Overwintering

The latest incarnation of our plan, as you may recall, had us staying in my parents’ driveway in Alamo until just after New Year’s Day, and thereafter heading down to Southern California for a month or two.  At the time, I had perceived two future months as a very long time to stay in one place, let alone someone else’s home.  It wasn’t though. 

The holidays came and went, I worked too much, we had seen hardly anything in the area it seemed, and we were very much enjoying getting the quality extended family time.  We really didn’t want to go. So in a late-night discussion, Tacco and I strategized on how to broach the subject of our maybe sticking around… like possibly all the way through February??

Of course the strategizing was superfluous, but my parents humored us when we sat them down for “a serious talk” about what we were considering. “Hmmm…” they offered thoughtfully, before answering that yes, they would love to have us continue to darken their driveway.  Excellent!  We revisited the house rules and attempted anew to preempt potential avenues into and beyond the imposition zone — so far so good.  And then we settled happily back into our routine. 

Alcatraz was the next National Park Service site that got a visit from our squad.

I can’t say that it was our favorite, but it’s never a bad idea to take a boat ride in the Bay, particularly one that spans the sunset.

One memorable evening started with the family picking me up from Oakland airport after a trip.  My parents had highly recommended a relatively new Mexican restaurant in town, so we figured we would use my needing a ride as an excuse to get the family out to dinner.

They were correct about the restaurant; it was excellent.  The area in which it sits, less so.  Here was what we emerged from the restaurant to find.

Unfortunately the reason for the glass-shattering was to extract my fully packed luggage, which included not only a full load of clothes and a uniform, but my company ID, my passport, my computer and company iPad, etc.  Well, shoot.  That is not at all good.  When we walked back into the restaurant to let them know what had happened and give the kids a place to sit down while we started the process of reporting it to the police, (and to be fair, the restaurant folks were very helpful and accommodating), the first question we were asked was “did you cover up your luggage?”  Huh.  Evidently, not only is this a common crime in the area, but we brought it on ourselves.  That’s disheartening.

The story took a turn toward the bizarre when I got a phone call after midnight that night from a man claiming to have “my stuff.”  He was difficult to understand and his explanation was twisty and almost certainly alcohol-soaked, but seemed involve my bag (or bags?) being thrown out of a moving car near the BART station and someone he knew (daughter? girlfriend?) grabbing it and realizing that there were important items in it, apparently including my phone number.  All I had to do was come to his house in Oakland the next day if I wanted to pick it up… and oh, I don’t know, maybe there might be a reward involved?

What could go wrong there? 

Plenty, if you ask the police, which I did the next day. In retrospect that was just a complicating and stress-inducing factor in the whole scenario, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  They stopped just short of asking whether I was making my best attempt to get robbed and/or shot, and weren’t particularly helpful.  I explained that this person potentially already had my stuff, what could possibly be the point of luring me out to Oakland to shoot me? But I get it – they see a lot of Bad, day in day out, and my little suitcase was exceedingly small potatoes for them. It wasn’t so much that they were giving bad advice as it was that they really didn’t have the time or inclination to give advice at all.  Just stay in your lane and no one gets hurt. OK. The thing is, I really, really wanted my passport and ID back.  Those are very hard to replace, and I need them for work.  It was quite a dilemma, and pitted my Assume The Best From People nature against whatever meager street smarts I’ve picked up over the years.  Skipping to the end of a very long and far more than a little bit crazy story, my dad and I spent an afternoon in what we were later told is the “roughest” part of Oakland, culminating with a convergence-via-cellphone to a “neutral” street corner, getting out of the car, rapidly exchanging a handful of twenties for a medium sized black bag, throwing it into the trunk, and tearing off.  I’m sure it wasn’t suspicious and attracted no attention. 

Got my stuff though (the passport and ID at least – all the valuable items were naturally gone).  

Winter wore on, and stayed wet and chilly.  Very much so, in fact.  So much so that California pulled out of the exceptional drought it had suffered under for the past several years, and then some.  Growing up in California, one of the many things you get used to – actually two things, are 1) Drought, 2) The inevitable barrage of stern newspeople explaining, after every big rainstorm, that though this rain was welcome and may have seemed significant, it didn’t even put a dent in the current drought.

Except in 2019, that wasn’t the case.  It rained and rained and snowed and snowed in the mountains.  Great for our ski season and even better for the state, but not so good for getting us outside.

Woodsprite took to making “markets” in front of her grandparents’ various fireplaces, selling mostly drawings she had made in order to raise money for “LOL Dolls,” a recently adopted enthusiasm of hers and her sister’s that I don’t entirely understand.

And in the breaks between storms, Tacco set up art class outside on the deck. 

We also took a trip out to Pt. Reyes National Seashore, where explorer Sir Francis Drake had made landfall in 1579, after missing San Francisco Bay just a dozen or two miles to the south, due to the Oakland hills blending in with the coastline. Or so the legend goes.

It’s wild, empty seashore, and quite beautiful – even more so when you have it to yourself on a Winter weekday. 

Near the end of our time in Alamo, we finally managed a trip up nearby Mt. Diablo, home of the tarantulas Tacco mentioned last year.  February is not tarantula season, however, so we were able to enjoy a short, spider-free hike, some rock scrambling, and killer views. 

Both Tacco and Keeper found places for some tranquil me-time as well.

Overall it turned into an outstanding Winter, with multiple ski trips (to be covered in a separate post), an anniversary trip to St. Maarten for Tacco and me made possible by the kids staying with my parents, and lots of truly invaluable family time.  It had never been the plan to travel significantly in the RV during Winter, but as it turned out we didn’t really move the RV in the winter at all, leaving it stored in Southern California the first year and parked in Northern California the second year.  In doing so we managed to avoid the mass winter RV migration to Florida and Arizona’s campgrounds, which I’m told tend to be filled to bursting.  I’m ok with that.

Though I’ve mentioned my distress at the kids’ ratio of stare at screens time to play outside time, one undeniably positive by-product of this trip has been how close they’ve grown.  The sisters especially, as they’ve been each other’s sole playmate for the vast majority of the past year and a half.  They’re more or less inseparable, and their modes of play are both sophisticated and fascinating at times, involving intricate roleplays and improv.  They’ve decided that they would like to be “You-Tubers” as soon as possible, and have worked up what I’m assured (by them) is compelling content.  I pretty much don’t know what any of that means.  But they’re of like mind and make a great team, so who knows? 

And I don’t want to leave out Keeper – he is an exemplary big brother to his sisters.  Of course he gets annoyed by them at times and they pick at each other, as is required by law, but in general he’s both tender and protective of his sisters, far more than I was at his age or even much older.  Good man. 

Next we head back down to Southern California’s beaches for a stretch, starting with another stint at Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego county.  It’s probably a bit early in the year to do much swimming / wave play, but we do have the wetsuits, so who knows?  I do know that going to sleep to the sound of crashing waves will be welcome.  Very, very welcome.

Inflections

No one would call a coastal California winter harsh.  Yet the weather does change come November, particularly up in Northern Cal, and even though some warm days sneak into the mix, chilly and rainy becomes the norm.  Not that there’s anything wrong with chilly and rainy per se – in fact just about any time we ask one of our underdressed-for-the-weather kids whether they’re not far too cold in that t-shirt, they like to remind us that they were born in Washington.  Fair enough.  But I’d like to point out that Tacco and I were still sleeping in Davista, and weren’t heating it at night (or at all).  It does have a heater that runs off the propane tank, but we’ve found it to be a very inefficient way to use our limited fuel.  Plus it only manages to take the edge off the chill rather than making it cozy.  We opted to bundle up in blankets instead.  Nighttime temps began to dip into the 40s and below pretty quickly, though.  That’s brisk.  Yet fun, in a back-handed way.

With the rains come a greening up of the generally brown golden California hills, which is something I remember distinctly from college – going home to LA for Winter Break and coming back to find everything green.  Though California has suffered through several years of drought, the rains seemed to start off strong this year.  Several days we spent holed up in my parents’ house after homeschooling was complete, rather than hiking the hills or biking the trails like I had hoped.  That’s not very Pacific Northwest of me, I know.  Up there we like to say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.  Evidently we’ve softened a bit.

