Plan to Be Spontaneous! (T-minus 16 months)

Post 7: Last Summer as we began planning the September 2013 road trip we had a philosophical problem: Where is the point at which the fun of planning a trip actually closes down the fun? Or can you plan to have fun? Is that any fun?


For some, part of the adventure of a good road trip is the complete absence of a plan. Just go. GO! You can figure it out on the way, pursue diversions, sleep where you can. For others, planning is part of the fun. Can the two be reconciled into the same trip? Can you plan to be spontaneous?


1967, Cal Stevens (L) and Jerry Smith: If I’m such a great planner, why did I forget my sleeping bag? Well at least planners wear shoes.

It was like this when Jerry Smith and I went to Canada in 1967. With 34 years of life experience between the two of us, what could go wrong? And with one of us a total planner type, and the other of the “just go” variety, some compromise was needed. And, in my opinion, the trip was memorable not because one philosophy dominated, but because somehow the compromise happened.

I researched and found some great destinations and campgrounds for us like the (now gone) Old Faithful campground at Yellowstone or Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff. But the “just freaking go!” spirit of Jerry had us driving all night to get to Bear Lake, UT from LA without stopping at intermediate camps which, by my plan, would have us leave the road and sit in the wilderness for too long.


Planning got Jerry and me to Lake Louise in 1967, however some of the best memories on this trip were unplanned.

Yelling out the windows of my VW bug on I-15 in southern Utah and playing air guitar while the sun comes up–sweet memories of an unplanned moment. Thanks, Jerry. It might not have happened if we had pulled in for a good night’s sleep in a tent at Panguitch Lake.

What is the balance point? At what point is there just enough planning, and just enough, well, no planning? We know the problems of doing too much one and not the other. Go with no plan and you might have to camp away from Grand Teton’s peaks, as we did in 2010, and settle for a dusty KOA south of the park. Or do too much planning and what you have in the plan just doesn’t match what happens on the ground. We actually planned to cover Gettysburg in half a sunny Summer day in 2000 and then meet a friend in Lancaster for lunch. Yeah, right. Looked good on paper.


Nice place to visit but you would want to stay there if you planned ahead and got the reservations–Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park, 2010.

For us the balance point is to anchor the plan in some places and times, but to leave that plan skeletal. Make the daily destinations close enough to allow surprises and don’t over-plan the sights along the way. In fact, a good plan with camping reservations allows us to arrive late because we found something to explore on the way. Without it, the late afternoons of each day are dominated by concern for the clock, the setting sun, and wondering if the good sites will be gone.

So this might be the sweet spot, the point of balance! Enough of a plan to delay and play, but realistically set, and changeable too, if we want to create a plan B.

So for this Fall’s trip: The map below shows a segment as we approach a hotel overnight in Custer, SD with options to see Thunder Basin National Grasslands. Or not. And the next day, we can opt to go north (after Mount Rushmore) to see Badlands NP, or south to the Wounded Knee site. Or not. Either way, neither way, or by some combo of both, we end the day with a site reservation at Niobrara, on the Missouri River to camp near where Lewis and Clark passed through. Or not.

This much thought into planning would make Jerry crazy. That I actually think about these things like they are interesting options! Compared to air guitar playing and yelling out the window of your car at 17, my planning and thinking now is a laughable geezers’ dilemma. But I still think the “skeletal” idea is the right one–the best of planning will give us Jackson Lake and Mount Rushmore; the spontaneity inside that plan will give us… we’ll just have to see.

I do plan to pack my air guitar.



About Cal Stevens

Learning professional, a training manager, speaker, writer; two careers in helping others succeed. Travel writer for the common road trip.
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