Gene Gray, Author at Starr Tours & Charters - Page 2 of 2
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Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2018 – Eastbound – Part 2 of 2 

Without further ado, here is the eastbound conclusion of our epic Cross Country Bus Adventure, courtesy of Tour Director, Gene Gray!

 

Day 16: Sunday, September 16

It’s time to say good by to San Francisco. The luggage was once again taken from INSIDE each room this morning. So, not wanting a repeat of last year, I was carefully checking off each piece of luggage as it was brought down while Hank counted as he loaded each on the bus. Every piece of luggage was accounted for!

Nancy’s cousin in San Francisco created a welcome sign for when we first arrived and hung it on the wall behind the front desk of the Hotel Zephyr. It was a wonderful gesture and we proudly took it with us as we bid the hotel a fond farewell with Tony Bennett singing through the speakers.

We crossed over the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge onto I-80 East into another beautiful day with temperatures in the mid 60’s and light winds.

As we traveled east for the first time, our tour guests shared the great experiences they had yesterday in San Francisco. It’s so wonderful to see them breaking off into small groups and mingling among the other tour guests – almost like family. Five found their way to Chinatown and ate a magnificent meal provided by the chef himself. The restaurant was recommended by the Hotel Zephyr staff and the chef treated them like royalty. Different foods were continuously served by the restaurant staff at the suggestion of the chef. These lucky tour guests did not have to order anything – they just paid $25 each for an all you can eat feast. Another tour guest walked to Lombard Street and walked down the winding, curving hill. Another took a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge and walked across it. I am so happy for the time everyone had in this fabulous city by the bay. Later, I played the movie, “Escape From Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood. The movie was a great conclusion to our fabulous tour of Alcatraz from yesterday and the tour guests were all able to relate to the movie.

As we entered Tahoe City, Lake Tahoe glistened in the mid-afternoon sunshine. For lunch, I provided a list of restaurants for my 32 friends to choose from. They would eat and pay on their own today. Many went to Jake’s on the Lake and enjoyed a delicious lunch with beautiful Lake Tahoe as a backdrop. Others strolled the town and found a fine cafe or restaurant. Some hiked the trails to the water’s edge. We all enjoyed our two hours in Tahoe City, California and many commented they’d love to return here one day.

It didn’t take us long to cross the Nevada border and it didn’t take long for many to fall into a deep sleep. The scenery changed from majestic mountains to flat, dry land with parched yellow grasses as far as the eyes could see. For the next two hours, the passengers slept, read, played games and did puzzles. The bus was so quiet, one could hear a pin drop. Hank continued to do a great job driving through the desert. We stopped in the only piece of civilization that existed since we left Lake Tahoe. Located in the town of Lovelock, Nevada, the Conoco Truck Stop offered clean bathrooms and a Convenience Store. It felt great to stretch our legs.

Once back on the road, we only had a little over an hour to reach our destination – the Winnemucca Hotel and Casino. I played “The Three Amigos” for some goofy comedy relief. The tour guests enjoyed this movie but had to wait until the following day to see the conclusion – a real cliff hanger!

We pulled into the Winnemucca Hotel and the porters were waiting to deliver our luggage to our rooms. I handed out the keys to each guest and Hank agreed to do a Walmart run in 45 minutes since he also had to fuel the bus. Fourteen passengers went to Walmart. I stayed back at the hotel.

After the bus left for Walmart, one of our guests, Nancy, asked me whether all the luggage was delivered because her suitcase was not yet in her room. I answered that I thought so but we went to check with the manager and he confirmed it. So Nancy, the manager, and I knocked on every one of our “Starr” rooms with the hope that the luggage was placed in the wrong room. We knew to do this because this has happened a few times on past trips. Even rooms that were vacant were opened and checked for Nancy’s luggage. All to no avail. One room had a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door so we passed it by. The bus finally returned so we quickly double-checked to see if the luggage was still in the luggage bay of the bus – it wasn’t. Our wonderful tour guests began to offer Nancy some of their clothes. While Nancy and I continued walking around the hotel in hopes of finding it (two hours have passed since our arrival), my phone rings. Sure enough, the tour guests with the “Do Not Disturb” sign on their door returned to their room and found that Nancy’s luggage was there. The tour guest told me she always puts the “Do Not Disturb” sign up whenever she goes into her room and keeps it up. How unlucky for Nancy. But she was a great sport about it – Thank you Nancy! Here’s what happened: Nancy’s assigned room was 129 and the porter misread the number and put the bag into room 109. Simple but worrisome mistake.

Who was it who said, “These are the times that try man’s soul?” Oh, right. It was Thomas Paine in 1775 and me in 2018!

 

Day 17: Monday, September 17

After enjoying a relaxing, sit-down breakfast with generous portions, we departed on time for another beautiful day with sunny skies and cool temperatures.

We finished “The Three Amigos” and at its conclusion, I provided information on Winnemucca, Salt Lake City, and the history of the Mormons.

As we began our trek through the northwest section of the United States, I talked about the greatness of some of our Native American Chiefs, in particular Chief Joseph whose Nez Perce tribe once lived freely in the territory we were driving through. I played the movie “I Will Fight No More Forever” named after Chief Joseph’s famous speech “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” The movie depicts the plight of the Nez Perce tribe following an edict from President Grant that removed them from their land. They fought and tried to outrun the US Cavalry, but were eventually caught. It is a very sad movie that shows the horrible treatment of brave Native Americans by our own government. Tissues were suggested. Over half of the passengers intensely watched the movie. Even though I’ve seen it at least 10 times, as always, tears were falling from my eyes by the end.

We stopped for lunch in Wendover, Nevada. Hank parked in the middle of this huge parking lot between four restaurants and our one hour stop was plenty of time. Since we were directly on the border of Nevada and Utah, some clocks jumped ahead one hour into Mountain Time while others took longer to adjust as we soon continued into Utah.

The western Utah countryside is a large flat desert for as far as one can see. The surface begins to appear white and becomes more consistently white as you progress further into Utah. These are the salt flats but it looks very much like snow. We passed the Bonneville Salt Flats and then the Morton Salt Manufacturing Plant as we neared Salt Lake City.

Soon we came upon the Great Salt Lake on our left, bordered by majestic mountains in the distance. We stopped at The Great Salt Lake State Park to take pictures and give some guests the opportunity to put their feet in the lake. We stayed here for 25 minutes enjoying the magnificent views in 80° temperatures and then finished our journey into Salt Lake City.

The Hampton Inn was all ready for us. I handed out the keys to the passengers and three porters quickly delivered our luggage. We had an hour to relax and refresh before Hank drove us to Christopher’s Steakhouse for dinner.

We sat in the same comfortable section of the restaurant as we did last year. We were greeted warmly and the service was wonderful. Salads and hot rolls were placed on the table. The salads consisted of green leafy lettuces, tomatoes, onions, and their house vinaigrette dressing. We all relaxed, took our time eating, and had terrific conversations. After a nice delay, the main course came out. The numbers were equally split between the delicious medium rare Filet Medallions and the superb Chicken Piccata. Each dish was accompanied by zucchini and mashed potatoes. Dessert was a generous slice of New York Cheesecake, reminding us of home. Everyone complimented the excellent food and enjoyed their dinner immensely.

I noticed one difference between running this trip in September vs July is the sunlight hours get shorter this time of year. By the time dinner was completed, it was already dark outside. Hank drove us around the Mormon Temple, and in contrast to last year, we did not get off the bus to explore Temple Square. We eventually drove back to the hotel and wished each other a good night closing out another wonderful day.

 

Day 18: Tuesday, September 18

I downloaded and played a few Donny and Marie Osmond songs as we drove away from Salt Lake City. It was another picture perfect day as we climbed over 7,000 feet in elevation and then descended down to 4,000 feet amidst the most beautiful mountainous scenery one could ever imagine. The passengers were taking in these magnificent terrains with its plethora of colors and irregular rock formations. Although we all know that each section of the United States has its own beauty and differences, it is amazing to actually see it before our very eyes. We made a fast rest stop within the mountains and continued into the scenic state of Wyoming.

The mountains affect weather patterns making the western part of Wyoming extremely dry. It is also flat and desert like. Many fenced in ranches make up Wyoming and we saw people on horses riding or herding their sheep and cattle. It was a good time to play my Western Music playlist that added to the realities of this area. We were soon in the one street long western town of Alton, Wyoming where we stopped for 90 minutes for lunch. Alton has nine eating establishments for us to choose from, and each was described as very good.

After lunch, we began climbing into the majestic mountains again. A small river, turquoise in color, meandered to our right as the mountains rose on all other sides. Nature is the most talented artist and this section of Wyoming certainly proves that. I played John Denver songs that enhanced our visual surroundings. By 3:00 PM, we were at the 49er Inn & Suites in Jackson, Wyoming.

The manager handed me the keys and came onboard the bus to talk about Jackson Hole – its restaurants, shopping, and the Town Square. The passengers disembarked and had the remainder of the evening on their own to explore this marvelous city.

Jackson Hole is a valley nestled in the magnificent Grand Teton Mountains. It is famous for its great powdery ski slopes as well as being the gateway to Yellowstone, 90 minutes to the north. The town of Jackson resembles a town in the Wild West with its buildings, wooden walkways, and overall architecture. The Town Square, a park in the center of the city, has four archway entrances, each made of elk horns. The stores feature Western art, Western apparel, and area souvenirs.

I’ve been in touch with Jesse, our bus driver and guide for Yellowstone National Park tomorrow. He was really excited about doing our tour and secured a newer bus for us for tomorrow. He worked tonight to prep the bus for our tour that begins bright and early at 7:15 AM.

 

Day 19: Wednesday, September 19

Jesse and his Alltrans Bus arrived at exactly 7:15 AM and we departed for Yellowstone ten minutes later. We continue to be blessed with gorgeous weather. Temperatures were brisk (in the mid 40’s) and the sun was bright. The Alltrans bus was cramped with very little leg room and no bathroom. Our passengers were great sports and did their best to put up with these inconveniences. Our Starr Bus was soooo much better. Even Hank complained about the leg room. It was nice to have Hank join us again on his day off from driving since he always wanted to see Yellowstone.

Jesse was passionate about Jackson Hole, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park and knew just about everything associated with each. He told us about the wildlife that we might expect to see. As it was, we saw elk, bison, and deer throughout the day. Jesse explained in simple terms the chemical composition of the different land features in Yellowstone. I overheard some passengers reminiscing about high school chemistry class with horror. He also discussed each section of Yellowstone and the constant geological changes that continue to take place. He shared about recent fires that were actually good for the park by burning underbrush that helps the soil become more fertile in order to grow new trees. Jesse stopped every 45 minutes for a fifteen minute bathroom break at strategic spots and we arrived at Old Faithful Geyser by 10:15 AM.

Our guests were given time to shop in the gift shop and were told to be outside to watch Old Faithful erupt at 10:40 AM. Old Faithful did erupt as scheduled but it was a wimpy eruption. I was very disappointed because I wanted our guests to have a better experience.  The restaurant opened at 11:00 AM so we all bought our lunch. We were supposed to be back on the bus after lunch at 12:00 PM, but before we were about to board, I found out that Old Faithful was to erupt next between 12:06 and 12:20 PM. Jesse was amenable to us staying a bit longer to hopefully experience a better show and the old geyser didn’t disappoint this time. She erupted to over 150 feet putting on a beautiful display. Now I was satisfied and my 32 friends were elated.

We drove the lower loop in Yellowstone which was 96 miles around. Yellowstone is huge with over 300 miles of paved roads. It was also our nation’s first federally protected area in 1872 and our first National Park in 1919. We noticed a field of bison near the road and pulled over to take pictures. Our next stop was the Fountain Paint Pots. Jesse lead us on the half mile circular walk on a boardwalk path to get an up close and personal look into bubbling pots of mud and sulfur, aqua colored steaming pools, and geysers. The colors and smells were striking. You were able to feel the heat coming up from the surface below.

After another bathroom break, Jesse drove us to the Upper Falls, the point where water barrels down the steep slope of the gorge with all its power and fury. The angle of the sun shining on the raging waters below created a beautiful rainbow to add to the magnificence of the scene.

We then drove another ten minutes to the Lower Falls also known as The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The spectrum of colors on the walls of the gorge were vibrant. In the distance, you saw the raging waterfall that we had just departed from. The scene was real, but looked like another brilliantly painted canvas created by nature.

Our guests continue to be amazed at the beauty of each of our National Parks. Each Park is totally different from one another and equally as magnificent. Choosing one’s favorite is a matter of individual experiences and personal tastes. Noticing the magnificence of each is reality.

We arrived back to Jackson at 6:45 PM after an 11.5 hour day. We were all exhausted. I made the decision to postpone luggage pickup and departure 30 minutes later than planned tomorrow morning. Everyone was in agreement. The passengers disembarked the bus thinking about dinner plans and remembering an exhilarating day at Yellowstone National Park. Today’s experiences will surely last a lifetime.

 

Day 20: Thursday, September 20

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY HANK!!!😊❤️  Our thoughtful guest Nancy provided a king’s party hat and a sash that said “Happy Birthday” and put them on Hank. We all stood outside the bus singing “Happy Birthday” and taking group pictures. Nancy also decorated the bus with a “Happy Birthday” sign. Hank was very touched!!! I told Hank I’d be sending these birthday pictures into Starr. He said, “I’m in trouble now!!” I recommend that Starr prints out the picture of Hank and give it to Cheryl to hang up in the dispatch office. (Shhh, don’t tell him I said that!) 😊  We departed Jackson just a little later than expected.

Today was the longest day of riding. I played two hours of music, mostly requests, that got us to our first rest stop. I then played “The Buddy Holly Story.” The plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper Richardson, and the pilot crashed in 1959 in the vicinity of where we were driving. This movie touched everyone and ended just as we pulled into Johnny J’s Diner in Casper, Wyoming, an authentic ‘50s diner, complete with a soda fountain counter and retro decor.

Lunch was very good. The servers treated us like royalty. Casper is rated the 8th Friendliest City in America! If the servers at the diner were any indication of the entire town, Casper is well deserving of this honor.

We were on the road again in 1.5 hours. Wyoming is a large state and it seemed endless. The passengers relaxed until our next rest stop 2.5 hours later. After the stop, I began discussing our plans for tomorrow and providing information on Mount Rushmore. I then showed the 50 minute History Channel Documentary on Mount Rushmore. It told about Gutzon Borglum’s vision and his magnificent talents as a sculptor to create this massive sculpture that honors four presidents. The passengers enjoyed this video very much and gained insights into what we will be seeing tomorrow morning.

The sun went down on the easternmost section of the Mountain Time Zone and we arrived in Deadwood after sunset. The hotel was ready with our keys and porter service. Laurie from the Mineral Palace met me at the door, handed me the keys, and stepped onto the bus to welcome our passengers to Deadwood. The hotel also provided a wine, beer, ham, and cheese reception to everyone’s delight. I suggested to my guests to explore Main Street as early as possible. There were still a few shops and restaurants open on Main Street past 7:30 PM, our arrival time, and many passengers were able to find and purchase their special souvenir for this area. They all seemed to really enjoy Deadwood and they were particularly pleased with the rubber duck the hotel placed on each bathtub for us to enjoy.

We have a very early departure tomorrow. Today was another successful day. Once again, Happy Birthday to Hank!!!

 

Day 21: Friday, September 21

We ate a fast continental breakfast at the Mineral Palace and purposely left before our itinerary suggested. I wanted to get a good head start on this exciting day filled with magnificent attractions and many hours of driving.

Traveling from Deadwood to Mount Rushmore took 70 minutes and we were the first bus to enter the park. We were so fortunate having crystal clear blue skies and sunny weather for optimum viewing of the monument. The passengers marveled at this masterpiece in granite, an extremely patriotic relic of our great country. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln looked majestic and brilliant in the bright morning sunlight. We had 90 minutes to take magnificent pictures, hike to the base of the Monument, visit the Museum, and shop in the Gift Shop. To most, experiencing Mount Rushmore was the completion of a bucket list item. As with all the other sights we’ve seen on this trip, passengers commented that you could see these in books and on TV, but there’s nothing like seeing Mount Rushmore (and all the other National Parks) in person. Being there takes on a completely different meaning and is unbelievable.

Everyone was ready to leave on time. It was amazing that just as we were leaving Mount Rushmore, thick clouds of fog began rolling in. Our timing was perfect! We continue to be extremely blessed with perfectly clear and sunny weather every day of our trip.

Hank has been absolutely magnificent driving the bus. The passengers love his reserved and very funny personality. Hank proceeded to drive sixty miles east to the famous Wall Drug Store. It was here that we all ate a delicious lunch in the Wall Drug Store Cafe and had time to shop in over twenty different themed stores, all under one roof. The passengers had 90 minutes on their own here and everyone thoroughly enjoyed this lunch stop.

