Part 3: Dolly’s Maiden Voyage

As I write this, we have been on the road for almost a month, and we have all held up surprisingly well. When I say “we,” I am referring obviously to myself, but also to my friend, Nichelina, who drove to my mom’s house in Tennessee from her home in Philadephia in order to join me on a nationwide road trip of indeterminate length, and her 11-year-old service pitbull named Dego.

We were all good friends before this trip, but it is fair to say that we have learned a lot about each other after traveling together for so long in a 22-foot-long RV.

Dego has been a very good boy, and mostly rests during the day while we’re moving.

At several times in this story, “we” also includes my RV, who I have named Dolly. She also has performed remarkably well for a vehicle built in 1995-1996 and barely driven 50 miles per year. She only stopped working once, and we were able to get that issue fixed (in a way that probably only happens in a sitcom). More on that later.

Of course, we are also traveling during a pandemic, which severely limits the socializing we would normally be doing. Instead of stopping in a strange town and popping down to the local bar or restaurant to meet some people and ask about the fun places to go, we take our food to go, eat it in the RV (she has a nice dining area), and ask the carryout guy or the gas station attendant or the Harvest Hosts host about local places of interest.

Luckily we have an RV that makes us feel safe, at least in terms of Covid protection – no hotels or restaurants necessary. And luckily, we’re good friends.

Our plan was to head generally westward, stopping at cool places along the way, and using Harvest Hosts as much as possible. I’ve explained about HH before, but essentially it is a membership for RV owners; you pay an annual subscription (which is stupid cheap) to be able to park overnight at privately-owned wineries, farms, distilleries, breweries, and other unique places of interest.

You don’t pay the host for parking, but you are expected to purchase something if they are selling (wine at a winery, cheese at a dairy farm, etc.). Most of them are small farms or businesses, many of the owners live on the property as well.

Of course, there are some areas of the country without Harvest Hosts available, so, as RV owners and travelers know, you can also park for free overnight at (almost) any Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco, Cracker Barrel, and most Indian casinos and truck stops. Many of these are open 24 hours, but all have 24-hour security.

Anyway, Nichelina arrived at my mom’s house a few days before we left, because we were still fixing it up — a thousand tiny little touches that needed to happen before we got on the road.

Just as an example, we spent an inordinant amount of time fixing the step up into the camper. I wanted the first view you see when you walk in to be a pretty color and something nice, not just the ugly carpet stapled to the wall. We took several days to paint it, prepare the backsplash, and fix the contoured step.

Of course, now that we have been on the road, we have thought of a thousand more things to fix or redo. By the time we get back to Tennessee again, we will have a completely different idea of RV traveling than we did before we started.

The plan was to leave by noon on Halloween. Then it was by 4 p.m.

We finally left my mom’s house at about 8 p.m.

As we went up the hill and out of the driveway, Dolly started to shake and make a wheezing noise between 35 and 45 mph. We had called ahead to a Harvest Host – Bristol Caverns, a privately owned tourist attraction of a cavern tour and museum – and they told us we could come after business hours. It was about an hour from my mom’s; which we did intentionally, in case we forgot something or something else bad happened that first night.

That first night was 26 degrees. That night I learned that the air conditioning unit was not also a heater. That night I learned how to prime the generator and get it to work – and then realized I did not bring a heater. And how did I never notice how loud that generator is? Also the stove pilot light wasn’t working … it felt like it didn’t have gas going to it, but the reader on the tank said it was half full.

We ended up deciding to use the microwave instead of the stove until we can get a propane guy to check it out – somehow there is enough propane to run the refrigerator, which was great, but it was still weird. The weird shaking and wheezing that happened between 35-45 mph was still happening.

Since it was Sunday when we woke up, we weren’t able to visit the Bristol Caverns, so we headed to Mammoth Caves in southern Kentucky.

We called ahead to another Harvest Host — Traveler’s Cellar in Rockfield, Kentucky. They were having a private party that night (like many hosts, they live on the property), but they were kind enough us a quick wine tasting anyway. We got there just in time for sunset, and to buy a bottle of the bubbly red Baco Noir.

It was lovely. I’ve never had a fizzy red wine before but I really loved it.

The next morning we attempted to visit Mammoth Caves, but due to my walker (which I still need occasionally), we weren’t able to get a tour. We had a great time driving around the park and surrounding areas.

We also took a few minutes to walk around the Corvette Museum.

Unfortunately, everything we want to visit is either closed due to the pandemic, or they’re totally changed because of it.

The next night, we stayed at another Harvest Host, a distillery in eastern Kentucky.

Again, we arrived just before dark. Since we were headed west and it’s wintertime, there isn’t a lot of sunlight, and we didn’t want to drive too much at night. Plus, most Harvest Hosts want you to get there before it gets dark.

We had a great time at Casey Jones Distillery, learning about the history of Casey Jones and the moonshine business back in the day.

We sampled a variety of moonshines and bourbons, purchased a few bottles for gifts for some friends, and the next morning, we were on our way to southern Illinois.

Dolly parked at Starview Vineyards.

The area around western Kentucky, southern Illinois and Missouri is really beautiful. In our comparatively short time on the road, we have seen some really beautiful landscapes. Southern Illinois also has a lot of cool wineries in the area around the Shawnee National Forest.

When we got to Illinois, we stayed at Starview Vineyards, probably one of our favorite Harvest Hosts stops.

They had a lovely spot to park, a nice restaurant where we could sample some of their wines and have an early dinner, and the view from our table at their pond was spectacular.

From there, we headed towards St. Louis, to see the Gateway Arch National Park and to stay at another Harvest Host outside of the city limits.

The Gateway Arch actually has a really pretty park and pedestrian walkway around it, as well as a museum and gift shop underground.

We parked downtown and walked all around, admiring the artwork and the lovely park…

… then we had a yummy to-go lunch of Korean food.

As I said, pretty much all of our meals were takeout, and enjoyed at our small dining room table in the RV. I painted some of the walls and used wallpaper on others, but the table and benches were pretty much unaltered.

We also enjoyed our stay at the Point Labaddie Brewery just outside of St. Louis. The night we arrived, they had an (outdoor) trivia night, and there were a few other Harvest Hosts RVers we hung out with (socially distanced, of course).

We had a great time drinking local beer around a nice campfire, making new friends and relaxing.

The next morning we kept west towards Kansas City, driving through the Ozarks and enjoying the scenery. One of our new friends at trivia night had recommended Lone Elk County Park, where we could drive around on a one-way road and see the elk during mating season.

We got to see a lot of wildlife, including beautiful birds and, as promised, lots of elk. We got to drive up and observe a pair of young elk fighting each other.

(I apologize for the grainy photo, I zoomed in a lot. I wasn’t about to get too close to wild and randy and violent elk who are antler-fighting each other during mating season.)

The lake communities around the Ozarks are really cute, and the flat land and lakes were a welcome respite after driving through the smoky mountains and the hills of Kentucky.

Nichelina had taken over driving, and I was chilling in the back; which is actually really fun. You get a better view and a more comfortable chair.

We were comfortably on our way to get BBQ in Kansas City – as comfortable as you can be when your vehicle shakes uncontrollably between 35-45 miles per hour – when the engine died.

Sort of.

It would start, so it wasn’t the battery. It happened suddenly with no warning lights so it wasn’t the catalytic converter. And we were able to restart the engine and move it (slowly) to a side street, before it died again.

I should point out that this tiny town of Eldon, Missouri, was the best possible place where we could have broken down. In the 45 minutes we were waiting on the side of the road for AAA to tow us to the repair shop, no fewer than a dozen people, including an EMT on his way to work and an off-duty police officer, stopped to ask us if we were OK, to offer advice and counsel, and to recommend a repair shop. They all said the same one: U Rench it.

It was around sunset when we broke down, so it was fully dark by the time we got a tow truck, they got the RV on the truck, and we got to the shop. They were about to close, but in the dark, the mechanic could tell that the problem was that — no kidding – mice had chewed through the fuel injector wires. It was an easy fix, but they couldn’t do it until the morning.

Curtis (the mechanic) let us park overnight at the secure repair shop lot, staying in our RV, and then first thing in the morning, he replaced the wires. It took about an hour because, in the daylight, he realized the spark plug wires had also been gnawed.

For a grand total of $72, we got back on the road, the RV actually drove better due to the new spark plug wires and fuel injector wires, and he showed us how to turn on our propane tank. It turned out, the fridge actually wasn’t working, it was just cold. (The food stayed cold in there when we were in Tennessee and Kentucky, but then when it warmed up again, so did our food.)

So it was a winning day all around… especially because Curtis also recommended moth balls in the engine to stop more mice and wildlife from gnawing our engine wires; and he directed us to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, a super cool hidden gem of a state park in the Ozarks.

They have an amazing natural rock bridge, which was dry from a drought, so we could actually climb and walk underneath it.

The state park is also home to an old castle built by a Kansas City business man in the early 1900s, and the ruins of the castle and surrounding views are spectacular.

I started to be really glad that we broke down in Missouri.

