Point Mugu, Ventura CA, and the Channel Islands National Park

As alluded to in our route planning for this year, one of our general goals is to visit the places we missed in 2015 due to our mechanical challenges that first year of full-timing.  Specifically, we cut short most of our southern and central California plans in order to get The Big Kahuna into a shop in northern CA, so this year we wanted to spend a good amount of time in the lower half of CA, and especially in the various National Parks throughout the state.

First on that list by virtue of its southern-most location: Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of Ventura, a short hop north of Los Angeles.  The big challenge is getting there, by which I mean braving the… intense southern California traffic through San Diego, San Clemente, and Los Angeles as well as the twisty turny roads along the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu.  We spent a lot of time travelling 20 to 30 mph along the I-5 in clobbered 12 lane traffic despite our Sunday morning departure, but we eventually made it safely to the Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

This is, as are many Navy owned campgrounds, prime real estate with spectacular views.  It is also, like many Navy owned campgrounds, questionably maintained.  For $30 a night we got a full hook up site (#151) that, though a little tight, was pretty nice, located within a stone’s throw of Mugu Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean.  We loved the location and the amenities (free laundry and a small commissary) but would have like to have seen a better maintained park; the power junction boxes, for example, looked like an electrical fire waiting to happen.  Likewise, the “rules” for the park residents were more like general recommendations.  E.g., a neighbor pulled in behind us and didn’t bat an eye, much less discuss with us, his encroachment on our assigned area to position his satellite TV antenna.

But all things considered, we loved it and would come back again, especially considering how convenient the location was to the Channel Islands National Park ferry harbor in Ventura.  The park consists of five islands, and after a bit of research and rate comparison, we chose to lock in a day trip to Santa Cruz, the largest and second closest to Ventura option.  This would allow a short one hour ferry crossing and nearly six hours of exploration and day hiking.

We did not regret this choice.  We made the 25 minute drive up to Island Packer’s parking lot to catch our 9:00 am ferry departure.  We had half an hour to explore the official National Park visitor center, and then off we went, plowing through notably rough, six to seven foot seas.  I have never in my life gotten seasick, but have great sympathy for those that do: so damn it parents of teens that obviously look ill, follow the repeated guidance from the crew and get your kid to the back railing so we don’t have to watch him lose it all over the tables and benches inside the ferry!

We had an unexpected bonus during the transit as we pulled up half way there to watch the repeated breaching of a hump back whale!  Fantastic.  Rosemarie and I have taken whale watching tours in San Diego, Hawaii, and Maine, and this was the closest we have gotten to one of the behemoths, and it was not even part of the expected experience!

We docked at Scorpion Bay, listened to the very brief orientation from the park ranger, and headed out for a 5 mile hike to Potato Harbor with a side trip to Cavern Point on the return leg.  Having done our research, we were first on the trail and encountered not a single other person until the turn around point of the hike.  But along the way we had such glorious experiences, starting with the family of three Island Foxes cavorting in the lower tent campground unconcerned with us human interlopers.

The various subspecies of Island Foxes (Urocyon littoralis) are related to mainland grey foxes, but significantly smaller due to insular dwarfism, essentially an environmental outcome of limited food, range, and resources.  An Island Fox usually weighs less than five pounds.  To put that in perspective, our cat is three times as big as one of these things!

During our six hours on the island we observed about seven foxes, one of which led us along the trail to Potato Harbor for nearly a mile and a half.  When it paused to hunt, we paused to watch, usually within 30 feet of our location.  During one exciting event, it successfully chomped on a few large insects in the bushes while we stood and took picture less than five feet away!

The views along this day hike were spectacular, especially the rugged coastline that recalled images of Hawaii and the Galapagos islands.  The sheer number of pelicans, which we would later learn were most likely breed and raise on nearby Anacapa island, along with the large and aggressive crows were a wonder to watch.  At one point, as we collapsed on the rocky beach after our hike, a crow passed but 20 feet over head with a nearly 2 foot snake in its beak!  I have know idea whether the bird killed it or found it dead; either way, very entertaining.

We boarded the ferry for the far less rough crossing back to Ventura; smaller waves and following seas made for a gentler transit.  Along the way the captain and naturalist tried to find us another whale, but were confounded by what we suspect was a very shy Minke.  Ah well, it had been a great day, so what more could we expect?