Hank then drove us through Badlands National Park while I did the guiding. Upon entering the park, we spotted a herd of bison grazing on a grassy field on the right side of the bus. Once in the park, we stopped at three strategic viewpoints along the 24 mile Eastern Loop; Pinnacle Point, the Great Basin, and Panorama Point. Each viewpoint was different and depicted the Badlands in its finest attire; including all the vibrant colors and brilliant natural formations. We suddenly stopped along the roadway when we spotted Prairie Dogs along with their vastly complex maze of underground tunnels in which they live. The passengers took numerous photographs. Before exiting the Park, we stopped at the Visitors Center for twenty minutes for the bathroom, shopping, and further information. The Badlands was our last look at Canyon Country and all the passengers loved its endless beauty.

Hank continued to drive east on I-90 through South Dakota. At the 200 mile marker, our clocks jumped ahead one hour into Central Time. We continued to a rest stop off of Exit 260 that included an Arby’s and a grocery store. Our timing for the day was magnificent. We arrived at the Comfort Inn in Mitchell, South Dakota ahead of schedule. The hotel, nestled among many restaurants, hotels, and a mall, was ready for us. Many passengers were eager to explore the area. The Comfort Inn is an improvement over the Days Inn we stayed in last year.

Today was another exhilarating day enjoyed by everyone with more amazing bucket list items checked off.

 

Day 22: Saturday, September 22

The sun was shining and the temperatures were brisk as we pulled away from the Comfort Inn on this first day of fall. We stopped at the famous Corn Palace of Mitchell, South Dakota, just ten minutes away.

Home to local events, performers, conventions, exhibits, stage shows, and Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell High School basketball games, the Corn Palace is a beautiful arena. The walls are covered with huge mosaics created solely with ears of corn depicting scenes from the history of Mitchell. Each ear of corn is cut in half and stapled to the wooden frame to create each artistic masterpiece. The colors are striking. I especially liked the mosaic of two color hands shaking as a sign of  peace and the mural showing Mount Rushmore and Native Americans. After a short visit, we stopped in the Gift Shop before heading back to the bus.

We had a long day of traveling. After playing a few wake up songs, I showed the DVD “La Bamba.” This movie tells about the difficult life of Richie Valens, his quick rise in the music world, and the day he stepped on that fateful plane in Iowa that took his life at only 17 years old. We stopped at the Minnesota Welcome Center rest stop as we crossed the border from South Dakota. Many of our tour guests picked up a Mall of America information brochure. We have a group that loves to shop and many commented they would love two days to truly experience that mall, located just south of Minneapolis. Guests were already brainstorming ideas for Starr to create a trip to the Mall of America along with other attractions to compliment it.

We continued to our lunch stop at The Ranch Restaurant in Fairmont, Minnesota. I had made reservations with Joanne, the owner, two months ago. She called me last week to confirm, and I called today to give them our time of arrival. The restaurant was ready for us. The service was great. The food was delicious. They have a fabulous salad and soup bar that most of the passengers bought as well. Everyone enjoyed their lunch very much.

We were over 30 minutes ahead of schedule all day long. After lunch, many people slept as Hank continued to do a great job getting us safely from place to place. We rode through the “Breadbasket of America.” Fields of corn and wheat could be seen for miles all around us. “Amber waves of grain” were right before our eyes. I played a few patriotic songs prior to stopping at the “Loves” Truck Stop in Floyd, Iowa. Once back on the bus, I played the DVD “The Founder,” the rags to riches story of McDonalds’ CEO Ray Croc. Ray was living just north of Chicago when he built his first franchise restaurant. The passengers enjoyed the movie as we drew nearer to our destination.

As we neared Dubuque, Iowa, located where Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois all converge, I spoke to the passengers about the new laws in Chicago. The city enforces a fifteen minute time limit for getting off and on the bus at hotels, particularly, our Fairfield Inn tomorrow and Monday morning. I discussed our plan of action to accommodate this law.

We arrived in Dubuque 35 minutes earlier than expected. The porters came out of the hotel and immediately attended to our luggage. All the keys were ready and I handed them out to the passengers. Many passengers went out for a good dinner at one of the many fine restaurants nearby. Some ate at the Red Rocks, located in the lobby of our Holiday Inn.

Everyone continues to marvel over their great experiences throughout this tremendous trip. It’s hard to believe we only have four days to go.

 

Day 23: Sunday, September 23

We woke to another picture perfect day with blue skies and bright sunshine. We are surely blessed with all the beautiful weather that has followed us each and every day.

We had our own private breakfast buffet in a comfortable conference room within the hotel. It was a delicious spread of hot and cold breakfast foods. The porter service was very slow this morning which forced us to depart twenty minutes late. Once on the road, we immediately crossed over the Mississippi River into Illinois. We were officially back in the eastern section of the United States for the first time in twenty days.

I played a few morning songs and then proceeded to provide a bit of history of Chicago, the Chicago Navy Pier, and the Sears Tower (now renamed the Willis Tower). I then showed a 50 minute movie from the History Channel, titled “Sears Tower” about the building of the skyscraper, which was completed in 1973. It also explained how the Sears & Roebuck Company got its start and grew to be the largest company in America. Most of the passengers enjoyed learning all these details even though some of the documentary was a bit difficult to comprehend.

We stopped at the Belvedere Oasis Rest Stop, one hour west of Chicago. It’s a beautiful elongated building that traverses I-90 with windows on all sides including the ceiling. There are at least a dozen eating establishments, a souvenir shop, and most importantly, restrooms.

We continued into Chicago. I played many songs with a Chicago theme like “Chicago (That Toddling Town),” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” and “My Kind of Town” (to name a few) and played my Chicago (the group) playlist which put us near the city. As the spectacular Chicago Skyline came into view, I replayed the “Chicago (That Toddling Town)” and “My Kind of Town,” both by Frank Sinatra.

Many tour guests and I agreed to go on the new Centennial Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. Completed in 2016, this 200 foot Ferris Wheel rises 50 feet taller than the previous one. We are all excited to try this new experience. The kid in all of us continues to come out!!!

Hank dropped us at Navy Pier and drove to our hotel, The Fairfield Inn, to deliver our luggage.  It was too early to pick up our keys so all luggage was stored in a locked room on the second floor. There’s that new fifteen minute time limit that a bus can stand at a hotel, so Hank had to go quickly.

Upon arrival at Navy Pier, twenty of us walked to the Centennial Wheel composed of 42 enclosed gondolas. After a short wait, we went on in groups of four or five. The 360 degree view from the top was magnificent on this clear day. Lake Michigan glistened as far as the eye could see. The Chicago skyline, made up of buildings of all shapes and sizes, created a beautiful and unique sculpture from high above. The ride was a wonderful experience.

I took a group photo of our newly named “Ferris Wheel Club.” Afterwards, we all split up and went our separate ways. Some walked the length of the pier enjoying the many views of Lake Michigan, some shopped in the large mall, while most found a fine restaurant and relaxed over lunch. Hank met us at the bus drop off at 3:00 PM and drove us to the Willis Tower for our trip to the Skydeck on the 103rd floor.

Major ground level construction circled the entire Willis Tower. Painted arrows on the the draping led us to the temporary entrance. We took an escalator down two levels to the ticket window and elevators. There were enormous lines of people waiting to buy tickets, but I walked up to the Will Call/Group Sales Window and received our tickets immediately. I then led our tour guests around a maze of switchbacks until we reached the beginning of the line waiting for the two elevators to take us to the top. Each elevator held 25 people and took 60 seconds to reach the Skydeck. We waited 35 minutes to get into the elevator so I texted Hank to adjust our pickup time to 5:45 PM to maximize our experience.

The views from the Skydeck were phenomenal. You could see for 50 miles in all directions.

Many of our passengers waited on a small line to get their pictures taken on The Ledge. They stepped out on a clear ledge offering the illusion you were suspended 103 stories above the ground. Pictures were taken. Everyone enjoyed this experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once back on the ground, many walked across the street and took a picture of themselves with the “Historic Route 66” sign. We then relaxed at a small park and waited for Hank, who arrived exactly at 5:45 PM to pick us up and drive us to the Fairfield Inn.

Due to the fifteen minute law, all passengers got off the bus with all their needed belongings and walked into the Fairfield Inn lobby where I handed each their room keys. Hank left the area with time to spare and had to drive miles away to park the bus and then take a cab back to the hotel. Oh, the things Hank does for us! As I went up to my room, passengers approached me with news that their luggage wasn’t delivered. I immediately went back down to the lobby. They had forgotten to deliver the luggage once the rooms were ready. They apologized many times. One person with a cart delivered all the luggage which took about 45 minutes. Many passengers actually took their own luggage to their room.

Many of us ventured out onto the streets of Chicago to do some shopping or go to a fine restaurant. Some went across the street to have pizza or subs for dinner. Today was another beautiful day with many wonderful experiences.

 

Day 24: Monday, September 24

The plan to leave Chicago with the bus stopped for only fifteen minutes worked perfectly. The luggage was brought down and kept in the Fairfield Inn lobby while I watched over it. We had all 32 pieces of luggage. The passengers all finished breakfast and were waiting to board the bus with their belongings. Hank got caught in traffic and was a little late. Plus, he accidentally sliced his thumb on the bus luggage door and needed to stop the bleeding and bandage it up. Thankfully one of our tour guests is a nurse and did eventually bandage his thumb properly. As soon as the bus arrived, the luggage was loaded, the passengers got on, and we drove out.

Today is another long day of driving. We turned our watches forward one hour 70 miles into Indiana and stopped at a truck stop and convenience store to take a short bathroom break. For the first time on our trip, the skies were cloudy and rain began to fall. I showed the DVD “Rookie of the Year,” a feel good movie about a 12 year old Chicago Cubs fan who winds up pitching for his home town heroes and winning a World Championship. The passengers enjoyed this cute movie and all applauded at its conclusion. We arrived at the Wyandot Service Plaza for a fast lunch and although this wasn’t one of our nicer stops, the passengers were able to satisfy their needs.

We were now just two hours from Canton, Ohio, and our Comfort Inn. The skies opened up and it began pouring. Most of the passengers fell into a relaxing sleep with help from the rhythm of the falling rain. Dinner tonight will be in the Belden Village Mall where we’ll be able to choose between a sit down dinner or the food court.

We were driving through Akron about 4:30 PM (18 miles from Canton and our Comfort Inn) when we ran into rush hour traffic. We were bumper to bumper for the next thirteen miles and got delayed over 30 minutes. When we reached the Comfort Inn, our keys were ready and the porters began taking our luggage up to the rooms.

We arranged to be back on the bus at 6:15 PM to go to the Belden Village Mall. 29 of our 32 passengers boarded the bus. We voted on leaving the mall at 8:00 PM. Everyone enjoyed their time in the mall shopping and eating.

We’re now beginning to ready ourselves for home; however, we continue to delight in the success of this trip and the wonders of this beautiful country.

 

Day 25: Tuesday, September 25

Knowing that tonight will be our Farewell Dinner, most of the passengers decided to eat a lighter than usual breakfast. We had three stops in Canton this morning prior to driving to Pittsburgh this afternoon.

Our first stop was a two hour guided tour of the amazing MAPS (Military Aviation Preservation Society) Air Museum. Four volunteer guides divided us into groups of eight. They taught us about the airplanes inside the hangar such as the Sopwith Triplane with three wings from 1916 and the Blue Angels aircraft in which Navy airmen would fly in procession just 8 inches from each other. We then went outside to the newly erected Portable Hospital, similar to the Mash Unit. A former military physician who served in Vietnam in 1969 walked us through each section of the Hospital. There was an area serving as an operating room, another for a recovery room, a separate area for x-rays and blood tests, and another area with beds used as a sick bay. He emphasized that if a soldier or any person was brought to the Hospital, they were able to save their life 97% of the time no matter what it took. However, they were always concerned about the person’s mental status having to live with all their horrific memories or without a limb.

The saddest and most humbling part of our tour was when we all actually got to sit in an airplane that was used to parachute jumpers onto Normandy Beach during WWII. Thirty soldiers would sit in the plane in complete silence to their destination. They each carried two parachutes, one weighing 40 pounds and the larger weighing 90 pounds. They carried a total of 200 pounds of gear on them. They also carried a cricket, a hand held device that you would click to let someone know you were an American troop, since speaking was not an option.

When signaled by your superior, you would jump out of the aircraft in the blackness of night, possibly amidst enemy fire. In most cases, the soldiers would land totally alone. If they noticed a figure moving, they would click their cricket once. If the person was American, they would click back twice. If no clicker was heard, they would shoot to kill immediately. If the American was not in position to click back after hearing one click, he would be shot as well. Many Americans unfortunately killed other Americans this way. We learned that of the original 30 jumpers in each airplane, ONLY 2 MADE IT HOME SAFELY!!! Very sobering facts.

In conclusion of our visit to the MAPS Museum, I took a very special photo of our 6 Veterans in front of the MAPS logo. Upon entering the bus, our remaining passengers gave them a big round of applause. A very touching moment!!! The MAPS Air Museum was enjoyed by every passenger.

Our second stop in Canton was to the Harry London/Fannie May Chocolate Factory. We shopped in the store for the first half hour and then began our 40 minute guided tour. It started with a ten minute film depicting the history of each company and how they were merged in the early 2000’s. After the video, our guide led us down a hallway and explained the numerous historical pictures on their Wall of Fame. He then showed us a vat used to heat and blend the chocolate. We were led upstairs to a closed-in walkway where we were able to look down into the factory below with all the workers creating chocolate from beginning to finished product. Our guide then gave us each a piece of chocolate to eat, guided us back downstairs, and treated us to a taste of freshly made gelato.

After another brief stop at the Belden Village Mall Food Court for lunch we were back on the bus and I made THE call to our hotel for tonight, the Doubletree Hilton in Pittsburgh. Although I had called each and every hotel each day confirming our arrival and passengers’ requests, this was the call that was most critical. Last year, in 2017, the Doubletree was undergoing major renovations and failed to deliver our luggage in time for our passengers to change for the Farewell Dinner. Our guests, last year, were really upset, having brought clothes specifically for this occasion. So, when I finally did get a representative from the Doubletree on the phone, my strong remarks were, “Our time of arrival is 4:15 PM and we must have at least 2 porters to immediately deliver the luggage to all the passengers. We have an important event to attend tonight and they need to change clothes!” I was assured that the luggage would be delivered and that all their renovations were complete.

Our ride into Pittsburgh was smooth. I played my Patriotic playlist in honor of both our beautiful country and our visit to the MAPS Air Museum.

When we arrived at the DoubleTree Hilton I walked into the lobby and was handed our keys and two sets of rooming lists for the group. Three porters, two with carts, headed for the bus. By the time I had given out all keys to the passengers on the bus and the passengers all disembarked, 12 pieces of luggage were already on their way to be delivered.

The hotel was beautifully renovated. All three high speed elevators to our 14th floor worked beautifully (compared to only 1 last year). The management staff was extremely efficient and hard working. AND ALL PASSENGERS RECEIVED THEIR LUGGAGE in plenty of time to change for our Farewell Dinner. Later on, I made it a point to compliment the night manager, who actually remembered our incidents from last year, and his staff for doing a great job for us.

The Farewell Dinner at Grand Concourse was nothing short of magnificent. It was a marvelous celebration of a beautiful 26 day journey that has provided passengers with great memories and many new friendships. I began the festivities with a short and sentimental speech. I then acknowledged each person with their individual “Cross Country Award,” which they all enjoyed receiving. Finally, I gave out my “2018 Cross Country Statistics At A Glance” handout, three pages of details and memories from our trip. I believe the passengers were most appreciative of this.

Dinner was done to perfection. Hot rolls were delivered to each table followed by a delicious salad. Our hot entree followed. The servers were friendly and efficient. The food was delicious. Everyone had a terrific time. Dessert was a tasty apple turnover.

To cap off the evening, and with the permission and assistance from our servers, we all stood on the Grand Concourse staircase for a final group picture. A perfect way to end our “Trip of a Lifetime!”

 

Day 26: Wednesday, September 26

Breakfast was delicious and even included a chef making fresh omelets. Everyone loved the Doubletree Hilton. Our luggage was brought down to the bus and Hank and I sorted it according to everyone’s drop off point. After a brief delay we were ready to depart.

On the drive to our first rest stop, I reviewed the entire trip through music. The songs brought back some of our fondest memories. I sent a voluntary email sign up sheet around and most of the passengers provided me with their email address. I plan to keep in touch with everyone by sending updates and pictures. In turn, they have the opportunity to do the same.

Before departing from our first stop, the South Somerset Rest Area off of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I handed out the Starr Confidential Surveys for all to fill out. The weather was intermittent showers and sunshine. The high humidity was back. We all felt the change immediately when we stepped off the bus. Back to reality.

We stopped for lunch at the High Spire Rest Area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the 250 mile marker.  We were now on our final leg of this marvelous journey.

The passengers were all eager to arrive home. Most are contemplating their next Starr adventures. I compared the Starr Catalog and its luscious trip descriptions to a “candy store for adults.” My new friends agreed. I handed out the latest Starr catalogs from August and almost every person was eager to read one. I continued playing songs related to our Cross Country trip until we reached Bensalem. Pete Borowsky, Starr’s Vice President of Operations, was there with a big “Welcome Home” sign to greet us. He also welcomed us home by handing out Philly Pretzels, a really clever gesture signifying home foods. Everyone appreciated his thoughtfulness. Pete is the husband of Sandy who saw us off 26 days ago!

