Part 10: The Voyage East

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.

That first night, we stopped briefly at Sagebrush Annie’s Winery – a Harvest Host restaurant that was already closed.

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!

Are you enjoying this content? Please support my adventure by donating to my Gofundme here!

Part 8: How many wine countries can there be?

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.

The first item was a three-hour downtown walking tour of the food and history of Sacramento.

Sold.

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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Part 6: My First Solo RV Trip

I actually really love traveling alone. I know it stresses my family out, especially with my health issues – and I loved traveling with my good friend, especially for Dolly’s maiden voyage – but there is something about the peace and quiet and freedom of doing it yourself.

I left my mom’s house on January 13, and the first night I stayed in Cookeville, where my family has a farm (where I spent the night in the RV) and I got to see some old friends.

As I mentioned my parents (and other family members) were not crazy about me doing this trip by myself. I try to give them my ear when they are concerned, at least — to be fair, they basically are going along with this whole crazy idea of a bucket list road trip with minimal complaints so far — but I also think this is one of the safest ways to travel. My mom was particularly worried about crazy right-wing violence, after the riot at the Capitol on January 6. People were talking online about more trouble during the inauguration, and even rumors about the electrical grid.

I told them – and I believe – that if something did go down, the RV would be one of the best places for me to be. I could literally just pull off the road and use my generator, as well as my full kitchen and bathroom, and wait it out. I also planned to be in rural Texas and New Mexico on Inauguration Day, and that wasn’t likely to be a hub of activity. Plus, I am a grown woman and I am safe and smart.

I got this.

Anyway, one of those Cookeville friends has a husband who is a truck driver, who recommended a trailer repair guy who could look at the business with my electrical system. (Long story short, the battery was working but there was something stopping it from illuminating my camper.)

Like everything else that has gone wrong with this RV, it worries the hell out of me for a while, I research it and make myself crazier, then someone comes along and says “hey this wire is loose” and fixes it. They wouldn’t even take my money. I pray that everything on this RV is always so easy and cheap to fix (knocking wood and crossing my fingers).

So instead of worrying for days, it was fixed in minutes and I was on my way.

I spent a couple of days in Nashville, eating tons of good food…

… catching up with more old friends from high school and college…

… seeing old sights (that are totally different from back in the day) and new ones (like this street art):

I also got to go to Hattie B’s which is the new “Nashville Hot Chicken” place. I say that in quotation marks, because now that it has become a hashtag, it’s totally different.

Back when I was in college there (and, again, this was 1997-2001), there was a joint called Prince’s, which was the best hot chicken in town. It came on a scale of 1-10, and the 10 would do some damage. Back then, I didn’t even try the hot stuff, I got the not-hot-at-all kind.

Back then, Prince’s was in a part of town that, shall we say, was not frequented by white people very often, and it was run by an older black lady who was frankly kind of mean.

Hattie B’s is a hashtag. Hattie B’s has t-shirts. Hattie B’s lets you substitute your chicken if you taste it and find it to be too hot. The old lady at Prince’s did not let you do that. You made your choice, you live with it.

But Hattie B’s is also impeccable. The chicken – heat aside – was perfectly crispy and juicy. The sides were all perfect – perfectly seasoned greens, creamy potato salad. Don’t even get me started on this banana pudding.

But everything else in Nashville is so different. Prince’s was destroyed when someone drove a car into it; a new location opened with new owners but it wasn’t the same. The neighborhood where I lived as a teenager was completely razed and there were fancy condos and apartment homes there instead. I went looking for a BBQ joint I used to frequent when I was in college, hoping that it might still be be after all this time – not only was it nit open, but the whole strip mall it once housed was gone. Dang.

But that just leaves an opening for trying out more good new stuff, right?

I have been wanting to check out Slim ‘n’ Husky’s pizza since I heard about it – the founders are Tennessee State University alumni, like myself, and my foodie friends there always rave about it.

I got this meaty pizza, and some whiskey pecan cinnamon buns for the drive the next day.

