Alto #633 : June 25th 2015 – Friday 13th, November 2020

June 25th, 2015

This will be the most difficult post I’ve ever written. And it will be long, because this is part of how I hope to process it all. A big huge thank you to every single person who has reached out to offer support, a nice note or text, a sad face reaction or comment. I’ve taken strength from all of it. Let me cut to the chase before I tell the story, so that you will not be in suspense. Dory has suffered irreparable damage following a rear end collision. She is “perte totale,” or a total loss. We have been in shock and grieving, and know that this will hurt for a long, long time. But here is the story. Pictures at the end because they are too horrible to casually scroll through.

Last Friday, the 13th, in 2020, during a global pandemic, on the first real rainy day of the season, and in the fading light of dusk, we set out like we do, in the late afternoon, heading for Samuel P. Taylor. And in an instant, we lost our Dory. About 20 minutes from home, we were traveling on Highway 680 North, like we often do, and about to pass the offramp to Highway 4. I saw the sudden backup in the lane ahead and started braking pretty hard. But I drive slow and we were fine with the unexpected stop on a slick and busy highway. It was a dicey enough situation, that I thought to put on the hazard lights to warn the people behind us. They were also able to stop, from what I understand. So we were stationary for a bit before it happened.

I probably will hear this sound in my mind forever. And see the image of Dory in the mirror, flying off to the side, knowing she was disconnected. The jolt was not as disturbing as the sound. And in my mind, even in that split second, I knew. I said, “Dory got hit,” Richard said, “Fuck!” but I knew Dory was gone. It was that bad a sound.

Altos are not your typical trailers. They are made like aircraft, using super lightweight materials and an aerodynamic design to keep them light and easy to tow. Their body is made from aluminum sheets, sandwiching a stiff honeycomb core. This allows them to be rigid and sturdy and take a lot of movement on the road. But the engineering depends on the integrity of the whole. We’ve seen how these things are put together and every step requires specialized expertise to assemble the parts into one brilliant puzzle. And it begins with the floor being fitted precisely into the aluminum frame. You cannot come back from frame or floor damage without a complete rebuild.

I turned off the engine and slowly walked back to see my worst fears confirmed. Richard called Randy. The hitch, along with the entire weight distribution system, was twisted and contorted and hanging off the back of Bruce with no Dory attached. She was nose down, maybe ten feet behind. Both safety chains were ripped off, dangling from Bruce, and the emergency brake cable had also been torn off. But it had done its job, and stopped her from rolling into other traffic. For a moment I thought she might be ok because the front didn’t look too bad.

Then, as I walked around the back, I saw. The bumper was torn mostly off and hanging by a thread, The bottom back section was crushed. And though the roof looked bad, I had the fleeting thought that maybe it could be replaced (which would be no easy feat). Looking underneath though, it was unmistakable that the floor had suffered serious damage at the back end as well. I texted Randy: “Dory is dead Randy. Accident on 680.”

Richard had called 911 and walked toward me. I simply stated, “Dory is dead, baby. She’s dead.” I never call him “baby,” Shock is a funny thing. I don’t think he processed that or heard me, and someone came up asking for a fire extinguisher. As I looked around the highway, I saw that at least 4 other cars had been totaled. Someone was walking through, asking if anyone was hurt. The wrecked car nearest to us was smoking.

From there, it’s a blur. Fire engines arrived, and CHP. People started asking questions and papers had to be retrieved. I went inside Dory first to get the fire extinguisher and I could see things had been tossed around. After I got the insurance and registration, I just started putting things back. I saw no broken glass from the crescent windows, and in fact nothing looked broken inside. I even checked on the coffee cups and there was literally not a scratch on them. We pack well.

Tow trucks and clean up crews began arriving. One woman was taken by ambulance on a stretcher but I heard that she was ok, just shaken up. She had been inside the totaled car that was smoking. Richard was on the phone with insurance and was getting instructions. Meanwhile, he started trembling violently and tried to sit on a guard rail post. Did I mention it was raining this whole time? At some point, someone put a jacket on him and that struck me as too Covidy, so I wanted to get him into Bruce. So he pulled the twisted weight distribution bars off the back we drove Bruce to the side of the road, where we were both able to sit inside for a while.

A tow truck positioned itself in front of Dory, getting ready to put her on their wrecker. Richard, still on the phone with the insurance company tow driver, told them to stop and wait because the other guy with a flatbed was on his way. The CHP officer stepped in and informed us that we were not allowed to wait and that it was his job to clear the highway as fast as possible. Things got tense. We asked if they could simply tow her to the side of the road so we could wait for our tow truck there and at first the officer seemed to agree with that. The tow guys kept reiterating that we would have to pay the full price whether they towed her to the side or all the way to Randy’s. That wasn’t the point, we tried to explain, what we needed was a flatbed. When it appeared there was no choice in the matter, they hitched her up. Safety chains were gone, the hitch lock was unusable, and then they informed us they had to tow her to the next exit to get her safely off the road. So we followed as they took her away from us.

If what had already happened wasn’t bad enough, we then got to watch as they pulled about twenty yards onto the offramp and Dory jumped the hitch. She was rolling with no chains or emergency brake until she came to a stop by hitting and wedging herself against the guard rail. I think only the state of shock we were in prevented violence. I simply took pictures to document the fiasco and told them not to touch her. And then our tow guy finally showed up. We made the wrecker guys leave, which they were happy to do quickly. At this point Richard had Randy on the phone, which he handed to the driver. After a brief conversation, Richard got the phone back and Randy said to thank the man for his time, to make him leave, and to sit tight until his guy could get to us. We trust Randy with our lives, so we did exactly that. We waited, now in full darkness, on the side of an offramp, Bruce’s hazard lights flashing and headlights fixed on Dory to warn approaching traffic. That seemed an eternity, but it was worth the wait.