One particularly large offshore storm brought a massive swell to the coast.  Having spent the late summer and early Fall on the beach, I still had waves on the brain, and my thoughts bee-lined to Mavericks, the infamous big-wave break just north of Half Moon Bay.  The family and I had just watched (and enjoyed) the movie Chasing Mavericks, and though I’d been in that area several times, I had never seen it actually breaking.  It takes a pretty sizable swell to break at all.  A quick search online informed me that not only would it be breaking during this storm, but the sets would be peaking at 40-50’, with a few 60-footers thrown in for good measure.  Yow!  This I wanted to see, and I enlisted my brother-in-law to make the drive to the coast with me. 

We weren’t the only ones to have this idea, it turned out, and both parking and finding a spot from which to observe was a bit nightmarish.  We also discovered that the break is even further out than I had imagined it was.  You can see it from the shore if you’re up on the cliffs above, but it’s impossible to get a good sense of the scale.  That said, it was still pretty spectacular.  Having been pummeled by my share of medium-at-very-best waves, it’s hard to even conceive of what getting sucked into and under one of those monsters would be like, to say nothing of actually harnessing one.

The rain continued, with only a few breaks, right up to Thanksgiving, which we were fortunate to get to spend with extended family at my sister’s in-laws’ (that’s awkward, but I can’t seem to describe the relationship better — how about my brother-in-law’s parents’) house up in Grass Valley.  Grass Valley sits on the Gold Country Highway in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and we had been able to make it up there to a proper Thanksgiving with extended family for the past two years. 

There’s shooting and hot-tubbing and rope-swinging and chasing wild turkeys involved, along with the normal feasting and football watching.  Perfect.

Along with the rain came snow in the Sierra Nevada, and our first opportunity to flex our new Epic Passes.  My hope upon purchasing them was to get on the slopes for the first time in mid-December or so, but Mother Nature appeared to be working with us this year – a few of the local resorts opened in late November, and Vail came out with an early season lodging special that we would’ve been crazy to pass up.  So we booked it.  The Vail trip would be during the first week in December, and we headed up to Kirkwood, just south of Lake Tahoe, at the end of November for a let’s-get-the-kids-back-on-skis day.

Kirkwood was ok.  Not the most auspicious start to the season.  The snow wasn’t bad, particularly for its being so early.  But we put all three kids into a lesson, and it didn’t quite take as well as we’d hoped, particularly in Keeper’s case.  He was DONE by the time we met the kids post-lesson, and proclaimed that his instructor had “squeezed every last bit of fun out of skiing.”  Ouch!  His lesson, though technically a group lesson, was essentially private as no one else was there, and I guess he wasn’t quite ready to have his technique so thoroughly combed through and picked apart.  Hm.  Not what we were hoping for rolling into this Vail trip.  But we remained hopeful that his reaction to skiing skill improvement was more anomalous blip than trend.

The snow really began to dump during the night after our ski day (we stayed at the Lodge there rather than making the drive back), and by the time we attempted to get on the road, it was essentially white-out conditions.  Complicating things, we discovered that our road down the mountain had just been closed, giving us only two options – wait it out for an indefinite period or turn around and head up the mountain toward Lake Tahoe instead, so that we could take a different (open) route down.  We opted for the latter, and I found myself in the toughest snow conditions I had ever driven in, by a good margin.  I’d forgotten how impressive Sierra snowstorms can be and how unsuited for driving in them many of the roads are.

Despite the mayhem, we rolled safely back into my parents’ driveway several hours later, ready to unpack and repack for Vail.  We were looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

What it’s about is a truly spectacular ski resort, we soon learned.  I’ve already written about Vail in the summer, and how the compact village is tucked away into a steep valley that hides its expansiveness.  What we found in the winter was a wonderland. 

Now, a few oh-by-the-ways and caveats.  Firstly, I have friends who Can. Not. Stand. Vail.  And I see where that springs from – it is a money place, plain and simple.  If there was once an undercurrent of granola, that’s long gone.  Everything is exorbitant, very little appears to be “old school,” and it is a place where they’ve gone to great lengths to take anything that could be inconvenient or uncomfortable about skiing and remove it from the picture.  If you’re a pure skier and even things like chairlifts smack of selling out, then Vail would be the prime example of everything that’s wrong.  As for me, I harbor no such sentiments and am happy to dish my skis off to a slopeside valet or stroll on a heated sidewalk prior to helping myself to the complimentary s’more accoutrements set up beside the lodge’s roasty outdoor fire ring.  Generally I can’t afford these things, and they are certainly not what I would expect, but I won’t turn them down either. 

Secondly, we got a great deal.  It was the very beginning of December, which is very early in the season and a time when there’s generally neither much skiing going on nor much snow to be had, so we were able to book two adjoining rooms in the lodge for next to nothing.  And then it started to snow.  And snow.  We arrived at a mountain 100% open, blanketed in fresh powder, and nearly empty of visitors.  Yikes.

And I mentioned the adjoining rooms I had booked.  Well, I learned upon check-in that The Lodge has no such animal (by which I mean “adjoining rooms”), and they weren’t sure how I had managed to book them.  After a quick behind-the-scenes huddle, the supervisor emerged and handed me a key with a wink and an “I’m sure you’ll be happy with this.”  I was.  We were. Oh man were we.  Rather than adjoining hotel rooms, they gave us one of their 2 bedroom plus loft condos whose balcony looked out onto the base of the gondola below. !!  So it was a great, great start.

It only got better from there.  The kids absolutely loved it.  LOVED it.  And by “kids” I mean Tacco and I.  Our children were even more thrilled, and tore all over the mountain in the soft, forgiving powder.  We found a “kids’ adventure zone” with twisty, narrow paths that wind through the forest and various obstacles to ski around, over, and under, and we had the whole thing to ourselves. 

We had to remind them repeatedly that this was not something that they should get used to with respect to skiing, but it was probably tough to take us too seriously through our giddiness. 

They skied well, too.  Woodsprite tackled some easy blues and Firebolt became completely confident on them, even going so far as to develop a habit of throwing down some in-motion disco moves during straight stretches in order to calm nerves that had been frayed by preceding steep sections.  Keeper progressed quickly into the blue zone and began to work on parallel turns rather than snowplows.  I took him, probably a little prematurely, down into the back bowls.  I couldn’t resist – they were wide open and reasonably untracked. 

He didn’t dig it much. 

But he did manage to make his way down, and it didn’t kill his mojo for the rest of the day/trip; he continued to improve.

Overall it was a raging success, though once again we had to make clear to the kids that this was not a standard we were setting, in fact we may never have a ski trip this cool again.  They took that in stride.

Quick “flashing check engine light” update. With all this time in my parents’ driveway we were able to get Davista back into the shop to see if they couldn’t beat it into submission once and for all. We chose a Ford dealership in somewhat-nearby Fairfield, and I liked the service coordinator there. He inspired confidence and listened intently, or at least appeared to do so, when I gave him my data dump on what I’d seen and the drama that had come before. After about a week, they came to the conclusion that it was a software issue in the onboard diagnostic computer, and that makes sense to me. They flashed the new software onto the computer, reset the light, and cut us loose. Though I’m far from an expert on engines, trucks, or the particulars of internal combustion, I can’t get my head around the idea that multiple cylinders, yet not all of them, would misfire randomly and intermittently. That I’m not feeling anything abnormal when it happens backs up my going theory. So a sensing problem rather than an actual misfiring problem seems right. So far the light is out and hasn’t come back. On the other hand, Davista is just sitting in the driveway, so who knows… Hard to misfire when your engine isn’t running.

We rounded out 2018 with a family Christmas celebration at my parents’ house, followed by my flying down to Orlando to accomplish my yearly required airline training. 

Generally that week would be considered holiday time that we would try to keep somewhat free from work commitments, but the truth is that it’s basically been a holiday year.  It’s difficult to even know where to file a year like 2018 for our family, with its beginnings back in Maryland, the slow march back across the country, the scads of national parks and months on the beach, and the final cutting of ties with our previous home.  This has become our new normal, and how extraordinary it has all been is difficult to evaluate from the inside. 

Yet there’s a distinct turning toward the next phase.  For New Year’s Eve Tacco set up a “wish board” where we all wrote on stickies what we hoped for in 2019, and then pasted them to a large surface.  The kids each mentioned a few things related at least tangentially to getting off the road and back into a house, school, and I guess “normalcy.”  For me, my focus is turning definitively toward making “a smooth landing.”  On multiple occasions I’ve talked about how getting back off the road seems in many ways as daunting as getting on it was, and I’ve realized that it would be a grave mistake not to commit the same mental and physical resources to doing so.  There are enormous decisions to be made, and we want to be deliberate and diligent.  To be sure, there’s more to see and certainly some more skiing to do.  But we’re winding down.  That feels different.