And then lightening struck: much closer to shore than you normally find them, a hump back was engaged in cooperative feeding with a large pod of common dolphins, sea lions, and opportunistically feeding pelicans, shearwaters, and gulls.  Alerted by the multitude of aggressive diving birds, the captain steered towards the activity.  There we observed in awe as the whale and dolphins herded the schools of sardines and anchovies into tight bait balls, culminating in repeated open mouthed breaches of the whale as he swallowed untold number of the fish.

It was extraordinary, especially as we were able to observe it within a couple of hundred yards.   I can’t believe our greatest whale watching event occurred on a trip where we had no expectations of even seeing a whale.  We forgot to even try to take still photos, having only captured the moments on video.  Check out a very short clip on our instagram page.

Upon arrival back at the Ventura harbor, we were met by dad and Marcia, who had completely altered their central California national park exploration due to collapsing weather in the Saguaro and Kings Canyon area.  With late snows interfering with their plans, they left the fifth wheel inland and drove to the coast with the intention of camping for a couple of nights in the Channel Islands.  We hosted them for a night at Point Mugu before they rose early for their ferry crossing.  We look forward to hearing about their experience there and seeing their pictures as well.

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We finally make it to California! Five days relaxing and recuperating in Coronado

After our eight days stint in Yuma getting dental work done across the border in Mexico, we were going a bit stir crazy to get on our way.  So the morning after the final stage in which our permanent crowns were attached, we made the long push to San Diego.  More specifically, we passed through San Diego to the Navy RV Campground on Coronado, just across the bay.

If you recall our original route planning for this year’s journey, we anticipated getting to southern California in mid April.  But passport delays, dental work, and our leisurely pace across the south, especially as we lingered in San Antonio and Tucson, put us roughly three weeks behind schedule.  Fortunately, this doesn’t matter at all; we always looked at that original route plan as very loose, something from which to deviate as other options were exposed along the way.

So we are in California now, and near a major tourist destination at that, so the prices dictate our selections more than ever.  At Fiddler’s Cover Marina and RV Park we had a full hook up, pull through site in a fantastic location, right on the San Diego Bay and just over the bridge from the Gaslamp Quarter.  At $35 a night ($40 for the bay front, water view sites), this is the most expensive military campground at which we have stayed, but compared to the state park just up the road (Silver Strand) it was a decent deal.  That park offered water and electric only, parking lot style sites for $50 a night, $65 for beach front.

I’m not gonna lie this park had some issues: it was one of the more dog noisy places we have stayed, with apparently little effort made to enforce excess barking problems.  There were a lot of families with young kids in the park, which comes with the expected noise level.  And finally, since the place is not located on a gated base but rather an off base annex, there were some security issues that you would not normally see at military campgrounds, i.e., homeless people entering the facility to use the bathrooms and shower houses, etc.  Still a good price for the location, and the staff was quite helpful and efficient.

While there we took a day to wander around San Diego’s Little Italy and the Gaslamp Quarter.  As cities go, we have really enjoyed our two visits to San Diego.  We had a slice at a local pizzaria and enjoyed the pedestrian friendly areas, but we didn’t bother to cross the bridge and spend much time in the big city this time.

Mostly we stayed in Coronado, The Strand, and Imperial Beach (at the other end of the strand.)  In our travels one of the things we are big on is indulging in the local delicacies and food traditions of each region we visit.  Gulf shrimp and oysters in the Florida panhandle, crawfish, boudin and cracklins in Louisiana, BBQ in Texas, lobster and cherry stones in Maine, elk in Colorado, you get the idea.

A bit of googling revealed that if there is any one food specifically associated with San Diego, it is the fish taco.  Armed with that knowledge, we selected one of the top rated places in Coronado, Miguel’s Cocina, for an early afternoon meal.  We ordered way too much, but I thoroughly enjoyed the lightly battered fried fish tacos topped with cabbage, Rosemarie preferred the more traditional carne asada version, and we both agreed that we should have tried the grilled swordfish or seared tuna taco option.  Mixed with local craft beer and sangria, this was a fantastic meal.