It took some time to move luggage to the respective shuttle buses and for the people to disembark with all their other carry on items. We all said our goodbyes and and gave each other hugs. Parting is such sweet sorrow!

 

What We Learned Through Experiencing This Magnificent Trip

The people on this trip are all fun-loving people seeking a good time. We may all be senior citizens or very close to it, but we laugh and have fun with more enthusiasm than most people in their twenties and thirties. Age is only a number. It’s your inner motivation, your desire to accomplish your goals and your dreams that really matters. Complete that bucket list and then create another. The more you do, the more you laugh, the younger you feel.

 


 

Click here to join us next year for a BRAND NEW Cross Country trip. The Starr team has been working hard for months planning this new tour with stops and attractions not on our previous Cross Country itinerary. I look forward to welcoming you on board and I’ll be there to experience it with you!

 

 

If you’re a past Cross Country traveler, if you’re booked for 2019, or still considering this trip of a lifetime, you are invited to join our private Cross Country Travelers Facebook Group by clicking here! Meet others on your trip, share memories from past trips, and get advice from those that have “been there.” We can’t wait to see you there! Happy connecting!

 

Wishing you fond travel memories to last a lifetime,
Gene Gray

Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2019 – Westbound – Part 1 of 2 

Our annual Cross Country trip returned last week! Starr Driver Hank Lyde and Tour Director Gene Gray led 32 travelers across our great country over the course of 26 days. On each of our trips, the Starr Tour Director is responsible for providing a write up of everything that goes wrong, and right, while on the road. Gene goes above and beyond to make sure his passengers are well informed, and entertained, and even manages to keep those of us stuck in the office entertained with his Tour Director report, which does not disappoint. Like last year, Gene’s report is a fun and vivid retelling of their adventures. For your reading pleasure, here are Days 1-15. Stay tuned for the second half of their amazing “Journey of a Lifetime” this Friday!

 

Day 1: Saturday, September 1

Off we go! After spending hours preparing tour bus #206 for this special trip, Starr Driver Hank Lyde and I motored out of the Starr lot on this late summer morning and over to the Hamilton AMC to pick up our first group of customers. On every seat was a folder with lots of information inside – information that I had spent hours (no, days) preparing for these deserving tour guests.

Starr’s Vice President, Sandy Borowsky, met us at the Bensalem departure location laden with snacks and to wish us all a fond farewell. The passengers were all eager to get going and extremely enthusiastic to begin our journey across this great country. We have 6 military veterans on board and we honored them by playing the Armed Forces Medley. Passengers applauded proudly for each Veteran. Our group is made up of 11 males and 23 females (including Hank and I). We had siblings, couples, friends, widowers and solo travelers aboard. And everyone was looking to have the time of their lives!

Just after we pulled out, I got to work! First, I sent a piece of paper around the bus asking passengers to write down any birthdays, anniversaries, or celebrations they were having during the month for which they wanted to be acknowledged. Next, I proceeded to play some Patriotic tunes to set the mood for the trip. I also honored one couple celebrating their 50th Anniversary by giving each other this trip as their wedding present with their wedding song, “Til” by the Angels. Thankfully I get lots of itunes gift cards for the holidays! I also provided ample and important “down time” for passengers to doze, read, or do their own thing. Before we knew it, our rest stop had come and gone and we arrived at our lunch stop.

After lunch, I took the microphone and began to review my 28 page Cross Country booklet along with the other papers I had collated into every passenger’s Starr folder. It wasn’t too early to discuss possible strategies in both Las Vegas and San Francisco. I wanted them to begin the process of planning their time in both cities and I was pleased that many questions were asked.

It was now time for our first movie of the trip. Since we were all completing some items on our bucket lists by taking this trip, I chose “The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. This was a big hit and enjoyed by everyone. After the movie, I overheard many people discussing their bucket list items and what they wanted to accomplish during this trip.

We completed our first day of travel by pulling into the Drury Inn in Dublin, Ohio fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Hank did a magnificent job of driving.

The staff at the Drury Inn was friendly, courteous, and efficient. I was handed the keys immediately and was able to give them to the waiting passengers on the bus within minutes. This gave everyone a chance to go up to their rooms, drop off their belongings, and enjoy the Kickback without rushing. The Kickback offered free pasta, hot dogs, baked potatoes, and tortillas along with drinks. It was a great way to relax with the passengers and talk after a long day of travel. By the time everyone had finished eating (and some took a walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner or to the mall), the luggage had been delivered to each room. It was a perfect start to a fabulous vacation.

 

Day 2: Sunday, September 2

Breakfast was plentiful thanks to the Drury staff. We departed on time and continued West on I-70 towards St. Louis. I played a few songs on the bus, discussed the history of St. Louis, and showed a video from the History Channel on the making of the St. Louis Arch. Soon, we reached our lunch stop at Bob Evans in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Lunch was delicious and enjoyed by all. Many were still full from breakfast and only ate lightly. Nevertheless, the staff was extremely efficient and friendly and we were on our way within an hour and a quarter.

I played a few more songs on the bus and showed a 30 minute video on Louis and Clark’s Journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804. After one more rest stop at the Illinois Welcome Center (where we all turned our watches back one hour), we made excellent time into St. Louis arriving a half hour ahead of schedule. I had called the Drury Plaza to inform them of our earlier arrival and they were ready with our keys and our porter service. The passengers had a good half hour to go to their rooms, get settled, and freshen up before 29 out of 32 of us boarded the Trolley for an optional fun tour of St. Louis.

We got the same St. Louis tour guide as last year! We stopped at the breathtaking Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis and took pictures both inside and out. We also stopped at the huge and impressive statue of King Louis IX of France, the King who gave land charters to the first inhabitants of St. Louis, and for whom the city is named. And our guide was kind enough to do a drop off at the famous restaurant, Sweetie Pies, a soul food themed restaurant started by Robbie Montgomery. Miss Robbie, prior to opening up her chain of three restaurants, was a back up singer to several musical artists such as Ike and Tina Turner, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Patti LaBelle. A collapsed lung shortened her singing career and she turned to the restaurant business, which was very difficult for a black woman in the 60s. Those that went, all enjoyed their experiences at Sweetie Pies, and checked off a bucket list item. All in all, we all enjoyed the afternoon. I am happy to see that many passengers are working to follow through on their own bucket list items and I assist them in fulfilling their wishes whenever possible.

Once we disembarked from the Trolley, two of our passengers accompanied me to the St. Louis Arch to pick up our tickets for tomorrow morning. The vast construction that plagued the area surrounding the Arch last year was completed and the Arch was reopened on July 3, 2018. The landscape and new entrance to the Arch was beautifully done. The Arch looks more magnificent than ever. It had taken seven years to complete the construction.

Many of our passengers took long walks around the city, following the map I provided, and enjoyed the city’s amenities. Others attended the Kickback in the Drury Plaza and called it a night. Carmen, Donna, and I proceeded to walk from the Arch to Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Ballpark Village that features restaurants and shops. The Cardinals had just lost a tough game in extra innings to the Cincinnati Reds, so all the fans wearing Cardinals gear were a bit subdued. We chose a restaurant, were seated immediately (I did ask whether they served Yankees fans and Carmen asked if they served Phillies fans to which the host replied with a big smile that they serve all fans). Dinner and conversation were wonderful. Following dinner, we walked back to the Arch to view it after nightfall. It was spectacular as shimmering lights reflected off of it from different angles. We strolled back to the Drury Plaza (one block away) and said good night, closing out a perfect Day Two.

 

Day 3, Monday, September 3

Again, breakfast was enjoyed by everyone. We all assembled a little before 8:00 AM to walk the one block to the St. Louis Arch. The cloudless sky was a deep blue. After a pleasant 5 minute walk, we had entered the newly completed entrance and were going through strict security. Belts came off, pockets were emptied, and bags were searched before we had to raise our arms up over our heads and saunter through the x-ray machine. One of our tour guests with about six pockets throughout his short pants was asked to go through the machine 5 times before he managed to empty all his pockets! Once through security, we met a Park Ranger who proudly introduced the spanking new Museum to us that also opened on July 3, 2018. She encouraged us to spend some time in the Museum after our trip to the top and we did just that.

The trip to the top of the Arch was fantastic. Whereas some found this an exhilarating experience, others with claustrophobia or fear of heights were petrified. However, I was proud that everyone in the group went to the top. Some had to work hard to overcome their fears and considered this a “one and done” experience. Most would do it again. The views from the top were breathtaking. We could see for miles and miles in each direction. The sun was casting a perfect shadow on the Arch from the East so many of our westward facing pictures included the shadow of the Arch in them. It was a unique time of day to take pictures from the top of the Arch.

After returning to the ground floor, many bought souvenirs, some sat and relaxed, and others meandered through parts of the Museum. Everyone was back at the Drury Plaza and ready to depart St. Louis at 10:45 AM. Thus began our journey southwest on I-44, parallel to Historic Route 66.

I discussed Route 66 and how it was decommissioned in 1985 due to the completion of our Interstate Highway System. Today Route 66 is making a comeback but 15% of the highway is still in disrepair from neglect. I played Nat King Cole’s “Route 66.” Then, Dennis Blevins, one of our tour guests, volunteered to sing “Old Man River.” He took the microphone and in his deep bass voice, performed a beautiful heartfelt rendition for all of us. He received resounding applause. Dennis sings bass in many choirs and performs in shows as well. It was a very special moment.

We stopped for lunch at the Cookin’ From Scratch Restaurant in Newberg, Missouri. The walls of the restaurant and adjoining shop were cluttered (in a good way) with antiques. They featured tools, cooking equipment, and signs from yesteryear. Route 66 signs and references were everywhere. The food was amazing. The specialty of the restaurant was their pan fried chicken and it was the best I’ve ever eaten; even better than the Amish. Comments I overheard from the passengers were that this was the best food so far on the trip. The owner, Tony, and the manager, Joy, were extremely welcoming. The service was excellent as well. This was Americana at its best.

After lunch, I played the History Channel DVD, “Modern Marvels: Route 66” about the history and construction of Route 66. The passengers gained much insight into this route’s importance to the success of our nation through the 1950’s.

We were 30 miles from our destination, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Catoosa, Oklahoma when the traffic came to a sudden stop. Just ahead of us was a car smashed and wedged under the back of a truck. The police and fire fighters arrived and and 35 minutes later, we were once again on our way. However, one mile down the road, we came to another abrupt halt and just sat. Fifteen minutes passed before we began moving again, but at a crawl. The second accident involved two tractor trailers, both wrecked badly. We eventually reached the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino at 8:00 PM, an hour and a half delayed. The passengers were patient and wonderful as we listened to music, ate some cookies and muffins, and simply talked and laughed together. We have a very special group of people on this Cross Country Trip. And, Hank is a magnificent driver.

We were met at the bus by Lindsay, the newly appointed manager of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. She was lovely as she presented me with the room keys and put a lei on every passenger as they stepped off the bus (you should have heard the jokes). We soon proceeded to our rooms and wished each other good luck in the Casino.

The Hard Rock has made many improvements to their Hotel since last year. The rooms were modernized a bit since last year and they put in a huge pool adjacent to the health center with in-water lounge chairs, a hot tub, a fire pit area with comfortable seats around it, and large bar. The tour guests enjoyed their brief time here.

 

Day 4, Tuesday, September 4

We had a few big winners last night and everyone really enjoyed the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. However, let it be known that it is easier to go through security at an airport than it is to get into breakfast at the Hard Rock Hotel. Not only do you have to hand in your breakfast voucher, you need to sign it and show them a picture ID. It took fifteen minutes standing in line before it was our turn to be approved to enter this sacred buffet. Luckily, the breakfast buffet was very good with a great assortment of foods including an omelet station.

We were on the road fifteen minutes late as passengers were scrambling to finish their eggs and other breakfast foods (pun intended). I proceeded to present my “Who Killed JFK?” lesson as an introduction to the Kennedy Museum. I handed out the “Kennedy-Lincoln Comparison” sheet to each passenger and discussed the coincidences such as “Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln” and “Lincoln was elected President in 1860 and Kennedy in 1960.” I then discussed whether Oswald was the lone assassin. I presented the Zapruder Film that clearly shows that Kennedy was shot from the front, not the back. Most of the passengers had never seen this film and were shocked by the information presented.

We had a very smooth ride driving into Dallas. As we entered the Dallas city limits, I (and I’m a Giants fan – go figure) led everyone in singing the Fly Eagles Fly song. Joe from our 2017 Cross Country trip and who led us last year sent me the words which I read as everyone sang. Since our version wasn’t sang as strongly as last year, it seems that the Eagles just might have a difficult time repeating as Champs (remember, I am a Giants fan).

The passengers were dropped off with their map and restaurant guide of Historic Dallas in hand. Everyone enjoyed their choice of restaurant, did some shopping in the Wild Bill’s Western Store, and succeeded in being on time for their tour of the Kennedy Museum at the old Dallas Book Depository.

We were each given a smartphone size audio device and a set of headphones to guide ourselves around the 6th floor – the floor on which Oswald supposedly took the shots that killed JFK. The first Museum displays featured life in the early 60’s, JFK’s and LBJ’s campaign for the Presidency, and the major issues facing Kennedy both at home and abroad. Then the theme changed to that fateful day, November 22, 1963 and Kennedy’s trip to Dallas.

The exact spot that Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly took his shots at the passing Kennedy motorcade is blocked off in plexiglass and recreated exactly like it was, with boxes all around the open window to hide him from view. As you look down to Dealey Plaza from the nearby window at approximately the same angle Oswald had, you see a painted X on the road below at the exact spot Kennedy was shot. One soon comes to the conclusion that Oswald could never have shot Kennedy from the front, and if he did take a shot and hit him, the bullet would only go into his back. Which leads to the question, “Who really killed Kennedy?” This question continues to remain unanswered.

The passengers really enjoyed the Kennedy Museum. Meanwhile, Hank was kind enough to take our luggage to the Holiday Inn Express. We drove to the Hotel and had an hour to freshen up before going to dinner at the El Fenix Restaurant.

We all sat in two long tables and ate family style. The service was wonderful as two young ladies put a plate of crushed tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream, and cheese in front of each of us. Next came the rice and beans which we passed around. Finally, they served the chicken, steak, onions, and pepper platters along with the tortillas to share. We each made our own delicious fajitas. Today was an educational, emotional, satisfying, and very successful day.

 

Day 5, Wednesday, September 5

Breakfast was good. Prior to departure, we took time to celebrate Darcy’s birthday. Another passenger had party hats and birthday beads and we put them on Darcy and other passengers and took pictures off the bus. Once on the bus, Dennis, our fabulous bass singer, lead everyone in singing “Happy Birthday.” Not to outdo Dennis, Paul McCartney then sang his song “Birthday” to Darcy. Unfortunately, Paul was not able to be here in person. Darcy later shared with me it was the best birthday celebration she’d ever had, which touched me greatly!!!

I played a few songs with a Texan theme and other songs from passengers’ requests and soon we were at our first rest stop in Bowie, Texas. This stop was pure Texas and Americana. The bathrooms were clean. The shop sold everything from leather goods, boots, Texan hats, ladies and men’s clothing, and food and travel items.

We rode quietly for the next hour and a half until we arrived at our lunch stop in Vernon, Texas. This stop had something for everyone. Seventeen passengers chose to go to Walmart to shop and find something for lunch. Fifteen chose a fast food establishment on the other side of the highway. Hank dropped off and picked up in both locations. We had a little over an hour to have lunch and shop. Everyone enjoyed their time.

Once we were back on the road, I played the fabulous movie, “Hidden Figures”. It took place in the late 50’s and early 60’s about three brilliant women working for NASA in Texas. It depicts racial discrimination and how NASA overcame differences to get John Glenn safely into space and back in 1962. The movie is mesmerizing and breaks stereotypes in a positive way. Everyone enjoyed the movie and many praised it.

We had a rest stop at the “Safety Rest Area” in Donley, Texas. It is a rest area “Texas Style” complete with a chuck wagon, “Living Out on the Range” information, and signs that say “Beware of Rattlesnakes.” We spent an extra ten minutes here taking pictures. Weatherwise, we had intermittent showers while on the bus and one heavier storm. Hank was grateful because the rain cleaned the bus and windshield of all the bugs.

After a stop at our hotel, we arrived at the Great Texan Steak Ranch and I took a group picture outside in front of the giant cow. We were seated right up front, adjacent to the stage where contestants try to eat their 72 ounce steak along with 3 pieces of shrimp, a baked potato, a dinner roll, and a salad in 60 Minutes. If they succeed, they get their meal for free. If they fail, they pay $72. While we were eating, two young men accepted the challenge and both failed. A fiddler and guitar player came over to our tables and played requests such as “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” They also sang “Happy Birthday” to two of our passengers. I invited the musicians to join us for the remainder of our trip, but they made some excuse and sauntered off to another table. They don’t know what they are missing! Everyone was so thrilled to be experiencing this extremely informal Texas Style steakhouse. Passengers were taking many pictures and sharing many laughs.