Here’s to 2019!

It’s My Birthday Too, Yeah

October is birthday month in our family (Hm, what does that make January?  Never mind).  All of us but Keeper and Firebolt click off another year in October, and in fact Woodsprite’s birthday missed sitting on top of mine by just a few hours of labor.  Tacco’s comes first, and for hers this year we spent the day in Monterey. 

Monterey is the site of another Navy RV park due to its proximity to the Naval Postgraduate School.  We discovered quickly, however, that the RV park is not quite the measure of its Whidbey Island, Pt. Mugu, Coronado, or even Seal Beach cousins, as it sits significantly inland and is quite, shall we say… compressed.  Monterey’s many sights are all easily accessible from there, however, so I can’t complain.

We began with birthday breakfast and presents.

A drive into town for a bit of exploring and tidepooling followed.  If Monterey has downsides, they would be its relative isolation and its tendency to sit under coastal fog and low clouds.  I truly can’t come up with anything else, because its coastline and town are absolutely picture perfect.  Our short drive down to the seaside began under the aforementioned clouds, but they parted as we reached the water, giving us brilliant sunshine under which to explore the rocky shoreline. 

We’ve had the opportunity to explore a relatively large variety of tidepool beaches on this journey, and it never gets old.  These were some of the best, though, with multi-colored sea stars, anemones galore, and acres of prime sea life real estate to investigate.

Monterey Bay’s famous aquarium at the end of Cannery Row was our next stop, and well worth the price of entry.  It’s the most extensive and well-presented I’ve ever seen; not surprising given its setting. 

We followed that up by a stroll along the waterfront, which led us to discover that the small beaches below sported some seaglass.  We’re always up for collecting seaglass.

Birthday dinner on the waterfront reminded me of the importance of site research and planning, as the array of seafood restaurants, seemingly indistinguishable from each other, quickly overwhelmed us.  One gift Tacco and I tend to give each other on our birthdays is the freedom of making no decisions, and so rather than doing the “what would you like?” “I don’t know, anything’s ok, what would you like?” dance, I quickly chose a restaurant that looked promising, only to find out after we were seated that it was the only one in the area that makes a point to discourage kids from dining there.  Odd marketing choice, I thought, but ok.  Our kids aren’t what come to mind when one thinks of “kids in restaurants” so they did just fine there, but it was a little stodgy and without the food quality to match the attitude.  At least that was my opinion.  But it was enjoyable regardless, and we were able to engage in our tradition of going around the table and saying something that we love/appreciate about the birthday girl or boy. 

The next birthday was mine, and held somewhat of a milestone status or so I’m told, as it marked my first half-century.  Tacco had been reminding me of this fact for at least the previous six months, along with requests to know how I would like to celebrate and implied exhortations to make it big.  I’ve gotten to the point where my ideal birthday celebration is one that I waive entirely, but I was informed that this would not be an option for my 50th and that I should exercise some creativity.  So I did.

First of all, though, we showed up on my parents’ driveway.  It wasn’t the first time we had camped out there, but this was to be a somewhat different animal as our intention was to stay there through the holidays, i.e. a shade over two months.  As much as we love hanging out with my parents, two months is a long time to host houseguests, and we were a touch concerned about how to navigate this intrusion on their lives.  Sharing meal planning duties and mutual agreements to exercise brutal honesty were a necessary starting point, but still, we were bringing five extra people into their two-person household – lots of ways this could turn out less than optimally. 

On the other hand, what an amazing opportunity.  Our kids had not had the experience of growing up near grandparents, on either side.  There had been plenty of visits, but visits just don’t compare to, well… life.  This would be an integration of families.  It wasn’t just about the kids, though.  How often, after childhood, do you get to spend months with your parents?  Not unlike recognizing and taking advantage of a window to ditch it all and travel the country, I was seeing this as a chance to get the type of quality time with my parents that it’s almost impossible to carve out normally.  I really hoped it would work out, and was both excited and optimistic as we scraped our way up their slightly steep driveway and parked Davista under their lanky heritage oak.

Back to birthdays.  Here’s what I decided:  I emphatically did not want a party.  What ultimately sounded the most celebratory to me was a series of smaller events – a family BBQ at my sister and brother-in-law’s house that I would share with Woodsprite (on her actual birthday the day after mine, and on the sly… technically this would be her birthday celebration); a resurrection of a used-to-be-yearly ski trip I do with several close friends of mine; and a variation on a Dutch birthday. 

This leads me to another, hopefully brief, digression.  I lived in The Netherlands for my last three years on Navy active duty, as part of an exchange program with the Dutch Navy.  It was the best job I ever had, but I don’t want to start a descent into that story-telling rabbit hole, rather I want to share what I learned about birthday celebrations.  Not everybody does them like we do.  In Holland, when it’s someone’s birthday, it’s tradition not to say happy birthday to them, but to congratulate them.  And you get lots of congratulations.  It was never completely clear to me what the birthday boy/girl had accomplished exactly — presumably it was for making it around the sun again.  Like a survival thing. “Well done, you made it.”  But the real birthday obligations go in the other direction; you’re expected to bring pie to work.  For everyone else.  This is serious stuff, as I discovered when I attempted to fly my first Dutch birthday under the radar, reasoning that I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to do anything special for me.  It didn’t come across that way at all.  How it came across is that I was rudely shirking my birthday responsibilities and pegging myself as anti-social and not “gezellig” (Look that one up – way too involved to describe here).  I thought they hadn’t even known it was my birthday.  Nope, they definitely knew.  Fortunately I had a friend there pull me aside soon after and explain my faux pas in time for me to apologize to the group and offer a belated birthday pie. 

So back to my 50th.  What I decided I really wanted to do was dine at Single Thread in Healdsburg again, but with others this time.  Not only did I want to re-experience a meal like that, but I wanted to see the looks on my family’s faces as they experienced it.  So instead of offering a pie, I offered a Single Thread.  So good.  So, so good.

Soon after our visit they earned their third Michelin star.  I heartily agree with the assessment.

As we rolled into November and the temperatures began to drop, operation Invade The Parents’ Driveway was going swimmingly.  The kids had taken up residence in my parents’ spare bedroom downstairs, leaving Davista to Tacco and me.  Meal planning was easier than I had imagined, despite limited fridge space, and meals themselves were joyful, as were the mornings spent around the table talking, reading the newspaper, and tackling sudoku.  The kids, like they do, managed to rapidly expand their circle of clutter to a fit their new surroundings, but we did our best to beat it back and keep it contained downstairs.  They also found that they had two new homeschool tutors in their Grammy and Papa, which had to be refreshing after a year and change of just Tacco and me.

We did find it challenging to get them out and about as much as we would have liked, leading to far too much time with them on beds with their faces glued to screens.  Though this is likely more a late 2010s kid / adolescent problem than it is an our-family-in-my-parents’-driveway problem, it’s no less problematic.  Like many parents, I suspect, we struggle with ways to break the screen spell, and have tried various family screen-time rules over the last few years, with various levels of success.  Rules like that are difficult to enforce while on the road, however, and we’ve been striving to involve the kids in the process of metering and limiting their screen time so that we don’t have to do it for them.  We had a “recalibration” talk with them and it seemed to help, at least initially, but this is an ongoing process.

Another benefit of an extended time at Grammy / Papas is, of course, the Bay Area.  What a fantastic place to explore.  Tacco did her research on the National Park sites in the vicinity, of which there are surprisingly many, particularly compared to that city in the southern part of the state. 

We figured Golden Gate NRA was a great place to start, and did some exploring on a beautiful day, which ended in a sunset viewing from Land’s End, just west of the Golden Gate.  In all my time spent in the Bay Area, I’d never been out there, which was my loss.  It’s, among other things, the site of what used to be a massive seaside public bathing area, the type you really don’t see anymore. 

Even more interestingly, we saw something at sunset that for twenty-some years I had been watching out for – a green flash.  Frankly, having seen far more than my share of sunsets over water given my maritime aviation past, I had begun to suspect that green flashes belonged in the Let’s Mess With The New Guy category.  There are scads of these in the Navy – ways in which you take advantage of someone’s naivete to get a laugh.  “Snipe hunting” would be an example from the civilian world I suppose.  This one snuck up on us though, and was very much a real phenomenon.  I had always assumed that if I saw one it would be on a completely clear day, but this one was at least partly cloudy.  We watched the sun go down, and a line of green appeared for about a second, or likely less, right on the horizon above where the sun had just set.  We both stared with a shocked and befuddled look for a few seconds thereafter; we hadn’t expected that at all.  “Did you see that green flash??” offered Tacco somewhat incredulously.  I was glad she did, because I was having the same reaction, wondering if I’d just seen what I thought I had.  “YES!” 

