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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I haven’t posted much lately – nothing here, and far less on social media than I usually do – but, then again, I haven’t done much, either. I basically realized that, on my social security income, I cannot afford the full-time RV travelling life. I have help from friends and family, but the road isn’t cheap. I decided that the holiday season would be the perfect time to shack up with the family who always says they miss me.
I finally got my bone scan done in San Diego in mid-October, after spending a couple of weeks at my brother’s house in Ventura; getting to know the family a little better and spending time with Janis. I hit the road right away, spending only one night at my Dad’s in San Bernardino, and heading north to Las Vegas, then east to the Four Corners and south again to my sister’s in Houston.
It was a fairly uneventful trip east, because I didn’t have the money to stay at a fancy Harvest Host or campground, plus I was in areas that didn’t have much. I say “fairly,” because the morning that I was almost at my sister’s, my refrigerator stopped working.
I thought I could make it to Houston, but it was close – I literally had just texted my sister, telling her I was ten minutes away – the engine died literally as I was pulling off of the freeway. It was brutal; I was in a three-lane exit ramp during rush hour, and it was a really, really bad time to discover that my hazard lights also didn’t work. My sister’s boyfriend was perched on the rear bumper for a good 45 minutes, directing traffic away from Dolly, until we were able to punch the gas and get to a parking lot nearby.
I finally got Dolly towed to my sister’s house, not even a few miles away, and tried to find a good mechanic. Between the confusion about how to get it fixed – RV techs won’t look at the engine, and mechanics won’t work on a RV right off the bat – that was way more of an ordeal than I anticipated. It took weeks to find a tech to come look at it, and then afterwards, my fridge still didn’t cool anything even though the motor was now running. My lights worked, and my engine started, but I had no idea why it broke down again, seemingly for the same reasons.
My stepdad has been saying since Dolly started doing this same thing while breaking down that it was the ignition coil. I was able to get one and get a local mobile mechanic in Houston to install it, and by that time I had been in Houston for nearly a month.
Of course, I made the best out of being “stuck” in a great city like Houston.
My sister has lived in Houston for a few years now, in a super cute neighborhood near their Produce District. Every year the neighborhood association puts on a Dia de Los Muertos festival in their local park, and my sister is a huge part of the planning and organization. This year, for once, I got to be there to experience it.
It was pretty spectacular. The costumes and decorations were brilliant, and the food was amazing. I had churros and tacos and beer and I watched beautiful dancing and met all of my sister’s neighbors and friends.
My sister and her boyfriend have undergone a total diet and lifestyle transformation this year, cutting out all alcohol, most sugar (except for natural sugars in berries and whatnot), most fats (except for the healthiest avocados, etc.), and most carbs but the most complex and healthy. I’m so proud of them for the transformations they have made. Most of our meals consisted of lean meats, roasted or low-oil-sauteed veggies, an ancient grain or two, and very little, if any, sugar.
This was our Thanksgiving dinner: lean turkey breast, a root vegetable mash, roasted acorn squash with an ancient grain stuffing, a tabouli-type salad with fresh herbs, low-fat feta, pomegranate seeds and more. The red stuff is a faked-out cranberry sauce I made with hibiscus and apple. Everything was really delicious, and it was fun to try new healthy variations on some favorites.
Of course, I also took advantage of the amazing food scene and ate out a bit as well.
Houston is rightfully known as a great foodie town and is one of the most diverse cities anywhere. In addition to being right next to Mexico and Louisiana (so Mexican and Cajun food is off the hook); there are huge Thai, Vietnamese, and Arab communities, so the ethnic food of every type is great everywhere.
I had some really incredible food, just within walking distance of my sister’s house. There is an amazing Thai street food place, where I had delicious curry, Tom Ka Gai soup, and chicken appetizers, not even a half mile away.
A few blocks in the other direction is a famous Mexican joint, Teotihuacan Cafe.
Down another street, towards the farmers market that is the heart of the Produce District, and on the way to a street corner with a taco shop, a famous Mexican bakery, and a spice store, there is an amazing cheese shop with free samples. I had a blast walking around.
While I was there, a fan of my Instagram page contacted me about Hugs and Donuts and encouraged me to check it out. I got an amazing boudin kolache and a cherry chocolate shortbread donut. Magnificent.
Of course, it wasn’t all in one neighborhood. I met up with one of my old friends from college, who treated me to a super fancy and decadent dinner at Caracol, an elaborate Mexican restaurant in the fancy tourist part of town. I had some amazing oysters, wood-grilled with cheese, chipotle butter and breadcrumbs, and enjoyed a great evening with an old friend.
As you can see, I had a fabulous time eating my way around town. But just as often, I was chilling at my sister’s house, playing with her sweet kitties (especially the luscious Nerms, below).
I was there for weeks, and while I had many good days, where I felt great walking all around the neighborhood, I think I had just as many low-energy, not-so-good days. It’s been like that for a while, now that I think about it; but I am trying to focus on the good days and enjoy life as much as I can. That’s the whole reason I am on this trip, anyway!
So, after a month, and a new ignition coil, I hit the road for 2-3 days to my mom’s house in east Tennessee. All I wanted was an uneventful and safe trip, and I got it.
The first night was in Louisiana, where breakfast was a boudin ball from a gas station. If you’re not familiar, the best food in most parts of the south is at gas stations. Food desert doesn’t even begin to describe some of these areas.
I stopped the next night in Mississippi, then in Alabama (both at truck stops just to make it easier and cheaper), then I was, miraculously, without incident, at my mom’s house in the Smokies. I hadn’t realized how anxious I was about the engine dying, or something crazy happening, until I finally got out of the RV and hugged my mom, and realized I was really, really there.
Not long after I got here, there were major tornadoes and thunderstorms across Tennessee and Kentucky, but luckily they were far from us. We got a few menacing-looking clouds, but nothing too serious.
I have spent most of my time relaxing, cooking, and doing artwork.
I used to do oil painting as a kid and it was a lot of fun. I know my mom was disappointed that I kind of stopped doing art as an adult (except for cooking and some needlework stuff), but really I think it was because my apartment was too small to do a lot of projects.
Regardless, I got the chance to make up for lost time, doing some paint-by-number coloring and painting projects, as well as painting a big empty wall in the basement.
Before (above) and After (below). And, yes, I used the magical hula hoop I got from Raiye at Rabid Brewing in Chicago.
During the drive to my sister’s, headed east through Arizona and New Mexico, I started to feel tiny pains in my left wrist. By the time I had been at in Houston for a couple of weeks, I had a lump on my wristbone that was freaking me out, so I started wearing a wrist brace to prevent any potential damage. I called my doctor, who basically said he couldn’t do anything until I came back.
After a couple of weeks in Tennessee, I ran out of CBDs at the same time that I weaned myself off of Baclofen, a back-spasm-reducing drug that I had been taking for way longer than the recommended time due to my back pain. It was bad timing, for sure. I was in so much pain that I was ready to cut short my time in Tennessee and go back to San Diego right away.
