The Return (Part 1)

The Return (Part 1)

Following the fantastic time at the Tree Lot (see “A Tale Of Trees“), it quickly dawned on me that we were nearing the time to begin our return journey. Although we still had a few months ahead of us and countless experiences yet to come, I was still filled with a sense of impending finality as we headed south down the California coast. As already documented in Tanya’s post “Californication”, we enjoyed marvelous times in southern California and witnessed some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. With stops in Hollywood, San Diego, Joshua Tree, and of course Slab City, our roster of experiences continued to increase drastically as I in turn continually tried to remind myself that there was still plenty of the journey left.

Now that we are back, it seems that most folks are curious about the aforementioned Slab City. Still government owned property, it is the remains of what was once the World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. Now home to Rv’ers, squatters, and the homeless, Slab City is commonly referred to as the last free place in the U.S.. People tend to stay during the winter months and head out in the early spring as temperatures begin to rise to unbearable levels. One of the residents informed us that those who decide to stay through the summer are never quite the same come the following autumn…Slab City (37)REV
For my part, I found it a strange yet intriguing place filled with dichotomies and contrasts running the gamut of all expectations. While looking at some incredible folk art in one area, we could see plumes of black smoke rising from the burn pile of someone trying to clean up their junked up “yard” in another. There were beautiful and expensive RV rigs set up in one section, while others contained burned out shells surrounded by yet more junk, with perhaps a dog tied under a makeshift lean-to for shade. I would have stayed longer if the kids were not with us as I was fascinated by this strange, almost apocalyptic landscape with its denizens of various backgrounds, filled with stories and tales of journeys that led them finally to this… place. As Tan put it, “There was art and there was junk-art. There was hip and there was hippy. There was trash and there was trashy. There was clean and there was dirty. There was young and there was old.”

Turning east again, we tried to take some different routes as we continued along our homeward trek. Some of this territory we had already been through and wanted to change it up a bit so as to not repeat places we had already seen (although some places we did want to see again). One new stop was the town of Quarzsite, Arizona. We had heard about Quarzsite from some fellow RV’ers we had met while doing the Sugar Beet Harvest. Generally a winter destination, the area boasts lots of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land therefore making it an attractive and (like Slab City) cheap place to hang one’s hat for a bit. However unlike Slab City, it is not a lawless community where anything goes until there are serious problems.

Quartzsite is actually a dying destination for RV’ers, although thousands still flock to the town for the winter. Tents, flea markets, and open air markets abound mostly with people selling and shopping for gems and minerals of various nature, along with vendors peddling everything from used books to clothing to RV parts. In recent years the Gem and Mineral Show in nearby Tucson has taken some of the wind out of Quarzsite’s sails and its winter population doesn’t reach the heights it once did, but as a newbie you would hardly know it.
One nearby attraction of interest was the Nellie E. Saloon desert Bar.
Now you all know how much Tan and I love new bars so this was one we couldn’t miss.  Located in (kinda) nearby Parker, AZ, you have to travel five miles down a dusty, dirt road until finally arriving at the desert bar. Pulling into the parking lot after those long five miles, we were more than ready for a couple tasty beers and soft drinks for the kids. The atmosphere was great, and with a good band playing and people dancing and having a good time, we were anticipating a fun afternoon… until we saw the beer choices. Budweiser and Coors Light. That’s it. Yea, you could get a mixed drink, but that just wasn’t what I had in mind. Beer snob that I am, I was hoping for a good IPA or something along those lines. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a frosty Bud after mowing the lawn or some other sweaty activity, and after that long drive on a hot day one of those would have been more than welcome but… I was hoping for a few more choices. Anyway we did have a good time and it was well worth the drive and opportunity to check out something new!

Eastbound again we followed Route 10 into Phoenix for a few days, spending time with a crew of great folks we had met outside Seattle previously. Making new friends is always a welcome event, but keeping in touch and meeting up again is always the trick.  We spent an afternoon doing a little desert exploration while afterwards Riv got to show off his new guitar, and get a few tips from our friend George. AZ (13)REVThese folks really welcomed us with open arms and allowed us a few days of nice rest and relaxation before continuing the trek south and east to Tucson for another stop. Once again luck was on our side and we were fortunate enough to spend some time with a family member who had flown in for the Gem And Mineral Show that week.

