Part 15: The Midwest and the long trip home

After I dropped Jen off in Minneapolis, I planned to see Paisley Park, the home and music studio of The Artist formerly known as Prince. Unfortunately, unlike the lame Graceland, they don’t just let anybody inside, and I decided that the $65 entry fee would be better spent on gas to keep the party going.

That night I camped at a beautiful berry farm in mid-Minnesota – no mean feat considering pretty much everything around here is a soybean or corn field. Minnesota kind of smells like poo most of the time, if I’m honest – if it’s not a field, it’s a fertilizer plant or a dairy farm full of cows. I really lucked out finding the one place in the state that wasn’t a giant cow pattie.

It was a lovely little Harvest Host where they grew ariona “super” berrries, which I got to sample in some lovely gluten free bars, and I bought a couple of bags of frozen berries to take with me for smoothies.

The next day I crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin; which reminds me a lot of Tennessee in many ways.

There are a lot of trees, lots of greenery, lots of farms and food. Like, they loooove their food here.

They love cheese and dairy. They love ice cream and beer.

They love their fish fries and their mustard on their brats and oh my god did I mention the cheese.

They’re cheese people.

They *get* me.

I stayed in Madison for several days, at a Harvest Host for one night, and with Jessica, an old friend from high school for a couple more. I basically ate the entire time. Tons of cheese, tons of fish, lots of beer. And it was really amazing to see my old friend after such a long time.

In fact, I got two-for-one on the old high school friends deal. My other high school buddy Kristen, who works for Google in San Jose, took Dolly for a test drive back in May when I stopped to see her. Kristen and her husband had already been considering taking their four kids on a road trip, and meeting Dolly clinched it for them … a month later they purchased their own RV and were on the road, doing an epic (albeit shorter than mine) road trip with their kids during the summer.

They happened to be driving through Madison at the same time I was at Jessica’s, so they stopped by for a few selfies of Dolly and Blanche (their RV) together!

Next, I went to southern Wisconsin, to an adorable little town on the banks of the Mississippi called Potosi. I spent one night at a Harvest Host, the Potosi Brewing Company, which has a fantastic brewpub (try the mac and cheese) …

… as well as a cool brewing museum. I told ya, they are all about the beer and cheese around Wisconsin.

For the next two nights, I was camping at the Grant River campground, just across the Mississippi from Iowa.

It was a little humid in Wisconsin in the summer (the weather is a lot like Tennessee IMO), so I was glad to have the air conditioner running for a couple of days.

While I was there. I also drove through a town called Dickeyville, which has this incredible grotto outside of the local Catholic church.

A parish priest built this amazing work of art – it must have taken decades – out of millions of rocks, shells, charms, antiques, pottery, gems, and various other items.

It’s really spectacular.

I also spent a couple of days around the Chicago area – I stayed at two different breweries that are Harvest Hosts, and another two nights at a Boondockers Welcome spot. The weather was great and I ate a ton. One of the breweries was Riverlands, where I stayed on a previous trip through Chicagoland. They have an impeccable IPA (several, actually) and I also got a fabulous Lou Malnati’s deep-dish Chicago style pizza.

The second Harvest Host brewery was a lot of fun… Rabid Brewing is just on the outskirts of Chicago, and their IPAs and hazy ales are delicious.

I spent a lovely evening with the brewmistress Raiye, who told me about the amazing beer they make, and who schooled me in how to hula hoop. I was a little tipsy, and I hadn’t used a hula hoop in years – and hula hoops are a little bit random for a brewery manager’s side hobby – but it was a ton of unexpected fun! (Check my Instagram videos for more on my hula hooping progress.)

Before I left Chicagoland – which is basically all of northern Illinois – I got to meet up with another friend from college, which was fantastic. We had a great soul food lunch in Chicago, and then I got to relax for a couple of days.

Of course, I still kept stuffing my face. Shuntae recommended that I try a slice of chocolate cake and a hot Italian beef sandwich (“wet” and with sweet peppers) from Portillo’s.

That was pretty incredible.

I was on my way to Fort Wayne Indiana, to hang out with yet another high school buddy I haven’t seen in years, I stopped at the Indiana Dunes state and national park right in northern Indiana.

It was a pretty nice beach, for not actually being at the ocean. And I checked one more national park off of my list!

Then I spent two nights in Fort Wayne, and my friend Jeannie took me all around to see the sights.