Finally we made it to Kansas City, where we had some really good BBQ at Jack Stacks BBQ.

Our Harvest Hosts stop for that night was a cider mill in Louisburg, Kansas, but we got there after dark and didn’t see anything until the sun came up.

And it was so cute! Pretty much by the time they opened at 8 a.m, the place was packed. I was still walking around, looking at everything while still in my PJs, and the people at Loiusburg Cider Mill were already making cider.

It was a Saturday morning, and dozens of families and visitors had arrived, already deep in their hot apple cider and cider donuts. I got some donuts, which were amazing, and some delicious fresh cider and apple cider slushie to wash them down.

Our goal was to get to Colorado before dark (or at least before too late), so I could get some Rick Simpson Oil and other CBD extracts before I started a new chemo drug. I have been on hormonal treatments (the tumors in my bones are actually breast cancer cells, so they are shrinking my tumors by cutting off estrogen), but I was starting a new regimen of oral chemotherapy pills, and I wanted to have some proper CBDs in my system so I could be as healthy as possible before I started.

Anyway, it took forever to get though Kansas, but it sure was better than slogging through that last part of west Texas that lasts forever when you’re trying to get west. (Anyone who has traveled that stretch knows what I mean.) We finally arrived in Colorado, found the nearest Wal-Mart, and stopped for the night.

As soon as we got the RSO, we headed south to New Mexico, where we unfortunately had the craziest part of our trip. It was a Harvest Hosts stop in northern New Mexico, a winery (there is a really great wine scene in New Mexico, their wines are all very unique, but more about that later). I will decline to name and tag them in this post, for reasons which will soon become apparent.

We did what we always did; called ahead to let them know we were coming, and our approximate time of arrival. We arrived just after sunset and before it got (really really) dark. Instantly, we knew this was not a normal HH stop. The place was dark and at the end of a dirt road. There were no markings. There was no sign. There were no lights. It didn’t appear to be a business at all. A man (who we later learned was the husband of the woman we spoke to), let us in the main gate, then locked it behind us.

As I mentioned, my RV is 22 feet long, which is very small for an RV. I cannot fathom how a rig bigger than mine would fit there. I started to wonder why these people were listed as a Harvest Host, and why in the world the reviews of this place – which discussed how the building was built in 1920 and used to be a dance hall – didn’t mention that it barely appeared to be a functioning business.

Nichelina commented (correctly) that it looked worse than the Wal-Mart we had slept at the previous night. I got out of the RV, with my mask on, and the lady told me that I didn’t need to wear one, because “everything is sanitary around here, even the dirt is sanitized.” Needless to say, this was not true — the place (and the people) were quite objectively dirty. But we were there, we were locked in. We had told them we were staying, I felt at that point it would have been more awkward to just turn around and leave.

We go inside to see their operation (the site boasts tasting flights and tours of their facility), and discover that this old 1920-era building, which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since it was a Prohibition-era dance hall, is a (mostly) one-room building. You have to walk through a dirty motorcycle garage to enter. There is no winery or tasting room, and our host informs us that because of some legal snafu with the Catholic Church owning property within a certain distance, they are not allowed to operate it as a winery or as a tasting room. But, of course, they still do, offering wines to Harvest Hosts RVers and people doing wine tours in the area. I have no idea how the New Mexico Board of Tourism backed them without a proper winery, but they did. We got the tour, which included a view of a tiny room with a bunch of TV screens, where we could see ourselves. They had cameras on every inch of the property. It was not like any other Harvest Host we had been to.

But I digress.

We were tasting wine in the tasting room/bedroom, at an antique table within view of our host’s unmade bed and laundry room, when she proceeded to tell us all about the neighborhood; including that she had been sexually assaulted by one of her neighbors. The assault had allegedly taken place in the room where we were sitting, just a couple of months prior, in full view of the many cameras all over the place, but she told us the man was still not in jail. This also did not make us feel better about camping there overnight.

The final crack was when we were headed back to our RV. The hosts had offered to let us use their bathroom (we only use the RV one for emergencies, and we hadn’t yet figured out the water pump), and when we walked through the motorcycle garage you need to walk through to get to the “winery,” we saw Nazi and Confederate flags.

I consider myself a tolerant person. I am liberal politically, but I can accept other points of view. I draw the line at fucking Nazis, though. And I think most people do.

Needless to say, now we really wanted to get the heck out of there.

We again decided that making a break for it now would be too awkward, plus it was dark, the roads were windy and unfamiliar, we were in an RV, and we had both drank the equivalent of about two glasses of wine at our bedside tasting. We decided the best course of action would be to get out of there as soon as possible in the morning, and to let Harvest Hosts and everyone else know to stay away from this place.

The people had been nice to us, but the place was so dirty, and so below standards … and it just made me sick to my stomach to think of a Black or Jewish person coming there as part of Harvest Hosts, or wine tasting for a birthday party, and seeing a Nazi party flag and other racist nonsense so prominently displayed. We notified Harvest Hosts, the NM Board of Tourism, and put a detailed public post on Facebook and Google reviews.

In the two weeks or so since we left that place, they apparently got wind of our posts, because they have now claimed that their dirty garage with the lawn chairs and motorcycle parts and Amazon boxes in it was actually a “military museum,” and those multiple racist icons and flags were just, like, exhibits on display. Makes sense, right? Because that’s how you would display a flag in a museum, draped over some boxes, or hanging up next to where you and your buddies sit around and smoke cigarettes? That’s your priceless artifact, there as an educational tool, next to the bottle of cleanser?

Come on. Look at those photos. This ain’t a museum; and it ain’t a winery. It’s a couple of racist, white trash people who learned how to make homemade wine, trying to pretend they are better than they are.

I believe that these flags were and are a statement. You don’t pick them up accidentally, you don’t display them without knowing what they are, and you don’t display them unless you believe in them. This dump was nothing close to a museum, but even if it was, just for the sake of argument, there is no museum that would display racist icons like this without explanation or context, if at all. A racist flag in a dirty garage is just that.

That’s all I am going to say about it, because they are also claiming they called New Mexico state police, because they say we stole priceless military artifacts from their “military museum,” and they are trying to get their friends to harass me on social media. They even found an old photo from September, of my sister and I, and added it to their sprawling Facebook post, claiming that she and I were the ones who visited, when of course, it was Nichelina and I, and of course we didn’t steal anything. They have the tapes to prove where we were every second we were on their property, so I am not worried about the cops. I know we didn’t steal, and I know we did the right thing by telling people about this place. No regrets.

I will say that I am disappointed in Harvest Hosts for allowing these people back on to their program after removing them, but I suppose they were convinced about the military museum thing. I still have a Google review active, so hopefully visitors will check first before visiting. I am still wary of any people of color coming to visit, but I assume they would have taken down the troublesome flags by now.

I guess if that’s the worst and craziest thing that happens to us on this trip, we’ll be just fine, right?

New Mexico is stunning, and the landscape is much more varied than you might imagine if you’ve never visited. There are mountains and plains, arid deserts and green valleys. We were at high elevation and it was early November, so it was very sunny, yet cold, and the ground was frozen.

It was beautiful.

As I mentioned before, New Mexico has a great wine scene. They have the usual whites and reds, but because grapes are so hard to grow in New Mexico, local producers often incorporate lots of other fruits and herbs. The unnamed Nazis made some wine from strawberries and others from native chokecherries.

Our next Harvest Host was like we have come to expect: wide-open spaces, lovely vineyards, warm hospitality, no racist flags of any kind.

Wines of the San Juan has an adorable little outdoor seating area as well as a small tasting room and gift shop, plus they offered electric and water hookups, which is really nice when your generator is super loud.

When we arrived at Wines of the San Juan, we noticed a lot of other farms nearby, but apparently a small, local lavender farm produces enough lavender for WSJ to make a delicious lavender wine. It tastes like a slightly fruity white wine, but has a strong lavender scent and taste. It’s wonderful. They also make a sweet cherry pie wine and other blackberry and fruity blends. It was probably the most variety we saw in any of our wine tasting travels on this leg of the trip.

The rest of the trip to San Diego went fairly quickly … we went west on a remote highway that went back and forth a couple of times between Arizona and Utah. It was cold and dry and remote.

It was also spectacularly beautiful.

Part of the drive went through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which has some of the most beautiful rock formations you’ve ever seen. We had to stop for a few minutes to enjoy the scenery, take some pictures, and let Dego stretch his paws.

Then we spent a couple of nights with friends in Las Vegas (who have been quarantining), and from there straight into southern California. In San Bernardino, we ran into some issues trying to find a free spot to park — no Harvest Hosts were nearby, so we went to a Wal-Mart, only to be kicked out around midnight. Apparently the store parking thing doesn’t work if you’re in a city or county that doesn’t allow overnight parking or camping; which is most of southern California. Eventually we found a cool security guard at a Costco who let us park there for a few hours, but it was technically illegal.

Aaah, but to be back in Ocean Beach. We left the San Bernardino parking lot super early and we were back in Ocean Beach and enjoying the salty air and the warm sun by noon.

#breastcancerportraitproject

We’ve basically been on the beach all week… parking at various friends’ homes at night and sitting at the beach all day.