I hit I-40 west with my road cinny buns, and I stopped at Samuel Bryant’s Distillery in Jackson, Tennessee.

You may recall when I first met Mr. Bryant on my first solo van journey (as opposed to this solo RV journey), he makes the Tennessee whiskey that you can’t call Tennessee whiskey, so it’s really “dark shine.” I picked up some boozy souvenirs for lucky people back in Cali.

On this trip, I have been intentionally, where possible, staying at state and/or local parks. Local governments are going through a harder time than usual, so every bit helps. It’s worth it to me to spend $20 or so to plug in for the night and have a water and sewer hookup, especially when it’s so cold, and that $20 goes a long way to keeping these places open and operational. Many parks have cheaper-than-normal winter rates as well.

Davis Lake campground, Tombigbee National Forest, Mississippi

The first night out of Tennessee (and of course, the weather was perfect) was in Mississippi, but I was only there for one night. For $20 cash, I got a lovely spot to camp next to a brilliant lake, and there were only three other campers in the whole park.

This is Davis Lake, in the Tombigbee national Forest in central Mississippi.

The next morning, I went to Louisiana, and stayed at Indian Creek Campground, another state park where we had already camped before in December. The weather was also perfect, and in fact the scenery wasn’t that different!

From southwestern Louisiana, it’s only four hours to my sister’s house in Houston, which is always good for a couple of days-long pit stop to wash clothes and sleep in a real bed and relax with family. I really wanted to get on the road to see more state parks and natural beauty before I got back to California, though, so I was only there for a couple of days.

When I arrived in Houston, I noticed that my driver’s side rear light was missing a cover, and I couldn’t get the replacement in time, so my sister ordered it to be delivered to Vegas when I would be there. In the meantime, from Houston to Vegas, my light looked like this:

Luckily I made it through several state parks, into a canyon, up several snowy mountains, and into Las Vegas and it held. And once I got to Vegas it was as good as new.

When I left my sister’s, the plan was to do three nights and two different Texas state parks. I had reserved a spot (you have to reserve everything online before you show up now) the first night at Lake Mineral Wells (about 4 hours from Houston) and two nights at Palo Duro, another 4-5 hours northwest.

I really loved both of them; and could have easily spent a week at either campsite. I will, in fact, try to do so on my way back to Tennessee in March or April. Lake Mineral Wells is a really fascinating park; the entrance to the campsite makes you drive past a dam that seemed to be on the verge of overflowing as I drove by. My actual campsite was next to the lake, and had a little fire pit and picnic area.

Again, I could have stayed for days. Luckily I got there right in time for a sunset, and the gloomy weather made a sweet rainbow.

This was the actual view from my campsite!

On my way to Lake Mineral Wells, I got a call from a lady at the Texas state parks department. She said the reservation I had made for two nights was cancelled due to a broken water main near the camping area. They could book me another campsite, but it would only be for one night instead of two. Plus, I had picked my site from photos on their website, and I was driving while I was speaking to her and obviously couldn’t look at the website, so I asked her to pick me a nice campsite that was open.

When I arrived, the park ranger informed me that I was in campsite number 16 … and that she loooooooved number 16; it was one of the best as far as beauty and hiking trail access. And she wasn’t wrong. Since my doctor doesn’t think hiking is good for my broken back, and I was only there for one night – albeit a long, winter night – I wasn’t going to be doing any hiking. But it was such a beautiful area!

Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the United States, and the campground is literally inside the canyon. My spot was right at thhe entrance to a hiking trail (as promised), and was nestled between two cliff faces. It was a full campground, but very peaceful.

Of course, it took longer than anticipated to get there, and it was only for one night now, so I didn’t have much time to check out the scenery. I had many more miles to go before I got to the beach!

Most of the time, I get up early and hit the road, usually because when the sun comes up, it’s hard for me to get back to sleep. Plus, when I am ready to go, I can do so quickly — another good thing about solo travel. I get up early, drive 4-5 hours, and then get to sleep early when I arrive at my destination.

