Part 3: Dolly’s Maiden Voyage

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.

We also took a few minutes to walk around the Corvette Museum.

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.

Dolly parked at Starview Vineyards.

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.

Sort of.

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.

The message contained a link to an article detailing the arrest of Tim Lopez, the co-owner of the “winery,” for murder. He (allegedly) shot someone in the head at a grocery store on Thanksgiving.

Oh.

My.

Gaaah.

And that’s the same guy trying to accuse us of theft!

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.

#breastcancerportraitproject

We’ve basically been on the beach all week… parking at various friends’ homes at night and sitting at the beach all day.

#breastcancerportraitproject

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.

#breastcancerportraitproject

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.

#breastcancerportraitproject

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.

#breastcancerportraitproject

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.

In the meantime, have a great Thanksgiving week.

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

img_1483

She basically did all of the driving through Arizona…

img_1490

New Mexico …

img_1504

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.

1a419495-ca41-4202-ad1e-124520e87653

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.

img_1650

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.

840f73e8-297a-4e09-9b3f-98c5c1eef4eb

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).

img_1551

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.)

af52de93-5aa5-49a1-a19d-35841127d5c4

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…

img_1600

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

img_1606

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.)