I haven’t posted much lately, because not much has been happening … at least not until this week. My mom was in town for my birthday on April 1, and we had a really great time. She was here for almost two weeks.
After talking with her a lot about the last two years, I decided that I am going to write a book about my experiences for the last few years. I have been working on that pretty consistently, trying to do a little bit of work at least every day. So there hasn’t been much current stuff to write about from Ocean Beach other than the obvious.
Both times we visited multiple wineries (through the Harvest Hosts program, as usual), and had amazing dinners at the local restaurants. We decided to head back to wine country for a couple of days.
This time was no different … well, except it was very different. We didn’t take Dolly, which felt kind of weird – we decided to save gas and time by taking Belinda’s mother’s hybrid SUV, and we also took Belinda’s mom, Betty, and her friend, Ron. We stayed in an Air BnB instead of a hotel or RV, and we were there for two nights and three days.
Two or three wineries per day should really be anyone’s limit if you’re actually trying to enjoy yourself. We wanted to sample the best wines and bring back our favorites; if you have too much wine in one day you can’t even keep up with the wines that you like.
Still, Beli’s mom kept referring to us (lovingly) as “borrachitas.”
On Monday, we arrived an hour before our Air BnB check-in time, so we stopped at Bianchi Winery for a tasting flight. Belinda decided to become a wine club member (which often saves you a lot of money if you’re enjoying the wines from that particular place), and I got a bottle of the Chardonnay.
For the most part, Paso Robles wineries specialize in reds. Most place have at least a white blend or a rosé, but they all have great selections of GSMs, Cabs, Pinots, and all the best red varietals. Which Belinda and I both like, since we are mostly fans of reds as well. This Chardonnay from Bianchi almost had a creamy or buttery effect as you sip it … perfect to pair with an amazing dinner.
Speaking of dinner, we revisited a place that was our second favorite restaurant in Paso: The Hatch Rotisserie, a relaxed but classy joint that serves delicious food. It was fried chicken night, so we had to try it…
… but the star is their most amazing mushroom appetizer – it’s a handful of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, wood-grilled, so they have a huge smoke flavor, topped with parmesan and green onion and then served with a spicy aioli.
It’s super simple but executed in a way that just makes you crave more of it every bite you take. It’s magical.
While we were waiting to get a table at the Hatch, we stopped at a small tasting room called CaliPaso Wines, which had a delightful red. This was perhaps our third communal bottle of the day… so, you know, it was a long trip.
The next morning, we found a coupon in our AirBnb for a 2-for-1 wine tasting at Barton Family Cellars, also known as Grey Wolf, which happens to be just next door to another one we wanted to revisit, Dark Star Cellars.
After a tasting and lunch at Grey Wolf, we went to Dark Star.
We had stayed at Dark Star before, when we were in the RV, since it’s a Harvest Host, and I was eager to go back and get a bottle of their “Chain Reaction” party blend.
They have a lot of other great reds and whites, all of which are unique because they rarely filter either type of wine, so the flavor is heavier.
They have a great homey atmosphere at Dark Star – the last time we were there, the vintner had a baby on her hip, and this time, little Lucille was running around with her big sister and chasing the chickens that roam the property. It was delightful to see the same people again!
That night, we returned to downtown Paso Robles (where most of the restaurants are), and had another incredible meal at the Fish Gaucho restaurant. We split the tab again with a bunch of small shareable plates and appetizers, like oysters…
… and halibut tacos …
… as well as an amazing pork chop dish with Brussels sprouts and mezcal applesauce.
It was incredible. I don’t think I have ever had a bad dish in Paso Robles; but also my friends tend to gravitate towards the five-star joints. Thank goodness they also help me pay!
I have a special place in my heart for VOTM; it’s the only winery of which I have ever become a member, despite the relatively high number of wineries I have visited in the last two years. The owners, Victor and Jennifer, are the nicest people you’ll ever meet; and they both had totally different careers before Victor got the idea that he wanted to grow grapes and make wines.
They have a lovely family, a super comfy and well-designed tasting room, and their wine club has the best perks – Victor used to be a sound engineer for all of the big names in the music industry, and he’s a huge music buff, so every membership comes with a personally curated Spotify playlist. When we showed up on a Wednesday, a day they are typically closed, Jennifer was kind enough to open up just for us and gave us all a free tasting using my membership. I tell you, they’re the best people.
Chronic was literally the first wine I had that I ever enjoyed (although certainly not the last); Belinda made me try their Sofa King Bueno (say it fast) years ago, and it’s one of the best red blends you’ll ever drink.
Chronic is literally across the street from Vines on the Marycrest, and since Belinda had a membership at Chronic … well, let’s just say, the vehicle was a lot heavier on the way home.
Be sure to follow Starbright’s Adventure on social media to see how I’m pairing all of this amazing wine. I plan to be around Southern California for the summer, mostly because the gas prices make it prohibitively expensive to go anywhere, but also because it’s the best place to be during the summer. Hopefully I can save enough to make it to my sister’s house in Houston by September.
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For most of the summer of 2021, I have ben traveling the western states. After my brother and I explored Yosemite (see my last post), I spent a couple of weeks in San Diego, hanging out at the local campgrounds, in Ocean Beach, and getting medical tests done. After it was all over, Dr. Vlad told me I was in remission (!), which was a complete shock … I still don’t know how I can go from literally being told I was about to die (and feeling like it as well), to being told there are no signs or symptoms of disease. On one hand, I am ecstatic, and on the other, I don’t want to get too cocky about it, since six months before my back was broken, they were telling me that all of my tests looked great then too. It simply never occurred to me that I would be in remission (or that it was even a possibility), so I can’t say it was a mission.
But hell, yeah, let’s say mission accomplished! Every day is a triumph in this crazy world, and cancer makes it even worse. Any measure of success? I’ll take it.