After dinner, everyone had an hour to shop for Route 66 and Texas souvenirs as well as explore the unique settings in which they could take funny photos in jail and on a large high chair. Everyone had a fabulous time. As a group, we have gelled into a friendly “family,” laughing and experiencing Americana together while traveling this great country.

 

Day 6: Thursday, September 6

After a very good breakfast, we celebrated Ann’s birthday by taking birthday pictures outside the bus. Once on the bus, Dennis lead us in another rousing version of “Happy Birthday” and she requested Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” as her birthday song. Request accepted!

We departed another Drury Inn and drove to Cadillac Ranch. It is an artistic anomaly with 10 Cadillacs representing the years 1949 through 1966 planted front end down into the ground with the fins of the Cadillacs sticking high up into the air. It was created in 1974 by three hippies from San Francisco and a billionaire who funded the project and provided a piece of his own land for the project. Each car is spray painted in psychedelic colors and has been totally stripped over the years. There are spray paint cans lying on the ground to encourage onlookers to paint their own idea. We took a few nice pictures and were soon on our way.

Our first rest stop was in New Mexico at the Welcome Center, just across the Texas-New Mexico border. It also marked the beginning of Mountain Time and turning our clocks back one hour. I encouraged passengers to gather a free color map of Old Town Albuquerque to use today. Many found free books and pamphlets on the state of New Mexico to their delight.

As we continued driving through New Mexico, the skies were overcast with patches of sun. The terrain was flat and dry with a mixture of green and brownish vegetation. The land was becoming desert like. You could see for miles from all sides of the bus. One could almost picture cowboys on horseback galloping through this territory. Railroad tracks were adjacent and parallel to I-40 West off the right side of the bus and soon we saw endless freight trains rolling down the track pulled by Diesel engines. We counted three different long trains in all. I played some Johnny Cash, John Denver, and a few other songs. Many people were tired so the bus remained quiet until our final 15 minute rest stop, 90 minutes from Albuquerque.

Hank did a great job driving through New Mexico. We arrived in Old Town Albuquerque and everyone was happy to spend two hours exploring this pretty section of town. The maps provided were extremely helpful. There were numerous shops selling gifts, jewelry, hot air balloon replicas, and clothing. Many fine restaurants lined the Town as well. The architecture of the buildings was Spanish adobe style with light brown colors. The passengers shopped, walked, and ate lunch. They really enjoyed their time in Old Town Albuquerque.

We then drove to the entrance of the Sandia Peak Tramway. When I arrived at the ticket counter, there was an announcement that lightening was sighted at the top of Sandia Peak and the tram was temporarily closed until the lightening passed by. Thirty minutes later, the lightening passed and the tram reopened.

All but one of us boarded the Tram as we crowded close together for the fifteen minute ride to Sandia Peak. The skies had miraculously cleared and the sun was shining brightly. The views were breathtaking. We were traveling 12 miles per hour up the mountain. As we go up, another Tram goes down which creates a gravitational pulley system. The ropes and overall system is tested and checked every day. The Tram Cars are replaced every twenty years.

Passengers took many pictures from the top. We were 10,300 feet above sea level! The air temperature was reported at 52° but with the sun so bright, it was very warm and my heavier jacket was definitely not needed. We strolled around on the man made wooden platforms and took beautiful pictures at different vantage points of the breathtaking scenery. The next Tram arrived and we were soon on our way back down the mountain. It was a magnificent experience for everyone. One comment I overheard was, “this is so magnificent, I can’t see how much more beautiful the Grand Canyon can be!” I just smiled and said, “Just wait.”

The Drury Inn Albuquerque was ready for us as we arrived and everyone was on their own after getting settled in. A large majority of our group took advantage of the Kickback for complementary drinks and dinner foods. Many were  excited about the Eagles beginning their season tonight (airing at 6:30 PM Mountain Time on NBC). Another wonderful day.

 

Day 7: Friday, September 7

The Savory Bakery delivered our wonderful boxed lunches and with the assistance of Carmen, one of our helpful passengers, I put each person’s choice of sandwich on their seat in a timely manner. The weather was gorgeous, crystal clear blue skies and mid 70’s temperatures, as we drove away. I reviewed the details of our itinerary and played a video detailing the formation of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. It contained many scientific facts and the passengers seemed to enjoy learning about it. Then I played the Western that won John Wayne his only Oscar, “True Grit,” also starring Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. Again, many really enjoyed this.

We have a lot going on with rest stops, time changes, and Port of Entry stops. The Navajo and Loves Truck Stop Rest Area is the best rest stop of our trip. The Navajo Center has some of the lowest prices on blankets, turquoise jewelry, and New Mexico and desert souvenirs. With the blankets from Mexico costing only $4.99, many passengers including Hank and I had no choice but to buy one, whether we needed it or not.

We continued west for 16 miles and entered Arizona. Our electronics jumped back one hour once again. We were now in the Pacific Time Zone and will remain in this zone for the next 12 days. A few more miles west, we entered the Port of Entry for Arizona. Hank had to bring all of the paperwork from the bus into the building where Arizona officials registered us and issued a permit.  Continuing west another 45 minutes landed us at the Visitor’s Center in the Painted Desert Petrified Forest National Park. We used the restrooms, many bought memorabilia, and we received a short newspaper with information about the Park.

We began our 26 mile drive through the Painted Desert.  I was now the Local Guide for this beautiful park with its scenic vistas and iron, manganese, and gypsum soil. It’s these three elements with varying degrees of oxygen that create all the colors of the rainbow in the rock formations and soil. We stopped at the Kachina Point Overlook and got our first breathtaking glimpse of the Painted Desert. After fifteen minutes, our next stop was Chinde Point where we found our picnic tables and ate our lunch.

After lunch, I devised a fun auction to give away 11 prizes from the generosity of Starr. I want to thank Mary and Jacque, two passengers, for doing a great job in running the auction. Every passenger received a piece of paper and wrote their name on it. Then, a prize was described. If a passenger was interested in that item, they put their name into a hat. One name was then called and the winner received the prize. The winner was now eliminated and could not put their name into the hat again. Papers were given back and then the next prize was introduced and interested passengers put their name into the hat once again. A winner was drawn and the prize was awarded. This went on until all 11 prizes were given away. The passengers all loved this.

We continued south and headed into the Petrified Forest. We stopped at three overlooks. The first, Newspaper Rock, depicted petroglyphs on rocks from thousands of years ago. The second was Agate Bridge. We saw a huge (reinforced) petrified log that spans across a water gap. The third stop, Crystal Forest, is the place where 15 of our passengers braved the warm sun and high elevation (5,826 feet) to complete a .75 mile hike into the back country of Petrified Forest National Park. We were surrounded by magnificent pieces of Petrified Logs, all sparkling like multicolored crystals. There are Petrified Logs as far as the eyes can see. The amazement and beauty of this area was appreciated by all the passengers.

Our final stop was the Rainbow Forest Museum & Visitors Center on the southern end of the Park. Passengers were able to view a video on The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, use the restrooms before our upcoming 90 minute trip to Flagstaff, and browse the gift shop.

Hank drove the final 75 minutes into Flagstaff, Arizona, gateway to the Grand Canyon, and after checking into the Holiday Inn, passengers were on their own for the remainder of the evening. This was another perfect day.

 

Day 8: Saturday, September 8

After a delicious breakfast at the Holiday Inn, we departed for the Grand Canyon on a brand new All Aboard America Bus driven by our new friend, Bill Scott. Hank chose to join us for the day on his day off as he has never been to the Canyon. We were happy to have him join us as a “vacationer.”

I discussed a few facts about the Grand Canyon and the Harvey Girls and played a DVD telling about the history of the Harvey Girls. Before the documentary ended, we were entering Grand Canyon National Park.

We parked at the Desert View overlook and it was here that the passengers caught their first glimpse of the most magnificent view they will probably ever see. The sun was being absorbed into brilliantly colored rock formations reflecting a magical illusion back to our eyes. It looked like a huge multicolored mural that an artist painted with water colors. I always say that seeing is believing and seeing the Grand Canyon creates an unbelievable sense of beauty beyond anyone’s imagination. Comments from our passengers included, “I can’t believe this,” “I’ve never imagined anything so magnificent,” “it doesn’t look real,” and “WOW.” For me, once again my sensitivity came through and tears wet my eyes. I was back home!

We met our local guide, Cowboy Bob, and began our two hour tour. Bob was extremely passionate about the Grand Canyon and showed us so many fabulous secrets as we stopped at different overlooks. At one overlook, Bob pointed out holes in the Canyon Walls that were carved by Native Americans who once lived there. Whenever an invasion was suspected by another tribe, they would move their wives and children into these holes for protection. Today, these holes are probably homes for bears. At one stop, Moran Point, named after Thomas Moran who was a landscape artist at the Grand Canyon, Cowboy Bob pointed out four amazing sights: 1. a series of formations that took the shape of a Battleship, 2. another formation that took the shape of a sinking ship, 3. a view of the swiftest and most dangerous rapids on the Colorado River registering a Class 8 on the 1 to 10 scale of rapid rating (with 10 being the most difficult), and 4. Bob pointed out that certain rock exposed at this overlook was Vishnu Shiest dating back 2 BILLION years, the oldest layer of rock known on Earth. Cowboy Bob was extremely informative and very funny with a wonderful personality.

Following the tour, the passengers were on their own at the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village for lunch, shopping, and the opportunity to walk the rim of the Canyon. We had two hours to eat and explore this section. Some ventured down the Bright Angel Trail for a short distance to experience the Canyon from within. The Trail is one of two trails that leads hikers all the way down to the Colorado River. Others shopped in the Gift Shop desiring to bring memories of the Grand Canyon home. But no matter what activities we chose to do, we had the time to experience the Grand Canyon in our personal ways.

Once back on the bus, we proceeded to the General Store for another half hour of shopping. Our final stop for the day was the new Visitors Center Complex along with a short walk out to Mather Point Overlook and another spectacular view of the Canyon. It has been a long productive day with absolutely perfect weather with temperatures in the mid 80’s. All the passengers were fully content as we said our goodbyes to the Grand Canyon.

The shadows and sunlight paint a different portrait on the Grand Canyon from hour to hour and overlook to overlook. The magnificent views never look the same from moment to moment. This is one of the qualities that makes the Grand Canyon so unique, thus earning it the distinction of being one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

We arrived in Flagstaff and the passengers were now on their own for the remainder of the evening. Today was another spectacular day.

 

Day 9: Sunday, September 9

We had another nice breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express. As we were leaving Flagstaff, Dennis shared his thoughts on the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and sang an amazing rendition of “America the Beautiful.”  His magnificent baritone voice resonated throughout the bus. He received a rousing sitting ovation (the bus was moving). We traveled Route 89A, the narrow winding road bringing us down 2000 feet into the beautiful red rocks town of Sedona. Shortly after our arrival in Sedona, Pink Jeep Tours took us for an exciting ride into the back country among the beautiful mountains – riding over large rocks, the famed Red Dirt of Sedona, and 30° inclines. The ride was bumpy and gently swayed us from side to side. The wonderful drivers made the experience exciting enough for each of us to get the sense of the rugged conditions of riding in the back country while keeping it gentle enough for us to thoroughly enjoy it.

Following the ride, we had two hours for lunch and shopping. I gave everyone a fun challenge to eat at Cowboy Bills and try the Appetizer Sampler. This plate consists of buffalo meat, cactus fries, and RATTLESNAKE sausage. And to my great surprise, 21 ate at the restaurant and 15 tried the rattlesnake sausage. All were happy they tried it and they had so much fun in the process. Lunch was a treat. It’s always fun to peek into the Western Stores, the fine boutiques, and the souvenir shops on both sides of Main Street in Sedona. It’s designed in a western setting and the views are just spectacular.

The stretch of highway from Sedona to Las Vegas, has no rest stops and no civilization. The first rest stop is at Exit 66 in Arizona, over three hours away. I kept the passengers occupied by first reviewing everything in their Las Vegas bag including my 11 page Las Vegas booklet. Then I showed the History Channel’s Documentary on Las Vegas, a 50 minute DVD. And finally, I played the 85 minute movie that was filmed in 1964 starring Ann Margaret and this singer from Memphis by the name of Elvis, “Viva Las Vegas.” It was an oldie but a goodie and was a perfect choice to set the mood for our two nights in the “Adult Playground.” So when we arrived at the Petro Truck Stop featuring a Duncan Donuts, we took 30 minutes to stretch our legs and shop in the store.

The Hoover Dam, originally named the Boulder Dam, lies at the border of Arizona and Nevada on Route 93 North. So as we approached the Dam, I announced to the passengers to have your cameras ready and look to your right. Hank slowed down the bus as we passed the Hoover Dam so we were able to take pictures. It is a powerful sight to behold with the solid concrete structure holding back mega gallons of water (Lake Mead) with what appears to be hundreds of electrical wires extending in all directions. One of the options for tomorrow is a five hour Tour of Hoover Dam.

My GPS along with my memory of the area helped Hank navigate the bus right into the unloading section of the New York New York Hotel. The porters were waiting for us and before I was able to return to the bus to hand out the keys to the passengers, the luggage was gone. I wished everyone good luck and told them to call me anytime if the need arose. They were now on their own until Tuesday morning at 8:00 AM.

After getting settled in my room, I met 8 passengers who wanted to see a Las Vegas show and guided them over to the discount ticket booth by the MGM. To my utter dismay and horror, I learned that the Beatles “Love” was now dark on Sundays and Mondays. The passengers laughed as I cried (all in fun), but we were all disappointed as I had built up the show. The ticket agent said “Love” had switched its dark days in June. GROAN!!!!! Instead, we were able to purchase tickets for Michael Jackson’s “One” by Cirque du Soleil for the 9:30 PM show that evening. Six of us bought tickets and made our way over to the Mandalay Bay by walking over two bridges and taking a free tram.

The show was very good. The special effects and acrobatics were a bit weak at first but really picked up later in the show. The Michael Jackson music was boooooming and you felt the vibrations throughout your body. I loved it. The visual effects were constant and came at you from all angles. It was a show that penetrated your being and expressed Michael Jackson’s music as well as his unpredictable and confused persona. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience as did Carmen, Cindy, Donna, Lina, and Sal.

We made our way back to the New York New York and went our separate ways. Craving a slice of New York pizza, I had a delicious midnight snack before turning in.

 

Day 10: Monday, September 10

The old adage is “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” Having said that, my report will be quite a bit shorter today since everyone is doing their own thing. What appears below is a summary of major activities by our 2018 Cross Country Tour Guests provided to me on Tuesday, September 11:

  • Visited with family
  • Visited The Aquarium at Mandalay Bay (and my inner child came out)
  • Walked the Las Vegas Strip
  • Saw Cirque du Soleil & Michael Jackson’s “One”
  • Went to the Pool at the New York New York
  • Took the 5 hour tour of Hoover Dam
  • Saw the Siegfried and Roy’s Tigers at the Casino
  • WALKED WALKED WALKED & Laughed Laughed Laughed
  • Saw “Vegas, The Show” at An Old-Time Vegas review featuring acts from the 1940’s to the 1990’s including the Casinos that are no longer around.
  • Walked 4 Miles on Las Vegas Boulevard also known as “The Strip”
  • Enjoyed my comfortable bed, the relaxing pool, great fitness center and equipment at the New York New York. The fitness Center also provided free fruit.
  • The whole experience of Vegas is wonderful. Exploring the inside of the Casinos during the day and walking The Strip at night was the way to go. The Venetian was my favorite. My legs almost gave out.
  • RENEWED OUR WEDDING VOWS in the Chapel at the MGM.
  • Loved the Fountain Show outside The Bellagio and the Volcano at the Mirage
  • Rode the High Roller Wheel at Bally’s
  • Watched the Fall of Atlantis at Caesars Palace
  • Rode the Monorail
  • Saw the Chihuly Glass Ceiling at the Bellagio
  • Seeing friends for the first time in over a year
  • GAMBLED GAMBLED GAMBLED

 

Day 11: Tuesday, September 11

Today was Jacque’s birthday so we began the day on a happy note with Dennis once again leading us in singing “Happy Birthday” to her. I also wished all of our Jewish passengers a healthy and happy New Year on this Rosh Hashanah morning. Before the bus pulled away from the New York New York, I lead everyone in a moment of silence to honor the 3000 who lost their lives 17 years ago. As Hank guided us outside of Las Vegas onto I-15 South towards Los Angeles, I reviewed the horrendous events that took place in 2001. Afterwards, I played Neil Young’s song, “Let’s Roll” to honor Todd Beamer of Cranbury, New Jersey who, with others, stormed the cockpit of Flight 93 and gave their lives to prevent another disastrous attack.

Our first stop was at the Calico Ghost Town, an old silver mining town in Nevada that was active from 1881 to the middle 1890’s. The buildings have been resurrected in their exact same place as they were in 1881. The passengers enjoyed exploring this little town.

