Chapter 1 - Going solo on the road

I wanted to see America. Not quickly by air or by zooming along interstates, jumping off when the signs said gas, fast food, and toilets, but from the “blue roads,” the state highways; from the ground where the real people lived. Those stunning and strange vistas I’d heard about all my life, and the rural and quiet settings I wasn’t likely to see except on a road trip. I was sixty-six.

I caught the travel bug at eighteen. In 1957 most freeways or an interstate system didn’t exist. My sister and I spent three weeks touring the country in a 1947 Studebaker. One Sunday morning, as we drove through the lovely green villages of Massachusetts, the church spire in each became visible. People walked toward it. The bells rang out.

We got lost in downtown Philadelphia at four o’clock. We kept a man’s hat in the back seat, so people would think a man was traveling with us. The police stopped us, and, not surprisingly, wanted to know where the man was.

In Dallas, we bought the biggest watermelon ever for a half-cent a pound, devouring as much of it as we could at a nearby park. We had car trouble through the Smoky Mountains. A young man stopped to help us and followed us for sometime, in case we had more trouble.

I always wondered what was next. I’ve never recovered from that initial taste of wanderlust.

While raising children, many family excursions were between our home in California and Idaho where my husband and I grew up. I’d crossed that Nevada desert more times than I wanted to count. Driving through Winnemucca, we’d joke about a contest in which the winner got one week in that town, while second place got two. In spite of that, I developed a subtle appreciation for the desert landscape, the sagebrush, the occasional ranch or buildings in the middle of nowhere. Beyond that were the mountains which took on a kind of mystery. What was there? What was beyond? I liked to see into the wide-open spaces.

When our two sons were teenagers, we went to the east coast one summer, the “history tour” to Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Another time, we drove up the coast of Oregon and Washington and ferried over to Vancouver Island, marveling at the wonders of Victoria, the Empress Hotel, and the myriad of flowers dotting the city. In a little village, we found the best apple pie ever, with a crust made of bear fat. Each of these trips fed my desire for travel, but I was never satiated. I always wanted more.

In 1989, my husband, Tom, was diagnosed with lymphoma. The doctor didn’t make any predictions about the outcome of the treatments, but said, “If there’s anywhere you want to go, go.” Tom had been stationed in Europe around 1960 while in the army. He wanted to return there, to show me some of the places he’d seen. We took four trips to Europe before he died in 1994. We visited Darmstadt, where he was stationed in Germany, ate the Wiener schnitzel, drank the beer he’d enjoyed as a young man, counted the castles along the Rhine River, took a sobering tour through Dachau, and walked the historic avenues in Munich, Koblenz, and Heidelberg.

My interest in history exploded. I had the sensation of walking on and in history in Paris and London. I recognized Heidi in the Swiss Alps as something I’d experienced on the page, and then, in reality.

After Tom died, eventually I wanted to travel again. In 1996, I was one of four American women who signed on with a European tour company to bicycle from Vienna, Austria, to Budapest, Hungary. The first morning, we showed up in spandex bicycle shorts, only to learn later that the Germans we were biking with thought of such things as undergarments.

We passed fields of brilliant yellow—rapeseed. School children waved, “Hallo.” We wheeled along next to the Danube River, seeing castles “just over there.” We dodged tree roots, dogs, children, and all sorts of interference on a beach coming into Budapest on a warm day that was a national holiday. I thought surely I’d crash in the middle of all that commotion.

Then, we spent a week on the mail boat going north along the Norwegian coast, flew to Helsinki, Finland, and took a train to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a whirlwind tour of palaces and the Hermitage Museum, while men with guns stood at many intersections. It was hard to tell who the official authority was and who were the renegades.

If you want to get to know someone, travel together. You will either part company or become closer for it. In 1999, I took a trip to China. While there, I became ill, and also sick and tired of my companion. We parted ways civilly, but permanently.

For all the foreign travel I had done, I still craved visiting many places I hadn’t been in the United States. But how?

