Pacific Flyway: Embracing sights unseen (and unplanned for)

Road Journals Blog—Perhaps there isn't that much difference between the Great Wall of China and an airport motel in Detroit. But when you're expecting to see the former and end up with the latter (as happened to me a few years ago, thanks to the unexplained cancellation of a connecting flight), well, welcome to the modern world of travel. After three decades as a frequent flyer, I've learned not to become stressed out over delays, breakdowns, weather problems, and mechanical glitches.

The alternative route won't be the same - but it might be grand. | The Local People Photo Archive/Flickr

The list of destinations I was destined not to see because of travel complications includes Mexico City, Lausanne (Switzerland), Louisville (Kentucky), the Coliseum in Rome, and the breathtaking (or so I hear) Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. I've missed out on both Turkey and Albuquerque. The Alamo? Forget it.

Even if you travel by car, as I did for my six-state exploration of the Pacific Flyway for VIA, you can be forced to take the road less planned for. On my birding trip alone, snow detoured me away from Crater Lake, Yosemite, and the spectacular (or so I hear) Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.

Oh, the Grand Tetons, too.

But cranking up your blood pressure over bad luck and bad weather serves no purpose, unless you want your travel to be to and from the doctor. It also causes you to overlook two basic truths of travel. One is that by staying flexible and spontaneous you can have a trip that's more memorable, more unusual and even more fun. The other is that if your trip to one destination is thwarted, you'll still spend time somewhere. Why not make the best of it?

Consider my unplanned motel stay near the Detroit airport. My wife, Pamelia, and I awoke to discover that the only restaurant within walking distance was a Bob Evans, part of a mostly east-of-the-Mississippi chain of home-style eateries. I'd never been to one, but we remembered Pamelia's late stepfather constantly talking about how much he and her mom enjoyed stopping at Bob Evans on drives from their home in North Carolina to visit relatives in Indiana and Illinois.

With a few hours to kill on a gray Michigan morning before our Detroit-to-Minneapolis-to Beijing flights, we walked to Bob Evans. We imagined Pamelia's mom and stepdad digging into the ham and eggs and home-baked biscuits. We laughed at the absurdity of swapping a chain restaurant meal for a walk along the Great Wall. But breakfast was good, and so was the moment. We had traveled to a different sort of destination, a really unexpected one, and it made us feel as though we were sharing a meal with people we loved.

In a memorable way, we'd missed our original flight but made our connection.

Craig Neff wrote the cover story for the September/October 2011 issue of VIA about the Pacific Flyway bird migration route.

This blog post was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.