After two days in the shop and $2,200, I finally got Dolly back. I was supposed to leave on a Wednesday, and it was really now going to be Friday. But, I got new brakes and new shocks, both of which were sorely needed, and I got it handled before I hit the road, and by a mechanic I trust. If I had left San Diego with my brakes in the state they were in, I wouldn’t have made it far — probably somewhere on a desert mountain. Let’s not think about it.
Anyway, despite the hit to my bank account – I get a disability check and Social Security Disability payments, so I am not destitute, but I was feeling like all of the “cushion” I previously had, had just evaporated – I was super excited to finally hit the road.
Belinda joined me for this leg of the adventure as well, because she was going back to Louisiana. She works for a roofing contractor and travels to where the natural disasters cause the most problems, so she needed to pack up to move out of state. In the meantime, we enjoyed another adventure together!
The day, we drove through the beautiful Los Padres National Forest, and I have to say, Dolly’s new brakes did beautifully on those steep hills and forest mountain roads.
No matter how much I travel through California, I am always amazed at its diversity of beauty. Not just its beauty. The different types of breathtaking beauty. Everywhere.
The host generously allowed us to come after hours, but we didn’t go inside or buy anything. We enjoyed a nice sunset and hit the road early the next day, so we could go to our favorite places in Paso Robles before we left the state.
Belinda, of course, insisted that we go back to the incomparable Il Cortile restaurant, and thank goodness she paid because my wallet was hurting after that brake job. But the only reservation we could get that night was for 8:30 p.m. (way late to eat if we wanted to hit the road to Vegas early in the morning), and we couldn’t get into the tasting room at our favorite winery, Chronic Cellars, so we decided to stay an extra night in Paso. It was lovely and exactly what we needed to steel our spirits for a long drive through the desert and plains for the next several days.
Our first night in Paso Robles was actually spent at a winery in San Miguel, which is just slightly north of Paso. The Four Sisters winery is pretty nice, if you love the whole sweeping vistas and lush vineyards and jaw-dropping views sort of thing.
We simply couldn’t rush drinking here.
So we were nice and buzzed and relaxed when we headed to Il Cortile, where again, just like in February, Belinda and I shared appetizers and a pasta dish and got huge entrees. I wanted the lamb rack, but they were sold out, so I was forced to eat the veal shank (I know right).
But the real star of the meal was the ravioli … it was stuffed with corn, so it almost tasted like a tamale, and the creamy mint sauce was studded with bits of mushrooms and bacon, but somehow the whole dish still felt perfectly light and almost airy. It was incredible.
The next night we went back to Tobin James (where we also parked on the Harvest Host program when we were there in February). They have an enormous lot and they are right off of the highway that goes to Barstow, so it was perfect. After we checked in, we took an Uber to Chronic Cellars and enjoyed a glass of wine and bought some of their incredibly cool merchandise, as well as an enormous amount of wine.
We also were advised to check out the Vines on the Mary Crest, another cool winery that’s literally across the street from Chronic. They had a tasting room that was still open at 4 p.m. (unlike Chronic, who closes early), and all of their wines are named after cool rock songs since the vintner/ co-owner Victor used to be a sound engineer for all of the greats.
We really loved this place, and we looooove Victor and his wife Jennifer. They’re both super friendly and into good music and good wine. I mean, their wine club includes concerts and free CDs! After we enjoyed ourselves and bought a bunch of wine, Victor not only recommended a lovely dinner spot, but he drove us there when the Uber didn’t show up. I don’t know if that’s included in the wine club, but I highly recommend their wines and their family.
The dinner he recommended that night was almost better than the Il Cortile dinner the night before… we went to The Hatch, and had prime rib and this appetizer of smoked mushrooms and cream.
They also have an award-winning cocktail artist who designed all of their signature drinks.
I had an Old Fashioned and it was killer.
So after all of that, as you can imagine, we slept like babies that night and were on the road at 7 a.m. the next morning. We headed towards Vegas and stayed with our friends there (we parked in their apartment’s parking lot), and again left early. It’s a pretty unremarkable drive, so luckily we had some good music to keep us alert.
The next night we were in Page, Arizona, this time we paid $30 to the local Elks club to have an electric and water hookup instead of a Wal-mart, like I stayed in the last time I was in Page. Page is over 100 miles from anything on either side in the Arizona desert near the Utah border, and all of the RV parks and recreational areas are super expensive. The last couple of times I came through, I stayed at the Wal-Mart, but $30 is definitely worth it to charge everything and have some electricity and water.
For the next three days, we basically had to go through the most scenic, yet most desolate, parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and west Texas.
Belinda finally got to drive Dolly, because we were basically going for hours and hours, and it’s difficult to drive something that size for more than 5-6 hours at the most. It was nice for me to ride in the back for a while.
We made a brief stop in Colorado at the Four Corners and then headed south to Albuquerque, staying at a truck stop outside of the city. (They’re not fancy, but truck stops are invaluable – there’s 24-hour security and showers, and usually a semi-not-terrible breakfast.)
Then we headed straight east, stopping near Lubbock for some fried chicken livers …
… Seriously, Bush’s Chicken has the best fried chicken livers ever … and then we stayed at another truck stop near Sweetwater, Texas. From there it was just over 5 hours to my sister’s house in Houston, were we enjoyed the weekend before we headed to Louisiana.
My birthday was on April 1, and I celebrated in my (former but always) home of Ocean Beach in San Diego. Since my sister didn’t see me for my birthday, she had her home decorated for my birthday – complete with an amazing s’mores cake from the infamous Red Dessert Dive. I was really surprised … mostly because it was over two weeks past my birthday.
I still ate this amazing cake, though.
And it was great to spend time with my family. I’ve spent more time with my mom, my brother and my sister since I started this adventure than I had for the previous decade. I love being able to see them almost every time I travel.
After a relaxing weekend, Belinda and I drove to Louisiana, where she stayed and I kept going. It was bittersweet: I am so blessed to have friends who are able to join me for these adventures, and I know I’ll travel with her again.
I spent the night at Indian Creek, the awesome and beautiful Louisiana state campground that’s right near Belinda’s house.
It was a peaceful and lovely night by the lake, then I got up early the next morning and decided to get as close to Nashville as I could that day.
I had some friends I needed to swing by and say hello to in Nashville, but other than that I was in kind of a hurry – my mom’s birthday was coming up, and if I really hauled ass I could make it in time for her birthday dinner. I originally promised her I would be back for her birthday, but then I didn’t think I could make that after my repairs and the extra night in Paso Robles; I told her I would be at her house the day after, and of course bring a bunch of cool presents.
But I made really excellent drive time that day -nearly to Nashville by the time it was getting dark – so I decided the next day I would just stop briefly in Nashville and then get to my mom’s for her birthday dinner. And I made it!
As I type this, I am happily relaxing at my mom’s house, enjoying some of the wines I brought back from California and enjoying not driving for a few days.
My mom and my stepdad helped me to fix and organize a few little things in the RV, and tomorrow, I plan to hit the road again.
I am really, really excited about this leg of my journey. Basically, other than a college internship and a trip in high school, both to Washington, DC, I have, like, zero east coast experience. I have a lot of friends there, and a lot of things I would like to see, including another stop in DC, but I have never been. I am super excited about seeing something new. My plan is to head northeast from my mom’s house in east Tennessee, going to the Roanoke, Virginia area. The first night I will probably stay at a Harvest Host nearby and go to the Booker T. Washington monument, then head straight east to Virginia Beach. Then I plan to head north to Alexandria/ Washington DC, then to visit friends in the Philadelphia/ Jersey City area, then to Rhode Island and Massachusetts — then I am turning a sharp left and heading west, because I have to be back in San Diego for a bone scan on June 2. But, I also plan to go west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and several other states where I also have never visited.
