Cross-Country, Part 1 (The Plot Thickens)

Don’t get me wrong, I loved our trip to Australia and New Zealand last summer. I already want to return there and someday I will. However, my relentless need to count counties took a serious hit in 2018 as a direct result. My map barely changed as the year progressed. I gave up on the overwhelming task of visiting every single county in the United States many years ago although I still wanted to get a lot closer to the theoretical endpoint. I needed a plan and an ally.

Hatching the Plot

Arizona Border

I sensed an opportunity. My wife floated the possibility of a race she wanted to run over the holidays in Phoenix, Arizona. She sold it as a way to travel to a mild midwinter climate in an easily accessible location where various members of our extended family could join us. I said I’d think about it, and I did. Little did she know that I completely supported the destination from the beginning. However, I needed to figure out how I might be able to justify driving 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometres) instead of flying.

Maybe I could convince my older son that he should tag along and leverage that as a way to bolster my case. He’d already joined me on a couple of shorter drives when I focused on West Virginia’s northern panhandle and then again when I finished the state. We’d taken trips together that lasted two or three days and he had the right demeanor. However this one would be more than twice as long and it would involve five successive days of boring Interstate driving. I knew how to snag him, though. He loves zoos. I dangled the possibility of visiting up to six zoos between Virginia and Arizona and he took the bait.

Figuring the Route

I needed to stick to Interstate highways because of time constraints. In addition I wanted to capture as many new counties as possible since that was the whole point of the drive. Finally I knew the weather could be a wildcard. I’d have to be flexible and aware enough to bypass snowstorms if they emerged.

I couldn’t simply pick one route and apply my usual multiple layers of planning, or nail-down hotel rooms ahead of time, or input precise coordinates for GPS navigation. I had to develop four routes that I could shift between on-the-fly as the weather dictated. That led to the map above with separate options for northern, middle, mid-southern and southern routes. Actually, my working map provided considerably more detail such as hotel options for each potential stop plus a few additional sightseeing opportunities. I just wanted to offer a summary of zoos and overnight stays along various paths to illustrate the uncertainty.

The routes didn’t differ all that dramatically by time or by distance. They ranged from about 2,200 – 2,400 miles and 34 – 36 hours of driving. However, they differed quite significantly for county counting purposes. I could get somewhere between 26 and 36 new counties, and possible a few more with strategic jogs. Obviously I wanted to maximize that total if I could. The mid-southern route through Memphis, Dallas, and El Paso would provide the best opportunity if Mother Nature allowed it.

The Selection

I started watching long-range weather forecasts about ten days before departure even though I knew they wouldn’t be terribly reliable at that point. I guess I needed one more thing to worry about in addition to all of the other details I still needed to hash out. The forecast started coming into focus the last couple of days and the mid-southern route looked promising. I booked all of the necessary hotel rooms the night before we left, feeling pretty confident. We set out at dawn on Sunday, two days before Christmas, intending to reach Phoenix by nightfall on Thursday.

My wife and younger son, being the sensible ones, flew to Phoenix a couple of days after we left and would be there to greet us whenever we arrived.

Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr