this stretch of the trip, the bus was silent and many people slept. We stopped at another Love’s Service Plaza for another break. These stores are equipped with the traveler in mind and are excellent for bathrooms, food, snacks, electronics, and many other items.

We arrived in Oklahoma City at the Hampton Inn in good time. Twenty of us chose to go out for dinner at the nearby Penn Square Mall and Fernando graciously agreed to drive us the short distance. We had an hour and forty-five minutes to shop and eat. The Penn Square Mall has an excellent food court as well as many larger restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory. Today was another wonderful day as evidenced by the enthusiastic tour guests who are quickly getting to know and respect each other. 

Day 6: Friday, September 9, 2022

After a very good breakfast at the Hampton Inn, we stopped at the Oklahoma City Memorial. It is a solemn dedication to the 168 children, women, and men who lost their lives on April 19, 1995. It’s composed of two parts. First, two large stone monoliths sit on either end of a reflecting pool. One monolith has the time of 9:01 and the other has 9:03 carved in large letters. The actual bombing took place at 9:02 AM so the monoliths symbolize peace before the bomb and calling for emergency assistance after it blew. The second piece consists of 168 chairs of different sizes, placed on the hallowed ground where the original Federal Building once stood. It is a very moving and respectful Memorial honoring all who perished on that fateful day.

Oklahoma City Memorial

The National Western Museum is massive and magnificent. We were taken on a tour of art galleries with paintings that reflect the way of life in the real West. Our guide continuously compared Hollywood’s fake portrayal of the West to the way people lived in reality. We learned the West wasn’t really “wild” and very few people were killed in gunfire. Another gallery honored the singing Cowboys who performed on TV and movies. Showcases with pictures and artifacts from John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry took us all back. Creative and colorful life-sized dioramas adorned other rooms and depicted life on the prairie. The Rodeo was highlighted in another section with life sized bucking broncos. Showcases told about women riders who did tricks on horseback like standing on a horse and riding. Everyone enjoyed their time and learned new perspectives on the history of the American Cowboy.

A very good lunch was set up for us in a private room of the museum. We chose from a variety of sandwiches. Pickles, chips, a chocolate chip cookie, and a bottle of water were also available for our taking. The food was plentiful and many took leftovers for the road. 

We departed the National Western Museum and traveled to Amarillo, Texas. Our tour guests relaxed, and many slept during the first part of our 240 mile journey. As we approached the Texas border, I played “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and put on the movie, “Hidden Figures.” This movie features the gifted Catherine Johnson as a NASA employee who is responsible, but not given the credit, for launching John Glenn into space in February 1962. It highlights the Jim Crow segregation laws that separated people by race. Most of the guests watched intently and enjoyed the movie. We did make one rest stop at a TA Travel Plaza before arriving at the Country Inn and Suites in Amarillo. 

This Hotel was warm & welcoming. As we pulled up, three young people were waiting to bring the luggage to our rooms. With luggage delivery fast and efficient, we were easily able to leave for dinner at the Great Texan Steak Ranch on time. 

The Big Texan Steak Ranch

Our short wait was worth it! The 18 ounce steaks or chicken breasts were juicy and tender, grilled to perfection. There was one young man on stage doing the contest by eating the 72 ounce steak and all the fixings. However, he gave up and had to pay the $72 for the meal. If he had completed all his food within 60 minutes, he would have won the contest and gotten his meal for free. We were all totally full and satisfied with our meal at the Great Texan Steak Ranch. 

Following dinner, we had time to play and shop. Some took shots in the shooting gallery. Many took pictures while behind bars. And we had a lot of fun getting into and out of the giant chair. Tonight was another exciting and memorable evening.

Day 7: Saturday, September 10, 2022

After a delicious breakfast, the hotel staff efficiently loaded our luggage and we boarded the bus for our first stop, a very strange artistic creation. 

Cadillac Ranch is three miles west of Amarillo in a large field. In 1975, three hippies had the idea to stick 10 Cadillacs into the ground heads buried with their tails sticking high into the air. Since then, the vehicles have been completely stripped and are now only frames. Spray paint is always available for visitors to put their artistic touch onto the cars. To my eyes (after 5 visits), it seems like the cars are slowly sinking into the ground. Nevertheless, everyone took pictures, and many had a good time spray painting the Cadillacs.  

