An Ode to the Road Trip!

Is it imaginable today to plan and then absolutely enjoy that exhilarating travel experience … a memorable, carefree and enjoyable road trip? Yes it really is!

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Portland Head Light, South Portland, Maine

Here are some solid hints and tips to vastly increase the percentages that your road trip will be the stuff of dreams … and gratify years of pent up expectations.

David Wesley Tonkin

In the beginning …

A large percentage of us remember those movies; the ones were a disparate motley crew of late-teens or college kids all piled into a habitually battered car and hit the road … sometimes they had a specific objective or a goal; like the crowd in the classic “Animal House” movie and now and then they just roared off to a series of random misadventures.

Of course the whole genre became adult “mainstream” when the 1983 “National Lampoon’s Vacation” hit movie screens worldwide. It also exposed hugely funny and horrendous disparities and conflict between an inflexible micro-detailed travel plan and the on-the-road realities … it was the theme of most of the plot.

In my young adult days in South Africa the road trip shenanigans were woven around sports road trips. A gaggle of three or four passenger vans of Rugby players would hit the road to compete in two or three day tournaments in distant towns or provinces. The goals were simple … beer by the keg, gargantuan red meat braais (barbeques in US English), the local girls, singing “Eskimo Nel”, “Barrett’s Privateers”, “Wild Rovers” and other vulgar rugby tour standards and if we were all sober for a contiguous 90 minutes of blood-and-guts rugby … ornamental silverware for the trophy cabinet back at the clubhouse.

Then the years passed …

Now some of us have sons who have been on rugby road trips!

Relax! I am not now going to plunge into the family vacation odyssey of the “Are we there yet?” or “Don’t make me stop this car” variety. I am purposefully saving that for another future word journey. In that blog I will also examine the incomprehensible East Coast phenomenon of the Jersey Shore vacation … or “Down the Shore” deliberate self-inflictions.

In passing years there has bloomed the longing for specific themed or goaled road trips. The kids are pursuing and accomplishing happy and successful lives in other Zip Codes and time is available to indulge the wanderlust of “things I always wanted to do”. In my case high on the list was seeing and photographing the rich collective of superb and historic lighthouses that spectacularly grace the rugged New England coastline …

Top priority; you must pick your road trip companions with care!

Obviously you pick people who want to experience the same things. That is a secondary consideration. The paramount decision factor is the need to take a look; a really hard look at the potential candidates. It is a simple fact that the greatest friends, lifelong friends, and nicest people imaginable do not automatically equate to the “right” road trip team. There is no set formula for selection and exclusion; it is entirely “gut feel” and wide-awake instinct.

Although here are a few “clues” … they must have travel experience and the ability to entertain themselves. An obvious sense of humor and an ability to not make “mountains out of molehills” are big plus factors! They have to be people who can articulate their thoughts and wishes in a forthright manner. They totally must not be in the midst of a “bad patch” in their relationship … ever spent 4 hours trapped in a vehicle listening to petty verbal sniping? Avoid those who automatically will calculate the exact direction and distance to several shopping “factory outlets” in relation to the intended tour highlight. If they think that real hardship or “slumming it” is a Ritz Carlton without a natural mud and organic thermal spa or that they insist upon multiple Vogue, L’Officiel or GQ costume changes every day then they have to be unfortunately excluded; you cannot afford the space for their luggage or worse; their attitude!

If you believe that your gut-instinct needs further reassuring evidence run an “audition” … take the prospective road trip candidates on a short and inexpensive one day or weekend journey. Do not get the companion selection wrong; be bold, assiduous and brutally honest or you will be praying “Please make me stop this car!”

What do we want to see and experience? Including some “insider” research shortcuts

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Portland Breakwater Light, Portland Harbor, Maine

It sounds obvious; but make certain the newly elected road trip team has full awareness of the collective sightseeing “musts” … and in cases like ours; the quantity of specific lighthouses. Can your five day trip actually accommodate visiting 18 lighthouses? Or is it more realistic to aim at 10? Listen to everyone’s “A” and “B” priorities; you will find that even some of the “B’s” can be woven into the trip with minimal detour and effort.  The secret is open communication and then advance planning. We experienced our “top 12” lighthouses, a scenic and breathtaking mountain trip on a historic luxury train, quaint and photogenic fishing villages, epicurean seafood restaurants, a massive and memorable WWII Naval History site and a shopping trip to indulge one of the team’s passion for handmade jigsaw puzzles! All of that and never a feeling of being rushed!  Another tip; build some flexibility into the plan … maybe, for instance, you want to get both sunrise and sunset pictures of a lighthouse like we did at the fabulously picturesque Portland Head Light.