At any rate, I have no photographic proof, but I want to assure you that they’re real.  If you’ve been looking for them, keep looking.  It only took me a few decades.

Our Biggest Mistake

I’m lookin’ at you, Toad!

While it’s almost certainly a luxury to be able to point to our choice of towed vehicle as the singular thing we messed up most on this trip, it’s hard when saying that not to imagine a future scenario wherein we look back at this post and laugh/cry at our naïveté.  “Remember when we thought the CAR was our biggest blunder??”

Lacking that scenario, however, I’ll push forward with this, as it’s has instructive value for me and anyone who may be looking to do this sort of trip in the future.

To be clear, the issue, to my knowledge, is not with the make and model of car.  I have nothing against Subaru Outbacks.  It’s ours in particular.

Backing up slightly — if you’re going to tow a car behind a motorhome, there are several ways to do it.  You can put it on a trailer, thereby towing any car you’d like and needing no special equipment to be installed on the car itself.  But then you have a large and heavy trailer that you need to store somewhere every time you park.  And they’re not cheap.  You can tow a car “four down,” i.e. with all four wheels touching the road and spinning.  No additional major gear required, but only very few cars are able to be towed four down without ruining their differential due to lack of lubrication.  And you need to install lights that illuminate along with the motorhome’s turn signals and brake lights, as well as a supplemental braking system and hardware that allows the tow bars to attach to the car.  Plus you need the tow bars.  That’s about $3000 worth of equipment.  You can also sort of split the difference and buy a dolly, which is more or less a half trailer – one set of wheels are put up on the dolly and the other set spins on the road.  You still have a dolly to store though.

The vast majority of the motorhome-towing-vehicle setups that I’ve seen since we started have been of the “four down” variety, so I’m confident that the decision we ultimately made was a good one. 

Here’s what we didn’t think about though, and this is extremely important: once you commit to a Toad, you’re all in.  And by that I mean that when you make $3000 and many many hours of modifications to a car, you are committed to keeping that car running for as long as you’re towing a car.  So it’s important to get a good one.

We got an old one.  Of all the cars that could be towed four down, we decided that an Outback suited us best, but rather than spending the money on a somewhat used / few years old model, we “saved money” by getting one at a good price.  I reasoned that the 150,000 miles on it didn’t really matter since we’d be towing it most of the time anyway, and Subarus seem to be pretty easy to keep up and running. 

We also got it from a disreputable dealer, as I would find out later.  I’ll spare you that story, as it’s more than a little unpleasant and doesn’t provide any constructive information.  Suffice it to say that I was shocked to learn how blatantly unprofessional, and actually flat out mean, a salesman could be, even in the age of online reviews.

The first thing we discovered after driving our new car the hour and a half back to Maryland from its Virginia dealership (and leaving my trusty Audi A4 behind as a trade-in) was that the front differential had a slight leak, or at least it was “slight” when the differential had almost no oil in it.  Once I serviced it with oil, it dumped all of it back out onto my driveway overnight.  We needed two new axles.  And a new driveway surface… differential oil is thick, stinky, and not what you want on your driveway when you’re trying to sell your house.

A few months after we replaced the two front axles, we were told later that we needed another front axle replacement, which we did, and then a few months later, two more, which we didn’t. 

The clutch, as we would discover a week into our trip, was about to go, too.  We had that replaced in Michigan, and ever since we did, the new one (which I have to assume was a bottom-of-the-barrel clutch) stinks any time it’s put under a load.  Backing up a hill positively reeks. 

Upon taking it for (mostly) routine service in California (it needed a new rack and pinion, no small repair, but we asked them to give the whole thing a once-over too), a year into the trip, they came back with a truly alarming laundry list of “required” repair items, to the tune of several thousand dollars.

Now, of course, with just about any older car that isn’t a collector’s item, you reach a point where it makes zero sense to put more money into it.  Not so with Toad.  We really have no choice but to keep this car going. 

So we’ve limped it along.  I’m pretty certain we’ve spent a good deal more money on it than we would’ve spent initially on a newer car with 1/3 the miles.  And at the end of the day we have a car that creaks and makes odd ratcheting noises, leaks various fluids, has a hard time getting up hills, and often stinks of burning oil and/or burning clutch.  It seems like at any point she could roll out her tongue and die for good. All that said, she’s still getting us from point A to point B, and we don’t need her to do so for much longer.  So I shouldn’t be too harsh.  But… lesson learned: pay the money for a decent car up front.

Shorties

Camp Pendleton was where Keeper turned into a water man. 

I cut the description short in my previous post, but this really was a nearly ideal beach campground.  Not only are the sites on the sand itself with full hookups (very difficult to find), but you have one of Southern California’s better surf beaches mostly to yourself due to its being on a military base. 

Keeper, if you remember, was reluctant to do much in the water during last year’s trip down the coast.  He got there eventually, but it was slow going, with a good bit of trepidation and some back slides along the way.  We did end last summer with some unforgettable boogie boarding sessions in Coronado, but there was still a tentativeness in the waves that he was working through.

On day one in Pendleton I made a visit to the Marine Corps Exchange and discovered that they had spring suits (short sleeve/legged wetsuits, aka “shortys”) for sale at a very reasonable price.  Thinking this would allow Keeper and I to spend even more time in the water, I bought us both one.  At California’s latitudes, the Pacific never really warms up.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen water temps out of the 60s, nor have I seen a surfer in the water without a wetsuit, generally a full one.  I figured this was a great investment for us, and returned to Davista excited. 

Keeper was less so, at least initially.  This being his first experience with a wetsuit, or more to the point with anything designed to fit skin-tight, he was decidedly not a fan upon first trying it on.  My putting mine on to demonstrate to him that yes, this is exactly how it is supposed to fit and my reassurances that it would be much more comfortable in the water did little to quash his skepticism.   “Thanks but no thanks” was basically his position on the matter.  Disappointed, I agreed to return his, but fortunately something softened in him before I did, and he decided to give his one try in the water. 

That’s all it took. 

He’s a convert now.  Not only for its ability to fend off the chill, but for its unexpected non-skid qualities.  Apparently one of his biggest frustrations with boogie boarding had been difficulty in staying on the board without slipping.  Suddenly that was easy, and he was off to the races.  We did two sessions a day at minimum, with him turning the tables on me and asking me on multiple occasions if I’d be amenable to stopping what I was doing and heading out with him.

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.  It’s a small thing, but going out with him and catching waves together makes me giddy.  And he’s gotten much better at it; his confidence in larger surf bears no resemblance to last year’s tentativeness, and he has a good sense of his limits.

The girls are making a good start as well.  On Woodsprite’s first wave last year (a tiny bit of near-shore white water), she managed to slide off of her board face first into the few inches of water and proceed to have the leash wrap itself around her neck.  That put her off waves for a while, but this year she managed to put that behind her, and gamely heads into the white water with Firebolt for some shallow rides onto the sand.  And Firebolt has begun to push her boundaries as well – still on whitewater only and no more than waist deep, but she catches some decent little rides and makes them fun for everybody by hootin’ and hollerin’ all the way in.  She’s never been one to hide her enthusiasm.

On one of our last days in Pendleton, Woodsprite, Keeper, and I went out for a pre-sunset session.  Actually it was just the kids – I followed with my phone/camera as I had a sense that the sunset was going to be a stunner, and I wanted to get some pics. 

I was right.  So happy I bought those wetsuits.  I’m going to look for some for the girls next.

I Saw A Shimmering Light

Though my earliest memories spring from Southern California of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, i.e. the Center of the Universe, I was never able to square my impressions of the place I grew up with its popular image.  Other than a handful of reasonably well-known musicians, Downey claims almost zero celebrities as home-towners.  The entertainment industry’s center of gravity hovers further north and west, and the surfer beach culture tends to cling pretty tightly to the coast.  So that sort of laid back, warm-night-with-wind-in-the-hair-surrounded-by-the-beautiful-people decadence was always more something I heard about in songs or saw on screens than something I experienced.  Evidently Don Henley found ‘70s Southern California to be a fitting metaphor for a one-way descent out of innocence.  As I mostly retained mine while growing up there, I often wondered at the time where (and if) all that was taking place. 