#breastcancerportraitproject

My stepbrother visited us and showed us cool things about my RV, like how to light the stove, adjust the water pressure, and empty the black tank (I did read the manual on those things, but hadn’t done them yet). But every day on the beach ends with a lovely sunset out the front window.

I am spending Thanksgiving at my brother’s while Nichelina and Dego and Dolly are in San Diego, and we will meet up again this weekend and head back east on Tuesday (after more doctor’s visits and scans on Monday). In the meantime, we feel better about cooking in the RV and emptying the tanks if we need to.

#breastcancerportraitproject

I also had another sitting with my friend Missy, who runs the Breast Cancer Portrait Project. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really an amazing and inspiring body of work, telling the stories and sharing photos of women who were under 40 when they were diagnosed with breast cancer.

#breastcancerportraitproject

I sat for a session with Missy about a year ago, when I was celebrating being a survivor. Now that cancer is back, she offered to come to the beach and photograph me again in my RV.

#breastcancerportraitproject

I strongly recommend that you visit her site and her social media and support this amazing project.

I will update soon with the next leg of the trip. The tentative plan now is to head due east, stopping in Houston and Louisiana on the way back to Tennessee. We will definitely enjoy the scenery and the Harvest Hosts and the food, but Nichelina and I both promised our moms we would be on the east coast by Christmas, so we can’t lag too much.

In the meantime, have a great Thanksgiving week.

If you are enjoying this content, please contribute to my bucket list GoFundMe page here.

Beer Tour for One

The San Diego Brewer’s Guild refers to our beautiful seaside town as the Craft Beer Capital of the World. It’s not much of an exaggeration: in the last decade, especially, laws nationwide have been relaxed to allow more home brewing and distilling; and it wasn’t long before everyone had their own brewing company.

As with many other aspects of life, San Diego spoils you for living other places after you leave. You start to travel after living in San Diego for a couple of decades, and you erroneously expect great sunsets and superb Mexican food and fancy craft IPAs everywhere you go.

It’s a wake-up call.

But hey, part of traveling and seeing the country is trying new things, right? What’s the point of seeing the rest of the country if I am looking for San Diego beer everywhere? So when I got to my mom’s house in Tennessee, I had to take myself on a tasting tour.

Of course, if I was still in San Diego, beer tasting would be totally different: I would buy myself a day pass on the bus, take the bus from my house in Ocean Beach to Old Town, where I would hit a nice brewpub for a starter beer. I’d take the trolley, maybe to downtown San Diego or to the barrio to hit a few tasting rooms, having a small beer or taster in each one, maybe a snack or a taco at one or more of the stops, and make a day out of it.

It’s a fun, spontaneous day, just as easily accomplished with one person or 20. The bus pass means you don’t have to worry about drunk driving or parking.

Well, parking sure isn’t an issue at my mom’s farm in Limestone, Tennessee. They don’t even have a stoplight, much less a bus and trolley system to take me to all of the beer tasting spots. There is a tasting room about 25 miles away, but I’m not drinking and driving. Plus, you know … Covid.

So, I compromised. I went to the local grocery store, where I purchased a mix-n-match 6-pack of beers, and filled my sixer with all local brews. It would be a week-long tasting, at home, but it would be safe and I would get to taste all the good beers in the tri-state area.

I know that I love IPAs, so I figured that was the best place to start. It wasn’t hard to find six beers that seemed to be decent IPAs. Also, I generally prefer beers in a bottle, but in these cases, the cans didn’t take anything away from the hoppy flavor.

First up were two IPAs from Sweetwater Brewing out of Atlanta.

I tried their regular IPA and their 420 Strain IPA.

This one, the G13, is one of several “420 Strain” beers from Sweetwater incorporating a hemp flavor. I like hemp as much as the next guy (hello, cancer patient!) but I personally didn’t care for the hemp flavor in this IPA. Their regular IPA (in the yellow can) is much tastier.

Next, I tried the Long Leaf IPA from Appalachian Mountain Brewery. My mom’s house in east Tennessee is very close to the border of North Carolina, so they get an interesting mix of beers from all over the south and eastern seaboard.

(Adorable rural background courtesy of my mom’s back porch.)

I really enjoyed this beer; very crisp and citrusy but with a great balance of hops flavors. For packing a 7.1% punch, it’s very smooth. Better watch out for that one.

Next up … by the way, I was not drinking all of these beers at once! … was one of my favorites, Yee Haw Brewing. Yee Haw has a really cute tasting room in Johnson City, with outdoor seating, a taco shop — it looked just like a beer tasting room you’d find in San Diego.

They clearly didn’t spend a lot of time and money on their can and logo designs (haha) but their beer was excellent.

Lots of hoppy flavor, hints of citrus, and a smooth finish. I totally bought another 6-pack just of these.

Highland Brewing came highly recommended to me by some beer-loving friends, so I tried two of their unfiltered IPAs. Highland Brewing Company is in Asheville, North Carolina, just a little over an hour’s drive (over the Smoky Mountains) from my mom’s place; you may recall some photos I took of their artsy college district when we visited in August from a previous post. Asheville has an up-and-coming craft beer scene and Highland is the leader of the pack.

Normally unfiltered IPAs aren’t my thing, even if I like the filtered version (example, Ballast Point Sculpins are the best IPAs I’ve ever had, but their unfiltered one is whoooooo very unfiltered, and for me, way too full of all of those hoppy floaty bits you get in some beers).

Both of the Highland IPAs were very crisp and not at all full of floaty bits (perhaps that also was due to it being canned and not, say, from a draft pull). But regardless I enjoyed both of these very much.

Maggie the farm dog completes the composition in the background 🙂

As you may have noticed, that was my six pack. A very successful week of tasting, if you ask me.

I later went to buy another mixer pack, with a couple moreYee Haw beers, a couple more Highland IPAs (I really really like the Mandarina… fruity, but not too citrusy that it ruins the hop flavor) …

… and these two North Carolina brews.

This Triple C Brewing IPA was really refreshing, it’s a light, not-too-hoppy IPA. It’s another one that is so smooth and crisp and almost light, you forget you’re drinking a pretty high-alcohol brew.

The last tri-state area IPA I tried was the Boojum Brewing IPA, which was probably the strongest-tasting of them all.

The “Hop Fiend” name is no joke… it was definitely a blend of all the hoppiest-tasting hops, but it was still very delicious.

If you’ve been following my adventures, you’ll have seen that on my way out of Tennessee, I stopped in Nashville to attempt to find some good food like I used to get when I was in college. I struck out.

Of course, in college, I also drank Boone’s Farm, so I didn’t know where to buy good beer there, either. I stopped at a beer and wine market/tasting room and, without sampling, took the word of the lady behind the counter about the quality of Jackalope Brewing Company IPAs and bought a 6-pack of them.

The Fennario IPA was very light-tasting, especially for being as hop-heavy and high-alcohol as it is. I took them with me as I travelled through Louisiana and Texas, and I they were a big hit. My friend in Louisiana doesn’t care for IPAs normally but loved these.

As I made my way back to Texas on the second leg of my adventure, my brother and I stopped in Utah and Colorado, then Dodge City, before we took a right and headed south to Houston, so I got myself a few cans to see what Texas brews I liked best.

The first IPA I tried there was pretty mild:

The “2 Hopper” from Texas Leaguer was really light and smooth, a good daytime (or baseball game) beer.

The Hop Tongue from Karbach Brewing definitely talked a good game, and was very refreshing. But it might be overselling it’s extreme hoppy-ness.

Saint Arnold beers are very popular in Texas, and I enjoyed this Art Car IPA. Again, I wanted more hops, but I’d definitely drink this one again.

Now, the people at Spindletap know how to squeeze some hops. This Hop Gusher IPA was finally the hop-hop-hoppiness I needed! This was one of the best IPAs I’ve had outside of San Diego.

I also sampled the “Single Hop” IPA from the Martin House Brewing Company.

I did not like this beer. I think there might have been an error in production on this one. Ugh.

Thanks for coming along with me on my beer tour.

Please continue to follow my adventures through the USA — hopefully my RV will be ready and I will be on the road in the next week or so.

I have a pass for all of the national parks, so I think I will be maiking an effort — in the next leg of my adventure especially — to see more of the national parks and the awesome treasures within. On the way back to California from east Tennessee, I can see the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I will pass close to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, past Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, the Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde in Colorado, the Arches and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and maybe even Yosemite when I get back to California.

I probably won’t see all or even most of the places on that list, but I m super excited to get back on the road – this time in a pretty nice RV – and see the rest of this amazing country.

Check back soon (and follow me on social media) to see what I am up to in east Tennessee, the progress I have made on the RV, and my next adventure! See you on the road!

If you are enjoying this content, please contribute to my bucket list GoFundMe page here.

Part 2: The Southwest

I just completed part 2 of the best bucket list road trip ever. I learned a few things about camping in a van, about the quality of fast food, and I (re-)learned how much I love — and just enjoy being around — my family.

First things first, if for some reason you don’t follow me on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter (shame on you!), you probably have not been informed that my last scans, which I had in San Diego, looked really good!

Unfortunately, barring some sort of miracle, I don’t really have a lot to look forward to medically other than hoping the tumors don’t get bigger (hurting my bones more or breaking them) or spread elsewhere (a big concern especially for the lesions on my skull) — but that’s just what happened! All of the tumors either shrunk or stayed the same size, and luckily one of the big ones on my skull they were worried about, shrunk by like, a lot.

So it was the best news I could have hoped for.

After I left San Diego, I went to see my ex-stepdad in San Bernardino for an hour or so, then went on to my brother’s house in Oxnard (just north of Los Angeles).

Brotherhood

To make a very long story very short, my dad was married before he married my mom. I never knew the woman he married, or her son, my half-brother. For some reason, our father was adamant that my sister and I never meet our brother, and we never did … and after my parents divorced, our father showed us his true colors, and we moved on and didn’t think much about his side of the family at all.

A couple of years ago, on Facebook, I searched my half-brother’s name on a whim (his name was literally all I knew about him, after all), and found a guy who I thought was my brother. His name could have changed. But then, I looked at his photo, and let’s just say, I was sure we were related. Over the last two years, I started to get to know him and his wife, and it’s really been amazing. I even have a “new” niece and nephew.

Then, this diagnosis came.

I wasn’t going to get more time to get to enjoy the loving and fun relationship I just found, this extra side of my family I never knew existed. It’s a harsh realization.

But, we’re going to try to make up for that.

The plan was for me to meet up at his house in Oxnard, then drive through the southwest for a few days on our way to Houston to see our other sister. (It is becoming clear to me that I will basically be travelling between Tennessee and San Diego quite a bit, so I am happy to have my sister’s place in Houston as a sort-of-halfway point to rest.) The three of us hadn’t spent any time together at all except for right when I got out of the hospital, and I could barely move, then.

My brother and I changed our plans several times. First, we talked about going to Vegas and the Grand Canyon, then considered both traffic (at the canyon) and Covid-19 (in Vegas). Then, we talked about going to Dodge City, then quickly realized a) we didn’t have time to go that far east before heading to Houston in three days, and b) there is nothing to do in Dodge City. We were also trying to plot our route along where some cool Harvest Hosts places are, but many are closed for either the pandemic or the season.

We finally settled on driving in a general easterly direction, stopping briefly in Vegas for a quick photo shoot, then driving to Zion National Park instead of the Grand Canyon. We also wanted to go through New Mexico and see Roswell, and maybe Carlsbad Canyons. We had a general plan, but not an itinerary.

On the Road Again

My brother insisted on leaving his house at an ungodly hour, so I got to see the sunrise touched with a bit of smog and haze and wildfire smoke while he drove the van.

In Vegas, we took our obligatory sign photo …

… and I gave Trump hotel a little salute on behalf of those of us with pre-existing conditions.

But it was still morning, so we barely spent any time in Vegas. I lost $10 at the slot machines in Circus Circus, I washed my hands about 10 times, and then we were back on the road.

The real breathtaking views — like, it will literally take your breath away — were in Zion National Park.

Photos don’t even do it justice (although I will say, my iPhone 8 was taking some great shots!). Thank goodness for Teddy Roosevelt’s foresight to set aside and protect National Parks, because they are the most amazing places.

Zion has guided tours on a tram, but also a self-guided driving tour with a really cool windy road, which luckily has points where you can stop and take pictures.

It was really an incredible afternoon. We could have spent a week there exploring all of the mountains, trails and little villages nearby.

There was also a super-cool thing that you probably don’t know about if you’ve never been to Zion … but there is a weird hole in one of the mountains that looks man-made but might not be …

After wondering aloud what the heck that could be, my brother and I took the driveable trail that goes through one of the mountain tunnels. It was completed in 1930, so it’s wicked narrow and super dark, and of course has no electricity or infrastructure apart from the actual road and tunnel. It turns out, that hole in the mountain is a way to get light into the tunnel without electricity.

Brilliant.

If you’d like to hear my brother and I discover this in real time, check out this awesome POV video he took while driving through the tunnel . And be sure to follow and check out my brother’s theme park blog, Park Journey.

No More McDonald’s

On our way to Vegas from California, we stopped at McDonald’s somewhere in the desert. Mostly because it was the only place to stop. We were thinking about lunch at a diner near Yermo that apparently has awesome food and cool movie memorabilia, but it was kind of gross and empty when we arrived.

I basically used their ladies’ room, took this photo with a creepy Elvis, and left.

After our cruise through Zion National Park, we were planning to spend the night at a Harvest Hosts spot, a trading post in Navajo country almost at the Four Corners (of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado).

After a very long and very beautiful drive — which was surprisingly diverse, in my opinion (you expect the desert to only look a certain way, but in northern Arizona and New Mexico and southern Utah, you see an amazing variety of rocks, formations, mountains, flora, and even weather) — we came to the trading post, but it was very dark at night and there was no phone reception. It seemed a little too sketchy, so we kept driving to a small town in northwestern New Mexico to get a motel room for the night.

There is no food in the desert.

We arrived almost exactly at 10 p.m., but everything was closed. Everything except– wouldn’t you know it — the McDonald’s. My poor brother drove all around Farmington, New Mexico looking for any kind of food, but eventually went to the McDonald’s because that was all that was available. We ate enough to not be starving anymore, but then we both felt kind of gross.

The next day, it was time for something better.

We weren’t far from Santa Fe, and I had a good friend who has spent a lot of time there. We arrived just in time for lunch, and at her suggestion stopped in the center of town — the Plaza, as they call it.

We were excited for anything that didn’t come in a paper bag and have fries and a drink included. We found the Cowgirl BBQ restaurant, where (appropriately socially distanced) we had some amazing drinks and spicy food.

New Mexico is famous for its chiles, and I ordered their Smoked Chicken Short Stack, which was a stack of blue corn tortillas layered with smoked chicken, then topped with chile sauce.

I got it Christmas style, or red and green together. It was … definitely spicy. The chicken had an amazing smoked flavor and the tortillas were nice and fresh.

We hit the road again, headed to Roswell, then to Carlsbad Caverns. Halfway between the two was another Harvest Hosts stop, this time a winery. When I called them ahead of time to let them know we were coming, they informed us that it was lasagna night, so in addition to a place to camp, we could taste some wine and have a nice dinner. It was like we almost could get over having nothing but fast food the day before.

Roswell is … interesting. I expected that some of the town would be trying to bank on the weird alien landing story, but wow.

The sign for the Dunkin’ Donuts had an alien holding it up.

The gas station had green moonmen waving you in to the car wash.

The street signs look like this:

WE GET IT. THERE ARE ALIENS.

The UFO Museum was very cool, complete with full replicas…

… of the alien autopsy and other parts of the legendary story of the Roswell alien landing.

Honestly, some of it was more than a little creepy.

I will say that the UFO Museum, at least, took social distancing and Covid precautions very seriously. Everyone was masked, there was a machine at the door that took your temperature, and there was a strict 6-feet distancing policy.

I kind of wanted to just get out of there before someone offered me an alien-shaped burger or something. Plus, I had lasagna to eat. We had to get on the road to the Balzano Family Winery so we could have dinner and some wine before it got dark.

Success!

This is a really great Harvest Hosts spot. If you aren’t familiar with Harvest Hosts, it is an RV owners’ program wherein you pay an annual fee, and you can park your rig (or converted cargo van as it were) for free at various locations. Most of them are farms, breweries, distilleries, wineries and attractions, but you can also expand your membership to golf courses.

Anyway, we set up the van (electric hookups are always a plus), then went to their lovely garden area for dinner. It’s not a restaurant, but a winery and gift shop, and apparently they also have dinner nights.

We stumbled luckily upon lasagna night, and we ordered a bottle of the Montepulciano to wash it down.

The pecan pie was also slammin’.

It was very, very nice.

In the morning, we rose with the sun, and took a few photos of the lovely sunrise over the desert.

Then it was on to Carlsbad Caverns. This is where we got really lucky.

For the most part, 2020 was one of the worst times to decide to take a nationwide road trip. Unfortunately, my clock is ticking, so I have to hit the road, pandemic or no. But half of the cool places to visit are closed or irreparably affected.

Others, like Carlsbad Caverns, are better.

We checked the website before we arrived (a MUST when traveling anywhere these days), and it advised to come early, because they often sell out of tickets before 9 a.m.

The visitor center and gift shop is awesome.

They only allow people to visit the cave a few at a time. We got a ticket for one of the first tour groups (8:45 a.m.) and I had my walker with me because my back was hurting.

So, with the combination of our early ticket time and my handicap, we got to take the elevator down to the caverns, which shaved about 45 minutes off of the walk down. Which meant that as we entered the cave, the first group of tourists (from 8 a.m.) were still descending.

We were practically alone. In the caverns.

They tell you to keep your voice to a whisper, because any noise reverberates like crazy. I’ve seen photos and videos of tourists in the caverns, and they’re always super close to each other, and the videos sound like there’s a ton of background noise (probably all of those people whispering to each other).

