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.