That vision of where I was raised has always intrigued me — more so with distance, even as I grew to understand how it came to be and in what enclaves it flourished.   It was never my scene, yet in some odd way I identified with it, or at least appreciated the idea of its being a part of home.  Spending another late summer / early fall flitting among various beachside campgrounds (starting in Malibu) brought some of that back to the fore. 

More than that, though, it was just really, really nice to live barefoot on the beach for a while again.

Malibu manages to feel both remote and small-townish while bordering LA’s sprawl and housing many of its most famous residents.  Our stay there this time was short, only a few days, but particularly pleasant, giving us the opportunity to get back in the ocean and re-introducing us to the summer that we had just about closed the book on back in Washington. 

After Malibu we headed to Carlsbad in northern San Diego county, and thereafter onward to Coronado, where we decamped from Davista once again and moved into one of NAS North Island’s beachfront cottages.  Though the temperatures only just nudged into the 80s this time and the waves weren’t as sporty as during the previous year’s late October heatwave, we spent a good bit of time in the water. 

I also got rid of the “time off” beard. Like I said, a bit leprechaun-ish.

Down in San Diego, we returned Davista to the repair shop, as, surprise surprise, the intermittent flashing Check Engine light had come back in full effect, taunting us with its yellow randomness.  I guess the issue wasn’t a loose belt after all.  This shop’s personnel seemed a bit more receptive to our input than the last one’s did, but they weren’t especially optimistic about rooting out the cause, particularly when I told them that we needed to depart in four days. 

Their pessimism turned out to be well-founded, as when we returned to pick up our home and drive it back north, they had discovered nothing.  Shoot. 

In the interim we did manage to bag another set of Junior Ranger badges for the girls at Cabrillo National Monument at the end of Pt. Loma.  One of the more interesting aspects of that visit was learning about the Navy personnel stationed there during WW2.  Apparently their job consisted almost entirely of looking out for Japanese submarines trying to sneak in and blow up San Diego.  They didn’t see any, and by all accounts it was pretty good duty – who wouldn’t want to hang out in San Diego rather than one of the active war zones?

Post Coronado we headed back north to Camp Pendleton, where there’s another beachfront military campground (actually there are two).  Having not heard as much about it as about Coronado, my expectations weren’t high.  I couldn’t have been more incorrect.  This is ideal beach camping – sites on the sand itself, with full hookups, and an impressive surf break to boot, without the crowds that such a break would normally draw.  We only had a few days there before heading to Seal Beach, but I was in waterfront heaven. 

There’s a friendly rivalry between the Marines and the Navy wherein we tend to make fun of each other, us for being stereotypically a bit soft around the middle and far from the pointy end of the warrior spear, and them for being, well, Marines.  The high and tight haircuts, the braided belts with shirts tucked into their shorts, the “OOH-rah” cadence punctuating what should be normal conversation with random syllable emphases.  We got a kick out of the name of the little surf shop at the campground… instead of just calling it a surf shop, it’s called “BEACH Services” (exaggerated cadence and excessive volume mine).  I don’t know, it just seemed funny.  It still does.  But you probably had to be there.

After Seal Beach (not actually in sight of the beach, but a nice campground nevertheless, and on a Navy base to boot), we headed back south to Newport Dunes in Newport Beach, which is arguably the nerve center of what’s now known as The OC.  Well earned, too, as Newport Beach is a beautiful place with a lot going for it – beach, harbor, islands, waterfront property, ridiculous amounts of wealth…  Newport Dunes on the other hand — well, it’s ok I suppose.  It sits on the bay just inland from Newport Harbor and is somewhat shoehorned between the water and some bluffs, upon which a few of Newport’s busier boulevards run.  And it’s quite expensive.  Had we hit it before the off-season we’d have had a good bit of company, but midweek in October it was a bit tumbleweedy.

That said, it’s fairly central and hotspots like Balboa Island and the Newport peninsula’s beaches are easily reached via bicycle.  Keeper and I took a ride or two to explore.

Tacco had another Navy commitment back in DC during this time frame, and as my work schedule overlapped hers somewhat, we opted to drop the kids off at my parents’ house for a few days while she was gone, leaving me solo in Newport. 

At this point I should explain the big change in my work situation.  Throughout our travels, I remained domiciled in Boston for my airline.  In other words, any trip I flew originated and ended in Boston.  There are multiple reasons I remained Boston-based while we were traversing the country, but they’re fairly uninteresting to non-airline folk.   Trust me, though, it made sense.  Once we opted to stay in the West, however, changing my domicile back to Long Beach / Los Angeles made for a much more convenient work situation.  October was the first month in the new base, and I had decided to “bid Reserve” for the month, which essentially means that instead of flying scheduled trips, I had about 18 days in the month on which I was in a standby status for a part of the day, ready to fly if I was needed due to sick calls or unexpected schedule changes.  Being on Reserve can be a mixed bag, as it’s generally nice to know exactly when and where you’re going to fly, and often the trips that get dropped to Reserve pilots are the ones nobody wants.  On the other hand, there’s a chance you’ll hardly get called at all, which is what I was strategizing for.

Well, it didn’t quite work out as planned.  First of all, I got called to fly quite a bit, at least in the beginning of the month, and Tacco expressed frustration in my having to be “at the ready” so much of the time.  It was as if I was there participating with the family but at the same time not available, and difficult to plan around.  Then, later in the month, when we sent the kids away so that Tacco could go to DC, I didn’t get called at all, and consequently spent an inordinate amount of time alone, trying to entertain myself at semi-deserted Newport Dunes.  That’s far from the worst fate, but I don’t think I’ll be bidding Reserve anymore.

We did get to check out a few more beaches though.  Corona del Mar sits just south of the entrance to Newport harbor, and sports a combination of flat sand and tidepools, with some fun waves in which to play.

On one of my “solo” days I took a bike ride to The Wedge, out at the end of Newport peninsula.  I had heard that there was a sizable swell coming in, and The Wedge is a famous surf / bodysurf spot, at which the combination of the jetty leading to the harbor and the shape of the beach makes for resonances that kick up the waves to just about double the height of their brothers just a few hundred yards down the beach. 

Though I’ve been in the water there before, I’ve never done so with a big swell coming in.  In those conditions it’s absolutely expert only, and even among the experts there’s a good bit of carnage.  Evidently EMTs just hang out nearby on big surf days.  It makes for exciting spectating.  When I arrived, the shoreline was almost shoulder to shoulder with gawkers (whom I joined), and there seemed to be nearly as many photographers braving the pounding shore break with their GoPros as there were surfers and body boarders.  I saw quite a few spectacular rides and even more spectacular wipeouts, to include one guy whose board snapped in half right in front of me.  Fortunately his board appeared to have taken all the impact, as he walked off the beach.

After Newport it was back up to Malibu, where we intended to soak up a little more good life prior to hitting Pt. Mugu, at the far western end of the Malibu shoreline and just into Ventura county. 

Our plans were unfortunately thwarted by connectivity, or lack thereof.  As rarefied as Malibu is, its geography subjects it to spotty cellphone coverage, and the Malibu Beach RV Park’s wi-fi signal is on par with most RV parks’ wi-fi, i.e. sketchy at best.  Normally I wouldn’t care, particularly with an endless view of the Pacific, but Tacco is taking online classes for her Doctorate, and one of our first Malibu days was not only a class day for her, but one in which she was scheduled to give a presentation to the class.  Having been lulled into a false sense of semi-cautious security by the previous day’s coverage, she started the class, only to have her audio cut out, followed by losing connection altogether right at the beginning of her presentation.  She pinged directly to full crisis mode and frantically sought me out to have me drive her down to the Malibu Colony Starbucks where she could finish her class with a reliable signal.  Well, as it turned out, I had picked that exact moment to leave Davista and go looking for her in order to see how her class was progressing, internet-strength-wise.  Not finding her, we began one of those Keystone Cops circular searches in which both people keep passing the same spots at exactly the wrong time and end up effectively chasing each other.  It helped even less that that same lack of signal caused her texts screaming “WHERE ARE YOU!?!?” not to be sent/received, and it’s safe to say she was a bit heated by the time we converged and executed Plan B (Operation School at Starbucks With the Stars). 