Luckily, I got a hookup on some good CBD capsules, and within days my pain was much better and more manageable. My mom briefly planned to come back with me, but she has her own health issues to take care of, so she will hopefully get to join me in California sooner rather than later.
We had a really lovely, but small, New Year’s celebration, complete with a huge party cheese plate and spread …
and, of course, some black-eyed peas with greens and cornbread for good luck on New Year’s day.
As I sit here now, finishing this post, I am planning to leave tomorrow from my mom’s house, head straight south through Alabama to Interstate 10, then straight west, as far south as I can be, until we get back to San Diego. Of course, I will stop to see my sister in Houston again on my way. I have an appointment with Dr. Vlad on January 21 already, so if I am back earlier, I will try to see him to check out my wrist.
It’s been a wonderful and relaxing couple of months with family, but the weather out here is too cold.
I can’t wait to get back to the beach!
Follow me on social media for updates, and I’ll see you all out there on the road!
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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What an incredible time this adventure has been so far! This has been everything I could have hoped for.
After I left my mom’s house in east Tennessee, I went straight north to Virginia.
Of course, barely a week after there had been freezing rain, it was in the high 80s with insane humidity. Southwestern Virginia is really beautiful, although the landscape is pretty much the same as Tennessee.
I visited a cool monument to Booker T. Washington outside of Roanoke, and camped that night at a state park. Smith Mountain Lake State Park is one where locals go to fish and boat all year long, but I was only there for one night. I met a few people, I enjoyed the air conditioning in my RV (that sweltering Virginia humidity is no joke), and when the sun went down I built a campfire.
I have been full-time in my RV since Halloween (except for a couple of weeks at my mom’s house over the holidays), and I have never stayed a single night in an RV park. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen an RV park that looked like a cool place to hang out. Most are full of kids, which I do not care for, and very few are cheaper than a county or state park. Plus, who would you rather give your money to, a parks agency that just got another round of budget cuts, who offers a safe and fun and cool place to camp; or an RV park full of screaming kids? Seems like an easy choice to me.
Other than a few parks and a few friends’ houses, I stayed at a bunch of Harvest Hosts. If you are new to this blog, you may not know about HH … they’re for RV owners; you pay a set annual fee (less than $100 unless you’re premium) and you can stay at several thousand hosts across the country.
Some are wineries (hence the name), some are farms or distilleries or golf courses, and some are just places of interest, like a museum or an inn or a cool store. It is also requested that you support your host by buying whatever they have for sale (a bottle of wine or a tee time, etc.), so you get the extra benefit of supporting a small business in a pandemic as well. My second night in Virginia was at Hubs, a Harvest Host that is a company store for a peanut farm — so as you can imagine, I walked out of there with a few peanuts.
I also feel like I did a great job of sticking with Harvest Hosts that were on-brand for that region. As you’ll see later, I stayed at a dairy farm in Iowa, a cranberry bog in Cape Cod … and in Maryland, I was at a crab restaurant.
Ocean Odyssey was amazing. No frills or anything fancy, but the crab was so flavorful and so well-prepared, I can’t even describe it. I had my crab cake pan-fried (as opposed to deep-fried, upon the recommendation of my server), which was almost all crab meat and spices, very little breading, and served with an array of sauces, including an impeccable homemade tartar sauce. I also got a cheesy crab dip.
And although it was rainy and windy that night, it was a really nice evening.
(I try to take a picture of my view from my camper door from most, if not all, of the places I stay.) The eastern shore is really amazing in terms of beauty, wildlife, and history. Within walking distance of my camping spot at Ocean Odyssey is a river port with a visitor’s center, artwork and murals, and beautiful views.
The eastern shore is also where Harriet Tubman lived and helped rescue thousands from slavery. There is a really cool museum and learning center nearby. I really wanted to get one of these as a hood ornament for Dolly.
I also thought the Chesapeake Bay was super cool … I didn’t realize before that the bay was crossed by not a tunnel or a bridge but a series of bridges and tunnels that span dozens of miles over sandy beaches and the deep bay between Virginia and Maryland.
It was a really interesting drive that day, especially. Next time I do this trip, I am taking someone else with me (and washing my damn windows) so we can get a lot of (much better) photos.
I got my first Covid vaccine shot in April in San Diego, and I was eligible for my booster when I was going through the DC area, so I left Maryland early the next morning, I got my booster shot, and went to my next Harvest Host. I wanted to spend some time in Washington DC, so I picked Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Virginia, which is actually accessible to downtown DC by subway. I planned to take an Uber into town and either take the Metro back or meet some friends.
It turned out, I did all of those things! After I parked Dolly at the brewery, I took an Uber to the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, where I had an awesome half-smoke and some fries.
Then I took the Metro to the Smithsonian, because it was a gorgeous spring day and I had never seen the new MLK statue (the last time I was in DC was for a college internship in 1999). I think everyone in the DC area had the same brilliant idea as I did, since people were starting to get vaccinated, things were starting to open up on a limited basis, and it was just a fantastically gorgeous day.
I was really glad I carbed up at Ben’s, because I did a lot of walking that day around the Washington Monument and the mall.
I got to check a couple more national monuments and parks off of my list that day as well, so I think I earned this new sticker.
I also met up with a friend (she’s actually a sister-in-law of another friend, but we had only met online previously), and then ANOTHER friend from high school (who I literally had not seen since graduation) picked me up and took me back to the brewery where I was camping; so I was able to relax with her and have a couple of beers while we caught up.
I would say that it was an extremely eventful day, but most of my days on the east coast were similarly packed.
The next day I was off to Delaware, staying at another Harvest Host brewery called Midnight Oil Brewing.
This one had kombucha as well as beer, which I appreciated, and it wasn’t as crazy packed as the one in Alexandria had been. I even ordered some local Chinese food that was pretty awesome.
You know I will always find a way to eat well, even when traveling, but it’s hard sometimes to get good ethnic food on the road. I can always pretty much assume that pizza, BBQ, burgers, fried chicken, etc., will always be good if you go to a good restaurant; but Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese – anything ethnic – it’s best to get it on recommendation from a local instead of winging it.
Speaking of food …
The next day I was in Jersey, seeing my dear friend Nichelina for the first time since we got back from Dolly’s maiden voyage back in December. I parked at her house in Ocean City, New Jersey, and she took me to all the places and we ate all of the things.
But first, I went by myself to the Ocean City boardwalk. And it was abandoned.
Almost every shop closed. Almost no people.
I’ve never seen anything before in my life like a beach town that is closed for the season. This isn’t a thing we have on the west coast. I got myself a frozen custard (which was delish) and some souvenirs (because of course those stores were open, haha), and took a walk on the boardwalk, but it felt weird.
The next day, Nichelina took me to Philadelphia, so I was able to have the most incredible foodie day! Our first stop was the Reading Terminal Market, where they have tiny little booths of craft and artisanal foods. I got some Amish goat cheese and duck pate, as well as some fancy chocolate.
Because Nichelina drives like a crazy person, I got a literal whirlwind tour of Philly. I flew past the Love statue, the courthouse and the Liberty Bell. I managed to jump out of the car for thirty seconds or so to take a selfie in front of the Rocky statue.
