St. Helena Driveway Camping

Driveway camping in the Napa Valley environs – Thank you Quinns!

This was a great outing. Even though we didn’t get to keep our winter plans down south (we’re on 3 year streak for cancelled reservations at Joshua Tree), we were able to safely get in a test run with Lola, due to the supreme kindness of a couple of local Altoistes. Back in March, at the very beginning of the shelter in place, we hunkered down at Putah Canyon Campground on Lake Berryessa. Gaye Quinn graciously reached out to us to offer her property as a refuge in case we got kicked out. We declined at the time, but asked if we could cash in a rain check now that everything is closed down again, and they were more than wonderful to say yes. Their property is in the Napa Valley area and they escaped catastrophic fire damage only by the skin of their teeth – and the ingenuity of their neighbors with massive land moving equipment. That’s a whole story right there! But they are close enough, and plenty isolated, that we felt comfortable getting in a test drive with Bruce2 and Lola so the holiday wouldn’t be a total bust.

Bruce2 is ready to tow

We hit the break-in period for Bruce2 right on the nose and began the journey with exactly 500 miles of gentle driving on the odometer. Richard got in one last project before we left, which was to replace the solar controller in Lola with an Epever Duo Racer, which means he can pull off some of the solar input and direct it toward the coffee battery. We had six nights of dinners on board and 24 washcloths to try our hand at sponge bathing so we could perhaps extend our time before needing to dump waste tanks. All systems go!

Patches of countryside untouched by fires

I knew I’d be nervous towing again after the accident, and I was. It wasn’t perhaps as bad as the first hundred miles at pickup in Quebec, but every stop caused my heart to race, wondering whether the person behind me was paying attention. I took some backroads rather than the freeway to get started, but ultimately, you have to get on a freeway at some point to cross the delta. It was all expected and I made it without freaking out; I was just really alert the whole time. Thankfully, most of the drive was through lonely, winding country roads.

Gaye and Mark: best hosts EVER

Gaye and Mark greeted us as we pulled in and they get a five star rating for being wonderful hosts. Their property is gorgeous, and you can see from the singed hilltops all around them how close they came to losing everything. All along the drive, you can see the devastation. There are pockets where structures were clearly protected by firefighters, but then there are many that didn’t make it. And there are just miles and miles of scorched trees and barren earth. But their little valley remains, with all the vineyards intact. They’ve even got a pond on their land, though it is really low right now. For this outing, we mostly just wanted to test out the systems and driveway camping was the perfect spot.

That eye of Sauron is actually a plate of olive oil and balsamic, used for dipping with the fresh sourdough. Wow.

Little did we know, this campground even comes with fresh homemade sourdough bread, a plate of delicious olive oil and 25 year-old balsamic vinegar, and cheesecake! Our offering to them was far a less impressive: Omnia baked Trader Joe’s croissants. However, it was presented on the Altoistes “Pass Along Platter,” so now they are part of that fun tradition. The platter began its journey at the 2016 rally in Oregon and has travelled through Canada and the East Coast. The Mazzas were the last recipients, so now we get to send it forward to the Quinns. Once we can all come out of our Covid cloisters, some lucky Altoiste will be the recipient of something delicious.

Yep, that is nice light for sure.

Everything in Lola works perfectly, and we even got to christen the pristine looking stove with some very messy Blue Apron dinners. At the forefront of our minds were a couple of key questions, the first of which being: what do we really think of that BFW and do we want to change our Dory2 order to include one? To those who have one, we get it. The light that comes in first thing in the morning is lovely. It makes the front table very cheery and bright. And though we didn’t have a show stopping view, I can imagine that it would be nice to look out that window if you’re pointed the right direction. As for the cons, we found that, even though I figured out where to relocate all the things displaced by the missing overhead storage bins, that is a pretty big loss. It was our most used storage area, so we definitely noticed the absence. Second, it is entirely possible we are descended from vampires (as our son’s holiday sleep patterns would seem to confirm). Yes, the early morning light is nice, but as soon as the sun shone through directly onto our faces, we would hiss, “Hhhhssssss! It burnnnssss ussssssss!” and close the shade. To be fair, we do not have a Magneshade, which is an outside covering that is supposed to solve the glare/heat problem. But boy, you can feel the heat coming through the window, and this was December.

