After I left Ohio, and my lovely evening in Star City, I headed to Chicago. More accurately, since I have heard Chicago was not a very RV-friendly place, I headed to a Harvest Host brewery in St. Charles.
It was a long day of driving – in retrospect, I could have taken more time, but I was kinda paranoid about not having enough time to get through the entire country and back to San Diego in time for my scheduled tests – but I still stopped in Fort Wayne to meet up with another old friend from high school. It was a super fast reunion, but it was great!
The rest of the drive to the Riverlands Brewing Company was pretty busy and stop-and-go traffic for miles, but it felt great to relax with a nice beer when I finally arrived. The brewery was a chill place to park overnight and was a great local spot full of people. I also got a delivery of some amazing Chicago-style deep dish pizza, keeping with my tradition of eating totally on brand food for the region. This was full of pepperoni, mushrooms, an ricotta cheese, and of course it was upside-down and practically a casserole.
The next day I drive most of the way through Iowa. I was much more green and lush than I expected –I had always heard that Iowa and Nebraska were very dry and flat, with mostly farmland, but they were both very green and beautiful. It was a lovely drive, and I ended up the next night at Doe’s and Diva’s Dairy Farm – another great Harvest Host in western Iowa.
On the way, I stopped at the world’s largest truck stop in Iowa.
Please check back again later for another blog post entirely devoted to the magic that is the all-American truck stop.
So green! Anyway, the dairy had goats and sheep, and there was cheese available for sampling, but not enough for sale. Fortunately I was able to snag a bottle of their amazing goat milk lotion!
The next night I was at an adorable county park in the middle of Nebraska – one of the few nights on my trip that I didn’t stay at a Harvest Host or with a friend or family member. It was a simple process to put cash in an envelope and pick an open spot, which I liked, and then it was a lovely relaxing and quiet evening, which I loved.
After Chicago, I pretty much stayed on Interstate 80 west the whole way into California … going through Iowa, Nebraska, southern Wyoming, the northern tip of Utah, and through Reno and Lake Tahoe straight into Sacramento. Right at the border of Nebraska and Wyoming on Interstate 80 is Fort Cody, which is a tourist trap/souvenir shop, but also a wild west show and … I don’t even know what is up with the mannequins on the roof.
It was certainly interesting, though.
In Wyoming, I drove through Cheyenne, and checked out some amazing murals. I’ve always loved street art, and I have seen some really amazing examples on this trip; in urban areas like Long Island, in areas so remote they feel abandoned, like Navajo country near the Four Corners, and places like this town square in Wyoming.
I camped for the next two nights at a Wyoming state park – Curt Gowdy park in between Cheyenne and Laramie.
It was a little gloomy and drizzly, but I had been making excellent time crossing the Midwest so I thought I could chill for a couple of nights and relax before I started the last slog back to California.
I took some walks, I enjoyed some home-cooked (in the RV) food, and I read some magazines, Mostly I just relaxed and enjoyed the view.
The campground wasn’t very busy, and it was another honor system pay process ($80 for two nights including electricity and this view!), so I was a very happy camper.
This was one of my favorite views from the camper door of my whole adventure so far.
The 80 only goes through a small part of Utah, which is pretty much always gorgeous. Like, everywhere. I went through Salt Lake City and even the most urban part of the state is really pretty.
And the salt flats are right off of the freeway, so – even tough I am too chicken to drive Dolly over all that salt – I stopped to enjoy the view for a minute.
There’s even street art on the freeway, like this amazing (and giant) art installation. Whomever thought of a giant sculpture in the middle of a salt flat that’s already naturally beautiful … it’s just incredible.
Continuing through Nevada, I stopped at another unique and only-in-the-west art installation – Thunder Mountain Monument. It’s made of trash and reused items, and it’s meant to symbolize the plight of Native Americans when the white settlers invaded their homes.
It’s right off of the freeway, so you can do it in a quick stop. And it’s definitely worth it.
And, it’s not not a bit creepy. There’s a great article in the Smithsonian about Thunder Mountain here.
I stopped at a truck stop in rural Nevada that night, there not being any friends or campgrounds or Harvest Hosts (or, really, much of anything except a place to park), and the next night I was at the lovely Gold Hill Hotel and Saloon near Carson City. I made the reservation online without doing much (or any) research into the area; it looked like a cool place and it was close to the route I was taking,
The drive up there seemed a little treacherous for an RV; there was literally a sign about a mile before the inn that says “no RVs or trucks past this point.” I kept going, reluctantly, and the owner later told me that just past the hotel there is a hairpin turn on a major grade so trucks often get stuck there.
Most Harvest Hosts are wineries or farms, so an inn with a bar and restaurant is unusual, I loved the feel of the whole place; it’s really old and Mark Twain used to drink there. The food could definitely have been better, but the service and the views were impeccable.
And I am really glad I enjoyed a hearty and warm meal, complete with a cocktail, because this is what it looked like when I went back out to my RV.
Frankly, I had woken up at the truck stop that morning to rain and sleet, and now that it was snowing, I was kind of irritated … perfect weather all the way through New England and now the weather starts acting up? In Nevada? It was messed up.
The crappy weather continued all through Tahoe – I made it just fine, but it was really nerve-wracking having to deal with freezing temps, snow, sleet, traffic, and mountains all at the same time. But there’s no other way to get into California from Nevada without hitting some mountains, so I made the best of it.
I stayed at another unique Harvest Host on the California side of Lake Tahoe; a lovely little Lutheran church with a big parking lot and a view of the lake. There was enough of a break in the snow to get a nice BBQ lunch nearby.
The next morning, I drove down from the Sierras into Sacramento, and it was glorious. I was super nervous all night about the impending snow and the steep drive down (and driving through the goddamn Donner Pass didn’t help my mindset very much), and frankly, I was just happy to be at sea level again.
My Harvest Host in Lodi was m2 Wines, which had really delicious wine (especially after the sucky wine out east) and amazing views, I had a sweet spot with a view of the vineyard from my camper!
My next stops were in San Jose to met another high school friend – she was actually planning to buy an RV and hit the road herself (with her whole family), so it was great to see her, meet her kids and husband (whom I had only seen online), and discuss RVing in 20121.
That night I was at my great-aunt’s house in Santa Cruz. We took a lovely walk along the coast with the gorgeous views, including a cool lighthouse. I really love Santa Cruz.
