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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After I got my poor window fixed, I spent a few days camping around San Diego. I wanted to do some desert camping in the month of March, before it got super hot or super crowded.
But before we headed to the desert, my brother and sister-in-law took me to the Taste of Boysenberry Festival at Knott’s Berry Farm. I had never been before and my last time at Knott’s was when I was like nine years old … but my big brother and SIL go there all the time (when there isn’t a pandemic). Attendance was limited, pandemic precautions were pretty intense, and all of the rides were closed; the park was open as a food festival only. And it was amazing. The park is a fun place to be no matter what the event is, and all of the food was great.
I was really impressed with their pandemic procedure … everyone had to wear a mask except for when they were actively sitting down and eating food. The rest of the time – walking, ordering, anything else – you had to be masked up. No walking and drinking or eating. Everyone over the age of 2 was in a mask. If you let it slip, they’d remind you to pull it up.
It was also super fun to hang out with my brother and sister-in-law … they’ve only recently come into my life, but we have a really fun and loving relationship, and I am so thankful for it. Plus, he’s a theme park blogger (check out Park Journey) and knew everyone at Knott’s. It was much better going there when it was limited in numbers and I was with someone who knew their way around.
And yes, I bought him that super cool shirt.
The food was really amazing as well. There were a few dishes that were really good, a few that were OK, and a couple of special dishes, like the bao bun with boysenberry kimchi, that slapped so hard I want them to sell me that kimchi in a jar. Or a 5-gallon bucket.
The next week, Belinda and I went to Lake Cahuilla, which is a man-made lake just outside of Palm Desert, and a Riverside county park that offers primitive and hook-up RV camping. (For the uninitiated, “full hookup” usually refers to electricity, water and sewer hookup at the campsite itself. Most of the ones that offer “partial hookups” only refer to the electricity and water, but those campgrounds invariably have a sewer dump you can use, just not at your actual site. Primitive is no hookups at all.) We had partial hookups and a dump station on site. We stayed there for five days, and it was super windy for a couple of those days, so we didn’t spend as much time outside of the RV as I had planned.
Lake Cahuilla is technically in the desert, but it’s in almost a canyon … totally surrounded by mountains. So when the wind blows, it’s pretty intense, but when it’s calm, it’s very nice and peaceful. We just had to do most of our cooking inside the RV, or if we did it on the campfire, the food was totally covered to protect it from dust storms.
But it’s a really beautiful place; and you can fish in the lake, hike in the surrounding mountains, or golf or shop in nearby Palm Desert. We opted to chill at the lake … we walked around a but but due to the wind, we mostly stayed indoors.
Of course, because it was Belinda and I, and because we had to be indoor-sy for the week, we ate really, really well. One day we grilled some kama (yellowtail collar, the most tender and delectable part of the fish) and made a beautiful salad, and washed it down with this lovely chilled rose from one of the wine tasting ventures we went on while traveling around California last month.
We also made some polenta cakes with a homemade “Sunday gravy” I was given as a gift, and paired it with the Big Ricardo red blend from Chronic Cellars.
We’re really getting the hang of this wine pairing thing!
I also forgot to mention that I got some amazing boysenberry mustard when I was at that Boysenberry Festival. Over the past month I have used it on so many things … as part of a dip for grilled artichokes, in a potato salad and multiple sandwiches, we coated some steaks in it before we grilled them, …
… and on a really epic homemade chicken salad. I will post the recipes soon (really because I need to get another jar to make a few more recipes from it).
I even got in a little bit of a spa day before the wind picked up again. Isn’t it lovely out there? I can’t wait to come back.
The next week, Belinda went to celebrate her sister’s birthday with her family in Big Bear. After my previous accidental snow driving, I did not want to go. Plus I had reservations at the Salton Sea state recreation area, which is another great desert camping spot. I was there by myself, but it was really lovely and peaceful.
Salton Sea is a very unique place with a lot of history … back in the 30s, it was a military test site. In the 50s and 60s, it was a vacation getaway known as the “California Riviera,” with more annual tourists than Yosemite. Then in the 70s and 80s, it all started going to hell. The sea dried up and became increasingly polluted, and everyone who lived there left.
I was spending a few days at the state park, which is on the northeastern end of the sea. I can see how this was such a tourism draw back in the day when it was clean and lush … from the eastern shore, you can see spectacular sunsets over the western mountains. But then every few years there is a huge die-off of fish, and the whole sea (some 40 miles wide and almost 60 long), which produces a smell and a sight like you can’t imagine.
I couldn’t live there, but I sure enjoyed a few days checking it out.
In a way it’s unfortunate that the Salton Sea has had such a bad rap, but I was happy to take advantage of a nearly empty state park. I made a really awesome untrimmed tri-tip (it was windy at the Salton Sea as well, but not the entire time like when we were at Lake Cahuilla), and it was several meals for me (especially since I was by myself).
After a couple of meals full of steak and potatoes (the best campfire side dish, in my opinion), I made garlic bread and tri-tip, tri-tip and eggs for breakfast, tri-tip salad for lunch, tri-tip nachos, and more.
Then, I was really tired of eating tri-tip.
I had a couple more weeks to kill in San Diego – Belinda’s mom had surgery at the end of March, so she committed to at least two weeks of being at home to help care for her post-surgery. We tentatively planned to leave on the 7th of April. That left me more time for more desert camping, and a bit of beach fun around my birthday on April 1. But first, I went back to one of my favorite places to camp in San Diego county: Sweetwater Regional Park in Bonita.
It’s really a beautiful and peaceful campground. It’s near the freeway so you are close to civilization, but it’s quiet and mellow and there are gorgeous sunset views.
That week, I also got to go sailing! My friend has a membership in a cool sailing club where you can basically use a boat for as long as you like, and they handle all of the maintenance, etc. We had a lovely time sailing around Coronado Island and the San Diego Bay. And it was perfect weather.
I was also really happy to get a new discount pass: both the national parks and the California state parks systems have a free (or super-cheap) lifetime pass for people with permanent disabilities. I’m really excited to have free access and super cheap camping at parks now!
Before the end of March, we did one more desert camping spot: Agua Caliente is a San Diego county regional park, but it’s inside Anza Borrego state park. All of the state park campgrounds were primitive only, so we opted for a county park spot. It was a full moon that weekend and the skies were incredible.
There were no lights other than campfires and campers, but it looked like there was a street lamp on, it was so bright. I have a pretty good camera on my phone, but my apologies because even my good camera doesn’t do justice to how pretty it was.
My brother and SIL joined Belinda and I for the first day there, and we had a blast hiking, taking mineral showers, and cooking up some deliciousness on the wood fire. I have gotten really good at building a campfire, and I had a lot of experience with a grill and smoker before so it’s a great time adjusting those techniques and recipes for a campfire.
One of my goals for this trip was to spend my birthday on the beach, and I was successful in that, at least. I parked for a few days on the street in Ocean Beach, moving my space during the day when the parking was easier, and hanging out with friends in the evening. I met people for happy hours and brunches and lunches and kombuchas in various rooftop bars and patios and outdoor seating areas. It was a few days of lots of drinking and eating and celebration, and it was wonderful. I won’t rehash all of the amazing food I ate all over again, but check out my Insagram for some awesome photos and videos (check out the video of me dipping a birria taco)!
Before I left town, however, I wanted to check out one more of the San Diego county parks. I think I have mentioned it before, but I was really impressed with the county parks. They have a great reservation system, they’re clean and the staff is friendly, and they’re always just good places to be with relaxed vibes. Travel can be stressful sometimes, and it’s nice to have peaceful places to camp. I mean, a truck stop parking lot will do if you just need a place to get some sleep, but if you’re gonna camp, you want it to be nice, you know?
So the last park on my list in San Diego was Guajome Lake park, which is technically in the city of Oceanside, but is also in the mountains with a lake. It had lovely birds and wildlife, and pretty trails for hiking and biking. Like Agua Caliente, it also has cabins for rent close to the RV and tent camping sites, so I think in June I might camp here again with my brother and his family (they would be in a cabin).
All of this desert fun has also done a number on my brakes; when I got back from the Salton Sea my wheel well was making a weird grinding sound. I wasn’t able to see my mechanic for another week so I kept driving. The brakes still seemed fine up until this past week, when I was driving from Sweetwater to a new campsite at Guajome. As I braked, the wheels made a horrible noise. I gingerly and slowly applied the brake again, and it made a worse sound, and shook the whole vehicle as it finally came to a stop. As I pulled into my campsite, I noticed fluid (presumably brake fluid) leaking from my wheel well.
After that, I was too freaked out to drive Dolly to my mechanic … I was already planning to see him about an issue with my tail lights, but I didn’t want to risk my brakes completely failing so I called a tow truck. After a terrible ride (the driver wouldn’t wear a mask, and totally damaged my trailer hitch getting Dolly on and off the truck), my mechanic confirmed my worst fears: it was bad.
My brakes were completely shot. Since I don’t have any of the service records for my RV (the previous owner literally stole them out of the RV after he sold it to me), for all I know, the brakes on there are the originals. I know the shocks are the originals. Bernie (my mechanic) showed me how the front rotors were completely destroyed; one was cracked and the other was worn down to a sliver. The back drums weren’t much better and the shocks were old and frayed. Basically everything needs to be replaced. And the electrician had to rewire my whole trailer to get my back lights to work.
As I write this, my RV is still in the shop, and will hopefully be ready tomorrow, and we can hit the road the next day. It will likely cost about $2,000 total for all of the repairs, which is basically all of my money, but I feel much better knowing that it will all be fixed. I’m lucky that I have a trusted mechanic here, instead of finding out when I’m in the middle of nowhere that my brakes or my lights don’t work. It would cost me considerably more. I’m also blessed that I didn’t find out about my brakes by getting into an accident, although that last trip was kinda sketchy. This is lame but it was the best possible outcome.
I’ll be on the road in a couple of days and headed east. I plan to go through Vegas, the desert, Houston and Louisiana, then to my mom’s house in east Tennessee for a few days before I see the east coast. This is the part I am really excited about! Basically other than a school trip and a college internship in Washington, D.C., I pretty much have no experience on the east coast. I don’t have to be back in San Diego again until the first of June, so I plan to see some things and some people on the Atlantic coast before I head west again. I’m looking forward to finally checking more states off of my map!
I can’t wait to see more of our beautiful country, and to share it with you. Stay tuned for my next adventure!
Please donate to my GoFundMe to assist with repairs, of you are able!
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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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?
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.
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).
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.
Now that I have done his a couple of times, I can safely say, traveling without a strict itinerary is the way to go. I had some doctor’s appointments in San Diego, and Nichelina and I both promised our moms we would be back on the East Coast for Christmas, but other than that, we were free to do what we liked on our way east. I had promised my doctor that I would come back after Thanksgiving for more tests and shots, so that gave us a couple more days in California.
I really enjoyed Thanksgiving at my brother’s house.
He’s a theme park blogger (check out his stuff at Park Journey), and I know it hurt him to not be able to go and ride on some roller coasters this year. But the theme parks are making it work; we took a ride through Six Flags Magic Mountain to see the cool decorations and holiday displays. It was really fun ad safe; you didn’t even have to get out of your car to see everything.
I just recently got to know my brother and his family, and they are taking care of my kitty, Janis. I was really worried that Janis – who was practically feral when she adopted me and does not handle change very well – would be stressed and upset without me and after being forcibly moved to a new home with new people.
Let’s just say, if she was upset about the move from an apartment in Ocean Beach to a sweet condo in L.A., it hasn’t affected her appetite. I tried for almost a decade to get her fat, but she always had too much exercise and fresh air outside. Now that she’s an inside kitty, she’s chunked up in less than a couple of months.
After Thanksgiving, Nichelina and I spent a couple more days in San Diego, enjoying another weekend parked at the beach facing the sunset.
We took a chance on some new technology; I really hate the gas generator in the RV — it makes electricity but it’s so loud and gas-guzzling — and I wanted another alternative.