Luckily they moved the Rocky statue so you don’t have to climb a bunch of stairs to get to it. I definitely would not have had time!
You may or may not know about the Cheesesteak Corner in Philly. It’s literally a street corner where two competing cheesesteak joints have been rivals for decades. Everyone in Philly has an opinion about Pat’s vs. Geno’s. Being a west coast girl, I did not have an opinion, but Nichelina insisted (in a characteristically quasi-violent way) that we were going to Pat’s or nothing.
So we went to Pat’s.
And I’m not mad about it; it was incredible. I learned how to order it properly so I didn’t look stupid, and it was delicious.
Next, we went to Termini Brothers, a century-old bakery known for handmade cannoli and other sweets. I got a cool video of the expert cannoli-stuffer filling it with one of three tasty fillings:
I was also told (by another friend from PA) to go to John’s for a roast pork sandwich, but John’s was closed due to being out of bread. I almost witnessed some acts of violence by other patrons when they realized they couldn’t get a sandwich, but Nichelina suggested that we go to Tony Luke’s instead for a roast pork. It was really amazing. The bread was soft and chewy, the pork was super tender and spicy, and the cheese was the perfect topper.
Then, because I guess we hadn’t eaten enough, we stopped for a slice at Lorenzo’s on the way out of Philly.
Even splitting everything halfway with Nichelina, I was more stuffed than I have ever been in my life. It was a rough night.
The next day, we went to Atlantic City, which was also closed for the season (it wasn’t quite Mother’s Day yet). I still think it’s weird and kinda eerie to be in a beach town – one with gambling and entertainment, no less – that is mostly closed and almost totally abandoned except for hardcore gamblers and locals.
I guess since it’s off-season they felt Ok about treating us like crap at the restaurant … the Gordon Ramsay spot inside of Caesar’s Palace was pretty much empty and the Buffalo Cauliflower was rad, but the service was just awful. It’s the first time I haven’t tipped over 20% since the pandemic started. It was especially a disappointment after hearing good things about the spot.
Most of New Jersey is wooded and then it’s the beach. Frankly, if you didn’t know Jersey was a blue state, you’d swear you were in the South – there are absurd liquor laws, weird one-way roads, and some rural homes that would be similar to ones found in Mississippi or Louisiana.
I got to meet up with two different friends of mine from college, to show them around Dolly and catch up for a few minutes. This lady was my editor on the student newspaper in college for two years and we haven’t seen each other for at least 3 years.
Seeing old friends – some for the first time in decades – has been one of the best parts of this adventure. And they love seeing Dolly!
Next, I went north to Long Island, but from Jersey I had to go through New York City. This would not have been as strange or anxiety-producing or crazy if I had been in a normal-sized car, but NYC has a lot of bridges that are old and cross over major expressways, so for example if your vehicle is over 10 feet in height, you can’t go down certain streets. Dolly is about 11 feet and 5-6 inches, so I go with 11’7″ to be safe.
Of course, they can’t just have a sign that says a low bridge is ahead, that would be too easy. I saw a flashing sign on the side of the road that said “you are over height, exit now.” This was the third or fourth time I had had to jump off of the expressway, and rush hour in New York isn’t the best time to do that. So I ended up pulling over and downloading a new app specifically for RVs and trucks so I could take a route that didn’t knock Dolly’s block off.
Between a new route and all of the stops, my three-hour drive became almost 7, so I was glad for a quiet parking lot outside of a bagel shop that night. The Bagel Cafe was another Harvest Host, and one I thought would be cool for the full Long Island experience.
As I said, it seemed like the landscape didn’t change much from Tennessee all the way up through the eastern shore and Virginia to Jersey. All the trees and highways look the same until you’re at the shore. The architecture changes a lot, though … you go quickly from the Appalachian-style brick farmhouses to the clapboard, New England-style farmhouses.
Then, when you really get to New England, everything looks different.
I stuck to the expressways, mostly because they were the only roads recommended by my new driving app. I’m pretty sure all of the other roads had too many low bridges and quaint little hairpin turns for my RV to pass over safely, so it told me to stay on the big, main roads. The only weird thing about that is, at least in the spring, you can drive down the expressway and all you see on the side of the road are trees. Tons of trees. Every color. Some bare ones but just miles and miles of trees. And there are signs on the road telling you that there are restaurants and hotels and gas stations and cities if you exit here, but you can’t see any of it from the road. It’s pretty surreal.
Then, you’ll be driving down the road enjoying all of the various shades of all of these trees and gardens and farms, and all of a sudden, BOOM. PINK. Dogwoods in bloom in every shade of pink, including some I had previously thought couldnt occur in nature. It was really magnificent. I am so glad I managed to pick the perfect time to be on the east coast – not too crowded, not too hot, not too cold. Next time I just need to spend more time there.
I have a few friends in Massachusetts and Rhode Island – two states, which, let’s face it, should just be the same damn state. I will never again be impressed when someone refers to anything as “the size of Rhode Island,” because it is very, very small. I am used to living in a big state, which means when you say something like “I am crossing state lines,” it means something. In New England everything is so small it makes it seem farther away than it really is. In one day, I drove through Connecticut and Massachusetts, then through Rhode Island and into Massachusetts again. And I barely drove three hours. It takes some getting used to.
I visited Cape Cod, which was really beautiful.
I had a lobster roll and camped at a Harvest Host that’s an actual cranberry bog, so I definitely got the full immersive experience. The bog wasn’t blooming any berries at the time, but as you can see the weather was perfect.
I got to stop the next night to see some friends in Easthampton – we used to be neighbors in Ocean Beach and now they’re married with a 7-year-old kid, so it was a really great visit.
After a fun night, we went to a beautifully fragrant apple and peach orchard/ sculpture garden nearby, which was super awesome …
… then on the way back we spotted some roadside asparagus, so I couldn’t resist. It was some really delicious asparagus, too.
Honor system, side of the road.
After that I had to head west, but it took a whole day of driving just to get through the Catskills and the Hudson River valley to eastern Pennsylvania.
Normally I don’t drive more than 5 hours if I can help it, but this was just under 6 hours … and it was spectacularly beautiful.
I headed to a Harvest Host called Stone Lake Inn, an adorably quaint winery and inn that’s also used as a wedding venue, etc. The wine was not the best, but the staff was very kind and the scenery was unbeatable.
Pennsylvania is a big state so it took a while to get through it. The next night I was in western Pennsylvania, at a farm near the continental divide. I was given the option of parking near a barn with the other equipment, or at the top of a (kinda muddy) hill where they usually grow sunflowers. I guess you know which one I picked.
I got Dolly’s undercarriage a bit dirty, but had some amazing views all night and the next morning at the top of this hill.
The next day I drove through the rest of Pennsylvania, the tiny sliver of West Virginia (I think it’s like 17 miles) that sticks up in between Ohio and Pennsylvania, and into Ohio.
I made it most of the way through the state, to Miamisburg, aka Star City (read here to find out how it got that cool name), and to a Harvest Host called Star City Brewing.