The trip down Highway 101 was pretty uneventful but it was really pretty, including great art I love so much … you can see it from the highway!
That night, I picked another Harvest Host near Paso Robles, but I went to an olive oil company instead of a winery.
43 Ranch Olive Oil is a really old, family-operated olive farm and oil press. They grow several varieties and make them into oil, and they also press oils for other olive producers in the area. I and some other Harvest Host guests were able to enjoy a tour of the press, learn how olive oil is made, and try some samples. It was great.
It was also a lovely view … the area around SLO and Paso Robles is always lovely, but I had a great parking spot under this big tree and it was very nice and peaceful.
The next night was lovely too — just a short drive to Morro Bay and the coast. That night I stayed at a golf course Harvest Host – the Sea Pines Golf Resort.
Golf courses are included in the premium Harvest Hosts package ($99 a year when I signed up, I think it’s about $120 now), but the majority of them ask you to book a tee time and play golf when you make your reservations. Luckily, this beautiful place didn’t require me to play golf (which I do not), so I supported my hosts by drinking and having a lovely meal in their restaurant.
My last Harvest Host before I got back to San Diego was another unique one – an antique store in Whittier. It’s the only Harvest Host in the Los Angeles area, and compared to the two previous nights in an olive oil farm and a seaside golf course, it was … different.
It was a parking lot. In Whittier.
Despite being near a busy street, it was relatively quiet at night, and I really enjoyed walking around the enormous antique store. It took up like 4 levels and was chock full of all of the coolest stuff you can imagine. I didn’t have a lot of time in there before thy closed, so I bought this.
Once I was back in San Diego, I stayed in my old neighborhood of Ocean Beach for a while, then checked into Sweetwater campground for a few days while I had some tests and doctor’s visits.
Sorry to be so behind … I haven’t even gotten to the fun stuff I did in San Diego around Memorial Day. I still have so much to tell you all about the last couple of weeks in San Diego, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Yosemite! Stay tuned for more very soon.
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What an incredible time this adventure has been so far! This has been everything I could have hoped for.
After I left my mom’s house in east Tennessee, I went straight north to Virginia.
Of course, barely a week after there had been freezing rain, it was in the high 80s with insane humidity. Southwestern Virginia is really beautiful, although the landscape is pretty much the same as Tennessee.
I visited a cool monument to Booker T. Washington outside of Roanoke, and camped that night at a state park. Smith Mountain Lake State Park is one where locals go to fish and boat all year long, but I was only there for one night. I met a few people, I enjoyed the air conditioning in my RV (that sweltering Virginia humidity is no joke), and when the sun went down I built a campfire.
I have been full-time in my RV since Halloween (except for a couple of weeks at my mom’s house over the holidays), and I have never stayed a single night in an RV park. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen an RV park that looked like a cool place to hang out. Most are full of kids, which I do not care for, and very few are cheaper than a county or state park. Plus, who would you rather give your money to, a parks agency that just got another round of budget cuts, who offers a safe and fun and cool place to camp; or an RV park full of screaming kids? Seems like an easy choice to me.
Other than a few parks and a few friends’ houses, I stayed at a bunch of Harvest Hosts. If you are new to this blog, you may not know about HH … they’re for RV owners; you pay a set annual fee (less than $100 unless you’re premium) and you can stay at several thousand hosts across the country.
Some are wineries (hence the name), some are farms or distilleries or golf courses, and some are just places of interest, like a museum or an inn or a cool store. It is also requested that you support your host by buying whatever they have for sale (a bottle of wine or a tee time, etc.), so you get the extra benefit of supporting a small business in a pandemic as well. My second night in Virginia was at Hubs, a Harvest Host that is a company store for a peanut farm — so as you can imagine, I walked out of there with a few peanuts.
I also feel like I did a great job of sticking with Harvest Hosts that were on-brand for that region. As you’ll see later, I stayed at a dairy farm in Iowa, a cranberry bog in Cape Cod … and in Maryland, I was at a crab restaurant.
Ocean Odyssey was amazing. No frills or anything fancy, but the crab was so flavorful and so well-prepared, I can’t even describe it. I had my crab cake pan-fried (as opposed to deep-fried, upon the recommendation of my server), which was almost all crab meat and spices, very little breading, and served with an array of sauces, including an impeccable homemade tartar sauce. I also got a cheesy crab dip.
And although it was rainy and windy that night, it was a really nice evening.
(I try to take a picture of my view from my camper door from most, if not all, of the places I stay.) The eastern shore is really amazing in terms of beauty, wildlife, and history. Within walking distance of my camping spot at Ocean Odyssey is a river port with a visitor’s center, artwork and murals, and beautiful views.
The eastern shore is also where Harriet Tubman lived and helped rescue thousands from slavery. There is a really cool museum and learning center nearby. I really wanted to get one of these as a hood ornament for Dolly.
I also thought the Chesapeake Bay was super cool … I didn’t realize before that the bay was crossed by not a tunnel or a bridge but a series of bridges and tunnels that span dozens of miles over sandy beaches and the deep bay between Virginia and Maryland.
It was a really interesting drive that day, especially. Next time I do this trip, I am taking someone else with me (and washing my damn windows) so we can get a lot of (much better) photos.
I got my first Covid vaccine shot in April in San Diego, and I was eligible for my booster when I was going through the DC area, so I left Maryland early the next morning, I got my booster shot, and went to my next Harvest Host. I wanted to spend some time in Washington DC, so I picked Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Virginia, which is actually accessible to downtown DC by subway. I planned to take an Uber into town and either take the Metro back or meet some friends.
It turned out, I did all of those things! After I parked Dolly at the brewery, I took an Uber to the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, where I had an awesome half-smoke and some fries.
Then I took the Metro to the Smithsonian, because it was a gorgeous spring day and I had never seen the new MLK statue (the last time I was in DC was for a college internship in 1999). I think everyone in the DC area had the same brilliant idea as I did, since people were starting to get vaccinated, things were starting to open up on a limited basis, and it was just a fantastically gorgeous day.
I was really glad I carbed up at Ben’s, because I did a lot of walking that day around the Washington Monument and the mall.
I got to check a couple more national monuments and parks off of my list that day as well, so I think I earned this new sticker.
I also met up with a friend (she’s actually a sister-in-law of another friend, but we had only met online previously), and then ANOTHER friend from high school (who I literally had not seen since graduation) picked me up and took me back to the brewery where I was camping; so I was able to relax with her and have a couple of beers while we caught up.
