The first thing you should know about Judi and Bryan Stauffer of Terrace Heights is that they are nice people, intelligent, community-minded, good-humored. You should also know they might be a little crazy.
How else does one explain two retirees who get in their Toyota Camry hybrid one day for a road trip that covers more than 17,000 miles over 6 1/2 months?
The Stauffers, both age 67 and married for 44 years, say they’ve always enjoyed a touch of wanderlust. They went to Europe shortly after they were married, spent a few years working in Kentucky and Puerto Rico, and carted their son and two daughters on “the usual summer vacations.” Overseas travel took them to China, Israel, Greece and Spain.
They moved to the Yakima Valley in 1994. Bryan became director of educational field experience for Heritage University. Judi taught music at Whitney Elementary in Yakima. When they retired (Bryan two years ago and Judi last year), they wanted to capitalize on their good health and freedom from schedules.
“I think we reflect most Boomers,” Bryan says. “We still have enough energy to do things and we’re excited to see what’s out there.”
The idea of driving around America stemmed from their globe-trotting. Bryan says, “What’s interesting to us is that people think they have to travel far away to experience something special, but there’s so much right here in our own country.”
Judi adds, “We have a lot of history here: over 200-300 years. We also have a whole lot of scenery that’s unmatched.”
They researched via the Internet and an assortment of travel guides. Judi especially liked 1000 Places to See in the U.S. & Canada Before You Die. “We checked what it recommended as we came into a place. We also used AAA guidebooks, but they have almost too much information,” she says.
Their plan included lots of flexibility around a few predetermined stops. “We like ‘organized spontaneity,’” Bryan says. “We wanted to take advantage of surprises as they came up but also build in some certainty along the way.”
And then they set a “glib goal:” to travel the entire six months in a comfortable temperature range (the 70s). The comfort-weather plan failed only twice, when they encountered snow in Connecticut in the fall and in Arizona in February.
The Stauffers’ agenda included 35 states, forays into Canada and three Caribbean nations, an escorted tour of New England’s fall colors, a Caribbean cruise, extended visits with each of their East Coast children (Tami, 32, and family in New York; and Todd, 42, and family in Florida; their other daughter, Tina, 40, and her husband live in Oregon), as well as two weeks volunteering at a Hopi school in Arizona.
Once their itinerary was sketched out, they dealt with logistics, including how to travel. Judi says, “We talked about buying a small RV, but that wouldn’t work so well for Bryan (who’s 6’4”). And gas was about $4 a gallon.”
Bryan adds, “Besides, with an RV, you have to consider whether the stop is worth it, then unhitch the car and so on. With just the car, we could be more spontaneous.”
While they didn’t keep a running tally on gas, Bryan’s best estimate is they spent about $1,800 on fuel. The money they saved on that part of the budget covered lodging. They also joined a motel chain’s rewards program that earned them free nights to use in some of the pricier cities.
The only loose end to tie up before leaving was what to do about their house. Bryan says providence came to the rescue. “We had a new pastor coming to our church, so we rented our house to him and his family. Perfect for all of us!”
The Stauffers headed east on Sept. 20, 2012. Their first long stop was in South Dakota, where a good friend who’s a South Dakota native met them. “She flew out to be our tour guide,” Judi says.
In a short summary of the journey written for friends, Bryan said about this portion of the trip:
“Of all our stops this may have earned the distinction of being the most unexpected highlight. From opportunities to relive the wild events of history (Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, etc.), to a helicopter ride that allowed me to look Crazy Horse and four famous presidents in the eye at Mt Rushmore, to riding a historic train pulled by a steam engine out of Keystone, to experiencing the awesome magnitude of the Badlands ...”
Another highlight of the trip began as a disaster.
A week before their scheduled arrival, Superstorm Sandy destroyed a house they’d reserved for a month on Long Island Sound. At that point, the digital highway was as important as the asphalt one.
“Bryan, our daughter and me got on the Internet. We found another place that was really pastoral out in the Connecticut countryside.” The Stauffers’ daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter came from Brooklyn and they all slipped into the rhythms of rural life.
As they drove on, Judi and Bryan returned to many favorite places, including Boston and Washington, D.C. They relied on personal research and tips from residents to go beyond the usual tourist experience. “We appreciated the knowledge base of the locals: the woman behind the desk at the hotel, the guy at the next table in the café. This was especially true in the South, where they love sharing their hospitality.”
Their two weeks at the Hopi school is another of their shining memories. Bryan says he was raised in the Mennonite tradition, which emphasizes service. Their stay was arranged through Service Opportunities for Older People, a Mennonite organization. The Stauffers mentored teachers and worked directly with students. Bryan even helped coach the school’s basketball team.
“We were invited to a school board member’s house for a Hopi meal,” Bryan recalls. “They gave us a glimpse into their lives and we felt the emotional undertones of the area.”
And despite being together 24/7, much of it elbow to elbow in the car, the marriage came through just fine. “A lot of times we felt like an island floating around the country.”
Nearly a year after they returned home, the Stauffers remain united in their advice to others. “This trip reinforced for us the thought that if something’s on your bucket list, do it now. Don’t bank on the future. If you’ve thought about a trip like this, our common exhortation is give it a try! Our experience was everything we hoped for — and more.”