Road Trip Report: Day 6, July 17

Today’s report is a lengthy two-parter. Enjoy!

Part 1

I’m currently sitting in a Starbucks in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. This place is huge. Four flours that ring around a Nickelodeon amusement park.

I had decided to sleep in late today, so I didn’t think that much of the housekeeping service at the W Minneapolis knocking on my door at 9:26am. I guess they have to do that, but it was a bit of an annoyance. Luckily, my alarm had been set for 9:30am, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Perhaps the only thing that I really found good about the W was the bed…it was awesomely comfortable, due in large part to the extremely nice sheets. Everything else I could do without.

A quasi-sidebar is necessary at this point to discuss Roam Mobility, which is a Canadian company that offers decent roaming rates in the US. Basically, if you have an unlocked cellphone (or buy a cheap one from them), you can sign up for talk/text/data starting at $4/day. I had heard about this a long time ago and decided to try it out. I ordered the SIM card a few weeks ago for $20, but since I didn’t know when I’d cross into the US, I waited on getting a plan (since it only takes 15 minutes to activate).

My one concern with Roam was the coverage, which isn’t great through the northern states. However, they said that you always get coverage on major highways, so I wasn’t too concerned about that.

Right, so that’s the background. Now, here’s what happened.

I set up the plan just before crossing the border in Sault Ste. Marie, but the phone didn’t pick up a signal until I got to Green Bay. The plan I got was 14 days with 1.4GB of data, costing me about $55. Along the highway, I was limited to emergency coverage. I’m okay with this, because it’s a pretty remote area, and in Green Bay I was getting an excellent 4G signal.

Minnesota is when I ran into problems.

First, despite spending most of my time on major interstate highways, I was still only getting emergency coverage.

Second, when I got to my hotel and tried to use my Blackberry Z10 as a wifi hotspot for my laptop and tablet, I got a weird message saying that I needed to set up a plan with my provider. That would take me to a web page that would fail. So no luck there, and I didn’t feel like paying $13 for basic internet access at the hotel. And then I couldn’t find any free wifi within walking distance in the downtown Minneapolis area.

This morning, I got into an e-mail conversation with Roam Mobility’s customer support. To their credit, they were quick to respond. Unfortunately, they weren’t really very helpful, and it sounds like they didn’t know that the wifi hotspot wouldn’t work on the Z10 (while saying that it should). I can forgive this a bit, because it only recently became possible for Roam’s service to work on the BB10 operating system. However, it would have been nice for them to say that they haven’t fully tested the hotspot capability on their website. I suggested that they do so, because that was a major selling point for me. I also asked them to reduce my plan to their three-day option (from the original 14) and refund me the difference, since I won’t be able to use it as I need to over the next two weeks. They declined to do so, saying that they can’t change the plan after it starts.

That’s…ridiculous. And thus, I have blown $80 on essentially two days of sketchy wireless coverage, unless I can figure out some way to use the Roam plan without spending more money. The leading candidate would be to get a cheap Android phone or wifi hotspot at Target or Wal-Mart, but I hate the idea of pouring more money into this. Actually, that probably won’t work either, since the devices would be carrier-locked. Sigh.

So, between the lack of wifi hotspot, the sketchier-than-expected coverage between cities, and the lack of sensible customer care, I’m very disappointed in Roam. Part of the problem is that you can’t actually test the service until you activate the plan and enter the US, so you’re going in on a hope and prayer. They’ll need to work that out to build consumer confidence.

What I’ve instead done is signed up on a non-contract AT&T plan, which gets me 2GB over 30 days for a grand total of $64. They have nationwide coverage, so I’ll be better off between cities, but they don’t allow wifi hotspot usage on a prepaid plan. So, I’m pretty much limited to finding free wifi when I want to use my computer or tablet. Sheesh.

Part 2

So, I spent most of the day at the Mall of America, which seems a pretty fun place. I didn’t intend to buy anything, but they have a Brookstone and the last time I was in one (San Diego in December 2011), I saw something that I regret not buying at the time: an Obol. Basically, it’s a two-tiered bowl with a little slide, so that you can keep your cereal dry until you’re ready for it to get wet. I think it’s brilliant, and when I first saw it I figured I’d see it again in Canada. Nope. But that’s okay, because now I have two of them (they were 2-for-1). Better yet, the sales guy said that I’m not the first Canadian with this exact story.

Arguably, I should have waited until I was in Seattle and found a Brookstone there, but unless I plan for that, I’d probably forget. And if you haven’t figured it out already, the point of this trip is to not plan too far in advance.

Also, planning to visit a Brookstone in Seattle would be really, really, really lame.

While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about an important part of planning: decision-making. One of the questions I’m most often asked these days is if I’m travelling with others or by myself. When I tell them that I’m crossing the country on my own, the reactions vary from surprised to impressed to concerned to nonchalant.

But I don’t really care about that. Instead, I’m going to tell you why I chose to do this on my own. The first, and most obvious reason, is that there isn’t a whole lot of room in my Mazda Miata, and the passenger seat is pretty much unusable. However, the important reason has to do with decision-making.

If you didn’t see that coming, you’re not paying very close attention.

Here’s the thing. When I was a kid, I discovered that I like putting what others want before my own desires, and I’ve spent most of the past three decades doing just that. It got to the point over the past few years where I could never really say what I want to do, because what I want is generally dependent on what the people around me need.

And that brings us to this trip. This solo road trip, during which every decision I make can only be relative to what’s best for me. No family, no friends, no cats, no work, no volunteering, no house…for the first time in my adult life, no one and nothing is dependent on me. And if I had brought someone along, that wouldn’t be the case. I’d spend most of my time wondering how I could make things better for my companion.

Don’t get me wrong…when this is all over, I’ll happily go back to prioritizing others over myself, because that’s who I am and who I like being–I’ve never questioned that. But after July 2013, I’d like to think that I’ll bring a bit more balance to the conversation.
Getting back to today’s events, I think that Minnesota is a nice place, and really liked the people I met. However, it wasn’t a powerful experience for me, as you’ve probably guessed. I don’t blame Minnesota for that, and while I probably won’t be back, I’d definitely give it a second chance to win me over.
The drive to Des Moines was uneventful, and puts me somewhere around 2,100km travelled over six days (approximately 25 hours of driving). Check it out on Google Maps. The highway was almost dead straight for miles and miles, pointed exactly south, and because I chose to leave Minnesota at 6pm, I got to watch the sun set over Iowa shortly before 9pm. Driving in the evening was also a good idea…I definitely needed a break from long drives in the hot sun.

I’m at a Ramada on the west side of Des Moines, where I got free parking and Internet. I’m already more comfortable here than I was at the W Minneapolis, and I know why. The W was all about opulence…it was like Barney’s bachelor pad in How I Met Your Mother. There was nothing warm or inviting about it (though the staff were excellent)…it was about impressing the visitor and waiting on them, not making them comfortable. That’s why I prefer the Tundra Lodge and this Ramada, and that’s what I’ll look for from now on. Also, finding ones with free parking and Internet cuts down the costs, and that ain’t half bad.

I’m not really motivated to do anything in particular in Des Moines, so after checking out the Ramada’s waterpark tomorrow (yep, another waterpark), I think I’ll hit the road. I’ve decided to head for a place you’ve never heard of: Kearney, Nebraska, and I’m hoping to camp at the Fort Kearney State Recreation Area. Why, you ask? Because I’ve always wanted to go to Kearney, Nebraska? No. Because I came across it on Google Maps and think it will be interesting? Maybe. Because it’s a little less than halfway to Denver, Colorado? Umm…yes.I’m already looking forward to it.