I would say that it was an extremely eventful day, but most of my days on the east coast were similarly packed.
The next day I was off to Delaware, staying at another Harvest Host brewery called Midnight Oil Brewing.
This one had kombucha as well as beer, which I appreciated, and it wasn’t as crazy packed as the one in Alexandria had been. I even ordered some local Chinese food that was pretty awesome.
You know I will always find a way to eat well, even when traveling, but it’s hard sometimes to get good ethnic food on the road. I can always pretty much assume that pizza, BBQ, burgers, fried chicken, etc., will always be good if you go to a good restaurant; but Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese – anything ethnic – it’s best to get it on recommendation from a local instead of winging it.
Speaking of food …
The next day I was in Jersey, seeing my dear friend Nichelina for the first time since we got back from Dolly’s maiden voyage back in December. I parked at her house in Ocean City, New Jersey, and she took me to all the places and we ate all of the things.
But first, I went by myself to the Ocean City boardwalk. And it was abandoned.
Almost every shop closed. Almost no people.
I’ve never seen anything before in my life like a beach town that is closed for the season. This isn’t a thing we have on the west coast. I got myself a frozen custard (which was delish) and some souvenirs (because of course those stores were open, haha), and took a walk on the boardwalk, but it felt weird.
The next day, Nichelina took me to Philadelphia, so I was able to have the most incredible foodie day! Our first stop was the Reading Terminal Market, where they have tiny little booths of craft and artisanal foods. I got some Amish goat cheese and duck pate, as well as some fancy chocolate.
Because Nichelina drives like a crazy person, I got a literal whirlwind tour of Philly. I flew past the Love statue, the courthouse and the Liberty Bell. I managed to jump out of the car for thirty seconds or so to take a selfie in front of the Rocky statue.
Luckily they moved the Rocky statue so you don’t have to climb a bunch of stairs to get to it. I definitely would not have had time!
You may or may not know about the Cheesesteak Corner in Philly. It’s literally a street corner where two competing cheesesteak joints have been rivals for decades. Everyone in Philly has an opinion about Pat’s vs. Geno’s. Being a west coast girl, I did not have an opinion, but Nichelina insisted (in a characteristically quasi-violent way) that we were going to Pat’s or nothing.
So we went to Pat’s.
And I’m not mad about it; it was incredible. I learned how to order it properly so I didn’t look stupid, and it was delicious.
Next, we went to Termini Brothers, a century-old bakery known for handmade cannoli and other sweets. I got a cool video of the expert cannoli-stuffer filling it with one of three tasty fillings:
I was also told (by another friend from PA) to go to John’s for a roast pork sandwich, but John’s was closed due to being out of bread. I almost witnessed some acts of violence by other patrons when they realized they couldn’t get a sandwich, but Nichelina suggested that we go to Tony Luke’s instead for a roast pork. It was really amazing. The bread was soft and chewy, the pork was super tender and spicy, and the cheese was the perfect topper.
Then, because I guess we hadn’t eaten enough, we stopped for a slice at Lorenzo’s on the way out of Philly.
Even splitting everything halfway with Nichelina, I was more stuffed than I have ever been in my life. It was a rough night.
The next day, we went to Atlantic City, which was also closed for the season (it wasn’t quite Mother’s Day yet). I still think it’s weird and kinda eerie to be in a beach town – one with gambling and entertainment, no less – that is mostly closed and almost totally abandoned except for hardcore gamblers and locals.
I guess since it’s off-season they felt Ok about treating us like crap at the restaurant … the Gordon Ramsay spot inside of Caesar’s Palace was pretty much empty and the Buffalo Cauliflower was rad, but the service was just awful. It’s the first time I haven’t tipped over 20% since the pandemic started. It was especially a disappointment after hearing good things about the spot.
Most of New Jersey is wooded and then it’s the beach. Frankly, if you didn’t know Jersey was a blue state, you’d swear you were in the South – there are absurd liquor laws, weird one-way roads, and some rural homes that would be similar to ones found in Mississippi or Louisiana.
I got to meet up with two different friends of mine from college, to show them around Dolly and catch up for a few minutes. This lady was my editor on the student newspaper in college for two years and we haven’t seen each other for at least 3 years.
Seeing old friends – some for the first time in decades – has been one of the best parts of this adventure. And they love seeing Dolly!
Next, I went north to Long Island, but from Jersey I had to go through New York City. This would not have been as strange or anxiety-producing or crazy if I had been in a normal-sized car, but NYC has a lot of bridges that are old and cross over major expressways, so for example if your vehicle is over 10 feet in height, you can’t go down certain streets. Dolly is about 11 feet and 5-6 inches, so I go with 11’7″ to be safe.
Of course, they can’t just have a sign that says a low bridge is ahead, that would be too easy. I saw a flashing sign on the side of the road that said “you are over height, exit now.” This was the third or fourth time I had had to jump off of the expressway, and rush hour in New York isn’t the best time to do that. So I ended up pulling over and downloading a new app specifically for RVs and trucks so I could take a route that didn’t knock Dolly’s block off.
Between a new route and all of the stops, my three-hour drive became almost 7, so I was glad for a quiet parking lot outside of a bagel shop that night. The Bagel Cafe was another Harvest Host, and one I thought would be cool for the full Long Island experience.
As I said, it seemed like the landscape didn’t change much from Tennessee all the way up through the eastern shore and Virginia to Jersey. All the trees and highways look the same until you’re at the shore. The architecture changes a lot, though … you go quickly from the Appalachian-style brick farmhouses to the clapboard, New England-style farmhouses.
Then, when you really get to New England, everything looks different.
I stuck to the expressways, mostly because they were the only roads recommended by my new driving app. I’m pretty sure all of the other roads had too many low bridges and quaint little hairpin turns for my RV to pass over safely, so it told me to stay on the big, main roads. The only weird thing about that is, at least in the spring, you can drive down the expressway and all you see on the side of the road are trees. Tons of trees. Every color. Some bare ones but just miles and miles of trees. And there are signs on the road telling you that there are restaurants and hotels and gas stations and cities if you exit here, but you can’t see any of it from the road. It’s pretty surreal.
Then, you’ll be driving down the road enjoying all of the various shades of all of these trees and gardens and farms, and all of a sudden, BOOM. PINK. Dogwoods in bloom in every shade of pink, including some I had previously thought couldnt occur in nature. It was really magnificent. I am so glad I managed to pick the perfect time to be on the east coast – not too crowded, not too hot, not too cold. Next time I just need to spend more time there.