Everything worked out eventually and her blood pressure returned to normal as she completed the class, but it was enough to seal Malibu’s inclusion on Tacco’s “Places I Do Not Like” list.  As she had another class the following day, we decamped prematurely and made the drive through LA back to Seal Beach. 

I should mention that driving Davista / Toad through LA is far from enjoyable.  Unless you’re driving between about 1AM and 5AM, there will be traffic.  And even if there happens to be none, frequent lane changes are unavoidable due to the tangle of freeways that going pretty much anywhere in LA will require navigating.  Here’s what you absolutely should not do though, and I had already learned this lesson, or so I thought, over a year ago: DO NOT FOLLOW WAZE/GOOGLE MAP DIRECTIONS THROUGH SIDE STREETS IN ORDER TO SAVE FIVE MINUTES.  Or even twenty.  Not liking the red line that my phone was depicting as the Santa Monica Freeway, I followed its recommendation and headed south into Venice instead.  I knew immediately both that I had made a mistake and that I was fully committed anyway – there was no easy way back to the freeway.  The streets got narrower and narrower.  Frankly, I’m lucky we didn’t get completely stuck and have to stop in the middle of a residential street (blocking traffic, of which there was plenty), disconnect Toad, and then squeak our way out of the situation separately.  It was extremely tight, with some Google recommended turns that we had to ignore entirely as we simply didn’t have the space.  Lots of “Rerouting…”  Don’t be me; stay on the freeway.

Let me return to Malibu, though, as it really wasn’t a bad experience at all, the previous anecdote notwithstanding.  We got more beach time in, we soaked up even more classic SoCal, and we even got to have dinner with Tacco’s cousin and her family on the Malibu pier, sitting outside with the waves crashing beneath us.  We actually did that from Pt. Mugu, another lovely beachfront spot, once we returned there after our unplanned Seal Beach diversion (and another drive through LA). 

All told, what I’ve discovered is that I’ve got quite a bit more Southern California in me than I knew.  Once again I’m swimming in the ocean daily and once again I feel absolutely fantastic.  It may be all the Vitamin D I’m soaking up, it may be the ocean, it may be that my subconscious registers this as home, I don’t know.  But just like last year, I’m in my element.  Even if I don’t want to live here (and I don’t – camping on the beach for a month and a half at the end of the summer is a far different thing than living in an expensive suburb inland, and they’re pretty much all expensive), I’ve come full circle on my Southern California roots and realize that on some level I love the place.  I’ll never partake in the laid back decadence, but somewhere inside me is that tanned, aging beach bum who wears loose clothes, surfs every morning, eats breakfast burritos with avocado, and never gets worked up – you see several of him in every SoCal beach town.

Alas, this is not a trait I share with my family, I’ve discovered.  Though they all like the beach to varying extents, they don’t love the beach.  Keeper has become a boogie boarder in earnest (more on that in another post), and I’m certain that our times out in the water together will age into some of the peak experiences from our travel time.  The girls enjoy playing in the waves as well.  But we may have reached peak beach for real this time.  Tacco is definitely ready to move on, and the kids have indicated the same.  Fortunately that coincides nicely with the time of year, as October is getting long in the tooth and the temperatures are dropping.  It’s time to head back north and start thinking about Winter.

Growing Up, Calming Down, Covering Ground

Going large, or at least larger than we had already been going, had certainly been on the table for our work-free September.  It seemed wasteful not to use the free month to take the kind of massive trip you always dream of taking but can never make work logistically.  But ultimately… that’s kinda what we’re already doing. 

It took us a while to realize this as we meandered through discussions of two weeks in Thailand or Bali or Tahiti or a slow drive through southern Germany and the Swiss Alps.  Those had been enticing possibilities, entertaining to imagine in the abstract, but a few iterations of doing even the most basic logistical calculations – Flights? Accommodations?  Rental cars? Oh, and where do we park Davista while we’re gone? – made us realize that interrupting our once-in-a-lifetime-trip to do a once-in-a-lifetime trip was redundant, and an expensive redundancy at that.

So I grew a beard instead.  Sort of, at least.  Had to do something with my time off.  I decided a little too late in the month to really give it a chance to fill in, and never quite got past the itchy stage.  Frankly I’m not sure how anyone gets past the itchy stage; it drove me freakin’ nuts.  But clearly they do – in 2018 every self-respecting hipster, about half of our pro athletes, and a significant chunk of the remainder of American males sport ZZ Top facial hair or something aspiring to be, so probably it’s just me.  I also discovered that mine is both grayer and more leprechaun-ish than I’d prefer.  So likely a good thing that I have the excuse that my profession doesn’t allow them to fall back on.

At any rate, we settled comfortably into the idea of just extending our summer and cruising the California coast once we realized that we were under no obligation to push the envelope on our wanderlust.  And the month wasn’t entirely work-free, either.  As it turned out, Tacco had a Navy commitment mid-month in Chicago, which would have been inconvenient to reach from Thailand.  As an actively drilling Navy Reservist, she is expected to fulfill the normal one weekend/month & two weeks/year commitment at a minimum, but her Unit allows for flexible drilling, which has allowed her to do most of her drilling from the road.  Most but not all; certain commitments require her to be physically present, and this Chicago stint was one of those commitments.

Consequently, after Leavenworth we traversed the Cascades once again, this time on highway 2 over Stevens Pass, which I believe to be the second prettiest Cascades crossing after highway 20 to the north, and headed south to Issaquah, about as near to SeaTac airport as we could camp.  It wasn’t the nicest campground, but RV parks in the middle of cities often aren’t, and at least we had a pear tree drooping with ripe fruit in our site.

Here was our route south. It’s long — tough to see any detail here.

We dropped Tacco off at the airport in the morning and headed south, on a beeline back to my parents’ house in Alamo, CA.  The drive was pretty, if nondescript.  Lots of trees.  We followed the Columbia River for a bit before hitting Portland, drove the length of Oregon’s Willamette Valley to Eugene, then entered the forest in earnest until we petered out in Grant’s Pass for the night, setting up camp beside the Rogue River.  I said lots of trees, but one thing that did stand out about southern Oregon is the extensive logging.  I’m certainly a fan of wood, particularly in a house, but sometimes it’s a little too easy to imagine it comes from Home Depot rather than a forest.  I don’t want to overstate this – Oregon is still gorgeous, and is in no danger of going the way of the Amazon rainforest, but it’s interesting to see the checkerboard pattern our appetite for lumber leaves on the landscape.

Off again in the morning, we crossed into California near Mt. Shasta, which never ceases to be impressive, as any 14,000’+ mountain that stands all by itself would be.  Descending into California’s Central Valley, we realized that our interesting scenery was now behind us, and ground out the rest of the drive to my parents’ driveway.

After a few days’ rest, some solid family visitation time punctuated with good food and wine, and a Tacco retrieval from the airport, we headed south again, this time to Big Sur, and the segment of California’s Highway 1 that we had previously missed due to last year’s landslide.  The road had recently re-opened, with a new path that took it around the new bulge in the shoreline, and we were excited to check out that stretch of coast.

Before that, though, check out how cute Woodsprite is doing her math schoolwork with her little Turkish towel drying her hair.

We were right to be excited, it turns out.  That drive is iconic for a reason, and should be seen by everyone on a sunny day at least once, as far as I’m concerned.  Absolutely breathtaking, with curve after curve revealing vistas that keep you gawking, face pressed to the window, for hours.  Or it would if you weren’t driving, which I found inconvenient.  It was actually difficult to concentrate, which is not an option while steering Davista + Toad around the hairpin corners. 

I mentioned long ago that we’ve given up on trying too hard to get the kids to appreciate scenery, as their attention spans combined with the allure of their various screens tend to make our attempts to get them to actually, you know, see our country an exercise in frustration.  So we point things out when we can, they look up and say “cool!” and that’s the end of it.  We’ve become ok with this.  But this drive was different.  Firebolt in particular was transfixed by the cliffs plunging into the sea and the huge waves below breaking on the offshore rocks.  This made me happy.

After a few stops for photos, we pulled up to a campground along the Big Sur River about a third of the way down that stretch of coast.  After setting up camp and doing some more river wading, a recurring theme during this stage of our trip, we drove down to Pfeiffer Beach to do a bit of exploring.  Again, stunning.

One of the features on this particular beach was the purple sand, which reminded me of what we saw on the shore of Lake Superior way back in our first month of our travels.

But it wasn’t just the sand, it was the cliffs, the caves, the waves, the wind, everything. 