I contemplated going on my own—making all the choices about where to go, when to stop, and how long to linger. I wouldn’t have anyone with whom to share the funny stories or the anxious moments. On the bright side, there would be no arguments or negotiations. On the less sunny side, there would be no dinner companion, no navigator on the passenger side reading the map.

Alone. When I said that word aloud for anyone to hear, two questions repeatedly popped up. Aren’t you afraid? Won’t you be lonely?

I thought about these questions. It wouldn’t be smart to dash past these nagging realities without looking inside myself and outside to the world for the answers.

I’ve lived comfortably by myself since 1994. Many times I’ve curled up in front of the fireplace with a good book, quite happy. Other times, a feeling of loneliness might drop like cloud cover, quickly, in a crowd, at a party, at home, with or without another person. Being alone and being lonely aren’t the same. I don’t want to be limited to doing things only with a companion. Does a person who can’t be alone lack self-confidence, depth, an inner life, or interior landscape to explore?

In 1995, my son, Tony, and his wife, Carrie, traveled for fifteen months in an RV. Now, when Tony came to the San Francisco Bay Area on business and stayed at my home in Benicia, we had long conversations about my possible adventure. He was the ideal person to talk with about this. He knew and shared my love of travel and was aware that I have no mechanical abilities and not a lot of patience.

We remembered my RV trip disaster of 2000. Renting a thirty-four foot RV, I took my brother and sister to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Though I had driven the RV before renting it, I was still unprepared for its size and bulk. Looking eye-to-eye with truck drivers did not reassure me. I couldn’t even pull off the road without a plan. Hitting a small post in the campground in Yosemite necessitated my having the RV towed out of the valley. To make that happen, I spent most of the time there on the phone with various services. (Cost of being towed out: five hundred dollars, partially covered by insurance. Cost of repair: twenty dollars.)

We continued on to the Grand Canyon. Severe winds buffeted our vehicle mercilessly as we crossed the California and Arizona desert. This went on for hours. With such a high vehicle, this was a nerve-wracking experience!

After our stay at the canyon, strong winds pursued us through the desert, culminating in a teeth-grinding drive across the Tehachapi Pass in Southern California. Traffic narrowed to one lane. A snake tail of vehicles lengthened in my rear view window. My anxiety level rocketed. Completely unnerved, I sought the only immediate relief in sight—a truck weigh station—where I stopped and put down the jacks, as the RV didn’t feel stable even while stopped.

Inside the station, the California Highway Patrol officers were busy weighing vehicles and paid little attention to me. I was not supposed to be there. The problem was mine, not theirs. Trying to use both my cell and the pay phone to find a tow company that would pull us over the pass, I stepped back into the office and asked for change.

“We don’t give change! That’s not what we’re here for!” an officer growled.

I burst into tears.

Another officer pulled change from his pocket.

“When will the wind stop?” 

“Hasn’t in forty years.”

A bit later, when I returned to the office, the “good” cop said, “You’re over the worst.”

No trucks were coming, so they had a little time to talk to me: “The road is closed from the way you came. A semi-truck jackknifed. If you go now, you won’t have any other vehicles on the road. You can go as slow as you want.”

“How long will it be closed?”

“Forty-five minutes to an hour.”

Gaining nerve and strength, I walked back to the RV, and sat at the wheel. The rest of the trip was trouble-free, but not fun. I didn’t see another RV in my future.

Fear had to be considered. I tried to sort through my anxieties, separating those based on real possibilities—a flat tire, an accident, getting lost, or being confronted by someone with ill intent—from vague and general uneasiness. The monster under the bed. Real concerns could be dealt with in concrete ways.

A dependable vehicle, always sufficiently fueled, good maps and knowledge of them, and being an attentive, defensive driver were important. I would keep the doors locked, drive only in daylight hours, and not dawdle at rest stops. I would have a cell phone and insurance that covered me for emergency road service. A global positioning system (GPS) was another possibility. Taking precautions gave me reasonable assurance that I could reduce many of the possible causes of trouble along the way. Common sense comes in handy, too.