For example, when I left Palo Duro early in the morning, I headed towards the Four Corners area. I have been through there before, and it’s a really beautiful and easy drive. It appeared to be around 5 hours from Amarillo, but I didn’t account for a) the time it took to get back up out of Palo Duro Canyon, and b) how long it took me to drive through New Mexico with all of the big mountains and high elevations (driving an RV always adds 20% on to your time estimate in the hills and mountains). That night I ended up sleeping at a truck stop/ casino in Indian country, maybe 100 miles southeast of the four corners area.

I prefer not to drive the RV at night in unfamiliar areas. It seems safer to me to be in a well-lit parking lot with other people (who never bothered me in the slightest) than to be on the road, trying to navigate poorly lit roads in the dark in winter.

In other words, I try to plan it that way – an easy for hours every day and a comfy and electrified place to park at night – but some nights, that just isn’t possible. Either way, it’s a fun time.

The next two nights weren’t much better. I headed west, further towards Vegas, and stopped in Page, Arizona. It was a really interesting drive: as I drove northwest, I was at such high elevation, I was practically in the clouds. About 40 miles from Page, the elevation drops, and the sky clears. Then as I come around a mountain and in sight of the Antelope Valley (just east of Page), it’s mid afternoon, the sun is throwing the most spectacular shadows on the cliffs and the rock faces, and … a power plant. Just a huge, ugly, gross, grey, shadowy power plant. They made no effort to blend it in with the landscape or anything, so I can only hope that means it does a lot of good. It sure isn’t pretty. It was jarring to see the difference.

Page is right next to Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, so the area is beautiful.

There were still stay-at-home restrictions in Arizona so the state parks were closed, and I looked around to see if any of the local RV parks were offering a one-night special or a winter deal; none were. I just spent the night at the Wal-Mart, and left early. Maybe I would have relaxed for a few hours if I had had electricity and water, but in a public lot there’s no reason to hang out.

Plus, this is the really scenic part of the drive. The weather was crazy; but the route to Vegas takes you on a stretch of road that zigzags between Arizona and Utah, and it’s really beautiful in any weather.

The trip from the middle of Arizona to Las Vegas was equally weird – the high elevation and storm clouds made for a really weird drive; on-again, off-again snow, sleet, rain, and beautiful clear skies. All in less than five hours. When I rolled off of the Las Vegas Strip, there was snow on my windshield. When I arrived at the Las Vegas National Golf Club, they were about to close due to weather (but thankfully allowed me to park there as we had arranged through the Harvest Host program).

I’m sure this is really fun when it’s not snowing.

So, I spent another cold and noisy night at a place off of a busy road (this time a golf club off the Strip instead of a Wal-Mart or truck stop), but it still felt good to be heading west.

I could tell I was on the west coast again, because I actually waned to eat Mexican food I generally do not eat taco shop food unless I am in San Diego, because I have been spoiled (and all other taco shops are gross).

But, one of my favorite San Diego/ Tijuana shops has a few Las Vegas locations, so some adobada fries (con todo y pina, unless you’re a savage) from Tacos El Gordo was dinner.

The next night, I was in California. I spent the night at my stepdad’s house in San Bernardino – actually I parked outside of his house and slept out there. This was a totally socially distanced visit because my stepdad and his wife are elderly and he has had some health problems in the last year. They’ve basically been quarantining for going on three years now; so they let me eat and do laundry inside, but I slept in the RV. Which is like, the reason I have it. This is the best way to quarantine travel! No need for motels or restaurants – I can get take-out and eat it right in my RV, or better yet, cook.

I basically jinxed myself by complaining to Tennessee people that I only encountered “weather” of any kind in Tennessee. Now I am getting it everywhere. There were clouds and rain all through Texas; there was snow and sleet through New Mexico and Arizona, and it’s even rainy and stormy in southern California!

But of course, stormy skies sometimes make for beautiful sunsets.

So, I am back in California. Yay!