But this was practically silent.

We didn’t go far (it’s a hike for healthy people and my back wasn’t just up to it), but we saw about half of the public part of the cave, and that was a lot.

The lighting inside makes the rocks look like living creatures or spooky ghouls, and being in there in near-silence doesn’t hurt, either.

After Carlsbad, we headed southeast to see our sister in Houston. If you’ve ever been through west Texas, you’ll know that part of the trip isn’t much to write about other than the fried chicken. The chicken livers at Bush’s Fried Chicken in Pecos were legit.

Check out my next post for the shenanigans we got up to in Houston, and my trip further east to an alpaca farm and my mom’s house. I’ll be at my mom’s for a couple of weeks while I get my RV ready to hit the road!

If you are enjoying this content, please contribute to my bucket list GoFundMe page here.

Part 1: TN-Houston-CA

The first leg of my adventure has been so awesome!

I left my mom’s house in Tennessee the day before Labor Day, and drove to see a friend in Cookeville. Then I attempted to visit Tennessee State University in Nashville, where I went to school … years ago.

Nashville was so different! Expressways and suburbs that didn’t exist the last time I visited. The street names were all different. Because it was Sunday, everything was closed (I don’t miss that part about living in the south). I tried to find where I used to get really good BBQ when I went to TSU…not only was the place closed, but there’s an apartment complex where the strip mall used to be. Dang.

I finally found some good BBQ at Jim ‘n’ Nicks in west Nashville… I got this delicious loaded baked potato topped with brisket. It was perfect!

Then I had to figure out where to stay for the night. As soon as I bought my RV, I got a membership in Harvest Hosts. You may have heard about them; RVers pay a (really) low annual fee and can stay for free at any number of Harvest Hosts locations.

This was my first night at a Harvest Host. Most of the hosts are wineries; there are also a number of golf courses, farms, breweries, distilleries, and attractions. And they’re in every state; you can stay at an alligator farm in Mississippi or a cranberry bog in New England.

My first night was at a distillery. The Samuel T. Bryant Distillery is nestled off of the freeway near Jackson, Tennessee, and I got the privilege of meeting Mr. Bryant himself and sampling his delicious shine.

Interesting point about whiskey in Tennessee: in order to market and sell your whiskey as “Tennessee Whiskey,” it has to have a certain formula. Anything else is considered moonshine. This is basically whiskey even though it can’t be sold as such. But it’s delicious!

Harvest Hosts

The way Harvest Hosts works is, you find a host on the map, and you call ahead of time to let them know you’re coming. I was in Nashville when I called them, and I would have arrived just after their closing time of 6 p.m. They told me that was fine, and when I arrived.

When I got there, I was greeted with a handful of moonshine samples and a lovely, well-lit place to park my camper van. It was an amazing sunset, too.

I really enjoyed walking around the lovely farm and distillery grounds. I can’t wait to stop again on my way back to Tennessee!

It’s been wonderful to have my family around, and I love them all, but I have literally spent a total of five hours by myself since I got out of the hospital on June 4! A few days on the road by myself is just what I needed.

It was a little bit hot, but it’ll be a nicer night’s sleep once I have my RV and not a converted cargo van.

The next morning, I stopped at the Tina Turner Museum, just outside of Memphis, because Graceland is tacky and lame and Elvis was a pedophile and a racist who made his money off of stolen black music.

This was as close as I got … the parking lot across the street.

ANYWAY, that day I drove through Memphis, Arkansas, and some of Texas; and that night, I stopped for a really great steak … as one does, in Texas. It was my first time eating inside a restaurant after the pandemic hit, but they did a good job of making me feel safe eating there.

That night, my Harvest Host campsite was a little farm near Interstate 20 in Breshear, Texas, called the Bee Happy Farm. I was there just in time to enjoy a lovely sunset.

No bees (haha), but lots of horses, cows, chickens, and a big garden. It was a very peaceful place to finish my steak dinner and spend the night under the stars.

The September Surprise

A little background: My sister was sick this summer as well. Between my hospitalization and diagnosis, and her illness, this summer has been a hard one for our family. The pandemic has been rough on everyone, I think; the isolation and the uncertainty makes for a lot of anxiety even for people without any other problems. When your family is suffering already, the pandemic makes it 100 times worse.

September 12 is my sister’s 40th birthday. I didn’t want her to wake up sad on her big day. My plan (hatched through me, my mom and my sister’s boyfriend) was to surprise her a day or two before her birthday, at her house in Houston.

But I was driving from Tennessee to California. So in order to avoid too much backtracking, I went to Texas — but then refrained from any social media telling where I was, and texting my sister that I was heading west, and making up campsites and checking the local weather patterns (because I knew she was checking the areas for me).

As I was texting my sister, telling her I was, say, in New Mexico, really I was in Louisiana. I spent that night at a brewery in way-south Louisiana, where it was muggier than should legally be allowed, and I was bitten nearly to death by mosquitoes.

Of course, that wasn’t the fault of my awesome Harvest Host, which provided a lovely spot to eat dinner and relax before the sun went down. The Bayou Teche Brewing tasting room and pizza parlor was closed due to COVID-19 (a common theme on this road trip, unfortunately), but they were nevertheless very welcoming.

I really feel like the $90-ish I spent (for one year) on Harvest Hosts has already paid for itself.

I’m still kind of bummed that I wasn’t able to taste their beers (by the way, check out my Instagram page to see all of the sampling of local beers I did in Tennessee and Texas!)

The next morning, I was catching the sunrise in the bayou.

It was great. One of my best friends from San Diego got a job a couple of years ago as a roofing contractor, going to areas hit by natural disasters and providing roofing services. She was just south of Alexandria, so I hid out with her for a day or so while telling my sister I was tired and couldn’t talk because I had been driving through the desert.

I got to catch up with a great friend; I got to play an awesome surprise on my beloved sister; and I got to eat tons of Cajun food! It was a win-win-win for me.

I stopped in Alexandria first, and asked a local where the good Cajun food was. He took pity on my California accent and pointed down the road, saying “go on to Pamela’s.”

Dude was right. I got a “Bayou Bowl” of a smothered pork chop with gravy and red-skin-on mashed potatoes, plus two sides (mac and cheese and green beans for me), and cornbread, and a slice of cake.

For like $11.

I am not in California anymore.

After I split all this into several meals in the van and at the brewery, I met my old friend Belinda, and we went to Ken’s Fausto’s Cajun Restaurant in Kinder, Louisiana.

That is not a typo.

It’s the sign…

… or at least it would be if the sign hadn’t been blown away in Hurricane Laura. It’s on their signature spices, too.

I love this place. It was so cozy.

The food there was so impeccable. The fat, juicy Gulf shrimp were perfectly spiced and grilled, the coleslaw was crispy and fresh, even the roll was like heaven … like a donut without the sugar … super fluffy inside, almost crispy outside.

My shrimp snack attack did not stop in Louisiana. Once I got to my sister’s and she was surprised (which wasn’t as perfect of a surprise as I had hoped for, but I am getting used to dealing with things not being exactly the way I want them to be), we continued to throw down on Gulf shrimp.

Simply put, fish and shrimp are two things that taste better the fresher they are. The usual Japanese shrimp, fished and frozen right away to preserve freshness, is just fine. It does the job if you want shrimp. There’s nothing wrong with it.

But Gulf shrimp. It’s so juicy and fat. It’s as fresh as you can get it when you’re in Louisiana or southeast Texas. There’s no flavor comparison. So we ate a lot of it.

Naturally, we also ate a lot of BBQ. Texas BBQ is mostly smoked meats, very heavy on the beef, with very little sauce – if any – involved. So it’s rare to find a good smoked pork rib in the Lone Star State, but I managed to locate a pretty amazing one in Houston.

After I left Houston Sunday morning, I drove pretty fast to get to San Diego before my doctor’s appointment at noon on Tuesday. I stayed at a cheap motel in Las Cruces Sunday night because there was no Harvest Host nearby — there really isn’t anything at all nearby — and also it takes forever to get through that part of Texas. Anyone who has ever taken a road trip or driven that route knows that the freeway in west Texas can tell you, it can feel like it goes on forever.

Luckily, I made it safely to New Mexico, then the drive from Las Cruces to San Diego was surprisingly short and easy. I was at my friend’s house near downtown San Diego by sundown, and fresh and ready to see my doctor the next morning.

I had to get a quick shot of a very light chemo (tumor-killer) drug, and an infusion of a drug to make my bones stronger. (The breast cancer has spread to my bones and the tumors are trying to weaken them.) I also had an MRI of my brain and a CT scan of my upper body to determine if the cancer has stopped spreading or growing, or if it has progressed further.

I find out today what the results are. Wish me luck!

(Donate to my GoFundMe here.)

Dolly and Gracie

I guess I shouldn’t have thought my adventure would be without roadblocks.

Dolly

I checked out my RV before I even bought it. Ran a Carfax report. Asked all of the pertinent questions. I was still travelling from California when it was advertised for sale, so a couple of friends checked it out first.