Something bad could happen on the road just as it could if I stayed home. There are no guarantees. In the long run, a degree of danger is involved in doing anything. I had to decide how much risk I was willing to take. It seemed reasonable to reduce the actual risk level as much as possible and go for it.

I wanted to stretch my “comfort” boundaries and expand my horizons. Every adventure I said “no” to closed some avenue of potential experience, learning, and fun, and diminished my world.

Other people were concerned about me going alone. They suggested a variety of possibilities to cut the solitary situation—a cat, dog, man, or gun. I’ve lived with a cat, a dog, and a man. If, at that point in time, I had had an ongoing and comfortable relationship with any of these, I might have made one or all part of the plan. I didn’t.

A gun, well, that’s another matter. Frequent gun accidents and shootings occurred while I was growing up in Idaho. I’ve had very little practice with guns. These weapons of much destruction are, for me, bad karma. I would take reasonable precautions, try not to do stupid things, and go alone.

At the same time I was thinking about fear and loneliness, I was spending many evenings poring over a road atlas, putting hot pink and orange post-it circles on places I hankered to see: national parks, historic sites, Florida, the coast of Maine, the Maritime Provinces. Other spots were those I’d heard or read about from adventurers, travel magazines, books, and television travel shows. I thumbed through various volumes, like 1000 Places to See Before You Die.

The woman at the California State Automobile Association office in Walnut Creek didn’t bat an eye when I tentatively requested the AAA guidebooks, maps, and camping guides for every state and all the Canadian provinces.

My state maps soon were speckled with hotly colored, beckoning balloons.

I’ve lived in California since 1965 and my penchant for travel had taken me to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, and, of course, Idaho. The West would not be the focus of this trip.

I’d use state routes rather than freeways as much as possible, go where I’d not been, and navigate when the weather was likely to be good. I’d avoid big cities, fast food chains, and shopping malls.

I wanted to see more of America, the beautiful.

So, how would I take a long motoring trip? First, I thought I’d just drive my car, though finding accommodations every night would become tedious and expensive.

I read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to RVing by Brent Peterson. It had everything I needed to know about RVs, the world of camping, and those mysterious systems that make life possible and pleasant (or not) on the road—the electrical, water, and sewer system, the extra batteries, the propane, the generator. The need to absorb all this information was enough to make a person like me stay at home.

“There are small RVs,” Tony said. “My neighbor has a Roadtrek.”

I did an online search, took a trip to the Roadtrek dealer in Sacramento, did some more looking around, and was convinced to buy a Roadtrek 170, about the smallest self-contained RV around.

Apprehensive about navigating the electrical and plumbing systems, I chose an RV that had a reputation for reliability, to make traveling as simple as possible. This one had a kitchen, (miniscule, of course) toilet, shower, and bed. The vehicle would fit in a regular car-sized parking space. I had another closet installed rather than the third seat that is normally behind the passenger. Delivery was scheduled for early November.

Leaving in mid-January, I would drive first to southern California, then continue east across the country. Using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, I began to chart my course on the computer: where to start, my destination, the miles between, the number of days I planned to stay, a running total of miles, places to see at each destination, and reservations made.

I made reservations in Arizona in winter, given its popularity with “snowbirds” (all the white-haired, retired people who go south for the winter).

Where would the RV be parked each night? On a beach, in a forest, next to a busy highway, convenient to the places I wanted to go while there? Was it clean and well maintained? Did it have all the appropriate connections—electrical, water, sewer, cable TV, and Internet service? How about a swimming pool or store? Were the roads paved or dirt? What’s the telephone number and Internet address? This information was available in various directories and online sources. I’ve included such data at the back of this book.

State parks, city, and county governments often have excellent campgrounds—some of these are listed in the AAA guidebooks. State information bureaus, often spotted just after entering a state on a major highway, are excellent sources of current information. Also, highway signs direct motorists to campgrounds.

Current, detailed, and accurate information would be crucial to the success of my journey. I took a laptop computer. Availability of Internet service continues to change at such a rapid pace that no book can be current. I would experience everything from “come over to the office and use dial-up during office hours” to free wireless access, though even this was sometimes challenging. It might be strong and available inside an RV or weak and only accessible near the office of the RV park.