In the next couple of weeks, I will have some medical scans and tests to see how my current medications are working. I plan to be at a local county park that offers camping, and I will be checking out the cheap/ free places to camp and boondock here in San Diego. I plan to go to Sacramento and the Bay Area in mid-February and head back to my mom’s in late March or early April.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Instagram, and if you are so inclined, please support my GoFundMe. All funds go directly to this trip – gas, repairs, and stuff for the RV.

See you out there on the road!

Beer Tour for One

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

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

It’s a wake-up call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tried their regular IPA and their 420 Strain IPA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie the farm dog completes the composition in the background 🙂

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

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

… and these two North Carolina brews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first IPA I tried there was pretty mild:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming along with me on my beer tour.

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: The Southwest

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

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

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

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

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

Brotherhood

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

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

Then, this diagnosis came.

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

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

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

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

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

On the Road Again

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

In Vegas, we took our obligatory sign photo …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brilliant.

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

No More McDonald’s

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

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

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

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

There is no food in the desert.

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

The next day, it was time for something better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The street signs look like this:

WE GET IT. THERE ARE ALIENS.

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

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

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

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

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

Success!

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

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

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

The pecan pie was also slammin’.

It was very, very nice.

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

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

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

Others, like Carlsbad Caverns, are better.

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

The visitor center and gift shop is awesome.

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

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

We were practically alone. In the caverns.

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

But this was practically silent.

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

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

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

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

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

Chillin at Jimmy Carter’s

I think I have found my new favorite Mexican food spot, you guys. They’re authentic, they’re classy, and they’ve got lots and lots of soups. What more could you want?

This past week, I finally got to check out Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café in the Hillcrest/Balboa Park neighborhood. It’s been there for decades, but I am behind; I know. I had no idea what a great place I was missing. The service isn’t just great; the servers treat you like you’re a guest in their home … because you practically are. Most of Jimmy’s employees have been working for him for decades. It is quite apparent that everyone there loves their jobs, and loves Jimmy himself.

The food is ALL homemade. It is ALL authentic. It is ALL Jimmy Carter approved. But for me, the best part is the soup list.

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Albondigas (meatball soup)

There are four soups that are on the permanent, daily menu – Creamy Black Bean, Chicken Tortilla, Albondigas, and Chicken Pozole.

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Green chicken pozole

There is menudo every weekend.

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But that’s not all! Every day, the chef picks 2-3 more soups to have on special that day (Check out Jimmy Carter’s Instagram page for daily special announcements). There are over two dozen rotating soups, from calabaza y elotes and caldo de res, to Mexican clam chowder and spicy pork guerrero.

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Chicken tortilla soup

Their soup list is INSANE. I managed to escape with their internal soup list, which details the ingredients and garnishes for each one.

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I mean, right?! And this is just the soup list.

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I’ll take one of each!

You could eat here every day for a month and never have the same meal twice. I love it!

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In addition to the albondigas and green chicken pozole, I also checked out some delicious wet tacos (above) and some mini quesadillas (below) stuffed with chicken and carnitas.

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I also would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about their sauces.

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Every item on the menu can be topped with one of their handmade and super-authentic spicy sauces.

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I got to try them all, and I think the Tlaquepaque is my favorite. I see why it’s the most popular … it’s creamy and spicy and good on literally everything.

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There is literally nothing I would not like to eat with this sauce, but Jimmy himself recommends the cheese enchiladas with this gorgeous stuff on top.

Don’t forget the drinks and dessert! In addition to a super-huge menu of authentic Mexican cuisine, Jimmy Carter’s offers a fun assortment of cocktails and other drinks. As you know, I recently discovered the beauty of the tequila mule for myself, so I sampled JCMC’s mezcal mule.

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Outstanding!

And, although I was definitely slowing down by this point (those soups were so good I was licking the bowl), I had to sneak in a few tastes of the coconut flan.

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All in all, I am so glad I finally visited. I will definitely be back to try more of those amazing soups and sauces.

AYCE Sushi FTW

This week I was a guest of the fine people at Onami, an all-you-can-eat Japanese seafood and sushi in the Mission Valley mall. I’ve seen this place a hundred times as I walk past on my way to the movie theater, but this was my first time eating there. And what an amazing meal it was!

