Fort Bragg, CA: Glass Beach, Abalone Diving, MacKerricher State Park and Cleone Campground.

Fort Bragg, and Glass Beach in particular, had been on our high priority “return to it” list since our visit in 2015.  Aside from the price for drycamping at the nearby state park, we had loved everything about it.  Beautiful setting, quaint town, proximity to nature and the ocean, and ridiculous sea glass hunting.  So after our lengthy stay at Travis AFB, we made the arduous journey across the coastal mountain range along State Highway 20, whose steep grades, hairpin turns, and limited shoulders had given The Big Kahuna fits.  It was easier in Serenity, even with a tow vehicle this time, but still far from fun, and we were relieved to finally make it out of the mountains and into town after a four and a half hour run.

Fort Bragg Farmers Market: we can buy but we can’t sell!

This time of year MacKerricher State Park campground is tough to get into on late notice reservations, so we settled for what our online research suggested would be a very nice and affordable partial hook up, private place nearby, Cleone Campground.  It was better than we expected, so much so that we extended our stay from three days to a full week. The location was perfect, only a couple of miles from town and Glass Beach, the price was right at only $35 a night for power and water (compare that to $45 a night plus an $8 reservation fee for drycamping at the state park next door), and the grounds were beautiful.

We started in the front section, with a long back-in spot protected by heavy growth on both sides, and our stern abutting a horse pasture such that we were greeted with whinnying most mornings.  For the latter half we switched to the back portion of the grounds, snagging the only pull through spot available, a huge site under significant tree canopy.  I strongly recommend Cleone Campground for your Fort Brag RV needs.  The only downside is they have neither sewage connections nor a dump station, so you will need to use the pay facility at the state park for that.

One of our first activities: celebrating Rosemarie’s birthday!  And while we couldn’t arrange to do it with family this year, we made the best of it: sweet local cherries, wine, and a fantastic location. And of course, cake!

While there we relaxed, enjoyed the town, and hit the beach, particularly Glass Beach.  Now this is controversial:  Sometime in the past two years local politicians passed an ordnance banning the collection of beach glass in the area.  On top of that, rangers at the state park started issuing tickets for those in violation.  The problem, as the fine folks at the International Sea Glass museum explained, is that California law explicitly overrides or precludes a local law of this nature.  It comes down to the glass being, essentially, unprotected garbage that does not meet criteria as a natural resource or antiquities item.

Smores!

People challenged their citations in court and won, and now the town doesn’t try to issue tickets anymore, though they still engage in dissuasion tactics such as carefully worded public placards that allow readers to mistakenly infer that it is a crime to collect the glass, while also going out of their way to make access to the beach a bit arduous (e.g., they have not repaired the stairs down to the most popular of the sites.)  Let me also say that aside from educating us on the law and controversy, the International Sea Glass museum was really cool and well worth you time if you are in town.

Our genius cat

OK, so sure, its legal, but beyond that reasonable people can disagree about the ethics of it: Fort Bragg considers maintaining a robust sea glass laden beach as vital to their tourist economy, and visitors leaving with bucket fulls has definitively eroded the amount and quality of what you see on the beach.  We limited ourselves to a couple of select handfuls from one of the less accessible beaches (it required some scrambling down rocks to get to) and signed the petition supporting a replenishment project for the three main inlets.

Everybody’s crafting round here.

We met up with the Neely’s again!  Turns out they rolled into a park just a score of miles north of us, so we made arrangements to meet at a vineyard and wine tasting place half way between us.  What a fantastic decision:  After a false start in which we went to their sister facility actually in Fort Bragg, which was closed, we realized our mistake, headed north, and arrived at Pacific Star Winery, whose facilities are right on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific.  We caught up, did the standard tasting, and purchased a couple of affordable bottles of red to share down by the cliffs’ edge.  And while there we had a grey whale come in fairly close to shore and give us a show; we watched it cruise north along the coast, sporadically diving and hunting for about 30 minutes before we lost sight.  Fantastic.