This solar panel is pretty cheap on Amazon, it’s light and folds out into four small panels, and it charges right away. In less than a minute, I was able to unfold it, place it in direct sunlight, and plug in my phone charger, which started charging at full power instantly. I purchased a connector that supposedly will allow me to charge the battery with this solar panel, but we will see. I might not get a chance to test it in Tennessee in wintertime.
There aren’t a lot of Harvest Hosts spots in San Diego county – a few in the mountains and the inland areas, and one in Chula Vista; a golf course. You have to upgrade for a golf membership with Harvest Hosts, but some of the golf clubs make you pay for rounds of golf in order to camp out there. Luckily, the Chula Vista Golf Course is part of a complex that allows overnight parking.
It’s not super fancy, but there is a shopping complex across the street. We got there after dark, but we woke up to a lovely view of a shady golf course.
Since we were in close proximity to some of the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, we took advantage. I got roasted lamb from Aqui es Texcoco, which included a consomme, tortillas, and limes, cilantro and fresh diced onions for garnish.
Then I stopped at Tacos el Gordo, and got carne asada tacos and adobada fries with all of the fixins (aka “con todo y pina”). It was impeccable.
Apparently the city of Chula Vista is saluting health care workers, as they should be doing. On my way to Tacos El Gordo, I even saw a flag with Dr. Marilyn Norton, who was one of my oncologists when I had breast cancer a few years ago. She’s great and I’m glad she’s being recognized.
Anyway, I also took the opportunity to enjoy some more sun and Mexican food before I left San Diego. This is the breakfast burrito from Nico’s on Newport Avenue near the beach. It got me through many a morning in OB.
I wrapped up my last day in southern California with with stupid cancer nonsense; I needed a bone scan, a hormone shot and an infusion, as well as to meet again with my oncologist. I decided – either wisely or stupidly – to get it all done in one long day at the hospital.
Dolly (the RV) had other ideas.
While I was in the hospital all day, Dolly took this opportunity to let her ass slip. The fender (which holds the poop tube and the covered spare tire) was falling off – and this is definitely the sort of thing that can do some damage if it hits you on the highway.
The exhaust pipe was also slipping.
The left turn signal was going in and out.
The windshield was cracked.
What the hell.
Once again, I survived because of the ingenuity and connections of my friends.
While I was getting a shot in the butt, an infusion through a chest port, an oncologist consultation and a bone scan, Nichelina was teaming up with our friend Tully to remove the heavy spare tire from the fender and get the RV to a place where they could do all of the welding and an oil change. She bought a cheap part that fixed the errant turn signal, and the crack on the windshield appeared to be very low on the glass pane, so we decided it was at least good enough for us to hit the road.
It’s really amazing that for this entire trip, all of the mechanical issues we had could be fixed for a minimal expense.
I’m happy to say that we all held up quite nicely through the mountains — Nichelina and I are still friends, Dego the dog has had another eventful cross-country trip, and Dolly is still running.
Dolly also got an oil change at the same time the rear fender and exhaust pipe was welded back on, so she was driving really smoothly. She certainly was slow driving through some of those steep mountain grades between Utah and Arizona, but nothing worse than what you’d expect with such a non-aerodynamic vehicle going up a big mountain.
At the Four Corners, it was pretty bleak — the Navajo Nation has been ravaged by Covid, so pretty much everything except the most essential services are still available. The Harvest Hosts stop we parked at that night was one of the essential businesses: a trading post and gas station in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.
It’s a lovely store and a warm place to stop (presumably it’s nicer in the summer and when there isn’t a devastating pandemic going on), and we got some cool souvenirs.
That whole area is really unusual, especially in the winter. The air is cold but dry, and you have static electricity everywhere you go … especially in an RV containing a million blankets and a dog.
The next day we went on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and we got some amazing burgers and enjoyed a bit of a rest before we headed east. We decided instead of a Harvest Host, we would just drive until we wanted to stop, and park at a free lot then head to Texas in the morning. After a nice sleep at a truck stop, we went through the rest of New Mexico and west Texas (snore), then stopped in Lubbock at the Buddy Holly museum.
We didn’t have a lot of time to spend there – we were trying to get to that night’s Harvest Host stop and then on to my sister’s in Houston by nightfall – but it was a really fun museum and a nice stop after driving for a few hours.
Our Harvest Host that night was in Abilene – a small meadery in the downtown area where we learned about the process of making mead, and enjoyed a lovely dinner with the hosts.
Amber Dragon Meadery makes small batches of different fruity honey wines made in the ancient process, and they have a really cool tasting area and collection of Viking items.
As we have come to expect from Harvest Hosts (other than the Nazi incident), Amber Dragon was a great small business we are proud to support, and after a great night’s sleep (that mead packs a punch), we were on our way again.
Oh yes, the ‘Nazi incident’; if you didn’t read my last post, I’ll give you the short version: we stayed at a former Harvest Host stop called Wicked Kreations, which was not only far below the standards of beauty and cleanliness we have come to expect, but they were displaying Nazi flags. They said later that their dirty motorcycle garage was a military museum, but they also said their dirty home was a winery, so they are clearly not living in the same realm of reality as you and I.
When we told POC (and allies) not to shop or stay there, they tried to retaliate; saying we stole from them (as if!) and trying to get their buddies to harass us.
I also learned this week that the wife (or girlfriend) of the alleged murderer passed away on December 9.I know she had cancer and was obviously suffering due to an alleged assault and her partner’s PTSD, but I don’t know the cause or circumstances.Regardless of the details, it’s certainly tragic, and I am sorry for her death. May her memory be a blessing.
Dolly had been running really well up until we got to Texas, but then the battery that powers the camper stopped working. The battery that runs the engine was fine, so we could still drive, but in the middle of our nice evening at that meadery, our lights went out and wouldn’t come back on unless we had the generator on, or the RV plugged in.
Luckily we were in the home stretch. We could plug in at my sister’s house and in Louisiana, then we would be back at mom’s.