They have a lovely park and downtown area near the river and a historical fort, and we had a great time seeing the sights and eating a bunch.

I basically ate like crazy everywhere I went in the Midwest.

Then I had to head back north to Michigan for my friend’s wedding. I stayed at a few more cool Harvest Hosts on the way – first, a cool bison farm in Indiana. Eel River Bison Ranch was a lovely and peaceful stay, and I left with several packs of delicious bison meat.

… then the RV and Motorhome Hall of Fame and Museum in Elkhart.

This place was a lot of fun.

I had no idea about how they used to make and use RVs back in the day, but it was really cool to see all the amazing antique motorhomes.

Mia is a dear friend of mine from college, She and I were roommates senior year, and we worked together on the newspaper staff for four years. She has had to reschedule her wedding several times due to Covid. This time, with the Delta variant causing all kinds of problems nationwide, they rescheduled the wedding again, but then asked for everyone to be masked and to take a home test before attending. I also got my third Covid vaccine (my doctor recommended it due to my compromised immune system) just to have a little extra protection.

The wedding was super fun – I got to dance, eat delicious catered food, have a few drinks with old friends from college …

… and watch my good friend get married. It was a long trip to get all the way to Michigan, but I am so glad I did it. It was all worth it.

While I was in Lansing, I stayed at a Boondockers Welcome host that was really amazing – they let me shower and do laundry and use their water and power, so I could get ready and enjoy my time with my friends after the wedding was over.

After the wedding, my goal was to get home to San Diego as soon as possible.

I was tired of driving, and of the fires, and the heat, and I craved the smell of the Pacific Ocean and a taco in San Diego. I wanted to see my brother, my friends, and maybe park for a few days in a peaceful place without crazy weather.

It was going to be a long drive, and my plan was to drive as much as I could and then stop at truck stops or big box stores instead of Harvest Hosts or campgrounds. Truck stops are great when you don’t want any fuss. I knew that this way, I wouldn’t have to reserve anything ahead of time, and there would be showers, gas, propane, dump stations, food, and a safe place to sleep. Plus they are all right off if the freeway and open 24 hours, with security and people around all of the time.

I figured this would me back to the beach in record time. I made it a few days from Michigan, through Missouri, without incident.

However, Dolly had other plans. She was not appreciative of my plan to cross seven states in as many days, stopping only to sleep. She decided to show me this attitude when we were in Kansas.

It was really hot. Hot for anywhere, but really hot for Kansas – 100 to 102 at the hottest. I had been driving straight west on the 70 after going south to Indianapolis from Michigan.

That morning I had been in Missouri, and I really wanted to make it to Colorado before I slept.

It was an hour before sunset; 120 miles to the Colorado border, and 102 degrees outside.

Dolly gave up.

I managed to make it off of the freeway because I was right next to a freeway exit. The engine died in the same way it had when I was in Montana, so I suspected that there might be more rodent damage and/or damaged wiring. Last time it was a spark plug wire, so maybe it was a spark plug. I prayed it was something minor because I couldn’t afford a big repair job.

Inexplicably, after a very long and very hot and uncomfortable night in a Kansas truck stop, the engine started and didn’t die again. At this point, I was feeling kind of uncharitable towards Kansas.

But it got better. I called a mobile mechanic; who was super busy but (luckily) didn’t charge me to stop by and poke round for a few minutes. He said there wasn’t any rodent damage to spark plug or any other wires that he could see. And the engine was running. So I, figured what the hell and I decided to hit the road again.

I made it to Colorado that day … maybe 35 miles into the state. I only drove a couple of hours, and it wasn’t nearly as hot as it had been the day before. That day was uneventful, so the next morning I continued through Colorado on Interstate 70.

It was beautiful – Colorado is just breathtaking – but I will never take this route again in an RV.

I made it through the Mile-High City just fine, but west of Denver is when the real mountains start. It’s a very gradual climb – Dolly wasn’t complaining at all. Same as always, no overheating, no lights. I was at over 11,000 elevation.

The freeway climbs and climbs and climbs, then, at 11,158 feet, there’s the Eisenhower Tunnel. According to the internet, the length of the tunnel less than two miles, but it feels so long. Really everything feels different when you’re at that kind of altitude.

Remember in my last post, when I talked about how scary it was when the engine died in Montana, right as I was going down a mountain? Well, I need to rephrase, because that one in Montana wasn’t really a mountain. THIS was a mountain. I was nearly out of the tunnel – like, less than 10 yards – when the speed started to drop, despite me pressing the gas. I knew something was up even though the lights hadn’t come on yet.