Simply put, everything from when I leave here until I get back to California will be new to me.
And I can’t wait.
Please join me and follow along on social media … this part will be awesome!
Are you enjoying this content? Please support my adventure by donating to my Gofundme here!
After I got my poor window fixed, I spent a few days camping around San Diego. I wanted to do some desert camping in the month of March, before it got super hot or super crowded.
But before we headed to the desert, my brother and sister-in-law took me to the Taste of Boysenberry Festival at Knott’s Berry Farm. I had never been before and my last time at Knott’s was when I was like nine years old … but my big brother and SIL go there all the time (when there isn’t a pandemic). Attendance was limited, pandemic precautions were pretty intense, and all of the rides were closed; the park was open as a food festival only. And it was amazing. The park is a fun place to be no matter what the event is, and all of the food was great.
I was really impressed with their pandemic procedure … everyone had to wear a mask except for when they were actively sitting down and eating food. The rest of the time – walking, ordering, anything else – you had to be masked up. No walking and drinking or eating. Everyone over the age of 2 was in a mask. If you let it slip, they’d remind you to pull it up.
It was also super fun to hang out with my brother and sister-in-law … they’ve only recently come into my life, but we have a really fun and loving relationship, and I am so thankful for it. Plus, he’s a theme park blogger (check out Park Journey) and knew everyone at Knott’s. It was much better going there when it was limited in numbers and I was with someone who knew their way around.
And yes, I bought him that super cool shirt.
The food was really amazing as well. There were a few dishes that were really good, a few that were OK, and a couple of special dishes, like the bao bun with boysenberry kimchi, that slapped so hard I want them to sell me that kimchi in a jar. Or a 5-gallon bucket.
The next week, Belinda and I went to Lake Cahuilla, which is a man-made lake just outside of Palm Desert, and a Riverside county park that offers primitive and hook-up RV camping. (For the uninitiated, “full hookup” usually refers to electricity, water and sewer hookup at the campsite itself. Most of the ones that offer “partial hookups” only refer to the electricity and water, but those campgrounds invariably have a sewer dump you can use, just not at your actual site. Primitive is no hookups at all.) We had partial hookups and a dump station on site. We stayed there for five days, and it was super windy for a couple of those days, so we didn’t spend as much time outside of the RV as I had planned.
Lake Cahuilla is technically in the desert, but it’s in almost a canyon … totally surrounded by mountains. So when the wind blows, it’s pretty intense, but when it’s calm, it’s very nice and peaceful. We just had to do most of our cooking inside the RV, or if we did it on the campfire, the food was totally covered to protect it from dust storms.
But it’s a really beautiful place; and you can fish in the lake, hike in the surrounding mountains, or golf or shop in nearby Palm Desert. We opted to chill at the lake … we walked around a but but due to the wind, we mostly stayed indoors.
Of course, because it was Belinda and I, and because we had to be indoor-sy for the week, we ate really, really well. One day we grilled some kama (yellowtail collar, the most tender and delectable part of the fish) and made a beautiful salad, and washed it down with this lovely chilled rose from one of the wine tasting ventures we went on while traveling around California last month.
We also made some polenta cakes with a homemade “Sunday gravy” I was given as a gift, and paired it with the Big Ricardo red blend from Chronic Cellars.
We’re really getting the hang of this wine pairing thing!
I also forgot to mention that I got some amazing boysenberry mustard when I was at that Boysenberry Festival. Over the past month I have used it on so many things … as part of a dip for grilled artichokes, in a potato salad and multiple sandwiches, we coated some steaks in it before we grilled them, …
… and on a really epic homemade chicken salad. I will post the recipes soon (really because I need to get another jar to make a few more recipes from it).
I even got in a little bit of a spa day before the wind picked up again. Isn’t it lovely out there? I can’t wait to come back.
The next week, Belinda went to celebrate her sister’s birthday with her family in Big Bear. After my previous accidental snow driving, I did not want to go. Plus I had reservations at the Salton Sea state recreation area, which is another great desert camping spot. I was there by myself, but it was really lovely and peaceful.
Salton Sea is a very unique place with a lot of history … back in the 30s, it was a military test site. In the 50s and 60s, it was a vacation getaway known as the “California Riviera,” with more annual tourists than Yosemite. Then in the 70s and 80s, it all started going to hell. The sea dried up and became increasingly polluted, and everyone who lived there left.
I was spending a few days at the state park, which is on the northeastern end of the sea. I can see how this was such a tourism draw back in the day when it was clean and lush … from the eastern shore, you can see spectacular sunsets over the western mountains. But then every few years there is a huge die-off of fish, and the whole sea (some 40 miles wide and almost 60 long), which produces a smell and a sight like you can’t imagine.
I couldn’t live there, but I sure enjoyed a few days checking it out.
In a way it’s unfortunate that the Salton Sea has had such a bad rap, but I was happy to take advantage of a nearly empty state park. I made a really awesome untrimmed tri-tip (it was windy at the Salton Sea as well, but not the entire time like when we were at Lake Cahuilla), and it was several meals for me (especially since I was by myself).
After a couple of meals full of steak and potatoes (the best campfire side dish, in my opinion), I made garlic bread and tri-tip, tri-tip and eggs for breakfast, tri-tip salad for lunch, tri-tip nachos, and more.
Then, I was really tired of eating tri-tip.
I had a couple more weeks to kill in San Diego – Belinda’s mom had surgery at the end of March, so she committed to at least two weeks of being at home to help care for her post-surgery. We tentatively planned to leave on the 7th of April. That left me more time for more desert camping, and a bit of beach fun around my birthday on April 1. But first, I went back to one of my favorite places to camp in San Diego county: Sweetwater Regional Park in Bonita.
It’s really a beautiful and peaceful campground. It’s near the freeway so you are close to civilization, but it’s quiet and mellow and there are gorgeous sunset views.
That week, I also got to go sailing! My friend has a membership in a cool sailing club where you can basically use a boat for as long as you like, and they handle all of the maintenance, etc. We had a lovely time sailing around Coronado Island and the San Diego Bay. And it was perfect weather.
I was also really happy to get a new discount pass: both the national parks and the California state parks systems have a free (or super-cheap) lifetime pass for people with permanent disabilities. I’m really excited to have free access and super cheap camping at parks now!
Before the end of March, we did one more desert camping spot: Agua Caliente is a San Diego county regional park, but it’s inside Anza Borrego state park. All of the state park campgrounds were primitive only, so we opted for a county park spot. It was a full moon that weekend and the skies were incredible.
There were no lights other than campfires and campers, but it looked like there was a street lamp on, it was so bright. I have a pretty good camera on my phone, but my apologies because even my good camera doesn’t do justice to how pretty it was.
My brother and SIL joined Belinda and I for the first day there, and we had a blast hiking, taking mineral showers, and cooking up some deliciousness on the wood fire. I have gotten really good at building a campfire, and I had a lot of experience with a grill and smoker before so it’s a great time adjusting those techniques and recipes for a campfire.
One of my goals for this trip was to spend my birthday on the beach, and I was successful in that, at least. I parked for a few days on the street in Ocean Beach, moving my space during the day when the parking was easier, and hanging out with friends in the evening. I met people for happy hours and brunches and lunches and kombuchas in various rooftop bars and patios and outdoor seating areas. It was a few days of lots of drinking and eating and celebration, and it was wonderful. I won’t rehash all of the amazing food I ate all over again, but check out my Insagram for some awesome photos and videos (check out the video of me dipping a birria taco)!
Before I left town, however, I wanted to check out one more of the San Diego county parks. I think I have mentioned it before, but I was really impressed with the county parks. They have a great reservation system, they’re clean and the staff is friendly, and they’re always just good places to be with relaxed vibes. Travel can be stressful sometimes, and it’s nice to have peaceful places to camp. I mean, a truck stop parking lot will do if you just need a place to get some sleep, but if you’re gonna camp, you want it to be nice, you know?