We arrived at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City, California earlier than our itinerary suggested. Hank continues to do an outstanding job driving the bus and the traffic into the Los Angeles area was surprisingly light.

The weather continues to be perfect. Some passengers took advantage of the beautiful pool that sits in the center of the hotel. It also has a swim-up bar and serves food. Others were so tired that they retreated to their room. Some went out to a nearby restaurant for dinner. We are all anticipating tomorrow’s tour of the great city of Los Angeles.

 

Day 12: Wednesday, September 12

There was excitement in the air as Judy Parisi, our local guide and expert on everything Los Angeles, introduced herself to everyone. Judy is extremely outgoing and friendly and has a deep passion for her city. Ironically, Judy is from Passaic, New Jersey and moved out here 25 years ago.

We first traveled to the Rockefeller Center of Los Angeles, Graumans Chinese Theater, now named the TCL Chinese Theater. Judy showed us the infamous Hollywood Sign on the hill in the distance. Then, she spoke about the Dolby Theater, the Red Carpet, the Academy Awards, and how workers cover all the shoppes with fancy curtains so that viewers of the Academy Awards don’t realize the Dolby Theater is actually in a giant mall. Judy then led us down the Red Carpet steps (I don’t understand why officials did not put down the Red Carpet for us) and out to the Walk of Fame. Judy told a story about how Shirley Temple, at age 6, didn’t want anyone to notice she had lost a tooth so to take attention away from her face, she defied the rules and put her little feet in the cement, thus starting a new tradition. Stars became creative after this. Jimmy Durante, for example, put his nose print while George Burns stuck a cigar into the cement. The only couple together in one section of cement is Joanne Woodward & Paul Newman. A flower was placed at Burt Reynolds square who recently passed away.

The Tour continued as we drove past the Chateau Montmarte where John Bellushi died and the Vipor Room where River Phoenix died, the Rainbow Bar & Grill where Marilyn and Joe first dated, and famous landmarks such as the Beverly Hills Sign, the street the Clampetts drove down in the introduction of the Beverly Hillbillies, and the Jewelry Store on Rodeo Drive (we were not allowed to drive on Rodeo Drive) in which Julia Roberts was thrown out in the film, “Pretty Woman.” We also traveled on Santa Monica Boulevard and Route 66. Route 66 ends some 20 miles west at the Pacific Ocean.

We had two hours for lunch and shopping at the famous Farmers Market. Many tried the Corned Beef sandwich at famed Magees Kitchen. Blanche Magee opened the original sandwich shoppe that started a new trend. Originally, the Farmers Market was a place for local farmers to sell their products, paying 50 cents a day for the privilege. Mrs. Magee thought they might like to have lunch, so she filled a picnic hamper and started feeding them. After Magees opened, more entrepreneurs followed. Today there are over 80 eating establishments in the Farmers Market, not including the modern shops at the Grove, a single level mall adjacent to the property.

We continued our tour into South Los Angeles passing a school that was once the Ambassador Hotel in which Robert Kennedy was shot. We were shown Los Angeles’s City Hall Building that was used as the opening of the Adventures of Superman episodes in the 1950’s. Judy explained the creation of the new Disney Theater Complex and the location of the Staples Center, home of the LA Lakers and LA Kings.

Judy, our Tour Guide, was absolutely magnificent and told me she actually trained Chris, our Los Angeles guide from 2017, who has since left the company to pursue a career in voice overs.

We arrived back at the Sportsman Lodge to drop off Judy and 4 passengers who chose to relax rather than go to the Universal Citywalk. Hank and I gave the passengers 3 hours for dinner and strolling around. Everyone enjoyed this opportunity in the beautiful Southern California weather. Five of us ate at Bubba Gumps for the first time. The food was delicious and we all enjoyed each other’s company. We arrived back at the Lodge tired and fulfilled with another perfect day.

 

Day 13: Thursday, September 13

We packed up and drove out of Los Angeles at 8:00 AM and battled the rush hour traffic on The 101 until we were considerably north of LA. I played a few wake up songs and then, to the total enjoyment of the passengers, showed the first two episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies.

We arrived at the Santa Barbara Courthouse and eventually met our guide, Mike. The Santa Barbara Courthouse is a magnificent structure with Spanish and Moorish architecture. Brilliant artwork, open corridors, and massive hallways with high ceilings strike the visitor. Court was in session. An older, unshaven man locked in shackles was being escorted by an officer past our group. Women and men dressed in formal attire (most likely attorneys), were scurrying either into one of the many courtrooms or the huge Library to do their research. The guide spoke about the history and decor of the building. The hour passed quickly.

We were soon on our way to the equally magnificent Santa Barbara Mission. Missions are places of worship and sanctuary. Twenty-one missions were built from San Diego to San Francisco from the late 1600’s to the early 1700’s to provide a place for weary travelers to stay and to spread Christianity throughout California. Our passengers were able to complete their own guided tour at their own pace. Signs were strategically posted at every turn showing us where to walk. We saw a 10 minute introductory film in a small theater before strolling the hallowed grounds. We saw the mausoleum that continues to add to their numbers today (for a minimum of $30,000). Many passengers reflected for a short time in the large beautifully adorned church. Finally, we passed through the museum telling about the history of the Santa Barbara Mission as well as the lifestyles of the people living back then. It was a calm and serene visit, a distinct contrast to the busy Courthouse.

We traveled about 45 minutes north to the quaint Danish community of Solvang, with a population of about 7,000. With Scandinavian decor that included a large windmill, the passengers had about 20 food establishments to choose from and many different shops to walk into. Once again, our weather was perfect to walk outside with temperatures in the upper 70’s and clear blue skies. We had two hours in Solvang and everyone enjoyed this unique Viking village.

We traveled to San Luis Obispo and another Holiday Inn Express. The rooms were beautiful with brand new carpeting and wonderful amenities. After settling in some passengers left the hotel to explore San Luis Obispo. Many took the $.25 trolley into town to enjoy the Thursday Night Market and all of its food and entertainment. Some grabbed a light Italian meal or pizza across the street at Gino’s, and went back to their room. It was a productive evening and another wonderful day.

 

Day 14: Friday, September 14

This morning, we traveled to the magnificent Hearst Castle in San Simeon. I played a few morning songs and talked about the day. I then showed the A&E Documentary on Hearst Castle which proved to be a great introduction to the life of William Randolph Hearst. We arrived at the Visitors Center of the Hearst Castle and I effortlessly got the wrist bands and gave one to each passenger, including Hank.

I lead our group into the theater where we were treated to a 40 minute movie on the life of William Randolph Hearst. This film focused on the building of the Hearst Castle and the life experiences that young William had that influenced its furnishing and architecture. It was a great introduction to the Castle we were about to experience.

We rode the school bus to the top of the mountain where we were met by our knowledgeable tour guide. We then climbed many steps to different levels until we reached the Castle. One of our handicapped passengers was placed on the ADA bus and driven to the Castle from the school bus drop off point in a golf cart. Beautiful views, unbelievable architecture, and magnificent decor were the theme of the day. Tapestries hung from many walks. Statues stood proudly in their place. Elegant furnishings were strategically placed in each room. Hearst created a castle fit for European Royalty in a location that defied imagination.

We descended the mountain and ate lunch in the Visitors Center. We were soon on the bus and departing for a quick stop at the Elephant Seal Rookery. Before we arrived at the beach where these magnificent creatures crawl onto in order to molt, or shed, their outer skin, one passenger was extremely upset that she had left her camera back at the Hearst Castle Visitors Center. After staring in amazement at these fascinating Elephant Seals lying on the beach and rarely moving, we drove back to the Hearst Castle and fortunately retrieved the camera.

We were now on our way to San Francisco. Hank and I chose to follow both of our GPS directions that took us on the Pacific Coast Highway, Route 1. Hank did a marvelous job steering the bus through the many twists and turns of this two lane mountainside highway. The passengers relished in the absolutely magnificent scenery of the rugged Pacific Ocean, aqua in color, laden with beautiful rock formations and high cliffs. I played soft, calming music such as Lionel Richie and Johnny Mathis to keep the passengers relaxed as the bus ascended and descended the mountains for 60 miles. The passengers were very happy to have experienced the Pacific in all its glory.

At the end of Route 1, we arrived in the city of Carmel where Clint Eastwood was once the mayor. We found a shopping center with public restrooms and took a fifteen minute break. Once back on the road, I reviewed my San Francisco packet with all the different opportunities for tomorrow afternoon in San Francisco. I also discussed our walking together to the Alcatraz Pier 33 in the morning, and that I would get a cab for those passengers wishing to ride (I sent a sign up sheet around). We had 8 passengers riding. I then put on the movie “Citizen Kane,” the 1941 drama about the life of William Randolph Hearst created and starring Orson Welles. The passengers enjoyed this very much.

Once we reached The 101 North leading into San Francisco, we were in bumper to bumper traffic for 50 miles. We found out there had been a bus fire closer to San Francisco that forced the road closure. The road eventually opened. With all of our delays, we finally arrived in San Francisco at 7:20 PM.

The Hotel Zephyr was ready for us. I was given our keys and Hank and the Porter were removing the luggage. Soon the passengers were free to go to their rooms and get a quick bite to eat in one of San Francisco’s fabulous restaurants. It was a very long day, and extremely memorable.

 

Day 15: Saturday, September 15

The weather was sunny and 60° and visibility was clear as we boarded the ferry to Alcatraz Island. Once on the ferry, we were able to get beautiful pictures of both the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. Fifteen minutes later, we had completed the 1.25 mile span between San Francisco and The Rock. We learned that more than 5000 visitors a day make this trek. The large crowds are extremely well managed, kudos to our National Park Service.

Once we arrived at the Penitentiary we were handed headphones and an iPod-like device that provided step by step directions and historical information about each section of the prison with amazing sound effects that made you feel like you were right in the middle of the action. We were guided through Cell Block D also known as solitary confinement and jail cells with specific stories attached to them. Posters hung on the walls with facts on famous inmates and guards while still more posters explained breakout attempts. We were guided outside into the Recreation Yard, and finally into the Dining Hall. It took about an hour to complete the tour.

We were now on our own for the remainder of the day. Some stayed longer on Alcatraz Island while others took the ferry back earlier to make a timed tour in the afternoon. Some passengers went to Muir Woods, others hopped a trolley and rode around the city. A few took a tour of San Francisco by bus while others simply followed a map and walked. San Francisco has hills like no other city I know. My plan was to see the famous Lombard Street, and Hank decided to walk with me. So up we began climbing, one block, two blocks, panting instead of breathing. Only three more excruciating hills to go. We saw a trolley easing its way up the huge slopes and hopped on and got off three blocks later at Lombard Street. After a few amazing pictures (Lombard Street offers beautiful views of Nob Hill and other sections of San Francisco as well as its winding, steep slope), Hank and I hopped on another trolley to take us back down to bay level. San Franciscans are extremely fortunate that they never have to deal with snow and slippery roads.

Starr Driver, Hank on Lombard Street

It was a fabulous day in San Francisco. Everyone enjoyed their multitude of experiences. Tomorrow morning, we leave our hearts.

Click here to see more photos from this fabulous tour!

Join in on the fun on our BRAND NEW Cross Country Trip in 2019!

 

 

Cross Country By Bus Adventures 2017 – Eastbound – Part 2 of 2 

The journey continues! Part 2 of Starr Tour Director, Gene Gray’s Cross Country report covers Days 14-26 on this incredible “Journey of a Lifetime!” Read Part 1 here.

 

Day 14: Friday, July 7, 2017

We woke up earlier than usual this morning since we needed to be on the road at 7:00 AM. Our Silverado bus arrived and after we loaded the luggage, we rolled away on time.

The Hearst Castle visit was a fabulous experience. We saw an informative 40 minute movie on the building of Hearst Castle. Then, we boarded buses for a 15 minute ride up the long and winding road to the mansion. We met our guide upon reaching the top. She spoke about William Randolph Hearst’s love for Europe as a child, particularly Spanish architecture and style. He patterned his home based on his passions by including numerous statues, ornate doors, artistic tapestries covering the inside walls, and carved ceilings. His outdoor pool was being renovated because it had been leaking 5000 gallons of water per day and when the California drought hit in 2014, the state mandated it to be fixed. It should be completely repaired and refilled by this September. We entered his living room where all his invited guests would gather to meet “The Man” and at 7:00 PM, Hearst would make his appearance through his private elevator that connected his upstairs quarters to this room. Guests would just have to mention his art collections and Hearst would happily talk for a good length. We then walked into his dining room. A long table with twelve chairs on either side decorated with (simulated) porcelain place settings regally extended the length of the room. The room looked familiar to me and my (fading) memory was confirmed when our guide told us this room was used in the Harry Potter movies as the dining room in Hogwarts. After dinner, where else did royalty go but into the smoking lounge. Everybody smoked something back then and our guide showed us the black tar on the ceiling that still remains and mentioned that one person comes in when crowds are down to painstakingly clean off the tar with a special liquid and a q-tip. Next door was his theater filled with comfortable seats for his private movies. After all, he produced more than 180 movies himself. We were shown slides of some of the famous people who visited his Castle including Hedda Hopper, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Warren Harding, FDR and countless others.  Hearst also challenged Wimbledon champs to games of tennis on his outdoor courts. Hearst loved showing off his life’s accomplishments to people. He even said he would rather spend a month on the top of his hill than be anywhere else in the world. After roaming the grounds, we caught the bus down the mountain.

We had plenty of time for lunch and strolling around the gift shop. Doug Murphy, our Silverado driver to San Francisco, was so caring of the passengers’ needs and kept feeding me information along the route to share with the passengers. Doug has a wealth of knowledge about this area.

I took the time to review my San Francisco packet with the passengers. Again, my goal is for them to have a plan for tonight and tomorrow afternoon.

Due to San Francisco Giants traffic at AT&T Park, we arrived at the Zephyr Hotel at 7:00 PM. This is a wonderful hotel with nice amenities situated in the most perfect part of San Francisco. I was so pleased that every passenger had a plan for this evening and everyone was talking about plans for tomorrow after Alcatraz. I saw many passengers hustling to Safeway to buy breakfast items while others headed to IHOP for dinner. Many went to scout out Pier 39 and have a late dinner. I took a practice walk to Pier 33, the Alcatraz Ferry, so I’d know how to lead the group. It took me 12 minutes exactly to walk there at a moderate pace. Then I went to Pier 39 and ate the most delicious New England Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bread Bowl. I made arrangements for me to go to Muir Woods tomorrow at 2:00 PM. We are all meeting at 8:45 tomorrow morning at the Hotel entrance to walk to Pier 33. I’m also arranging for a taxicab to take our passengers who have difficulty walking to Pier 33.

Our new Starr Driver, Tom Lardani had landed in California. After taking a taxi to Solvang, he boarding our Starr bus and drove up to South San Francisco where he would spend Friday night. After dropping Buddy at the Greyhound Station, Tom headed over to the Zephyr Hotel.

 

Day 15: Saturday, July 8, 2017

We arrived at Pier 33, got our tickets and boarded the Ferry to Alcatraz. Once again, the weather was gorgeous with morning temperatures in the sixties.

It was a pleasant twelve minute ride to The Rock. The Ferry holds 300 people and this Ferry had 300. In fact, we were told that Ferries to Alcatraz are booked through the middle of August. Everyone appreciated Starr’s advanced planning upon hearing that. Upon arrival, we received a brief introduction from a Park Ranger and then headed up the switchbacks to the fourth level, The Top of The Rock. We were handed our very own set of headphones and electronic device that guided us around the Penitentiary.  We heard the excellent commentary and stories from inmates and guards alike. You felt like you were in prison and directly in the thick of everything. It was an exhilarating experience to see and learn what life was like in Alcatraz. Alcatraz really wasn’t as bad as its reputation dictated thanks in part to the first warden who wanted each inmate to have his own cell to avoid fights and disagreements, eat food that was decent since he knew that the worst behaviors took place in the dining hall based on poor food, and exercise often. For the deserving inmates, good behavior meant time outside in the courtyard to socialize and play games such as baseball and basketball. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating spending prison time anywhere.

The hour flew by. It was so entertaining and interesting. I will play the DVD “Escape from Alcatraz” tomorrow on the bus. This true story was heavily featured on today’s tour. We then walked down the hill and waited for our Ferry back to San Francisco. We disembarked exactly 4 hours since leaving our Hotel this morning.

We were now on our own until tomorrow. Many of us walked to Pier 39 for lunch while others headed for their afternoon activities. Suddenly we heard a voice behind us say, “Make way for bike riders. Join the nude bike riders.” We stopped and looked and took in the scene. Seven guys, all ages, and one lady were riding their bicycles. Only the lady was partially clothed. The guys wore nothing. They hopped off their bikes to walk in the extremely crowded walkway of Fisherman’s Wharf. All we could do was laugh while other tourists took pictures. This is San Francisco!!! We shouldn’t be surprised by anything!!! And the bike riders gave new meaning to the San Francisco freedom movement!