While there we too advantage of the various military bases in the vicinity to stock up at the very large commissary and exchange over the bridge at the San Diego Naval Base.  It is tough city-type driving to get there, but once secure on the facility we had great and wide ranging options for our culinary needs.  While the RV campground quality and prices are the main benefit to base camping, access to the base facilities is a close second.

Our biggest disappointment was our inability to get into a single craft or farmers market while there.  Had we been successful we might have extended our stay.  In some cases the markets excluded anything but produce, in others the paperwork and licensing requirements were excessive, and in several cases the managers just didn’t respond to emails or texts.  After looking into other areas, we are starting to think that California may be a wash for us entirely, but there are plenty more states in our 2017 route, so we remain optimistic on this front.

I-8 to Yuma: Eight day stay for extensive dental work in Mexico

We just finished getting a bunch of dental work done in Mexico.  A big percentage of western RVers, people living near the western end of the Mexico border, and I suppose, Canadians will probably understand that without explanation.  For the rest: there are border towns in Mexico that contain a lot of dentists and other specialists whose clientele is almost exclusively US and Canadian medical tourists.  These organizations charge 25% to 35% of US costs.  The dentists are generally well educated, are often US ADA certified, and come with a plethora of patient reviews on the traditional English language sites plus RV discussion forums.

Based on reviews and qualifications, we selected Bernal Dental Group, a three doctor outfit in Los Algodones with very high ratings in the places I checked.  Their office manager responded rapidly, spoke and wrote in fluent English, and got us same time appointments for the day after our arrival.  We found the office bright, very clean, and almost absurdly modern.  There were still labels on some of the brand new gear in the actual exam and treatment rooms, and even all the fluorescent lighting had been replaced with LEDs.  Both Drs Aldo and Carlos were professional and detailed, and also spoke excellent English, which came in quite handy when explaining the extensive treatment plans they proposed for both of us.

A little background: For years our regular dentists in Miami Beach were generally keeping an eye on some things that maybe should be done in the near term, but were not too worrisome with regular check ups.  After we retired, lost dental insurance, and began full time RVing, our next dental visit was more than a year later on a discount “Groupon” deal for a cleaning and exam, where they not only upsold us on some immediate treatment, but also presented us with a $10,000 work proposal between the two of us.  This seemed very sketchy at the time, and we took a pass, vowing to get a second opinion.

Flash forward one year to the present day.  Here in Los Algodones we had X-rays, a dental exam, and a cleaning for $100 each.  And then Drs Aldo and Carlos proposed that we receive roughly twice as much work as the Groupon dentist, though even then our bill would be about one third the cost of the US proposal.  So what gives with these rapidly rising dental work proposals?  Here is my loose hypothesis:

  • Our long term dentists could afford to just keep an eye on things because we both had a solid track record of returning to his office every six months for a cleaning and exam.  He didn’t feel the need to do fillings or redo crowns until they presented more obvious decay.  I think Rosemarie’s doc might have expressed a bit more “sooner rather than later” urgency for her work, but there you have it.
  • The Groupon dentist had none of these luxuries; we had never been to his office, he knew it had been a full year since our last cleaning and exam, and for all he knew we wouldn’t see him or any other dentists for years.  Add to that more than a year’s worth of additional decay and you can more easily justify his proposal for four build up and crowns (replacements for existing ones) plus two fillings between us.
  • The Mexican dentists had the same situation as the Groupon guy, but on top of that they seem to have a different philosophy with regard to dental work, particularly old (15 to 35 years in our case) metal fillings and crowns.  That philosophy can best be summed up as “replace them all!”  So on top of the four crown replacements and two fillings between the two of us, they proposed an additional four crowns and dozen fillings!

Now, I know this seems insanely exaggerated and unnecessary.  I think those are the words I used when presented with just my proposed treatment.  Discussing it in more detail with both dentists, we started to understand this key difference between our US dentists and the Mexican counterparts: they don’t trust old metal fillings, and really emphasize the aesthetics of tooth matching, white resin composite fillings and porcelain crowns.  Whereas our Miami Beach dentists, and perhaps any regular treating dentist, would just keep an eye on any hinted flaw development, the Mexican dentist says why not just replace it with a new filling while the cavity is still so shallow, and make your smile better in the process?  I want to emphasize that this is just my interpretation based on a very limited data set.  But the work proposed was still way more than we were prepared to take on this visit, so with some prodding we got our docs to established a prioritization for our proposed plans.  We wanted to do the most crucial stuff now, and hopefully return six months or more later, for another stage.