So the last park on my list in San Diego was Guajome Lake park, which is technically in the city of Oceanside, but is also in the mountains with a lake. It had lovely birds and wildlife, and pretty trails for hiking and biking. Like Agua Caliente, it also has cabins for rent close to the RV and tent camping sites, so I think in June I might camp here again with my brother and his family (they would be in a cabin).
All of this desert fun has also done a number on my brakes; when I got back from the Salton Sea my wheel well was making a weird grinding sound. I wasn’t able to see my mechanic for another week so I kept driving. The brakes still seemed fine up until this past week, when I was driving from Sweetwater to a new campsite at Guajome. As I braked, the wheels made a horrible noise. I gingerly and slowly applied the brake again, and it made a worse sound, and shook the whole vehicle as it finally came to a stop. As I pulled into my campsite, I noticed fluid (presumably brake fluid) leaking from my wheel well.
After that, I was too freaked out to drive Dolly to my mechanic … I was already planning to see him about an issue with my tail lights, but I didn’t want to risk my brakes completely failing so I called a tow truck. After a terrible ride (the driver wouldn’t wear a mask, and totally damaged my trailer hitch getting Dolly on and off the truck), my mechanic confirmed my worst fears: it was bad.
My brakes were completely shot. Since I don’t have any of the service records for my RV (the previous owner literally stole them out of the RV after he sold it to me), for all I know, the brakes on there are the originals. I know the shocks are the originals. Bernie (my mechanic) showed me how the front rotors were completely destroyed; one was cracked and the other was worn down to a sliver. The back drums weren’t much better and the shocks were old and frayed. Basically everything needs to be replaced. And the electrician had to rewire my whole trailer to get my back lights to work.
As I write this, my RV is still in the shop, and will hopefully be ready tomorrow, and we can hit the road the next day. It will likely cost about $2,000 total for all of the repairs, which is basically all of my money, but I feel much better knowing that it will all be fixed. I’m lucky that I have a trusted mechanic here, instead of finding out when I’m in the middle of nowhere that my brakes or my lights don’t work. It would cost me considerably more. I’m also blessed that I didn’t find out about my brakes by getting into an accident, although that last trip was kinda sketchy. This is lame but it was the best possible outcome.
I’ll be on the road in a couple of days and headed east. I plan to go through Vegas, the desert, Houston and Louisiana, then to my mom’s house in east Tennessee for a few days before I see the east coast. This is the part I am really excited about! Basically other than a school trip and a college internship in Washington, D.C., I pretty much have no experience on the east coast. I don’t have to be back in San Diego again until the first of June, so I plan to see some things and some people on the Atlantic coast before I head west again. I’m looking forward to finally checking more states off of my map!
I can’t wait to see more of our beautiful country, and to share it with you. Stay tuned for my next adventure!
Please donate to my GoFundMe to assist with repairs, of you are able!
As I mentioned in my previous post, my friend Belinda is one of my oldest friends, and it was really a blast having even a short trip with her. We managed to fit a truly incredible amount of fun and food into a small amount of time!
After our incident with the snowy mountaintop, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the trip. Our first evening on the road had been at Giessinger Winery in Fillmore, where we enjoyed great wines as well as the quaint little town and the local farm-to-table bakery. (We also stayed at Giessinger on the way home, so see the end of this post for more about the lovely town of Fillmore.) The next night we were at the top of that precarious mountain, and we didn’t want anything like that anymore.
But we can always count on Harvest Hosts to be a good time, so we headed towards Lodi and planned to decide on a Harvest Host when we got there. We were supposed to meet a friend there, but he got delayed for a couple of days. So we headed slightly east, to the Somerset area, where there a ton of wineries, and several are Harvest Hosts. Since we had already stayed at a winery, we opted for the one guy in that area NOT growing grapes – the Windmill Creek Olive Oil Company.
(We needed olive oil anyway.)
It was really great to sample Windmill Creek’s olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and we got to pick up some awesome gifts for friends … or at least the ones who don’t drink wine. Then we headed to Lodi for a couple of days.
Like several areas around California, Lodi has rich farmland that has become a “wine country” — and as such, there are a bunch of wineries and farms that are Harvest Hosts as well.
As a kid in California, I always thought of “wine country” as Napa Valley. When I moved to San Diego as an adult, like everyone else, I got suckered into at least one birthday or wedding party in the nearby wine country of Temecula. I never realized how many “wine countries” there were, nor how organized they were. Lodi, Napa, Somerset, Livermore, Paso Robles … all of them had great wine associations and easy local signage that made it easy to taste and visit there.
Anyway, we didn’t want just wine, we are foodies as well. We really wanted to stay at the Spenker Family Farm that first evening, but we couldn’t confirm with the hosts in time. Luckily Viaggio was nearby and was beautiful.
Viaggio Estates is a spectacular winery and event/wedding center jut a few miles away from downtown Lodi. It was a little chilly outside, but we enjoyed the lovely grounds and the whole event center. It was a very peaceful and relaxed place to spend the night.
Wine tasting during a pandemic is unusual … there are rules against actually sitting or standing at the bar, or handing glasses back and forth. Some of the wineries insisted on plasticware for tasting or standing outside for your flight, but the best ones, like Viaggio, gave you a flight, glasses for the actual sampling, and extra munchies for the process.
In the cooler for the cheese and charcuterie, we noticed some Spenker Farms goat cheese – yes, it is literally a winery, a goat cheese farm, and a Harvest Host – so we had some amazing goat cheese, salami and crackers with our Viaggio wine! Around the same time, the Spenkers got back to me to confirm our stay for the next night, and we were so excited to hang out there and pet the goats who made the cheese we had just eaten.
So, for two nights in a row in Lodi, we sampled local wines and local goat cheese. It was incredible. The Spenkers gave us flights of their local wine as well as their homemade cheeses; paired perfectly. We ended up buying a ton of different cheeses — they had a soft chevre, a spicy aged cheese and a hickory-smoked gouda that was divine.
The Spenkers also make soap and lotion from their goat milk, so you know I got some of the all-natural goodness to take home!
We also got to meet up with someone important … my buddy Seth is a cannabis grower who produces high-quality CBDs for cancer patients and other people in need. He started helping me with CBD treatment years ago when I had breast cancer, and he has been a good (if only online, until now) friend since then. When I was re-diagnosed this past summer, and set up my GoFundMe to raise money for my adventure, he donated a ton of his own money, then started an auction to raise thousands of dollars more, by selling his own hybrid seeds! His company, Str8organics, does a lot of great things for the community, and he’s just a really awesome guy. He even bought us a lovely sushi dinner!
It was a blast to meet him in person and enjoy the best sushi and Japanese food in Lodi. If you want to support Str8organics’ mission, please click here and buy some merch!
The next night, we were scheduled to meet up (socially-distanced) with a friend who had just moved to Sacramento. We told him we would arrive at night, so we had all day to hang out and check out Sacramento. Neither Belinda nor I had ever really been to the area, so we checked out the internet for suggestions.
Like I mentioned last time, I could write a huge post on every aspect of this tour, Instead I will just give you the highlights.
The very first stop was Mayahuel, a Mexican restaurant that has a tequila museum; so, we could have spent all day there. Instead, we had 2 hours and 57 minutes left of a three-hour tour. Plus, I still had to drive an RV later, so Belinda took one for the team and drank my share.
At least the virgin cocktail was pretty.