I really loved this town, and not just because of all the stars.
The people were super friendly, the beer was really good, and there were great restaurants. I parked Dolly at the brewing company and went down the street for some BBQ, then came back for a couple of beers. I met some really fun people (again, the mask mandates were starting to ease as more people go vaccinated, so it was especially cool to be drinking at a bar with people).
Stay tuned for the next leg of this trip, where I make it the rest of the way through the Midwest and western states back to California. There’s a lot more to tell! And don’t forget to follow along on social media!
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After two days in the shop and $2,200, I finally got Dolly back. I was supposed to leave on a Wednesday, and it was really now going to be Friday. But, I got new brakes and new shocks, both of which were sorely needed, and I got it handled before I hit the road, and by a mechanic I trust. If I had left San Diego with my brakes in the state they were in, I wouldn’t have made it far — probably somewhere on a desert mountain. Let’s not think about it.
Anyway, despite the hit to my bank account – I get a disability check and Social Security Disability payments, so I am not destitute, but I was feeling like all of the “cushion” I previously had, had just evaporated – I was super excited to finally hit the road.
Belinda joined me for this leg of the adventure as well, because she was going back to Louisiana. She works for a roofing contractor and travels to where the natural disasters cause the most problems, so she needed to pack up to move out of state. In the meantime, we enjoyed another adventure together!
The day, we drove through the beautiful Los Padres National Forest, and I have to say, Dolly’s new brakes did beautifully on those steep hills and forest mountain roads.
No matter how much I travel through California, I am always amazed at its diversity of beauty. Not just its beauty. The different types of breathtaking beauty. Everywhere.
The host generously allowed us to come after hours, but we didn’t go inside or buy anything. We enjoyed a nice sunset and hit the road early the next day, so we could go to our favorite places in Paso Robles before we left the state.
Belinda, of course, insisted that we go back to the incomparable Il Cortile restaurant, and thank goodness she paid because my wallet was hurting after that brake job. But the only reservation we could get that night was for 8:30 p.m. (way late to eat if we wanted to hit the road to Vegas early in the morning), and we couldn’t get into the tasting room at our favorite winery, Chronic Cellars, so we decided to stay an extra night in Paso. It was lovely and exactly what we needed to steel our spirits for a long drive through the desert and plains for the next several days.
Our first night in Paso Robles was actually spent at a winery in San Miguel, which is just slightly north of Paso. The Four Sisters winery is pretty nice, if you love the whole sweeping vistas and lush vineyards and jaw-dropping views sort of thing.
We simply couldn’t rush drinking here.
So we were nice and buzzed and relaxed when we headed to Il Cortile, where again, just like in February, Belinda and I shared appetizers and a pasta dish and got huge entrees. I wanted the lamb rack, but they were sold out, so I was forced to eat the veal shank (I know right).
But the real star of the meal was the ravioli … it was stuffed with corn, so it almost tasted like a tamale, and the creamy mint sauce was studded with bits of mushrooms and bacon, but somehow the whole dish still felt perfectly light and almost airy. It was incredible.
The next night we went back to Tobin James (where we also parked on the Harvest Host program when we were there in February). They have an enormous lot and they are right off of the highway that goes to Barstow, so it was perfect. After we checked in, we took an Uber to Chronic Cellars and enjoyed a glass of wine and bought some of their incredibly cool merchandise, as well as an enormous amount of wine.
We also were advised to check out the Vines on the Mary Crest, another cool winery that’s literally across the street from Chronic. They had a tasting room that was still open at 4 p.m. (unlike Chronic, who closes early), and all of their wines are named after cool rock songs since the vintner/ co-owner Victor used to be a sound engineer for all of the greats.
We really loved this place, and we looooove Victor and his wife Jennifer. They’re both super friendly and into good music and good wine. I mean, their wine club includes concerts and free CDs! After we enjoyed ourselves and bought a bunch of wine, Victor not only recommended a lovely dinner spot, but he drove us there when the Uber didn’t show up. I don’t know if that’s included in the wine club, but I highly recommend their wines and their family.
The dinner he recommended that night was almost better than the Il Cortile dinner the night before… we went to The Hatch, and had prime rib and this appetizer of smoked mushrooms and cream.
They also have an award-winning cocktail artist who designed all of their signature drinks.
I had an Old Fashioned and it was killer.
So after all of that, as you can imagine, we slept like babies that night and were on the road at 7 a.m. the next morning. We headed towards Vegas and stayed with our friends there (we parked in their apartment’s parking lot), and again left early. It’s a pretty unremarkable drive, so luckily we had some good music to keep us alert.
The next night we were in Page, Arizona, this time we paid $30 to the local Elks club to have an electric and water hookup instead of a Wal-mart, like I stayed in the last time I was in Page. Page is over 100 miles from anything on either side in the Arizona desert near the Utah border, and all of the RV parks and recreational areas are super expensive. The last couple of times I came through, I stayed at the Wal-Mart, but $30 is definitely worth it to charge everything and have some electricity and water.
For the next three days, we basically had to go through the most scenic, yet most desolate, parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and west Texas.
Belinda finally got to drive Dolly, because we were basically going for hours and hours, and it’s difficult to drive something that size for more than 5-6 hours at the most. It was nice for me to ride in the back for a while.
We made a brief stop in Colorado at the Four Corners and then headed south to Albuquerque, staying at a truck stop outside of the city. (They’re not fancy, but truck stops are invaluable – there’s 24-hour security and showers, and usually a semi-not-terrible breakfast.)
Then we headed straight east, stopping near Lubbock for some fried chicken livers …
… Seriously, Bush’s Chicken has the best fried chicken livers ever … and then we stayed at another truck stop near Sweetwater, Texas. From there it was just over 5 hours to my sister’s house in Houston, were we enjoyed the weekend before we headed to Louisiana.
My birthday was on April 1, and I celebrated in my (former but always) home of Ocean Beach in San Diego. Since my sister didn’t see me for my birthday, she had her home decorated for my birthday – complete with an amazing s’mores cake from the infamous Red Dessert Dive. I was really surprised … mostly because it was over two weeks past my birthday.
I still ate this amazing cake, though.
And it was great to spend time with my family. I’ve spent more time with my mom, my brother and my sister since I started this adventure than I had for the previous decade. I love being able to see them almost every time I travel.
After a relaxing weekend, Belinda and I drove to Louisiana, where she stayed and I kept going. It was bittersweet: I am so blessed to have friends who are able to join me for these adventures, and I know I’ll travel with her again.
I spent the night at Indian Creek, the awesome and beautiful Louisiana state campground that’s right near Belinda’s house.
It was a peaceful and lovely night by the lake, then I got up early the next morning and decided to get as close to Nashville as I could that day.
I had some friends I needed to swing by and say hello to in Nashville, but other than that I was in kind of a hurry – my mom’s birthday was coming up, and if I really hauled ass I could make it in time for her birthday dinner. I originally promised her I would be back for her birthday, but then I didn’t think I could make that after my repairs and the extra night in Paso Robles; I told her I would be at her house the day after, and of course bring a bunch of cool presents.
