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Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2018 – Part 2 of 2: Eastbound

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 By Bus Adventures – Part 2 (Eastbound)

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!

New Year’s Travel Resolutions for the Young at Heart – Cross Country

“Travel More” is a common New Year’s Resolution, but like many resolutions, it will easily fall to the wayside without ideas and plans for how to make it happen. Throughout the month of January, we’ll be offering a destination a week on our blog with New Year’s Travel Resolution destinations that you should check out to fulfill your “Travel More” resolution!

Traveling across the country is a free spirited dream held by many. The open road, endless possibility, and the chance to see so much of our beautiful country is such a tempting idea. When we get out of our daily routine and travel away from home we gain perspective, embrace new challenges and passions, and find fulfillment. Traveling across the country truly is a vacation of a lifetime and it is about time you experienced it!

cc-2017-max600x600On our 26-day Cross Country by Bus tour you’ll be guided by an experienced driver and knowledgeable tour director who will make your trip effortless and stress free so you can fully experience every fantastic destination, comfortable hotel, delicious meal, fascinating attraction, breathtaking sight, and more!

Speaking of which, exactly what will you get to experience on your trip? How about 5 national parks, 15 states, 3 monuments/memorials, and 9 historic landmarks for starters? You’ll visit the St. Louis Gateway Arch and take its tram up through the arch itself to the Observation Deck, 630 feet above the ground, where you can see for 30 miles on a clear day. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, you’ll take a ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway, the world’s longest aerial tramway spanning a distance of 2.7 miles above deep canyons, and breathtaking terrain.

Photo Courtesy of the Greater Phoenix CVB

Visit Arizona and fall in love with the breathtaking beauty of this unique state with a visit to the must-see Grand Canyon, a stop in beautiful Sedona, and a trip through Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert. Spend a day in thrilling Las Vegas, Nevada. Travel all the way to California and take in the many sights and attractions you’ve only ever dreamed about, including Hollywood, Los Angeles, and Alcatraz! Begin to make your way back home by crossing through the northwest and stopping at Mount Rushmore, and Wall Drug Store. Experience Old Faithful’s timely eruption, gaze in amazement at the painted landscape of Badlands National Park, and take in the excitement of downtown Chicago. All of this and so much more make this trip an unforgettable journey!

Passengers on our past Cross Country tours (over 10 years worth!) have formed close bonds that extend through the years. It’s hard not to become friends with people you travel with for 26 days! And we make it even easier to connect with past and present Cross Country Travelers with our private Facebook group where you can get advice on how to prepare for your “Journey of a Lifetime,” meet others on your trip, and share memories and photos afterwards.*

So what are you waiting for? Put aside your worries about being gone for a month and travel the scenic roads of our great country! Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!

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*You must be a current Starr customer to join the Facebook group.