Back down towards Texas we went, following the same route we had originally come west on. We tried as much as possible to avoid repeating highways but in some cases it is unavoidable, although seeing the same scenery from the opposite direction can at times be interesting…. I guess. We finally altered our course turning south into Texas and through El Paso. A night in the local Camping World was good enough for us in that city and we continued our breakneck pace across the Lone Star state to a much anticipated stop in Corpus Christi.

We had heard that Corpus Christi is not a particularly nice place, having dirty water and trash washing up along the shore. Fortunately we were pleasantly surprised and found ourselves in the clean, open air of Mustang Island State Park which adjoins Padre Island on the east coast of Texas. Although a little too breezy to swim, we were rewarded with days in the mid-seventies to low-eighties and just enjoyed a quiet time along the Gulf. Even though it was late February, the prospect of returning home began to loom heavily over my head as I began to reconcile the thoughts of life after this. The road had certainly become our home and I was comfortable with the idea of venturing from place to place while still keeping a distant attachment to work and our responsibilities back east…

After just about a week in the state park, it was time to move on again this time with the full intention of returning someplace we had already been. We loved Fontaine Bleu State Park in Louisiana so much the first time that a return stay was well in order. Another trip to the Abita Brewery (this time with the kids) was on the agenda as well as a little more exploration of the area of Mandeville along Lake Ponchartrain. Tan and I were directed to a wonderful Brew Pub (why does that always happen?) along the lake shore that we couldn’t believe we missed the first time around. We loved the little neighborhood there so much that we brought the kids out the next day for a stroll, all the while trying to half-jokingly convince them that we needed to stay.Abita (1) REVWith a pang of remorse we set off again along Route 10 for our final approach back to the east coast. Once again with a destination in mind and friends to see we happily entered the Sunshine State knowing we would be in the Florida sun for a few weeks before turning north towards the colder weather. 

First stop was Orlando to visit friends, and deliver on our promise to the kids to go to a fine waterpark. After finding another state park to hang our hats for a few days, Tan and I slipped out for a little grocery shopping and to solidify our plans with the afore-mentioned friends. With plans to meet that evening, upon our return to the campground we were pleasantly surprised to find our friends hiding in the RV with the kids! It was a truly endearing reunion as they had allowed us the pleasure of staying with them over a year ago when we were on our way out to the vast wilds of the country. Seeing their smiling faces sitting unexpectedly in the RV was such a wonderful sight that will always stay with me. Frederickson'sWe spent the next few days with our friends, enjoying their hospitality and relaxing poolside as guests in their resort complex. The days and evenings were filled with laughter and the comfort of spending time with people you truly care about and respect. The week was capped off by a trip to the waterpark in Disney and we all enjoyed a great time doing the slides, rides, and swimming in the giant wave pool. Sadly it was time to go and we bid them farewell for now…

A return trip to Jensen Beach was up next and I greatly looked forward to seeing my father who I hadn’t seen in almost a year and a half. We were able to secure a spot not too far from where he was staying and spent the week again enjoying the sun and fun that a resort community offers. We reconnected with folks we had met on our first stop in Jensen Beach at the beginning of our trip and talked much and shared stories about our mutual travels and experiences on the road.Jensen Beach (57)REVA pleasant surprise was a visit from my two step brothers who had also come to visit my dad in Florida. We got to hang out with those guys for a few days and really got re-connected. We had never really spent much time together as adults, and although I was not surprised, it was very pleasant to be able to hold intelligent conversations, and laugh and joke comfortably as people who have known each other for a long time do. I can only hope that as many years don’t go by before we can all get together again. 
As our impending return edged ever closer, the time came for us to begin the last leg of our journey. Heading north up the east coast for the first time in 18 months brought feelings of happy anticipation as well as tinges of sadness. Happiness knowing that we would soon be reunited with friends and family that we hadn’t seen for over a year and sadness to leave behind a lifestyle that suits us and that we truly feel at home in…   