This guy, I think Carl? basically put his life on the line to get Dory off the guard rail without causing further damage. He was wielding chains with giant hooks like a towing ninja. He pulled just a little on one side, then got back out into fast moving traffic to reposition his truck. Then he moved chains, got back in the truck, just a little more repositioning, until finally he had her on a course where he could pull her up without having her just scrape all along the side. It was masterful. And death defying. And we are grateful. We followed them all the way to Randy, who had been clearing out his shop for her in the meantime. We both could see the extent of the damage as we followed behind and it was then that Richard started processing the possibility that Dory’s road days might be over. He began sobbing.

Carl got her off the truck and Randy pulled her into his shop using a forklift. I was not really taking anything in and just continued the process of putting things away inside, trembling uncontrollably. Like if everything could just go back in its proper place, all would be ok. Getting a better look, I was amazed by how much things seemed fine. The kitchen shelves fell, but I put them back up. Things flew out of organizer pockets, and shampoo fell onto the shower floor, but really nothing broken, no damage. Randy told me that if there was any way in the world to do it, he would fix Dory. Then I started sobbing and gave him a full Covidy hug with no regrets.

That was Friday. Through the weekend, we mostly cried, and have gone through all the symptoms of shock and grief. And actually, though I have mostly felt no physical symptoms as of Monday, as I started to write this, the trembling started back up, double time. We now know that really, she is not repairable for the road. We have wonderful friends who were quick to contact Safari Condo on our behalf and we shall see what is possible in terms of getting another Alto. She is well insured and Altos certainly hold their value, since you can’t easily get one. The downside is that you can’t easily get one.

We’ve started the process going with insurance and we’ve taken Bruce in for repairs and a diagnostic. He may be retiring, but on the upside, we had already begun thinking about that. Just not this soon. We’ve emptied both Bruce and Dory and realize: a) that doing so is really really sad, and b) damn we carry a lot of shit when we go camping. The list of mods we’ve done to Dory goes on for miles and each one hurts to think about. Like the latches, the Lagun table, the Mr. Moose key holder, or the etched 633 in the window, done by a friend at a rally. Ouch.

So Carpe Dory is no more, at least no longer in its original form. We have some hopes and dreams for what might be done with Dory I, and perhaps there will be a Dory II. And I know she is just a trailer, but she has been like our child. Each of our actual children has had a terrifying health scare, and I can tell you that this feels no less traumatic. If we do get another Alto, I can’t help but feel we will never love it as much as we have loved her. But I guess that’s what you say about the new puppy after you’ve lost your beloved dog, right?

And now I need to write several love letters. The first I’ll address to Safari Condo and to the Altoistes group. The fact that the Nadeaus have created an inanimate object that elicits this level of bonding from its users is extraordinary. As I said, Altos are not ordinary trailers, but it goes beyond the engineering and design. This is a company that treats their customers like family (or their “California girlfriend” in our case) and treats their product as though each one off the assembly line is one-of-a-kind. They create trailers, but they do so for the joy and happiness of the people who use them. And that culture has carried forward into the Altoistes group I started. Some of my dearest friends are members of that group. The moment I expressed what had happened, I had people jumping in to help us. So many offered us their support and well wishes and this is not something that happens in every facebook group. There were even Alto owners offering us the opportunity to use theirs for the interim time. There is just something about Altos that attracts really good people and that is pretty special. And if this experience has shown us anything, it is that there is literally nothing else out there we would buy instead of an Alto. And also, we cannot live without one, so the near future will be rather tough.

The next is to Randy Wilferd. I know I have sung his praises before but this guy, on a Friday night, at the drop of a hat, turned everything upside down for us. He coerced his guy with the flatbed to come save us because he knew we would need the best. And he cleared out his indoor garage because he knew it would be better to have her in there since she can’t be sealed up properly. He was there for us, again, in a big way and we can never thank him enough. If you use his services, don’t you dare be a pain in the ass customer to him. Overpay him if you can, thank him profusely, and know that you are lucky to be getting the best and most honest RV mechanic out there. He is also a little crazy and that is also why we love him. Thank you Randy. Again.

And of course, thank you Dory. You picked me up after a year of tragedy and you brought Richard and me back to life. You carried us when we were scared, and elated, and always gave us shelter from the storms. You got us through some terribly dark years, but only just. And remember when we played ‘where am I?’ with Jimmy Gunn? You’ve been our escape hatch and our weekly therapy retreat. You’ve been a weekend office, and a full time Learning Center. You’ve been across the country and back, twice, and so many other places in between. We loved you at first sight my dear, and our love only grew with time. We are so so sorry this has happened and that your road days have come to an end. But what a trip, eh? We would never ever have seen all of these places and met all these people were it not for you. You made adventure doable, Doryable, with hot showers and espresso in the morning. And you got to be a TV star too! We love you and will never forget the times we had with you.

As for the future, we shall see. We watched “Finding Nemo” to cry to on Friday night and “Finding Dory” to cry to on Saturday. We will ‘just keep swimming’ and we have some ideas for how Dory might be able to be repurposed in a spectacular way. If we get a Dory II, I’m sure we’ll learn to love again, though maybe not quite like this. And perhaps the blog can be renamed to ‘Carpe Dory Duo.’ Not sure. Just taking this one day at a time, cause that’s what Dory would do.

Sunset SB (6) and Moss Landing (4)

Saturday, November 7, 2020

If there were a psychological time marker associated with these two weekends, it would read: 45:1458 for the last, and 46:1 for this. What a difference it makes to wake up in a new era. Some people are saying it is like living the ending of “Return of the Jedi” and that feels so true that we actually streamed that movie Saturday night, just so we could fully live the “Yub Yub” moment (nerds will understand this reference). And, sure enough, when it got to the final scenes of dancing celebrations on all the different worlds, we cried, like for the millionth time that day.

A sunrise shot would be more appropriate here, but I don’t wake up that early.

This isn’t really going to be a camping post. This is a marker in time, calling attention to a profoundly important moment in our shared history. Whatever your thoughts or politics, I hope you can feel the joyful embrace of renewed optimism reverberating across the planet. I hope you hear the words of inclusivity and acceptance of all, and the aspiration to work towards the common good. This is a whole new day, hard earned and well deserved.

Reservations made for Moss Landing because I thought I might need otters.