So two days after our exams I had my lower right crown replaced and a couple of new small cavities filled, and three old fillings replaced.  Rosemarie had a root canal (her most urgent crown having deteriorated even further since the Groupon exam), two crown replacements, and a filling, all from one quadrant of her mouth.  We had to wait over the weekend to give the lab techs time to construct and deliver the finished crowns made from the molds, so start to finish, exam to final stage, took seven days.  With better planning it probably could have been done in three or four.

The entire cost of both our procedures: $1,710.  We had already payed the $100 each for the exam, cleaning, and x-rays.  Using the Groupon dentist’s pricing for crowns and fillings, and a bit of internet sleuthing for molar root canal rates, we estimate that this work would have cost us $6,880 in the US.  This put us at the lower end of the rough estimate we had heard about tourist dental work in Los Algodones.

Today, a few hours after getting our final adjustments and crowns cemented in, we are quite happy with the entire process.  We will reassess as time goes by, and suspect our next exam and cleaning will be six months down the road in the US, but we are already talking about coming back inside a year to do another stage of the proposed work.  We hope the exam doesn’t again show a whole new set of things that need to be done.

During our stay in Yuma we parked at the Blue Sky RV Resort.  They gave us the Passport America rate of $25.50 for half our stay and some sort of “other discounted rate” of $32 for the remaining days.  The park is very modern with new amenities, and the camp hosts are very helpful and nice.  We had a minor problem with the cable TV going out and a half day of pool closure, but we would endorse this place for your Yuma/Los Algondoles stay.  Well maintained, clean and modern facilities, heck even the wifi worked find from our spot, though the seasonal emptiness of the park probably helped with that.  If you want something even closer to the Andrade border crossing, there were a couple of cost competitive options over the California border that looked nice during our drive by, but our park in the Yuma foothills put us closer to the city amenities of Yuma and worked well for us.

28 Months Fulltiming: April 2017 Report

Putting out the April report only a week into May?  We’ve come along way from being five weeks or so behind like we were back in March.

The Distance: 1,793 miles as we crossed the majority of the country from Pensacola to Phoenix.  Our biggest month so far this year, and one of our longer ones for our overall fulltime RV adventure.  We had several significantly bigger mileage months in 2015 when we were running wildly around the country, but only one month in 2016 exceed this month’s total: back in October when we sprinted home from Minnesota to Florida we did 1825 miles.  Our 2017 total is 2,855 miles.

Google map routing limits me to ten points, so I had to cut out the short side trips and back tracking we did a couple of times, usually to find cheap gas.

The Places:  We finally left Florida, stopped for one night at Farr Equestrian Center in Louisiana, and then another one nighter at a Cracker Barrel in Texas before pushing on to Fort Sam Houston in San Anotonio.  We lingered their for eight days and then pulled into Balmorhea State Park, a place we had missed in 2015 due to mechanical difficulties with the old bus.  There we ran into Dad and Marcia, also full time RVers, neither of us having planned it at all!  Then it was on to Davis-Monthan AFB Family Camp in Tucson, AZ after a one night Walmart stop in Las Cruces.  We would end up staying in Tucson for 12 days, most at the AFB, broken up by a two day stay in nearby Gilbert Ray County Park along with a one night in the hotel Radisson in Phoenix so Rosemarie could catch a morning flight back to Florida.  That day Serenity stayed behind in Tucson getting her windshield repaired.  While I held down the fort back at Davis-Monthan, Rosemarie spent five days in Orlando for the big family trip to Disney World’s series of parks.

We spent 20 days in military parks, 6 in public campgrounds (3 state, 3 county), 2 in parking lots, 1 night in a hotel (though Rosie did five more during the Orlando trip,) and for the second month in a row only 1 night in a private RV resort.  We had utility connections of some sort for 27 days (usually full hook up, but 4 with power and water only, and 2 with just 30 amp power) and dry camped for 2 nights.  We had the traditional military subsidized rate for 20 nights at Fort Sam and Davis-Monthan, one free night at Davis-Monthan by using one of our Air Force Frequent Camper certificates, obviously camped for free at Cracker Barrel and Walmart, paid for the hotel night with points, but received no discount for the seven days at the county, state, and private parks.