I have a few friends in Massachusetts and Rhode Island – two states, which, let’s face it, should just be the same damn state. I will never again be impressed when someone refers to anything as “the size of Rhode Island,” because it is very, very small. I am used to living in a big state, which means when you say something like “I am crossing state lines,” it means something. In New England everything is so small it makes it seem farther away than it really is. In one day, I drove through Connecticut and Massachusetts, then through Rhode Island and into Massachusetts again. And I barely drove three hours. It takes some getting used to.
I visited Cape Cod, which was really beautiful.
I had a lobster roll and camped at a Harvest Host that’s an actual cranberry bog, so I definitely got the full immersive experience. The bog wasn’t blooming any berries at the time, but as you can see the weather was perfect.
I got to stop the next night to see some friends in Easthampton – we used to be neighbors in Ocean Beach and now they’re married with a 7-year-old kid, so it was a really great visit.
After a fun night, we went to a beautifully fragrant apple and peach orchard/ sculpture garden nearby, which was super awesome …
… then on the way back we spotted some roadside asparagus, so I couldn’t resist. It was some really delicious asparagus, too.
Honor system, side of the road.
After that I had to head west, but it took a whole day of driving just to get through the Catskills and the Hudson River valley to eastern Pennsylvania.
Normally I don’t drive more than 5 hours if I can help it, but this was just under 6 hours … and it was spectacularly beautiful.
I headed to a Harvest Host called Stone Lake Inn, an adorably quaint winery and inn that’s also used as a wedding venue, etc. The wine was not the best, but the staff was very kind and the scenery was unbeatable.
Pennsylvania is a big state so it took a while to get through it. The next night I was in western Pennsylvania, at a farm near the continental divide. I was given the option of parking near a barn with the other equipment, or at the top of a (kinda muddy) hill where they usually grow sunflowers. I guess you know which one I picked.
I got Dolly’s undercarriage a bit dirty, but had some amazing views all night and the next morning at the top of this hill.
The next day I drove through the rest of Pennsylvania, the tiny sliver of West Virginia (I think it’s like 17 miles) that sticks up in between Ohio and Pennsylvania, and into Ohio.
I made it most of the way through the state, to Miamisburg, aka Star City (read here to find out how it got that cool name), and to a Harvest Host called Star City Brewing.
I really loved this town, and not just because of all the stars.
The people were super friendly, the beer was really good, and there were great restaurants. I parked Dolly at the brewing company and went down the street for some BBQ, then came back for a couple of beers. I met some really fun people (again, the mask mandates were starting to ease as more people go vaccinated, so it was especially cool to be drinking at a bar with people).
Stay tuned for the next leg of this trip, where I make it the rest of the way through the Midwest and western states back to California. There’s a lot more to tell! And don’t forget to follow along on social media!
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After two days in the shop and $2,200, I finally got Dolly back. I was supposed to leave on a Wednesday, and it was really now going to be Friday. But, I got new brakes and new shocks, both of which were sorely needed, and I got it handled before I hit the road, and by a mechanic I trust. If I had left San Diego with my brakes in the state they were in, I wouldn’t have made it far — probably somewhere on a desert mountain. Let’s not think about it.
Anyway, despite the hit to my bank account – I get a disability check and Social Security Disability payments, so I am not destitute, but I was feeling like all of the “cushion” I previously had, had just evaporated – I was super excited to finally hit the road.
Belinda joined me for this leg of the adventure as well, because she was going back to Louisiana. She works for a roofing contractor and travels to where the natural disasters cause the most problems, so she needed to pack up to move out of state. In the meantime, we enjoyed another adventure together!
The day, we drove through the beautiful Los Padres National Forest, and I have to say, Dolly’s new brakes did beautifully on those steep hills and forest mountain roads.
No matter how much I travel through California, I am always amazed at its diversity of beauty. Not just its beauty. The different types of breathtaking beauty. Everywhere.
The host generously allowed us to come after hours, but we didn’t go inside or buy anything. We enjoyed a nice sunset and hit the road early the next day, so we could go to our favorite places in Paso Robles before we left the state.
Belinda, of course, insisted that we go back to the incomparable Il Cortile restaurant, and thank goodness she paid because my wallet was hurting after that brake job. But the only reservation we could get that night was for 8:30 p.m. (way late to eat if we wanted to hit the road to Vegas early in the morning), and we couldn’t get into the tasting room at our favorite winery, Chronic Cellars, so we decided to stay an extra night in Paso. It was lovely and exactly what we needed to steel our spirits for a long drive through the desert and plains for the next several days.
Our first night in Paso Robles was actually spent at a winery in San Miguel, which is just slightly north of Paso. The Four Sisters winery is pretty nice, if you love the whole sweeping vistas and lush vineyards and jaw-dropping views sort of thing.
We simply couldn’t rush drinking here.
So we were nice and buzzed and relaxed when we headed to Il Cortile, where again, just like in February, Belinda and I shared appetizers and a pasta dish and got huge entrees. I wanted the lamb rack, but they were sold out, so I was forced to eat the veal shank (I know right).
But the real star of the meal was the ravioli … it was stuffed with corn, so it almost tasted like a tamale, and the creamy mint sauce was studded with bits of mushrooms and bacon, but somehow the whole dish still felt perfectly light and almost airy. It was incredible.
The next night we went back to Tobin James (where we also parked on the Harvest Host program when we were there in February). They have an enormous lot and they are right off of the highway that goes to Barstow, so it was perfect. After we checked in, we took an Uber to Chronic Cellars and enjoyed a glass of wine and bought some of their incredibly cool merchandise, as well as an enormous amount of wine.
We also were advised to check out the Vines on the Mary Crest, another cool winery that’s literally across the street from Chronic. They had a tasting room that was still open at 4 p.m. (unlike Chronic, who closes early), and all of their wines are named after cool rock songs since the vintner/ co-owner Victor used to be a sound engineer for all of the greats.
We really loved this place, and we looooove Victor and his wife Jennifer. They’re both super friendly and into good music and good wine. I mean, their wine club includes concerts and free CDs! After we enjoyed ourselves and bought a bunch of wine, Victor not only recommended a lovely dinner spot, but he drove us there when the Uber didn’t show up. I don’t know if that’s included in the wine club, but I highly recommend their wines and their family.