Once we were in Houston, of course, we forgot to take any photos of anything except food…
… but we had a really great time.
Unlike when I was in Louisiana and southeastern Texas back in September, the weather this time was mild, the traffic wasn’t full of tourists, and the bugs had gone back to Hell where they belong. After a couple days of stuffing ourselves full of Chinese food, Italian food, Cajun food; and every cookie, donut and kolache available, we headed to Louisiana.
Long before Nichelina and I decided to do a nationwide road trip together, we met in Ocean Beach. Our mutual friend, Belinda, who introduced us – and is a lover of food, drink, and debauchery just like us – has been living and working in southern Louisiana for some time.
We had originally planned to meet up with Belinda and go to New Orleans. When we arrived, Belinda had more work to do, and it was more like another four-hour drive to New Orleans, so we opted to stay somewhere closer.
Between friends and Harvest Hosts, we managed to be on the road for over a month without using a campground. When we were thinking about New Orleans, we were looking at a campground in the French Quarter that was about $100 per night, and another outside of the city that was a state-run campground for abut $20-30. We completely randomly chose the Indian Creek Recreational Area, simply because it was cheap and close to our friend’s house. And we needed a plug-in since the battery was acting up.
It was completely accidental, but it was the best decision! It was so pretty and peaceful there.
I picked the parking spot sight-unseen (just looking at their map), and close the biggest spot that was close to the lake and far away from the kids’ playground. It was a perfect area, with gorgeous views of the lake, the trees, and the sunset.
The park was actually pretty full – maybe 60% – for the winter, but everyone was really quiet and chill. I definitely was proud of myself for accidentally picking the best campground ever (for less than $40 for two days!), and I plan to use them much more often now. I’m also a huge fan of using someone else’s electricity instead of my finicky battery or my loud, gross generator.
I loved the views and fire pit and the peaceful night’s sleep, but it’s definitely worth $18 per night to have power, water, a shower, and a dump station. And it was great to have a couple of days to catch up with my friend and hang out without any place to go.
Speaking of dump station, the Indian Creek campground dump station was the first place I ever emptied Dolly’s poop tank by myself. (Hopefully they will be erecting the historical marker on the spot soon.) I had watched the YouTube videos, and read the manual, and watched others do it, but I had never done it, really, actually, myself. I was intimidated, to say the least, but I am proud to report that I did it all alone and did it very well. Now I feel much more confident about doing it myself.
On that last stretch from Louisiana to Tennessee, we had originally planned to park for the night at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi, which is a privately funded, non-profit museum and music educational center, as well as a Harvest Host parking spot. We made much better time getting there than anticipated, so we decided to keep on trucking (after checking out the museum) instead of stopping there overnight.
They even have a cool replica of Lucille (King’s favorite guitar) outside.
It didn’t feel right to snap photos like a tourist, but I also wanted to be sure to never forget this happened.
We kept driving until late, making it to almost an hour west of Nashville, then the next day we drove the rest of the way to my mom’s house. It was uneventful and took less time than anticipated. By the time the end of the trip came along, we were ready to not be on the road anymore, and Nichelina had much further to go. We decided to scrap seeing friends in Nashville and the surrounding areas – I could spend a week seeing friends there, so I’ll take a short trip there after the holidays.
We unloaded most of our things from Dolly as soon as we arrived, and Nichelina left for home (in Philadelphia) right away the next morning to avoid a storm coming towards the east coast.
The end of Dolly’s first round trip was very unceremonious and abrupt compared to the emotional preamble, the endless amounts of tiny details, and always-shifting departure time in the lead-up to leaving.
I plan to stay at my mom’s house in Tennessee for a couple of weeks, to enjoy Christmas and New Year’s with my family and get the RV battery taken care of before I hit the road again. In early January I want to do a trip to Nashville, maybe another to Atlanta or Birmingham to see other friends, and maybe some nights at local campgrounds, just to see which ones I like the best.
I will leave Tennessee around January 20th to get to San Diego for more tests and doctor’s visits at the end of January. In the meantime, stay tunes to this space for some more updates, and my Instagram and Facebook pages for more up-to-date details.
As I write this, we have been on the road for almost a month, and we have all held up surprisingly well. When I say “we,” I am referring obviously to myself, but also to my friend, Nichelina, who drove to my mom’s house in Tennessee from her home in Philadephia in order to join me on a nationwide road trip of indeterminate length, and her 11-year-old service pitbull named Dego.
We were all good friends before this trip, but it is fair to say that we have learned a lot about each other after traveling together for so long in a 22-foot-long RV.
Dego has been a very good boy, and mostly rests during the day while we’re moving.
At several times in this story, “we” also includes my RV, who I have named Dolly. She also has performed remarkably well for a vehicle built in 1995-1996 and barely driven 50 miles per year. She only stopped working once, and we were able to get that issue fixed (in a way that probably only happens in a sitcom). More on that later.
Of course, we are also traveling during a pandemic, which severely limits the socializing we would normally be doing. Instead of stopping in a strange town and popping down to the local bar or restaurant to meet some people and ask about the fun places to go, we take our food to go, eat it in the RV (she has a nice dining area), and ask the carryout guy or the gas station attendant or the Harvest Hosts host about local places of interest.
Luckily we have an RV that makes us feel safe, at least in terms of Covid protection – no hotels or restaurants necessary. And luckily, we’re good friends.
Our plan was to head generally westward, stopping at cool places along the way, and using Harvest Hosts as much as possible. I’ve explained about HH before, but essentially it is a membership for RV owners; you pay an annual subscription (which is stupid cheap) to be able to park overnight at privately-owned wineries, farms, distilleries, breweries, and other unique places of interest.
You don’t pay the host for parking, but you are expected to purchase something if they are selling (wine at a winery, cheese at a dairy farm, etc.). Most of them are small farms or businesses, many of the owners live on the property as well.
Of course, there are some areas of the country without Harvest Hosts available, so, as RV owners and travelers know, you can also park for free overnight at (almost) any Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco, Cracker Barrel, and most Indian casinos and truck stops. Many of these are open 24 hours, but all have 24-hour security.