Cadillac Ranch

Today was all about Route 66. Of course, Nat King Cole started us off. We traveled parallel to Route 66 and saw many abandoned hotels, gas stations, and stores. I told everyone that Route 66 was officially opened in 1926 and decertified on June 27, 1985 when I-40 was completed. We stopped at the Glenrio, New Mexico, Welcome Center immediately upon entering New Mexico for our rest stop. They were well equipped with information about New Mexico, and I received some great advice from a very knowledgeable person. She handed me their last Route 66 magazine and photocopied a page summarizing all Route 66 Points of Interest in New Mexico.

Once back on the bus, I played the History Channel’s Documentary “Route 66.” It depicts the purpose and creation of this iconic Route and has actual footage from the time. Most watched and found it fascinating.  

I studied the information I received at the Glenrio Rest Stop and found a famous Route 66 sign that was five minutes off an upcoming exit. With Fernando’s agreement, we left I-40 at Exit 131 and found that unique and famous Route 66 sign. Everyone was thrilled and disembarked to take pictures. Afterwards, we rode on Route 66 for two miles, passing so many abandoned structures, until it merged with I-40 once again. I am glad we discovered this trip detour! 

We continued onto Albuquerque. We were now in Mountain Time as our devices went back an hour. We were traveling through the desert for the first time. After a short rest stop, we arrived in Albuquerque at our lunch stop, the Sawmill Market. The Sawmill Market contains many unique fast-food restaurants, bars, and dessert kiosks. We chose from pizza, burgers, Asian food, and dishes with a southwestern flair for lunch. Some bought the delicious Vietnamese Noodle Bowl and stuffed spring rolls. The prices were very reasonable. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this unique southwestern lunch stop.

Tram ride to the top of Sandia Peak

The sun was shining, and the clouds were scattered, a perfect time to traverse the Sandia Mountains on The Sandia Peak Tramway. After purchasing the tickets, we all walked into a large tramcar that holds 50 people. We ascended for 15 minutes to a height of 10,300 feet and disembarked at the top. We were at the peak of the Sandia Mountains with breathtaking views of Albuquerque below. Usually, it’s much colder at this height, but it was 72° and very comfortable. We all took many magnificent pictures, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed this attraction.

We arrived at tonight’s Drury Inn and the keys and luggage handlers were waiting for us. After distributing the room keys, we were on our own to enjoy the kickback or go out to a nearby restaurant. We were all looking forward to our first two-night stay at a hotel. Today was another wonderful and unique day of travel and attractions. Tomorrow, Fernando has a day off and we will be driven around Albuquerque by Herrera Tours.

Day 8: Sunday, September 11, 2022

Everyone was grateful this morning for that extra hour of sleep, and we did not need to leave until 8:45 AM! Breakfast was excellent, typical of the Drury Inn. David, our Herrera Coach driver, arrived early and did a wonderful job for us all day. Our first stop was the Balloon Museum. Albuquerque is famous for its magnificent Balloon Festival every October. The Balloon Museum teaches the history of ballooning, which began on September 19, 1783, in Versailles, France. It depicts the many successes and failures as ballooning pioneers struggled to perfect multi day/week balloon trips. The Museum also provides information on weather conditions and other factors that affect the success of a hot air balloon trip. Short videos, life size dioramas, and short anecdotes are used to teach the history of ballooning. We enjoyed our time at the Balloon Museum.

Albuquerque International Balloon Museum

Our next stop was in Old Town Albuquerque for shopping and lunch. It was delightful just walking around with temperatures in the upper 70’s. Old Town takes us back hundreds of years with its Spanish architecture and narrow alleys. Red peppers are hung at many doorways to “Welcome” all visitors. Men and women sell jewelry and other related trinkets from blankets spread over the ground. Many shops were open selling colorful clothing, mini hot air balloon replicas, and New Mexico souvenirs. The tour guests had made fine choices for lunch and most returned to the bus with purchases. Everyone enjoyed their time in Old Town.

Our final stop of the day was the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. We witnessed a wonderful traditional Native American Dance with others chanting and banging drums. The dancers were extremely talented, and their costumes were dynamic. Audience members were invited to dance with them in the giant circle and many in our group got up to dance. It was fun and entertaining to watch. 

Native Dancers at the Pueblo Cultural Center

Following the dance performance, we had an hour guided tour throughout the Museum given by John, the curator and leader of the Cultural Center. He’s a native New Mexico American Indian whose purpose is to teach Pueblo (village) life of his ancestors in this region. He is a brilliant and passionate historian and provided us with great insights into Pueblo life from the 1500’s to present. This is an important stop to experience a culture that is generally not prevalent at home.

Today was an important day to provide perspective into the lives of the great Native Americans who reside in the great Southwest.  