The dinner he recommended that night was almost better than the Il Cortile dinner the night before… we went to The Hatch, and had prime rib and this appetizer of smoked mushrooms and cream.
They also have an award-winning cocktail artist who designed all of their signature drinks.
I had an Old Fashioned and it was killer.
So after all of that, as you can imagine, we slept like babies that night and were on the road at 7 a.m. the next morning. We headed towards Vegas and stayed with our friends there (we parked in their apartment’s parking lot), and again left early. It’s a pretty unremarkable drive, so luckily we had some good music to keep us alert.
The next night we were in Page, Arizona, this time we paid $30 to the local Elks club to have an electric and water hookup instead of a Wal-mart, like I stayed in the last time I was in Page. Page is over 100 miles from anything on either side in the Arizona desert near the Utah border, and all of the RV parks and recreational areas are super expensive. The last couple of times I came through, I stayed at the Wal-Mart, but $30 is definitely worth it to charge everything and have some electricity and water.
For the next three days, we basically had to go through the most scenic, yet most desolate, parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and west Texas.
Belinda finally got to drive Dolly, because we were basically going for hours and hours, and it’s difficult to drive something that size for more than 5-6 hours at the most. It was nice for me to ride in the back for a while.
We made a brief stop in Colorado at the Four Corners and then headed south to Albuquerque, staying at a truck stop outside of the city. (They’re not fancy, but truck stops are invaluable – there’s 24-hour security and showers, and usually a semi-not-terrible breakfast.)
Then we headed straight east, stopping near Lubbock for some fried chicken livers …
… Seriously, Bush’s Chicken has the best fried chicken livers ever … and then we stayed at another truck stop near Sweetwater, Texas. From there it was just over 5 hours to my sister’s house in Houston, were we enjoyed the weekend before we headed to Louisiana.
My birthday was on April 1, and I celebrated in my (former but always) home of Ocean Beach in San Diego. Since my sister didn’t see me for my birthday, she had her home decorated for my birthday – complete with an amazing s’mores cake from the infamous Red Dessert Dive. I was really surprised … mostly because it was over two weeks past my birthday.
I still ate this amazing cake, though.
And it was great to spend time with my family. I’ve spent more time with my mom, my brother and my sister since I started this adventure than I had for the previous decade. I love being able to see them almost every time I travel.
After a relaxing weekend, Belinda and I drove to Louisiana, where she stayed and I kept going. It was bittersweet: I am so blessed to have friends who are able to join me for these adventures, and I know I’ll travel with her again.
I spent the night at Indian Creek, the awesome and beautiful Louisiana state campground that’s right near Belinda’s house.
It was a peaceful and lovely night by the lake, then I got up early the next morning and decided to get as close to Nashville as I could that day.
I had some friends I needed to swing by and say hello to in Nashville, but other than that I was in kind of a hurry – my mom’s birthday was coming up, and if I really hauled ass I could make it in time for her birthday dinner. I originally promised her I would be back for her birthday, but then I didn’t think I could make that after my repairs and the extra night in Paso Robles; I told her I would be at her house the day after, and of course bring a bunch of cool presents.
But I made really excellent drive time that day -nearly to Nashville by the time it was getting dark – so I decided the next day I would just stop briefly in Nashville and then get to my mom’s for her birthday dinner. And I made it!
As I type this, I am happily relaxing at my mom’s house, enjoying some of the wines I brought back from California and enjoying not driving for a few days.
My mom and my stepdad helped me to fix and organize a few little things in the RV, and tomorrow, I plan to hit the road again.
I am really, really excited about this leg of my journey. Basically, other than a college internship and a trip in high school, both to Washington, DC, I have, like, zero east coast experience. I have a lot of friends there, and a lot of things I would like to see, including another stop in DC, but I have never been. I am super excited about seeing something new. My plan is to head northeast from my mom’s house in east Tennessee, going to the Roanoke, Virginia area. The first night I will probably stay at a Harvest Host nearby and go to the Booker T. Washington monument, then head straight east to Virginia Beach. Then I plan to head north to Alexandria/ Washington DC, then to visit friends in the Philadelphia/ Jersey City area, then to Rhode Island and Massachusetts — then I am turning a sharp left and heading west, because I have to be back in San Diego for a bone scan on June 2. But, I also plan to go west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and several other states where I also have never visited.
Simply put, everything from when I leave here until I get back to California will be new to me.
And I can’t wait.
Please join me and follow along on social media … this part will be awesome!
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As I mentioned in my previous post, my friend Belinda is one of my oldest friends, and it was really a blast having even a short trip with her. We managed to fit a truly incredible amount of fun and food into a small amount of time!
After our incident with the snowy mountaintop, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the trip. Our first evening on the road had been at Giessinger Winery in Fillmore, where we enjoyed great wines as well as the quaint little town and the local farm-to-table bakery. (We also stayed at Giessinger on the way home, so see the end of this post for more about the lovely town of Fillmore.) The next night we were at the top of that precarious mountain, and we didn’t want anything like that anymore.
But we can always count on Harvest Hosts to be a good time, so we headed towards Lodi and planned to decide on a Harvest Host when we got there. We were supposed to meet a friend there, but he got delayed for a couple of days. So we headed slightly east, to the Somerset area, where there a ton of wineries, and several are Harvest Hosts. Since we had already stayed at a winery, we opted for the one guy in that area NOT growing grapes – the Windmill Creek Olive Oil Company.
(We needed olive oil anyway.)
It was really great to sample Windmill Creek’s olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and we got to pick up some awesome gifts for friends … or at least the ones who don’t drink wine. Then we headed to Lodi for a couple of days.
Like several areas around California, Lodi has rich farmland that has become a “wine country” — and as such, there are a bunch of wineries and farms that are Harvest Hosts as well.
As a kid in California, I always thought of “wine country” as Napa Valley. When I moved to San Diego as an adult, like everyone else, I got suckered into at least one birthday or wedding party in the nearby wine country of Temecula. I never realized how many “wine countries” there were, nor how organized they were. Lodi, Napa, Somerset, Livermore, Paso Robles … all of them had great wine associations and easy local signage that made it easy to taste and visit there.
Anyway, we didn’t want just wine, we are foodies as well. We really wanted to stay at the Spenker Family Farm that first evening, but we couldn’t confirm with the hosts in time. Luckily Viaggio was nearby and was beautiful.