Anyway, Nichelina arrived at my mom’s house a few days before we left, because we were still fixing it up — a thousand tiny little touches that needed to happen before we got on the road.
Just as an example, we spent an inordinant amount of time fixing the step up into the camper. I wanted the first view you see when you walk in to be a pretty color and something nice, not just the ugly carpet stapled to the wall. We took several days to paint it, prepare the backsplash, and fix the contoured step.
Of course, now that we have been on the road, we have thought of a thousand more things to fix or redo. By the time we get back to Tennessee again, we will have a completely different idea of RV traveling than we did before we started.
The plan was to leave by noon on Halloween. Then it was by 4 p.m.
We finally left my mom’s house at about 8 p.m.
As we went up the hill and out of the driveway, Dolly started to shake and make a wheezing noise between 35 and 45 mph. We had called ahead to a Harvest Host – Bristol Caverns, a privately owned tourist attraction of a cavern tour and museum – and they told us we could come after business hours. It was about an hour from my mom’s; which we did intentionally, in case we forgot something or something else bad happened that first night.
That first night was 26 degrees. That night I learned that the air conditioning unit was not also a heater. That night I learned how to prime the generator and get it to work – and then realized I did not bring a heater. And how did I never notice how loud that generator is? Also the stove pilot light wasn’t working … it felt like it didn’t have gas going to it, but the reader on the tank said it was half full.
We ended up deciding to use the microwave instead of the stove until we can get a propane guy to check it out – somehow there is enough propane to run the refrigerator, which was great, but it was still weird. The weird shaking and wheezing that happened between 35-45 mph was still happening.
Since it was Sunday when we woke up, we weren’t able to visit the Bristol Caverns, so we headed to Mammoth Caves in southern Kentucky.
We called ahead to another Harvest Host — Traveler’s Cellar in Rockfield, Kentucky. They were having a private party that night (like many hosts, they live on the property), but they were kind enough us a quick wine tasting anyway. We got there just in time for sunset, and to buy a bottle of the bubbly red Baco Noir.
It was lovely. I’ve never had a fizzy red wine before but I really loved it.
The next morning we attempted to visit Mammoth Caves, but due to my walker (which I still need occasionally), we weren’t able to get a tour. We had a great time driving around the park and surrounding areas.
Unfortunately, everything we want to visit is either closed due to the pandemic, or they’re totally changed because of it.
The next night, we stayed at another Harvest Host, a distillery in eastern Kentucky.
Again, we arrived just before dark. Since we were headed west and it’s wintertime, there isn’t a lot of sunlight, and we didn’t want to drive too much at night. Plus, most Harvest Hosts want you to get there before it gets dark.
We had a great time at Casey Jones Distillery, learning about the history of Casey Jones and the moonshine business back in the day.
We sampled a variety of moonshines and bourbons, purchased a few bottles for gifts for some friends, and the next morning, we were on our way to southern Illinois.
The area around western Kentucky, southern Illinois and Missouri is really beautiful. In our comparatively short time on the road, we have seen some really beautiful landscapes. Southern Illinois also has a lot of cool wineries in the area around the Shawnee National Forest.
When we got to Illinois, we stayed at Starview Vineyards, probably one of our favorite Harvest Hosts stops.
They had a lovely spot to park, a nice restaurant where we could sample some of their wines and have an early dinner, and the view from our table at their pond was spectacular.
From there, we headed towards St. Louis, to see the Gateway Arch National Park and to stay at another Harvest Host outside of the city limits.
The Gateway Arch actually has a really pretty park and pedestrian walkway around it, as well as a museum and gift shop underground.
We parked downtown and walked all around, admiring the artwork and the lovely park…
… then we had a yummy to-go lunch of Korean food.
As I said, pretty much all of our meals were takeout, and enjoyed at our small dining room table in the RV. I painted some of the walls and used wallpaper on others, but the table and benches were pretty much unaltered.
We also enjoyed our stay at the Point Labaddie Brewery just outside of St. Louis. The night we arrived, they had an (outdoor) trivia night, and there were a few other Harvest Hosts RVers we hung out with (socially distanced, of course).
We had a great time drinking local beer around a nice campfire, making new friends and relaxing.
The next morning we kept west towards Kansas City, driving through the Ozarks and enjoying the scenery. One of our new friends at trivia night had recommended Lone Elk County Park, where we could drive around on a one-way road and see the elk during mating season.
We got to see a lot of wildlife, including beautiful birds and, as promised, lots of elk. We got to drive up and observe a pair of young elk fighting each other.
(I apologize for the grainy photo, I zoomed in a lot. I wasn’t about to get too close to wild and randy and violent elk who are antler-fighting each other during mating season.)
The lake communities around the Ozarks are really cute, and the flat land and lakes were a welcome respite after driving through the smoky mountains and the hills of Kentucky.
Nichelina had taken over driving, and I was chilling in the back; which is actually really fun. You get a better view and a more comfortable chair.
We were comfortably on our way to get BBQ in Kansas City – as comfortable as you can be when your vehicle shakes uncontrollably between 35-45 miles per hour – when the engine died.
It would start, so it wasn’t the battery. It happened suddenly with no warning lights so it wasn’t the catalytic converter. And we were able to restart the engine and move it (slowly) to a side street, before it died again.
I should point out that this tiny town of Eldon, Missouri, was the best possible place where we could have broken down. In the 45 minutes we were waiting on the side of the road for AAA to tow us to the repair shop, no fewer than a dozen people, including an EMT on his way to work and an off-duty police officer, stopped to ask us if we were OK, to offer advice and counsel, and to recommend a repair shop. They all said the same one: U Rench it.
It was around sunset when we broke down, so it was fully dark by the time we got a tow truck, they got the RV on the truck, and we got to the shop. They were about to close, but in the dark, the mechanic could tell that the problem was that — no kidding – mice had chewed through the fuel injector wires. It was an easy fix, but they couldn’t do it until the morning.
Curtis (the mechanic) let us park overnight at the secure repair shop lot, staying in our RV, and then first thing in the morning, he replaced the wires. It took about an hour because, in the daylight, he realized the spark plug wires had also been gnawed.