My passengers and I separated for the day and did our own things. I had a delicious sandwich and cup of clam chowder for lunch and then hopped on a bus for a ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods. I had a great time walking through the Giant Redwoods. I saw other passengers who had taken a different tour at Muir Woods as well. I returned back to San Francisco and met up with Tom Lardani for dinner so we could discuss certain details of the trip. Later, we happened to meet up with 2 of our passengers on Pier 39 and the 4 of us had dinner together at a delicious seafood restaurant named Louis. Both Tom and I ate Calamari. It was prepared to perfection. I finally returned to my room at 9:15 PM after another different, exhilarating, and fun-filled day. Tomorrow we begin our trek Eastward with our very own Starr Bus. The passengers were excited to see our bus parked outside our hotel. It’s a return to normalcy for all of us.

 

Day 16: Sunday, July 9, 2017

We departed San Francisco as Tony Bennett’s music serenaded us. Passengers loved San Francisco and the talk on the bus centered on the bicycle riders. We shared the many ways we were able to enjoy and find our way around San Francisco. Many did tours, many took the hop on hop off buses, and some rode the trolleys. Walking around and shopping was another favorite. We crossed the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and settled onto I-80 East. I put the movie “Escape From Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood on the DVD player. Having seen Alcatraz yesterday, everyone could relate to the movie and most watched intently.

We passed the Donner Pass named for the Donner Wagon Train that got stuck in November snows as they were traversing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Out of the 87 people traveling, only 48 survived and their only food supply was the bodies of those that died. The 48 survivors completed their journey to California when the snows melted.

We arrived in Tahoe City before noon and enjoyed this beautiful area for 2 hours. Passengers walked around this picturesque town, shopped in many unique shops, and ate a good lunch in a restaurant of their choice. The Boathouse Mall was very small and included 2 restaurants overlooking the Lake, one souvenir type shop, and a handful of different shops. Walking down the street for a block or 2 opened up an array of restaurants and shops. Many passengers fell in love with Lake Tahoe and hope to return here one day.

We continued traveling East through the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains. The scenery was so different than anywhere else we experienced. We were all taking in the rugged terrain dotted with a few Ponderosa Pine and spectacular array of color. As we entered into the state of Nevada, I played the theme song from Bonanza as we all pictured the Cartwrights riding their horses on this terrain.

Later we arrived in Winnemucca, NV for our overnight.

 

Day 17: Monday, July 10, 2017

Today was a traveling day 300 miles through Nevada and into Utah. I started the day playing “Good Morning Starshine” as our morning song. I now have passengers secretly dedicating songs to their spouses. They request a song from me, and if I don’t have the song, I’m able to download it from iTunes. There’s a lot of romance on this bus, and it’s so great to watch everyone having a great time.

After a quick, scenic rest stop, we drove another 2+ hours to lunch at the last exit in Nevada. In fact, the electronic devices all advanced one hour in time.

I showed the DVD “I Will Fight No More Forever,” the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians and how they were so wrongly treated by our American Government in the 1870’s. It’s a sad and heartbreaking movie. Tissues were needed at the end (especially by me) and the large majority of passengers intently watched. I would show this movie to all my classes on the last 2 days of school each year. I wanted to leave my kids with an appreciation of all people and show the horrors of discrimination. Every year, as the movie ended, the kids would look at me and say, “Mr. Gray, are you crying?” I couldn’t answer!!!

We continued traveling through the salt flats of Utah. Then, on our left, appeared the beautiful Great Salt Lake. We were able to pull into a State Park overlooking the Lake. We all walked around and took many beautiful pictures. The weather was sunny and 93° with 22% humidity. Another perfect weather day. After 20 minutes, we boarded the bus, drove to the Hampton Inn, and arrived exactly on time. Passengers had a little over an hour to freshen up before meeting the bus at 6:00 PM for dinner at nearby Christopher’s Steakhouse.

The manager greeted us at the door and we were all seated in a spacious multilevel section of the restaurant. The restaurant had a warm ambiance that was reinforced by the terrific and friendly wait staff that took our drink orders and served us a delicious plate of greens with a tasty dressing. Our main course, all 3 choices, were cooked to perfection and enjoyed by every passenger. I was never on a trip before with a large group of people where 100% were completely satisfied and had nothing but “that was absolutely delicious” and other great comments to say. The beef and chicken were very tender and juicy while the ravioli was extremely tasty. The meal was capped off with a generous portion of New York Cheesecake. Everyone was stuffed and walked out praising Starr for choosing another fabulous restaurant.

Since we were only 3 blocks away from the Salt Lake Temple, Tom agreed to drive us over to it. I gave everyone 20 minutes to walk around and take pictures. The Temple is located in a square with an art museum, the Tabernacle, and the Assembly Hall, that served as the first Mormon Temple while the main Temple was being constructed. We were allowed to enter all the beautiful buildings except the Salt Lake Temple. That is strictly reserved only for Mormons. The architecture for each structure is different and unique. Whereas each was striking and beautiful in its own way, the Mormons were not into overly ornate designs. The passengers appreciated this last minute stop and it was a wonderful way to end another very different day on our terrific journey.

 

Day 18: Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Today was a day of travel from Utah to Wyoming back into Utah then into Idaho for 10 miles and finally back into Wyoming for good. We traveled scenic Route 89A that not only weaved through the above states but also followed the meandering Snake River overlooking the beautiful mountains of the Rockies. We stopped for lunch in the small 3-block town of Afton, Wyoming.

Continuing onto Jackson Hole, we drove through more amazing scenery. The mountains were majestic with colors of whites, reds, and grays. The surrounding countryside was a lush green with pine trees growing in abundance. Cameras were snapping from both sides of the bus. We arrived in Jackson Hole ahead of schedule. The 49er Hotel was ready for us and the manager even got on the bus to greet us upon our arrival.  The Town Square of Jackson Hole is only 3 short blocks east and 1 short block north. It was an easy walk for most passengers. There were closer restaurants to the Hotel for passengers who wanted to stay local.

I walked into town and stopped in a few shops before dinner and ice cream. I saw a simulated gunfight on the streets of the square and bought a few souvenirs.

 

Day 19: Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It’s Tom’s day off today so we have hired a guided tour bus to take us to Yellowstone. We were all up earlier than usual and were pleased with breakfast at the 49er Hotel. This is a really different, but cozy, hotel. Many of us had fireplaces in our rooms. When you open the door to your room, you enter the sink area of the bathroom. And in the room were rags for cleaning shoes, removing makeup, or drying your motorcycle, as the little attached notice suggested. I used a rag to clean off the screens on my iPhone and iPad.

Our Alltrans driver/guide Jesse arrived and promptly told us that the deluxe motorcoach that he was supposed to drive us in today had broken down yesterday so they had to substitute this 36-passenger (non-deluxe) vehicle. Jesse was very personable and extremely knowledgeable. About 30 minutes into our driving tour, we heard an explosion coming from the rear right side of the bus- pieces of thin wood flew up onto passengers seated back there and the vehicle began rumbling down the road. We immediately pulled over. One tire completely blew apart in the middle of nowhere. The explosion actually blew a hole in the floor. Luckily, no passengers were injured. However, the view of the Grand Tetons was beautiful.

Jesse jumped into action and called his company. A few minutes later, a State Patrolman pulled up and inquired about our status. He was wonderful. He treated this like an accident and stayed with us throughout this long ordeal. When the new bus finally arrived (on the flatbed), the officer stopped traffic to facilitate the transfer of vehicles. After an almost 3-hour delay, we were on our way to Yellowstone (again). I am very thankful for the patience of our wonderful passengers. (Note: Each passenger received a $60 refund for this unplanned part of our trip.)

We finally reached Yellowstone Park. Jesse narrated constantly, no breaks, no coming up for air. Although his information was fabulous (I took 8 pages of notes), the passengers drifted in and out on his words. This was similar to Chris, our Los Angeles Tour Guide. I guess these one day guides must think that silence means they are not doing their job. Despite this, the passengers learned a lot and were amazed at his knowledge.

The passengers loved Yellowstone and we missed no stops. We wanted the passengers to get a full taste of the amazing geothermal activities that this region produced. That meant that we would have to extend our day by 2+ hours. At 1:00 PM, we arrived at Old Faithful. It was scheduled to go off at 1:00 PM. As we pulled into the parking area, there she blew. We saw it from the bus. The next eruption would be at 2:30 PM. So, we had an hour and a half of welcomed time to eat lunch, shop in the gift shop, and stop in the Visitor’s Center, all at Old Faithful Inn. Old Faithful was right on time, spewing water 170 feet into the air (it averages about 130 feet, so this was even more spectacular). After Old Faithful settled down, we were soon back on the bus and continued onward to the Fountain Paint Pot stop, a ½ mile total boardwalk walk that overlooked many unusual natural features. We saw and smelled bubbling and steaming sulfuric water holes, bubbling mud pits, and small mineral geysers that erupt constantly and when the wind is blowing in the your direction, you feel the calcified water hitting you. We then proceeded to the Upper Falls, our first glimpse of the mighty Yellowstone River carving out the gorge. This was spectacular. We all took pictures of each other with the powerful rushing water in the background. Then it was onto Artist Point aka The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The scenes were breathtaking. Everyone marveled. The cameras were clicking. We stood in awe and disbelief at nature’s artistic abilities.

We arrived back at our hotel by 9:00! Once again I say, “All’s well that ends well.” It turned out to be another memorable day.

 

Day 20: Thursday, July 13, 2017

I promised the passengers that I would let them rest on the bus this morning in total silence. We each had a good breakfast and departed on time. Johnny J’s Diner in Casper, Wyoming graciously agreed to take us for lunch at approximately 1:00 PM. We have 500 miles of traveling today through some rugged terrain and beautiful scenery. After I told the passengers about our lunch stop within the first 20 minutes of our trip, there was total silence on the bus. Most were dozing off, others pondered the magnificent mountainous scenery, while some enjoyed reading and doing puzzles.

After a brief rest stop, we continued on to Casper. Johnny J’s is a nostalgic 1950’s Diner with pictures of Lucille Ball and others on the wall. They serve old-time milkshakes in those tall, thick glasses that brought me back. The food was good and enjoyed by everyone. The servers and management were very welcoming.

The passengers were more awake after lunch. I showed the 50 minute History Channel Documentary on Mount Rushmore. Since we’ll be spending time in Iowa in a few days, after our rest stop, I played Don McLean’s song, “American Pie” followed by the video “The Buddy Holly Story.” The plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Richardson crashed in Iowa in 1959, “The Day the Music Died.”

We continued to Deadwood, SD boasting, “The Town That Keeps the Wild West Alive” as its motto. The architecture of the town is original from the 1880’s. You can envision a lawless town, with people being shot from their 2nd floor balcony, falling onto a short roof below, and onto the ground. The passengers really enjoyed walking up and down the street and learning where Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed while playing poker. In fact, the hand he was holding, the ace of spades, the ace of clubs, the 8 of spades and the 8 of clubs, has become known as the dead man’s hand.

The Mineral Palace and Casino was the most friendly and welcoming. They provided us with our own personal wine, cheese, and meats reception. They gave us free bungee cord devices, and put a rubber duck on each of our bathtubs to take with us. Many passengers walked the town and went to bed by 10:00 PM. Tomorrow is a very early departure.

 

Day 21: Friday, July 14, 2017

Another beautiful day weather wise. Bright sunny dark blue skies, warm temperatures in the upper 70s with little humidity. A perfect day for viewing Mount Rushmore. We had a perfect breakfast (in my opinion but not the opinion of a few passengers) at the Mineral Palace consisting of pineapple, strawberries, grapes, and sweet rolls.

The ride to Mount Rushmore was an hour and 20 minutes. Anyone can describe Mount Rushmore as being sculpted in granite and be able to name the four Presidents who are immortalized in stone there, but to actually see it in person is awe-inspiring. For many of the passengers, this was the key reason they took our trip. It had been a bucket list item for them their entire lives.

Since I was here last in 1978, a Presidential Trail was built that loops around the base of the Monument. Many passengers and I walked this mile loop taking many magnificent close-ups of each President. It was here I met a group of ten to twelve year old boys who were part of a camp being chaperoned by some of their dads. Two of the boys were so eloquent in their speaking and excitedly described to me how they built their own shelter at the campground they are staying using a tarp and wood. And how the strong winds at night did not knock it down. Then, they looked up at Mount Rushmore through the sweet smelling pine trees and said, “God brought us here. We are so blessed to be here.” To which I answered, “You are blessed to see this at your age. I’m with 34 people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who feel blessed like you do. It is their first time seeing Mount Rushmore and they are as inspired as you are.”

We had ample time to walk the loop, study the Monument, shop in the gift shop, view the ten minute movie in the Visitor’s Center, and get something to eat in the cafeteria. Next, we were off to Wall Drug Store. I’m still inspired by my conversation with the two boys.

After arriving at Wall Drug, many passengers ate immediately while others scouted out this massive department store all under one roof. We ate, walked around, shopped, and met the bus at 1 PM for departure to the Badlands.

We entered the Badlands at the Pinnacle Entrance and stopped at 5 key points that show the diversity of these beautiful sandstone formations. We enjoyed viewing the magnificent pinnacles infiltrated with brilliant reds, yellows, and whites. At one stop, we saw Prairie Dogs standing at attention and ready to ward off any intruder by its high shrill bark. Other Prairie Dogs were foraging around their holes, looking for something to eat. At the scenic overview called Panorama Point, we saw 2 Bighorn Sheep crossing the road and climbing effortlessly down into the rough terrain of the Badlands. They began eating the tumbleweed and thick brush vegetation below. We snapped pictures of both the Sheep and the beautiful scenery, which could be seen over 30 miles away on this glamorous clear day. Our final stop was a short minute bathroom stop, souvenir stop, and information stop at the Easternmost Visitors Center named the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center. We departed after a wonderful 2 hour drive through visit. That completes our National Parks for this Cross Country Trip.

We lost another hour as our clocks jumped ahead 1 hour into the Central Time Zone at approximately the 200 mile marker on I-90 in South Dakota. The skies continued to be a perfect blue with no clouds. Temperatures were over 100° outside but extremely comfortable in the bus. No movies today. People rested, talked, and slept on this day that began at 4:00 AM for most with our personal wake-up call or alarm. We arrived in Mitchell, SD at 8:00 PM. Another magnificent day of driving for Tom, who is outstanding to work with and a wonderful driver.

 

Day 22: Saturday, July 15, 2017

We began the day with a good breakfast and departed the hotel for the Corn Palace. Once inside, we saw a 15 minute video on its history. Our guide then spoke about the huge panels of mosaics hanging on the walls completely made of corn. Fabulous artwork. The passengers enjoyed this “different” attraction that portrays Americana at its very best.

In the morning, I showed the movie, “The Three Amigos” to add some humor and levity, knowing that I was planning to show a very sad tribute movie after lunch. Many passengers enjoyed the movie while some slept through parts of it or did word puzzles.

We stopped for lunch at The Ranch Family Restaurant in Fairmont, Iowa.

As we crossed the Minnesota-Iowa border into Iowa, the state where the plane crashed in 1959 killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and P.J. Richardson aka The Big Bopper, I put on the movie, La Bamba. It portrayed the difficult childhood of Ritchie Valens, his rise to fame, and his sudden death in Iowa at age 17. There wasn’t a dry eye on the bus. Following the movie, I played the music of Holly, Valens, and Richardson to complete the tribute. It wasn’t long after the music ended that we entered Dubuque and were at the Holiday Inn Express. Tom did another outstanding job of driving.

 

Day 23: Sunday, July 16, 2017

We all learned a positive lesson, today. As sung by Frank Sinatra, “My Kind of Town, Chicago Is.” The skies were overcast for the first time as we left Dubuque after a wonderful breakfast. We crossed the mighty Mississippi and entered into the Land of Lincoln within 5 minutes. Iowa and Illinois were both relatively flat states with corn growing as far as the eyes can see.

I began the morning by playing “My Kind of Town” by Frank Sinatra and celebrating Marcia’s birthday with a favorite song chosen by her. I then briefly spoke about the history of Chicago, being in the most perfect location for access to the transcontinental railroad, Lake Michigan, and the Mississippi River and thus could easily ship manufactured products all over the country dating back to the 1870’s. I then discussed the Navy Pier and the Skydeck before I turned off the microphone for a while.

At exactly the 2 hour mark, we arrived at the Belvedere Rest Stop, an oasis of restaurants and shops, about 90 minutes West of Chicago on I-90. The passengers enjoyed this unexpected opportunity to shop. I took 2 great pictures here; one of the ladies shopping for jewelry and one of their husbands standing with their pockets hanging inside out with no money left. Everyone had a good laugh.

As we began to see the Chicago skyline in the distance, I played 8 classic songs from the group that shares the city’s name, beginning with “Saturday in the Park.” Tom, once again, made great time getting us into Chicago and we arrived at the Navy Pier at 11:45 AM. The passengers were told to meet the bus at 3:00 PM. They were very pleased with the amount of time they had to play on the Pier.