Last weekend the air was literally heavy with choking smoke and an AQI of over 100. Add to that a level of anxiety that held us breathless and nearly immobilized. This weekend we woke with a flood of tears, as the dam broke and let loose all the hope that had been barricaded so deep inside. Fear and uncertainty gave way to relief, and the closest thing to the definition of “hallelujah” that I have ever experienced in my lifetime. Whatever comes, I am grateful to have lived to see that kind of a day. I am grateful to see it play out with those I hold dear, as well as strangers, all across the world. If anything has been made clear this past year, with Coronavirus and all the rest of it, we are all connected. And this weekend, that was a beautiful thing. And for right now, that is enough.

As Mark Hamill said: Yub Nub y’all!

Bodega Dunes (6)

May the sun find ways to poke through the thick clouds bearing down on us this coming week.

Wait what? Weren’t we just at Bodega Dunes last weekend? Yep. But we originally had reservations at Bothe Napa and those got cancelled due to fire damage. A cancellation opened up a spot at Bodega Dunes and it is never a bad idea to go to the Sonoma Coast. Unless it’s on fire, I guess. But besides that, I have yet to get tired of it.

I see why people do this with horses. That would be way easier.

Again, it was a great weekend. This time we took a hike over the dunes to catch what there was of a sunset on Saturday. Hiking uphill in sand is really hard by the way. Other than that, we were super lazy and that was both well earned and much appreciated.

For future reference, site 77 had good solar.

Sunday began well, but turned into a semi panic attack. We were coming home to a Red Flag warning and possibly no electricity due to high winds and fire friendly conditions. On the surface, that already sounds kind of stressful, but it’s not like we haven’t been dealing with that for a while. This time though, as we were making fairly detailed evacuation plans, in case it came to that, I started to really stress out. I think my brain simply couldn’t process all of the competing warning signals coming in at the same time. Yes, we can stuff the cat in a box, grab the insulin and put it in Dory’s fridge, load the adult offspring into the two cars with Dory trailing one of them, and we can get to somewhere not on fire. And oh yeah, gotta make sure we have plenty of masks and hand sanitizer because of Covid. And we could stay somewhere for a good long time if need be, as long as we could figure out where the kids could sleep. And water, and dumping…. My brow furrowed so hard trying to weigh options and sift through potential dangers that it started to spasm.

Reminder to take a breath…

But really, I think I’m just barely containing the anxiety associated with the election next Tuesday. It should be obvious to anyone reading this blog that I am not a supporter of the current occupant of the White House. And that’s an enormous understatement. I believe I have been holding my breath on some level the past four years. I know many of us have. What happens next is more than I can contemplate. There will be ugliness, and trauma, no matter the outcome, and that’s about the only thing that’s a sure bet. Camping under this regime has been more than a series of fun weekends; it is the search for tangible reminders that beauty remains in this world. Against the backdrop of emboldened human ugliness, this has been essential to survival.

Someone painted a Swastika on a house in my neighborhood this past week with the T-word scrawled underneath.

Our world has borne witness to a horrific upheaval of rage and hate and all the worst examples of human behavior. What happens Tuesday could either cement this country’s demise as a functioning nation, or begin the process of lancing some of the festering wounds in the hopes that they can be healed. Maybe. There is plenty of damage beyond repair. But there is also plenty of good out there, still fighting for its life.

And there is still much beauty left

We are a family struggling through the teen years. We thought we had it together, like those parents who smile sympathetically as they watch others go through hell, thinking that can never happen to them. We figure, we have solid rules, we’re strong and smart, and we’ll know what to do if things start to go sideways. But here we are, upside down, as the raged out kid shoots up heroin and grabs the car keys.

So we may go hurtling off the highway at a hundred miles an hour on Tuesday. Or maybe there will be an emergency intervention that gives us another chance to work things out. But wow, there are going to be some serious talks that will need to happen. So much therapy. On the upside, timing might coincide with the winter Covid wave and we will all have to sit in our rooms in time out again, and think hard about what we’ve done. I’m down with that.

I’m not sure it’s honest to say I have hope. Maybe I have deeply guarded hope. And not just about the outcome after Tuesday. If I have hope for anything, it is that maybe we could stop being so shitty to each other for a while. Like just for a breather.

Hang on tight friends. It’s going to be a week.

Bodega Dunes (5)

The weather does not get better than this.

So glad we went out! Richard really had to hustle to make this weekend happen, but he pulled it off. After our last excursion, as we were getting Dory back up the driveway, I noticed one of the tires did not look right. Like dangerously not right. Like I think we were lucky to have made it home without a blowout. So Richard spent the week doing research, calling about inventory, shipping times, calling local tire places, all of it. Impressively, he was able to get two new trailer tires put onto our rims and put them back on Dory, lugs tight and ready to roll, all by Friday. We are both extremely thankful we didn’t have to deal with changing a tire on top of the road to Fremont Peak. According to the tire guy, something delaminated on the inside, as in, the tire failed before its time. For our part, we really do not care about getting our “money’s worth” on tire longevity. We’d rather buy new tires frequently rather than ever ever have to deal with a blowout on the road. We have all the necessary parts and tools if need be, but yikes that would be no fun.

Emergency brake and pull cable

Dory and her new shoes were ready to roll on Friday, but something was keeping her from moving when we commenced launching procedures. It usually only takes a medium sized push to get her rolling, but this time, even an outright shove was not moving her. Something was up. Of course the first thing we did was to make sure she was not still on top of a jack, or jack stand, or that she was still chocked. Seems obvious, but worth checking. Nope, not it. So we figured it had to be that the brakes were engaged. We have an emergency brake safety cable installed, but it didn’t look as though it had been pulled or tripped. We’ve never done anything with it, so we weren’t even really sure how to test it. But we weren’t going anywhere without figuring this out, so Richard yanked the pin out and then pushed it back in. Sure enough, he heard a little click and her wheels were rolling again. We figure somehow in the tire changing process, some wire must have triggered the brakes to lock. Glad we got that sorted.