For a grand total of $72, we got back on the road, the RV actually drove better due to the new spark plug wires and fuel injector wires, and he showed us how to turn on our propane tank. It turned out, the fridge actually wasn’t working, it was just cold. (The food stayed cold in there when we were in Tennessee and Kentucky, but then when it warmed up again, so did our food.)
So it was a winning day all around… especially because Curtis also recommended moth balls in the engine to stop more mice and wildlife from gnawing our engine wires; and he directed us to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, a super cool hidden gem of a state park in the Ozarks.
They have an amazing natural rock bridge, which was dry from a drought, so we could actually climb and walk underneath it.
The state park is also home to an old castle built by a Kansas City business man in the early 1900s, and the ruins of the castle and surrounding views are spectacular.
I started to be really glad that we broke down in Missouri.
Finally we made it to Kansas City, where we had some really good BBQ at Jack Stacks BBQ.
Our Harvest Hosts stop for that night was a cider mill in Louisburg, Kansas, but we got there after dark and didn’t see anything until the sun came up.
And it was so cute! Pretty much by the time they opened at 8 a.m, the place was packed. I was still walking around, looking at everything while still in my PJs, and the people at Loiusburg Cider Mill were already making cider.
It was a Saturday morning, and dozens of families and visitors had arrived, already deep in their hot apple cider and cider donuts. I got some donuts, which were amazing, and some delicious fresh cider and apple cider slushie to wash them down.
Our goal was to get to Colorado before dark (or at least before too late), so I could get some Rick Simpson Oil and other CBD extracts before I started a new chemo drug. I have been on hormonal treatments (the tumors in my bones are actually breast cancer cells, so they are shrinking my tumors by cutting off estrogen), but I was starting a new regimen of oral chemotherapy pills, and I wanted to have some proper CBDs in my system so I could be as healthy as possible before I started.
Anyway, it took forever to get though Kansas, but it sure was better than slogging through that last part of west Texas that lasts forever when you’re trying to get west. (Anyone who has traveled that stretch knows what I mean.) We finally arrived in Colorado, found the nearest Wal-Mart, and stopped for the night.
As soon as we got the RSO, we headed south to New Mexico, where we unfortunately had the craziest part of our trip. It was a Harvest Hosts stop in northern New Mexico, a winery (there is a really great wine scene in New Mexico, their wines are all very unique, but more about that later). I will decline to name and tag them in this post, for reasons which will soon become apparent.
We did what we always did; called ahead to let them know we were coming, and our approximate time of arrival. We arrived just after sunset and before it got (really really) dark. Instantly, we knew this was not a normal HH stop. The place was dark and at the end of a dirt road. There were no markings. There was no sign. There were no lights. It didn’t appear to be a business at all. A man (who we later learned was the husband of the woman we spoke to), let us in the main gate, then locked it behind us.
As I mentioned, my RV is 22 feet long, which is very small for an RV. I cannot fathom how a rig bigger than mine would fit there. I started to wonder why these people were listed as a Harvest Host, and why in the world the reviews of this place – which discussed how the building was built in 1920 and used to be a dance hall – didn’t mention that it barely appeared to be a functioning business.
Nichelina commented (correctly) that it looked worse than the Wal-Mart we had slept at the previous night. I got out of the RV, with my mask on, and the lady told me that I didn’t need to wear one, because “everything is sanitary around here, even the dirt is sanitized.” Needless to say, this was not true — the place (and the people) were quite objectively dirty. But we were there, we were locked in. We had told them we were staying, I felt at that point it would have been more awkward to just turn around and leave.
We go inside to see their operation (the site boasts tasting flights and tours of their facility), and discover that this old 1920-era building, which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since it was a Prohibition-era dance hall, is a (mostly) one-room building. You have to walk through a dirty motorcycle garage to enter. There is no winery or tasting room, and our host informs us that because of some legal snafu with the Catholic Church owning property within a certain distance, they are not allowed to operate it as a winery or as a tasting room. But, of course, they still do, offering wines to Harvest Hosts RVers and people doing wine tours in the area. I have no idea how the New Mexico Board of Tourism backed them without a proper winery, but they did. We got the tour, which included a view of a tiny room with a bunch of TV screens, where we could see ourselves. They had cameras on every inch of the property. It was not like any other Harvest Host we had been to.
But I digress.
We were tasting wine in the tasting room/bedroom, at an antique table within view of our host’s unmade bed and laundry room, when she proceeded to tell us all about the neighborhood; including that she had been sexually assaulted by one of her neighbors. The assault had allegedly taken place in the room where we were sitting, just a couple of months prior, in full view of the many cameras all over the place, but she told us the man was still not in jail. This also did not make us feel better about camping there overnight.
The final crack was when we were headed back to our RV. The hosts had offered to let us use their bathroom (we only use the RV one for emergencies, and we hadn’t yet figured out the water pump), and when we walked through the motorcycle garage you need to walk through to get to the “winery,” we saw Nazi and Confederate flags.
I consider myself a tolerant person. I am liberal politically, but I can accept other points of view. I draw the line at fucking Nazis, though. And I think most people do.
Needless to say, now we really wanted to get the heck out of there.
We again decided that making a break for it now would be too awkward, plus it was dark, the roads were windy and unfamiliar, we were in an RV, and we had both drank the equivalent of about two glasses of wine at our bedside tasting. We decided the best course of action would be to get out of there as soon as possible in the morning, and to let Harvest Hosts and everyone else know to stay away from this place.
The people had been nice to us, but the place was so dirty, and so below standards … and it just made me sick to my stomach to think of a Black or Jewish person coming there as part of Harvest Hosts, or wine tasting for a birthday party, and seeing a Nazi party flag and other racist nonsense so prominently displayed. We notified Harvest Hosts, the NM Board of Tourism, and put a detailed public post on Facebook and Google reviews.
