Part 9: This is Bat Country

After I got my poor window fixed, I spent a few days camping around San Diego. I wanted to do some desert camping in the month of March, before it got super hot or super crowded.

But before we headed to the desert, my brother and sister-in-law took me to the Taste of Boysenberry Festival at Knott’s Berry Farm. I had never been before and my last time at Knott’s was when I was like nine years old … but my big brother and SIL go there all the time (when there isn’t a pandemic). Attendance was limited, pandemic precautions were pretty intense, and all of the rides were closed; the park was open as a food festival only. And it was amazing. The park is a fun place to be no matter what the event is, and all of the food was great.

I was really impressed with their pandemic procedure … everyone had to wear a mask except for when they were actively sitting down and eating food. The rest of the time – walking, ordering, anything else – you had to be masked up. No walking and drinking or eating. Everyone over the age of 2 was in a mask. If you let it slip, they’d remind you to pull it up.

It was also super fun to hang out with my brother and sister-in-law … they’ve only recently come into my life, but we have a really fun and loving relationship, and I am so thankful for it. Plus, he’s a theme park blogger (check out Park Journey) and knew everyone at Knott’s. It was much better going there when it was limited in numbers and I was with someone who knew their way around.

And yes, I bought him that super cool shirt.

The food was really amazing as well. There were a few dishes that were really good, a few that were OK, and a couple of special dishes, like the bao bun with boysenberry kimchi, that slapped so hard I want them to sell me that kimchi in a jar. Or a 5-gallon bucket.

The next week, Belinda and I went to Lake Cahuilla, which is a man-made lake just outside of Palm Desert, and a Riverside county park that offers primitive and hook-up RV camping. (For the uninitiated, “full hookup” usually refers to electricity, water and sewer hookup at the campsite itself. Most of the ones that offer “partial hookups” only refer to the electricity and water, but those campgrounds invariably have a sewer dump you can use, just not at your actual site. Primitive is no hookups at all.) We had partial hookups and a dump station on site. We stayed there for five days, and it was super windy for a couple of those days, so we didn’t spend as much time outside of the RV as I had planned.

Lake Cahuilla is technically in the desert, but it’s in almost a canyon … totally surrounded by mountains. So when the wind blows, it’s pretty intense, but when it’s calm, it’s very nice and peaceful. We just had to do most of our cooking inside the RV, or if we did it on the campfire, the food was totally covered to protect it from dust storms.

But it’s a really beautiful place; and you can fish in the lake, hike in the surrounding mountains, or golf or shop in nearby Palm Desert. We opted to chill at the lake … we walked around a but but due to the wind, we mostly stayed indoors.

Of course, because it was Belinda and I, and because we had to be indoor-sy for the week, we ate really, really well. One day we grilled some kama (yellowtail collar, the most tender and delectable part of the fish) and made a beautiful salad, and washed it down with this lovely chilled rose from one of the wine tasting ventures we went on while traveling around California last month.

We also made some polenta cakes with a homemade “Sunday gravy” I was given as a gift, and paired it with the Big Ricardo red blend from Chronic Cellars.

We’re really getting the hang of this wine pairing thing!

I also forgot to mention that I got some amazing boysenberry mustard when I was at that Boysenberry Festival. Over the past month I have used it on so many things … as part of a dip for grilled artichokes, in a potato salad and multiple sandwiches, we coated some steaks in it before we grilled them, …

… and on a really epic homemade chicken salad. I will post the recipes soon (really because I need to get another jar to make a few more recipes from it).

I even got in a little bit of a spa day before the wind picked up again. Isn’t it lovely out there? I can’t wait to come back.

The next week, Belinda went to celebrate her sister’s birthday with her family in Big Bear. After my previous accidental snow driving, I did not want to go. Plus I had reservations at the Salton Sea state recreation area, which is another great desert camping spot. I was there by myself, but it was really lovely and peaceful.

Salton Sea is a very unique place with a lot of history … back in the 30s, it was a military test site. In the 50s and 60s, it was a vacation getaway known as the “California Riviera,” with more annual tourists than Yosemite. Then in the 70s and 80s, it all started going to hell. The sea dried up and became increasingly polluted, and everyone who lived there left.

I was spending a few days at the state park, which is on the northeastern end of the sea. I can see how this was such a tourism draw back in the day when it was clean and lush … from the eastern shore, you can see spectacular sunsets over the western mountains. But then every few years there is a huge die-off of fish, and the whole sea (some 40 miles wide and almost 60 long), which produces a smell and a sight like you can’t imagine.

I couldn’t live there, but I sure enjoyed a few days checking it out.

In a way it’s unfortunate that the Salton Sea has had such a bad rap, but I was happy to take advantage of a nearly empty state park. I made a really awesome untrimmed tri-tip (it was windy at the Salton Sea as well, but not the entire time like when we were at Lake Cahuilla), and it was several meals for me (especially since I was by myself).

After a couple of meals full of steak and potatoes (the best campfire side dish, in my opinion), I made garlic bread and tri-tip, tri-tip and eggs for breakfast, tri-tip salad for lunch, tri-tip nachos, and more.

Then, I was really tired of eating tri-tip.

I had a couple more weeks to kill in San Diego – Belinda’s mom had surgery at the end of March, so she committed to at least two weeks of being at home to help care for her post-surgery. We tentatively planned to leave on the 7th of April. That left me more time for more desert camping, and a bit of beach fun around my birthday on April 1. But first, I went back to one of my favorite places to camp in San Diego county: Sweetwater Regional Park in Bonita.

