Drones, Inspiration, and Algorithms… Oh My.

I have always wanted to do that!

This is the exact sentence I hear every time I tell someone new about my plan for a road trip across the United States.

The more people I’ve spoken to, the more I hear all sorts of things people are inspired to do on these trips. Some dream of camping under the stars in every national park. Others want to get their caffeine fix at every Starbucks between Seattle and San Diego. For others, it’s more of a logistical adventure – seeing some sites while moving all their stuff across the country. The historically-inclined want to follow in their ancestors’ shoes across the Oregon Trail (minus the whole dying of dysentery thing). And some want to snap a solo selfie in front of every single state sign.

State Of Confusion Selfie

Drones and Inspiration

For me, the idea for a road trip was born earlier this year – over dinner. Two friends, Giray and Petros, had recently returned from a trip, and were telling stories about their adventures. I was already thinking about leaving my job, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Listening to them talk about escaping from crazy rednecks, getting out of a speeding ticket with a couple carefully chosen words, and chasing an errant drone across the white sands of New Mexico… well, it knocked something loose. Inspiration.


The more they shared, the more I realized I wanted an adventure of my own. And by the time I was in my car driving home from dinner that night, the gears were turning.

Quick side-note.  Seriously, thank you Giray and Petros. It’s not often you get a chance to publicly thank people for inspiring you to do something… but, well, here ya go. You may not have thought twice about that dinner, but I sure have.

Anyway, back to my story. What came next was months of back and forth over exactly what I wanted to do. At first, I came up with the idea of driving to a new city, talking to the locals, and picking my next destination based on what they recommended. Rinse, repeat, and eventually I’d decide to go home. But then, I thought maybe I’d plan the trip purely around visiting family and friends in other states. Or maybe seeing some of the major national parks, and camping near a geyser. Or maybe following Route 66 from start to finish. Or maybe… or maybe… or maybe… I came up with too many fricken ideas.


Right around this time, an interesting map started to make the rounds on Facebook. You may have seen one of the articles written about it, with click-bait headlines like According To Genius Scientists, This Is The Most Perfect-est Road Trip EVAR. My first reaction upon seeing stories with those headlines was “ugh, another post designed to get me to waste a click only to generate ad revenue for someone else“. But if you actually clicked over and went another level deeper to the source material, there was a pretty interesting story buried behind those headlines1. One that is much more humble in its claims than the re-blogging would suggest.

The basic gist is that a journalist by the name of Tracy Staedter had seen an older map on Facebook people were claiming took you to every national landmark – but it was a phony. So, she reached out to “data tinkerer” Randy Olson with a challenge – plotting a car-worthy route through the lower 48 states that actually hits a major destination in each one. In my head, I imagine their entire exchange taking place over iMessage (because super smart people handle business via emoji, right?):

BS Map
You Know It
Knew It

14 Minutes Later…


End Scene.

In reality, it was much more complicated2, and what they came up with is a much grander adventure than I originally dreamt of. But despite the larger scale, it very quickly became the baseline for what I now intend to do.

Again, quick side-note. Thank you Tracy and Randy. What you’ve created is really an awesome trip, and I’m excited to see what’s out there.

Oh My (Plan)

What was first going to be a few-week long adventure will now probably take me at least three months.

  1. I am going to try to visit each of the contiguous 48 states as well as the District of Columbia3.
  2. To do so, I’m going to start with the list of locations from Tracy and Randy’s maps, but modify it with some additional stops at absurd sites, cool scenery, and general awesomeness.
  3. When I’ve got my new list of destinations, I’m going to use Randy’s code to figure out the optimal route between them4.
  4. Then, I’ll rent a car, throw a bunch of clothes in the back, and hit the road.
  5. I’ll meet up with family and friends at various points along the way, but it will largely be a solo trip.

It’s exciting, terrifying, intimidating, and exhilarating all at the same time. Funny what a story about a camera drone can kick off.

Footnotes and junk.

  1. I’m really not a fan of what passes for modern click-bait journalism. I think that absurd headlines like “this is the absolute best ____ because science says so” or “when I got  __ seconds into this video, I couldn’t believe my eyes” are the STDs of social media. Sorry, not sorry.
  2. If you’re interested, make sure to check out Tracy and Randy’s own posts on the process. They’re both worth a read, as what they ended up with is pretty awesome.
    1. Computing the optimal road trip across the U.S. – Randy Olson
    2. How to Really Drive Across the U.S. Hitting Major Landmarks – Tracy Staedter
  3. From what I hear, they haven’t finished that bridge to Hawaii yet. And I’m saving Alaska for last.
  4. Randy’s a stand-up guy, and was kind enough to post the Python code he used here. Here’s hoping I don’t break the internet running it…