My stepdad got on the phone with the seller (also an older Tennessee dude), and they did their secret handshake or whatever and my stepdad was assured the RV was in good shape and road-ready — with the exception of the tires, which needed to be replaced, and a new microwave, which he had already purchased and just needed to have installed. He even offered (my stepdad) to take half of the of new tires from the purchase price.

While all of this was happening, I was doing my own research into common problems for the make and model. I was mostly concerned about leaks and water damage in something so old. I was assured that there had never been any leaks or issues.

Trust is really important when you are purchasing something like this: you can inspect and you can research, but it all boils down to whether or not you trust the guy who is telling you how well he has maintained it.

When I was finally able to lay eyes on it myself, the seller immediately took me on a very long and detailed tour of how everything worked, no doubt convinced that my tiny female brain was not capable of research prior to purchase. It was a little overbearing but not unexpected, based on how I have been treated since I came up with this insane idea.

But everything checked out. So I made an offer. He accepted.

I bought it on Monday. I travelled four hours from my mom’s house to Cookeville, where I met the seller at a tire shop, so I could get new tires before I headed back to my mom’s. The plan was to take it home, take a few days to fix it up nice, then leave on the weekend. I have doctor’s appointments and scans scheduled in California.

I named her Dolly. Just like one of my idols, Dolly Parton, she is from Tennessee, she is old and classy, and she is getting a makeover. She also has a big, beautiful set of batteries.

I took all of the “before” photos. Bought sheet sets and curtains and decor and even a bath rug. I bought an Echo Dot so Dolly could have fancy lighting and personalized music that runs on voice-activated technology.

But then we started to clean it. Under the mattresses was dampness. Under the windows was water damage and rotting wallpaper. Fucking water damage. Just like I was afraid of. No wonder the guy took such a long time to give me a tour; he was showing me what he wanted me to see.

Obviously I wasn’t going to start tearing out the mattresses when I took it for a test drive. I fucking should have though.

Fortunately, the water damage isn’t irreversible.

I can still have Dolly on the road, but just not yet.

Instead of a few days to put on some new wallpaper and décor, I have to get everything re-sealed. I have to get the whole thing mega-cleaned.

I have to get the supposedly awesome engine checked out by several professionals, not just relying on the word of some loser who thought it would be fun to take a terminal cancer patient for her GoFundMe money.

He knew my situation, and he lied to my friends, he lied to me, he lied to my stepdad. I don’t know why anyone would want to bring that kind of bad karma upon themselves.

He said it was clean and ran well. It’s not clean, so there’s no reason to assume anything else he said was true. I can’t take her on the road yet. I am super angry about it. I bought the RV as-is, so I guess I can’t complain, but I think he intentionally didn’t tell me about the damage so I would buy it.

I am really pissed about it.

But I can also get it fixed. And I have another way to get to California in the meantime.

Gracie

Let me just say about Gracie… she’s amazing. I bought her for $3,500 cash from a surfer dude in Pacific Beach who liked to fix trucks, and had removed the seats from the cargo van, then lost the bolts, so there was only a driver’s and passenger’s seat. At the time, I needed to move a bunch of stuff from San Diego to east Tennessee. It would have cost me $4k to rent the smallest moving truck from a U-Haul-type place, not counting gas and insurance and mileage. This saved me money, and I got a great van in the end, too.

She performed like a dream on a very difficult trip. We rode her hard, through the eastern California-Arizona-New Mexico-west Texas desert. Fully loaded. With the air conditioner blasting. She never overheated, she never complained. She’s a really, really good van.

Let me also say that if I had a year to mess around with it, I would convert Gracie into a really kickass camper van, and use her on my road trip. Since time is the one thing I do not have in abundance, I wanted an RV instead. Now that my RV trip is delayed — but I need to get back to Cali– it’s Gracie to the rescue.

We did a quick change… added a futon and a table, reloaded it with road trip goodies, and I am hitting the road this weekend.

It’s not the start I imagined, but I guess I should have expected that, right?

Thanks for following my adventures! I’ll update from the road!

(Donate to my GoFundMe here.)

The taste of home

I am officially homeless.

I moved out of my apartment in San Diego, the adorable beach bungalow where I spent 14 crazy years. I left all of my lovely friends and my boyfriend. Most of my stuff has been sold or donated. The rest was crammed into a cargo van and hauled 2,258 miles (give or take) to my mom’s house. I am comfortable here – goodness knows it’s nice to relax after that crazy fast drive from California – and my family is great, but I literally have no home to move into.

I am still waiting on my RV; I found the one I think I want in a town nearby. It needs new tires so the owner/seller has offered to deduct half of the cost of new tires from my purchase price. I am waiting to hear from him about a new microwave he is installing, and hopefully I will be bringing my new-to-me RV here to my mom’s house this week. Then, I plan to take at least a few days to spruce it up and get it ready to hit the road — plus I gotta find a road trip buddy.

In the meantime, east Tennessee is amazingly beautiful and I am enjoying my rest here.

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Our family moved from California to Tennessee once before, when I was about 12 or 13. My mom, my sister and I were living with my grandmother in Joshua Tree, then we all moved to Cookeville, Tennessee. I had more of a culture shock moving here then I did when I was in high school and did an exchange program in Germany.

It was all so different from what I was used to seeing landscape-wise, in the high desert east of Los Angeles; but also the culture is so different in so many ways.

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The lush greenery. The churches on every corner. The super-thick, country accents coming out of the mouths of people of every age. The smoky haze hanging over the tops of the trees. The roads that make no sense. The juxtaposition of torn-up trailers with rebel flags hanging outside, and stately farmhouses with perfectly manicured lawns. The liquor laws that change every few miles … where you can’t even have a glass of wine with dinner in one county, but in the next county five miles over, you can buy anything you like. Pickup trucks EVERYWHERE.

It was like another world. As my little sister and I were getting used to changes — spending the night with friends and having homemade biscuits in the morning (which at the time seemed impossibly fancy), farm work on the weekends, and prayers in our public school classrooms — we were also keeping up the recipes that warmed our hearts no matter where we were living.

My grandma was a Scottish immigrant in the late 1950s. I don’t know much about the food she cooked when she was in Scotland, but I imagine that she thought her fancy “Macaroni Mix” was very American. It’s basically a spicy spaghetti sauce, but tossed with elbow macaroni instead of spaghetti noodles. It uses up all of the extra veggies you have in your fridge. It feeds a bunch of hungry people. It’s super chunky, and my grandma’s version had a ton of ground beef, chopped onions and bell peppers. (Because I hated bell peppers, I was allowed to remove the chunks from my macaroni mix, but I had to eat the rest.)

Somehow, this macaroni mix became a family favorite. My mom still says it was the best dish and best recipe my grandma made (for me it was her barley soup, which you can find the recipe for here). My aunts and uncle would request Macaroni Mix for their birthday meal – the one time each year they got to choose what the family ate for dinner.

The meal is obviously not complicated or expensive (in fact, I am positive that is one of the reasons Grandma made it so much), but for us, it represents everything about home. It’s warm and comforting, it’s cheap and easy, it’s wholesome and healthy.

This time moving to Tennessee, it’s temporary. It’s the same, but different. The mountains are still smoky, the trees are still a luscious green, and the sunsets are still achingly beautiful. The accents are the same. There are still churches everywhere, but there are also reflexologists. The liquor laws are still wonky, but you can find homemade kombucha and craft beer around the corner …. er, mountain.

This time, it’s “Trump 2020” flags flying outside of the rundown trailers.

The roads still don’t make any sense.

But we still have Grandma’s macaroni mix, which reminds us that we’re back home.

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Try the recipe:

Macaroni Mix

(serves 6-10)

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. package of elbow macaroni
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 2-3 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped (optional)
  • any leftover veggies in your fridge (recommended: carrots, squash/zucchini, okra)
  • 5-6 fresh mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large (24 oz) can of pasta sauce (recommended: Hunt’s Four Cheese)
  • 1 small can of Rotel (or any kind of diced tomatoes and green chiles)
  • 1 small can of plain tomato sauce
  • 2-3 generous handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. ground sage
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1-2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 1-2 tsp. steak seasoning (any blend of red and black pepper, garlic, paprika)
  • salt and pepper
  • seasoned kosher salt (optional)
  • grated parmesan cheese (for topping)

Directions:

Start a large pot of water boiling and in a separate (preferably cast-iron) pan, brown the beef and diced onion. Once the meat starts to brown, add the Worcestershire, the sage and steak seasoning, and the garlic, mushrooms, and other veggies (except the cans of tomatoes/sauces). Mix thoroughly as it continues to cook.

By this time the water should also be boiling. Add kosher salt (seasoned with rosemary or other herbs if you have it) and pasta to the water, and cover the pot.

Once the pasta, meat and veggies are fully cooked, drain the pasta and add the meat/veggie mixture into the pot. Turn off the heat. Add the cans of tomatoes and tomato sauces. Mix thoroughly. (Note: depending on how “wet” you like it, you might want to add another small can of tomato sauce at this point. This is usually where I think that this isn’t enough sauce, but then I just go with it, and it comes out perfectly.)