Viaggio Estates is a spectacular winery and event/wedding center jut a few miles away from downtown Lodi. It was a little chilly outside, but we enjoyed the lovely grounds and the whole event center. It was a very peaceful and relaxed place to spend the night.
Wine tasting during a pandemic is unusual … there are rules against actually sitting or standing at the bar, or handing glasses back and forth. Some of the wineries insisted on plasticware for tasting or standing outside for your flight, but the best ones, like Viaggio, gave you a flight, glasses for the actual sampling, and extra munchies for the process.
In the cooler for the cheese and charcuterie, we noticed some Spenker Farms goat cheese – yes, it is literally a winery, a goat cheese farm, and a Harvest Host – so we had some amazing goat cheese, salami and crackers with our Viaggio wine! Around the same time, the Spenkers got back to me to confirm our stay for the next night, and we were so excited to hang out there and pet the goats who made the cheese we had just eaten.
So, for two nights in a row in Lodi, we sampled local wines and local goat cheese. It was incredible. The Spenkers gave us flights of their local wine as well as their homemade cheeses; paired perfectly. We ended up buying a ton of different cheeses — they had a soft chevre, a spicy aged cheese and a hickory-smoked gouda that was divine.
The Spenkers also make soap and lotion from their goat milk, so you know I got some of the all-natural goodness to take home!
We also got to meet up with someone important … my buddy Seth is a cannabis grower who produces high-quality CBDs for cancer patients and other people in need. He started helping me with CBD treatment years ago when I had breast cancer, and he has been a good (if only online, until now) friend since then. When I was re-diagnosed this past summer, and set up my GoFundMe to raise money for my adventure, he donated a ton of his own money, then started an auction to raise thousands of dollars more, by selling his own hybrid seeds! His company, Str8organics, does a lot of great things for the community, and he’s just a really awesome guy. He even bought us a lovely sushi dinner!
It was a blast to meet him in person and enjoy the best sushi and Japanese food in Lodi. If you want to support Str8organics’ mission, please click here and buy some merch!
The next night, we were scheduled to meet up (socially-distanced) with a friend who had just moved to Sacramento. We told him we would arrive at night, so we had all day to hang out and check out Sacramento. Neither Belinda nor I had ever really been to the area, so we checked out the internet for suggestions.
Like I mentioned last time, I could write a huge post on every aspect of this tour, Instead I will just give you the highlights.
The very first stop was Mayahuel, a Mexican restaurant that has a tequila museum; so, we could have spent all day there. Instead, we had 2 hours and 57 minutes left of a three-hour tour. Plus, I still had to drive an RV later, so Belinda took one for the team and drank my share.
At least the virgin cocktail was pretty.
As I said, you can spend a whole day just at Mayahuel, learning about tequila and mezcal and the history of Mexican food and Mexican-Americans in Sacramento. Most people don’t think of Sacramento as being the melting pot of cultures that it is, or the farm-to-table capital … at least, I didn’t. I was really pleasantly surprised by the beauty and culture and history of the whole area. In San Diego we tend to think we have a monopoly on California’s beauty sometimes.
We also got a sample of this amazing poblano crema soup. It was just enough to energize us for more walking. We continued down K Street, which the city has designated for public art and recognition of historic areas.
Although the tour took three hours, not all of it was walking around, and it was only a total of a few blocks. I was a little worried that a three-hour walk might be too much for me, but it was perfect. The second stop was the Allspicery, a lovely little spice store right next to the state capital building.
Because of Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside or sample any spices, but we each got a custom blend of tea and seasoning spice mix, and I was allowed to kind of lean in the door to quickly take some photos without touching anything. But just being able to smell the cloud of sensory delight when the door opened was enough to keep us going.
The next stop – after a lot more art and history – was a Nashville hot fried chicken place, which I was looking forward to, especially after my recent trip to Hattie B’s. Nash & Proper used to be only a food truck, and got a brick and mortar store right before the pandemic hit. Luckily, they were well set up for takeout, and haven’t suffered as much as other businesses that weren’t able to adapt. And they still have a food truck schedule. The chicken sandwich was really good; although I have to say I have had better.
Then again, I am a food snob. Our next stop was the best of all.
The Odd Cookie is a bakery, a deli, and a bar. And it’s no joke. The owner and head chef is an art-loving, super-creative, whiskey-slangin, rock music-blaring, purple-haired GENIUS.
You know how sometimes, the fancier a cupcake or cookie is, the worse it tastes? When they pack all the fondant and paint and stuff, so it ends up tasting more like plastic than food? Yeah … this isn’t that.
Observe this brief video of the display cases:
As part of the food tour deal, I got to pick one, which ended up being one of the hardest decisions of my life. I picked the Great Balls of Fire (see below) … and we took a four-pack to my friend’s house for later, so I got to eat one of those banana ones as well!
If you’re ever in Sacramento for a day, I highly encourage you to check out the Local Roots food tours, and the Odd Cookie bakery. It was a day well spent.
That weekend was my friend Ali’s wedding anniversary, and we had yet to meet her husband (we hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years). We decided prior to arriving that the four of us would be headed out to the Calistoga area to celebrate their anniversary in some hot mineral baths. So after a night outside their house in Fair Oaks, we drove the short 2 hours to Calistoga, found a sweet hotel, and they checked in while we parked Dolly outside. It worked out really well, since Belinda and I got full use of the room, bathroom, and pool/spa area, but we could still camp in the RV and give our friends some wedded bliss privacy. Calistoga is still in the Napa wine valley, so it’s beautiful and lush, but it’s much less snobby and pretentious (or so we were told).
On our way north from San Diego, Belinda hadn’t been very picky about where we went or what we did; with three small exceptions: she wanted, when we visited Paso Robles, to visit a four-star Italian restaurant, and to taste wine at a winery that was one of our favorites, and, she wanted to have dinner at the Calistoga Inn. She offered to pay for my dinner at both locations, but that wasn’t why I agreed … Belinda is one of very few people whom I trust explicitly when it comes to food. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t normally want to try; if she tells me to, I will. If she says this restaurant is the place to eat; I’m there.
Of course, the Calistoga Inn needed no introduction. We ordered half bottles of wine and fresh, farm-to-table appetizers. But I stayed clear of it all because I knew that this yoooge ribeye was on its way!
