Charting a course for travel, adventure

ALPENA – If you saw a distinctive white and green TomTom minivan with cameras and lasers on the roof, hold your waves and smiles for another time. Matt Lichtenwalner and Matt Gefell said they met in the Alpena area to upgrade their equipment Monday, and are only collecting data and measurements to assure accuracy.

TomTom, a Dutch company, supplies GPS maps, route planners and other navigational aids to motorists and online users.

Lichtenwalner said he started his loop in the Upper Peninsula two weeks ago and came through Alpena to swap out gear with Gefell.

Although he has collected a few photographs using a six-lens camera upright on the roof’s van, his main objective this trip was to take laser measurements and collect GPS coordinates.

Regardless, the job is the ultimate road trip, he said.

“I found myself 40 plus without any real responsibilities, and I was thinking of taking a really long motorcycle trip across the country,” said Lichtenwalner, who previously worked in IT for a credit card company. “Then I heard about this job. It’s an absolutely dream road trip and if you’re the sort of person who likes to roam, we are hiring.”

“I love the quieter towns,” he said, adding the community feels safe and Alpena residents are warm and friendly.

“I’m not a big city guy,” he said. “So when I can roll into a town and the smiles are genuine, and the diners welcome you with good, hot coffee, noting beats it.”

The minivan serves as a conversation starter at gas stations and hotels, and in the evenings and on weekends, Lichtenwalner searches out great places to eat, or he stops to sketch the scenery he encounters.

“You have to be the right kind of person to do it, because you are on the road six weeks out of seven,” he said.

Home for him is Wilmington, Del., although he’s not there much.

He cautioned that Alpena residents won’t be able to see themselves online any time soon because of the data-gathering nature of his work.

“They see the cameras and the compare them to other GPS companies, so they wave and carry on,” he said.

Or they point to the TomTom systems they have in their automobiles, said Gefell, who has been working for the company a month. He hails from Rochester, N.Y., and majored in geography.

Before coming Up North, Lichtenwalner said he was in Detroit, an area he is familiar with, because he was raised on Grosse Ile.

“I actually found Detroit less angry than I think people imagine it to be, and more post-apocalyptic than people think, because of so many abandoned buildings,” he said.

What is the best thing about the job?

“Limitless freedom,” Lichtenwalner said.

The worst?

“The loneliness. You are alone for a large percentage of your life,” he said.

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.