In the two weeks or so since we left that place, they apparently got wind of our posts, because they have now claimed that their dirty garage with the lawn chairs and motorcycle parts and Amazon boxes in it was actually a “military museum,” and those multiple racist icons and flags were just, like, exhibits on display. Makes sense, right? Because that’s how you would display a flag in a museum, draped over some boxes, or hanging up next to where you and your buddies sit around and smoke cigarettes? That’s your priceless artifact, there as an educational tool, next to the bottle of cleanser?
Come on. Look at those photos. This ain’t a museum; and it ain’t a winery. It’s a couple of racist, white trash people who learned how to make homemade wine, trying to pretend they are better than they are.
I believe that these flags were and are a statement. You don’t pick them up accidentally, you don’t display them without knowing what they are, and you don’t display them unless you believe in them. This dump was nothing close to a museum, but even if it was, just for the sake of argument, there is no museum that would display racist icons like this without explanation or context, if at all. A racist flag in a dirty garage is just that.
That’s all I am going to say about it, because they are also claiming they called New Mexico state police, because they say we stole priceless military artifacts from their “military museum,” and they are trying to get their friends to harass me on social media. They even found an old photo from September, of my sister and I, and added it to their sprawling Facebook post, claiming that she and I were the ones who visited, when of course, it was Nichelina and I, and of course we didn’t steal anything. They have the tapes to prove where we were every second we were on their property, so I am not worried about the cops. I know we didn’t steal, and I know we did the right thing by telling people about this place. No regrets.
I will say that I am disappointed in Harvest Hosts for allowing these people back on to their program after removing them, but I suppose they were convinced about the military museum thing. I still have a Google review active, so hopefully visitors will check first before visiting. I am still wary of any people of color coming to visit, but I assume they would have taken down the troublesome flags by now.
UPDATE: OMG YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE THIS. A week or so after I published this, the online harassment started by (I can now name and tag them) Wicked Kreations continued, and I received a Facebook message from someone I don’t know.
I am also happy to report that Harvest Hosts has removed these people from their app now. I spoke to them, and they explained that Wicked Kreations was temporarily removed when I showed them the flags, but reinstated when they provided HH with paperwork showing that they were a “military museum.” (You all know my opinion on that.)
Harvest Hosts explained that they had to give these people the benefit of the doubt, which I understand, but now that this has happened, I think they understand what kind of people they’re dealing with here. I really love Harvest Hosts, so I’m very happy it all came out well … except, of course, for that guy at the grocery store on Thanksgiving.
I guess if that’s the worst and craziest thing that happens to us on this trip, we’ll be just fine, right?
New Mexico is stunning, and the landscape is much more varied than you might imagine if you’ve never visited. There are mountains and plains, arid deserts and green valleys. We were at high elevation and it was early November, so it was very sunny, yet cold, and the ground was frozen.
It was beautiful.
As I mentioned before, New Mexico has a great wine scene. They have the usual whites and reds, but because grapes are so hard to grow in New Mexico, local producers often incorporate lots of other fruits and herbs. The unnamed Nazis made some wine from strawberries and others from native chokecherries.
Our next Harvest Host was like we have come to expect: wide-open spaces, lovely vineyards, warm hospitality, no racist flags of any kind.
Wines of the San Juan has an adorable little outdoor seating area as well as a small tasting room and gift shop, plus they offered electric and water hookups, which is really nice when your generator is super loud.
When we arrived at Wines of the San Juan, we noticed a lot of other farms nearby, but apparently a small, local lavender farm produces enough lavender for WSJ to make a delicious lavender wine. It tastes like a slightly fruity white wine, but has a strong lavender scent and taste. It’s wonderful. They also make a sweet cherry pie wine and other blackberry and fruity blends. It was probably the most variety we saw in any of our wine tasting travels on this leg of the trip.
The rest of the trip to San Diego went fairly quickly … we went west on a remote highway that went back and forth a couple of times between Arizona and Utah. It was cold and dry and remote.
It was also spectacularly beautiful.
Part of the drive went through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which has some of the most beautiful rock formations you’ve ever seen. We had to stop for a few minutes to enjoy the scenery, take some pictures, and let Dego stretch his paws.
Then we spent a couple of nights with friends in Las Vegas (who have been quarantining), and from there straight into southern California. In San Bernardino, we ran into some issues trying to find a free spot to park — no Harvest Hosts were nearby, so we went to a Wal-Mart, only to be kicked out around midnight. Apparently the store parking thing doesn’t work if you’re in a city or county that doesn’t allow overnight parking or camping; which is most of southern California. Eventually we found a cool security guard at a Costco who let us park there for a few hours, but it was technically illegal.
Aaah, but to be back in Ocean Beach. We left the San Bernardino parking lot super early and we were back in Ocean Beach and enjoying the salty air and the warm sun by noon.
We’ve basically been on the beach all week… parking at various friends’ homes at night and sitting at the beach all day.
My stepbrother visited us and showed us cool things about my RV, like how to light the stove, adjust the water pressure, and empty the black tank (I did read the manual on those things, but hadn’t done them yet). But every day on the beach ends with a lovely sunset out the front window.
I am spending Thanksgiving at my brother’s while Nichelina and Dego and Dolly are in San Diego, and we will meet up again this weekend and head back east on Tuesday (after more doctor’s visits and scans on Monday). In the meantime, we feel better about cooking in the RV and emptying the tanks if we need to.
I also had another sitting with my friend Missy, who runs the Breast Cancer Portrait Project. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really an amazing and inspiring body of work, telling the stories and sharing photos of women who were under 40 when they were diagnosed with breast cancer.
I sat for a session with Missy about a year ago, when I was celebrating being a survivor. Now that cancer is back, she offered to come to the beach and photograph me again in my RV.
I strongly recommend that you visit her site and her social media and support this amazing project.
I will update soon with the next leg of the trip. The tentative plan now is to head due east, stopping in Houston and Louisiana on the way back to Tennessee. We will definitely enjoy the scenery and the Harvest Hosts and the food, but Nichelina and I both promised our moms we would be on the east coast by Christmas, so we can’t lag too much.