Random PKM photo to break up the text.  This is what happens when you are cleaning out a storage compartment and leave the door open.

The Budget:  We really turned it around this month after our budget blowing March. Despite a huge expenditure on gas ($610 just for Serenity’s four full tank fill ups) as we sprinted across the country, we still ended up nearly 15% under budget, which means we are back under for the year so far as well.

We were able to keep this otherwise big budget month on track because of our participation in seven market events, six of which gave as a satisfying boost.  Much like we did back in November and December, we let the markets have a major impact on our schedule and route, lingering in San Antonio to do two events, and staying in Tucson for a weekend full of markets rather than moving up the road to Phoenix.  This has put us in a good position leading into May, the first week of which entails significant dental work in Mexico.  While the costs of that may be only 25% of what you would pay in the states, it will still be a budget buster, so we are happy to have a small buffer to take into next month.

The Drama and the Improvements:  We finally paused long enough for our insurance company to arrange replacement of the passenger side windshield, which is a big deal both in terms of having a clear view and in reducing the wind noise since part of the gasket had failed.  We had a bit of drama in San Antonio when unexpected wind gusting collapsed our awning and broke one of the supporting struts.  I was able to get that fixed on the cheap by purchasing the $21 part and installing it myself.  We have a tear at one section of the awning that still needs to be addressed, and one of the lower mounting brackets has a crack and should be repaired as well.  Hopefully we can knock that out in May.

Here are our monthly reports for the year so far:

And here are our 2016 and 2015 annual summaries, each of which have embedded links to the individual monthly reports from those years.

Jack and Rose Split Up!

Well, just for a week and only so Rose can attend the big family event at Disney World in Orlando while I hold down the fort in Arizona.  When last we posted, we had not decided how we would handle the last week of April:  Should we transition our rig two hours up the road to Phoenix since Rose would be flying out and back from there?  Or should I just drop her off in Phoenix and return to Tucson?  In the end, the market availability in Tucson versus getting shut out in Phoenix made our decision easy.

We started off, however, with a two day stay at Gilbert Ray County Park near the Saguaro National Park boundary.  This is a truly beautiful section of the Sonoran high desert, and a place we loved during our 2015 circuit of the west.  We would have spent more of our Tucson time here this year except that, as mentioned last post, this was a working port visit, and the things we needed to do benefited from both the central location and the full hook ups at Davis Monthan AFB.  But feeling like we had marked off quite a few items from the ever evolving “to do” list, we rewarded ourselves with a couple of nights of isolation at Gilbert Ray.

Two years ago the park astounded us with how much vibrant life exists in this type of desert, and this visit did not disappoint.  The sheer beauty of your surroundings goes a long way towards compensating for some of the limitations; the place just isn’t for every RVer.  They don’t take reservations, have a seven day stay limit, no water or sewage connections just 30 amp electricity, and it is cash or check, no credit cards accepted.

We don’t mind any of that: First come first serve suits our lack of a fixed schedule, we rarely stay in places more than a week, we don’t mind using our stored house water and dump stations, and at $20 a night cash/check only is hardly a major sticking point.  And since our last visit two years ago the park has added a modern flush toilet facility, which is a big improvement over chemical pit toilets.

During our stay we solidified plans for the rest of the week.  The fantastic folks at Windshields of Arizona were scheduled to replace Serenity’s windshield Tuesday morning, but were fine with us leaving the rig there one night.  This meant we could drop off the motorhome, drive Loki up to Phoenix, stay in a local hotel (on points of course!) that night, drop Rose at the airport the next morning and then I would drive back to Tucson and pick up Serenity.  From there it was back to Davis-Monthan’s family camp to prepare for a series of markets I would do alone.

Of the five markets that would work for me in terms of timing, we were approved to participate in three.  So after a couple of days of free and easy geographic bachelorhood, I headed to the Tucson Botanical Gardens for the first event late Friday afternoon.  It was a nice location in a walled garden setting under a pavilion, so no tent required, which made the set up that much easier.  Despite the walls the wind picked up dramatically and made things a bit stressful.