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Californication

Californication

It’s been about seven weeks since we left The Golden State, but I honestly started feeling the pangs of leaving immediately after crossing the state line.  I’m pretty sure that it’s not the traffic congestion, high gas prices, outrageous camping fees, the gangster neighborhood we did our laundry in or the constant thought of earthquakes that left my heart back there.  It could be the fact that in only a matter of hours I could find myself hiking through the forest, strolling along the beach, gallivanting around the city or exploring in the desert. Or maybe I simply felt spoiled by having affordable, local and organic produce at my disposal, a farmer’s market in every community, and a Trader Joe’s on virtually every corner.

We spent more time in California than we have in any other state in our 17 months on the road and are all in agreement that a return visit is absolutely necessary.  Factoring in winter weather conditions and our job at the tree lot (see Bri’s post), made for the unfortunate but necessary decision to bypass the mountains this time around.  We came in from the north in Humboldt county and basically hugged the coastline down to San Diego.  Here’s what we experienced in just two short months…

Redwood National Park

I love trees, all trees!  I remember spending many days as a kid in a tree fort,  My dream home is a log cabin (on wheels of course),  My very first crush was The Lorax!

Giant Redwoods
Giant Redwoods

The Redwoods are amongst the oldest and tallest living things in the world and to stand alongside these ancient giants one can’t help but feel the majesty of their beauty.  We spent an entire day in the Prairie Creek State Park area exploring the forest.  We stood inside the trunk of one of the gigantic elders, located the remnants of yet another giant which at one time housed an entire family, and hiked a foggy, misty trail which resembled something from one of the  “Jurassic Park” movies.

Where's Mom?
Where’s Mom?

A couple of days later we took a drive along the infamous “Avenue of the Giants”,  a 31 mile stretch of road nestled between these towering beauties.  Half expecting this to be a tourist trap, we planned on driving straight through….until we discovered the groves.  Founder’s Tree Grove was our favorite. A half mile nature trail, complete with an informational guide, provided for a very educational walk along the plush forest floor, abundant of uprooted and fallen trees.

Founder's Grove
Founder’s Tree Grove

I personally felt very much alive in the coastal redwood forest and found it difficult to leave….that is, until I discovered that we were also in Big Foot country.

He aint so Big!
He aint so Big!

Sacramento

We ended up spending a day here because we were graciously offered an awesome opportunity by Birkenstock for the kids to participate in the making of their own pair of Arizona sandals.  This experience, thanks to Anne, our contact at Birkenstock, and the owners of Birkenstock Midtown Sacramento, provided for a hands on lesson in what it takes to run a successful retail business with the added bonus of walking away with a custom-made quality product.  Even Daisy was given VIP treatment as California is truly a dog-friendly state. 

Arizona Birkenstocks
Arizona Birkenstocks
Birkenstock VIP
Birkenstock VIP

The second half of the day was spent in Old Sacramento, a historic landmark along the Sacramento River set within the time of The California Gold Rush and The Transcontinental Railroad.  We explored this quaint little district rather quickly along the docks, over the railroad tracks and through the alleys.

Old Sacramento
Old Sacramento

San Francisco

Having only one day to explore the city we took advantage of the public transportation system (minus the cable cars as the line was excruciatingly long) and covered many miles on foot.  Our first stop was the Golden Gate Bridge. Aside from being one of the most popular Facebook profile picture settings, the Bridge Pavilion houses various exhibits on its history and construction.  Mercy’s assignment for that day was to find out why this bright orange wonder is named The Golden Gate Bridge. It didn’t take her long to find her answer and I am betting that unless you are either a Californian or a geography buff, you wouldn’t know that it is named after the Golden Gate Strait which is the entrance from the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.  We braved the gusty winds and the three busloads of tourists ahead of us and walked out onto the bridge to feel its grandeur.  It truly is a technical masterpiece!