Day 9: Monday, September 12, 2022

Breakfast was perfect, as usual, for Drury Inns. Panera Bread delivered our lunches at 7:15 AM and I handed them out to each passenger in the hotel lobby. Everyone received a boxed lunch consisting of a sandwich, bag of chips, a pickle, a chocolate chip cookie, and a bottle of water. It was to be eaten at the Painted Desert later in the day.

We departed Albuquerque and continued west through New Mexico. The terrain is now all desert with high, colorful, flat cliffs called mesas dotting the background. One could see for miles in all directions. Many long freight trains were chugging along on tracks to our right. Our group stayed focused on the scenery while I played a few songs, mostly by request, to honor those of us celebrating an event. 

We soon arrived at our first rest stop, the rest stop that we were anticipating since Day 1, the Navajo Welcome Center at Exit 16 off of I-40 in Gallup, New Mexico. You can purchase a large Mexican Blanket for only $4.99 along with the opportunity to buy many unique Navajo and Route 66 gifts. Many walked out with at least one blanket but not more than two since they limited purchases to two blankets per person at that low price.

Painted Desert

We resumed travel and soon crossed the border into The Grand Canyon State, Arizona. I played the 18 minute National Park Service movie on the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest that is shown in the Visitors Center. It was an excellent introduction to what we will be experiencing. We soon pulled into our first National Park, the Painted Desert. After paying the entrance fee, we stopped at the Kochina Overlook and took our first glimpse into “Canyon Country,” nature’s artistic and colorful work. Guests commented that this view was worth the price of our magnificent trip.  

We continued onto Chinde Point where we all disembarked and ate our boxed lunch from Panera. Chinde Point has 16 covered picnic tables that seat up to eight people each. Everyone enjoyed their Panera lunch and many saved half for dinner tonight.

Continuing on, we stopped at several magnificent overlooks, each as distinctive as the other. There was a Route 66 stop where we took pictures of a 1930’s automobile (stripped to its frame). Agate Bridge is a long log of petrified wood that spans a small canyon below. The National Park Service needed to fortify the petrified wood with cement to preserve it for future generations. And our final stop was the Crystal Forest. Here, thousands of pieces of petrified wood of all sizes sit on the ground. The large majority of our tour guests chose to take the .75 mile circular hike into the badlands of the Petrified Forest to experience many more colorful pieces of petrified wood. The hike was pleasing to the eyes and invigorating to our bodies. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park.

After a stop at the Visitors Center complex where many purchased their National Parks stamp book and souvenirs, we continued our travels into beautiful Sedona. We ran into many sporadic heavy rainstorms that Fernando did a magnificent job driving through. We arrived at the Holiday Inn Express in Sedona only 30 minutes behind schedule. This is a beautiful hotel and very comfortable with a friendly staff. There are many restaurants adjacent to the Holiday Inn Express for tour guests to choose from for dinner.

Today was another special day and enjoyed by everyone. Tomorrow, we look forward to exploring beautiful Sedona and our Pink Jeep Tour.

Day 10: Tuesday, September 13, 2022

After a filling breakfast, we departed the hotel and traveled a short distance to the Pink Jeep Tour. Upon arrival, we divided into three groups of 6 people and two groups of 7.  The Pink Jeeps are windowless vehicles with a full roof and plenty of handles and padded poles for tour guests to hold on to when the going gets rough. Our extremely talented Jeep drivers provided wonderful commentary about Sedona while traveling the route. The road had its bumps and small rocks causing us to hold on and experience the thrill of off-road riding. We all disembarked and were led to a beautiful pond surrounded by magnificent views of the amazing red cliffs, an oasis in the desert. The blue skies with puffy cumulus clouds added to the beauty of the moment. Many pictures were taken including some group photos. We then drove to a second viewpoint with breathtaking 360° views of the red cliffs and vistas. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this experience through the badlands of Sedona.

Rumbling over the rugged terrain of Sedona

Next on the itinerary was some free time to explore Sedona, a quaint town with many unique shops and wonderful restaurants all within two short blocks. Most chose to eat in the Cowboy Club, famous for its rattlesnake sausage, cactus fries, and prickly pear sauce. Yes, many tried rattlesnake for the first time and the consensus was positive!  

The Cowboy Club

After, we traveled southwest towards Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, the capital city of Arizona.  We descended in elevation to less than one thousand feet above sea level. We were driving through the Sonoran Desert that is famous for Saguaros. Saguaros only grow in elevations under 3000 feet and only in the Sonoran Desert. The desert extends south into Tucson where Saguaro National Park is located. The tour guests marveled at the numerous Saguaros that seemed to be waving to us as we passed by. Many worked hard to capture photos of this Arizona State Cactus while on the moving bus. Saguaros, 30-45 feet tall with extended arms, can be between 150 and 200 years old! 