On a cold rainy November day, I headed to Sacramento to pick up my brand-new Roadtrek 170 Popular. Outside, in the inclement weather, a young man demonstrated how the systems worked. For about an hour, I shivered and nodded blandly as he pointed out the electrical connection, the sewer and water hose, and the propane hook-up. Later, I realized that I shouldn’t have been put off by the bad weather and insisted on a more hands-on experience.

Before Thanksgiving, my son, Tony, and his wife, Carrie, came to my house. They walked me through each system again. Gradually, I began to get it.

We made a trip to Camping World, where I bought a bike rack and cover, self-adhesive shelf paper, Velcro to hold things in place, single-ply toilet paper (because it’s better for the septic system), chemicals for the toilet, collapsible camping chairs, and a small table. 

We drove south in tandem on State Route 101 from the San Francisco Bay Area to Santa Barbara to celebrate Thanksgiving at the home of my other son, Phil. Once there, the rest of the family slept in the house, while I settled into the Roadtrek 170, which was soon dubbed “Rhonda.”

Sometime after midnight, something started beeping. I had no idea how to make it stop. I went inside and tapped lightly on the bedroom door. I hated waking anyone. Carrie came outside. The battery had been showing suspiciously low, and she suspected that was causing the alarm.

“Do you have a flashlight?” She asked. With that in hand, she found the battery switch and turned it off. The noise stopped. I had no power of any kind—no lights, no water pump for flushing. I slept fitfully, as my fears surfaced, skittering along the edge of my mind.

Tomorrow night I would be in a campground by myself. What if this or that doesn’t work? What would go wrong? People had called me brave and gutsy—I didn’t feel either.

I’ve always been independent. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do. Traveling with anyone requires some give-and-take. How would it be to travel alone?

On Friday, I left the family cocoon and drove nervously north.

Talking to myself, breathing deeply as I’ve learned to do in yoga classes, I gradually began to settle down.

Turning off SR 101 at San Luis Obispo, I went west on SR 1. After dark, I pulled into the Cypress RV & Mobile Home Park in Morro Bay, where I had reservations. The office was dark. A bell summoned the manager. He said I could have full hookups, but the thought of connecting everything in the darkness was daunting.

“I’m new to all this. This is the first time I’ve done it,” I told the manager.

As we walked, he mentioned he had gone to school in Berkeley. (I was wearing a Cal sweatshirt.) “I didn’t really go to Cal to run an RV park, but my dad had this property on the California coast and he wanted to retire. Took us a while to figure it all out, but we did. We have plans to do a lot of things, but it’s taking longer than we thought.”

“It often does,” I told him.

By the time we agreed on a space, he had offered to help me hook up—a major blessing because he had a big flashlight and some knowledge.

The sewer hookup didn’t fit. He found another fitting, but still no luck.

“Do you have a screwdriver?”

“I think so.”

“If you unscrew this clamp and take off the end, you can just put the blue hose in the hole.”

We hooked up the electrical. I turned on the light in the outside area, which helped immensely.

Tony had figured out that the hose connection for city water was in a difficult spot. The manager agreed. “The guy who put it there ought to be shot.”

When we turned on the water, it leaked in several spots, but, working together, we finally were drip-free. I thanked him.

“It’s in my own interest. Water is expensive here. I don’t want it leaking all over the place.”

After he left, I turned the valve that I thought needed turning to get the water inside, but was actually for filling the water tank directly from city water. Since it was already full, water ran all over the ground. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled as if someone was listening.

Still, I was hooked up, with water, power, and sewer, and even cable TV.

Just as I finished, my cell phone rang. It was my son Phil’s wife, Lena. “We thought you were nervous when you left, so we just wanted to see how you’re doing.”

This almost brought me to tears.

Closing my curtains and cleaning up a bit, I walked the two blocks to the Outrigger Restaurant in downtown Morro Bay, where I enjoyed a split of champagne and a dinner of ahi tuna.