I think I have found my new favorite Mexican food spot, you guys. They’re authentic, they’re classy, and they’ve got lots and lots of soups. What more could you want?
This past week, I finally got to check out Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café in the Hillcrest/Balboa Park neighborhood. It’s been there for decades, but I am behind; I know. I had no idea what a great place I was missing. The service isn’t just great; the servers treat you like you’re a guest in their home … because you practically are. Most of Jimmy’s employees have been working for him for decades. It is quite apparent that everyone there loves their jobs, and loves Jimmy himself.
The food is ALL homemade. It is ALL authentic. It is ALL Jimmy Carter approved. But for me, the best part is the soup list.
Albondigas (meatball soup)
There are four soups that are on the permanent, daily menu – Creamy Black Bean, Chicken Tortilla, Albondigas, and Chicken Pozole.
Green chicken pozole
There is menudo every weekend.
But that’s not all! Every day, the chef picks 2-3 more soups to have on special that day (Check out Jimmy Carter’s Instagram page for daily special announcements). There are over two dozen rotating soups, from calabaza y elotes and caldo de res, to Mexican clam chowder and spicy pork guerrero.
Chicken tortilla soup
Their soup list is INSANE. I managed to escape with their internal soup list, which details the ingredients and garnishes for each one.
I mean, right?! And this is just the soup list.
I’ll take one of each!
You could eat here every day for a month and never have the same meal twice. I love it!
In addition to the albondigas and green chicken pozole, I also checked out some delicious wet tacos (above) and some mini quesadillas (below) stuffed with chicken and carnitas.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about their sauces.
Every item on the menu can be topped with one of their handmade and super-authentic spicy sauces.
I got to try them all, and I think the Tlaquepaque is my favorite. I see why it’s the most popular … it’s creamy and spicy and good on literally everything.
There is literally nothing I would not like to eat with this sauce, but Jimmy himself recommends the cheese enchiladas with this gorgeous stuff on top.
This Saturday I enjoyed an afternoon of Latin food and music from all over southern California, including tons of delicious wines and sangrias, and more than one type of tequila (hiccup). I got a little sunburned, but it’s a small price to pay to enjoy all the bites and drinks I want for three hours, while partying at the Embarcadero Marina Park.
It was a beautiful day, and the sangria was flowing like … wine.
Most of the vendors were drink companies, so the few that were food had pretty long lines. Luckily they were all delicious, so who can complain? I really loved the bacon-wrapped hot dog con todo (with everything)…
… and the Sheraton’s sample of marinated pork loin, savory sourdough bread pudding, house salsa roja and pineapple mostarda:
There were many other fine offerings, like this fancy short rib appetizer:
… potatoes with three “Mojo sauces” from Driana (Chef Adriana from the Food Network):
This month, I got to check out San Diego’s newest and freshest spot. The Ceviche House in North Park combines a family atmosphere with fresh and fast food.
For the last four months, I’ve been on intense chemotherapy, so my doctors didn’t let me eat any raw fish or other foods that might present a greater risk of illness. I finally got the All-Clear to eat some, and I am so excited to be able to enjoy beautiful dishes like this again.
And it was perfect.
I got the Ensenada (yellowtail, watermelon, pomegranate seeds, microgreens, avocado, and chili-sesame oil) on a tostada — but you can get any of their menu items on a lettuce wrap or bowl if you want to skip the carbs. I was concerned that the chili-sesame oil might be too spicy (my mouth is still a little sensitive to spice after chemo), but it’s a perfect compliment to the sweetness of the watermelon and the saltiness of the fresh yellowtail. I could have eaten 2 or 3 of these!
And just look at how pretty it is! I’d never had ceviche without peppers and onions before, or with fruit, but the combination of flavors in this dish is amazing … I can see why it’s one of their most popular dishes.
I had a hard time deciding, because all of the options looks amazingly delicious. Tuna, cucumber and orange zest? Yes, please. Shrimp and mango? Totally.
Owners Viviana and Juan Carlos make sure to procure only the best from sustainable sources like superstar seafood mongers Catalina Offshore Products. You can taste the quality in every piece of fish and produce.
To show off their new store, The Ceviche House is giving an Acapulco Ceviche away to two lucky winners. Be sure to follow Starbright’s Kitchen and The Ceviche House for more chances to win:
For anyone who doesn’t like brussels sprouts, this recipe will change your mind. Forget your childhood memories about being forced to finish every last bite, about the bitter bite of the sprout, probably boiled or steamed so as to remove all possibility of flavor.
How, you ask, would one make a vegetable so reviled into something spectacular?
Same way we make everything spectacular; we fry it and then cover it in bacon. Then drizzle it with some love in the form of balsamic vinegar and good port wine.
For those who don’t eat meat or would like a vegetable dish that’s not quite so … shiny … I also developed two vegetarian and likely healthier alternatives. I did three versions: the original Bo Beau recipe; one with sesame oil, mushrooms and scallions; and another with a delicious pomodori al forno.
Try your own variations of this recipe!
The recipe comes from Chef Katherine Humphus at Bo Beau Kitchen +Bar in San Diego, where she serves this crispy sprout recipe every day. It’s one of their most popular dishes and is my favorite of everything I have tried there. Chef Katherine was kind enough to share the recipe with me!
Chef Katherine Humphus’s Crispy Brussels Sprouts
1 cup sprouts, trimmed and quartered
vegetable oil for sauteeing
1 tbsp pancetta, diced
salt and pepper
tbsp shaved parmesean
Crip pancetta and remove from heat; set aside. Heat two inches of oil in a skillet to 375 and fry sprouts for 30 seconds. Remove with slotted spoon, toss with pancetta, salt and pepper, and plate with balsamic port reduction (recipe follows) and parmesean.
Balsamic port reduction
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup port wine
Place in small saucepan and reduce over medium-high for about 15 minutes until the consistency of maple syrup.
I also did two vegetarian versions of this whopper.
Don’t like bacon? (Then get off my page! Ok .. kidding …)
Try sauteeing a few mushrooms and chopped scallions with some sesame oil, and toss that with the crispy sprouts instead.