But I made really excellent drive time that day -nearly to Nashville by the time it was getting dark – so I decided the next day I would just stop briefly in Nashville and then get to my mom’s for her birthday dinner. And I made it!
As I type this, I am happily relaxing at my mom’s house, enjoying some of the wines I brought back from California and enjoying not driving for a few days.
My mom and my stepdad helped me to fix and organize a few little things in the RV, and tomorrow, I plan to hit the road again.
I am really, really excited about this leg of my journey. Basically, other than a college internship and a trip in high school, both to Washington, DC, I have, like, zero east coast experience. I have a lot of friends there, and a lot of things I would like to see, including another stop in DC, but I have never been. I am super excited about seeing something new. My plan is to head northeast from my mom’s house in east Tennessee, going to the Roanoke, Virginia area. The first night I will probably stay at a Harvest Host nearby and go to the Booker T. Washington monument, then head straight east to Virginia Beach. Then I plan to head north to Alexandria/ Washington DC, then to visit friends in the Philadelphia/ Jersey City area, then to Rhode Island and Massachusetts — then I am turning a sharp left and heading west, because I have to be back in San Diego for a bone scan on June 2. But, I also plan to go west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and several other states where I also have never visited.
Simply put, everything from when I leave here until I get back to California will be new to me.
And I can’t wait.
Please join me and follow along on social media … this part will be awesome!
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As I mentioned in my previous post, my friend Belinda is one of my oldest friends, and it was really a blast having even a short trip with her. We managed to fit a truly incredible amount of fun and food into a small amount of time!
After our incident with the snowy mountaintop, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the trip. Our first evening on the road had been at Giessinger Winery in Fillmore, where we enjoyed great wines as well as the quaint little town and the local farm-to-table bakery. (We also stayed at Giessinger on the way home, so see the end of this post for more about the lovely town of Fillmore.) The next night we were at the top of that precarious mountain, and we didn’t want anything like that anymore.
But we can always count on Harvest Hosts to be a good time, so we headed towards Lodi and planned to decide on a Harvest Host when we got there. We were supposed to meet a friend there, but he got delayed for a couple of days. So we headed slightly east, to the Somerset area, where there a ton of wineries, and several are Harvest Hosts. Since we had already stayed at a winery, we opted for the one guy in that area NOT growing grapes – the Windmill Creek Olive Oil Company.
(We needed olive oil anyway.)
It was really great to sample Windmill Creek’s olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and we got to pick up some awesome gifts for friends … or at least the ones who don’t drink wine. Then we headed to Lodi for a couple of days.
Like several areas around California, Lodi has rich farmland that has become a “wine country” — and as such, there are a bunch of wineries and farms that are Harvest Hosts as well.
As a kid in California, I always thought of “wine country” as Napa Valley. When I moved to San Diego as an adult, like everyone else, I got suckered into at least one birthday or wedding party in the nearby wine country of Temecula. I never realized how many “wine countries” there were, nor how organized they were. Lodi, Napa, Somerset, Livermore, Paso Robles … all of them had great wine associations and easy local signage that made it easy to taste and visit there.
Anyway, we didn’t want just wine, we are foodies as well. We really wanted to stay at the Spenker Family Farm that first evening, but we couldn’t confirm with the hosts in time. Luckily Viaggio was nearby and was beautiful.
Viaggio Estates is a spectacular winery and event/wedding center jut a few miles away from downtown Lodi. It was a little chilly outside, but we enjoyed the lovely grounds and the whole event center. It was a very peaceful and relaxed place to spend the night.
Wine tasting during a pandemic is unusual … there are rules against actually sitting or standing at the bar, or handing glasses back and forth. Some of the wineries insisted on plasticware for tasting or standing outside for your flight, but the best ones, like Viaggio, gave you a flight, glasses for the actual sampling, and extra munchies for the process.
In the cooler for the cheese and charcuterie, we noticed some Spenker Farms goat cheese – yes, it is literally a winery, a goat cheese farm, and a Harvest Host – so we had some amazing goat cheese, salami and crackers with our Viaggio wine! Around the same time, the Spenkers got back to me to confirm our stay for the next night, and we were so excited to hang out there and pet the goats who made the cheese we had just eaten.
So, for two nights in a row in Lodi, we sampled local wines and local goat cheese. It was incredible. The Spenkers gave us flights of their local wine as well as their homemade cheeses; paired perfectly. We ended up buying a ton of different cheeses — they had a soft chevre, a spicy aged cheese and a hickory-smoked gouda that was divine.
The Spenkers also make soap and lotion from their goat milk, so you know I got some of the all-natural goodness to take home!
We also got to meet up with someone important … my buddy Seth is a cannabis grower who produces high-quality CBDs for cancer patients and other people in need. He started helping me with CBD treatment years ago when I had breast cancer, and he has been a good (if only online, until now) friend since then. When I was re-diagnosed this past summer, and set up my GoFundMe to raise money for my adventure, he donated a ton of his own money, then started an auction to raise thousands of dollars more, by selling his own hybrid seeds! His company, Str8organics, does a lot of great things for the community, and he’s just a really awesome guy. He even bought us a lovely sushi dinner!
It was a blast to meet him in person and enjoy the best sushi and Japanese food in Lodi. If you want to support Str8organics’ mission, please click here and buy some merch!
The next night, we were scheduled to meet up (socially-distanced) with a friend who had just moved to Sacramento. We told him we would arrive at night, so we had all day to hang out and check out Sacramento. Neither Belinda nor I had ever really been to the area, so we checked out the internet for suggestions.
Like I mentioned last time, I could write a huge post on every aspect of this tour, Instead I will just give you the highlights.
The very first stop was Mayahuel, a Mexican restaurant that has a tequila museum; so, we could have spent all day there. Instead, we had 2 hours and 57 minutes left of a three-hour tour. Plus, I still had to drive an RV later, so Belinda took one for the team and drank my share.
At least the virgin cocktail was pretty.
As I said, you can spend a whole day just at Mayahuel, learning about tequila and mezcal and the history of Mexican food and Mexican-Americans in Sacramento. Most people don’t think of Sacramento as being the melting pot of cultures that it is, or the farm-to-table capital … at least, I didn’t. I was really pleasantly surprised by the beauty and culture and history of the whole area. In San Diego we tend to think we have a monopoly on California’s beauty sometimes.
We also got a sample of this amazing poblano crema soup. It was just enough to energize us for more walking. We continued down K Street, which the city has designated for public art and recognition of historic areas.
Although the tour took three hours, not all of it was walking around, and it was only a total of a few blocks. I was a little worried that a three-hour walk might be too much for me, but it was perfect. The second stop was the Allspicery, a lovely little spice store right next to the state capital building.
Because of Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside or sample any spices, but we each got a custom blend of tea and seasoning spice mix, and I was allowed to kind of lean in the door to quickly take some photos without touching anything. But just being able to smell the cloud of sensory delight when the door opened was enough to keep us going.