On the way back, I bought milk and yogurt so I could have breakfast “in.” Soon I was snug in my little home. The television didn’t work in spite of the hookup, nor did the DVD. I was too tired to approach that technology.

My adventure had begun.

I woke up cold about one o’clock and turned on the furnace. After a few minutes, the smoke alarm went off. I leaped out of bed. Not detecting any smell of smoke, I assumed it was probably because the furnace was new. Opening the door helped, but I lost heat. The loud beeping stopped. This happened again before I gave up, pulled on more clothes, turned off the furnace, and went back to bed, now awake for a long time.

The smoke alarm continued to go off when I ran the furnace in the morning, but I had to endure it. I hoped my neighbors wouldn’t be too bothered.

Lighting the burner, I made coffee using a French press and a glass frother to make a latte. This was progress.

Bundling up against the cold morning air, I walked all over this fishing village next to the ocean. A huge pointy rock nearby in the bay gives Morro Bay its name. Gulls and sea lions were abundant, along with tourists. It rained off and on. I bought an umbrella. It was tempting to eat too much, with offerings of fish, ice cream, and fudge everywhere.

A clear, cold afternoon followed. About four, I walked to the village again. Restaurants, motels, and shops lined much of the beach, along with small boats and larger commercial fishing craft. Fresh fish was available at several spots, while fish’n chips could be ordered at others.

At The Great American Fishing Company, I ate, while watching an early sunset, with a full view of the huge rock blanketed by birds, and the sun, dropping yellow and round into the Pacific Ocean. For a while, a school of birds seemed to be doing a dance that took them toward the rock, where they veered left and circled around to do it again. Below, the water gushed. The birds knew this as a hot spot for food. A couple of dozen waited to dive for whatever came their way.

When Tony called in the evening, I told him about the smoke alarm problem. He suggested I use the heat pump, which I did. No smoke alarm. No problem. Tomorrow, home.

Things inside went a little smoother the next morning.

After breakfast came my first experience with disconnecting the hookups. The water connection was fine, as was the electrical, but I had trouble with the sewer hose. When I thought it was completely emptied, it wasn’t, and some “remnants” came out on the ground. I cleaned up the mess and then had a tough time getting the sewer hose back in, pinned and capped. Just when I was about to go for help, I finally managed to get the hose in place and, thankfully, was on the road home.

Completing my trial run without any major mishaps, I would not stay in the RV again until I left in mid-January. 

Getting ready to go on the road:

It was late afternoon by the time my household belongings were gone (I rented my condo), and RV/Rhonda was packed. Clothes, nonperishable food, dishes, a frying pan, a double boiler, bedding, towels, hiking and bicycling essentials, laundry soap, books and more books, a laptop computer, and personal items like cosmetics, prescription drugs, and a toothbrush filled the storage spaces.

I tried putting my bicycle on the rack but couldn’t get the lock to work. This about unhinged me. I tried everything I could think of for forty-five minutes—including calling Tony and a friend—to no avail. Then I saw, right on the rack, a phone number, and, miracle of miracles, when I called the company, Swagman, a real person answered, and handed the phone to someone else who told me exactly what to do.

Now, I was ready.

It was evening, and dark, but I had only a quick trip across the Benicia Bridge, for dinner and overnight in Lafayette with friends. I didn’t yet fully appreciate being in the bosom of the familiar, the known faces and places.

My first week was relaxed and luxurious, staying in the homes of friends and family.

Meandering south, the next day I drove on SR 24, I-680, and SR 17 about one hundred miles to Aptos, near Santa Cruz, to spend a couple of days with the women from my Ladies’ Lunch Bunch—relaxing, talking, laughing, all the things women do well together. The last night, we took Rhonda to the beach. At sunset, with the Pacific Ocean behind us, we drank champagne and toasted my upcoming adventure.

The next morning, my friends cautioned: “Be safe! Be well! Have fun!” We said good-bye. I left as quickly as possible, the lump in my throat thickening.

Once again, as I had so many times, I passed through Salinas, the fields made famous by John Steinbeck, going south on SR 101 the 264 miles to Santa Barbara, one of those places everyone who pursues America the beautiful should see.