As I said, you can spend a whole day just at Mayahuel, learning about tequila and mezcal and the history of Mexican food and Mexican-Americans in Sacramento. Most people don’t think of Sacramento as being the melting pot of cultures that it is, or the farm-to-table capital … at least, I didn’t. I was really pleasantly surprised by the beauty and culture and history of the whole area. In San Diego we tend to think we have a monopoly on California’s beauty sometimes.
We also got a sample of this amazing poblano crema soup. It was just enough to energize us for more walking. We continued down K Street, which the city has designated for public art and recognition of historic areas.
Although the tour took three hours, not all of it was walking around, and it was only a total of a few blocks. I was a little worried that a three-hour walk might be too much for me, but it was perfect. The second stop was the Allspicery, a lovely little spice store right next to the state capital building.
Because of Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside or sample any spices, but we each got a custom blend of tea and seasoning spice mix, and I was allowed to kind of lean in the door to quickly take some photos without touching anything. But just being able to smell the cloud of sensory delight when the door opened was enough to keep us going.
The next stop – after a lot more art and history – was a Nashville hot fried chicken place, which I was looking forward to, especially after my recent trip to Hattie B’s. Nash & Proper used to be only a food truck, and got a brick and mortar store right before the pandemic hit. Luckily, they were well set up for takeout, and haven’t suffered as much as other businesses that weren’t able to adapt. And they still have a food truck schedule. The chicken sandwich was really good; although I have to say I have had better.
Then again, I am a food snob. Our next stop was the best of all.
The Odd Cookie is a bakery, a deli, and a bar. And it’s no joke. The owner and head chef is an art-loving, super-creative, whiskey-slangin, rock music-blaring, purple-haired GENIUS.
You know how sometimes, the fancier a cupcake or cookie is, the worse it tastes? When they pack all the fondant and paint and stuff, so it ends up tasting more like plastic than food? Yeah … this isn’t that.
Observe this brief video of the display cases:
As part of the food tour deal, I got to pick one, which ended up being one of the hardest decisions of my life. I picked the Great Balls of Fire (see below) … and we took a four-pack to my friend’s house for later, so I got to eat one of those banana ones as well!
If you’re ever in Sacramento for a day, I highly encourage you to check out the Local Roots food tours, and the Odd Cookie bakery. It was a day well spent.
That weekend was my friend Ali’s wedding anniversary, and we had yet to meet her husband (we hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years). We decided prior to arriving that the four of us would be headed out to the Calistoga area to celebrate their anniversary in some hot mineral baths. So after a night outside their house in Fair Oaks, we drove the short 2 hours to Calistoga, found a sweet hotel, and they checked in while we parked Dolly outside. It worked out really well, since Belinda and I got full use of the room, bathroom, and pool/spa area, but we could still camp in the RV and give our friends some wedded bliss privacy. Calistoga is still in the Napa wine valley, so it’s beautiful and lush, but it’s much less snobby and pretentious (or so we were told).
On our way north from San Diego, Belinda hadn’t been very picky about where we went or what we did; with three small exceptions: she wanted, when we visited Paso Robles, to visit a four-star Italian restaurant, and to taste wine at a winery that was one of our favorites, and, she wanted to have dinner at the Calistoga Inn. She offered to pay for my dinner at both locations, but that wasn’t why I agreed … Belinda is one of very few people whom I trust explicitly when it comes to food. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t normally want to try; if she tells me to, I will. If she says this restaurant is the place to eat; I’m there.
Of course, the Calistoga Inn needed no introduction. We ordered half bottles of wine and fresh, farm-to-table appetizers. But I stayed clear of it all because I knew that this yoooge ribeye was on its way!
Isn’t that glorious? I also splurged on dessert; I got a peanut butter chocolate pie, with a glass of the dessert port they recommended and a couple fingers of a glorious 18-year scotch. It made my tummy hurt a bit the next day, but it was worth it … I mean, I hadn’t had scotch in almost a year, but if you can’t enjoy a scotch when you’re having an epic meal in wine country, when can you?
On our way out of Calistoga the next day, we stopped at the California Old Faithful attraction, which was actually really nice.
It’s a private attraction (pretty much every landowner in the area has a mineral spring in their backyard) and they have these cute little pool cabanas and a petting zoo and garden to hang out at in between the eruptions, which happen every 45 minutes or so.
We finally had to begin heading south, so we went a short drive southeast to Livermore, yet another of California’s many wine countries and a very peaceful and nice town.
We camped at another Harvest Host, the Leisure Street winery, which had tons of lovely space to park and drink and walk around. There was a huge parking lot and lots of permanent campers who worked at a nearby electrical plant, so we got to meet some interesting people.
In a way, pandemic traveling makes you feel a lot more isolated from people, but that’s another great thing about Harvest Hosts. We got to meet lots of great people – hosts and other guests – at the socially-distanced wineries. Even better, we were able to support small businesses who need the money in these crazy times!
The next day we headed to my great-aunt’s house in Santa Cruz. I hadn’t seen Aunt Lesley in about 10 years, and I was looking forward to seeing her and to meeting my third cousin I had never met before. I initially parked on her street, a lovely tree-lined cul-de-sac smelling of eucalyptus, but after a quick (masked) hug, we insisted that I park in her driveway. As she was guiding me in, I didn’t notice (not did she) a piece of gutter sticking out from her carport at a weird angle. I didn’t see it until it was smashing through my window!
Belinda had a tiny cut, but other than that no one was hurt. The problem is that I have a $1k deductible and my RV is 25 years old. so finding a replacement piece of glass isn’t easy. As I write this, I am sitting in San Diego, recovering from this trip, and waiting to see a mechanic who can find us a replacement. It’s only the glass that’s broken, so if I am lucky (and I usually am), I can get a replacement from a junkyard for cheap. Worst case scenario, I need to get a custom-cut piece of tempered glass, which will be less than my deductible but still expensive.
That night Aunt Lesley took us to a lovely dinner at a scenic spot in Santa Cruz (check out the Crow’s Nest if you’re nearby), but I felt really bad about not seeing her for 10 years and then basically crashing into her house. I guess Dolly likes to make an entrance.
But we still had things to do. We still had two days planned in Paso Robles and another back in Fillmore before we headed back home, so we patched up the broken window and got the heck out of there!
First we went straight to Dark Star Cellars, a small but very cute winery on the outskirts of Paso Robles. They have a great tasting room, which I am sure is a lot of fun when it isn’t a pandemic, and their vintners are very educated about their wines. We had a great tasting and bought a couple of bottles, then cooked ourselves a great dinner and relaxed in the RV all night.
The next day, we knew we were going to throw down at this fancy Italian dinner Belinda kept talking about, so we decided to be productive early. Belinda gets to do a lot of her work remotely and had been working a couple of hours per day while we were stopped. So we emptied the dump tank (I am getting really good at it now) and filled Dolly up with water, then cleaned ourselves, and I did laundry while Belinda got some work done.
That afternoon, we checked into our Harvest Host (Tobin James cellars this time), and had a great tasting.
Pro tip: the back side of their tasting menu has the reserve bottles that they don’t sell at Costco. That stuff is way better than the mass-produced bottles!
We then took an Uber to Chronic Cellars, one of our favorite brands, This was literally the only winery that we stopped to drink at that wasn’t a Harvest Host. And while it isn’t technically mandatory to drink at the Harvest Host, the idea is to support the business while they let you camp for free.
But we had to go to Chronic .. as you can see, Belinda is the Ultimate Fangirl.
The Chronic Cellars wine is incredible, but I really love their designs and their labels.
We spent a pretty insane amount of money on merchandise, but it was worth it!
So. About this Italian restaurant. As I mentioned, Belinda hadn’t insisted on much, but this was one of the restaurants and spots she insisted upon. She said it was better Italian food than she had enjoyed while she was in Italy, and that I had to try it. And everywhere we went in Paso Robles, when we mentioned that we were headed to Il Cortile for dinner, the person we said it to got a dreamy look on their face, and then quietly mouthed the words “you’ll love it!”