If you’ve never been through this tunnel, let me paint a picture. As I mentioned, it’s at extreme altitude. It’s a one-way tunnel, two lanes, just like the freeway. Just as you leave the tunnel, there is a brake check area for trucks, because about 100 feet later, there is a steep, steep grade for almost eight miles, straight down a mountain.

If the engine had died when I was in the middle of the tunnel, I’d have been (at the least) rear-ended and stuck in a damn tunnel. If it had died a minute later, I would have been speeding down a mountain at the time, which would have ended up with me probably in one of those runaway truck ramps, in a pile of sand. As it happened, it was at the exact perfect time, and I was able to punch the gas and get Dolly into the brake check area before the engine completely died.

So, a similar refrain in my life the last year or so: It sucked, but it could have been worse in several different ways.

After what had happened in Kansas, I decided to stay there for an hour or so, both to let the engine rest, and to chill out myself (that was a little bit stressful!), and then it was fine. I made it to a slightly lower elevation, planning to camp at a truck stop or something, but there were none to be found. This was in the fancy touristy area of Colorado, with all of the ski lifts and bungalows, so no overnight parking was allowed in any of the gas stations or big box stores.

I was starting to feel a little too stressed. All I wanted was to get home. I was running out of money, I was afraid my engine could die at any moment, and I didn’t have a free place to camp. This was the longest I had been on the road by myself without a long pit stop in San Diego or with family.

I lucked out.

I found a local campground called Heaton Bay. It’s in Frisco, Colorado, right in the middle of the Rockies and the White River National Forest.

It was just spectacular.

As soon as I got here, I felt the stress melt away. It was like someone gave me a happy shot.

I instantly felt better and calmer and … just in general, less agitated about everything.

I figured this was the Universe telling me to take it easy; to stop and enjoy the scenery instead of trying to blast my way through the western states and get home at record speed. For sure, it was Dolly telling me to stop running her so hard through extreme heat and altitude.

I also realized my good friend Stephanie (a former chef at the Joint in OB, one of the best restaurants in town), who moved to Colorado last year, was just an hour or two away from my campsite. She was awesome enough to let me come and hang at her place for a couple of nights while I got my medications from San Diego (which were running out) sent to me there.

Stephanie lives in the super touristy town of Glenwood Springs. It was lovely, but a little weird. It was super crowded with obvious tourists despite the heat. There’s no law enforcement due to their budget issues, and bears literally prowl around at night going through the trash. Its a really strange mix of rural and urban life.

The altitude was still over 8,000 in Glenwood Springs, which was causing some headaches for me after a day or two. I was looking forward to getting back to a normal elevation again, and then as soon as I crossed into Utah, I remembered.

Wildfires. Smog. I was really enjoying the clear blue skies in the Midwest even if it as hot!

The rest of my drive to San Diego was pretty uneventful, mostly because I was taking it easy. Really, really easy. I got up early to do the bulk of the driving before it got too hot; I never drove faster than 65, especially up hills, and I only did a couple hundred miles per day.

I spent two nights driving through Utah, then stayed with friends in Vegas, then to my stepdad’s in San Bernardino. Dolly didn’t have any problems, but the engine still felt kind of sluggish and loud, so one of the first things I did in San Diego (after I got a taco) was to get a new fuel filter. That helped a little, but a couple of weeks later, an oil change and a new air filter did the trick. She’s running just fine, and I feel good about driving.

It always feels good to be home.

I only planned to be in southern California for a short while; to get my tests done, see friends and family, and head east to my sister’s in Houston and then to my mom’s in Tennessee. I was trying to schedule my scans for the week of September 13, but there wasn’t availability to get a bone scan until October 12.

I was disappointed at first, but then I realized that; one, this gives me more time to spend in California, where it’s beautiful, and where I can see my family some more (and my kitty Janis,…

… who is doing very well at my brother’s house); and two, if I don’t leave until mid-October, then that means Dr. Vlad will let me spend more time out east.

So, barring any unforseen circumstances, I will be leaving California the weekend of the 16th, stopping in Albuquerque, and then spending a couple of weeks in Houston with my sister. Then in November I’ll be headed to my moms house for the holidays, then back to San Diego for my usual tests in January.

Are you enjoying this content? Please donate to my trip GoFundMe here: https://gofund.me/b8333d49

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