My son, Phil, went to college in Santa Barbara (“. . . because they have a good choice of breakfast cereal,” he said). He’s not a surfer or a beach person, but he’s never left. Lounging alongside the ocean, Santa Barbara is an artist’s heaven with the landscape of thick vegetation, red-tiled roofs capping white adobe walls embraced by red, purple, and pink bougainvillea. The Sierra Madre Mountains form the eastern backdrop. A historic county courthouse, mission, and presidio are welcome steps back in history. A timeless serenity is here, derived from the azure Pacific and the land curving gracefully to meet it, from the rise of palm trees and houses toward the stately mountains.

I’m self-conscious writing about California. It’s like bragging about my family. California is my home. There are so many people and places I love in this Golden State, lined by the ocean on the west and the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the east. Yosemite National Park, the Mojave Desert, Lake Tahoe, and Mount Shasta come to mind. A certain combination of mountains and desert create Palm Springs. In the northern part of the state, the redwood forests boggle the senses. The beauty is profuse, varied, and staggering.

After spending a night with Phil and Lena, we exchanged warm hugs and they gave me a nice stash of small bottles of wine left over from their wedding, just right for my trip.

Back on SR 101, I drove eighty-five miles into Los Angeles (it was hard to eliminate this big city entirely). I visited in Sherman Oaks and Century City, then drove fifty miles south to Orange, for an overnight stay. Slowly I was edging away from these safe harbors.

When I left Orange, I saw green valleys and, above those, snow-capped mountains, gorgeous, surreal, and detached. Below, the frantic freeways and frenzy of Southern California simmered. The best and worst of the area were in my view.

I soon arrived in Riverside, where we had lived in the early seventies, when the Mission Inn was in disrepair. It’s been fixed. This national historic landmark occupies a full city block with its arches, columns, and turrets, much artwork, and a chapel. There’s beauty everywhere. The restaurant extends into the court. I had lunch there and could have been in a piazza in Italy, with all the lush vegetation and flowers—bougainvillea, magnolias, palms—sun gleaming against white walls, flags, clocks, spires, and arched windows.

Continuing east on I-10, I arrived in Desert Hot Springs, disappointed to learn that Sky Valley Resort, where I had a reservation, was quite remote. It was nice, but not near anything.

People come to this desert oasis for different things. Those who stay for the winter play golf and tennis or swim, without going into Palm Springs very often. Most of them live in large recreational vehicles or a manufactured home, and have a car to drive locally.

While I backed into my space, the man next door came out, offered guidance, and helped me with the hookups. My cell phone wasn’t working, so I made several trips to the nearby pay phone to call friends.

Sunset was pink and early. I wasn’t used to traveling in January. It occurred to me that I didn’t have to stay at this particular park, since it was inconvenient, even though I had reserved for five nights. (I was charged for only one.)

Next morning, doing laundry, I kept an eye on the frequently busy pay phone, finally catching a chance to call Barbara and Bill, friends from Benicia who spend the winter in Palm Springs.

“I’m going to move to an RV park that is closer in.”

“Yes. I’ve called one right here in Palm Springs,” Bill said.

Later, I drove to their house. The city rests on the desert floor. The San Bernardino Mountains rise eight thousand feet above, to the west. Over a drink on the patio, we watched swaying palm trees and, in the background, soaring mountains.

In the evening, we went to an art opening featuring Jane Seymour. There was a line out the door. I enjoyed the people, the art, and seeing diminutive Jane.

I spent a couple of days at Happy Traveler RV Park in downtown Palm Springs, not realizing, at this early stage, what a rare find it was, with its proximity to everything—restaurants, gym, yoga center, museums, and shops.

The water line was leaking, so when I prepared to leave, emptying the sewer line required carrying tea kettles of water to pour down the toilet. Then, I struggled to put the sewer line away.

I took a shower in the park’s facilities, throwing a load of laundry in at the same time. It was late morning by the time I pulled out, not believing how long all these processes took. I still needed to stop for groceries and gas. This was not a vacation, but another way of living—on the road.