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge

Haight Ashbury.  I’ve been wanting to get back there for 20+ years.  Unfortunately, the kids weren’t as hippy happy as I was to hang out in thrift store, iconic rock star heaven for any length of time.  We hit a local market, a few hip shops and a record store and called it good.

Hanging in the Haight
Hanging in the Haight

Fisherman’s Wharf.  We donned our tourist caps for this colorful waterfront community and spent a few hours popping in and out of various shops alongside spectating interesting street performances.  We made our way to the infamous pier 39 where we all decided on a restaurant as we had been looking forward to a fresh seafood meal for a while. Looking back, I find it quite humorous that we all ordered New England clam chowder and Maine lobster bisque.

Being in San Fran during the Christmas season provided for some interesting holiday entertainment amongst a few of the homeless characters.  Here is Bri’s spot on impression of a jolly street panhandler we encountered and grew very fond of…

Suffice it to say, this performance is sure to become a part of the Dunn family Christmas tradition!

Pacific Coast Highway

One of the most scenic drives in the country,  the PCH actually extends from the southern tip of Baja California to the top of the Olympic peninsula….roughly 2500 miles.  We knowingly ventured along portions of this highway while in Washington and again in Oregon, not realizing that it was just a preview of what would take our breath away when we hit the infamous route 1 along the central coast from Monterey to LA.

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway

We were hesitant at first to take the 5th wheel along the hairy, twisty, turny, cliffy, misty, and at times foggy stretch of this highway. But, seeing as our max speed would only be around 25 mph, we figured we’d have enough time to jump ship if we got too close to the jagged edge.  So, we went for it.  And what a trip it was! Mountains to the left, ocean to the right, cyclists up ahead, idiotic, convertible sports car speeders passing you from behind.  All part of the experience I’m told!

The plan was to spend a couple of days exploring and hiking in the Big Sur region.  The only problem with that was that we didn’t plan.  We never really do plan. This time though, it was a holiday weekend (New Year’s) and that is when everyone else plans.  So, we were out of luck and couldn’t get into a campground.  I must confess that situations seem to work out for us as I feel we truly benefited from not being able to get into the campground. Instead, we pulled off on the side of the road just as the sun went down and set up camp for the night .  In the morning we awoke to this! 

PCH near Big Sur
PCH near Big Sur

You can’t get an unobstructed view like that  from a campground, even if you pay for it….which we didn’t!.

Heading further South that morning with our destination in mind and feeling totally sight satiated, we hadn’t planned on any more stops.  That is, until we noticed groups of people congregating along the pull-offs….and I’ll be damned if I’m missing anything!  So, I insisted Bri pull off at one and I believe everyone is thanking me that we did.  Otherwise, we never would have witnessed the unbelievably large colony of northern elephant seals covering the shoreline.  What an incredible sight and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  The female harems had just arrived and had given birth to the cutest shiny black pups!

Seal Pup
Seal Pup

Ventura

Said to be one of America’s most livable communities, Ventura has lots to offer.  Miles of surf-friendly beaches, neighboring mountains, and scenic bike paths combined with a mild year-round climate make for some healthy and happy residents.  The city also prides itself on supporting local businesses and promoting economic, social and environmental sustainability.  No wonder Bri and I both have placed Ventura at the top of our list for future,  part-time residency!

Trying to decide on the perfect place to hang out for a few days wasn’t easy.  One thing we discovered early on in this state was that we had to be prepared to pay higher camping fees.  Beach front with electric and water at an affordable rate was going to be a challenge…so we thought.  After making Bri drive up and down route 1 and pull in and out of tight areas we found Hobson Beach campground where we settled in amidst a mecca of care-free and friendly recreational surfers.  The price was attractive, the view spectacular, and the vibe sunny.  It was definitely one of the harder places to leave.  For me, exercising on the beach every morning and watching the sunset over the Pacific every evening is paradise.

Beachside living
Beachside living
Ventura Sunset
Ventura Sunset

Hollywood

Hollywood Baby!
Hollywood Baby!