So… great. I still have cancer, but it’s just not breaking my bones anymore. That’s definitely a plus. But … now what? I gave up most of my stuff. My furbaby lives with my brother. I dumped my boyfriend in California. I live in an RV. I don’t have a home anymore.
Not dying anymore is a great problem to have, but it’s the second time in two years that I have gotten life-changing news. I don’t know how many more of these I can do.
Anyway, after all of the tests and exams and MRIs and medical stuff was done in San Diego, I spent a few more days in southern California.
I went all around: a night in the desert in Murrieta…
… brunch in Long Beach…
… a couple of nights in Ventura with my brother and his family (and my sweet Janis kitty!), and camping at Malibu Creek state park.
It’s a really cute park, and it has some fantastic views, even from my campsite/camper door.
They used to film movies here!
The heat wave started when I was camping with no hookups in Los Angeles county. Luckily I was in a canyon, so I managed to avoid the worst of the heat that week.
The next week, I was in Lee Vining — in the Sierra mountain range near the east entrance to Yosemite.
My stepbrother and that whole side of the family camps there on Fourth of July week every year, and this was my first time hanging with them over the holiday (as you may know, my 4th of July BBQs on the beach in OB were epic).
It was hot up there, but thankfully not as smoky as it got to be later in the month.
My nephews washed Dolly for me (sort of), and we had a great time. We waded in the creek, we grilled tasty snacks, and we saw a bear.
It was a lovely area, even from my stepbrother’s camper (which tries, but of course isn’t as nice as Dolly). We also enjoyed a lovely Fourth fireworks celebration with Indian fry bread tacos and sparklers for the kids.
And my nephew, who is totally adorable … well, he just gets cuter …
After returning to sea level (that always feels so great after time in the mountains, especially when it’s hot, both for me and for Dolly), I spent a night in Lodi wine country …
… and then in the Bay Area …
… both at amazing Harvest Host wineries and breweries. I highly recommend the Ale Industries Brewery in Oakland — you know, a lot of Harvest Hosts people talk smack about urban Hosts (i.e., in cities, as opposed to farms or wineries in the middle of nowhere) because you have to park in parking lots, but personally, I don’t mind. As long as the area is safe I am OK camping there.
Also, I loved being in the Bay Area, even if it was “just” the east bay. The heat and smoke from the many wildfires sparking up everywhere were the mildest on the coast.
I headed further north and stayed at a Harvest Host Winery in the Redwood Valley …
The heat really started to get nasty as I made it north to Santa Ana and stayed overnight at Testa Vineyards in the Redwood Valley. It was 99 degrees while I was sipping my requisite tasters.
It cracked 105 degrees when I was in Humboldt county. I think this was right around the time that the fires in northern California and southern Oregon started to get really bad.
I had reservations at the Red Bluff campground in Mendocino county, but it was another campsite without hookups.
I had managed in Malibu Creek when it was in the 90s, but that day was topping out at 115 and it was a bit too much. My sister offered to put me up in a motel for the night … and just this once, I caved.
This definitely was great – I got to charge all of my devices, have WiFi and cable at the same time, and god knows, I enjoyed that air conditioning – but staying in a motel when it got too hot is not a trend I wanted to start.
I really was excited to see the Redwoods, but the heat was almost unbearable by the time I got there. I traveled through Humboldt county and the Avenue of the Giants, which is just breathtakingly beautiful. The fresh oxygen and cool shade provided by these giants was the only saving grace for the heat during those couple of days.
I had some pleasant surprises, too … People think (or at least, I thought) of “the redwoods” as a single state or national park.
In reality, everything in that part of California is either a state park, a national park, a county park, a conservancy, a wildlife refuge, or a public space of some sort -interspersed with tiny towns and farms and communities in between.
I was there for a few days and I barely saw a fraction of it. I felt sad that I didn’t get to see it in better times.
This feeling – wishing I was there during a less hot and smoky time, and hoping to be able to come back again soon -was a recurring theme for the next several weeks.
Luckily, now that I am in remission, I don’t feel as much like I am on such a severe time crunch. Instead of doing a whirlwind tour of the east coast in 14 days, or hauling ass through wildfires to see the area … well. It’s nice to have more time.
I stayed at a Boondocker’s Welcome host again, two days in the middle of several state and local parks. It was a home with a lovely English garden.
It was also a little bit rainy because I was at sorta low elevation, so that was very welcome indeed. I even gave Dolly a little break and took the bus into Eureka to look around and do some shopping.
I spent a couple of lovely nights in the redwood area, then a very hot night at the foot of Mount Shasta, where the (city of) Weed fire started to get out of hand.
I was in a prime spot for a lovely view but could barely even see that the mountain was there.
I camped that night at the Mt. Shasta Brewing Company, which has great beer and pretzels. As a Harvest Host, they pretty much only need to give you a parking spot, but due to the extreme heat, they were kind enough to let me (pay to) plug in and run my air conditioner overnight. I have a small generator (not the camper one, but it plugs in to recharge and works very well), so I can run a fan; but when it’s over 100 degrees and the whole area is on fire, something stronger is necessary.
After I got to Oregon, the wildfires had basically created their own weather system, so I had to call an audible. I decided to change some of my reservations and stay closer to the coast.
It was definitely the best decision – I went straight west to Tillamook, where I enjoyed fresh oysters on the half-shell…
… and a walk around their adorable downtown.
I had no idea that the Tillamook area was as famous for seafood, especially oysters, as it is for cheese. They have a bunch of little oyster farms everywhere, and the fresh ones are just delicious. The local oyster bar I found was just lovely.
I also did a self-guided tour of the Tillamook cheese factory, …
… where they had some amazing ice cream and cheese dishes …
… definitely try the deep fried cheese curds (with the cheddar ranch dipping sauce) if you ever find yourself around there.