So, abalones.  I had eaten one at a restaurant in Chile, where it is apparently legal to commercially harvest them.  In California, however, they are rigorously regulated: no commercial harvesting, only licensed individuals can hunt them, and it must be done without scuba gear (in other words, free diving only.)  Oh and you can only take three in one day and 12 for the entire year.  Works for me!  Diving for abalone has been rising on my bucket list since I first ate one and subsequently saw the process highlighted on food and travel shows.

But: how to go about this?  I have zero cold water diving experience, didn’t know the area, and didn’t have the necessary gear.  Not one to let lack of knowledge or proper equipment defer an adventure, I persisted.  My best option seemed to be a guided tour/excursion with rental equipment that Rosemarie found on line, which was gonna be pricey.  On a whim, I reached out to Cousin Rob, who lived in coastal NorCal for a good portion of his adult life, to see if he had any suggestions.  He put me in contact with his long time good friend Ron, a regular abalone diver.

The Great Abalone Hunt of '17

The Great Abalone Hunt of ’17: The Hunters

Ron was enthusiastic about taking me out: he admitted that he gets a dozen every year, but rarely eats a single bite.  Rather, he enjoys helping other people have success at it, especially newbies like myself.  I was probably the 20th person he has introduced to abalone diving.  He even provided all of the equipment with the exception of the full dive suit, which I rented from a local shop for $15.  That plus the one day California fishing license and the specific abalone card ($38 for the pair) was my total expense.

Ready to deshell, clean, slice, and pound

Geared up, licensed, and a wee bit anxious, I waited for Ron, girlfriend Melissa and her daughter to pick me up mid morning and take me down to a special location near Mendocino that, given the weather conditions, he thought would be perfect.  Even with such assurances I anticipated several hours of arduous effort, free diving to perhaps 20′, to hopefully get a couple of legal (bigger than 7″ shells) finds.

In the pan with oil and butter

I needn’t have worried.  The water was a lot rougher and visibility quite limited compared to casual Caribbean diving, but I found my first abalone within 5 minutes in chest deep water, and collected two more legals inside of an hour, the deepest at maybe 8 or 10′.  Heck, the only reason it took that long was once I had two, I got picky and tried to find a big one for the final catch.  I ended up with one over 8″, so I’m pretty happy over all.  Ron finished things off by showing me how to remove the shell and clean the meat from the guts, as well as providing some preparation and storage recommendations.  This plus a bit of fantastic ‘shine made for one hell of a day.

Ready to eat!

While I was out abalone diving, Rosemarie, sister Dolores, and niece Tamiry spent the day at Glass Beach doing what needs to be done.  Dolores and child had arrived the day before and set up a tent in our spot.  Though Tamiry stayed in the RV at night, mom is terribly allergic to cats and had to stay outside, haha.  Aside from the need to watch a precocious four year old near cold rough water like a hawk, they had a grand time collecting glass and generally hanging out on the beach, especially since their timing worked out so well, having arrived just before low tide.

That evening Rosemarie turned Dolores loose on our table top drill press and diamond bits so she could transform some of her beach glass into jewelry.  Tamiry painted rocks, inaugurated our newly discovered outdoor shower (a beach bucket with flexible water spout filled with sun-warmed water), and generally contaminated herself with feline dander and hair in our rig.  We also had the old campfire standard: smores.  Dolores tried to upscale the process with a custom device that combined and melted all the ingredients, but I ended up reverting back to the “just melt the marshmellow on a stick and then mash it together” method in the end.  I call that weekend a success by any measure.

Finally, we want to give a shout out to the Fort Bragg Farmers Market for an enjoyable afternoon (as shoppers, not vendors, too many CA rules for us to sell there) and especially to Jenny’s Giant Burger, a fantastic big burger diner that will make you wonder why you ever still go to any of the big chains.  We keep our restaurant experiences rare, and yet we ate here twice during our ten day stay.

And that’s it from Fort Bragg. Since then we have sprinted up the coast, experiencing awesomeness and at least one major hiccup along the way. More on that next!

Blog Update and Photobucket Rant

If you scan down our blog, you will see that all of our pictures going back more than a year have been blocked by photobucket.  In a brilliant PR move, they have decided to piss off all users that host images on their site with direct embedded links to other sites (like this one).  In other words, they have banned third party hosting.  Of course, there is a solution: you can pay them $399 a year for the right to continue third party hosting. While that is an absurd price, particularly in light of the numerous free or very cheap options out there, what they seem to be counting on is that some users will not be willing to go through the trouble of retrieving their older pictures, re-uploading them to another site, and establishing new links.  In effect, they are holding old linked pictures hostage to painful labor made even more difficult by their terrible user interface.