Arch Rock

Home was forecast to be in the 90s, but it could not have been more lovely on the coast. Blue skies, temps in the 80s, what a glorious weekend. Richard rode for a while and I drove up the coast to meet him in Duncans Mills. On our way back south, we stopped at Goat’s Rock and hung out on the beach a little, trying to avoid the other fifty thousand people who had the same idea. The whole coast was really packed with Californians avoiding the inland heat. Richard was looking forward to stopping for a scone at Wild Flour Bakery, but he said the crowd made it way too Covidy to be worth it.

See Star just chillin’ with some anemones

We planned to grab a picnic dinner from Pelican Plaza Market and Deli to take with us to the beach. We even called at 3 to ask how late we could order from the deli. The person on the phone said 6. We got there at 4 and the deli was closed. That’s a PR fail there. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe there were so many people in that day, they ran out of food. It certainly seemed so because there was not much left in the case. I settled on a couple of pasta salads to go and some cookies. Oh also, I put a margarita to go into a thermos, so really, dinner food was not the most important item on the menu.

This + margarita in a to-go thermos = perfect day.

We did our favorite trail down the Pinnacle Gulch Trail to the tide pools. Low tide coincided perfectly with the sunset and we were super smart by parking our car at the exit point, on the street at the top of Shorttail Gulch Trail. That way, after having a margarita and walking back up a thousand feet, the car would be right there. We are sunset professionals and we do not mess around.

Westside County Park Day Use Area and boat launch

Sunday we planned to grab crab cakes for lunch at Spud Point Crab Co. We needed to go that way anyway to use the dump at Westside Campground because the dump at Bodega Dunes is closed for some reason. Driving past, we saw a loooong line of people who were kind of sort of distancing. But yeah, there were a lot of them. So we were faced with an existential crisis of trying to decide whether Spud Point crab cakes were worth risking possible death. When that did not provide a clear answer, we instead asked whether crab cakes were worth risking our daughter’s death. To that, we had to answer no. Dammit. Covid sucks. No crab cakes for us.

Instead, we had chips and salsa for lunch in Dory, parked in the day use area, and actively debated whether I should try to get my boat in the water, and if not, why not. Cutting to the chase: I did not. But also, didn’t need to. The weekend was perfect just as it was.

Total miles: 89.7, 15.0 mpg, 2 hours 35 min. Site 60. Great solar, no hookups. Dump closed. Dumped at Westside for $7. Good dump there. Pretty good LTE for both from the site, but service drops in and out in that area.

Fremont Peak SP (& Betabel)

Valley View Campground

Weekend of information gathering: check. Fremont Peak State Park has long been a glaring omission from the list of local state parks visited. The primary reason for this was the description of the road getting there as being narrow, windy, and with steep dropoffs. This has never been my favorite kind of road, so I’ve avoided making reservations there. Then recently some fellow Altoistes checked it out and assured me it wasn’t that bad. Meanwhile, Richard has been itching to go there because climbing to the top is a Jay’s Essential Ride.

As the weekend approached, we were both keeping a close eye on fire status because this is definitely not a place that has an evacuation route. Things looked ok though, with much cooler and more humid weather moving in. Still, I was nervous. I have been consistently zombie-like following a day of zoom school. The idea of doing a scary climb on a Friday after work had me worried.

Betabel RV Resort

So we did what we thought was super clever by reserving a site at nearby Betabel RV Resort. We could stay there, avoid the scary drive at the end of a tiring week, and spend Saturday checking out the park without being hitched up. That way, I could get a sense of whether the road was doable with Dory for future trips. All good planning there.

Yeah, it’s a bit packed

We have driven past Betabel countless times without any reason to stop. It is literally right off Highway 101 near Gilroy, and from the road, looks like a parking lot for big rigs. But it gets a 5 star review and had a site, so we figured what the hell. And it turns out, it is in fact a parking lot for big rigs, but with well manicured lawns and attractive shrubberies; ones that look nice and not too expensive. I honestly don’t get what people do in places like this, but clearly it’s a popular spot for long timers to move in and set up porches and semi permanent patio areas next to their behemoth “mobil” homes. Due to no fault of the management, the people next to us made us very uncomfortable. They were spread out right up to our site, with lots of maskless family gathering going on. Even getting out of the driver’s side of the car, it was impossible to maintain 6′ distance. We sheltered inside with windows and curtains closed and pretended not to care.

San Juan Canyon Road

Saturday we got outta dodge and drove to the bottom of San Juan Canyon Road to launch Richard. It’s an 11 mile drive up nearly three thousand feet of elevation gain. The description from Jay is spot on. Road conditions are pretty bad, but since you have to go slow anyway, the unfilled potholes are not jarring. The first half is a very easy woodsy drive through the valley, with not much climbing yet. The middle part gets more exciting as the grade kicks up and you have to navigate a couple of blind corners with a rock wall on one side, and a dropoff on the other. There were guard rails, of sorts, for each of these, but that provides more of a psychological assist than any real safety measure. Then you find yourself atop a ridge that goes for maybe half a mile. Then at last, you enter the woods again before arriving at the entrance to the park. I sagged Richard the whole way up and honestly, it wasn’t that bad.

Don’t look down….

We found the site we had let go and noticed it had not been claimed by anyone. We also noticed it had a spectacular view and tons of privacy. That led to pondering whether to ditch Betabel, eat the reservation fee for that night, and go get Dory. We decided to see how I felt on the descent, keeping tow worthiness in mind, and we could decide when we got back to her. We arrived back around 3 to find the family again spread out all over the place. “Pack up!”

Ahhh… yes, thank you.

It’s impressive how fast we can stow and tow when under the threat of fire or loud Covidy gatherings. Bruce got Dory up that road like a champ. I wasn’t even nervous. It might have been a case of situational bravery, considering the alternatives. But once we got settled in to our super private site with a glorious view down into the valley, there were repeated declarations of “this is so much better!” for the rest of the evening.

View of Monterey Bay

So, we have discovered a new-to-us state park that I look forward to visiting again. There are views up there of the entire Monterey Bay area. You can even see the twin smoke stacks marking the location of Elkhorn Slough. As the clouds rolled in below, we were treated to a sandwiched sunset, beaming through the stratus layers. In the morning, we got to enjoy our coffee under a magnificent blue sky with nothing but the sounds of birds and far off campers. We have nothing against the big rig lots, but it really is not our speed. And I’m sure none of the 40′ haulers would consider towing up that road as anything close to a good time. Everything has its place and it is nice to discover a new one.