The kids are doing incredibly well right now.  It’s difficult to ascertain what exactly brings on these moments, but as any parent can tell you, it is deeply, profoundly satisfying to see your kids exuberant.  It’s been simmering for the past day or two as they’ve relaxed into the reality of our continued travels, but for some reason in Big Sur and especially at this beach it seemed to boil over in all three of them at once.  We ran around on the sand and then just stopped to watch them when we couldn’t keep up.  Keeper climbed a huge sand slope that was pushed up against the cliff, then did it again, then invited me to come up with him and take some selfies, which of course I did.  Full smiles aren’t something we see much from him these days due to self-consciousness about his teeth, one of which simply isn’t there, causing several of the others to come in crookedly due to its absence.  He will definitely require significant orthodontia, and has requested it come as soon as possible.  And it will.  But here on the beach he was as un-self-conscious as could be – just happy.

It continued back at the campsite. After making little rafts out of sticks and racing them in the current, the kids found a rope swing hanging over the water and decided to make good use of it, despite the brisk temps. 

At one point Keeper turned to me and talked about how excited he was for everything that was in store for him/us over the next several months.  I think his actual words were “There’s so much to look forward to!”  He has not said that before. Again, almost impossible to overstate how satisfying it was to hear such a sentiment from my twelve-year-old eldest son, particularly with my persistent concerns about possible negative effects on the kids stemming from our doubling our travel time.  Perhaps he sensed that.

What I really think is happening, though, is that he’s growing up.  I looked at pictures of him at the beginning of our trip and had the predictable reaction.  He was a kid, and now he is not.  He’s taller than we are, has a deepening voice and facial hair, and, well… here we go!  I’m far from the first parent to ask for the brakes to be slammed on this whole process, in fact I think we all do it at some point.  But that doesn’t make the feeling any less acute.  I love who he’s becoming, and I love even more that I have the opportunity to spend this much time with him while it happens.  But can’t it slow down just a little?

Unfortunately we had budgeted only one day of our time in Big Sur, and set off to see the rest of the coast in the morning, on our way to Morro Bay.  I would have liked to stay.  While there have been portions of our trip with greater flexibility to tweak itineraries, this was not one of them, as we had a string of reservations at completely full campgrounds on the coast, culminating in our return to Coronado and its Navy beach cottages.  Even one extra night somewhere would break the entire chain and leave us looking for the nearest Wal-Mart parking lot.  So onward we pressed.

The views remained spectacular, but began to mellow out a bit the further south we traveled.  One thing I had forgotten about that stretch of road is how high above the water it climbs in places.  I didn’t check our elevation, but just from professional experience, having spent many, many hours at various relatively low altitudes above the ocean, I estimated that we were nearly a thousand feet up at times. 

Near San Simeon we stopped to check out an elephant seal rookery, which, to save you from having to look that word up like I had to, is a place where they hang out in a big group and breed.  Elephant seals are interesting creatures, and surprisingly fun to watch.  The males, with their long, dangling snouts (hence the name I suppose), do a good bit of sparring, though most of them just hang out, make grunty noises, and use their flippers to toss sand over themselves.  Evidently it cools them off.  If it were me I think I’d opt for a dip in the chilly water instead, but what do I know…

I also spied what I could have sworn were a few zebras grazing alongside the road.  Wait, zebras??  Yes, that’s what I said, as did my family, who initially didn’t believe me, but this being 2018, in which wondering about things is obsolete, we went straight to Google and discovered that yes, William Randolph Hearst did indeed bring zebras, as well as other wild animals, to his San Simeon castle and ranch, where they still roam to this day.  So I saw zebras.

We pulled into Morro Bay late in the afternoon, and topped off the day with Firebolt taking a respectable spill off of her bike and skinning both knees as well as a bit of her palms.  Not how we wanted to end things, but she’s a trooper and joined us for a hike along the bay at sunset after a bit of initial TLC. 

That’s a lot of ground covered, both in the past few days and in this post.  Fortunately I think, our drives will get shorter and less frequent during this next phase, as we stay West and choose our excursions carefully.  We do have much to look forward to – another month and a half of summery lolling on the beach, time with my parents, skiing…. Keeper was absolutely correct.

Das Re-boot

Aaaaand we’re off again. 

Though technically our journey has been continuous, there’s a real sense in which we’re now starting over, and we’re feeling that acutely.  First of all, it’s a new school year.  Keeper is starting 7th grade, and Firebolt and Woodsprite are starting 4th and 1st, respectively.  More significantly, though, Anacortes was where we initially intended to end our travels; we really didn’t have a master plan to go further.  What came after was and remains a big blank spot on our family calendar.  Lastly, we spent much of the past month and a half deeply engaged in closing, at long last, the previous chapter of our lives.

After toying with several potential versions of September’s travel plan (one of which involved going all the way back to New England – and I’m going to be honest, that one gave me an instant headache), we opted to take Highway 20 east over the Cascades and then head south from there.  Highway 20 is the most scenic of the roads that cross the Cascades, passing several deep, glacial lakes and serving as the gateway to North Cascades National Park

North Cascades has to be one of our most remote national parks.  As far as I know, no roads, or at least no paved ones, reach into it; it’s all jagged, glaciated peaks and wilderness.  Even the Visitors’ Center is outside of the park boundary.  I was surprised, when capturing the above map screenshot, that it wasn’t even marked.  I had to zoom in to even get Google Maps to acknowledge it.

We only did a short visit & hike there, probably more accurately a stroll, but with the fall colors just starting to kick in, it made for quite the scenic stop. 

Further in our drive, I was struck once again by stark difference between the eastern and western sides of the Cascades.  More than any mountain range I know of, it truly wrings out the vast majority of the eastbound Pacific storms’ moisture – the transition from lush green to high desert brown happens almost immediately at the line of peaks and passes.  The weather changed dramatically for us, too.  We had already transitioned mostly to long pants, fleece, and flannel back in Anacortes and La Conner, but as soon as we crossed the mountains the sun came back out and the temperature rose 10-20 degrees. 

Our first overnight was on the Methow River just south of the town of Twisp.  Our goal was the faux-Bavarian town of Leavenworth, where we’d loll about for a few days, but the drive was a bit longer than we wanted, so Twisp it was.  I’m always happy to camp riverfront.  It’s a tossup for me whether river or ocean sounds are more relaxing at night, but lately I’ve been leaning river. 

Eastern Washington is also apple country, and apple season was just on the verge of kicking in.  In general we’ve found that Fall is, straight-up, the best season to do this RV traveling thing.  One of our original guidelines was to “chase mild weather,” and what we discovered during the planning phase is that pretty much everywhere in the country, with the possible exception of Florida (still too hot) and the “green” parts of the Pacific Northwest (tending toward cold and wet already), are at their absolute peak in September and October.  In any case, deep relaxation was what we were after and that’s precisely what we found.

The next day we followed the Columbia River downstream to the South and made a turn to the West back into the Cascades, where Leavenworth sits at the bottom of a steep valley.  It’s extremely picturesque.  The Bavarian theme came about in the mid-’60s as a ploy to revitalize the town’s economy after a railroad was moved and logging wasn’t thriving. The idea to “theme” the town actually came from Danish-themed Solvang in California, where we put Woodsprite into a giant clog and managed to avoid eating æbleskivers last Fall. Though arguably cheesy, the plan unarguably worked, as Leavenworth has become quite the year-round tourist destination. Not our normal cup of tea, but frankly, a few days of large German beers, sausages, and oom-pah bands sounded therapeutic. Who doesn’t like Bavaria?

Uncharacteristically, we drove into town without a camping reservation, assuming that its being midweek and slightly off season, we’d find something walking distance from the dolled-up Main Street and would sleep to the sound of distant accordions. What we found instead was a riverfront wonderland just outside of town.

Leavenworth itself turned out to be somewhat of a bust.  We ventured in on the first evening to sample the atmosphere and wares, and found ourselves a little put off by the borderline tackiness of it all.  We did sit down at a communal bench in a biergarten for some wurst, but… I don’t know, it just wasn’t that good. The sausage wasn’t especially tasty, and the meal as a whole was far heavier than anything we’ve been eating. It didn’t strike me as particularly German either. Even the beer was so-so. And all over-priced.  Perhaps we just picked the wrong restaurant, but the Gemütlichkeit never quite caught on, and though Firebolt did make a point to inform us that she was very happy with her meal, we returned to our campsite that night pretty certain that we didn’t need to come back into town.