To make matters worse, they provided no notice of this.  Or rather, I saw no notice; it might have been an email that went to spam, but in the numerous times I went to my actual photobucket library I didn’t get a pop up warning about it.  And believe me, photobucket is all about pop-up advertisement.  Nor did the grandfather in old photos and just limit it to new uploads.

So we will be switching hosting services, probably to Google Drive, and in the coming months we will go through the process of reestablishing working links to all of our old photos.  This will take some time, but we will work backwards and get it done.

In a way this is a good thing: even before photobucket took this drastic step, I had been thinking about changing hosting services: photobucket is a browser punishing, pop-up advertising filled mess with a very poor user interface and frequent delays between uploads and availability for linking.  So I’m glad to be done with their crappy, vastly overpriced service.  And as always, any recommendations appreciated!

A few more days at Travis to catch our breath and visit Napa.

Having made it back safe from a short trip to Florida, we lingered at Travis AFB for three more days to get ourselves stocked up, rested up, and wined up before moving to Norther California.  We hit the base commissary and exchange of course, but also stumbled across a list of “military friendly vineyards and wine tasting rooms” in the Napa area.  While we had previously hit half a dozen affordable places in the Suisun Valley, we had yet to go to the actual heart of wine country this year.

Our final site at Travis AFB

List in hand, I plotted a course that would take us to as many as we could handle, most offering free flights, or 2 for 1 specials at the very least.  We made it to a grand total of two of them.  The closest two.  Because, if I am not making myself clear, they gave us so much wine.

First up was Black Stallion Vineyards, operating on a beautiful piece of land with fantastic buildings, formerly stables, as their tasting room and facility.  They were very accommodating, and were not at all put off by the fact that their prices were pretty obviously out of our range.  We had a great flight of five or six wines each before moving down the road a bit.

Next stop: Pine Ridge Vineyards, and what a gem this was.  Our fantastic sommelier served us up five great wines ranging from $50 to $100 a bottle despite our rather clear indication that we would not be buying something that pricey.  He gave us a great lesson in the nature of Napa Valley and why it produced such great and varied wine.  He even brought out a special reserve vintage normally priced at $200 a bottle for us to try.

Our head was spinning for more than one reason by the time we walked out for some fresh air, resolved to skip all the other vineyards on our list and just get a bit to eat before calling it a day.  We stopped at The Noodle House, a convenient and tasty Chinese place nearby for some egg rolls before heading back to base.  All in all, I strongly recommend that any active, reserve, or retired military people get the latest list from Travis and make the rounds.

Back to Florida for a Big Birthday Bash

In the 2 and 1/2 years of full time RVing we have had some very fortunate “place and date” timing:  We have spent the major Fall and Winter holidays with family in Florida and North Carolina, we have met up with our kin and friends (both old and new) in California, Texas, Oregon, Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Mexico, Iowa, Alabama, and Arizona.  We happened to be on the most convenient coast for vacation flights to England and Hawaii.  We coordinated our return trip down the east coast to be at my Mom’s Red Red Wine birthday bash in 2015, and by pure accident stumbled into the same Texas state park where my Dad and Stepmom were camping earlier this year.

But sometimes that time and place coordination is completely out of phase.  Such is the case for this Summer, when we have three obligations to be in Florida as we worked our way up the opposite coast in Serenity.  In May, Rosemarie flew to Orlando for Linda’s big family  trip to Disney with all three of her sons and grandchildren.  In July she will return for our friend Roseann’s wedding.  And this last month, we both made it back to Coral Springs for Rosemarie’s dad’s 70th birthday party.

It was not the easiest trip we have made.  In addition to the actual flight (on points of course) we had to arrange secure parking for Serenity, a cat sitter for Pad Kee Meow, and off airport parking for Loki.  It all worked out: Travis AFB had a drycamping spot for the duration, the semi-official camp hosts volunteered to take care of kitty, and we saved about $75 stashing the tow vehicle in a Hyatt lot next to SFO for the five day trip.