Mix the shredded cheese, mix completely, and then taste it before adding salt and pepper as desired. Serve immediately with grated parmesan on top.

NOTE: keep in mind that this is a Grandma Recipe. The measurements are not exact, and the basics can be adapted. It doesn’t matter what type of onion you use. If you only have rotini pasta instead of elbow noodles, do it. If you prefer ground turkey to beef, change it. I prefer to make this without bell peppers because bell peppers are gross, but I have been informed by other family members that it’s not “really Grandma’s recipe” if it doesn’t have the bell peppers. Make it how you prefer to eat it!

 – – –

I spent many years in Cookeville, and later I went to college at Tennessee State University in Nashville. But I never really spent very much time in the eastern part of the state, which is where my mom lives now.

Check out my Instagram and Facebook pages for more photos! Links to the right –>

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Since this is all new to me, we took some cool drives to nearby towns. We visited Historic Downtown Jonesborough, which is the oldest town in Tennessee, and where the first abolitionist papers were published.

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It’s a very adorable town, even in the summer heat and humidity.

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We also stopped at the Nolichucky River and enjoyed the scenery …

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… on our way to Asheville, North Carolina, which is only about 50 miles away. The drive there was amazing — 40 or so miles, on an interstate, where you feel like you’re literally in the clouds. You see why they call these the Smokies.

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I will update this space soon, when I either purchase this RV, or keep up my search.

Cheers, ya’ll!

Want to help me out on my road trip? Donate to my GoFundMe campaign here

Starbright’s Adventure, Prologue: San Diego – Houston – Tennessee

It’s official.

I have vacated my beach apartment in San Diego.

I have rehomed my sweet kitty.

I have given away and sold most of my belongings.

I’ve left my boyfriend.

The doctors say I have 2-3 years left, maximum. And they said that two months ago. I feel like I’m a ticking time bomb … I need to get on the road and start my bucket list trip before I can’t do it anymore.

I feel great right now, by the way. I have a few aches and twinges in my back, which could just as easily be from sitting for hours at a time in a van or just getting old as they could be from the tumors that are all over my spine.

The reason that this portion of the trip is the prologue is because I am not officially on my full RV adventure yet — this is just the preparatory part. I sold and gave away the majority of my things, and some stuff I will bring with me in my RV, but some I want to save, just in case I don’t die.

I am on my way to look at an RV for sale, and then I will keep on going to my mom’s house. If I don’t buy this RV I am going to see, then the search will continue. If I love it and buy it, then the adventure is really about to start.

But first, we gotta get to Tennessee.

Monday morning, we left San Diego. We packed the last of my food from the fridge and my blankets off of my bed. We got in the van at about 9:30 a.m., picked up a few beverages for the road, dropped off my keys with my property manager, and within an hour, we were out of San Diego.  (But not for the last time; I have a doctor’s appointment on September 2, so I can’t dillydally in the South for too long.)

If you’re not familiar with this drive (east of San Diego), there is basically an enormous desert mountain range at the east end of San Diego county, and to get to Imperial County (and on to Arizona) you have to go up to a 4,000+ elevation and back down again.

Through the desert.

With no air conditioning.

It’s brutal.

I drove to El Centro; a little less than three hours (because I was driving a fully-loaded cargo van), and then Mom took over.

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She basically did all of the driving through Arizona…

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New Mexico …

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and into west Texas.

This left me plenty of time to take pictures of everything we passed, and of course to put on my pink sunglasses and pretend we were driving through Bat Country.

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By the time we got past El Paso, it was late at night, and I took over driving the longest and most boring stretch of road ever. We probably could have stopped to rest, but frankly, it was finally not 100+ degrees because it was nighttime, so we figured we would keep going as long as we weren’t too tired.

And thanks to a well-timed sugar-free Red Bull, I was totally ready to keep going.

Seriously, if you’ve ever driven through West Texas, it’s not something you’d forget. It seems like it’s never going to end.

Mom took over driving again, and as the sun came up, we were just a few hours away from my sister’s house in Houston.

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Might as well keep on going, right?

Once we finally arrived in Houston, we were (understandably) wired, exhausted and hungry. We both took very long showers and very long naps, and generally recharged our batteries.

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We did the longest and most stressful stretch of the trip, and Gracie the cargo van performed beautifully.

We also went for a short drive around town (mercifully, my brother-in-law was driving his Suburban so we could give Gracie the cargo van a break).

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Houston is really quite lovely — when you have good air conditioning.

I got to check out some of Houston’s amazing public art and street art. It really is very impressive the way Houston has encouraged and subsidized art all over the city. (Check out my Instagram page for more.)

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Two nights in Houston was just what the doctor ordered … we were rested and ready to hit the road again Thursday morning.

We kept the drive interesting by listening to the Democratic convention speech of my favorite president…

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…. and I took tons of (not terribly bad) photos of the bayou and the lakes around New Orleans.

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We are making our way through Mississippi and Alabama tonight. I will update after I check out an RV for sale. Maybe this trip will start  for real this week!

Next stop, Tennessee!

(If you would like to donate to my bucket list road trip, please check out my GoFundMe campaign here.)

Freedom

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose …

-Janis Joplin

Janis wasn’t lying about freedom, but for me it seems like the freedom I need before I kick the bucket is coming at the price of losing everything else that I care about. Last night, my kitty (also named Janis, after the legendary singer) went on a road trip to stay with my brother and his family, probably forever.

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I am the only parent she’s ever known and my home is the only home she’s ever known. I know she will be in the best care and that this is the best option for us both. I know I can come visit her and see her every time I talk to my brother. But my house feels achingly empty this morning. I keep looking outside, expecting to see her walking up my stairs. There’s a hole in my heart.

I won’t see my boyfriend for at least two weeks, and while I don’t see him as often as I would like anyway, I feel like I can handle leaving him better than leaving Janis. At least he understands what’s happening. Janis must have been so confused and scared (and certainly mad) at first. Hopefully she will adapt and be happy there sooner rather than later.

But I really haven’t cried much, with my diagnosis and prognosis, and with all of the craziness of moving and buying an RV and planning an epic road trip that will literally be the last fun and crazy thing I do. I haven’t felt sorry for myself or blamed or denied or deflected or comforted myself with drugs or fallen into depression. But now, sitting here in a nearly empty apartment, I can’t stop crying.

And I’ve got to hit the road. Like, tomorrow.

My search for the perfect RV in southern California has not been fruitful. The market is crazy right now because of the pandemic – everyone wants an RV for a vacation instead of hitting up theme parks and crowded hotels. There’s never a good time to have cancer, but this is a singularly bad time to decide to take a kickass road trip, for sure.

So I decided to take (some of) my stuff to Tennessee, to my mom’s place, and try to find an RV from there. The market is better, the registration is cheaper, and I need to be out of this apartment in San Diego by end of business on Monday (i.e. tomorrow). Renting a one-way moving van is prohibitively expensive — seriously, $2,700 for the smallest moving truck, without gas, without insurance, and without the added mileage fees. I actually saved money by buying outright a used cargo van.

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Meet Gracie. She’s not much to look at, but she will get us from California to Tennessee.

Follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for instant updates from the road.

Please click here if you’d like to contribute to my RV/road trip GoFundMe.

 

Grandma’s Barley Soup — and views on karmic retribution

Once, my late grandmother and I were watching TV. I was about 13. I can’t remember the exact context of what we witnessed on the TV show we were watching, but it was basically a bad guy getting his comeuppance, by way of multiple well-deserved punches to the face.

My grandmother turned to me and said, “at some point, everyone needs the universe to kick them in the ass. Maybe it’s not an actual ass-kicking, maybe it’s just a lesson. But if you need it, God gives it to you. Sometimes right in the kisser.”

Grandma’s relationship with God, as far as I knew, was … tenable. She had converted to evangelical Christianity for like five minutes in Britain as a young woman, when she, along with millions of others, was captivated by Billy Graham. That didn’t last long. I know she believed in a higher power, but that was the first real time I had heard her speak about God that way.

I’ve thought about that a lot of times since I have been fighting cancer. Was breast cancer part of a karmic retribution? Was it karma paying me back for that time I didn’t recycle? Or maybe grandma finally having it out with me about that glass punch bowl I broke?

Grandma had a lot of interesting views about karma and dying – she once famously said that if she were ever told she had months left on earth, she would make a list of people she hated — even though I doubt she could count the number of enemies she had on one hand.

And being a murderous, avenging cancer patient kinda has a ring to it. (It would probably make a good movie (*Copyright!) —  but now that it’s happening to me, it’s not how I would have imagined it.

It’s heartbreaking. I have to leave my friends, my boyfriend, my family and my cat (not necessarily in that order). I have time to say goodbye, which is great, but also excruciating. 

It’s momentous. What if everything I read about heaven and hell is actually true? What can I do in my last months to really make the world a better place?

It’s stressful. I have to clean out my apartment, and sell or give away nearly everything I own. I have to find an RV that’s relatively small and easy to handle, yet within my price range.

I have to plan to die.