Total miles to Betabel: 87.3, 17.9 mpg, 2 hours, 26 min. 107 to Fremont Peak, would probably be about 3 hours total. Site VV07, no hookups. LTE for both. Needed leveling blocks on passenger side, but not too bad. Water spigots. No dump. Toilets looked like vault, but we’re not using them anyway. Dumped at Betabel.

Moss Landing KOA (3)

It’s a KOA. But it’s also not on fire.

Now that was a replenishing weekend! We got out of the smoke and heat and were able to totally unwind on the coast. There was little chance of fire in Moss Landing and the air quality was good enough that we were both able to enjoy some outdoor fun. Plus, hookups and a location near great restaurants. All winning.

Arriving in time for sunset is usually the right call.

I had reserved San Simeon originally, thinking I might be able to take Friday off for the drive down. But given the complexities of distance learning, I’m not sure days off are ever going to be a thing. Maybe at some point, but now is not a good time. So, change of plan and a 2 hour drive, as opposed to 5-6 hours, meant we arrived just in time for sunset. Afterwards, we walked to Whole Enchilada and got take out, which I paired with an icy margarita back in Dory. Now we’re talking.

Not much beats kayaking with these guys.

Saturday Richard was thrilled to see the AQI below 100 so that he could get out on his bike. I went over to the launch at Moss Landing Harbor and spent a couple hours with the seals, pelicans and otters. Nuff said, right? In the afternoon, we got that incredible caramel smothered ginger cake from Haute Enchilada and walked to the beach for another sunset. Then it was time to be confused while watching, “Dark.” I did locate a graphic organizer/family tree/study guide that I think will help us follow that show. Time travel is confusing.

Black Crowned Night Heron

Also on Saturday, we spotted an amazing bird which we later identified as a Black Crowned Night Heron. It was hard to see and way up in a tree across the campground. But it was big enough to notice, and when viewed through binoculars, it had a striking white feather coming down from the back of its head. I had never seen anything like that on a bird and not too many have that feature. Even at a distance, and despite the blurry pictures, I’m fairly confident that’s what it was. Uncommonly cool.

Table leg project: check.

The only other thing worthy of reporting is that we finished the table leg project to a point that I think I could recommend it. As you know, we replaced the table pedestal base with the Lagun swiveling table mount. The only problem is that eventually, the tabletop started to tip on the corner farthest from the mount. We ordered an adjustable leg that is mounted on a hinge to support the corner. We did not want to permanently attach it to the table, because if you bump into it (like every time you’re near it), you will apply a great deal of sideways force. It seemed pretty likely that it would just rip out the screws. Instead, we put velcro on the hinge surface and on the underside of the table. That almost was enough, but not quite as stable as I wanted. So, we then attached the hinge to a larger metal bracket and put the velcro on that. And that is working darn well. To move it, I flip the leg up and it clicks into place (rather frighteningly) through the use of neodymium magnets mounted on the leg and under the table. Some of you may remember my adventures with these magnets and subsequent warnings to take these things very seriously. I may need to replace one of them with a less powerful magnet, but the leg sure does stay in place! Now we’ve got a level table that can still be moved around easily. Nice.

Perfect weekend. Even the somewhat smoky sunset was nice.

I must say, this weekend was a refresher. No nearby fires, no hundred degree heat, just otters, good food and blue sky. Who’d have thought you could have so much camping fun at a KOA?

Total miles: 107.4, 2 hours 54 minutes, 18.1 mpg. Full hookups. Walking distance from beach and restaurants. Pretty good cell service for both, plus KOA wifi.

Sugarloaf Ridge SP (3)

Less than 24 hours later, and this area is surrounded by flames.

Well, shit. I was going to post this entry last night, but got tired, and left it another day. Now it looks as though this will be another campground obituary post. The Napa Valley fire that woke us up has spread so quickly that it looks like it will do some serious damage in this park too. I swear, as I’m taking pictures these days, there is a voice in my head wondering if these will end up being “before” shots. I’m sad to say that may be the case here. I’m leaving the rest of the post as I wrote it, but it takes on a different feeling now. I don’t know the words to capture it.

But here’s what I was going to post….

A porta potty at every site.

Now that’s the way to do a pandemic. Well done, Sonoma. Rather than risk the spread of the virus through shared bathroom facilities, this park stepped up the precautions by providing a porta potty to every single site. And at no extra charge. They call it Sugarloaf’s PPPP: Personal Porta Potty Program. This, after Sonoma has lost so much revenue from fire related campground closures. I liked this park before, but even better now. They are taking this whole thing seriously, and for anyone so inclined, they do accept donations to keep the park up and running.

We could get just enough wifi from our site, but not too much.

Another thing the park has done to support the challenging times is to provide a strong paid wifi service for those who are working essential jobs online and have been displaced, or who can work from a much nicer place as long as they have strong internet. From our site, 42, we were just able to hit the free wifi. It was enough for occasional texts and emails to come through, but not enough for work, news, or doom scrolling. That gets a +2 on the rating scale.

Beautiful blue skies and spacious sites.

Our site was lovely and well distanced from other campers. But even so, everyone was masked and following the rules. Saturday, Richard got in a nice ride with his fancy home bike while he awaits the arrival of his new trailer bike. How many bikes do we have, you ask? A bikie always answers: n + 1, where n equals the number of bikes your significant other will tolerate.

Robert Ferguson Observatory

When he came back, we did the planet walk again. This time we did not make it to Neptune. But we did get past Uranus and noticed a new bridge had been built to replace the one that had fire damage. It was a lovely day, with minimal smoke in the air, gorgeous blue skies, and a huge Woodpecker banging on the oaks. Only later in the afternoon did the temperature start to kick up, along with the wind. That was predicted in the forecast and a Red Flag warning issued for Sunday and Monday.