Tillamook was one if my favorite parts of this trip.
I camped out at the Blue Heron cheese factory (along with every other RV on the west coast), I ate a rack of oysters that had just been in the water that morning, I sat on the cow bench in Tillamook, and I ate some of — well, everything at the Tillamook factory.
As I made my way north, I stopped in the coastal towns of Seaside and Astoria, and camped at a Harvest Host in southwestern Washington that’s a lavender farm.
I can’t even describe how fresh and clean it all felt … the sea air and the pine trees and the lavender fields … especially after all of that heat and smoke.
It was even chilly! I needed a hat!
Then I stayed in two different spots near Seattle …
… first on the western shore facing east…
… and then on Anacortes Island, near Deception Pass.
I have good friends on Anacortes island and some distant stepfamily members nearby, so I got to have a nice dinner with family, then a nice evening with my old friends, tasting local beer and eating pizza.
I told them about the amazing oysters I tried in Tillamook, so they hooked me up with some amazing local oysters and showed me how to open them and eat them properly!
The whole area around the islands and Deception Pass is really amazingly beautiful.
My friends are biologists and know all of the amazing spots for hiking, birding crabbing and fishing. I spent a wonderful day exploring the park and the area around it.
I stayed out west as long as I could, and moved a lot of reservations around in order to avoid wildfires. But eventually I had to head east, where I knew the fires – and the heat – were going to get considerably worse.
I was only in Idaho for one night, and in western Montana for a few days. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I got the best out of Montana. (This photo, below, was about as clear as it got the entire time I was there – and that day it was almost 100 degrees outside. It sucked.)
Hopefully, I will get to go back, because I basically didn’t see the “big sky” the whole time I was there. Total rip-off.
The whole time I was there, I felt like I was walking around in a campfire. Smoke. Heat.
The sky was hazy and gray when I visited the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.
Most parts of Glacier National Park were too narrow to fit my RV.
Despite the heat and smoke, everything was packed. It was crowded.
I was disappointed.
It wasn’t all bad, though – I did have some tasty food – one of the Harvest Hosts I stayed at was the East Shore Smokehouse, a great little old-school hunting lodge remade as a new age restaurant. They had this amazing appetizer dish called “Montana hot ends,” which are pork rib tips, smoked and braised and tossed in chili and brown sugar, and served with slaw and ranch dressing.
It’s unlike anything you’ve ever had before.
And then, my chemo drug started to give me problems. I am taking an oral chemotherapy pill, so the side effects aren’t (normally) as bad as the infusions. Most of the time I have a little nausea and a slight headache from these drugs, but that week, perhaps as a result of all of the coughing I was doing due to the wildfires and smoke – I was super nauseated. Most Harvest Hosts don’t let you plug into electricity or water, but one in Montana thankfully allowed it, so I hung out for two days enjoying air conditioning and not driving or doing anything else. It was just what I needed.
The last night I was in western Montana was the calm before the storm I was camping at a brewery – Big Sky Brewing in Missoula – which had a great atmosphere, ridiculously cheap beer, and very nice people.
It was also almost 100 degrees, plus smoke and fire and smog.
I tried to make the best of everything, but the heat was really starring to get to me.
One day … well, it was the worst day. I had a lot of driving to do – nearly six hours according to Google, which always ends up being more in an RV – and I felt sick as soon as I woke up. I tried to fight through it, but in the middle of the morning I threw up (luckily into one of my handy barf bags). It was actually kind of impressive the way I did it while driving. Not an hour later, traffic started to tighten up – an accident had literally just taken place, and I passed emergency vehicles arriving at a gruesome scene. The poor driver had crossed multiple lanes of traffic and hit a hillside; and he was hanging out of his window – either dead or extremely injured – right when I passed. It was terrible.
About an hour after that, the weather was starting to get into the high 90s. I got a call from my friend Jen, who had flown from San Diego into Billings, Montana. We had decided to meet there (hence my long day of driving) to travel through the Dakotas, and then I would drop her off in Minnesota, where she would visit her family and fly back home to San Diego. I was super excited to meet with her, even if it was a long day of driving to get there. I was maybe an hour or two away when she calls me to tell me she landed, and she was headed to a cafe to wait for me. I was coasting down a hill, playing a political audiobook.
Then the engine died. The “check engine” light came on, the gas pedal stopped working, and the brakes felt a little wonky too, since I was headed down a 7% grade with a half-full black tank. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to end up like that poor man I had just seen on the side of the road in that awful accident. I managed to get the RV to stop, and after a lot of back-and-forth with everyone who had an idea about what it might be, I got towed to the nearest repair shop.
It was around 4 p.m. at that point, so they did their best that evening, but by the time the shop closed, they still had no idea what was wrong with the engine. The engine would start up briefly, run noisily for a minute or two, then shake and die. The check engine light wouldn’t flash, and Dolly is a 1996, so the mechanics couldn’t hook it up to their code readers.
Even though they couldn’t figure it out, they let me camp there overnight. Jen was safe in a cool “dude ranch” motel in Billings, while I was plugged in with my a/c blasting in the middle of a repair yard in Livingston. We were both stuck for two nights, but as a stroke of major luck, the two nights we were delayed were also two nights that we got to enjoy the air conditioning when it was almost 100 degrees in Montana. If Dolly hadn’t broken down, we would have been sweating our nips off in a brewery in downtown Billings. And it wasn’t just the heat; the air quality was horrible, and it was hard to breathe sometimes.
After two nights in a repair yard, they managed to finally figure it out. and lo and behold it was the same nonsense that had broken Dolly down in Missouri, last November: rodents! Rodent damage to spark plug wires from the time it was in storage (before I bought it) finally got too hot or whatever and gave out. It was a $12 part. It cost me almost $400, since it took them hours of diagnostics, but it was better than a new engine.