The Navy Pier is a most enjoyable place to just hang out in Chicago. The huge Ferris wheel stands out as the first landmark you see on approach. The skies continued to be overcast, but not a drop of rain fell. As the day progressed, the sun started to peak its way out and more people converged onto the Pier. There is a plethora of restaurants that include both fast food and sit down at the Pier. Being a baseball fan, I had to eat at Harry Carey’s, the late, great announcer for the Chicago Cubs who would always lead the Wrigley Field faithful in the 7th inning stretch rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I actually met and dined with other passengers who had the same “need” as I. Three hours flew by and we all reconvened at the Bus Drop-off spot.

We had a short ride to the Willis Tower and the Skydeck. We all got off the bus and meandered our way inside to elevators that took us downstairs to begin our tour. There was a 10 minute looped video that many chose to see prior to taking the elevator to the top. Once at the top, the views were spectacular.  What had been a 1 mile visibility earlier was now about 30 miles. Once again, we were blessed. We got a chance to step out onto the Skydeck, a very weird feeling – almost like being suspended in mid-air. We all enjoyed taking many unique pictures. The passengers really enjoyed this wonderful experience.

Many passengers took advantage of their night in Chicago by walking around the city, eating at a suggested restaurant, or stopping in some stores that were still open on Sunday evening. Some grabbed a quick bite to eat directly across the street from the hotel at a pizza restaurant or a hamburger restaurant. Since it was Marcia’s birthday, Nancy and I took her out to the Italian Eataly in Chicago, about 6 short blocks from our Hotel. You can find anything dealing with Italian wines and foods in this 2-story grocery store/restaurant complex under one roof. It’s similar to the one in New York. We had a delicious dinner and Marcia was very appreciative. I ordered black spaghetti. It contained calamari and squid ink among other ingredients. It was very tasty but my mouth and teeth became black from the sauce. We all had a good laugh.

Before going to sleep, I completed all 34 awards for the passengers and they are now ready to hand out at our Farewell Dinner in Pittsburgh. It took me 2 hours.

Everyone loved the Fairfield Inn and its central location. The entire Fairfield Inn staff was extremely courteous and welcoming to us. Another great and memorable day was had by all. We loved our small taste of Chicago!!!

 

Day 24: Monday, July 17, 2017

We boarded the bus to prepare for another long day of travel. With the majority of our great trip behind us, I’ve overheard people beginning to look forward to getting home.

I played my morning song of the day, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” as we pulled out of Chicago. That was followed by “Chicago” and “My Kind of Town,” both by Sinatra. I played a few patriotic tunes and one request. And then silence prevailed so people could rest. I discussed the life of Ray Kroc, owner of McDonalds, since Ray Kroc opened his first McDonalds just north of Chicago. After lunch, I showed the video, “The Founder,” the story of Ray Kroc and the founding of McDonalds. Most of the passengers really enjoyed this and it was the talk of many people once we arrived at our Hotel.

We arrived at our hotel in Canton, Ohio at 5:15 PM. I can’t believe tomorrow is our Farewell Dinner. It has been an absolutely marvelous trip and I’m so fortunate to have had this opportunity.

 

Day 25: Tuesday, July 18, 2017

After breakfast we drove to the Fannie May/Harry London Factory. Our visit included an introductory video, walking tour and time to shop. Everyone enjoyed the Fannie May/Harry London shop and factory tour. The Guide was knowledgeable and served us many samples of their delicious chocolate. She pointed out that you can tell the more experienced chocolate makers by the color of their bonnets they wore while working. She also said the factory produces chocolate Mondays through Thursdays for 20 hours a day. To cap off our tour, we each received a spoonful of gelato, either vanilla or lemon, to clean our pallets after eating the chocolate.

After, we arrived at MAPS Air Museum and broke up into 4 groups. This is one fabulous Museum. We were guided by actual Sergeants or experienced personnel from the armed forces. They focused on the type of each aircraft, when and where it was used, and a riveting story to go along with the plane while used in combat. They even spoke from their personal experiences, which is unusual for a Veteran. He then introduced us to their Museum. He spoke about women in WWII and discrimination, black people such as the Tuskegee Airmen and discrimination, and how things have improved but we still have a long way to go to reach equality.

We stopped at the food court in the Belden Mall for a fast bite to eat. I told the passengers to eat lightly since we have a 5:30 PM reservation for dinner. Everyone was wonderful as we pulled away from the Mall at 1:30 PM. Pittsburgh was a short 2 hour drive away.

We arrived at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel and shortly after headed over to The Grand Concourse Restaurant in Station Square. I made a short speech saying how much everyone has inspired me throughout the trip and I thanked them on behalf of Starr for traveling on this trip of a lifetime. I hope to see them all again on future trips with Starr. I then handed out my Cross Country by Bus statistics pages to each; they absolutely loved and appreciated this complete summary of our trip. Finally, I gave out Awards. I read each one individually and handed it to the passenger while others applauded. Every person received positive accolades from me and applause from their fellow travelers. After I gave out the last award, one of the passengers stood up and thanked me for being the best Tour Director. To which I bowed and thanked everyone for their applause. At that moment, dinner was served. The delicious salad was served first followed by our main course. The Crab Cakes were outstanding. We had a wonderful apple turnover for dessert. Everyone enjoyed their dinner and reveled in each other’s company.

 

Day 26: Wednesday, July 19, 2017

We departed Pittsburgh for home and arrived mid-afternoon. Sandy Borowsky (Alan & Renee’s daughter) greeted us with a big smile. Once all luggage and passengers were on their respective shuttles and we said our goodbye, we pulled away. It’s been an absolutely marvelous trip and I’m already looking forward to doing this wonderful Cross Country by bus trip again in September 2018!

Cross Country By Bus Adventures 2017 – Westbound – Part 1 of 2 

Our 26-Day Cross Country trip returned earlier this week after driving over 7,300 miles across our great nation and seeing dozens of historic sites, iconic places, national parks, and more. After each trip, the Starr Tour Director is responsible for providing a write up of everything that goes wrong, and right, while on the road. Starr Tour Director, Gene Gray’s report is a fun and vivid retelling of their Cross Country adventures. For your reading pleasure, here are Days 1-13. Stay tuned next week for the second half of their amazing “Journey of a Lifetime!”

 

Day 1: Saturday, June 24, 2017

I had been anticipating this trip for over 6 months and the day was finally here! The heavy rains poured down on us as we pulled away from the Starr garage and headed to our first pick up in Hamilton. Once in Bensalem, we met our 3 shuttles from our outlying pickup locations. Finally, when everyone arrived and all bags were accounted for, Starr’s owners, Alan and Renee Glickman bid us a fond farewell (with some snacks) and off we went into the sunset, err, sunrise (the skies were actually clearing and we saw the first sun of the day).

I went over the safety regulations, welcomed everyone through song and speaking, and before we knew it, we found ourselves pulling into our first rest area on the PA Turnpike.  We then continued west. The trip was smooth with no traffic as we left Pennsylvania, drove briefly through West Virginia, and proceeded into the state of Ohio. I showed the epic 1962 movie, “How the West Was Won” throughout this part of the journey.

We arrived at the Drury Inn hotel in time for their “Kickback” (free food and drinks) and everyone seemed very pleased! Our first day was a successful one. We have a diverse group of wonderful, friendly people who are extremely pleased and excited to be on this “Trip of a Lifetime.” Our driver, Buddy Maphis, did a magnificent job behind the wheel. Tomorrow we continue on to St. Louis.

 

Day 2: Sunday, June 25, 2017

After breakfast, as we were heading westward, it wasn’t long before passengers in the middle and back of the bus began telling me about how bouncy the bus was for them. I went to the back and sat, and sure enough, I began leaving my seat on certain stretches of the road. I immediately told Buddy about this and he took control of the problem from there. During our lunch stop, Buddy was able to contact Starr’s mechanics who found a company to fix the problem. A 6am appointment for Monday morning was made to bring the bus in to a shop that specializes in Prevost busses. Lucky for us!

After the Cracker Barrel we had planned to stop at for lunch had an unexpected crowd, we continued traveling west while I scampered to find a place for us to eat lunch. Thanks to my copy of The Next Exit, the wifi on the bus, and my iPad, I found a Bob Evans just fifteen miles away. I called and they were very happy to accommodate us. The service and food were very good and the passengers enjoyed it. We were soon on our way to St. Louis.

We arrived in St. Louis at our next Drury Inn right on time. After placing our personal belongings in our rooms, 30 of us boarded the tram for our optional 90 minute tour. The Guide was very knowledgeable and interesting as we drove through the streets learning about the old mansions, Forest Park where the 1904 World’s Fair was located, as well as the Budweiser Brewery. After the tour, the passengers enjoyed another “Kickback” for dinner. Later, some went for a walk to the Arch, some walked to Cardinals vs. Pirates ESPN game of the week at Busch Stadium (just down the block), while others decided to relax in the comfort of their room. I walked to the Arch and was able to secure our tram tickets for tomorrow.

 

Day 3: Monday, June 26, 2017

Buddy drove the bus to the garage while I met our passengers for another fine breakfast. During breakfast, Buddy called me from the garage and said the bus had been fixed! It had “snapped a pin” (probably from a large pothole) near the shocks in the rear of the bus. The bus was repaired, checked thoroughly, and given routine maintenance.

Meanwhile, I handed out the tickets for the tram ride to the passengers and organized a walk to the Arch. The tram ride to the top was unique, with 5 of us squeezed into this tiny cubby (but we became good friends afterwards). The view was spectacular and the passengers who did not suffer from height anxiety loved this excursion. After we returned back down to civilization, passengers enjoyed the gift shop, some viewed the movie, and then took a slow walk back to the hotel. Buddy had already returned, loaded our luggage, and soon we were on our way to Oklahoma, right on schedule.

We had a delicious buffet lunch on Route 66 in Rolla, Missouri at the Sirloin Stockade’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Upon pulling out of the restaurant parking lot, I played the song, “Route 66,” and showed a History Channel documentary on Route 66 to the delight of the passengers. Upon entering Oklahoma two hours later, I played more music (“Oklahoma”) and showed half of the movie.

We arrived at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Catoosa (Tulsa) at 6:15pm. The casino provided each passenger with a casino package and we were on our own for the remainder of the evening.

 

Day 4: Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Breakfast began with most of us (including me) having to return to our room to get our driver’s license in order to be allowed into breakfast! In addition, we had to sign that breakfast coupon in 2 places. We all began making jokes that next, they’d prick our fingers and require blood samples. Even with these strict regulations, we realized the Hard Rock was an adult playground and was fun for one night.

Back on the bus, my passengers surprised me by singing “Happy Birthday.” I felt extremely touched. In just a few short days, I’m feeling the close bonding of a wonderful group of people. We headed to Dallas through isolated rainstorms until we reached the Texas border where the weather cleared, but it was a hot and a humid 87°. I presented the passengers with a Kennedy lesson composed of 2 parts. First was the Lincoln-Kennedy comparison titled “Does History Repeat Itself.” The second was titled “Who Killed Kennedy” and featured the Zapruder film. The passengers loved it and based on their enthusiastic discussions, it was the perfect introduction to our day at the Kennedy Museum Sixth Floor Depository where Oswald supposedly killed Kennedy.

Our passengers are comprised of an equal number of Eagles, Giants, and Cowboys fans. However, upon entering Dallas, one of the Eagles fans sang the Eagles Fight Song and all joined in on the fun.

The passengers were all instructed to view the map I provided on Historic Dallas and have a plan for themselves when they got off the bus. Their one stipulation was they had to find their way and walk to the location of the Book Depository to begin our Tour of the Kennedy Museum at 2:45. I had a delicious lunch at the Spaghetti Warehouse while others ate at their choice of about 15 establishments. And, to my delight, everyone found their way back to the Depository on time.

We were given headphones and an iPod-like device that would constitute our guided tour. It turned out to be fantastic as everyone went through the Museum at their own pace and interest level. For me, I’ve been teaching about this for 40 years and couldn’t believe that I was actually in Dealy Square in Dallas. I got very emotional. The Museum was even better than I imagined. The best part is when you looked out of the window at the angle Lee Harvey Oswald shot his rifle and realized that he could never have been the one to kill Kennedy. Many passengers who were first realizing this too became upset, angry, and bewildered. And they wanted to know more. It was a great experience.

Our driver Buddy, as always, was wonderful. While we were playing in Dallas, he drove our luggage to the hotel and got our room keys. So, when we arrived at the hotel we were able to relax in our rooms for a solid hour. Dinner at El Fenix Restaurant was delicious. We talked and shared food family-style and laughed for over 2 hours.

I told the passengers they all successfully completed their first test today and passed. They were on their own in a strange city and were able to orient themselves and find their way. I emphasized the importance of this skill because they’ll have many more opportunities to find their way in strange places in days to come. They were proud.

 

Day 5: Wednesday, June 28, 2017

This morning we took a leisurely ride “Deep in the Heart of Texas” to Amarillo. (You can guess which songs I played today.) By leisurely, I mean that we stopped at a really neat rest area for 30 minutes with plenty of Texas style shopping available. And, we stopped at a great shopping center for lunch with a Super Walmart for lunch and shopping across the street. The weather was beautiful, about 90° with 23% humidity. I showed the magnificent 2017 Academy Award winning video, “Hidden Figures.” It takes place in Texas (Houston) and was extremely uplifting for all (no pun intended since it had to do with the brilliant minds working for NASA at the time of John Glenn’s space flight).

We arrived in Amarillo with time to relax before dinner at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. After taking a group photo by the giant bull, we were seated. The atmosphere was all Texas. Stuffed buffalo heads and deer with antlers hung from the rafters overlooking a giant room packed with tables and people. Straight ahead of us, in front of the kitchen, was the raised platform for customers taking the 72 oz. Steak Challenge. A young woman soon climbed up to the table on the platform and was ceremoniously announced as the next contestant. She was served and the timer began – she had 60 minutes to finish or pay $72. Meanwhile, most of us ate a 16 oz steak with baked potato and string beans (others ordered chicken or the veggie platter). I believe I was the only person to finish the entire steak (groan). It was delicious and the evening was a lot of fun with time to shop and take pictures in their unique settings.

By the way, the young woman ate a quarter of the steak and took the rest home.

 

Day 6: Thursday, June 29, 2017

Five minutes into our ride this morning, we noticed the Cadillac Ranch on our left and stopped for pictures. Ten Cadillacs were buried halfway with their front ends sticking up at an angle by two hippies in 1974. They are continuously spray painted in psychedelic colors and are a clever representation of art on the prairie. Bruce Springsteen has a song about it, “Cadillac Ranch,” which I, of course, had to play.

We continued on I-40 into Albuquerque, NM. The scenery has begun to change. Red mesas and buttes began popping up and the ground was parched. Route 66 ducked in and out to our right. I played the video, “True Grit,” the 1969 western starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell.

We arrived in Old Town Albuquerque for lunch and shopping. The temperature was 96°, the humidity was 3%, making it feel a comfortable 89°. It was a delightful change from our 90° and 90% humidity at home. Old Town Albuquerque had the feel of a Mexican or Spanish market with Native American relics thrown in the mix. People were actually selling jewelry from blankets placed on the sidewalks. The passengers once again used their maps and found their way nicely.

At the Sandia Peak Tramway, we caught our tram to traverse the mountain. During the 15 minute ride, the scenery was magnificent as we ascended to the 10,000 foot mark in elevation. We then stepped off of tram at the peak and walked around the top for 15 minutes until the next tram made its way up to bring us down.

We arrived at our next Drury Inn exactly as scheduled and the passengers were on their own for the evening with a mall across a small street to walk to if they wished. Tomorrow we hit Canyon Country!

 

Day 7: Friday, June 30, 2017

Everyone woke up anticipating a great day at Petrified Forest National Park and they certainly got what they were expecting and more. The weather was warm with no humidity, about 86° without a cloud in the sky. Breakfast at the Drury Inn was wonderful and enjoyed by all.

We left Albuquerque and made our way to Arizona. I explained a few facts about the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert and then showed a 20 minute documentary to reinforce the ideas. We stopped at a rest area in Gallup, NM that featured a Navajo Welcome Center and a Loves Truck Stop. The ladies excitedly commented that this was the best rest area as they walked out with Turquoise earrings, necklaces, and bracelets for 60% off the regular price. The men weren’t commenting, but they bought a few things as well. Once back on the bus, we crossed into Arizona and our electronic devices jumped back one hour. I explained to the passengers about why Arizona stayed in standard time (because of the heat, they did not want to extend the daylight hours further into the evening). I also explained that the Hopi Reservations in Arizona did change to daylight saving time. The bus went through Arizona’s Port of Entry and we arrived at the Petrified Forest National Park.

As we pulled in, our electronic devices jumped ahead one hour. We must have been near a Hopi Reservation Tower. We all got a kick out of that. Buddy began our tour through the National Park with me as his copilot. We stopped at 2 of the first 3 scenic overlooks and couldn’t believe the beauty. The vivid and contrasting colors were striking. The passengers and I were excitedly taking many pictures of the scenery as well as family and group pictures for each other. The enthusiasm was a sight to behold. We are becoming a close knit group and caring about each other.