The smoke was just starting to come in…

Around 5am Sunday we both woke up. The trailer was rocking and, when you’re a Californian, you at least have to wonder if it’s an earthquake. In a trailer, it could simply be the person next to you getting up or shifting in bed. It was neither, and the sound of things hitting the roof told us it was the wind. We tried to go back to sleep but we both noticed the smell of smoke. Thanks to the barely connected wifi, I was able to check the fire maps and didn’t see anything in our immediate area. No one was coming around to evacuate us, so we went back to sleep, kind of. At dawn we saw a layer of smoke in the campground, which is the new normal here, but again smelled the smoke and noticed ash falling. That means an active fire somewhat close by. And by then, the Glass Fire over in Napa Valley was being reported. It posed no immediate threat. However, seeing as how it was a dead end drive on Adobe Canyon Road up to the campground, we wasted no time getting up. We weren’t panicked at all, but nevertheless were rolling down the road by 9am.

The last time we were here, we drove over to Calistoga to dump at the fairgrounds, but since that is a little too close to the new fire, we found a Shell station in Sonoma with a dump that charges only $10. That is handy information.

Benicia State Recreation Area

After that, we looked for ways to delay our arrival home and subsequent disappointment for our daughter, who loves us I’m sure, but relishes the weekends with two fewer people in the house. So we checked out Benicia State Recreation Area on our way home. We knew there were three en route sites out there but have never had a reason to stay there, since it is only about twenty miles from home. It’s a nice little park for runners, bikers, and walkers, not so much for campers. I guess in a pinch the small back in sites might offer a night’s respite in the middle of a long drive. But it’s not a destination camping spot. Good to know.

Bittersweet photo of a lovely weekend.

We send wet thoughts to the residents of Napa Valley, again under the threat of rapidly spreading fire. And selfishly, I am rooting big time for the survival of the Rombauer winery. Here we are in our new normal.

Total miles: 69.7, 2 hours 21 min, 15.2. Site 42, nice. No solar. Can just hit the visitor center wifi. Otherwise, no cell service. No dump. Nice bathroom in lower campground, but porta potties provided at individual sites in COVID times. Super fast paid wifi available at visitor center. Dumped at Shell station in Sonoma for $10.

Scott’s Flat Lake (2)

That’s a pretty socially distanced site there.

Nice weekend. We even got some blue sky for a while there! It’s a longish drive out there, though navigation will say it’s three hours. But really, by the time we take the winding road down to the kiosk, find our site, and get set up, it’s a solid four hours for us. So it was verging on darkness when we got to #218. It was a very tight little backing job, and even in full daylight, and not tired, it would have been a challenge not to hit a tree or a car. I spent about twenty seconds mentally assessing the situation before declaring “Caravan Mover.” And once that statement is made, it’s all seriousness and no screwing around to get the maneuver completed and keep impact to the battery minimal.

A few too many obstacles for late in the day.

It was interesting for me to notice what happens to my brain when I go into “super focused” mode (let’s not call it “stressed” necessarily. because the world has far more stressful things to offer than technical trailer parking). I’ve been a special educator for over a decade and the first piece of advice I give anyone when dealing with a child in a state of dysregulation is to lower the verbal language load (stop talking). And you know what? It is totally true. I wanted essential language exchange only until the task was complete, and I literally noticed my brain struggle when Richard either said things or asked things that required language processing. That’s probably why his allowed responses on the walkie talkie are single words only, stated once. It wasn’t until after a nice dinner inside that the language center of my brain had come back online so that I could explain all of that to him. And really, he did a pretty good job. I just found it kind of fascinating to be so physiologically aware of it in the moment.

Could get a kayak over that? Maybe, but lazy.

Saturday Richard had a really nice bike ride planned, one of his favorite rides. I sort of figured I’d get my boat into the lake, but when I scoped out the approach from the site, I discovered a big huge drop down to the beach, over the top of tree roots and fallen trunks. It maybe could be done I suppose, except I’m really lazy right now. Zoom school is kind of slowly killing me. Unfortunately for Richard though, a show stopping mechanical failure happened on his bike. Poor sweetie has been keeping this bike cobbled together with parts that are over twenty years old. He’s been thinking about getting a new trailer bike for a while, but now that the sheltered in place world has discovered biking, it’s very hard to get something in the right size. And he’s been reluctant to spend the money. This was the final push to disregard cost because life is short and biking is his thing. He has ordered a new bike and is excited.

Hikes are nice too. And there was blue in the sky.

So we went for a walk around the campground, scoping out sites. Then we went over to the boat launch to check that out. My verdict, if I can’t reserve a lakeside site would be to use the Day Use area rather than the boat launch. It might be muddy, but seems like less hassle than parking and schlepping. Then we took a little trail and found a nice piece of shade to sit and watch the lake action.

Just sat and enjoyed the trees.

The rest of the weekend was full relax mode. Luckily, service was spotty enough that I was not able to doom scroll on the internet, at least not too much. The only exciting event that took place was when someone’s floatie inner tube got loose in the campground and rolled all the way to the beach. Some kid was screaming, “TIRE! TIRE!” and that got everyone panicked looking for fire and smelling the air for smoke. Oh, also a boat sank on the lake, but we only know that because a sheriff came through the loop to check in on the people whose boat it was.

Definitely worth a return trip.

Last thing to report was that we gave the first Alto tour since the pandemic started on Sunday. We’ve been nice, but firm, in our decision not to have anyone inside. But an Altoiste who lives like right there in Nevada City, and who was looking to see our specific model, posted in the facebook group, it was too hard not to reach out and offer. They were great and did all the appropriate hand wiping and mask wearing, and they were inside for only a few minutes. So it felt pretty safe.

We will have to reserve a do over after Richard has his new bike. It’s a really nice campground, and besides the difficulty getting into the site, it had tons of shady space and a pretty view of the lake. All good stuff.

On the not so good front, during the drive through Vacaville, we skirted some of the area that got charred in the Lake Berryessa area fire. It is difficult to comprehend the vastness of some of these fires. But also nice to see the statement of solidarity written on the hillside: “Vaca Strong.”