We did not hold back. The first course was the antipasti … we got a beef carpaccio with parmesean sauce and shaved truffles. It was DIVINE.
I really could have left it there, but we kept going, We had lots of good bread and balsamic/oil for dipping, and we also ordered a polenta and poached egg antipasti dish. Then we (wisely) split a pasta dish, so we could each properly annihilate an entree. This is the pappardelle noodles with a wild boar ragu. Literally every bite (and you know it was washed down with some impeccable wine!) was perfect.
Belinda had opted for the Osso Bucco, since she had it there before and was in love with it. I had to go for the veal chop, and I was not disappointed. I think there was a little veggie or something in there, but wow, that shank.
It was epic.
Our last night on this trip was back in Fillmore. I picked that place because if you’re heading south, it is the last Harvest Host before Temecula. Also, it’s about 30 minutes from my brother’s house, so he came to hang out with us when we stayed there the first night, and the last night he came to take me to his house for my nephew’s birthday party. But I also went back there because we really loved the Giessinger Winery, and the area it’s in is fantastic.
The first time we stopped there, the server told us about an amazing bakery where we scored a bunch of yummy baked goods for the rest of our trip.
The winery is situated right in the historic downtown area, which is super adorable, and there is a (now-closed) railroad and historic railroad station. We were able to walk to get sushi the first night, and when we went back, we had some excellent Mexican food.
I am currently recuperating and getting Dolly fixed up, and I plan to be out in the desert for the majority of the month of March.
In April, I will be headed back east, and I plan to go to my mom’s and then to the east coast for a couple of weeks before I head back to San Diego again for more doctor’s visits in June.
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As I write this, we have been on the road for almost a month, and we have all held up surprisingly well. When I say “we,” I am referring obviously to myself, but also to my friend, Nichelina, who drove to my mom’s house in Tennessee from her home in Philadephia in order to join me on a nationwide road trip of indeterminate length, and her 11-year-old service pitbull named Dego.
We were all good friends before this trip, but it is fair to say that we have learned a lot about each other after traveling together for so long in a 22-foot-long RV.
Dego has been a very good boy, and mostly rests during the day while we’re moving.
At several times in this story, “we” also includes my RV, who I have named Dolly. She also has performed remarkably well for a vehicle built in 1995-1996 and barely driven 50 miles per year. She only stopped working once, and we were able to get that issue fixed (in a way that probably only happens in a sitcom). More on that later.
Of course, we are also traveling during a pandemic, which severely limits the socializing we would normally be doing. Instead of stopping in a strange town and popping down to the local bar or restaurant to meet some people and ask about the fun places to go, we take our food to go, eat it in the RV (she has a nice dining area), and ask the carryout guy or the gas station attendant or the Harvest Hosts host about local places of interest.
Luckily we have an RV that makes us feel safe, at least in terms of Covid protection – no hotels or restaurants necessary. And luckily, we’re good friends.
Our plan was to head generally westward, stopping at cool places along the way, and using Harvest Hosts as much as possible. I’ve explained about HH before, but essentially it is a membership for RV owners; you pay an annual subscription (which is stupid cheap) to be able to park overnight at privately-owned wineries, farms, distilleries, breweries, and other unique places of interest.
You don’t pay the host for parking, but you are expected to purchase something if they are selling (wine at a winery, cheese at a dairy farm, etc.). Most of them are small farms or businesses, many of the owners live on the property as well.
Of course, there are some areas of the country without Harvest Hosts available, so, as RV owners and travelers know, you can also park for free overnight at (almost) any Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco, Cracker Barrel, and most Indian casinos and truck stops. Many of these are open 24 hours, but all have 24-hour security.
Anyway, Nichelina arrived at my mom’s house a few days before we left, because we were still fixing it up — a thousand tiny little touches that needed to happen before we got on the road.
Just as an example, we spent an inordinant amount of time fixing the step up into the camper. I wanted the first view you see when you walk in to be a pretty color and something nice, not just the ugly carpet stapled to the wall. We took several days to paint it, prepare the backsplash, and fix the contoured step.
Of course, now that we have been on the road, we have thought of a thousand more things to fix or redo. By the time we get back to Tennessee again, we will have a completely different idea of RV traveling than we did before we started.
The plan was to leave by noon on Halloween. Then it was by 4 p.m.
We finally left my mom’s house at about 8 p.m.
As we went up the hill and out of the driveway, Dolly started to shake and make a wheezing noise between 35 and 45 mph. We had called ahead to a Harvest Host – Bristol Caverns, a privately owned tourist attraction of a cavern tour and museum – and they told us we could come after business hours. It was about an hour from my mom’s; which we did intentionally, in case we forgot something or something else bad happened that first night.
That first night was 26 degrees. That night I learned that the air conditioning unit was not also a heater. That night I learned how to prime the generator and get it to work – and then realized I did not bring a heater. And how did I never notice how loud that generator is? Also the stove pilot light wasn’t working … it felt like it didn’t have gas going to it, but the reader on the tank said it was half full.
We ended up deciding to use the microwave instead of the stove until we can get a propane guy to check it out – somehow there is enough propane to run the refrigerator, which was great, but it was still weird. The weird shaking and wheezing that happened between 35-45 mph was still happening.
Since it was Sunday when we woke up, we weren’t able to visit the Bristol Caverns, so we headed to Mammoth Caves in southern Kentucky.
We called ahead to another Harvest Host — Traveler’s Cellar in Rockfield, Kentucky. They were having a private party that night (like many hosts, they live on the property), but they were kind enough us a quick wine tasting anyway. We got there just in time for sunset, and to buy a bottle of the bubbly red Baco Noir.
It was lovely. I’ve never had a fizzy red wine before but I really loved it.
The next morning we attempted to visit Mammoth Caves, but due to my walker (which I still need occasionally), we weren’t able to get a tour. We had a great time driving around the park and surrounding areas.
Unfortunately, everything we want to visit is either closed due to the pandemic, or they’re totally changed because of it.
The next night, we stayed at another Harvest Host, a distillery in eastern Kentucky.
Again, we arrived just before dark. Since we were headed west and it’s wintertime, there isn’t a lot of sunlight, and we didn’t want to drive too much at night. Plus, most Harvest Hosts want you to get there before it gets dark.
We had a great time at Casey Jones Distillery, learning about the history of Casey Jones and the moonshine business back in the day.
We sampled a variety of moonshines and bourbons, purchased a few bottles for gifts for some friends, and the next morning, we were on our way to southern Illinois.
The area around western Kentucky, southern Illinois and Missouri is really beautiful. In our comparatively short time on the road, we have seen some really beautiful landscapes. Southern Illinois also has a lot of cool wineries in the area around the Shawnee National Forest.
When we got to Illinois, we stayed at Starview Vineyards, probably one of our favorite Harvest Hosts stops.
They had a lovely spot to park, a nice restaurant where we could sample some of their wines and have an early dinner, and the view from our table at their pond was spectacular.
From there, we headed towards St. Louis, to see the Gateway Arch National Park and to stay at another Harvest Host outside of the city limits.
The Gateway Arch actually has a really pretty park and pedestrian walkway around it, as well as a museum and gift shop underground.
We parked downtown and walked all around, admiring the artwork and the lovely park…
… then we had a yummy to-go lunch of Korean food.
As I said, pretty much all of our meals were takeout, and enjoyed at our small dining room table in the RV. I painted some of the walls and used wallpaper on others, but the table and benches were pretty much unaltered.
We also enjoyed our stay at the Point Labaddie Brewery just outside of St. Louis. The night we arrived, they had an (outdoor) trivia night, and there were a few other Harvest Hosts RVers we hung out with (socially distanced, of course).
