Category Archives: Travel

3 Secrets for Planning a Unique Road Trip

As I explained earlier, we have a habit of going somewhere that is a detour from our original destination.  In this case, today, as this hits the Internet, I’m on my way to Florida. But after three days there for a wedding, Ken and I will fly to Atlanta and launch a road trip to three southern states I’ve been wanting to check off my list of state’s visited: Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina. Additionally, we’ll be spending time in Tennessee and passing through South Carolina.

As I was planning the trip, I was doing my usual frugal searches for hotels, and my usual Internet searches for interesting sites.  But then I realized that I was overlooking three perfect tools for planning the road trip.  I’ll be telling you more about how all these things worked out, but for now, here are  three secrets to planning a unique and interesting road trip.

Endless road
Endless road

1. Get Off the Highway and follow the Byways

Fortunately there is a website directing you to nationally outstanding  byways, selected not only for scenic beauty, but also for historic and cultural interest.

The official Department of Transportation site starts with a map showing the location of 150 America’s Byways. You can click on a dot on the map (almost every state), or plug in an address and find something nearby. Although the site includes a brief description of each of the featured byways, you have to go else where (click on the title of the byway) to get the details, like maps, time estimates, attractions along the way, etc.

With a site like America’s Scenic Byways, there is no excuse for sticking with the boring wide, truck-crowded freeways. That site lists not only the official Byways, other scenic roads, roads through BLM lands and Forest Service Lands, Parkways, but also All American roads.  You can browse through each category, or search by state.

And don’t forget to go to the state you are interested in. Do a search for “StateName byways” and you’ll find a treasure chest of information for the location you’re visiting.

How are we using this?  Well, I wanted to travel across just the northeast corner of Alabama, because we’re headed for Chattanooga, one of my favorite cities.  Looking at maps, I didn’t see anything very interesting in that corner of the state. However, I found not one but TWO Byways that cross that area, conveniently connecting us from Atlanta Georgia to Chattanooga.  That’s just one of the Byways in our itinerary, which I’ll be talking about.

2. Skip the Motel and try a different lodging provider

Thank goodness for motels.  When my mother was taking road trips in the 20s and 30s, she had to stay at some pretty rough places.  But after the war, in the late 40s, people hit the road in a big way, new highways were built, and motels came into being. Chain motels soon developed with dependable, cookie-cutter decor and service. But sometimes you need a change.

In Florida, we’re staying for the first time in an Air BnB facility. I’ll let you know later how it works out, but it is very conveniently located and my grand daughter who lives nearby, drove by and confirmed that it looks perfect for us.  It will be a nice break from the and get us out of the rut of taking the easy way out and booking at ubiquitous motel chains. Variety is the spice of road trips. We’re used to staying at VRBO or other apartment rentals when we’re staying for several days, but this will be only three nights.

Another lodging choice was the vary last I booked, and leads to my final tip.


3. Take a Break at a State Park

I’m assuming that if there are any National Parks or Historic Sites on your route, you’ll know about them and visit them.  But sometimes we forget that many states have excellent state park systems.  While they may offer active recreation like boating or water skiing on lakes and hiking or trail biking, they may also house historic sites or be located in urban areas.

The State Parks will almost certainly have picnic grounds, and you can either stop at a grocery store or pick up some deli/restaurant food and get off the road and into nature for a couple of hours when you stop to eat.

And many State Parks offer cabins, lodges, or motel rooms in addition to the expected campgrounds. In fact, we honeymooned at a state park in Ohio (a very long time ago).

So why did it take me so long to realize that instead of settling for the overpriced “cheap” motels in one area, that I should look at the state parks?  Although generally you must rent for longer than one night, it does not hurt to ask, and in this case, since it was a Sunday night, they were more than happy to put us up for the one night.  (I’ll describe the cabin later, but I’m thrilled!)

One caveat, not all states have the same quality of lodging. And just because it is a rustic cabin does not mean that it will be cheap. Because of high demand in the summer, the prices may be on  a par with one and two start hotels.

I hope you’re coming with us on this road trip. I think we’re going to have a wide array of unique experiences packed into 10 days and five states.

Brigid Quinn is Back and in Serious Trouble

Destination: Tucson, Arizona

Book: Fear the Darkness by Becky Masterman



Becky Masterman, a Tucson resident, created a female character who stands out in the crowd of female detectives.  Fans who read her first novel,Rage Against the Dying, have been eagerly waiting for the second in what they hope will be a lengthy series  featuring Brigid Quinn. A retired FBI agent, married to a retired Episcopal priest, she has recently settled (not that Brigid actually settles) in Tucson.

Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park, Tucson

You might guess by the “retired” that comes before FBI agent, Brigid Quinn is somewhere north of 55, but age is just a number, and she’s not counting.  She is insatiably drawn to mysterious situations with a dangerous edge, to the despair of her peace-loving husband.  Brigid still knows how to handle bad guys–and gals–both physically and through meticulous analysis of evidence and application of street smarts.

The new book, Fear the Darkness, shows Brigid trying to fit in to a ‘normal’ life.  She has followed through on a promise to her brother’s dying wife and brought the couples college-age daughter to Tucson to live so that the girl can establish residency for college.  As we learn more about Brigid’s former job as an undercover agent–adapting to roles of prostitute, drug runner, or other lowdown vermin– it is easy to see how she can have doubts about this normal-family-surrogate-mother thing.

I could do this.  I was tough.  I may be small and have prematurely white hair, but I’m as psychologically and physically fit as you can be at my age.  And as I’ve explained, I can disarm a grown man before he could say..anything….Next to somebody like me, Chuck Norris is just a wuss.  How hard could it be to be a good aunt.

To add to her angst, Gemma Kate, the neice, shows some odd quirks of her own.  In fact her behavior is so odd that Brigid begins to wonder if the clever girl is a psychopath. Bad things start happening all around, and Brigid herself becomes  a target of some sort of evil that she can’t quite identify.

The plot is complex–peopled with the sort of friends and neighbors you can recognize without thinking “stock characters.”  This complexity takes a lot of time to set up–the mysterious teenage suicide; the devotion of a friend (the only one Brigid has ever had) to her paralyzed husband; the appearance of an appealing man at church one day; even the rather unenthusiastic minister. Then there’s an arrogant doctor with a wife who seems unhinged; a cop who may be hiding family secrets.  Readers who want their thrillers to leap right in to the action are going to have to cool their heels while they meet these characters and experience how “normal” can slide into a horror show so gradually that you hardly notice.

The climax is frightening not just because of the violent action, presented in proper thriller fashion in a breath-taking sequence, but also because the “I never saw that coming” ending has you wondering about the assumptions you make in your own life. It’s not as though the author didn’t try to warn you.

I admit from the start it’s at least embarrassing to not recognize the devil, but I can understand because I’ve been there…During my time with the Bureau, I lived among killers who cheerfully attended their daughters’ ballet recitals, and men who trafficked in human flesh whole baby-talking their parakeets.

Although I was impatient with the slow setup of this book, I still am a big fan of Brigid Quinn and her smart-ass wisecracks and derring-do. The first book was a nominee for best first novel in the Edgars (mystery writing) and no doubt this one will garner some of the same recognition. Brigid’s dialogue is not the only smart thing about the writing.

Sunset and rain, Tucson
Sunset and rain, Tucson











If you’re wondering what Tucson is like–not just the mountain paths and the wildlife, but also the culture–Masterman weaves that kind of information into the story.  Just one thing threw me, and I’m probably petty for mentioning it, but I can’t resist.

Night Blooming Cactus
Night Blooming Cereus

Gemma Kate and her boy friend  take off for Sabino Canyon and tell Brigid that they are going to look at the “night-blooming cactus and the wildlife”.  Sabino Canyon does have moonlight walks. Except this scene takes place in March. The night-blooming cereus–the night-bloomer that makes the best show doesn’t bloom until late June or early July. Until then, all there is to see is a pathetic plant lying on the ground imitating a dead stick.  I know–picky, picky, picky.

Where you can absolutely depend on Masterman’s research, of course, is in forensic details.  She has worked for years as an editor of forensic medicine books or law enforcement officials, and has a wide array of experts to call on. These nitty gritty details make the novel come to life. And nothing is livelier than the terrific creation, Brigid Quinn.


The publisher sent me the book for review.  I have met Masterman personally, and interviewed her after her first book was published (you can read that interview here.) Neither of these things affects my giving you my honest appraisal of the book.

There are links to Amazon here, for your convenience. You need to know that I am an Amazon affiliate, so anything you buy through a link on this site makes a few cents to help keep A Traveler’s Library alive. Thank you.



A Russian Emigre’s Life

Destination: Russia and the United States

Book: Émigré: 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count by Paul Grabbe with Alexandra Grabbe


Until I read Émigré, despite my knowledge of Russian history, I tended to think of the nobility surrounding the Tsar as characters in a novel. Their fantastic homes, elaborate costumes and their expulsion from their country were appealing to read about, but not quite real.