Isn’t that glorious? I also splurged on dessert; I got a peanut butter chocolate pie, with a glass of the dessert port they recommended and a couple fingers of a glorious 18-year scotch. It made my tummy hurt a bit the next day, but it was worth it … I mean, I hadn’t had scotch in almost a year, but if you can’t enjoy a scotch when you’re having an epic meal in wine country, when can you?
On our way out of Calistoga the next day, we stopped at the California Old Faithful attraction, which was actually really nice.
It’s a private attraction (pretty much every landowner in the area has a mineral spring in their backyard) and they have these cute little pool cabanas and a petting zoo and garden to hang out at in between the eruptions, which happen every 45 minutes or so.
We finally had to begin heading south, so we went a short drive southeast to Livermore, yet another of California’s many wine countries and a very peaceful and nice town.
We camped at another Harvest Host, the Leisure Street winery, which had tons of lovely space to park and drink and walk around. There was a huge parking lot and lots of permanent campers who worked at a nearby electrical plant, so we got to meet some interesting people.
In a way, pandemic traveling makes you feel a lot more isolated from people, but that’s another great thing about Harvest Hosts. We got to meet lots of great people – hosts and other guests – at the socially-distanced wineries. Even better, we were able to support small businesses who need the money in these crazy times!
The next day we headed to my great-aunt’s house in Santa Cruz. I hadn’t seen Aunt Lesley in about 10 years, and I was looking forward to seeing her and to meeting my third cousin I had never met before. I initially parked on her street, a lovely tree-lined cul-de-sac smelling of eucalyptus, but after a quick (masked) hug, we insisted that I park in her driveway. As she was guiding me in, I didn’t notice (not did she) a piece of gutter sticking out from her carport at a weird angle. I didn’t see it until it was smashing through my window!
Belinda had a tiny cut, but other than that no one was hurt. The problem is that I have a $1k deductible and my RV is 25 years old. so finding a replacement piece of glass isn’t easy. As I write this, I am sitting in San Diego, recovering from this trip, and waiting to see a mechanic who can find us a replacement. It’s only the glass that’s broken, so if I am lucky (and I usually am), I can get a replacement from a junkyard for cheap. Worst case scenario, I need to get a custom-cut piece of tempered glass, which will be less than my deductible but still expensive.
That night Aunt Lesley took us to a lovely dinner at a scenic spot in Santa Cruz (check out the Crow’s Nest if you’re nearby), but I felt really bad about not seeing her for 10 years and then basically crashing into her house. I guess Dolly likes to make an entrance.
But we still had things to do. We still had two days planned in Paso Robles and another back in Fillmore before we headed back home, so we patched up the broken window and got the heck out of there!
First we went straight to Dark Star Cellars, a small but very cute winery on the outskirts of Paso Robles. They have a great tasting room, which I am sure is a lot of fun when it isn’t a pandemic, and their vintners are very educated about their wines. We had a great tasting and bought a couple of bottles, then cooked ourselves a great dinner and relaxed in the RV all night.
The next day, we knew we were going to throw down at this fancy Italian dinner Belinda kept talking about, so we decided to be productive early. Belinda gets to do a lot of her work remotely and had been working a couple of hours per day while we were stopped. So we emptied the dump tank (I am getting really good at it now) and filled Dolly up with water, then cleaned ourselves, and I did laundry while Belinda got some work done.
That afternoon, we checked into our Harvest Host (Tobin James cellars this time), and had a great tasting.
Pro tip: the back side of their tasting menu has the reserve bottles that they don’t sell at Costco. That stuff is way better than the mass-produced bottles!
We then took an Uber to Chronic Cellars, one of our favorite brands, This was literally the only winery that we stopped to drink at that wasn’t a Harvest Host. And while it isn’t technically mandatory to drink at the Harvest Host, the idea is to support the business while they let you camp for free.
But we had to go to Chronic .. as you can see, Belinda is the Ultimate Fangirl.
The Chronic Cellars wine is incredible, but I really love their designs and their labels.
We spent a pretty insane amount of money on merchandise, but it was worth it!
So. About this Italian restaurant. As I mentioned, Belinda hadn’t insisted on much, but this was one of the restaurants and spots she insisted upon. She said it was better Italian food than she had enjoyed while she was in Italy, and that I had to try it. And everywhere we went in Paso Robles, when we mentioned that we were headed to Il Cortile for dinner, the person we said it to got a dreamy look on their face, and then quietly mouthed the words “you’ll love it!”
We did not hold back. The first course was the antipasti … we got a beef carpaccio with parmesean sauce and shaved truffles. It was DIVINE.
I really could have left it there, but we kept going, We had lots of good bread and balsamic/oil for dipping, and we also ordered a polenta and poached egg antipasti dish. Then we (wisely) split a pasta dish, so we could each properly annihilate an entree. This is the pappardelle noodles with a wild boar ragu. Literally every bite (and you know it was washed down with some impeccable wine!) was perfect.
Belinda had opted for the Osso Bucco, since she had it there before and was in love with it. I had to go for the veal chop, and I was not disappointed. I think there was a little veggie or something in there, but wow, that shank.
It was epic.
Our last night on this trip was back in Fillmore. I picked that place because if you’re heading south, it is the last Harvest Host before Temecula. Also, it’s about 30 minutes from my brother’s house, so he came to hang out with us when we stayed there the first night, and the last night he came to take me to his house for my nephew’s birthday party. But I also went back there because we really loved the Giessinger Winery, and the area it’s in is fantastic.
The first time we stopped there, the server told us about an amazing bakery where we scored a bunch of yummy baked goods for the rest of our trip.
The winery is situated right in the historic downtown area, which is super adorable, and there is a (now-closed) railroad and historic railroad station. We were able to walk to get sushi the first night, and when we went back, we had some excellent Mexican food.
I am currently recuperating and getting Dolly fixed up, and I plan to be out in the desert for the majority of the month of March.
In April, I will be headed back east, and I plan to go to my mom’s and then to the east coast for a couple of weeks before I head back to San Diego again for more doctor’s visits in June.
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These last several weeks have been incredible. I am actually splitting the time since I have been back in California into two long posts,because I managed to pack an incredible amount of activity into several short weeks. Honestly, I could write a book just about the three-hour historic food tour we took in downtown Sacramento. Since I last posted, I have seen *almost* all that California has to offer … the beach, the big city, the farmland, the wine country, the snow-topped mountains. (The desert is next month.)
But, first things first.