Rosemarie’s work station as she prepared items for my solo market experience.

The good side was we saw a steady stream of people coming in for the last night of the Botanical Gardens’ Frida Kahlo celebration, and most of them appeared to have a bit of disposable income.  The bad side is they didn’t use it.  Sure, we cleared the table fee and a bit, but it was a pretty disappointing evening, definitely in our bottom 20 or even 10% of market experiences to date.

Tucson Botanical Gardens event.

Somewhat irritated I packed up and drove home hoping for a better Saturday, in which I would have two markets to attend.  Early the next morning I headed to Rincon Valley for a more traditional market outside of a large barn structure.  The wind was quite heavy, to the point that I took the shade top off of our pop up awning and just used the frame to hold some of our displays.  It seemed like we had a slower through put than the Botanical Gardens event, but those that came: they came to buy.  We ended up with a noticeably better result, and cash in hand I raced back to our campground to knock out a couple of chores before heading south to the evening event at Desert Diamond Casino.

Ducks for sale at the Rincon Valley Farmers Market.

Now this was my kind of event!  All the vendors were situated within the plaza of a large, multi-building casino complex with a steady stream of patrons passing through our vending area.  There were a handful of food trucks, always a favorite for me, and live music.  The wind remained a factor, and I elected to just put the tent frame up, which was fine since I was located under a decent shade tree.  The only downside was how close I was to the live music and their speakers, which heavily limited my ability to interact with potential buyers.  We got them to make an adjustment to the speaker position and volume, and in the end I made a solid profit, turning the three event weekend from disappointing to quite successful.

Taco truck reward for a successful market.

Meanwhile Rosemarie spent the weekend at Disney World.  Now, I know what you are thinking: I really got the raw end of that deal, stuck with working three market events while she was in “the happiest place on earth.”  No.  Emphatically: No.  What she had was a family gathering in the Florida summer with eight children under the age of eight!  I will take my alone time in Tucson, thank you very much.  Seriously, this was a big deal; Titi Linda wanted to have all of her grandchildren together at Disney just one time, and the family made it happen, with her husband Jayson and all three of her sons doing what it took to take time off from work and get their respective families on board for a three day extravaganza through the various Disney properties.

Rosemarie was able to contribute as the only adult Florida resident (which meant a hefty savings for her ticket and five of the kids) and a gifted adult entry from one of her friends (thanks Bertha!), while Jayson covered everything else on his dime and through the generous donations made to their Go Fund Me account.

Then end result was a close knit family of 17 spending three days giving their children their first exposure to The Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.  While some of those younguns might be too little to hold those memories, I know the adults will remember it forever.

Sunday morning, still reeling a bit from three markets in less than 36 hours, I prepped Serenity for the road and hooked up Loki for the two hour drive to Phoenix.  Once there I I got the rig situated at the only RV site I could find in the entire city or Glendale (at least the only one for someone under 55) and then picked up an exhausted Rosemarie from Phoenix airport.  We chose to stay in Glendale as that is where Rosemarie’s long time friend Brenda lives, whom we had not seen since our last visit to Arizona in 2015.

We went straight from the airport to her apartment, where she cooked Puerto Rican style rice and pork chops while enthusiastically catching us up on her life for the last year or two.  Stuffed to the nines, we retired for the evening to Triple T Mobile Home Resort.  I am not gonna lie: this place was overpriced and poorly managed.  Though we had full hook ups for the $35 a night cost, management did not answer phones, return calls after messages, or even show up on time for their posted business hours, and even then it was one of the more disorganized front offices I have dealt with.

The upside is it was positioned right for a one night stay, and the handful of residents I met were extremely helpful.  From the moment I pulled in after office hours, two helpful men directed me to the site where “they always put the overnighters, just check in with them in the morning” to the next day when I had accidentally killed Loki’s battery, people just helped me there.  When a young women, maybe 22, with a good number of tats and wearing carefully adorned basketball attire insists that she be the one to push the car while I sat inside and steered, well, I could either be happy for the help or take some sort of age related offense.  I went with the former, so thanks Ashley and company for the help.

That’s April.  I should mention that just before Rose left for Disney her passport came in, so we are ready to get this show on the road and sprint to Yuma and Los Algodonas for our dental work.  More on that coming up!