Two days late, I finally picked Jen up in Billings, and we got the heck out of Montana as fast as we could … which, in an RV, is not really fast. I basically drove as fast as Dolly would take us all of the way to Williston, North Dakota. It was out of our way to go to the very south part of South Dakota, but my dear friend Belinda was there for work, and I couldn’t be in the Dakotas and not stop in to see her. We drove for almost 10 hours, but she’s the best friend and was waiting for us with hot showers and a hot bowl of her famous albondigas soup. That’s the type of food that puts the blood back in your veins when you’ve had a hard day!
But after all of that driving, luckily we were back on schedule at that point. So instead of a day with Belinda, we had like two hours in the middle of the night, then we had to get up early and get to Roubaix Lake in South Dakota before nightfall.
Roubaix Lake is really great. There aren’t electrical hookups, but the weather and the fires had cooled off (and we had gotten far enough east) that it wasn’t too hot and uncomfortable outside – it was in the 70s, plus we had a nice lake to jump in if we wanted to.
Of course, we didn’t swim in the lake, because our one full day there was spent in Deadwood and around Mount Rushmore.
Roubaix Lake is about halfway between the Mount Rushmore National Monument and the historic town of Deadwood, which is really cool.
They have an old west shootout in the middle of the street a few times a day, and all of the touristy shops are super cute.
We were in the area about a week before the Sturgis motorcycle rally, so lots of motorcycle riders were starting to congregate.
(But they were preparing for it, so it still looked like “Sons of Anarchy” threw up out there.)
My friend Jen got a tattoo (a lovely purple star, no less) to commemorate our awesome trip together.
I couldn’t join her for a tattoo (even though I would have liked to; it’s a no-no when you’re on chemo), but it was so cool that she got one.
It’s nice that’s it’s to commemorate our fun time instead of some wack “in memoriam” tattoo, too!
After a couple of nights at Roubaix Lake (and a very full day of historic Deadwood and Mount Rushmore), we had another long day of driving, this time as far as we could get into Minnesota. I had to drop Jen off east of Minneapolis in the morning, so we drove all day to get there in time.
We stopped to see the grasslands, and to enjoy lunch at Wall Drug, but most of Jen and I’s time together was spent driving.
Luckily, Dolly is the ultimate luxury vehicle, so we still had a great time. I miss riding around with friends!
Coming soon: Read all about my adventures through the Midwest, including visiting friends in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan; all of the food I ate in Chicago; my college roommate’s wedding; all of the cheese and beer I consumed in Wisconsin; and of course all of the details from Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and my trip back home to San Diego. Belinda is (hopefully) going to join me in Wyoming for some national parks explorations, so it should be epic!
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Back in April, my brother found a couple of days off and asked me if I was down to go to Yosemite with him. Of course, I was. Because now you have to reserve most national parks online, I set out to reserve us a couple of days. They sell them in three-day sets, $33 plus a processing fee, day-use admission only. There seemed to be plenty of tickets, although they were definitely going fast.
I scored us a pass for mid-June, only having to pay the $2 processing fee due to my America the Beautiful lifetime pass for permanently disabled people. Normally, being disabled is kind of a drag, but it’s definitely cool when you go to national parks!
But first, let me backtrack a little.
Before we went to Yosemite, I went back home to San Diego for a while, to meet some friends, check my mail, see my doctor, etc. I spent a few days in Ocean Beach, and then at Sweetwater (definitely my favorite campground in San Diego).
I had to have a bone scan which is always kind of a drag because they have to find a vein and give me a shot of contrast dye – something that’s painful — and nearly impossible — after I had chemotherapy a few years ago and it wrecked havoc on my veins. I have a chest port, which isn’t a whole lot of fun either, but it’s not as painful as getting multiple sticks in those tiny veins in your hand.
I’m happy to report that my bone scan looked great, and so did my bloodwork, so my doctor is feeing pretty good about letting me go on the road for another couple of months this summer. I have to do a CT scan, an MRI and a few more blood tests first, but at the end of June I will be starting an epic trip around the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Wisconsin and to Michigan for my friend’s wedding on August 21 — then back to San Diego again.
It’s gonna be epic.
Anyway, before I left town I enjoyed a great Memorial Day weekend with my buddy Tully and some new friends. He made this great sign for Dolly, and we had an awesome cookout with a few vaccinated friends,
Remember cookouts? Wow, I had forgotten how cool it was to be around groups of people again!
Back when I was in the Midwest (see last post), my friend Jeanne hooked me up with two jars of this amazing habanero bacon jam. I used part of it on this beautiful tri-tip, and it was just amazing. If you have the means, I highly recommend this Midwest Fresh brand – it was the star of the cookout. The hero of Memorial Day.
I also did some amazing grilling when I was at Sweetwater.
I picked up a few tasty dry rubs and BBQ sauces when I was in Virginia and Nebraska, so my friend and I smoked some chicken wings with sauce and seasonings that were intended for pork, but I figured would be just as good on any kind of white meat.
I was right.
So … on to Yosemite. As I said earlier, we had a three-day day-use hiking pass from Sunday-Tuesday. There are no Harvest Hosts near the park, and all of the campgrounds inside the park are both primitive camping and totally booked for months and months in advance. Some were also closed due to Covid or construction. But I always have a cooler back-up plan. No RV parks or primitive sites for us.
Back at another Harvest Host, other campers told me about a service/app called Boondockers Welcome, which is pretty much the same thing, only they are private homes and properties as opposed to businesses. And whereas Harvest Hosts only let you camp for one night at a time, the hosts on BW determine how long you can stay. Not a day after I purchased my membership, I got an email that they were partnering with Harvest Hosts to presumably be the same service. I am looking forward to seeing how they do that.