The event itself was fantastic.  The three daughters coordinated a rousing good party, the only danger was overdoing it (I’m looking at you Dolores).   We had a ridiculous amount of food, an extravagant amount of liquor, and decor appropriate to the occasion which also facilitated some memorable pictures.

It was all too short of a visit, but we needed to get back to California before either the cat sitter and campground rebelled.  We suffered through some flight delays, a stopover in Dallas-Fort Worth that barely allowed us to visit the USO, and a long nighttime drive from SFO to Travis once we finally made it back to the Left Coast.

29 Months Fulltiming: May 2017 Report

A couple of nights ago I pounded out a post to start catching us up.  At that point we were 24 days behind on the blog.  With this monthly report we are down to only 13, woot!

Yes, this picture is blurry, but only because Pad Kee Meow’s Jiu Jitsu training is progressing so well that we are moving at an extraordinary speed, and the lens just can’t quite capture it.  Just like how fast this blog is getting caught up.

The Distance: 998 miles as we worked our way west from Phoenix through Yuma into Southern California, and then up the coast to just north of San Francisco.  Our 2017 total is 3,853, all but a handful of that occurring during the last three months.  I suspect we are on track for a 15,000 mile year.

The Places:  We left Phoenix bound for Yuma, and stopped there for eight days getting dental work done in Los Algodones.  From there it was on to Coronado, CA and the Navy’s campground at Fiddler Cove.  We then moved north to Ventura, staying at another Navy camp on Point Mugu, and included a day trip to the Channel Islands National Park.  While there we were able to meet up with Dad and Stopmom Marcia again when they rolled into town for a couple of nights camping on the Channel Islands.  Then it was on to Monterrey, broken up by a one night stop over at Camp San Luis Obispo,  Finally, we continued north beyond San Francisco before stopping at Travis Air Force Base’s Family Campground.  We used that as a jumping off point for a trip back to South Florida.

Channel Islands National Park

We spent 23 days in military campgrounds and 8 in a private RV resort.  We enjoyed full hook ups, sometimes even with cable or usable wifi, for 30 days, and dry camped for one. Other than the tax payer subsidized rate at the five different military facilities, we also used one of our Air Force Frequent Camper certificates for a free night at Travis AFB, and were discounted four nights in Yuma due to our Passport America membership.

The Marina at Coronado Naval Base.

The Budget:  May was a budgetary disaster for us, but we knew that going into it.  We ended up 139% over budget!  The vast majority of that was because of our dental work in Mexico, but we also had to get a partial brake job for Loki (pads and rotors on the front axle.)  This puts us over for the year, but we are still confident we can make it up the majority of that with rational expenditures in June and July.  Once we are out of California we hope the less rigid regulations will allow us to participate in a few markets to help pad the budget as well.

One of Rosemarie’s more elaborate pieces recently sold on her Etsy page.

The Drama and the Improvements:  Loki’s brakes started squealing and grinding about when we arrived at Travis AFB, so we had pads and rotors replaced on the front axle at the base Firestone center.  As for drama: the softball incidents at Travis are about the only thing I can think of.

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.

Starting a lengthy (for us) stay at Travis Air Force Base Family Camp

During our meet up with Jennifer and Dees near Monterrey, they prompted us to get busy reserving something for the coming weekend; we had completely forgotten about Memorial Day!  We were particularly constrained as our next stop was to be the San Francisco Bay Area in order to visit family, and we already had flight reservations out of SFO to return to South Florida for a couple of days to attend Rose’s dad’s 70th birthday party.  It’s bad enough heading to the Bay Area as an RVer: quite expensive and limited site options, but doing so on a three day summer weekend makes it even tougher.  A couple phone calls ruled out the few Passport-America options, and there are only two military facilities in the region, one of which has but six sites, and they were full.

The other, Travis Air Force Base, like many Air Force Family Campgrounds, does not allow reservations within thirty days of arrival.  So it would be first come first serve in a park that was reportedly filling up fast.  Nothing for it but to try, so we made loose dry camping back up plans and headed north on a Tuesday morning, hoping that an early weekday arrival would mean there was something still available.