We arrived at the Western Spirit Museum in Scottsdale and to the delight of our guests, saguaros were lining its landscape. Of course, we took many pictures. The Western Spirit Museum, a subsidiary of the Smithsonian Institute, opened in 2016. Two extremely knowledgeable guides took groups of sixteen around the Museum. We were shown artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition, Native American clothing from the 19th century, and brilliant works of art along with bronze statues depicting life in the West from the past 200 years. Everyone loved their tour and gained a further appreciation of the “Wild West.” 

The Drury Inn in Chandler, a suburb nearer to Phoenix, was our home for the night. Many ate dinner at the Kickback while eleven rode to the Fashion Center Mall, one mile away, for dinner and shopping. Today was another exciting day of attractions as we traverse deeper into the western section of the United States. Tomorrow, “California Here We Come!” 

Day 11: Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Breakfast was once again delicious. We left Phoenix and within minutes were traveling through the desert. The Sonoran Desert extends well into California. Dry, desert land and blue sunny skies could be seen for miles in each direction. I played the movie, “The Founder” starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc since the original McDonalds was located in San Bernardino near Los Angeles. Most watched intently. After a short rest stop, we continued the final 60 miles to the California Border. We had made it across our country! The Beach Boys serenaded us in song as we crossed the California border and entered the Golden State. 

We stopped for lunch in El Centro, California. Most of the tour guests ate at Farmer Boys, a fast-food restaurant specializing in sandwiches, burgers, salads, and pizza. You order your food at the register, take a number, and your food is delivered to your seat. Everyone enjoyed this lunch stop that also included a supermarket. 

We continued traveling through the desert towards San Diego at elevations of 90 feet below sea level. The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range began looming up ahead and we began slowly climbing in elevation until we reached the peak at 4000 feet. Large boulders monopolized the scenery. Our decent brought us into the San Diego County limits and civilization. We soon arrived at our hotel, The Best Western Plus Bayside Inn, in downtown San Diego. 

The staff was extremely friendly and eager to please us. After checking in and a quick rest, Fernando drove us to Old Town San Diego for dinner and shopping.

Old Town San Diego

Old Town is a quaint part of town with complete Mexican flair; the architecture of the buildings, food choices, and colorful shops. Everyone enjoyed their time strolling around, shopping, listening to music, and eating dinner. It was a very pleasant evening.  

Tomorrow, we look forward to playing with the animals at the iconic San Diego Zoo. 

Day  12: Thursday, September 15, 2022

We boarded the bus and quickly arrived at the San Diego Zoo. After I picked up the tickets, we took a group photo under the giant lion at the entrance. Upon entering, we all boarded the double-decker bus for our introductory tour around the Zoo. Following the ride, everyone was on their own to walk around the Zoo, eat lunch, ride the Skyride, and enjoy the next four hours. One unique highlight of the San Diego Zoo is the Koala exhibit, and everyone was eager to see them perched in their trees. Everyone had a wonderful morning and enjoyed the zoo tremendously.  

San Diego Zoo

We returned to tour hotel to refresh before going out again for our two hour boat cruise on San Diego Harbor. Our hotel is located just three blocks from the wharf as some tour guests chose to take a short walk and enjoy The Port of San Diego on this beautiful day.

Upon arrival to the Flagship Pier, we lined up at Gate 1 and made our way down the gangway to board the Spirit of San Diego. The cruise was narrated by a knowledgeable young man as we cruised by the United States Naval Fleet, the island of Coronado, the two mile Coronado Bridge, and the beautiful skyline of San Diego. After one hour, we returned to the pier to drop off and pick up other passengers. The second hour of the cruise took us near the Pacific Ocean, a sea lion rookery, and training centers for our Navy Shipmen and Seals. The magnificent San Diego sunset over the bay was an additional highlight. Everyone enjoyed the cruise.

Boat cruise on San Diego Harbor

We returned to the hotel, and everyone was on their own for dinner to explore Little Italy and other magnificent restaurants within four short blocks of our hotel. The location of the hotel is perfect for our itinerary and the staff is friendly, efficient, and welcoming. Today was another fun-filled day completing our first full day on the West Coast. 

Day 13: Friday, September 16, 2022

This morning we departed San Diego and began our travels north, toward Los Angeles.  