We found a Boondockers Welcome host, a lovely older man who has a spot about 15 miles from the south entrance to Yosemite. Our tickets were for Sunday-Tuesday, so we arrived on Saturday night to get an early start on Sunday. We left Dolly parked a the camping spot while we took my brother’s car into the park, I am so glad we did this, because there are a lot of places that Dolly would not have been able to fir inside the park. Even the roads were pretty tight and windy, so I am glad we had something smaller (and lord knows, with better gas mileage) to see the inside of the park, We put about 300 miles on that hybrid Kia engine.
Immediately after entering the south gate is the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees.
Remember when I said it’s so much easier to be disabled at national parks? Well, the grove is at the top of a pretty steep hill, so usually there is a shuttle bus that takes you from a lower parking lot to a higher one, after which you can walk up to 7 miles on a trail around the whole grove. If you’re disabled, you get to skip that parking lot, go all the way up the hill, and just walk a mile or so around the trees.
It was so amazing. I am so glad especially for the disabled access … although I have been feeling really good, that would have been too much walking for me, and I pretty much would have been done just after entering the park!
But there wasn’t a whole lot of climbing or hiking after that; it was mostly driving around the park and getting out to explore and take pictures. Most of the rest of our first day was spent driving to Glacier Point and stopping at several points along the way to enjoy the view.
I really loved the trees, but the waterfalls were the most popular and crowded part of the park.
I should mention that all of the guides for Yosemite talk about how crowded and crazy it is during the summer months, but, mostly due to the reservation system, we didn’t have any trouble getting around at all. There might have been a few extra people at the ore popular vista points, but we never had a problem parking or seeing what we wanted to see.
The old town of Wawona was super cute, too — apparently it was where the old pioneers settled the area before it became a park. There was a cool, New England-style covered bridge (the original settlers were from Vermont) and some old buggies.
In all, my brother and I had an amazing time.
We didn’t get to see any bears – real ones, anyway – but we did get to have a little fun with one of the bear signs on the trails. Naturally, they do not encourage anyone to take a selfie with an actual bear, but this was a fun substitute. 🙂
I was feeling a little emotional about the whole thing … the week we were there was the one-year anniversary of when I got out of the hospital with a broken back. I was remembering that hellish time, and I was marveling at how far I have come – mentally, physically, emotionally, and in my new capacity as a world traveler – in just a year.
Our Boondockers Welcome host, he shared with us, has very recently lost his wife – to a stage 4 diagnosis at the same time I got mine. What gives me the right to enjoy myself and be nearly pain-free while this sweet man has lost his companion of decades? It didn’t seem fair.
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I need to have a good cry and thank the universe for what I have.
COMING SOON: at the end of June, I am doing a little more California camping – Malibu Creek, Lee Vining around the 4th and then north to Lodi, the Bay Area, the Redwood National Park, then I’m continuing through Oregon and Washington, Idaho, Montana (some more national parks), the Dakotas, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Then I’ll have to haul ass back to San Diego for more doctor’s visits. I think, like my east coast swing, I can do this in a little over two months and see everything I want to see!
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I have just under 30 days before I vacate my apartment and hit the road in an RV — which I technically do not yet have.
I have given away most of my clothes, I have packed up half of my apartment, and I have organized an insane amount of schwag. I pick up some cool promotional things from just about every 5k, festival, fun run, concert and foodie event I attend, which leads to a truly astounding array of can koozies, cup coasters, hats, lighters, posters, ticket stubs, race medals, and other random accoutrements.
And don’t even get me started on my collection of cookbooks. This is maybe half of it.
I have, of course, had my mom here to help me. She was in my apartment before I was even discharged from the hospital (see previous post), and has been here since, helping me with cooking, cleaning, laundry, and all sorts of other things, while my broken back heals.
I have also had other family to come cheer me up and help out; my sister and her partner came from Texas, and my brother came from Ventura county with his wife. It has been wonderful to spend some time with them all, especially since I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around.
Aren’t we all adorable?
To make a very long story very short, my brother and I, for reasons beyond our control as children, didn’t meet each other until we were adults. Since then we have developed a truly wonderful relationship, but it’s kind of a bummer that we weren’t given the chance to know each other for our whole lives.
Regardless, we are making up for lost time, in the best way ever: with BBQ.
Big brother writes a blog, too, check out his theme park blog at Park Journey. Because he goes on so many trips to theme parks, I get the benefit when he shows up with things like a big bottle of boysenberry concentrate from Knott’s Berry Farm.
I made the most awesome Boysenberry Baby Back Ribs! (See the end of this post for the recipe.)
We also went out with another friend to check out some RV sales lots, so I can get an idea of what type of vehicle I want. I don’t have a truck (or even a car) so I don’t want something I have to haul, and I need something with a standard bed, i.e., not one I have to climb a ladder to get into, or unfold from a table or something. It’s too hard on my poor broken back!
Anyway, I think I narrowed it down to the type of Class C RV I need for this trip.
I will continue to update as I prepare to take off on this amazing trip of a lifetime. I do not yet have an itinerary; nor do I plan to have one. I have a lot of people I would like to see, and there are a lot of monuments and national parks and just beautiful areas of the country that I’ve never seen, and now that I am running out of time, I am very excited to see. I even splurged and bought myself the best travel gift ever: a brand new, spiral-bound, Adventure Edition road atlas!
This baby even has a full section on all of the national parks! I probably won’t be driving to Alaska (although you never know), but other than that, I really want to see all of the national parks. This will be so fun!
And, yes. I am excited. I have something truly life-changing and amazing to look forward to. I know it might seem weird, in fact I got a few comments and messages about how happy I seem to be about a bucket list road trip. All I can say to that is, I learned a lot from when I had breast cancer before; and I learned a lot about control.