The next stop – after a lot more art and history – was a Nashville hot fried chicken place, which I was looking forward to, especially after my recent trip to Hattie B’s. Nash & Proper used to be only a food truck, and got a brick and mortar store right before the pandemic hit. Luckily, they were well set up for takeout, and haven’t suffered as much as other businesses that weren’t able to adapt. And they still have a food truck schedule. The chicken sandwich was really good; although I have to say I have had better.
Then again, I am a food snob. Our next stop was the best of all.
The Odd Cookie is a bakery, a deli, and a bar. And it’s no joke. The owner and head chef is an art-loving, super-creative, whiskey-slangin, rock music-blaring, purple-haired GENIUS.
You know how sometimes, the fancier a cupcake or cookie is, the worse it tastes? When they pack all the fondant and paint and stuff, so it ends up tasting more like plastic than food? Yeah … this isn’t that.
Observe this brief video of the display cases:
As part of the food tour deal, I got to pick one, which ended up being one of the hardest decisions of my life. I picked the Great Balls of Fire (see below) … and we took a four-pack to my friend’s house for later, so I got to eat one of those banana ones as well!
If you’re ever in Sacramento for a day, I highly encourage you to check out the Local Roots food tours, and the Odd Cookie bakery. It was a day well spent.
That weekend was my friend Ali’s wedding anniversary, and we had yet to meet her husband (we hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years). We decided prior to arriving that the four of us would be headed out to the Calistoga area to celebrate their anniversary in some hot mineral baths. So after a night outside their house in Fair Oaks, we drove the short 2 hours to Calistoga, found a sweet hotel, and they checked in while we parked Dolly outside. It worked out really well, since Belinda and I got full use of the room, bathroom, and pool/spa area, but we could still camp in the RV and give our friends some wedded bliss privacy. Calistoga is still in the Napa wine valley, so it’s beautiful and lush, but it’s much less snobby and pretentious (or so we were told).
On our way north from San Diego, Belinda hadn’t been very picky about where we went or what we did; with three small exceptions: she wanted, when we visited Paso Robles, to visit a four-star Italian restaurant, and to taste wine at a winery that was one of our favorites, and, she wanted to have dinner at the Calistoga Inn. She offered to pay for my dinner at both locations, but that wasn’t why I agreed … Belinda is one of very few people whom I trust explicitly when it comes to food. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t normally want to try; if she tells me to, I will. If she says this restaurant is the place to eat; I’m there.
Of course, the Calistoga Inn needed no introduction. We ordered half bottles of wine and fresh, farm-to-table appetizers. But I stayed clear of it all because I knew that this yoooge ribeye was on its way!
Isn’t that glorious? I also splurged on dessert; I got a peanut butter chocolate pie, with a glass of the dessert port they recommended and a couple fingers of a glorious 18-year scotch. It made my tummy hurt a bit the next day, but it was worth it … I mean, I hadn’t had scotch in almost a year, but if you can’t enjoy a scotch when you’re having an epic meal in wine country, when can you?
On our way out of Calistoga the next day, we stopped at the California Old Faithful attraction, which was actually really nice.
It’s a private attraction (pretty much every landowner in the area has a mineral spring in their backyard) and they have these cute little pool cabanas and a petting zoo and garden to hang out at in between the eruptions, which happen every 45 minutes or so.
We finally had to begin heading south, so we went a short drive southeast to Livermore, yet another of California’s many wine countries and a very peaceful and nice town.
We camped at another Harvest Host, the Leisure Street winery, which had tons of lovely space to park and drink and walk around. There was a huge parking lot and lots of permanent campers who worked at a nearby electrical plant, so we got to meet some interesting people.
In a way, pandemic traveling makes you feel a lot more isolated from people, but that’s another great thing about Harvest Hosts. We got to meet lots of great people – hosts and other guests – at the socially-distanced wineries. Even better, we were able to support small businesses who need the money in these crazy times!
The next day we headed to my great-aunt’s house in Santa Cruz. I hadn’t seen Aunt Lesley in about 10 years, and I was looking forward to seeing her and to meeting my third cousin I had never met before. I initially parked on her street, a lovely tree-lined cul-de-sac smelling of eucalyptus, but after a quick (masked) hug, we insisted that I park in her driveway. As she was guiding me in, I didn’t notice (not did she) a piece of gutter sticking out from her carport at a weird angle. I didn’t see it until it was smashing through my window!
Belinda had a tiny cut, but other than that no one was hurt. The problem is that I have a $1k deductible and my RV is 25 years old. so finding a replacement piece of glass isn’t easy. As I write this, I am sitting in San Diego, recovering from this trip, and waiting to see a mechanic who can find us a replacement. It’s only the glass that’s broken, so if I am lucky (and I usually am), I can get a replacement from a junkyard for cheap. Worst case scenario, I need to get a custom-cut piece of tempered glass, which will be less than my deductible but still expensive.
That night Aunt Lesley took us to a lovely dinner at a scenic spot in Santa Cruz (check out the Crow’s Nest if you’re nearby), but I felt really bad about not seeing her for 10 years and then basically crashing into her house. I guess Dolly likes to make an entrance.
But we still had things to do. We still had two days planned in Paso Robles and another back in Fillmore before we headed back home, so we patched up the broken window and got the heck out of there!
First we went straight to Dark Star Cellars, a small but very cute winery on the outskirts of Paso Robles. They have a great tasting room, which I am sure is a lot of fun when it isn’t a pandemic, and their vintners are very educated about their wines. We had a great tasting and bought a couple of bottles, then cooked ourselves a great dinner and relaxed in the RV all night.
The next day, we knew we were going to throw down at this fancy Italian dinner Belinda kept talking about, so we decided to be productive early. Belinda gets to do a lot of her work remotely and had been working a couple of hours per day while we were stopped. So we emptied the dump tank (I am getting really good at it now) and filled Dolly up with water, then cleaned ourselves, and I did laundry while Belinda got some work done.
That afternoon, we checked into our Harvest Host (Tobin James cellars this time), and had a great tasting.
Pro tip: the back side of their tasting menu has the reserve bottles that they don’t sell at Costco. That stuff is way better than the mass-produced bottles!
We then took an Uber to Chronic Cellars, one of our favorite brands, This was literally the only winery that we stopped to drink at that wasn’t a Harvest Host. And while it isn’t technically mandatory to drink at the Harvest Host, the idea is to support the business while they let you camp for free.
But we had to go to Chronic .. as you can see, Belinda is the Ultimate Fangirl.
The Chronic Cellars wine is incredible, but I really love their designs and their labels.
We spent a pretty insane amount of money on merchandise, but it was worth it!
So. About this Italian restaurant. As I mentioned, Belinda hadn’t insisted on much, but this was one of the restaurants and spots she insisted upon. She said it was better Italian food than she had enjoyed while she was in Italy, and that I had to try it. And everywhere we went in Paso Robles, when we mentioned that we were headed to Il Cortile for dinner, the person we said it to got a dreamy look on their face, and then quietly mouthed the words “you’ll love it!”
We did not hold back. The first course was the antipasti … we got a beef carpaccio with parmesean sauce and shaved truffles. It was DIVINE.
