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 7: California Camping

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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