When you have cancer, it’s easy to feel like you have no control over your life … you’re told what to eat, what medicines to take, what horrible treatments to do to your body. You feel like your own body is betraying you; like no matter what you do, this cancer is the one in control, not you. And to a certain extent, that is true.
You always have control over your own reactions to things. Sure, you can be a jerk to the nurse treating you, and probably nobody would blame you, because you have cancer and you’re in pain or you’re sick. But being a jerk isn’t going to make you feel any better. It certainly won’t make your treatment any easier.
A positive attitude, sometimes, is all you have.
I’ve always been a happy person. Sure, I have problems like everyone else, but I am generally happy. I have (had) a great career, a house on the beach, a great boyfriend, a wonderful family, amazing friends .. I don’t have a lot to be angry at the world about. And I am sure not going to let cancer take anything else away from me.
Being sick; I can’t control that.
But I can control how I react to it.
I choose not to be afraid.
I choose not to be angry.
I choose to be happy despite the pain.
I choose to make every moment count.
I choose to live my life as I want to live it.
I choose to end it the way I want to end it.
I am going to ride out on the greatest bucket list trip ever. Hopefully I will see everything I want to see, live another five years, and write a great book about my adventures. Maybe I will have to cut my adventure short if I get too sick or am in too much pain. But I will ride as long as I can and see as much as I can for as long as I can.
It’s gonna be so rad!
Boysenberry Baby Back Ribs
(Instant Pot Recipe)
Two (2) baby back rib racks
about 1/2 of 1 bottle of Knott’s Berry Farm Boysenberry Punch Concentrate, separated (you can purchase online here)
1 cup water
8 oz. tomato paste
3 tbsp. brown sugar
about 1/2 diced onion
1-2 heads of crushed garlic
smoked salt* and fresh cracked pepper
Place a rack in your Instant Pot inner pot. Add approx. 1/4 of the bottle of boysenberry concentrate and the water to the pot.
Coat the ribs with salt and pepper, and arrange on the rack in the Instant Pot. Set on high pressure for between 15-25 minutes, depending on the thickness of the meat. (Don’t overcook, or the ribs will fall apart before you can eat them; more than 30 minutes will have all the meat falling off of the bone no matter how thick the ribs are.)
While the ribs are in the Instant Pot, sauté the diced onion and garlic with the olive oil in a small pot on the stove. Once the onion is translucent, add the tomato paste and the brown sugar, as well as smoked salt and pepper.
Whisk in about another 1/4 of the bottle of boysenberry concentrate VERY SLOWLY as the sauce simmers. Do not let the sauce get scorched.
Allow the Instant Pot to depressurize naturally, which should take about 15 minutes, at the same time that you allow the sauce to gently simmer.
Once the Instant Pot has depressurized, remove the ribs, coat them in the sauce, and place in your air fryer or under a broiler for about 5-7 minutes until the sauce gets caramelized. Serve and eat immediately.
*Note: I do not believe in using Liquid Smoke, and smoked salt is an excellent substitute for actual smoked meats, etc. If you must (gulp) use Liquid Smoke, go easy on it.
I think I have found my new favorite Mexican food spot, you guys. They’re authentic, they’re classy, and they’ve got lots and lots of soups. What more could you want?
This past week, I finally got to check out Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café in the Hillcrest/Balboa Park neighborhood. It’s been there for decades, but I am behind; I know. I had no idea what a great place I was missing. The service isn’t just great; the servers treat you like you’re a guest in their home … because you practically are. Most of Jimmy’s employees have been working for him for decades. It is quite apparent that everyone there loves their jobs, and loves Jimmy himself.
The food is ALL homemade. It is ALL authentic. It is ALL Jimmy Carter approved. But for me, the best part is the soup list.
Albondigas (meatball soup)
There are four soups that are on the permanent, daily menu – Creamy Black Bean, Chicken Tortilla, Albondigas, and Chicken Pozole.
Green chicken pozole
There is menudo every weekend.
But that’s not all! Every day, the chef picks 2-3 more soups to have on special that day (Check out Jimmy Carter’s Instagram page for daily special announcements). There are over two dozen rotating soups, from calabaza y elotes and caldo de res, to Mexican clam chowder and spicy pork guerrero.
Chicken tortilla soup
Their soup list is INSANE. I managed to escape with their internal soup list, which details the ingredients and garnishes for each one.
I mean, right?! And this is just the soup list.
I’ll take one of each!
You could eat here every day for a month and never have the same meal twice. I love it!
In addition to the albondigas and green chicken pozole, I also checked out some delicious wet tacos (above) and some mini quesadillas (below) stuffed with chicken and carnitas.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about their sauces.
Every item on the menu can be topped with one of their handmade and super-authentic spicy sauces.
I got to try them all, and I think the Tlaquepaque is my favorite. I see why it’s the most popular … it’s creamy and spicy and good on literally everything.
There is literally nothing I would not like to eat with this sauce, but Jimmy himself recommends the cheese enchiladas with this gorgeous stuff on top.
If you have an Instant Pot, you probably already know about all of the amazing things it can do, and all of the ways it makes cooking for your family a little bit easier. My boyfriend had a special request for dinner last week, so I used my IP to make it happen.
First, being that we both live in San Diego, we eat tons of Mexican food. There is a taco shop on nearly every block in this town. But, since my beloved is allergic to most kinds of beans, it totally cramps our taco shop style. So I decided to make him some refried beans with navy beans – the only type that won’t make him sick. This recipe can be adapted for whatever type of beans you prefer or are not allergic to. 🙂
4 cans beans (I used navy beans but you can use any type)
one onion, chopped
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 tbsp. of (concentrated) tomato paste
3 cups of GOOD vegetable stock*
salt and pepper
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
one jalapeno pepper, minced (optional)
Put your IP on the sauté function and add the chopped onion, garlic, jalapeno (if applicable) and olive oil. Cook for 4-6 minutes or until the onions are somewhat translucent. Turn off heat.