I really could have left it there, but we kept going, We had lots of good bread and balsamic/oil for dipping, and we also ordered a polenta and poached egg antipasti dish. Then we (wisely) split a pasta dish, so we could each properly annihilate an entree. This is the pappardelle noodles with a wild boar ragu. Literally every bite (and you know it was washed down with some impeccable wine!) was perfect.
Belinda had opted for the Osso Bucco, since she had it there before and was in love with it. I had to go for the veal chop, and I was not disappointed. I think there was a little veggie or something in there, but wow, that shank.
It was epic.
Our last night on this trip was back in Fillmore. I picked that place because if you’re heading south, it is the last Harvest Host before Temecula. Also, it’s about 30 minutes from my brother’s house, so he came to hang out with us when we stayed there the first night, and the last night he came to take me to his house for my nephew’s birthday party. But I also went back there because we really loved the Giessinger Winery, and the area it’s in is fantastic.
The first time we stopped there, the server told us about an amazing bakery where we scored a bunch of yummy baked goods for the rest of our trip.
The winery is situated right in the historic downtown area, which is super adorable, and there is a (now-closed) railroad and historic railroad station. We were able to walk to get sushi the first night, and when we went back, we had some excellent Mexican food.
I am currently recuperating and getting Dolly fixed up, and I plan to be out in the desert for the majority of the month of March.
In April, I will be headed back east, and I plan to go to my mom’s and then to the east coast for a couple of weeks before I head back to San Diego again for more doctor’s visits in June.
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Now that I have done his a couple of times, I can safely say, traveling without a strict itinerary is the way to go. I had some doctor’s appointments in San Diego, and Nichelina and I both promised our moms we would be back on the East Coast for Christmas, but other than that, we were free to do what we liked on our way east. I had promised my doctor that I would come back after Thanksgiving for more tests and shots, so that gave us a couple more days in California.
I really enjoyed Thanksgiving at my brother’s house.
He’s a theme park blogger (check out his stuff at Park Journey), and I know it hurt him to not be able to go and ride on some roller coasters this year. But the theme parks are making it work; we took a ride through Six Flags Magic Mountain to see the cool decorations and holiday displays. It was really fun ad safe; you didn’t even have to get out of your car to see everything.
I just recently got to know my brother and his family, and they are taking care of my kitty, Janis. I was really worried that Janis – who was practically feral when she adopted me and does not handle change very well – would be stressed and upset without me and after being forcibly moved to a new home with new people.
Let’s just say, if she was upset about the move from an apartment in Ocean Beach to a sweet condo in L.A., it hasn’t affected her appetite. I tried for almost a decade to get her fat, but she always had too much exercise and fresh air outside. Now that she’s an inside kitty, she’s chunked up in less than a couple of months.
After Thanksgiving, Nichelina and I spent a couple more days in San Diego, enjoying another weekend parked at the beach facing the sunset.
We took a chance on some new technology; I really hate the gas generator in the RV — it makes electricity but it’s so loud and gas-guzzling — and I wanted another alternative.
This solar panel is pretty cheap on Amazon, it’s light and folds out into four small panels, and it charges right away. In less than a minute, I was able to unfold it, place it in direct sunlight, and plug in my phone charger, which started charging at full power instantly. I purchased a connector that supposedly will allow me to charge the battery with this solar panel, but we will see. I might not get a chance to test it in Tennessee in wintertime.
There aren’t a lot of Harvest Hosts spots in San Diego county – a few in the mountains and the inland areas, and one in Chula Vista; a golf course. You have to upgrade for a golf membership with Harvest Hosts, but some of the golf clubs make you pay for rounds of golf in order to camp out there. Luckily, the Chula Vista Golf Course is part of a complex that allows overnight parking.
It’s not super fancy, but there is a shopping complex across the street. We got there after dark, but we woke up to a lovely view of a shady golf course.
Since we were in close proximity to some of the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, we took advantage. I got roasted lamb from Aqui es Texcoco, which included a consomme, tortillas, and limes, cilantro and fresh diced onions for garnish.
Then I stopped at Tacos el Gordo, and got carne asada tacos and adobada fries with all of the fixins (aka “con todo y pina”). It was impeccable.
Apparently the city of Chula Vista is saluting health care workers, as they should be doing. On my way to Tacos El Gordo, I even saw a flag with Dr. Marilyn Norton, who was one of my oncologists when I had breast cancer a few years ago. She’s great and I’m glad she’s being recognized.
Anyway, I also took the opportunity to enjoy some more sun and Mexican food before I left San Diego. This is the breakfast burrito from Nico’s on Newport Avenue near the beach. It got me through many a morning in OB.
I wrapped up my last day in southern California with with stupid cancer nonsense; I needed a bone scan, a hormone shot and an infusion, as well as to meet again with my oncologist. I decided – either wisely or stupidly – to get it all done in one long day at the hospital.
Dolly (the RV) had other ideas.
While I was in the hospital all day, Dolly took this opportunity to let her ass slip. The fender (which holds the poop tube and the covered spare tire) was falling off – and this is definitely the sort of thing that can do some damage if it hits you on the highway.
The exhaust pipe was also slipping.
The left turn signal was going in and out.
The windshield was cracked.
What the hell.
Once again, I survived because of the ingenuity and connections of my friends.
While I was getting a shot in the butt, an infusion through a chest port, an oncologist consultation and a bone scan, Nichelina was teaming up with our friend Tully to remove the heavy spare tire from the fender and get the RV to a place where they could do all of the welding and an oil change. She bought a cheap part that fixed the errant turn signal, and the crack on the windshield appeared to be very low on the glass pane, so we decided it was at least good enough for us to hit the road.
It’s really amazing that for this entire trip, all of the mechanical issues we had could be fixed for a minimal expense.
I’m happy to say that we all held up quite nicely through the mountains — Nichelina and I are still friends, Dego the dog has had another eventful cross-country trip, and Dolly is still running.
Dolly also got an oil change at the same time the rear fender and exhaust pipe was welded back on, so she was driving really smoothly. She certainly was slow driving through some of those steep mountain grades between Utah and Arizona, but nothing worse than what you’d expect with such a non-aerodynamic vehicle going up a big mountain.
At the Four Corners, it was pretty bleak — the Navajo Nation has been ravaged by Covid, so pretty much everything except the most essential services are still available. The Harvest Hosts stop we parked at that night was one of the essential businesses: a trading post and gas station in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.
It’s a lovely store and a warm place to stop (presumably it’s nicer in the summer and when there isn’t a devastating pandemic going on), and we got some cool souvenirs.
That whole area is really unusual, especially in the winter. The air is cold but dry, and you have static electricity everywhere you go … especially in an RV containing a million blankets and a dog.
The next day we went on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and we got some amazing burgers and enjoyed a bit of a rest before we headed east. We decided instead of a Harvest Host, we would just drive until we wanted to stop, and park at a free lot then head to Texas in the morning. After a nice sleep at a truck stop, we went through the rest of New Mexico and west Texas (snore), then stopped in Lubbock at the Buddy Holly museum.