When passing through California wine country, you see vineyards nearly every place you look.

Sure enough, a spot was opening up just as we got into town, the only catch: it was in the “no pets allowed” section of the park.  Travis set aside roughly 1/3 of the campground as a pet-free area, and they included cats, not just dogs, in the ban.  The good news was that they had an opening coming up the next day in the pet area that would get us all the way through the Memorial Day weekend, which we locked in.  And so for on day we did not have a cat, and then suddenly we did.

We forgot to get a picture of our spot on the “no pets zone,” but here is our “kitty legal” second spot.

Travis’ Family Camp is a full hook up place at a great $23 a night rate.  After paying $35, $30, and $32 in Coronado, Point Mugu, and Monterrey respectively, it was nice to be back down in what we think of as the traditional military price range.  Plus, being an Air Force Family Camp, we were able to use one of our Air Force Frequent Camper coupons for a free night.  Given our loose travel plans for June, it might be a while before we would have access to another commissary, so we definitely stocked up here. 

During our first few days at Travis we made the 40 minute drive down to sister Dolores’ place twice to visit with her, Josh, and niece Tamiry.  Now four years old, Tamiry is a lot more communicative than during our last trip west, and we loved hanging out with her watching movies (as she gave away every upcoming plot point) and going to the local park pool to swim.  Dolores, Josh and Tamiry flew to Florida several days in advance of our trip, so we were left with quite time in Fairfield awaiting our own trip.  What to do?

The last three military campgrounds at which we stayed had the advantage of a fantastic seaside location, which goes a long way towards explaining their price.  But what Travis has is proximity to the true heart of California wine country: the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.  Given the strained status of our budget following our Mexican dental visit, we decided to limit ourselves to one day of wine tasting, and to stick to the more affordable places.

Since the Suisun Valley was just a couple of miles from base, we started there, visiting six tasting rooms, and purchasing a flight in five of them (the first one was just too expensive for our blood.)  They all had a pretty similar business plan: charge a nominal fee for a flight, the cost of which could be put towards the purchase of any bottle, and waived all together if you joined their members club.  This all but guarantees you will buy at least one bottle, and we were not the exception.

We ended up with five bottles for the day, and can say that our favorite was the Viognere from Mangels Vineyard, unusual since we were unfamiliar with the varietal and usually prefer reds.  In terms of bang for your buck, you can’t go wrong with the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative, which currently has three vineyards offering tastings, with the entire line from all of them available to try for only $10.  We also enjoyed the ambiance and offerings at Wooden Valley Winery.

Our haul for the day.

Our impending trip to South Florida involved several moving pieces that were as yet unresolved upon our arrival a Travis earlier in the week: we still needed a place to store Serenity, off airport long term parking for Loki (SFO charges $25 a day!) and a cat sitter for Pad Kee Meow.  The former was turning out to be tougher than I expected since the base storage was completely full.  We eventually resolved this by moving to one of the six dry camping spots within the Family Camp since none of the hook up site were available for the full period of our trip.  In order to do that, however, we needed to get a waiver to the “three day maximum stay in dry camp” policy at Travis.  Fortunately we got approval, and then it was just down to the cat.

Our drycamping site, one of only six at Travis AFB.

Walking around the camp I ran into Steve, a volunteer on site, and figured he would be about the best person to put the word out regarding our need.  He immediately went to talk to his wife, Cindy, who is apparently a barely recovered cat addict, perhaps still in withdrawal and missing having such furballs around.  We worked out a deal, and Pad Kee Meow had a personal feeder, walker, brusher, and human to shower her with attention during our absence.  Thanks again, Cindy!

We moved into dry camp the day before our flight, set for an evening of final preparations and relaxation before the storm of a big family gathering in Florida.  If only.  We were jolted out of our peaceful state of mind by the loud smack of something hitting either the back or roof of our rig.  Upon investigation, we found a softball next to our rear, and observed several more easily clearing the fence behind us and landing among the dry camped RVs and a few adjacent hook up sites.  Let the drama commence!

