The idea being germinated in early 1994, it would take four more years before I actually got the chance to do the trip.  By the fall of 1997, I was still working as an employee in an office job, this time in a Silicon Valley high-technology startup.  I had a little more money, and knew that by the following summer, I’d really need a vacation.  So I started to plan for the trip.  I chose the Fourth of July weekend in 1998 because I was going to be getting one day off from work anyway for the national holiday, and thus could do the trip while taking only four days of vacation.

Planning A Route:

For the lower 48 states, I decided on a driving strategy.  Plane tickets are expensive, and with the restrictions of the modern hub-and-spoke airline system, it would have taken dozens of out-and-back trips from various hubs.  Besides, I like driving.  Hawaii would clearly need a plane ticket, and Alaska would almost certainly need one also.

While it’s true that a route starting in Maine, say, and zig-zagging one-way across the country would be shorter than a route that started and ended in the same place, this would have required an expensive one-way plane ticket, and an expensive one-way car rental.  For the sake of simplicity, I opted to start and finish the trip at my place of employment at the corner of Charcot and Bering in San Jose, California.

I plotted out a route that started in San Jose, and then followed a roughly clockwise circumnavigation of the 48 states, following approximately the inner border of the states that make up the outer border of the continental U.S., with occasional forays in to the interior to catch stragglers like Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, etc.  Remember that the goal is to “visit” every state, not “cross”, “traverse”, “see the capital of”, “get out of the car in” or even “spend more than 30 seconds in” every state.  The route has lots of nicked corners and out-and-back touch-and-goes.  See the map.

My guidelines for choosing a route were to stay on the Interstates for six reasons:

  • They have high speed limits:  I was going to be short of time for the whole eight days on the road, so I needed a route that would minimize total time, not necessarily total distance.
  • There’s almost always a passing lane:  A high speed limit doesn’t help if I’d be stuck behind slow traffic.
  • They’re reliable:  Interstate highways are generally all-weather roads that don’t suffer from washouts or closures.
  • They’re cognitively easy:  I knew I’d be mentally tired for most of the trip, so I wanted a route that was easy to navigate.  Staying alert for turns and exits and road signs is exhausting, so I wanted a route that required the least amount of navigational worry.
  • They’re amenity-rich:  There were only a few things I’d need on the trip, and they were pretty much just gas stations and hotels.  Fortunately, both of these tend to congregate near Interstate Highways.
  • They’re safe:  As every Extra Miler Club member knows, the only thing less fun than “the shortest distance between two points” is a cracked-up car, especially if you’re 3,000 miles from home and have to be back at work in three days and were going to be barely able to pull it off even if everything went right anyway.  And, of course, a disrupted schedule is the least that can go wrong in a car accident.

When Dwight Eisenhower was a young army Captain in 1918, he was assigned the task of driving from Washington D.C. to San Francisco to determine the state of the nation’s roads.  The journey took him six weeks, and was clearly one of the motivations for the creation of the Interstate highway system that he shepherded through later as President.  I’m sure he’d be delighted that I’ve enumerated what are probably his exact design criteria, and pleased that someone actually used his proposed highway system on such a trip.

Then I did some checking of the airline schedules and figured that I’d have to be back in San Francisco by Saturday afternoon in order to do both an out-and-back flight to Hawaii, and an out-and-back flight to Alaska before the weekend was over.

Questioning the Possibilities:

Before long it was apparent that a question that needed to be asked was if this trip were even possible.  Would I be able to drive the Lower 48 and still get back to the San Francisco airport by Saturday afternoon and then collapse on to an airplane to Honolulu?

One approach to answer this question would be to plot out the route exactly and add up every single highway segment.  But since so much of the fun of a trip like this would be lost if the route were planned out exactly, leaving no room for seat-of-the-pants improvisation along the way, I rejected the idea.

I decided on another way of estimating the total length of the driving portion of the trip.  Over a crude map of the Lower 48, I drew a rough four-sided polygon, with the length of each side being approximately the length of that “edge” of the U.S., or at least the part I’d be driving.  I estimated 3,100 miles for the northern crossing, 1,100 for the east coast, 2,900 miles for the southern crossing, and 1,000 miles for the west coast.  This sums to 8,000 miles.  With circuitous routes and interior states to catch, I figured the total miles driven would be approximately 8,800 miles.  It would later turn out to be an amazingly accurate estimate.

In the just-under eight days that I had from leaving work on Friday at 5:00 PM, and arriving at the San Francisco airport on Saturday afternoon, I’d have to average over 1,100 miles per day.  Now every Extra Miler Club member old enough to fold a highway map has at one point or another completed a personally historic “long day” of driving.  But 1,100 miles is a really long day, and I’d have to do eight of them in a row in order make my flight to Hawaii.

I figured I could be driving 18 hours per day, leaving six hours per day for sleep and shower and getting in and out of a hotel quickly.  I decided to bring food (two cases of military MRE’s) because, as I like to say, “Fast food isn’t fast enough”.  So with gas and bathroom breaks, I could probably drive for 17-1/2 hours per day, which would require that I average 63 MPH for the entire trip.

Therefore, even as I planned the trip, I had this nagging doubt in the back of my mind that maybe it simply wasn’t even possible, and that I’d be left speeding across Arizona while my flight took off from San Francisco for Hawaii.

Ensuring Success:

That winter and spring were spent doing as much planning and thinking as possible to ensure success on the trip.  Not only would failure mean I’d almost certainly have to take the following year’s one week summer vacation to make another attempt, effectively blowing this year’s vacation unsuccessfully trying to prove that I could actually get something done, but I might get back to work a couple of days late, which I’d have trouble explaining.

So I made a huge, detailed list of everything that might possibly go wrong, and spent hours thinking about how I could prepare for all eventualities.  I brought $2,000 in cash, I brought five credit cards, I brought my cell phone and made sure I could make calls all across the country.  I brought maps, a flashlight, a GPS receiver, phone numbers for everything I might need, etc., etc., etc.  I even brought a clean, folded set of work clothes in case I had to drive all night on Sunday and come directly back to the office on Monday morning.  I wanted to make sure that for everything that might go wrong, I had a backup plan that I could immediately swing in to action and ensure I’d make it back to the airport on time.  I was even prepared to abandon the rental car, if necessary, and buy a used car and continue the trip, if the rental car, as they say at Rolls Royce, “failed to proceed”.

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