The campsite though, WOW.  Yet another riverfront site, but this time the river in question (Icicle Creek) was a stunner.  Crystal clear, shallow, rapid, and strewn with smooth boulders which begged to be hopped upon.

The advertised wi-fi was essentially useless (common occurrence a RV parks, incidentally) and furthermore we had only the grainiest of 4G cell phone signals, and that caused a bit of tension in the kids. This, too, however, turned into a positive. The kids know nothing of a world without a connection to the internet, and I’ve mentioned previously how I’m both disturbed by that fact and perplexed about how to ensure that this lack-of-connection anxiety doesn’t become normalized.  So after the initial grumbling about no signal, it was both a relief and a thrill to have the kids not only forget about the lack of phone coverage, but ask, on multiple occasions, if they could stop school for a bit and head out to play in the river.  Yes.  YES!  By all means, get out there.  I’ll join you shortly!

There was lots of river play.  Rock stacking, dam building, races involving rock-hopping in the middle of the current…

And then in the evening we decided to set up a mini-soccer field using some cones and play a family soccer game.  How have we not done this before now?  This was exactly the type of scene I envisioned when I imagined our journey at its most ideal – the whole family heading back sweaty and laughing to our RV by the rushing river in the mountains, having been forced to end our soccer game because it got too dark to see.

We really needed this.  Or at least I did.  Between the stress of finally closing on the Maryland house, the decision to double our on-the-road time, and the corresponding uncertainty about pretty much everything, I’ve been chronically anxious.  For quite some time.  If our time in La Connor allowed me to step back enough to articulate it, then this stretch of days allowed me to step even further back, or perhaps better said, to zoom out and view the whole thing from altitude.  I don’t have a clue whether we’re making the right call, but I’m easing back into the belief that such a thing doesn’t exist, and looking forward to what’s in store for us.

The plan that is gelling is this: Spend the rest of September and most of October on the California coast, then spend November + the Winter bouncing between my parents’ house in the SF Bay area and southern California, from which I can (for once!) drive to work, given my impending transfer back to the Long Beach / Los Angeles pilot base.  Take several family ski trips – as many as we can muster.  And then come Spring, return to Washington to put our Anacortes house on the market, buy a house in Bend, and settle next summer.  Maybe bag a few more National Parks in the meantime.  This is far from a bad plan.      

A Year – Updated

Things that were supposed to happen:

  • We’d be done with our travels at the one year point.
  • We would be settling into our new house, in a location we had painstakingly chosen, by Summer 2018.
  • Davista would be up for sale by Fall 2018.
  • We would blog nightly, astutely capturing what living on the road with a family looks and feels like.

These things have not happened.

The first three have been pushed back by various periods of time, the last we adjusted our expectations about in an effort to nudge them toward reality.  The first three for what we fervently hope are excellent reasons, the last due to a combination of poor prioritization, the fact that we’re just playing at this writing thing, and no small measure of laziness.

Here is a map of our one-year progress.  Overnights in red, significant stops in purple. 

One year - Sat

Plan Moon is in effect, which means we’ll be doing this for another year. As the traveling will slow down, I suspect that the blogging will too, though we’ll attempt to cover highlights, major developments, and general thoughts. I’m hoping to do some summation at the end as well, as we tend to get similar questions from folks, and we do have answers, or at least we’re getting them. We’ve learned a lot.

By the way, we’ve been asked, and yes, we do have a page with links to all of our old posts, sorted by time and geography. It’s up at the top menu, or here — Geographical / Chronological Archive

Islands, Volcanoes, and Crabs

Our immediate future figured out (ha!), we got back to playing.  Labor Day weekend was a wash due to my having to work, and that had always been a huge get-out-and-do-things time for us when we were Pacific Northwest residents, so we pushed it to Labor Day midweek instead.

First on tap was inflation of our kayak flotilla, which hadn’t seen nearly enough action over the past year. We boarded them to venture out to Hope Island. Like the vast majority of the San Juan islands, it is uninhabited and inaccessible by road or ferry, but this one also happens to be a Washington State Park.

This is the type of water exploring we missed in Maryland, even though Annapolis is by all accounts a boating mecca.  Secluded beaches on isolated islands, clear water, sea life… they’re everywhere in Washington’s waters.  In Annapolis we found it more to be about the boating itself than the destinations.  Sailing reigns, and we had a motorboat.  Our Maryland boating career had ended abruptly one warm afternoon well over a year after we had spent far (FAR!) more money than the boat had initially cost us getting it towed across the country, stored someplace suitable (much more difficult/expensive than it sounds, or ought to be in a self-proclaimed boating town), and in good enough working order to run for 15 minutes without overheating.  Within a few minutes of our victorious departure from the marina into Chesapeake Bay, standing tall at the helm and puffing out my chest, Keeper turned to me and asked “so…uhhh… what do we do?”  “Well…” I had to think about it for a moment. I wasn’t entirely sure. This part of the evolution had been theoretical up to now. “I guess we cruise around here, maybe look at some of these houses from the water, and then find someplace to dock for lunch?”  His deflated answer: “That’s it, huh?  No islands, no beaches? In that case, do you mind if Firebolt and I just go down below and take a nap?”  A split-second calculation involving future gas, maintenance, and storage money, compounded by time and stress involved in boat ownership, flitted across my transom before I turned the boat around and headed directly back to the marina, to no objections from the kids.  It was up for sale the next day. 

Back to Washington, though.  It’s a sea kayaker’s wonderland, and even has established “water trails” as well as the more well-known hiking trails.  Hope Island is a stop on one of the more popular ones. It was a short journey and easy paddle from our campground, but the currents in the San Juans can be brutal.  On the way back the tide was coming in, and we had to aim about 45 degrees to the left of the point to which we wanted to land.  That’s quite a crab.  (aviation-speak again).

The following day we opted for a hike up at Mt. Baker, or “Mountain Baker,” as Keeper used to call it.  Baker is the furthest north in the chain of volcanoes that dot the Cascades mountain range, and is just a few miles south of the Canadian border.  In the winter snowboarding is king there, and I believe it holds the record for the most single season snowfall at a ski area ever.  I remember that year – they actually had to dig out the lifts.  But in the summer, it’s all about hiking.  You can drive to Artist Point near the top of the ski area, which gives you access to some absolutely spectacular hiking trails.  Hiking in the Cascades is different than hiking in most US mountains in that they are so jagged, are glacier-topped year round, and rise up from near-sea-level river valleys.  Most hikes involve initial steep switchbacks to get up to near the tree line, but thereafter you’re rewarded with views of glaciers, ice-fed lakes, and knife-edge ridges.  Artist Point is one of the few Cascade trailheads which starts at a relatively high elevation (avoiding the switchbacks), and has several trail options.  We opted for the Chain Lakes loop, which we had done once pre-kids but with two puppies. 

Though there was still lingering smoke from the various Pacific Northwest forest fires, the views were still awe-inspiring.  We traversed a steep ridge to a saddle, where there was a snow field on which to run around and toss snowballs.  Not bad for September.  The kids got a kick out of the stories of our puppies running around on this same snowfield and ending up at the bottom after not being able to get any purchase. 

We then descended into a valley with several lakes & stopped for awhile. 

Our kids have never shied away from cold water, and ribbing from their siblings tends to push the “I dare you to…” game deep into polar bear zone. 

Tacco and I sat back and watched from the comfort of our sunny rock while the kids happily froze themselves in the clear water. 

I wish we could have stayed longer, but as often happens on these day trips, our leave-home time had been delayed by family inertia, and we found ourselves in a bit of a race against the lengthening shadows.  Wouldn’t want to get caught up here at night without the proper gear. 

Rather than complete the loop, which would’ve taken longer than we had daylight, we turned around and retraced our steps.  Impossibly, the ridge traverse appeared even more dramatic in the late afternoon / early evening, and we managed to catch sight of a white mountain goat clinging to the rocks well above us.

We rounded off the day with a few group pictures and then headed back to camp to prep for tomorrow’s departure. 

So here we are… a year in but about to do another year, a month of playing in the mountains and on the beach ahead of us, and hopefully a full ski season after that.  Shoot, maybe at some point we’ll even find a house to live in.  Though the overarching unease still lingers, it’s hard to summon up any angst when I look at the upcoming few months the way I just described them; we truly are fortunate to be doing this.  It’s a good thing to remind yourself.