Right when you walk in, you’re greeted with friendly service and a huge buffet table covered with salad fixings and every type of sushi roll you can imagine.

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I don’t know about you, but one of my least favorite things about sushi dinners are trying to decide what to order. Every selection means you get 6-10 pieces of whatever roll you choose. But AYCE sushi is the best because you can just grab a bite of whatever you feel like, and you don’t have to commit yourself to an entire roll.

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My favorite was the tuna tempura roll. Super spicy and stuffed with two kinds of tuna!

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Onami also has an amazing selection of hot food, like miso soup, tempura, stuffed mushrooms, teriyaki chicken, sautéed vegetables, and a delicious spicy tofu with eggplant.

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The seafood was also impeccable … try some crawfish, some crab legs, or some icy oysters on the half-shell!

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And don’t forget dessert!

Onami has a full fruit and dessert bar, with traditional Japanese flavors as well as good old American chocolate cake.

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All of this amazing food is also surprisingly reasonably priced … I don’t think I’ve ever spent less than $20-25 for a sushi dinner, and they definitely weren’t customized and all-you-can-eat. This can all be yours for $15.99 for lunch, $22.99 for weekend lunch, and $26.99 for dinner.

Onami is located at 1640 Camino del Rio North, in the Westfield Mission Valley mall.

I am told that Onami will soon be adding a “Lobster Day” special all weekend long. Be sure to check back with Starbright’s Kitchen for updates.

Mardi Gras and ShamROCK

Being a food blogger and influencer is a great gig in San Diego! Almost weekly there are amazing events for foodies, from tasting tours to brewery fairs to block parties.

Coming up on the 16th of March, there will be an amazing ShamROCK St. Patrick’s Day block party in the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego. Last weekend there was a 20-restaurant food and cocktails tasting tour in the Gaslamp for Mardi Gras. And we even got to preview both parties last Monday!

The preview party was a three-stop tasting party; it started at the Dive, where we sampled banana whiskey and banana whiskey mules …

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.. then we moved on to the Smoking Gun, where we sampled Hurricane cocktails and these AAAHHHHmazing lemon pepper chicken drummettes.

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I think these may be the tastiest chicken legs I have ever had in my life (and that is  BOLD STATEMENT). They are topped with a housemade ranch dressing and a spicy, herby wing sauce.

Unfortunately, on the actual date of the Mardi Gras party, I planned to hit the Smoking Gun last, but they were out of chicken by the time I arrived. It was brutal. Luckily I managed to distract myself with lots of beads and posing for pictures with my friends.

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I told you this was brutal.

The preview party finished up with a fabulous whiskey and green beer-tasting at the Field … who also participated in the Mardi Gras tasting with this spicy and creative (but definitely not gumbo) “Irish Style Gumbo.”

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It wasn’t bad, but it would never fly in NOLA.

I think my favorite food item from the Mardi Gras tasting (since I was denied another chicken leg) was the blueberry and brie waffle from Brian’s 24. It was my first time at Brian’s, and I loved the waffle (not too sweet, and the brie was whipped and blended with the cream cheese) as well as the ’57 Chevy cocktail they were making fresh at the bar.

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Speaking of cocktails, Ambrose whiskey was a major sponsor, so almost all of the establishments participating in the tasting tour offered some sort of cocktail made with Ambrose banana whiskey. I am a huge fan of whiskey and whiskey mules, but I did not care for the banana flavor.

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I understand from the company rep that they hired a chemist or scientist to find out a way to make whiskey taste like bananas, yet only use natural ingredients. I am glad they managed to do this without anything artificial … but, why? You really hired a guy just to find a way to make whiskey taste bad? What did it ever do to you?

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Anyway, I will have to find a way to make a boozy banana shake or bananas foster to use this whiskey.