We stopped for lunch at a fabulous picnic spot under a metal awning. Passengers took their boxed lunches from The Savory Fare Café and really enjoyed their sandwich and all the extras that came with it like fruit salad, macaroni salad, chips, and a brownie. It felt awesome picnicking in 86° temperatures with no humidity in such a magnificent landscape.

We continued our tour of the Park arriving at the Petrified Forest half. Each stop had its unique features; a Bridge of a large Petrified log over a vast cliff, small Petrified pieces scattered for miles, and finally, the greatest of all, Petrified wood all around us so that we could walk up to each piece, touch it, and take pictures. There was also a ¾ mile walk into the badlands that 7 of us took. The Petrified logs were spectacular along this trail being all different shapes, sizes, and brilliant colors. Nature is the greatest artist of all. We all took many pictures and the walk was just what we needed. The exercise felt invigorating and the day was exhilarating, to say the least.

We passed Winslow, AZ on our way to Flagstaff on I-40, so I had to play “Take It Easy” by The Eagles. Upon our arrival at the hotel, the gentleman handling our luggage met us immediately and got to work. The keys were ready for me and I handed them out to the passengers on the bus as is now customary. Buddy was going to Walmart for supplies and graciously took passengers who needed some things with him. Others went to dinner at one of the suggested restaurants. The restaurants were very close to the hotel and the passengers were able to walk without incident. Some passengers did a load of laundry before retiring for the night. A great day was had by everyone.  We are all excited about seeing the Grand Canyon tomorrow.

 

Day 8: Saturday, July 1, 2017

Today was as exhilarating as it was an exhausting day. Breakfast was superb with a spread of many different varieties of breakfast foods. We boarded the All Aboard America Bus as Buddy was washing our bus inside and out. It was his 8th day of work and thus his mandatory day off. I am not sure Buddy knows what a “day off” is! I begged him to rest today and he assured me he would after finishing up. Jan Duncan was our driver. He was very friendly and personable. He was a very good driver as well and enjoyed being with our group.

We met our Grand Canyon Harvey Girl Guide, Gail Solis, at 9:30 AM at the Desert View Watchtower Overlook. This was a perfect and beautiful view point for our passengers to first lay their eyes on the grandeur of the Grand Canyon. They could see the mighty Colorado River meandering through the colorful gorge and climb to the top of the watchtower to get a different perspective of the Canyon.

Our guide took us to 3 overlooks, all spectacular, while imparting many facts and stories about the Grand Canyon. For example, there exists a reserved area under lock and key for people who secure a permit to hold their wedding ceremony overlooking the Canyon rim. She also explained the differences among the 3 major types of trees along the rim; juniper trees, pinion pines, and Ponderosa pines. She then took us around the Grand Canyon Village telling us the history of the Bright Angel Lodge, the El Tovar Hotel, and the Hopi House.

I gave the passengers 2 hours to roam around the Village area (which had different spectacular views of the Grand Canyon) and the hours seemed to vanish in minutes. We all ate lunch, shopped for souvenirs, and viewed the Canyon in all its glory. Lunch in the Bright Angel Lodge was delicious. I joined 2 Starr couples and enjoyed eating and chatting with them.

We then drove to the newly built Visitor’s Center Complex which included the Visitor’s Center, another Grand Canyon Store, a Museum, and bathrooms. Upon leaving the bus to walk into the Visitor’s Center, I spotted a huge elk nibbling on grass just a few feet away so I alerted a Park Ranger. About 20 minutes later, the elk had been escorted to safely frolic in a remote section of the park, but we were able to snap a few pictures before he left.

I purchased a video at the Canyon about the history of the Harvey Girls and showed the video during our trip back to Flagstaff. The passengers seemed to enjoy it. We arrived at our hotel exhilarated and exhausted after a full day of sensory stimulation.

 

Day 9: Sunday, July 2, 2017

After a great breakfast we began rolling and headed south towards breathtaking Sedona, AZ. Traveling on Route 89A was beautiful and hair raising as the right side of the bus was adjacent to a cliff as we meandered down this steep decline. Passengers feared looking out the window but Buddy kept us safe! I was playing Arizona songs including the song, “Sedona” by Donna Loren which helped everyone relax. We arrived at the Pink Jeep Tour to embark on our badlands tour of Sedona. Six passengers chose not to ride the Jeep Tour so they strolled around the quaint shops in town.

After meeting our Pink Jeep Drivers, we broke up into groups of 6 and climbed up into our jeeps, buckled our seat belts, and drove off the blacktop and up into the hills of Sedona. Each driver/guide spoke about the history of Sedona as we turned right, up a hill, and then a left onto a dirt, rocky road. And the bouncy bouncy began. Our driver identified the different trees along the road as the jeep’s tires, which are made of the same material as a bulletproof vest, rolled over rock after rock while swaying us from right to left and back to the right again. The driver showed great driving skills to keep the Jeep from rocking too badly over this rugged terrain. It was great fun and everyone enjoyed the experience.

We stopped at the halfway point to get out, stretch, and take some pictures of the Jeep and wondrous landscape. The Drivers were kind to organize a group photo and took all of our devices and snapped away. The dirt we were standing on was the famous and sacred red Sedona earth, filled with iron. The dust got onto our shoes and I told everyone to be proud of your now reddish tinted shoes. That was Sedona dust!!!

The return trip was just as bumpy as our driver skillfully maneuvered our Jeep over the rocks. He spoke about the animals that live in the area as well as the geology of the area (same as the Grand Canyon). He told us Sedona has used up 93% of its legal building land and cannot grow much more or build more homes. That’s why the average home costs $500,000 and since the average income for a family in Sedona is only $45,000 per year, most workers live away from the city. We reached the blacktop once again and soon our Pink Jeep Tour was over. The passengers all loved the experience and felt that they accomplished something unique in their lives (and survived).

We had 2 hours for lunch and shopping in this quaint 3-block town nestled beneath these gorgeous red rock sculptures in the distance. One of our passengers, challenged me to join him and his wife for lunch at the Cowboy Club. He was going to try rattlesnake sausage, buffalo meat, and cactus fries. Being in the frame of mind to try new foods, “When in Rome…..” I shrugged my shoulders as to say “Why not?” and walked across the street to the Cowboy Club.

The menu said, “Appetizer Sampler: Cactus Fries, buffalo skewers, rattlesnake sausage, with prickly pear sauce.” After hemming and hawing, I ordered it. And 15 minutes later, this plate of “food” was set in front of me. The server explained each item and he said to enjoy. Each food was actually delicious. The rattlesnake sausage tasted like a mild pork sausage and by dipping it into the prickly pear sauce, added a mildly hot after taste. The most mouth-watering was the buffalo. It tasted like a tender steak with a mild lime sauce. I ate the entire platter. And 6 hours later (while writing this), my stomach feels great.

I did some shopping, met up with many of our passengers, and soon walked back to the bus. Our next rest stop wouldn’t be for 3.5 hours (since there’s no stop anywhere in the Desert until Kingman, AZ). It was an absolutely beautiful day in Sedona, 85°, 6% humidity, and a mild breeze. And we were on our way to VEGAS!!!

I took the time to review my 12-page Las Vegas packet with the passengers. My goal is for them to have a plan for tonight and tomorrow. Some booked the Hoover Dam Tour while others began finding exact change for the Deuce shuttle. I then spoke briefly about the history of Las Vegas and showed a 50 minute History Channel video on Las Vegas. The trip on I-40 was long, the land was a big desert filled with tumbleweed plants, dry and flat, with very little scenery. When the video concluded, I let calm pervade the bus for a while. About an hour later, I put on the video, “Sunset Boulevard.” Some watched, some read, some slept. Finally, we saw a rest stop in the distance. Was it a mirage or a real form of civilization? It was real so we made a stop!

We passed the Hoover Dam 30 minutes from Las Vegas on the Nevada Highway and Buddy slowed down  so passengers could take pictures. He has done an absolutely marvelous job. Not only is he a great driver, he cares so much for the welfare of the passengers. He’s constantly keeping the bus clean in every way. Everyone’s comfort is his main objective.

We arrived at Las Vegas’ New York New York Hotel & Casino at 7:00 PM. After going up to my room, I made plans with 10 passengers to get tickets for tomorrow night and then travel by the Deuce to Downtown Las Vegas at Fremont Street. We got tickets for Cirque du Soleil’s “Love” featuring the music of the Beatles. I’m scratching off another from my bucket list.

Downtown Fremont Street under the 500 yard projection screen was wild!!! Four live concert bands were performing on stages, including an Elvis impersonator. Many individual performers displaying their talents included artists, guitar players, and contortionists. Restaurants and bars stood at every angle. And, I’d rather not describe the attire of some young ladies and men. They received their tips taking photos with the gawkers. A fun time was had by all. We took the Deuce back to the hotel and returned after midnight.

 

Day 10: Monday, July 3, 2017

Today was our day in Vegas. I met a friend from my past who moved to Las Vegas 20 years ago and he and I went out for brunch. At 4:00 PM, 5 passengers and I who bought tickets for “Love” were planning to meet and take a nice walk to the Mirage.

It was a relaxing walk to the Mirage. It was hot, but not unbearable. We chose a wonderful Italian Restaurant in the Mirage and enjoyed our dinner. At 9:00 PM, the doors to the theater opened. The next 2 hours whizzed by. “Love” by Cirque de Soleil was the most indescribable show I’ve ever seen. The spectacular acrobatic performers, the ultra-amazing special effects, and the fabulous music by the Beatles were described by another passenger as a “Magical Mystery Tour.” Masterminds created the most unique interpretations of the Beatles songs in movement, acrobatics, and special effects.  It was truly a sensory explosion!!!  I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Following the show, we decided to walk back to the hotel. We caught the Fountain show outside of the Bellagio and arrived at the New York New York Hotel after midnight…again!

 

Day 11: Tuesday, July 4, 2017

At 7:45 AM, many sleep deprived passengers and one sleep deprived Tour Director boarded the bus for our ride into Los Angeles. I asked the passengers to voluntarily jot down (I sent around 2 clipboards and pens) their highlights in Las Vegas. After compiling them, the following were the highlights our passengers shared regarding their accomplishments in Las Vegas:

  • Saw the Beatles Cirque du Soleil Show, “Love”
  • Saw Michael Jackson’s Cirque du Soleil “One”
  • Visited Fremont Street in Downtown Old Las Vegas “Under the Giant Projection Screen”
  • Went to the Mob Museum off of Fremont Street
  • Walked through the different Hotels including the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Mandalay Bay, MGM, Mirage, Venetian, Paris, the Wynn, and the New York New York
  • Accomplished the CSI Experience
  • Took the half day tour to the Hoover Dam
  • Saw the show “Legends in Concert”
  • Saw the show “Motown Hitsville USA” at Planet Hollywood
  • Ate at Pamas Brazilian Grill at Planet Hollywood
  • Good dinner on Fremont Street at the Paradise Cafe
  • Dinner at Portofino’s at the Mirage

As we rolled away from Las Vegas, I honored America’s Birthday by playing 4 patriotic tunes that included “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “God Bless America,” and “God Bless the USA.” I was texted 4 more requests from passengers on the bus! Soon, we entered California and I played “California Here I Come” by Al Jolson. I spoke to the passengers about the history of Calico, our next stop. We arrived at Calico Ghost Town and had plenty of time to walk into the Museums, the quaint shops, and the food establishments for lunch. The passengers enjoyed Calico, even though the temperatures were in the upper 90’s. At 1:00 PM, we were on the road to Los Angeles. I put on the movie “La La Land” for the passengers to enjoy before arriving at the Sportsmen’s Lodge.

The Sportsmen’s Lodge is a wonderful and picturesque hotel and the passengers were on their own for the evening.

 

Day 12: Wednesday, July 5, 2017

I had 8 hours of sleep, and it was greatly needed. The passengers commented that they were out as soon as their head hit the pillow. The “Adult Playground” of Las Vegas does that to you.

I met our Los Angeles Tour Guide from Tucker Tours, at 8 AM and we planned out the day. Chris is a 5-year employee, 25 years old, and is a wealth of knowledge about every section of Los Angeles including Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Sunset Strip, Century City, and Hancock Park. We got off the bus 3 times throughout the day; first, at the Chinese Theatre where Chris actually guided us around to the Dolby Theater, home to the Academy Awards and the infamous Red Carpet. The Stars’ “Walk of Fame” and the “Hollywood Sign” were also part of this stop. Chris commented that anyone deserving of a star, and about fifteen new ones are chosen each year, must pay $25,000 each. The money goes to daily maintenance including power washing and cleaning.

We rode all around Hollywood, the Sunset Strip, and Rodeo Drive. Many streets with famous homes are blocked off and it’s illegal for a bus to drive down them. In fact, it was Lucille Ball who fought hard for her privacy from tour buses and eventually won in court. The law is known as The Lucille Ball Law.

We arrived at the Farmers Market and Chris told us his top 3 places to eat. I joined Chris, Buddy, and about a third of our passengers at McGees, the first eating establishment to open at Farmers Market in 1934. It served the most delicious corn beef sandwich I’ve eaten in a long while. It was lean and not salty at all. We then strolled around the Farmers Market and The Grove, shops adjacent to the Market.

We continued our bus tour of downtown Los Angeles and passed places like the beautiful stainless steel Walt Disney Concert Hall built in 2004 and the current Robert Kennedy School, an Elementary, Middle, and High School complex which was built on the exact location of the Ambassador Hotel where Bobby was assassinated in 1968. Our last stop was the Mexican Market on Olvera Street.

It was a magnificent day as Chris and Buddy worked brilliantly as a team to teach us more than we ever knew about The City of Angels. Buddy commented that Chris, by far, was the most complete and knowledgeable Los Angeles Tour Guide. The passengers greatly appreciated Chris’s knowledge and delivery of information. He was very interesting to listen to. I took 10 pages of notes!

We returned back to the Sportsmen’s Lodge where they offer a free shuttle to Universal Studios including the Universal Studios CityWalk that borders the park. CityWalk features many fine restaurants, shops, and a food court and it’s free to walk around. Some passengers and I took the shuttle. We had a light dinner, did some shopping, and returned back to the Lodge in the early evening.

It is so heartwarming how we have gelled as a group with everyone caring for and respecting each other. Passengers make it a priority to meet time deadlines every day. We are all having a tremendous experience.

 

Day 13: Thursday, July 6, 2017

We departed LA right on time and drove to the Santa Barbara Courthouse. Cubby took us around for an hour telling us how the Courthouse was designed to reflect a Spanish castle and explained the meaning of the beautiful frescoes that adorned their main meeting room.

Our next stop was the Santa Barbara Mission. I gave each passenger a brochure with a map and they were on their own to explore. It was an easy tour to follow as signs always pointed you in the right direction. There was an 18 minute video and then an easy walk. The walk took us to the mausoleum, cemetery, church, and museum. It was very solemn and peaceful there.

The weather continues to be perfect. Temperatures in the mid-80s with low humidity. Santa Barbara is another beautiful city that many passengers would choose to live. They’ve said that about most cities on our tour thus far.

We boarded the bus for our 40-minute trip to Solvang and lunch. Buddy was not feeling well so, after dropping the passengers off in this quaint Scandinavian style town, I accompanied Buddy to a nearby hospital to get checked out.

I stayed with Buddy and kept in touch with the passengers via text and phone from the hospital. Tests were done and since the doctor could not guarantee that Buddy was 100% well enough to continue driving, we started developing a plan B. Naturally Buddy was upset. As he lay in the ER, he kept thinking of possible solutions and the welfare of the passengers.

I’ve only been with Starr for less than 2 years and the work ethic, connections, and the ability of management and employees to solve problems in a timely manner ceases to amaze me. Within 2 hours, Starr secured a new Starr bus driver (Tom Lardani), a plan to have him meet us in San Francisco, hotel rooms for both Buddy and Tom in Solvang, and most important, transportation for our group from Solvang to our hotel in Santa Maria and then transportation from Santa Maria to the Hearst Castle and onto San Francisco on Friday.  As far as the passengers were concerned, our itinerary will continue as planned and they were given 2 extra hours in Solvang while we waited for the Silverado driver/bus that our company hired.

When I knew Buddy was stable, I used my Lyft App to get a ride to where our passengers were waiting. I wanted to be with them when the Silverado Bus arrived. After boarding the bus, I directed the driver to the hospital where our Starr Bus was parked. Luckily, many passengers volunteered to help transfer the luggage from our Starr bus to the Silverado Bus. We then realized the greatness of porter service at each hotel and not having to drag our heavy luggage around!

We got settled in at the Radisson in Santa Maria at 7:00 PM and many of us had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. The passengers, despite the upheaval, were in good spirits, concerned about Buddy’s health, and content that there will be no gaps in their trip.

This day, therefore, can be summed us as “Great teamwork all around,” by Starr, Silverado, and Passengers on this marvelous Cross Country Adventure. We all love Buddy, will miss him, and wish him good health!!! (Note: Buddy made it back home – via Greyhound as he doesn’t fly – and is feeling much better. He hasn’t been released to drive yet but we expect he will be soon!)