Total miles: 144.3, 16.7 mpg, 3 hours 57 min. Site 218 no hookups. Tight turn to back in but spacious site with lake view. Minimal solar. In and out service, better for ATT than Verizon. Nice sites: 228, 230, 232, 234, 236, 238. Ok sites: 229, 226, 227, 231, 233, 235. Good dump.

San Luis Creek

8am Wednesday. The automatic light sensors think it is still nighttime. Distance Learning goes ahead anyway. Friday the power went out.

This is camping determination at the edge of reason here. There is so much to process, way too much. I won’t lie, I’m down deep in the Pit of Despair and I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt less hopeful about the future. I’m sure we are all here at varying levels and periods of time these days. And just as the fires in the west are increasing in frequency and scale, so are the feelings of grief and dread for so many of us. Much has been lost, some of it won’t return in any recognizable form. And under the weight of all of it, even the gentle reassurance of the natural constants in life, like that the sky is blue, the Bay Area woke to a disorienting Mars-like atmosphere this week. Still, we went to work because, well, what else are you going to do? But the words of apocalypse and end days are getting bandied about in less funny ways, as though we all know it’s not quite a joke anymore.

So, the question of ‘do we go camping this weekend’ is followed by an assessment that goes something like this: 1. Is the campground currently on fire? 2. Is the area under evacuation? 3. Are there fires nearby? How near? 4. Are there active fires along the route? 5. Would we be in the way of first responders and/or evacuees? 6. Are there escape routes out of the campground, should it catch fire? 7. What is the AQI forecast for the area? What is the weather forecast? Any lightning or firenadoes predicted? Assuming the destination passes through all of those checkpoints without hitting a dead stop, we will still consider going out because that’s how bad we need it. And note that the question that used to carry the most weight (“Well how hot?”) isn’t even on the list anymore as a show stopper. No, we don’t yet have a replacement for the AC, so we increased our 12v fan collection by one and headed out into the smoke Friday afternoon.

Really, I’m sure this would be nice in normal circumstances.

Admittedly, this campground is not getting a fair chance in terms of our impression of it. After our last stay in the Basalt campground with 100º weather, we specifically reserved the side of the recreation area that had hookups so that we could try a do-over with AC, and maybe get my boat in the water. Neither of those things happened. With an AQI in the 150-170 range and ash collecting on everything outside, neither biking nor boating seemed like a sane idea. Instead, we did the only reasonable thing when living in a state of despair: we got in the car, with lovely AC and air filtration, and drove a hundred miles to the coast so that I could see an otter.

They’re like little pharmaceutical grade antidepressants.

We chose the one place on earth where it was pretty damn likely I’d get to see at least one: Moss Landing. It wasn’t that the air quality was going to be that much better at the ocean, there is hardly any area on the west coast that is not under a cloud of smoke right now, but it sure felt better. The temperature dropped a full thirty degrees and you could sort of convince your eyes that all of the wispy stuff was fog.

Ahhh. Trees and forests that still exist.

And yes, I got my otter fix, like a life raft. In case of existential emergency, get to an otter. And it wasn’t the otters alone that pulled me up, though the bang banging of rocks on tummy goes pretty far in mood lifting. It was also the drive. We went a pretty way, along highway 152, through not-yet-burned forests. There, the smoke is hardly visible and the color green soothes the nervous system with the reminder that not everything is dead. And it was also the time to talk, and cry, and just bring out all of the dark thoughts. There may not be answers or soothing platitudes to make any of it go away, but it feels more real and rational than going about your daily business when the world has turned orange. And yes, I mean that in more ways than one.

See? There’s a favorite restaurant that has not burned down.

We got take out from my favorite place and had an amazing ginger cake that was probably soaked in rum. I recommend that highly. And then, after watching the pelicans and otters for a while, we drove a hundred miles or so back to the campground. It was hot and smoky, but not so bad that I couldn’t cook outside. Richard did a short and low exertion scouting pedal, over to check out the access to the California Aquaduct Bike Trail, which he still wants to do on some future visit. We had a wonderful Blue Apron dinner, paired with a thoughtfully gifted bottle of Rombauer, followed by a couple episodes of “The Mandalorian.” And honestly? It was a great weekend.

I’m not under the impression things don’t suck, and are likely to get worse. I don’t have answers for how to process all of that. But I do know that otters help. It’s all about little breaks from the despair. Maybe that’s it. And maybe that’s enough.

Total Miles: 106.5, 2 hours 54 min, 18.0 mpg, site 22 hookups. Great dump. Bacteria problem in water seems to have been solved. LTE for ATT, but not good 3g for Verizon. To my consternation, campfires were allowed, even in these terrible air quality conditions.

Coloma RV (4)

Party crashers

This entry is past due. The trip took place on the weekend of the 15th, but with all of the fires raging, the painful damage done to some of our favorite parks, thoughts of evacuation, and the launch of a distant school year, I just was not feeling it. Plus, our current status is grounded for a while (I’ll explain), so it has been hard to muster the enthusiasm for blogging. However, I found myself looking back through pictures and posts from Big Basin, Butano, Lake Solano, and Lake Berryessa and was grateful to have a capture of the memories. So in that spirit, I will memorialize what was a joyful weekend against a turbulent backdrop.

Do not enter the solar light zone

This private campground is tough to reserve and pretty crowded. I must have spotted a cancellation in a nice shady site when I reserved the weekend. We later came to realize that our site was part of a massive multi-family gathering, and that made for some awkward moments. Right off the bat, the number of people in the campground was pushing the edge of our Covid comfort zone. But there was adequate space between sites to at least maintain distance from our neighbors. That is, until they started walking through our site, like really close to us, to go visit their cousins on the other side. I am personally improving in my ability to assert myself when people enter my distancing bubble. I stated politely when a couple of adults and four children were about to cross right in front of us, that we didn’t feel comfortable being so close. No “I’m sorry” or phrasing in the form of a question. Just a direct statement made calmly. They responded totally politely in return and said they would go around. Really, we would have offered to switch with them if we’d realized the situation when we arrived. As it was, they were all set up and it wasn’t likely any of us would want to tear everything down to move. After that, I got out a new set of solar string lights, purchased intentionally as a way to delineate territory lines. It’s a passive aggressive way of “decorating” while communicating visible boundaries and it seemed to work.