We had a great time drinking local beer around a nice campfire, making new friends and relaxing.
The next morning we kept west towards Kansas City, driving through the Ozarks and enjoying the scenery. One of our new friends at trivia night had recommended Lone Elk County Park, where we could drive around on a one-way road and see the elk during mating season.
We got to see a lot of wildlife, including beautiful birds and, as promised, lots of elk. We got to drive up and observe a pair of young elk fighting each other.
(I apologize for the grainy photo, I zoomed in a lot. I wasn’t about to get too close to wild and randy and violent elk who are antler-fighting each other during mating season.)
The lake communities around the Ozarks are really cute, and the flat land and lakes were a welcome respite after driving through the smoky mountains and the hills of Kentucky.
Nichelina had taken over driving, and I was chilling in the back; which is actually really fun. You get a better view and a more comfortable chair.
We were comfortably on our way to get BBQ in Kansas City – as comfortable as you can be when your vehicle shakes uncontrollably between 35-45 miles per hour – when the engine died.
It would start, so it wasn’t the battery. It happened suddenly with no warning lights so it wasn’t the catalytic converter. And we were able to restart the engine and move it (slowly) to a side street, before it died again.
I should point out that this tiny town of Eldon, Missouri, was the best possible place where we could have broken down. In the 45 minutes we were waiting on the side of the road for AAA to tow us to the repair shop, no fewer than a dozen people, including an EMT on his way to work and an off-duty police officer, stopped to ask us if we were OK, to offer advice and counsel, and to recommend a repair shop. They all said the same one: U Rench it.
It was around sunset when we broke down, so it was fully dark by the time we got a tow truck, they got the RV on the truck, and we got to the shop. They were about to close, but in the dark, the mechanic could tell that the problem was that — no kidding – mice had chewed through the fuel injector wires. It was an easy fix, but they couldn’t do it until the morning.
Curtis (the mechanic) let us park overnight at the secure repair shop lot, staying in our RV, and then first thing in the morning, he replaced the wires. It took about an hour because, in the daylight, he realized the spark plug wires had also been gnawed.
For a grand total of $72, we got back on the road, the RV actually drove better due to the new spark plug wires and fuel injector wires, and he showed us how to turn on our propane tank. It turned out, the fridge actually wasn’t working, it was just cold. (The food stayed cold in there when we were in Tennessee and Kentucky, but then when it warmed up again, so did our food.)
So it was a winning day all around… especially because Curtis also recommended moth balls in the engine to stop more mice and wildlife from gnawing our engine wires; and he directed us to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, a super cool hidden gem of a state park in the Ozarks.
They have an amazing natural rock bridge, which was dry from a drought, so we could actually climb and walk underneath it.
The state park is also home to an old castle built by a Kansas City business man in the early 1900s, and the ruins of the castle and surrounding views are spectacular.
I started to be really glad that we broke down in Missouri.
Finally we made it to Kansas City, where we had some really good BBQ at Jack Stacks BBQ.
Our Harvest Hosts stop for that night was a cider mill in Louisburg, Kansas, but we got there after dark and didn’t see anything until the sun came up.
And it was so cute! Pretty much by the time they opened at 8 a.m, the place was packed. I was still walking around, looking at everything while still in my PJs, and the people at Loiusburg Cider Mill were already making cider.
It was a Saturday morning, and dozens of families and visitors had arrived, already deep in their hot apple cider and cider donuts. I got some donuts, which were amazing, and some delicious fresh cider and apple cider slushie to wash them down.
Our goal was to get to Colorado before dark (or at least before too late), so I could get some Rick Simpson Oil and other CBD extracts before I started a new chemo drug. I have been on hormonal treatments (the tumors in my bones are actually breast cancer cells, so they are shrinking my tumors by cutting off estrogen), but I was starting a new regimen of oral chemotherapy pills, and I wanted to have some proper CBDs in my system so I could be as healthy as possible before I started.
Anyway, it took forever to get though Kansas, but it sure was better than slogging through that last part of west Texas that lasts forever when you’re trying to get west. (Anyone who has traveled that stretch knows what I mean.) We finally arrived in Colorado, found the nearest Wal-Mart, and stopped for the night.
As soon as we got the RSO, we headed south to New Mexico, where we unfortunately had the craziest part of our trip. It was a Harvest Hosts stop in northern New Mexico, a winery (there is a really great wine scene in New Mexico, their wines are all very unique, but more about that later). I will decline to name and tag them in this post, for reasons which will soon become apparent.
We did what we always did; called ahead to let them know we were coming, and our approximate time of arrival. We arrived just after sunset and before it got (really really) dark. Instantly, we knew this was not a normal HH stop. The place was dark and at the end of a dirt road. There were no markings. There was no sign. There were no lights. It didn’t appear to be a business at all. A man (who we later learned was the husband of the woman we spoke to), let us in the main gate, then locked it behind us.
As I mentioned, my RV is 22 feet long, which is very small for an RV. I cannot fathom how a rig bigger than mine would fit there. I started to wonder why these people were listed as a Harvest Host, and why in the world the reviews of this place – which discussed how the building was built in 1920 and used to be a dance hall – didn’t mention that it barely appeared to be a functioning business.
Nichelina commented (correctly) that it looked worse than the Wal-Mart we had slept at the previous night. I got out of the RV, with my mask on, and the lady told me that I didn’t need to wear one, because “everything is sanitary around here, even the dirt is sanitized.” Needless to say, this was not true — the place (and the people) were quite objectively dirty. But we were there, we were locked in. We had told them we were staying, I felt at that point it would have been more awkward to just turn around and leave.
We go inside to see their operation (the site boasts tasting flights and tours of their facility), and discover that this old 1920-era building, which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since it was a Prohibition-era dance hall, is a (mostly) one-room building. You have to walk through a dirty motorcycle garage to enter. There is no winery or tasting room, and our host informs us that because of some legal snafu with the Catholic Church owning property within a certain distance, they are not allowed to operate it as a winery or as a tasting room. But, of course, they still do, offering wines to Harvest Hosts RVers and people doing wine tours in the area. I have no idea how the New Mexico Board of Tourism backed them without a proper winery, but they did. We got the tour, which included a view of a tiny room with a bunch of TV screens, where we could see ourselves. They had cameras on every inch of the property. It was not like any other Harvest Host we had been to.
But I digress.
We were tasting wine in the tasting room/bedroom, at an antique table within view of our host’s unmade bed and laundry room, when she proceeded to tell us all about the neighborhood; including that she had been sexually assaulted by one of her neighbors. The assault had allegedly taken place in the room where we were sitting, just a couple of months prior, in full view of the many cameras all over the place, but she told us the man was still not in jail. This also did not make us feel better about camping there overnight.
The final crack was when we were headed back to our RV. The hosts had offered to let us use their bathroom (we only use the RV one for emergencies, and we hadn’t yet figured out the water pump), and when we walked through the motorcycle garage you need to walk through to get to the “winery,” we saw Nazi and Confederate flags.
I consider myself a tolerant person. I am liberal politically, but I can accept other points of view. I draw the line at fucking Nazis, though. And I think most people do.
Needless to say, now we really wanted to get the heck out of there.
We again decided that making a break for it now would be too awkward, plus it was dark, the roads were windy and unfamiliar, we were in an RV, and we had both drank the equivalent of about two glasses of wine at our bedside tasting. We decided the best course of action would be to get out of there as soon as possible in the morning, and to let Harvest Hosts and everyone else know to stay away from this place.
The people had been nice to us, but the place was so dirty, and so below standards … and it just made me sick to my stomach to think of a Black or Jewish person coming there as part of Harvest Hosts, or wine tasting for a birthday party, and seeing a Nazi party flag and other racist nonsense so prominently displayed. We notified Harvest Hosts, the NM Board of Tourism, and put a detailed public post on Facebook and Google reviews.