Open the cans of beans, drain and rinse them, and add to the pot. Add the tomato paste and spices, and mix well. Slowly add the vegetable stock* and put the lid on with the valve closed.
Set on high pressure, and cook for 1-3 hours (the longer you cook it, the more the flavors will marry and get stronger, but cook it for at least one hour). Use natural release.
* About that vegetable stock… homemade is definitely best. Since you already have an Instant Pot (I assume, or you wouldn’t be reading this), I recommend doing this part first. Take all of the vegetable scraps that you have left over from a week of cooking … the ends of herbs and celery, the tops and peels of onions, the seeds from inside gourds, carrot tops and zucchini tips. Save them in a big baggie or mason jar. At the end of the week, empty that bag or jar into the IP, cover it with water, then add ANOTHER 2 cups of water, and cook on high pressure for at least 3-4 hours. If you open the lid and the stock doesn’t seem dank enough (you want it good and dark!), go for another 2 hours. Strain out the leftover vegetable scraps, and there you have some amazing vegetable stock. If you cannot do this, storebought is also OK. But honestly, the stock is where these beans get their flavor.
Of course, one cannot survive off of beans alone, so I also made some delicious chicken tinga … based on one of my favorite Del Real Foods recipes. I based it off of the recipe from A Pinch of Yum, but adapted it to a quick cook in the Instant Pot. This cooks up really fast, even using chicken that isn’t pre-cooked.
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 medium onion, chopped
1 head of garlic, chopped
1 10-oz can of crushed tomatoes
3-4 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
salt and pepper
1 tbsp. cumin
1 tbsp. dried Mexican oregano
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (see above for tips on how to make the best vegetable stock)
Put Instant Pot on sauté setting and add onions, garlic, and chipotle peppers. Once the onions are slightly translucent, add the chicken, stock, and spices. Make sure the chicken is covered. Switch to high pressure and cook for 35 minutes, with natural release. Shred chicken and serve immediately.
We made the chicken into a bunch of different dishes … enchiladas, tacos, burritos, even nachos.
Don’t forget the cocktails … a couple of weeks ago I went to Fred’s Mexican Café in Old Town, and had my first tequila mule (they call it a Donkey Punch). It changed my life.
So, for our homemade Mexican food night, I subbed my usual whiskey mule for a big tequila mule.
Pour a generous shot of tequila over ice and add ginger beer or ginger-lime Boochcraft high alcohol kombucha, then add a shot of bitters and a squeeze of lime.
This weekend I finally got to check out the newly-opened H Mart on Balboa Avenue (the one on Mira Mesa is still there, but this second one just opened in early June).
The second H Mart is considerably larger than the older store, and boasts a huge food hall with tons of amazing food.
After perusing the baked goods (that are waiting for you as soon as you walk in the entrance), it occurred to me: one must never go grocery shopping while hungry.
Luckily, there were plenty of options.
First, I tried some kimchi fried rice from Bann Korean Cuisine. The kimchi was delicious but the dish itself was a little TOO packed with green onions for my taste.
The busiest part of the food hall, by far, was the Myungrang Hot Dog stand, which features delicious sticked hot dogs coated in a tasty rice batter (and in some cases, squid ink, cheeses, or potato), then you have the option to have them rolled in sugar or coated in any one of a variety of yummy sauces.
And, of course, you can’t go wrong with the hot dog coated in cheese.
It was quite interesting … I expected them to be crunchy but I wasn’t prepared for the chewiness of the dough. Also the sugar topping was a great addition, despite how it sounds – the sweetness of the sugar balances perfectly with the saltiness of the hot dog.
After a quick perusal of the grocery part of the store, and picking up a few essentials – sesame oil, Korean pancake mix, Korean BBQ sauce for grilling later (see below) and some ginger candies – I headed across the street to Cross Street Chicken and Beer for some after-shopping sustenance.
There was a short wait … but it was worth it.
I tried the soy garlic wings and the spicy corn poppers, plus a nice flight of IPA beers. I usually drink IPAs, but the beers here were specifically selected to complement the chicken and other dishes.
This place is a gem.
I kept the party going when I got home …I smoked some chicken legs and pork belly using that Korean BBQ sauce …
… and I used smoked meats, that oniony kimchi fried rice, plus homemade sticky rice and savory Korean pancakes, as my meal prep for the week.
Being a food blogger and influencer is a great gig in San Diego! Almost weekly there are amazing events for foodies, from tasting tours to brewery fairs to block parties.
Coming up on the 16th of March, there will be an amazing ShamROCK St. Patrick’s Day block party in the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego. Last weekend there was a 20-restaurant food and cocktails tasting tour in the Gaslamp for Mardi Gras. And we even got to preview both parties last Monday!
The preview party was a three-stop tasting party; it started at the Dive, where we sampled banana whiskey and banana whiskey mules …
.. then we moved on to the Smoking Gun, where we sampled Hurricane cocktails and these AAAHHHHmazing lemon pepper chicken drummettes.
I think these may be the tastiest chicken legs I have ever had in my life (and that is BOLD STATEMENT). They are topped with a housemade ranch dressing and a spicy, herby wing sauce.
Unfortunately, on the actual date of the Mardi Gras party, I planned to hit the Smoking Gun last, but they were out of chicken by the time I arrived. It was brutal. Luckily I managed to distract myself with lots of beads and posing for pictures with my friends.
I told you this was brutal.
The preview party finished up with a fabulous whiskey and green beer-tasting at the Field … who also participated in the Mardi Gras tasting with this spicy and creative (but definitely not gumbo) “Irish Style Gumbo.”