This is my new favorite thing

We knew the weekend was going to be a scorcher, with sustained temps above 100. We had hookups, shade trees, and a river, so we were set. Richard got in an early ride on Saturday and I spent the afternoon taking kitchen pictures for an Altoiste looking for ideas, and floating down the icy American River. There is a place to put in right from the campground and you can float for about 3 miles to a take out point at Henningsen Lotus Park. This was one of the funnest things I have ever done. In addition to being a total solution to the misery of a heat wave, it was peaceful and at times exhilarating to float the tiny rapids. I had utterly no control over the floatie, but that didn’t stop me from trying. In fact, the nonstop and largely pointless paddling I did with my arms left me with impressive bruises by the end of the two hour ride. In this case, I was glad of the company of other people because I kept reassuring myself that if they could float the rapids with beers in their hands, I would probably be ok. There were two spots where I got completely covered by water coming down a rapid, but I was never in danger of flipping over. Life jackets are required and I was glad I had in my old pair of hearing aides because that could have been an expensive casualty. OMG so much fun! I would absolutely do that again.

Heading into the evening on Saturday, we started noticing Dory’s AC was not keeping up. Richard was more convinced than I that something was amiss, but he turned out to be right. Sunday morning we were getting no cold air coming out so we packed up and got rolling before it got too hot. Randy is on speed dial on Richard’s phone, so that was obviously the first thing we did. Richard then started to do some research about the possible fixes. One thing was pretty certain though: we were not likely to go out the next weekend if the forecast held steady. So we ordered a capacitor and cancelled reservations. Meanwhile CA started to burn down at a ferocious pace from lightning storms Saturday night.

From then to now, we have still not gotten the AC fixed, but Randy has diagnosed it as deceased. So we will be grounded until after Labor Day at least. But then, we’d already decided not to go out on holiday weekends to avoid the crowds, so it’s not a total loss.

Raise the roof!

On a happier note, we have now completed the project of modding the garage so that Dory can open her roof completely INSIDE. This was a big deal for us. Randy put us in contact with people he trusts to do the work of engineering the rafters so there is space in the middle. We needed to also replace the door and get a side mounted door opener. The timing of this all sort of came together to coincide with taking Dory in for a diagnostic on the AC. It also got her out of the house during the weekend when more lightning storms were predicted and we had to be ready to evacuate if any of the open space behind our house started going up in flames. Thankfully, that storm did not prove to be as bad and it gave firefighters the chance to get some of the huge ones under control.

It has been a rough couple of weeks for California. I can’t think about Big Basin and not cry. I take heart in the articles coming out that assure us that most of the huge redwoods will be ok. Not all of them, but most are expected to recover. Of course, it won’t look the same. And the historic visitor center, along with all of the campground structures, is all gone. And Lake Berryessa… there are so many people who have lost homes and farms. I can’t even imagine the devastation there. This one hurts bad. We had only just begun to get to know that area. Putah Canyon Campground is close to my heart because that was the place where we first sheltered in place from Covid back in March. It represented peace, and safety, and calm when I was afraid. I think about all of the lush vegetation, the otters and ospreys, and cry thinking of it all engulfed in apocalyptic fury. I hope the animals found shelter. I hope the vegetation can heal and return some day. We won’t be able to see it, but maybe some day it will come back. As of this writing, I do not know if the campground survived, but photos of the area show massive flames all around the lake. If it did, what a different view there would be now. Butano got scorched as well, but the campground and structures were spared. Other places that had me worried survived: Costanoa, Fort Ross, Limekiln, McWay Falls, Memorial Park, New Horizons 5th grade camp … just squeaked by. Lake Solano campground appears to be gone, and I hope those peacocks found shelter. It’s all so much and my heart is heavy.

So shiny! Just like new!

But then here comes Randy to cheer me right back up. We went to pick Dory up Saturday. The AC will have to wait until a new unit comes in. But in the meantime, we planned to bring her home and I was going to give her a long overdue bath. But what should I find on arrival? A beautiful, sparkly shiny Dory, with wheels and windows looking like new and a ceramic coating all over! Randy had a detailer in and asked Richard if that would be a nice surprise for me. Yes, Randy. That was a very nice surprise. He even put in a replacement for the CM dust cover that looks like it belongs there. We pulled her in and figured out how to position her so she can raise her roof. This will make it tons easier to get to things under the benches, pull out bedding to wash, and do maintenance jobs. Plus, the next time we have to shelter in place, Dory can revert to Emergency Learning Center without having to violate any ordinances. We celebrated by watching movies indoory in Dory Saturday night.

I think a lot about the Marbled Murrelet. When you camp in Big Basin, Butano, or any of the places in the Santa Cruz mountains, you are told in big bold signs and flyers that these are “crumb clean” campgrounds. That means you can be fined if you leave food out or leave remnants on the ground. This is to prevent predators, like raccoons and squirrels from moving into the area. You see, this silly little endangered bird only lays one egg per year per pair, and they often nest on the ground, up to 15 miles inland. The visitor centers show movies about protecting the little guys and we were always very conscientious about it. So my first thought on seeing the fire map cover the entire region was, “Well that damn bird is definitely extinct now.” I feel like that bird. Part of a species living in a way that is not at all sustainable. There are some who are making frantic efforts to save us all, and some not. And you try, and you clean up what you can, and you hope to keep hanging on, by a thread. Then lightning strikes and wipes everything out with a fire inferno. But I don’t know. Maybe they’re still ok out there. Be strong Marbled Murrelet! Everyone’s house is burning, so I feel you. Hang in there!

Total miles: 120.2, 16.0, 3 hours 10 min. Site 46. Nicer sites: 63*-67, 58-60, 56*, 41*-45*. Hate the dump. Ok cell, LTE in and out for both. Hookups.

Here are some “before” photos of Lake Berryessa, Lake Solano, & Big Basin. May there be healing in those scorched places.