First, I arrived back in San Diego for a bunch of tests and doctor’s appointments. In between a CT scan and an MRI, plus a bunch of meetings and blood draws, etc., I was camping at some cool sites: some street parking and some friends’ houses. There aren’t a lot of Harvest Hosts in the San Diego city area – they’re all to the north, south or east. So, as much as I could, I would park at the beach all day, enjoy the tasty food and gorgeous views I had enjoyed for 15+ years in San Diego, and then parking off-street at night.
And I checked out the state and regional parks.
I camped with my (now ex-) boyfriend at Sweetwater Canyon Regional Park, and instantly I knew it would become one of my favorites. Just look at all of this space!
It’s only $35 per night for a full hookup, nearby bathrooms and showers, a free dump site and a gorgeous view of the canyon. It’s close to the border and to a major highway, but it’s still very peaceful and close to stores and whatnot.
I will definitely be returning to this place. It’s a beautiful view, day or night.
A couple of nights later, I was at Silver Strand State Beach. For the uninitiated, Silver Strand is a literal a strip of land connecting the southern tip of Coronado Island to Imperial Beach. It’s barely wide enough for a four-lane highway and a bit of beach on either side.
I have to be honest; when I arrived, it didn’t seem like this state beach was as good as it looked on the website. Sweetwater was $35 for a huge lot with all of the amenities. This place had closed all bathrooms and showers, and it was more expensive. There was no picnic table, no fire pit, no BBQ grill, not even really a view from most of the spots (unless you paid extra for the premium site).
Don’t get me wrong, I lived in San Diego for almost 20 years, I get what it’s like to pay for a view. But I was still a little bummed for like five minutes, until I had a shower and a rest and enjoyed a walk on the beach. Also, when I arrived on a Saturday, every spot was taken – and every camper had taken full advantage of every inch of their lot – and by Sunday afternoon, when most of them had gone back home, it was downright peaceful.
I took a nice long walk to Coronado as well, something I haven’t done for nearly a year due to my broken back and cancer diagnosis. It was definitely more than my body was used to, especially since my back … but it actually felt good to stretch my legs a little bit.
Speaking of cancer diagnosis, I had really good scan results that next week. I had a CT scan of my chest and abdomen and an MRI of my brain, and they showed that my tumors are continuing to shrink. The one they’re really worried about is on my skull, and it has stayed away from my brain so far, and shows a “continued interval decrease in size and enhancement.” The tumors on my spine, while they are still there, have basically shriveled down to scar tissue. I need to stay on my current course of treatment as long as it’s working. It’s the best I could hope for!
After I got my test results, I hit the road with one of my oldest and dearest friends. Belinda used to be my neighbor in OB. We met about 15 years (and many boyfriends) ago, and we instantly bonded over a mutual love of all food, drink, sarcasm and double entendres.
She’s the perfect person to take with you to all of the foodie spots.
We left early (-ish) Saturday morning, after checking all of Dolly’s fluids, supplies and tire pressures. We only drove about 4 hours, to a lovely Harvest Host winery just about 20 minutes from my brother’s house. So he got to join us briefly when we sampled the wines at Giessinger Winery. (Stay tuned for my next post … we actually stopped there on our way home again, and I will tell you even more about it.)
Our sommolier was super knowledgeable about the wines, of course but also told us about a famous bakery right down the street, where they grow all of their own organic ancient grains, and everything is so delicious. We bought a lot of munchies for the road .. and, of course, then we went out for sushi.
The area of downtown Fillmore was super cute; they have a railroad that in normal times did fun train excursions (zombie hunting from a train for Halloween, a Christmas tree train around the holidays, that sort of thing), and an easily walkable shopping and eating area. We really enjoyed it there.
The next morning I got on the Reserve California website to see about state park camping for the next couple of days. There are a few Harvest Hosts in the farmland area of central California, but the majority of them are around Lodi and Sacramento – which is where we were headed, so we were trying to find a park. I was pleasantly surprised to see open sites for Camp Edison, a campground in Shaver Lake, which is inside the Shasta National Forest. It was only $40 per night, had all the amenities (including a picnic table and BBQ grill, unlike that state beach), and was only about 4 hours away, so we booked it and headed out.
I generally prefer to only drove 3-5 hours per day. I don’t care to drive Dolly at night at all if I can help it, and I didn’t want to drive her in inclement weather, even though she has new tires and I am good at driving in Weather. Which is why I got a chill up my spine when we were about an hour from our destination and started heading up a mountain, and all the people coming down, the opposite way, were covered with snow. The weather report had said it would be around 44 most of the day, which seemed cold, but we were going to have all of the hookups and a heater, so it didn’t matter.
But then I saw the signs about snowy conditions year-round. And tire chains required year-round. And it’s February. And I don’t have tire chains. And I really, really don’t want to drive in the snow at all, but I already booked it and I am already halfway up this mountain. So, like a dumbass, I keep going.
We drive through the snowy picturesque town of Shaver Lake, with snow a foot high. We pull into Camp Edison and inform them that we have a reservation. They hand over a parking placard and direct us to our campsite … without ever even asking our names. I guess we were the only ones crazy enough to be up there in a damn RV.
They had scraped a hole in the snow big enough – barely – for Dolly, and we spent a very long, but not exactly cold, night at Camp Edison. We had a good heater going, and it wasn’t that freezing cold (especially compared to the polar vortex enveloping most of the rest of the country this week!).
However, I did have an unusually (for me) high amount of anxiety about getting back down that hill. I scoured every map looking for another way off of that damn mountain, but there were none. I could barely sleep thinking about how I was going to get this RV down a steep (there was an 11% grade in some places), windy, precarious, snowy, icy mountain road, with no chains and no guardrails.
There was a storm coming that next afternoon, so we got the hell out of there by 8 a.m. I luckily was not far behind the snowplow, and the road was as clear as it could have been, given the circumstances. Once I was finally at the bottom, it didn’t seem as scary, but wow … that was intense. And altogether not a very restful night or fun time, but that wasn’t the fault of anyone but me for not bothering to see why no one else was booked at this joint.
So, Belinda and I made a deal – no more state parks without proper research.
For the next nearly two weeks, we had a blast sampling wines and visiting friends and family. We took a historic food tour of downtown Sacramento. We hung out in hot natural mineral baths. We had impossibly decadent dinners in wine country. We had a small accident, but nothing that can’t be fixed. My new post on all of those awesome details is coming soon!
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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.