Three players were having a go at batting practice, with one of them smacking every other ball over the fence.  After a couple of minutes of yelling and waiving we managed to get one of them to come talk to us in an attempt to negotiate and end to the bombardment.  They were having none of it: as far as they were concerned, if we parked in the (designated, assigned) RV spots near the fence then we took our chances.  One of the other campers lost his cool in a fairly extravagant manner, while the rest of us continued the conversation, but it became clear that the batters either didn’t care, or even held us in utter contempt.  I believe “look how these people live!” was one of his lines during talks with a resident officer.  Apparently in his eyes we were dirty, homeless, trailer-bound scavengers wandering the planet.  Eventually base security showed up and shut them down for that evening, but it was to be a short term solution.

I can sympathize: the field is one of the three officially designated base softball fields, but this was, we would learn, far from the first incident, with several of the campers having been led to believe that it would be closed until a permanent solution could be worked out.  Oh well.  Hopefully we would return from Florida to find an undamaged rig.

Monterrey and Carmel Valley

We have once again fallen a bit behind on the blog, roughly three weeks it appears, so it’s time for a flurry of catch up posts!  After our fantastic stay at Port Mugu near Ventura, we continued north towards the San Francisco Bay area, but there was no way we would pass up Monterrey and Carmel Valley.  We loved our last stop in Monterrey in 2015, and hold the Carmel Valley vineyards in high regard.

Obligatory cute cat photo to start things off right.

We broke up the trip with a one day stop at San Luis Obispo Army Reserve Base, a small campground on a small base, but for a great price with decent facilities.  During our one night stay we enjoyed full hook ups for $23, along with clean facilities.  Pad Kee Meow was particularly happy with the proliferation of ground squirrels in the vicinity of our rig.

Our spot at San Luis Obispo Army base.  PKM loved the ground rodent holes.

We pushed on to the Navy facility at Monterrey Pines, situated on a very nice golf course.  At $32 a night it is a bit pricey for a military campground, but given the area, that amount for a full hook up site is still a bargain.  It is a small campground, and some of the sites are awkardly situated, but consiering the cost of other local options, we can’t complain.

Pollen driven allergies in this section of California are beginning to take a toll on Rosemarie, so we scaled back our aggressive plans for the region and just relaxed a bit.  Of course, there was no way we were going to forgo a trip to nearby Carmel Valley and the profusion of wine tasting rooms there.

Our timing was fortuitous; our day trip to the valley coincided with the weekly farmers market, and we indulged in two hand made dips and chips as well as to die for sausage links from Cowboy Sausage.   We distinctly remembered his offerings from our trip in 2015, when he had been set up on Heller Estate’s property.

After the market, it was on to the tasting rooms, starting with our near annual pilgrimage to Heller Estate.  This time we limited ourselves to an excellent Chardonnay even though that is not a grape we usually choose.  We hit a couple more nearby places after that; Carmel Valley is fantastic because you don’t have to drive between the tasting places, they are all situated within a short walking distance.

We particularly enjoyed Cowgirl Winery’s Pinot Noir.  The overall sit down experience for their flight tasting was quite nice, and the prices were right for our retired budget.  We finished the afternoon with a stop in Bunter Springs for a thoroughly enjoyable flight from this small vinyard, and enjoyed chatting with the owner as well.

On our last full day we managed to meet up with our friends Jennifer and Dees of Nealys on Wheels, fellow full time RVers whom we last saw in the Florida Keys during our stay at Curry Hammock State Park.  So here we are on the other side of the country, but our travel schedules aligned just enough for a day, allowing us to share a couple of pints at a British-styled pub half way between our respective campgrounds.  We convinced fellow RVillagers Terry and Melanee, neighbors in the Monterrey Campground to join us.

English Ales Brewery Pub was literally the only non-chain place with decent ratings we could find near Marina, CA.  I enjoyed the Dragon Slayer IPA, but heard nothing but positive reports about the Bad Bobby and a couple of others, plus the fish and chips were up to standard.

Four days in Monterrey, and we never actually visited the city!  Ah well, we exceeded our allowance on wine and treats, so heading into town would have only pushed us that much further over budget.  Next trip we will spend more time near the Monterrey Marina and shore.

But for now it is on to the San Francisco Bay Area to meet up with Rosemarie’s sister Dolores, Josh, and our niece Tamiry.

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.

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.