Much fun was had by all four of us in the famous LA district which is nicely detailed in River’s post.   I will add that if it wasn’t for the hospitality of a dear friend who also played tour guide for the week, we would never have had the opportunity to experience as much as we did during the time we were there.  Aside from the studio tours, activities on Hollywood Blvd and our adult night out on The Sunset Strip (where Bri and I were hoping to bump into some rock stars…..instead we got Ron Jeremy),  I thoroughly enjoyed my morning hikes in Runyon canyon with Daisy where the view never got old. The drive through Laurel Canyon up to Mullholland Drive was also a highlight for me as I was envisioning a time when the bohemian neighborhood was alive with some of my favorite iconic rock legends, like Jim Morrison.

Runyon Canyon Lookout
Runyon Canyon Lookout
Sunset Blvd. fun
Sunset Blvd. fun

San Diego

We were all eager to get to San Diego for a few reasons.  First being, we had decided mid-way through working at the tree lot that this would be the place we would splurge, for the first time, and spend an entire week in a resort, complete with all the amenities.  In doing my research, I chose the one boasting of its central location, super sites, spa facilities and superior customer service.  Upon our arrival (after getting lost due to the lack of signage pointing us in the right direction), we soon discovered that the central location was nestled between the busy freeway and the active railroad tracks, the super site required our neighbor to move his vehicle in order for us to back our rig in, the spa facilities consisted of a two person hot tub in the pool area where we could barely carry on a conversation due to the noise level of the traffic, and the superior customer service was more than lacking.  I should have been clued in at the time I made the reservation when after I declared my budget wouldn’t allow for the weekly fee, the representative actually asked me what my budget would allow and gave me a pretty sweet discount.  Nonetheless, we decided to stay as we had a pretty busy agenda planned and we didn’t want to deal with the hassle of picking up and moving.

A visit to The San Diego Zoo and a whale watch excursion were two more reasons for our stay in the area.  The zoo had been on our list since the planning stages of the trip and it surely did live up to all of our expectations.  Our day spent there is nicely detailed in Mercy’s post.    As for the whale watch, we got lucky on two levels. Groupon happened to have a half-off deal for the 3 hour cruise and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It was migration season for the gray whales and they were passing through from Alaska on their way south to Baja which made for many sightings on our tour.  Such beautiful creatures they are.

Big Whale
Big Whale

Bri and I had our own motives for hanging in San Diego and that would be to re-live some memories from our first trip where we spent a large chunk of time living in and around the parks and beaches.  Surprisingly, we didn’t really notice any major changes.  It seems it is still a very popular hangout for those living out of their vehicles.  We actually found ourselves trying to locate a couple of characters we befriended there back in 1992 and then realized that one guy would be well into his 90s by now.  Hey you never know….once you’ve gotten a taste for the nomadic lifestyle, it’s hard to leave it! 

We hit the farmer’s market in Ocean Beach, took a drive through Mission Beach and enjoyed a local brew in Pacific Beach.  My favorite….Dog Beach!

Pacific Beach Alehouse
Pacific Beach Alehouse
Dog Beach
Dog Beach

Joshua Tree National Park

The trees, the trees, the Joshua Trees, I’ve never before seen trees like these!

The only thing any of us knew about this National Park was that it was home to these very unique looking trees that U2 had titled one of their albums….and that it was in the California desert.  The rest remained sort of a mystery to us and I refrained from researching anything but the campgrounds before our arrival so as to make it somewhat of a surprise.

The name Joshua Tree was reportedly given by a group of Mormons in the mid-nineteenth century as the trees’ form reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky.  I guess this was before Dr. Seuss’ time.

Joshua Trees
Joshua Trees

Two deserts come together in this park, each with its own ecosystem. The Colorado, being at the lower elevation and occupying the eastern end of the park, is generally ten to fifteen degrees warmer and also where we chose to camp at Cottonwood Springs.  Unbeknownst to us, this was not where we were going to find the trees.  Their special habitat is located in the  Mojave, which is higher up in the western part of the park and about fifty-five miles from Cottonwood Springs.  So, being that it was nearing sunset, we decided to wait until the next day to drive to the west end and explore.  We hung out in the campground listening to the desert sounds and witnessed a fearless and apparently very hungry coyote rummage through everyone’s camp-fire pit.