That image was only confirmed by a visit my husband and I made to St. Petersburg, the glorious city packed with reminders of the glory of the Tsars. Amazingly, the Soviet government restored and protected the gilded palaces and the magnificent art works. As an aside, I finagled my way into the boyhood St. Petersburg apartment of Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite authors. The building, just off Prospekt Street, the area where the Grabbes lived, was closed to the public, since it was under construction, but still gave us a flavor of the life of Nabakov as a young boy, and Paul Grabbe and his family. Nabokov’s Speak Memory tells of his life as a boy–very closely paralleling Paul Grabbe who was nearly the same age.

Paul Grabbe

Paul Grabbe poses in front of his family’s second home, near Smolensk  about 1910. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Grabbe.)

However, Paul Grabbe lived that storybook life as a young man, and had to cope with all the problems of becoming a person without a country when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the tsar and his family were executed and all the upper classes were banished.  It is a heart wrenching tale and one seldom hears about it from the point of view of the Russian aristocracy.  Perhaps  because of the truism that history is written by the victors or perhaps because Americans have a difficult time warming up to royalty, we know much more about Lenin and Trotsky and the Red Army than we do about the uprooting of a whole class of people from Russia. A quick refresher on the Revolution  here.

If you watch Downton Abbey, you caught a glimpse of these exiled Russians and their grief for a life that disappeared.

Russian royal emigres
Russian èmigrès portrayed on Downton Abbey

The beginning of this book paints that life in appealing detail.  Paul’s adored, if rather cold, father dresses in extravagant uniforms. Servants at their St. Petersburg apartment become some of the young man’s best friends. The family travels frequently, but always come home. Until the Revolution.

When the teen-aged Paul Grabbe and his family fled, they were convinced it was a temporary inconvenience.  Whatever country they went to, they had wealthy friends, so their way of life continued to be one of privilege. However, wherever they landed, there was the threat of danger.  Grabbe’s father, who had been a right-hand man to the Tsar, turns up on execution lists drawn up by the Revolutionaries back home.

The country was weary from the devastation of World War I. We learn from Émigré that even the lower classes had something on their minds besides idealism.

“Lenin emerged victorious because he realized what the masses wanted and provided it: the soldiers yearned to go home; the peasants desired land.”

Their stop in Latvia is typical of the ups and downs of their experience. By the time the fleeing family reaches Lativia they see Germany, up until now the enemy of their country, as their ally.  And they appreciate the orderliness of German rule.

“When we reached the capital of Latvia on September 3, 1918, the German Army had occupied the city for almost a year, and order prevailed.  The streets were swept.  The trains ran on time.”

But the Red Army marches on neighboring Estonia and threatens Latvia. The Grabbe family learns that their names are on a list of “undesirables to be liquidated.”  Temporarily helped by the British, that salvation disappears when the German troops pull out. Tired of fighting, the Germans refuse to honor the treaty that ended WW I in which they promised to fight off the Red Army. The British follow the Germans, and the Grabbe family flees once again.

Eventually, the young man is on his own, first living in Denmark for several years and then sailing to America, like so many before him, hoping for better opportunities.

Later trying to adjust to becoming an American father, Paul Grabbe realizes that his image of a father–his own–is a man in resplendent uniforms who shows up once in a while, but shows little warmth.

Grabbe truly believes the adage, “you can’t go home again”

I used to think going back to Russia would be dangerous because of my father’s association with the tsar, but gave up that idea as the years went by.  Now I’m sure visiting the Soviet Union would be quite safe.  Safe, but not without pain.  I’d find my home occupied by strangers…I would probably want to avoid certain parts of the city, like the Moika Canal, where my uncle was stoned to death.  There is something else, too, besides troubling associations.  I know all too well that losing one’s homeland leaves a wound that is slow to heal.

Paul Grabbe 1986
Paul Grabbe 1986

Reflecting on glasnost when he was writing in 1997, at the age of 95, Paul Grabbe said:

…I am not convinced that the revolutionary pendulum has ceased swinging.  There is no guarantee that it will not reverse itself again.”

What would he think of Putin?

The book’s first part was published during his lifetime, but the concluding portion was left as notes.  His daughter Alexandra Grabbe, who lives in the house that her mother and father settled in on Cape Cod, is a writer who decided to complete her father’s work. We can be glad that she did. The Russia section of the book is a fascinating look at a world that has disappeared. And the American section sheds light on the life of immigrants–a world that increasingly begs for our attention.

Alexandra Grabbe
Alexandra Grabbe








Ms. Grabbe provided me with a copy of the book for review. In full disclosure, I have known her as part of an online group for several years. Neither of these facts affects my opinion.

The author photos were provided by Ms. Grabbe.

I have included a link to Amazon for your convenience. Although it costs you no more to buy through the links on my site, I do make a few cents. THANKS!