The taste of home

I am officially homeless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The roads still don’t make any sense.

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

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Try the recipe:

Macaroni Mix

(serves 6-10)

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

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

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

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

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

 – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers, ya’ll!

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

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

It’s official.

I have vacated my beach apartment in San Diego.

I have rehomed my sweet kitty.

I have given away and sold most of my belongings.

I’ve left my boyfriend.

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

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

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

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

But first, we gotta get to Tennessee.

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

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

Through the desert.

With no air conditioning.

It’s brutal.

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

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She basically did all of the driving through Arizona…

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New Mexico …

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and into west Texas.

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

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

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

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

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

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Might as well keep on going, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next stop, Tennessee!

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

Freedom

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

-Janis Joplin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grandma’s Barley Soup — and views on karmic retribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to plan to die.

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

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

And the clock is ticking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grandma’s Barley Soup

(adapted for the Instant Pot)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day drinking and road tripping during a global pandemic

*Not at the same time.*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boozy Mango Lassi

(serves 1-2)

Ingredients:

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

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

– – – –

Day drinking, commence!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kicking the bucket is hard work.

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

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