The last thing I want to waste my time on is hating someone and making my last days all about them instead of me. I know it sounds selfish, but if there’s anytime to say “hey, this is what I WANT so I am making it happen no matter what,” it’s now.

Knowing your time is short – but not knowing how short – is really difficult. Moving is stressful under any circumstances. Travelling the country is hard to plan under any circumstances. Preparing for your imminent demise adds a whole nother layer of weird.

And the clock is ticking.

Maybe I will be dead in six months and none of this will matter. But I can’t help feeling like I have to hit the road. Like, as soon as possible.

At this point, I am frustrated. It feels like that time before a plan comes together, when you feel like maybe you made a mistake in undertaking this huge project. Sometimes that part comes right before everything works out perfectly. Sometimes this part comes right before it all blows up in your face.

Either way, I have to be out of this apartment in just over a week. If I don’t get an RV in the next couple of days (I have a good feeling about one I am going to go see in the morning), I will be taking my stuff to my mom’s house in Tennessee, and then starting my RV search from there. I should be able to find something for a better price there, too.

But that’s Plan B. Plan A is still to hit the road in 8 days, in an RV that I currently do not have. Both seem pretty terrifying.

I don’t know if this stress and insanity is life kicking me in the teeth. I don’t know if cancer coming back, this time with a vengeance, is some sort of karmic retribution for something I did in a past life (or even God forbid, in this one). I don’t know why this is happening to me.

But I know I have to make it count for something.

My grandma was a strong, and slightly crazy, woman. She had left her home country of Scotland at barely 18 years old, escaping an abusive husband with a two-year old (my mother) and an infant. She raised 6 kids on a budget while working full-time and running a household. She doted on her grandchildren and became a Quaker late in life. If anyone knew the value of life, it was Grandma.

I hope that, for her sake, I can take this punch to the chin and remain standing.

Grandma was also an amazing cook. The last week before I went to the hospital, I was craving a big bowl of hot soup, so I adapted her barley beef stew for the Instant Pot. It was a great, hearty meal (actually many, many meals), and it in the IP, you can make it in the summer without heating up your kitchen too much.

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Grandma’s Barley Soup

(adapted for the Instant Pot)

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 6 oz. dried pearl barley (about half a bag)
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 2 stalks fresh celery, diced
  • 2 large carrots, diced
  • 2-3 tbsp. (minimum) diced garlic
  • 2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 liter water*
  • 2 tabs of beef bouillon or Bisto**

Put the Instant Pot on the sauté setting and add the onions, garlic, celery and carrot. Once the vegetables are slightly cooked (2-3 minutes) add the beef and brown thoroughly.

Turn the Instant Pot off, and add the spices, mushrooms, bouillon, barley and water. Mix thoroughly. Note: you do not need to pre-soak the barley; the Instant Pot will do all of the work.

Place the lid on the Instant Pot, and make sure the vent is closed. Set on High Pressure for 45 minutes. Release naturally.

*You may need to add extra water or broth at the end, Grandma always made a soup like a stew, and a stew practically like a casserole. It’s gonna be thick.

** Grandma was British so she loved Bisto, which is a popular brand that gives a particular flavor. It’s not as easy to find in the states, so any beef bouillon is perfectly fine for this recipe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day drinking and road tripping during a global pandemic

*Not at the same time.*

As people start to venture out of doors after sheltering in place, I have reluctantly tried to get some time at local restaurants and neighborhoods. For most of the pandemic, starting in early April, I was having back aches and spasms, so I stayed inside most of the time anyway. I was also a cancer survivor, so I was (and am) in a high-risk category for the Corona virus, so I didn’t take any chances while almost everything was shut down. It was all home cooking and deliveries for me.

Here in California, they opened up most businesses in May and June, just to have a huge wave of new Covid cases, and many things shut back down again. In San Diego, the restaurants are allowed to stay open, but with outdoor seating only (and other rules in place for social distancing, mask wearing, etc.).

Luckily, San Diego is a town with nice weather pretty much all of the time, so lots of places have a bit of outdoor seating already. Now the city is letting businesses build outdoor seating areas in their (already scarce) parking spots, and blocking off certain streets to vehicular traffic for several days to promote local businesses and allow them to expand into the street.

This week, since my mom informed me that she had never been day drinking before, we decided to venture to downtown San Diego and hit a couple of my favorite spots. Masks are not optional on public transportation, and we opted for gloves as well as extra sanitizing wipes.

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Aren’t we cute? In a way, it’s frustrating to have to decide between possibly getting sick and leaving your house. I was happy (sort of) to do it a few months ago, but summer weather makes it harder and harder to stay inside. I am glad San Diego found a solution most businesses can work with.

It was a beautiful day, even in a city where we have a lot of beautiful days.

And, it’s really quite ingenious the way businesses have adapted to the pandemic. This is Fifth Avenue, where several restaurants appear to have consolidated their outdoor space to accommodate some day drinking.

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So, yeah, about the day drinking. My mom has never really been a big drinker, especially with having kids pretty young and being a single mom with a lot on her plate, she basically didn’t have time to party. And while I am sure she had a drink during the day at least once, it wasn’t on the level of day drinking my girlfriends and I aspire to on a normal (non-cancer, non-pandemic) Sunday afternoon.

So we had to stop by Urban India, one of my favorite spots downtown. (You might remember them from a previous blog post when owner Surinder Singh taught me how to make Gobi Manchurian, one of my favorite spicy Indian/Chinese dishes.)

Urban India used to have the best lunch buffet in the Gaslamp District, but has taken a hit since the pandemic wiped out all buffets. They still have amazing food, even though they unfortunately had to switch from a successful buffet to a piecemeal situation with delivery apps, takeout orders, and a few patio diners. Their story is similar to millions of other restaurants nowadays.

We were only there for a while, so we ordered some samosas and some drinks. I got the boozy mango lassi.

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This is a perfect summer drink, especially when you are eating anything spicy. It’s made with yogurt, milk, fruit, and sweetener, and of course, a couple shots of vodka. You can theoretically use any type of fruit, but mango is the best, particularly for Indian food and spicy meals.

Boozy Mango Lassi

(serves 1-2)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup diced fresh mango or mango puree*
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1-2 tbsp. white sugar
  • 2 shots (or more) plain vodka
  • 2 cups ice
  • sprig of mint for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a blender for about a minute and pour into a glass of ice. Garnish with fresh mint and serve immediately.

– – – –

Day drinking, commence!

On to our next stop.  I don’t know if you guys feel like I do, but it just doesn’t feel … the same. No-touch menus. Masked servers. I like online ordering, but it seems to me that Murphy is enforcing his law extra-hard during the pandemic: anything that can go wrong is totally going wrong. We really wanted fancy hot dogs at the Dog Haus, but between their app failing, the Doordash connection not working, and the city for some reason removing the patio tables at the Dog Haus while allowing every other restaurant to expand their outdoor patio seating, we decided to scrap that plan.

We ended up at the Carnitas Snack Shack at Broadway and Harbor Drive, enjoying a local beer, a fancy burger and a slightly overcast sunset.

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By the way, that’s a triple threat sandwich: a pork schnitzel, pulled pork, delicious bacon, and fancy relish on top of a brioche bun. It’s amazing.

But it got me thinking: I am about to start a nationwide road trip. The last one I’ll ever take. Is the whole country going to be like this? Some businesses just closed, some drastically changed temporarily, some that will never be the same again? I guess there’s never a good time for a pandemic, but this seems unfair.

Come to think of it – there’s never a good time to get cancer, but dang, it really seems like this is a particularly bad time to have cancer.

I am going on this trip — like, no matter what — but I know that most of the cool things I want to do will be closed, cancelled, or cut short. It’s a shame to feel this way when thousands are dead … but this is harsh.

When I originally planned this trip as a kid, it played out much differently in my head. I planned to wait until I retire, buy a huge RV, fix it up, and go on a long, slow, mostly solo trip around the country.

Now it’s so different: it has to be now. Like, right now. I am a ticking time bomb and could get sicker at literally any moment. The RV has to be small and (hopefully) relatively fuel-efficient. I’ll need travel companions; both for general safety and also because I don’t know when or if I will get too sick to be on my own.

And since I will still need to come back to San Diego frequently for doctor’s appointments, scans, and picking up prescriptions – not to mention that all of my erstwhile travel companions probably can’t be on the road with me for more than a couple of weeks at a time – I will have to have multiple short trips (2-3 weeks max) instead of one huge, year-plus-long trip around the nation.

For the first short trip in late August, I plan to go to Montana. I am going to drive north to see some people in the Sacramento area and the Bay Area, and then I will go through Idaho and into Montana, then, if I have time, to the Dakotas and to see Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. I want to go to the cold northern states before winter hits, then when the weather is colder I can go south. I don’t have a specific itinerary – I just want to see everything – but I have a lot of people I want to visit.

Kicking the bucket is hard work.

Hopefully I will be buying my RV this week … I am still searching and I know that the perfect vehicle will present itself at the perfect time.

In the meantime, if you’d like to help me on my bucket list trip, you can donate to my GoFundMe here.