Not so coy coyote
Not so coy coyote

The drive was spectacular.  To see and feel the crossover of the ecosystems and the changes in scenery was very interesting.  In the same day, we went from an arid land abundant of beautiful Ocotilla and Cholla cactus to a cooler, moister climate plentifully bestrewed with the park’s namesake trees. 

I could never tire of looking at the trees.  Each one, individually unique in size and structure, tells a story of survival and resilience.  Of course  Bri tried to locate the famous one on the cover of U2s album “The Joshua Tree”,  but to no avail.  We did have a lot of fun re-creating that cover in total “Dunn” style…..which so proudly graces the front pages of this blog.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree

Of other interest throughout the park is the amazing geologic landscape.  Huge eroded boulders lying on top of one another and naturally formed dikes within the granite made for some fun climbs.

Joshua Rock?
Joshua Rock?

We managed to fit in two fairly strenuous hikes during our stay, one in each of the deserts.  Ryan Mountain in the Mojave, took us up over 5,000 feet to the summit where the views of mountains and valleys in the background were complimented by the Joshua Trees in the foreground.  It was cold and windy up top.

Ryan Mountain summit
Ryan Mountain summit

In The Colorado, we hiked Mastodon Peak.  3,000 feet up this hike required some basic rock climbing skills.  The views from here included mountains, jagged rock formations and The Salton Sea.  It was warm and sunny on top.

 Mastodon Peak hike
Mastodon Peak hike

Slab City

Where to start?  Known by its inhabitants as “The last free place”, it’s no city at all.  Formerly a military training base during World War II, the only remains are the slabs of the deconstructed buildings.  There is no electricity, no water, no sewer, or no trash removal.  It is simply off-grid living in the middle of the desert where, during the winter months, you will find the likes of many nomads including RVers, squatters, hobos, and train hoppers hanging their hats (or bandanas).  However, there are a handful of permanent residents who weather the 120-130 degree summer temps. and therefore retain the authority to impose the ethics and courtesies that all visitors are expected to follow.

Welcome to Slab City
Welcome to Slab City

Slab City is also home to a fairly well-known attraction and most likely how we discovered it…  Salvation Mountain.  Created solely by one man,  this 50 foot tall and 150 foot wide painted adobe clay structure has a recurring theme of “God is Love” and is Leonard Knight’s tribute to God and his gift to the world.  It is listed as an official “Folk Art of America”, draws hundreds of visitors daily and has been featured in the movie “Into The Wild”. 

Salvation Mountain
Salvation Mountain

Speaking for my family, I can say that none of us was deeply moved by the message.  That is not to say that Leonard’s passion and dedication is not worthy of admiration and appreciation and his Seuss-like art style thoroughly fun and enjoyable.

Adobe Art
Adobe Art

There were many interesting sights in Slab City and certainly no lack of interesting characters.  We kept busy during our stay and by the time we left we were somewhat familiar with the “neighborhoods” and “communities” and all the happenings.  There was a one-man radio station, and a Saturday night talent show.  There were Canadian clubs and singles clubs. There was art and there was junk-art. There was hip and there was hippy.   There was trash and there was trashy.  There was clean and there was dirty.  There was young and there was old.  

Slab City Art
Slab City Art
Slab City Junk Art
Slab City Junk Art

If we took anything away from this out of the ordinary boondocking experience, I would say that it’s the realization that everything is not as it appears on the surface.  Our trepidation upon our arrival was totally overcome by the time we pulled out four days later and we now know that desert life is crawling with creativity and irregularity….in the good sense.

Slab City living
Slab City living

I would say that California was the state that exposed us to a multitude of diverse experiences in such a short time.  My hopes are, that if the four of us don’t get back there together, the kids will make it a point to at least get out to Yosemite National Park someday.  As for Bri and I, we’re already California Dreaming about getting back there.  And this time you can bet that Wine Country won’t just be a drive through!