In the two weeks or so since we left that place, they apparently got wind of our posts, because they have now claimed that their dirty garage with the lawn chairs and motorcycle parts and Amazon boxes in it was actually a “military museum,” and those multiple racist icons and flags were just, like, exhibits on display. Makes sense, right? Because that’s how you would display a flag in a museum, draped over some boxes, or hanging up next to where you and your buddies sit around and smoke cigarettes? That’s your priceless artifact, there as an educational tool, next to the bottle of cleanser?
Come on. Look at those photos. This ain’t a museum; and it ain’t a winery. It’s a couple of racist, white trash people who learned how to make homemade wine, trying to pretend they are better than they are.
I believe that these flags were and are a statement. You don’t pick them up accidentally, you don’t display them without knowing what they are, and you don’t display them unless you believe in them. This dump was nothing close to a museum, but even if it was, just for the sake of argument, there is no museum that would display racist icons like this without explanation or context, if at all. A racist flag in a dirty garage is just that.
That’s all I am going to say about it, because they are also claiming they called New Mexico state police, because they say we stole priceless military artifacts from their “military museum,” and they are trying to get their friends to harass me on social media. They even found an old photo from September, of my sister and I, and added it to their sprawling Facebook post, claiming that she and I were the ones who visited, when of course, it was Nichelina and I, and of course we didn’t steal anything. They have the tapes to prove where we were every second we were on their property, so I am not worried about the cops. I know we didn’t steal, and I know we did the right thing by telling people about this place. No regrets.
I will say that I am disappointed in Harvest Hosts for allowing these people back on to their program after removing them, but I suppose they were convinced about the military museum thing. I still have a Google review active, so hopefully visitors will check first before visiting. I am still wary of any people of color coming to visit, but I assume they would have taken down the troublesome flags by now.
UPDATE: OMG YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE THIS. A week or so after I published this, the online harassment started by (I can now name and tag them) Wicked Kreations continued, and I received a Facebook message from someone I don’t know.
I am also happy to report that Harvest Hosts has removed these people from their app now. I spoke to them, and they explained that Wicked Kreations was temporarily removed when I showed them the flags, but reinstated when they provided HH with paperwork showing that they were a “military museum.” (You all know my opinion on that.)
Harvest Hosts explained that they had to give these people the benefit of the doubt, which I understand, but now that this has happened, I think they understand what kind of people they’re dealing with here. I really love Harvest Hosts, so I’m very happy it all came out well … except, of course, for that guy at the grocery store on Thanksgiving.
I guess if that’s the worst and craziest thing that happens to us on this trip, we’ll be just fine, right?
New Mexico is stunning, and the landscape is much more varied than you might imagine if you’ve never visited. There are mountains and plains, arid deserts and green valleys. We were at high elevation and it was early November, so it was very sunny, yet cold, and the ground was frozen.
It was beautiful.
As I mentioned before, New Mexico has a great wine scene. They have the usual whites and reds, but because grapes are so hard to grow in New Mexico, local producers often incorporate lots of other fruits and herbs. The unnamed Nazis made some wine from strawberries and others from native chokecherries.
Our next Harvest Host was like we have come to expect: wide-open spaces, lovely vineyards, warm hospitality, no racist flags of any kind.
Wines of the San Juan has an adorable little outdoor seating area as well as a small tasting room and gift shop, plus they offered electric and water hookups, which is really nice when your generator is super loud.
When we arrived at Wines of the San Juan, we noticed a lot of other farms nearby, but apparently a small, local lavender farm produces enough lavender for WSJ to make a delicious lavender wine. It tastes like a slightly fruity white wine, but has a strong lavender scent and taste. It’s wonderful. They also make a sweet cherry pie wine and other blackberry and fruity blends. It was probably the most variety we saw in any of our wine tasting travels on this leg of the trip.
The rest of the trip to San Diego went fairly quickly … we went west on a remote highway that went back and forth a couple of times between Arizona and Utah. It was cold and dry and remote.
It was also spectacularly beautiful.
Part of the drive went through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which has some of the most beautiful rock formations you’ve ever seen. We had to stop for a few minutes to enjoy the scenery, take some pictures, and let Dego stretch his paws.
Then we spent a couple of nights with friends in Las Vegas (who have been quarantining), and from there straight into southern California. In San Bernardino, we ran into some issues trying to find a free spot to park — no Harvest Hosts were nearby, so we went to a Wal-Mart, only to be kicked out around midnight. Apparently the store parking thing doesn’t work if you’re in a city or county that doesn’t allow overnight parking or camping; which is most of southern California. Eventually we found a cool security guard at a Costco who let us park there for a few hours, but it was technically illegal.
Aaah, but to be back in Ocean Beach. We left the San Bernardino parking lot super early and we were back in Ocean Beach and enjoying the salty air and the warm sun by noon.
We’ve basically been on the beach all week… parking at various friends’ homes at night and sitting at the beach all day.
My stepbrother visited us and showed us cool things about my RV, like how to light the stove, adjust the water pressure, and empty the black tank (I did read the manual on those things, but hadn’t done them yet). But every day on the beach ends with a lovely sunset out the front window.
I am spending Thanksgiving at my brother’s while Nichelina and Dego and Dolly are in San Diego, and we will meet up again this weekend and head back east on Tuesday (after more doctor’s visits and scans on Monday). In the meantime, we feel better about cooking in the RV and emptying the tanks if we need to.
I also had another sitting with my friend Missy, who runs the Breast Cancer Portrait Project. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really an amazing and inspiring body of work, telling the stories and sharing photos of women who were under 40 when they were diagnosed with breast cancer.
I sat for a session with Missy about a year ago, when I was celebrating being a survivor. Now that cancer is back, she offered to come to the beach and photograph me again in my RV.
I strongly recommend that you visit her site and her social media and support this amazing project.
I will update soon with the next leg of the trip. The tentative plan now is to head due east, stopping in Houston and Louisiana on the way back to Tennessee. We will definitely enjoy the scenery and the Harvest Hosts and the food, but Nichelina and I both promised our moms we would be on the east coast by Christmas, so we can’t lag too much.
I 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I think I have found my new favorite Mexican food spot, you guys. They’re authentic, they’re classy, and they’ve got lots and lots of soups. What more could you want?
This past week, I finally got to check out Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café in the Hillcrest/Balboa Park neighborhood. It’s been there for decades, but I am behind; I know. I had no idea what a great place I was missing. The service isn’t just great; the servers treat you like you’re a guest in their home … because you practically are. Most of Jimmy’s employees have been working for him for decades. It is quite apparent that everyone there loves their jobs, and loves Jimmy himself.
The food is ALL homemade. It is ALL authentic. It is ALL Jimmy Carter approved. But for me, the best part is the soup list.
Albondigas (meatball soup)
There are four soups that are on the permanent, daily menu – Creamy Black Bean, Chicken Tortilla, Albondigas, and Chicken Pozole.
Green chicken pozole
There is menudo every weekend.
But that’s not all! Every day, the chef picks 2-3 more soups to have on special that day (Check out Jimmy Carter’s Instagram page for daily special announcements). There are over two dozen rotating soups, from calabaza y elotes and caldo de res, to Mexican clam chowder and spicy pork guerrero.
Chicken tortilla soup
Their soup list is INSANE. I managed to escape with their internal soup list, which details the ingredients and garnishes for each one.
I mean, right?! And this is just the soup list.
I’ll take one of each!
You could eat here every day for a month and never have the same meal twice. I love it!
In addition to the albondigas and green chicken pozole, I also checked out some delicious wet tacos (above) and some mini quesadillas (below) stuffed with chicken and carnitas.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about their sauces.