Obviously, since it was a Mardi Gras themed tasting tour, there was a lot of jambalaya, gumbo, and Cajun-spiced dishes. Among the best were the chicken and andouille sausage jambalaya (with a Hurricane) at Suckerfree:

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… or the Southern shrimp n grits from Tin Roof:

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… or the Cajun mac and cheese from Henry’s Pub:

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… and the chicken and sausage gumbo (and martinis) at the Dive:

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There were also some amazing fish dishes, like the ceviche (and jungle juice cocktail) from the Rockin Baja Lobster:

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… as well as this amazing ceviche de pescado and seco de res (rice dish) from Machu Piccu.

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This is the second time I have been to Machu Piccu for a tasting tour, and it is very tasty. The service is wonderful, too.

Are you psyched for the ShamROCK party yet? I will be giving away a pair of tickets to the greenest party of the year in the next week, so check back soon!

 

 

Toast of Gaslamp 2018

The holiday season got kicked off right here in downtown San Diego last weekend … most of the tasting walking tours you generally get tickets to in this town are small bites of food only, and the Toast of Gaslamp is one of the few where you get food AND cocktails.

I went to the event (after giving away a pair on my Instagram page) with an awesome foodie friend, because of course you need an awesome foodie friend for an event like this one. Luckily, most of the participating restaurants were on Fifth Avenue or very close.

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First, we were all supposed to dress in festive holiday outfits. In contrast to the previous few days when the weather was FREEZING (read: San Diego “freezing,” which is about 40 degrees), Saturday was sunny and warm. Definitely the weather you want when you are doing a walking tour, but not when you’re wearing festive winter hats.

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So, this cute ensemble didn’t last long. (By the way, these gorgeous purple couches are at Side Bar downtown, where we also enjoyed a lovely taste of a cauliflower tempura dish.)

I think my only complaint about this event (other than the weather, which is hardly anyone’s fault), is that the tasting ticket all the participants were given also said what the tastes and sips were, and some of them turned out to not be correct.

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For example, the first entry, American Junkie, supposedly offered chipotle bacon mac and cheese with BBQ pulled pork garnish (!!) and crispy rock shrimp. The mac and cheese unfortunately was not really there, but the shrimp with sweet aji Amarillo sauce was delicious, as was the watermelon mule.

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Because it was a holiday theme, lots of the food samples offered were sweets, like this gingerbread spread on plain bagels at Spill the Beans

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Or these delicious New Orleans-style beignets at The Dive

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I think one of my favorites was the chicken and waffle bite at Tin Roof, although their “Yule Mule” was a little too sweet for me.

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Although most of the non-dessert food samples turned out to be some sort of ceviche — luckily, all of them were quite delicious, especially the shrimp ceviche from Bar Vie and the house ceviche from Machu Picchu — there was also some ultra-smoky pulled pork and coleslaw from Gaslamp BBQ

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Stay tuned for more next year! 

Latin Food Fest 2018

What a weekend!

This Saturday I enjoyed an afternoon of Latin food and music from all over southern California, including tons of delicious wines and sangrias, and more than one type of tequila (hiccup). I got a little sunburned, but it’s a small price to pay to enjoy all the bites and drinks I want for three hours, while partying at the Embarcadero Marina Park.

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It was a beautiful day, and the sangria was flowing like … wine.

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Most of the vendors were drink companies, so the few that were food had pretty long lines. Luckily they were all delicious, so who can complain? I really loved the bacon-wrapped hot dog con todo (with everything)…

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… and the Sheraton’s sample of marinated pork loin, savory sourdough bread pudding, house salsa roja and pineapple mostarda:

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There were many other fine offerings, like this fancy short rib appetizer:

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… potatoes with three “Mojo sauces” from Driana (Chef Adriana from the Food Network):

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… this gorgeous ceviche …

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…this amazing beef tartare from Born and Raised

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and even this simple classic from Northgate Market: the humble carnitas street taco.

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Definitely some honorable mentions go to the Gallo Pinto (beans and rice)…

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… the Brazilian torta …

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and the Peruvian steak:

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The annual event is about $27-40 per person (depending on when you buy tickets) without VIP. The general admission lasts from noon-3 p.m., which is plenty of time to sample everything at least once.

I’ll definitely be back next year!