A great research shortcut is to visit the sites of local tour operators! They usually describe their itinerary, timing, route and insightful commentary. Some even provide a detailed map of their routes. One tour operator was actually gracious enough to provide more insider input on the telephone; we pondered his tour but it never fit our schedule unfortunately. Consider; in some cases a half-day tour may be better in covering some sites than trying to navigate on your own … as I said earlier, be flexible.

Embrace the electronic aids to travel … combine several for maximum “bang-for-the-mile”

It was a sheer bonus to have someone; the designated navigator, be familiar with GPS, laptop, tablet, and cellphone “juggling”. It makes the goal of trip flexibility instantly come true. The addition of a “rolling” Wi-Fi hotspot categorically makes the trip planning reach new heights of effectiveness. We only booked one hotel in advance … the first night at the tour’s start point. After that the “blend” of electronics guided us to the perfect hotel (price, location and travel time) to match where we were on the day’s excursion. It worked flawlessly; notwithstanding we were in New England at almost the pinnacle of the Fall leaf color season! We believe that the majority of the population of the Tyneside region of North East England was in New England at the same time as we were … judging by the prodigious occurrences of Geordie accents!

Also you need to carry that perfect complement to electronic navigation … the good old-fashioned (but current!) map book! Nothing beats a printed map for pictorial representation of the day’s tour possibilities.

A plea for supporting local small businesses along the way!

We decided to pledge to have meals and do our souvenir (Lighthouse statuettes!) shopping at only local small businesses. It was a glorious adjunct to our tour experience. A memorable and delicious Clam Chowder, Lobster roll and homemade coleslaw lunch with the quaint early-1800’s Inn’s harbor side backdrop cannot ever be matched by any nationwide dining chain. We never waited for a table; at lunch or dinner … you just need to select a place inaccessible to monstrous tour busses! There is also the bonus of meeting the locals … like the innkeeper who showed me to a small balcony high in her Inn’s gabled roofline to get a unique lighthouse portrait! To the chef of every little village café whose window sign claimed “The best Clam Chowder (or Lobster Bisque) in New England” as their mantra … all I can say is; yes it was and thank you!

Advice on taking your pictures

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An America’s Cup veteran returns to port.


I do not have the technical acumen to make this “Lighthouse and allied site photography 101” however; here are some of the common sense basics I have learned.

I do not like to have the content of a tour bus in my pictures; lighthouses need to be on their own with their spectacular natural surrounding ambiance so I wait a moment until the tourist hoard shoals off to another area. It pays to be a little patient; and they are on a rigid schedule.

Walk around the area looking for different or more artistic angles and opportunities. Be bold; experiment with all your lenses and filters. All my pictures at a location were a blend of three elements where possible … [1] the lighthouse itself … [2] the lighthouse and its surrounding buildings and [3] the lighthouse in relation to the cliffs, rocks, and the sea! There is also the modern phenomenon; I take pictures for two categories … regular views and then a view suitable as a screensaver. That is where the central subject is deliberately set to the right or left to accommodate the columns of application icons on your PC’s widescreen back home … without blocking the primary picture elements too much.

Also, think twice about using a tripod. Much to my horror I found that a busload of eager tourists from Fukushima will rush straight at you almost knocking over your gear in an instant on their way to the obligatory mass photo below the sign that says they are at lighthouse “X”; which is quite inexplicable when the actual lighthouse is 200 yards in the opposite direction. With just a good sturdy neck strap I was able to tuck the camera close to my body and weave and straight-arm like an NFL running back.

Do some homework … use the Internet to see the pictures that other (and possibly more artistic photographers) have taken of your targeted lighthouse. It will help you plan your shots well in advance. Photographing lighthouses is a “mood and ambiance thing”; if at all possible take into account the creative benefits to the picture of the brooding sky and the pounding sea.

My wish …

May your road trip be all you can make it be through a little attention to detail plus a healthy dose of imagination, exploration and fun!


1 thought on “An Ode to the Road Trip!

  1. Kristine

    Hi David! Helpful and insightful, as always!!! Keep up the good writing. Perhaps soon we’ll be able to see the audio/visual travelogue (a live presentation of pictures from and discussion of your trip… to which we can “ooohhhh” and “aaaaahhhh” all the way through as you progress through your beautiful pictures). LOL!!! 🙂


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