It wasn’t bad, but it would never fly in NOLA.
I think my favorite food item from the Mardi Gras tasting (since I was denied another chicken leg) was the blueberry and brie waffle from Brian’s 24. It was my first time at Brian’s, and I loved the waffle (not too sweet, and the brie was whipped and blended with the cream cheese) as well as the ’57 Chevy cocktail they were making fresh at the bar.
Speaking of cocktails, Ambrose whiskey was a major sponsor, so almost all of the establishments participating in the tasting tour offered some sort of cocktail made with Ambrose banana whiskey. I am a huge fan of whiskey and whiskey mules, but I did not care for the banana flavor.
I understand from the company rep that they hired a chemist or scientist to find out a way to make whiskey taste like bananas, yet only use natural ingredients. I am glad they managed to do this without anything artificial … but, why? You really hired a guy just to find a way to make whiskey taste bad? What did it ever do to you?
Anyway, I will have to find a way to make a boozy banana shake or bananas foster to use this whiskey.
Obviously, since it was a Mardi Gras themed tasting tour, there was a lot of jambalaya, gumbo, and Cajun-spiced dishes. Among the best were the chicken and andouille sausage jambalaya (with a Hurricane) at Suckerfree:
… or the Southern shrimp n grits from Tin Roof:
… or the Cajun mac and cheese from Henry’s Pub:
… and the chicken and sausage gumbo (and martinis) at the Dive:
There were also some amazing fish dishes, like the ceviche (and jungle juice cocktail) from the Rockin Baja Lobster:
… as well as this amazing ceviche de pescado and seco de res (rice dish) from Machu Piccu.
This is the second time I have been to Machu Piccu for a tasting tour, and it is very tasty. The service is wonderful, too.
Are you psyched for the ShamROCK party yet? I will be giving away a pair of tickets to the greenest party of the year in the next week, so check back soon!
There are a million amazing things you can make in a smoker, mostly involving meat. It’s a time-honored tradition now to coat a nice piece of protein in a spicy dry rub, perhaps inject it with some moisturizing, tenderizing marinade, and slow-smoke it over low heat for hours until the meat has reached perfection.
That’s one way to do it.
Another way take a little bit more hands-on work, but it’s an amazing smoked dinner that you can have on the table in half of the time it takes for your average brisket or pastrami or beer-can-chicken. One of the best things about smoked meats is that it takes very little work prior to smoking … you generally coat and/or inject your meat (as per above) and then the next few hours is hands-off, and you can enjoy a few beers while your meat cooks itself. A fatty takes a few additional minutes of prep time, but then you only need half of the smoking time.
In a nutshell, you make a fatty with three main ingredients: 1) bacon; 2) ground meat; and 3) a stuffing of some sort. I have seen breakfast fatties with eggs inside; a Big Mac fatty stuffed with pickles and special sauce; and all sorts of other variations stuffed with mushrooms, cheese, vegetables, sauces … you name it.
This Thanksgiving, I decided to create two different Thanksgiving Fatties, both made using ground turkey, one stuffed with homemade cornbread stuffing and the other with some super-cheesy homemade mac and cheese. I think the mac and cheese version was better, mostly because (as you can imagine) the stuffing dried out the finished product — just slightly, but it was definitely dry. That isn’t to say not to make it, but just make sure you serve it with extra gravy.
Mac and cheese on the top rack; mac and cheese-stuffed fatty on the bottom.
The mac and cheese version -especially because my homemade cheese sauce tends to be extra saucy and cheesy – was very moist and flavorful. (See the end of this post for my homemade mac and cheese recipe!)
The procedure itself is very simple:
Step 1, make a bacon weave over a piece of plastic wrap:
Step 2, cover the bacon weave with ground meat (make sure it is seasoned well):
Step 3, add whatever stuffing you are using (this is the cornbread stuffing):
and Step 4, roll and smoke.
I smoked mine for about 3 hours over wood chips at approx. 300 degrees. The rack I used is actually for grilling vegetables, but it isn’t really necessary; it works just as well to use a bit of aluminum foil.
As promised, here is my recipe for the most amazing homemade mac and cheese you will ever have:
Starbright’s Kitchen Homemade Three-Cheese Smoked Mac and Cheese
1 1-lb box of macaroni noodles, cooked to package directions
2 cups milk
1 cup chicken broth (* or use vegetable broth to keep it vegetarian)
2 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. butter
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
1 cup grated Asiago cheese
1 pinch nutmeg
1 tsp. paprika
salt and pepper
panko crumbs or cooked bacon for topping (optional)
First prepare a white sauce by mixing butter and flour over low heat, then SLOWLY whisking in milk and stock. Once the mixture has become a thick sauce, add the cheese and spices.
Simmer for an additional 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thick and creamy. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary.
Add the cooked noodles and mix completely. Add any optional toppings. Transfer to smoker-safe dish and smoke for 2-3 hours over low heat.
This Saturday I enjoyed an afternoon of Latin food and music from all over southern California, including tons of delicious wines and sangrias, and more than one type of tequila (hiccup). I got a little sunburned, but it’s a small price to pay to enjoy all the bites and drinks I want for three hours, while partying at the Embarcadero Marina Park.
It was a beautiful day, and the sangria was flowing like … wine.
Most of the vendors were drink companies, so the few that were food had pretty long lines. Luckily they were all delicious, so who can complain? I really loved the bacon-wrapped hot dog con todo (with everything)…
… and the Sheraton’s sample of marinated pork loin, savory sourdough bread pudding, house salsa roja and pineapple mostarda:
There were many other fine offerings, like this fancy short rib appetizer:
… potatoes with three “Mojo sauces” from Driana (Chef Adriana from the Food Network):