It’s really a beautiful and peaceful campground. It’s near the freeway so you are close to civilization, but it’s quiet and mellow and there are gorgeous sunset views.

That week, I also got to go sailing! My friend has a membership in a cool sailing club where you can basically use a boat for as long as you like, and they handle all of the maintenance, etc. We had a lovely time sailing around Coronado Island and the San Diego Bay. And it was perfect weather.

I was also really happy to get a new discount pass: both the national parks and the California state parks systems have a free (or super-cheap) lifetime pass for people with permanent disabilities. I’m really excited to have free access and super cheap camping at parks now!

Before the end of March, we did one more desert camping spot: Agua Caliente is a San Diego county regional park, but it’s inside Anza Borrego state park. All of the state park campgrounds were primitive only, so we opted for a county park spot. It was a full moon that weekend and the skies were incredible.

There were no lights other than campfires and campers, but it looked like there was a street lamp on, it was so bright. I have a pretty good camera on my phone, but my apologies because even my good camera doesn’t do justice to how pretty it was.

My brother and SIL joined Belinda and I for the first day there, and we had a blast hiking, taking mineral showers, and cooking up some deliciousness on the wood fire. I have gotten really good at building a campfire, and I had a lot of experience with a grill and smoker before so it’s a great time adjusting those techniques and recipes for a campfire.

One of my goals for this trip was to spend my birthday on the beach, and I was successful in that, at least. I parked for a few days on the street in Ocean Beach, moving my space during the day when the parking was easier, and hanging out with friends in the evening. I met people for happy hours and brunches and lunches and kombuchas in various rooftop bars and patios and outdoor seating areas. It was a few days of lots of drinking and eating and celebration, and it was wonderful. I won’t rehash all of the amazing food I ate all over again, but check out my Insagram for some awesome photos and videos (check out the video of me dipping a birria taco)!

Before I left town, however, I wanted to check out one more of the San Diego county parks. I think I have mentioned it before, but I was really impressed with the county parks. They have a great reservation system, they’re clean and the staff is friendly, and they’re always just good places to be with relaxed vibes. Travel can be stressful sometimes, and it’s nice to have peaceful places to camp. I mean, a truck stop parking lot will do if you just need a place to get some sleep, but if you’re gonna camp, you want it to be nice, you know?

So the last park on my list in San Diego was Guajome Lake park, which is technically in the city of Oceanside, but is also in the mountains with a lake. It had lovely birds and wildlife, and pretty trails for hiking and biking. Like Agua Caliente, it also has cabins for rent close to the RV and tent camping sites, so I think in June I might camp here again with my brother and his family (they would be in a cabin).

All of this desert fun has also done a number on my brakes; when I got back from the Salton Sea my wheel well was making a weird grinding sound. I wasn’t able to see my mechanic for another week so I kept driving. The brakes still seemed fine up until this past week, when I was driving from Sweetwater to a new campsite at Guajome. As I braked, the wheels made a horrible noise. I gingerly and slowly applied the brake again, and it made a worse sound, and shook the whole vehicle as it finally came to a stop. As I pulled into my campsite, I noticed fluid (presumably brake fluid) leaking from my wheel well.

(Photo credit: my sister-in-law Kristi Condon)

After that, I was too freaked out to drive Dolly to my mechanic … I was already planning to see him about an issue with my tail lights, but I didn’t want to risk my brakes completely failing so I called a tow truck. After a terrible ride (the driver wouldn’t wear a mask, and totally damaged my trailer hitch getting Dolly on and off the truck), my mechanic confirmed my worst fears: it was bad.

My brakes were completely shot. Since I don’t have any of the service records for my RV (the previous owner literally stole them out of the RV after he sold it to me), for all I know, the brakes on there are the originals. I know the shocks are the originals. Bernie (my mechanic) showed me how the front rotors were completely destroyed; one was cracked and the other was worn down to a sliver. The back drums weren’t much better and the shocks were old and frayed. Basically everything needs to be replaced. And the electrician had to rewire my whole trailer to get my back lights to work.

As I write this, my RV is still in the shop, and will hopefully be ready tomorrow, and we can hit the road the next day. It will likely cost about $2,000 total for all of the repairs, which is basically all of my money, but I feel much better knowing that it will all be fixed. I’m lucky that I have a trusted mechanic here, instead of finding out when I’m in the middle of nowhere that my brakes or my lights don’t work. It would cost me considerably more. I’m also blessed that I didn’t find out about my brakes by getting into an accident, although that last trip was kinda sketchy. This is lame but it was the best possible outcome.

I’ll be on the road in a couple of days and headed east. I plan to go through Vegas, the desert, Houston and Louisiana, then to my mom’s house in east Tennessee for a few days before I see the east coast. This is the part I am really excited about! Basically other than a school trip and a college internship in Washington, D.C., I pretty much have no experience on the east coast. I don’t have to be back in San Diego again until the first of June, so I plan to see some things and some people on the Atlantic coast before I head west again. I’m looking forward to finally checking more states off of my map!

I can’t wait to see more of our beautiful country, and to share it with you. Stay tuned for my next adventure!

Please donate to my GoFundMe to assist with repairs, of you are able!

Part 6: My First Solo RV Trip

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

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

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

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

I got this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis Lake campground, Tombigbee National Forest, Mississippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the actual view from my campsite!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I am back in California. Yay!

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

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

See you out there on the road!