Every item on the menu can be topped with one of their handmade and super-authentic spicy sauces.
I got to try them all, and I think the Tlaquepaque is my favorite. I see why it’s the most popular … it’s creamy and spicy and good on literally everything.
There is literally nothing I would not like to eat with this sauce, but Jimmy himself recommends the cheese enchiladas with this gorgeous stuff on top.
Being a food blogger and influencer is a great gig in San Diego! Almost weekly there are amazing events for foodies, from tasting tours to brewery fairs to block parties.
Coming up on the 16th of March, there will be an amazing ShamROCK St. Patrick’s Day block party in the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego. Last weekend there was a 20-restaurant food and cocktails tasting tour in the Gaslamp for Mardi Gras. And we even got to preview both parties last Monday!
The preview party was a three-stop tasting party; it started at the Dive, where we sampled banana whiskey and banana whiskey mules …
.. then we moved on to the Smoking Gun, where we sampled Hurricane cocktails and these AAAHHHHmazing lemon pepper chicken drummettes.
I think these may be the tastiest chicken legs I have ever had in my life (and that is BOLD STATEMENT). They are topped with a housemade ranch dressing and a spicy, herby wing sauce.
Unfortunately, on the actual date of the Mardi Gras party, I planned to hit the Smoking Gun last, but they were out of chicken by the time I arrived. It was brutal. Luckily I managed to distract myself with lots of beads and posing for pictures with my friends.
I told you this was brutal.
The preview party finished up with a fabulous whiskey and green beer-tasting at the Field … who also participated in the Mardi Gras tasting with this spicy and creative (but definitely not gumbo) “Irish Style Gumbo.”
It wasn’t bad, but it would never fly in NOLA.
I think my favorite food item from the Mardi Gras tasting (since I was denied another chicken leg) was the blueberry and brie waffle from Brian’s 24. It was my first time at Brian’s, and I loved the waffle (not too sweet, and the brie was whipped and blended with the cream cheese) as well as the ’57 Chevy cocktail they were making fresh at the bar.
Speaking of cocktails, Ambrose whiskey was a major sponsor, so almost all of the establishments participating in the tasting tour offered some sort of cocktail made with Ambrose banana whiskey. I am a huge fan of whiskey and whiskey mules, but I did not care for the banana flavor.
I understand from the company rep that they hired a chemist or scientist to find out a way to make whiskey taste like bananas, yet only use natural ingredients. I am glad they managed to do this without anything artificial … but, why? You really hired a guy just to find a way to make whiskey taste bad? What did it ever do to you?
Anyway, I will have to find a way to make a boozy banana shake or bananas foster to use this whiskey.
Obviously, since it was a Mardi Gras themed tasting tour, there was a lot of jambalaya, gumbo, and Cajun-spiced dishes. Among the best were the chicken and andouille sausage jambalaya (with a Hurricane) at Suckerfree:
… or the Southern shrimp n grits from Tin Roof:
… or the Cajun mac and cheese from Henry’s Pub:
… and the chicken and sausage gumbo (and martinis) at the Dive:
There were also some amazing fish dishes, like the ceviche (and jungle juice cocktail) from the Rockin Baja Lobster:
… as well as this amazing ceviche de pescado and seco de res (rice dish) from Machu Piccu.
This is the second time I have been to Machu Piccu for a tasting tour, and it is very tasty. The service is wonderful, too.
Are you psyched for the ShamROCK party yet? I will be giving away a pair of tickets to the greenest party of the year in the next week, so check back soon!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
Or these delicious New Orleans-style beignets at The Dive…
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.
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.
If you are like me, you are a huge fan of kombucha and all of its amazing healthy properties. But did you know that you can make your booch with the alcohol level of a good double IPA, and still retain those healthy vibes?
If you live in the southern California area, you are probably already familiar with Boochcraft. They make an amazing product. They have a few different varieties, but they all clock in at 7.0% alcohol.
In addition to purchasing a SCOBY and a metric ton of pure cane sugar and black tea bags, I bought a 6.5-gallon brewing bucket with a spigot at the bottom (Trust me, that bottom spigot will come in handy later…):
I also bought a 6-gallon clear plastic carboy for the second ferment.
If you’ve never made your own kombucha before, it goes like this:
You obtain a SCOBY. That’s the funny-looking squishy thing at the top. It’s concentrated yeast and it’s what will give turns tea into kombucha. (You can obtain these online or get one from a friend who brews their own kombucha. It is also possible to grow one, but that takes a while).
You brew strong black tea with a large amount of sugar in it. For one gallon, you will need 14 cups water, 1 cup sugar, and 8 tea bags. Brew it and let it cool, then add it to the liquid that comes with your SCOBY and place the SCOBY on top (it might sink a little, this is fine).
Let it ferment for 5-7 days.
Congratulations, you have now completed your first fermentation! Now for the second ferment (also known as 2F).
Pour the kombucha into bottles and add fruit juices, or other sugar or flavoring.
Let it ferment for another 3-5 days.
Put it in the fridge and chill it, and it’s ready to drink!
This will make “regular” kombucha, which will have a negligible alcohol content or less than 0.5 percent.
To make your kombucha extra alcoholic, it only takes another step, another ingredient, and a bit more time.
Step one is the same. Obtain a SCOBY and brew your tea, and let it ferment for about a week. The difference comes in the second ferment.
Essentially, I placed my (pretty large) SCOBY in the bucket with about 5 gallons of brewed sweet tea (note: if you use a large bucket like I did, the SCOBY will expand to the size of the bucket!), then for the second ferment, I placed it in a large plastic carboy instead of glass bottles.
Don’t add any juices or extra flavors yet.
To add extra alcohol, you need to add extra yeast and sugar to the existing ferment.
For one gallon of kombucha, you will need one cup of water and one cup of sugar, Bring it to a boil, let it cool, then add between 1/2 -3/4 tsp. of champagne yeast.
After it starts to react (you will see lots of bubbles and/or foam), add it to the carboy filled with the partially-fermented kombucha.
You will also need to let it ferment for a few days (maybe even a week) longer than a standard 2F. I discovered that the best method is to use an airlock cap, and then when the mixture stops bubbling, it’s ready.
Now it’s ready for you to test, flavor and enjoy!
There are two different ways to test your home-brew:
a triple-scale hydrometer, but this requires that you take a pre-fermentation reading and a post-fermentation reading to get an accurate percentage of alcohol content; or
a refractometer, which is slightly more expensive but is very easy to use – after calibrating it, you simply put a drop of liquid on a slide and view it through the scope, and it tells you the alcohol content.
April 30 is the grand opening party of Fresh Catch Fish Market & Grill in Hillcrest – from 5:30 to 9:30 tonight, you can enjoy complimentary tastings and free wine.
I got a sneak peek of a few of their specialties before the big event. The shop is full of fresh seafood offerings, right there in the window for your inspection when you walk in the door.
The menu is deeper than it looks … every type of fresh seafood they offer is available in a salad, sandwich or plate … making a decision is really, really hard.
But I managed. I seriously considered the oysters and the salmon burger, then waffled about a fish taco or some sea bass, when I finally settled on the shrimp mac and cheese.
I did not regret my choice. The shrimp mac and cheese was just the way I would make it at home – big, meaty shrimp, a thick, yet delicate creamy cheese sauce, and extra crumbs on top – served in a perfectly adorable teeny-tiny cast-iron skillet. (You know I would totally do that part!)
I also shared a salad of lump Blue Crab and shrimp.
The night I visited, they offered three different varieties of ceviche … red snapper / jalapeno, octopus and shrimp.
Fresh Catch Fish Market & Grill is located in the Hillcrest area, at 3650 5th Ave.
They’re open all day, but the event tonight is only from 5:30-9:30.