The Richard Nixon Library & Museum

Our first stop today was in Yorba Linda, home to the Nixon Presidential Library. Upon arrival, we divided into two groups and began our tour. Our guides led us through rooms showing Nixon’s domestic accomplishments, his foreign policy including his opening of China, and the tumultuous Vietnam War protests. The fascinating guide told stories of how Elvis showed up at the White House one day and presented Nixon with a gun to the fright of the Secret Service. We learned that Nixon was a huge proponent of cleaning the environment and started the Environment Protection Agency. He fought for equal rights for women and people of color. The museum concludes with his resignation due to Watergate and does a great job explaining the entire Watergate scandal.

Additionally, we were shown the gravesites of Pat and Richard and were allowed to see, up close, the Presidential Helicopter, the same helicopter that took Nixon away from the White House following his resignation. We entered his childhood home and our guide told us about his family and boyhood life. A short film summarizes our entire tour ending this magnificent experience. For a few hours, we were taken back to our twenties and thirties, a time when we were so involved with work and family that we were unable to gain a full perspective on this time period. Everyone loved this historic attraction.

Lunch was in the Yorba Linda Town Center just a half mile away. New restaurants continue to open, and we had a great choice of healthy and unique places to eat. An hour later, we all boarded the bus and traveled to Los Angeles. Despite pockets of traffic on I-5, we arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn Burbank on schedule.

This is a perfectly situated hotel surrounded by numerous restaurants along San Fernando Boulevard. Our fabulous bus driver FERNANDO was especially proud that this hotel was sitting on his namesake boulevard! 

Shortly after arrival, most of us chose to experience Universal Studios Citywalk. This particular Friday night happened to be the first night of fright night at Universal Studios in celebration of Halloween. Our guests enjoyed the excitement, the unique stores for shopping, and the many fine restaurants and other food establishments selling ice cream, popcorn, and donuts. Everyone enjoyed reliving youthful moments and had a wonderful time.

Day 14: Saturday, September 17, 2022

Hollywood Bowl

Judy, our extremely knowledgeable and personable local Los Angeles Tour Guide for two of the past three years, met us at the hotel after breakfast. We were so fortunate to have her with us. Our first stop was the Hollywood Bowl, the iconic concert hall that seats 17,000 plus. Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and the Beatles have all performed here. For the first time on any of our Los Angeles Tours, the Hollywood Bowl was open for us to walk inside. We were all very excited as Judy provided great narration. What struck me the most was the seats seemed very uncomfortable. The box seats located in the lower quarter of the arena were simply two green beach chairs partially enclosed by two foot wooden walls. Wooden bleachers composed the remainder of the seating. The show tonight was “The Sound of Music” with live music accompanying the movie. Workers were making preparations. Everyone was thrilled with this stop 

We continued on to the TCL Theater (formerly the Graumans Chinese Theater) and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Judy lead us up the famous staircase that becomes the Red Carpet during the Academy Awards and towards the Dolby Theater. She shared great information about the Oscars and how they transform this complex to look like a first class theater instead of a shopping mall. Judy then leads us to an overlook where the HOLLYWOOD Sign is in view. We then had 45 minutes on our own to shop in the many souvenir stores and take pictures of the stars on ground.

We continued our tour by traveling near Beverly Hills (it is illegal to drive down many of these streets to maintain the privacy of its residents). We stopped and took pictures of the famous Beverly Hills Sign and the Ringo Starr Peace and Love Statue. We passed Rodeo Drive and saw the shop that Julia Robert’s was thrown out of in the movie, “Pretty Woman.” Our next stop was the original Farmers Market where we were given time on our own for lunch and shopping. The Grove is an outdoor shopping center adjacent to the Farmers Market where many tour guests also walked. Everyone enjoyed their lunch in this very famous section of Los Angeles.

La Brea Tar Pits

Our final stop was the LaBrea Tar Pits. Prehistoric animal parts from woolly mammoths, giant sloths, and saber tooth tigers were excavated and continue to be from these tar pits. Judy provided a great narration as we took many interesting pictures. We completed our tour by riding past the Robert Kennedy School Complex (formerly the Ambassador Hotel) in downtown Los Angeles where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968. Judy did a fabulous job and gave everyone an amazing perspective of Los Angeles. Kudos to Fernando who was equally as amazing negotiating the streets, many under construction, in Hollywood and Los Angeles. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this in-depth tour.

Everyone was now on their own in beautiful downtown Burbank for dinner and shopping. We leave California tomorrow and start our journey eastward.