We didn’t have a lot of time to spend there – we were trying to get to that night’s Harvest Host stop and then on to my sister’s in Houston by nightfall – but it was a really fun museum and a nice stop after driving for a few hours.
Our Harvest Host that night was in Abilene – a small meadery in the downtown area where we learned about the process of making mead, and enjoyed a lovely dinner with the hosts.
Amber Dragon Meadery makes small batches of different fruity honey wines made in the ancient process, and they have a really cool tasting area and collection of Viking items.
As we have come to expect from Harvest Hosts (other than the Nazi incident), Amber Dragon was a great small business we are proud to support, and after a great night’s sleep (that mead packs a punch), we were on our way again.
Oh yes, the ‘Nazi incident’; if you didn’t read my last post, I’ll give you the short version: we stayed at a former Harvest Host stop called Wicked Kreations, which was not only far below the standards of beauty and cleanliness we have come to expect, but they were displaying Nazi flags. They said later that their dirty motorcycle garage was a military museum, but they also said their dirty home was a winery, so they are clearly not living in the same realm of reality as you and I.
When we told POC (and allies) not to shop or stay there, they tried to retaliate; saying we stole from them (as if!) and trying to get their buddies to harass us.
I also learned this week that the wife (or girlfriend) of the alleged murderer passed away on December 9.I know she had cancer and was obviously suffering due to an alleged assault and her partner’s PTSD, but I don’t know the cause or circumstances.Regardless of the details, it’s certainly tragic, and I am sorry for her death. May her memory be a blessing.
Dolly had been running really well up until we got to Texas, but then the battery that powers the camper stopped working. The battery that runs the engine was fine, so we could still drive, but in the middle of our nice evening at that meadery, our lights went out and wouldn’t come back on unless we had the generator on, or the RV plugged in.
Luckily we were in the home stretch. We could plug in at my sister’s house and in Louisiana, then we would be back at mom’s.
Once we were in Houston, of course, we forgot to take any photos of anything except food…
… but we had a really great time.
Unlike when I was in Louisiana and southeastern Texas back in September, the weather this time was mild, the traffic wasn’t full of tourists, and the bugs had gone back to Hell where they belong. After a couple days of stuffing ourselves full of Chinese food, Italian food, Cajun food; and every cookie, donut and kolache available, we headed to Louisiana.
Long before Nichelina and I decided to do a nationwide road trip together, we met in Ocean Beach. Our mutual friend, Belinda, who introduced us – and is a lover of food, drink, and debauchery just like us – has been living and working in southern Louisiana for some time.
We had originally planned to meet up with Belinda and go to New Orleans. When we arrived, Belinda had more work to do, and it was more like another four-hour drive to New Orleans, so we opted to stay somewhere closer.
Between friends and Harvest Hosts, we managed to be on the road for over a month without using a campground. When we were thinking about New Orleans, we were looking at a campground in the French Quarter that was about $100 per night, and another outside of the city that was a state-run campground for abut $20-30. We completely randomly chose the Indian Creek Recreational Area, simply because it was cheap and close to our friend’s house. And we needed a plug-in since the battery was acting up.
It was completely accidental, but it was the best decision! It was so pretty and peaceful there.
I picked the parking spot sight-unseen (just looking at their map), and close the biggest spot that was close to the lake and far away from the kids’ playground. It was a perfect area, with gorgeous views of the lake, the trees, and the sunset.
The park was actually pretty full – maybe 60% – for the winter, but everyone was really quiet and chill. I definitely was proud of myself for accidentally picking the best campground ever (for less than $40 for two days!), and I plan to use them much more often now. I’m also a huge fan of using someone else’s electricity instead of my finicky battery or my loud, gross generator.
I loved the views and fire pit and the peaceful night’s sleep, but it’s definitely worth $18 per night to have power, water, a shower, and a dump station. And it was great to have a couple of days to catch up with my friend and hang out without any place to go.
Speaking of dump station, the Indian Creek campground dump station was the first place I ever emptied Dolly’s poop tank by myself. (Hopefully they will be erecting the historical marker on the spot soon.) I had watched the YouTube videos, and read the manual, and watched others do it, but I had never done it, really, actually, myself. I was intimidated, to say the least, but I am proud to report that I did it all alone and did it very well. Now I feel much more confident about doing it myself.
On that last stretch from Louisiana to Tennessee, we had originally planned to park for the night at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi, which is a privately funded, non-profit museum and music educational center, as well as a Harvest Host parking spot. We made much better time getting there than anticipated, so we decided to keep on trucking (after checking out the museum) instead of stopping there overnight.
They even have a cool replica of Lucille (King’s favorite guitar) outside.
It didn’t feel right to snap photos like a tourist, but I also wanted to be sure to never forget this happened.
We kept driving until late, making it to almost an hour west of Nashville, then the next day we drove the rest of the way to my mom’s house. It was uneventful and took less time than anticipated. By the time the end of the trip came along, we were ready to not be on the road anymore, and Nichelina had much further to go. We decided to scrap seeing friends in Nashville and the surrounding areas – I could spend a week seeing friends there, so I’ll take a short trip there after the holidays.
We unloaded most of our things from Dolly as soon as we arrived, and Nichelina left for home (in Philadelphia) right away the next morning to avoid a storm coming towards the east coast.
The end of Dolly’s first round trip was very unceremonious and abrupt compared to the emotional preamble, the endless amounts of tiny details, and always-shifting departure time in the lead-up to leaving.
I plan to stay at my mom’s house in Tennessee for a couple of weeks, to enjoy Christmas and New Year’s with my family and get the RV battery taken care of before I hit the road again. In early January I want to do a trip to Nashville, maybe another to Atlanta or Birmingham to see other friends, and maybe some nights at local campgrounds, just to see which ones I like the best.
I will leave Tennessee around January 20th to get to San Diego for more tests and doctor’s visits at the end of January. In the meantime, stay tunes to this space for some more updates, and my Instagram and Facebook pages for more up-to-date details.
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.
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.
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.
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.
UPDATE: OMG YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE THIS. A week or so after I published this, the online harassment started by (I can now name and tag them) Wicked Kreations continued, and I received a Facebook message from someone I don’t know.
I am also happy to report that Harvest Hosts has removed these people from their app now. I spoke to them, and they explained that Wicked Kreations was temporarily removed when I showed them the flags, but reinstated when they provided HH with paperwork showing that they were a “military museum.” (You all know my opinion on that.)
Harvest Hosts explained that they had to give these people the benefit of the doubt, which I understand, but now that this has happened, I think they understand what kind of people they’re dealing with here. I really love Harvest Hosts, so I’m very happy it all came out well … except, of course, for that guy at the grocery store on Thanksgiving.
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.
We’ve basically been on the beach all week… parking at various friends’ homes at night and sitting at the beach all day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Try the recipe:
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)
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 –>
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.
It’s a very adorable town, even in the summer heat and humidity.
We also stopped at the Nolichucky River and enjoyed the scenery …
… 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.
I will update this space soon, when I either purchase this RV, or keep up my search.
Want to help me out on my road trip? Donate to my GoFundMe campaign here.