Privacy screen if you pull the shade up from the bottom

Next, there is the fishbowl feeling. Yes, you can pull up the shade half way to get privacy, but when it’s open, (unlike the tinted glass windows) you are just right there on display. The newer models have the shade pulling down from the top, which is good for the vampire factor, but less good for fishbowl. Even with all this said, the prettiness of the first morning light was enough for me to ponder how I could make something that would be fairly easy to pull up about half way to get the same effect. And I could make it attractive and opaque, and then I could pull the shade down for glare, or put the Magneshade on outside, and that could all work. But at the end of the day, no. For us, the downsides outweigh the upsides, but more than that, it’s a feeling. The Alto is my private little cozy safety pod. I think if we didn’t have the wall of windows that come with the R series, I’d feel differently. The openness at the front is nice for sure, but there are little things, like I still want to put up maps and dry erase boards and tissue boxes that I can knock off with my head every time I sit down. And I want to feel cozy and not on display when I’m sitting at the front. So no, our holiday gift to Francois, our sales rep, is that we will not be changing our order.

Pope Valley is just lovely

The next system we got to try was the water heater. This comes with a sponge bath story as well as a frantic call to Linda with dogs. When we first thought we might be using a 1713, the model without the shower, another awesome Altoiste was there to talk us down and teach us the ways of sponge bathing. Like she wrote out detailed directions and made a video. We watched that more than once, I can tell you. So now we don’t have to go that route, but we wanted to try it anyway, just to see if we could extend stays and not need to dump the grey water tank as frequently. We packed 24 color coded washcloths into a brand new collapsible tub and dove right in. Richard ended up really liking it, especially because his towel didn’t get as wet. Me, not so much. I felt icky by day two and was ready for a real shower by day three. Since this was a test of choice, rather than necessity, I caved. Lola arrived at Randy’s fully winterized, and we have no clue what unwinterizing entails. We blithely disregard every Altoistes discussion when they come up in the fall and spring in order to preserve our California climate willful ignorance. So we turned on the Truma water heater, and once it had been given sufficient time, I got in the shower and ran the cold water into the toilet bowl, waiting for hot water goodness to start coming through. After filling one bowlful of frigid water, I questioned whether I knew the hot from cold knobs. So I switched it and filled another icy bowl’s worth. Ok, so abort and Richard then looked at the Truma panel to see an actual error code. Did we bring the manuals? No. Did we have enough service to download any of the dozens of Truma files on the Altoistes site? Nope. So we called the only person we thought would not laugh at us for too long, since we knew she also had never winterized her Alto. With Linda’s help, we identified the correct orientation of all the little plumbing valves, but only after we had, through trial and error, aggressively dumped all of our fresh water onto the Quinns’ driveway. It’s like we are brand new campers, you guys, except twice as stupid. Finally we got it sorted (it was the fault of the yellow valve, by the way) and eventually got actual hot water to flow. But now we had a practically full black tank and practically empty fresh tank, so we moved our departure date up a couple days. Oops.


The time spent not dumping water onto the ground was taken up by touring around the area. Richard rode and I drove, so that we could check out how some of our favorite spots at Lake Berryessa had fared. The news was not good. It is really beyond description how bad the fire damage is, and how extensive. Guard rails all along the roads were mostly lying on the ground because the support posts had been incinerated. Countless charred trees stood bare against a once green landscape. It just makes you cry. All through Pope Valley and down into Napa Valley, the fire scars just slap you in the face. Horrible. The couple of notes of relief included the fact that Putah Canyon Campground looks mostly unscathed and seems to be getting ready to reopen in a month or two. That makes me glad, as it represented such an important little refuge for us. Everything around it is burned though. The Visitor Center at Spanish Flat also made it, as did the little ceramic tile mosaics. Steele Canyon Campground looked ok, though obviously closed due to Covid at the moment. Also the day use area and canyon around Lake Hennessy looked good. Turtle Rock Bar made it, the odd place with all the dollar bills hanging from the ceiling. But generally, the hills around the east side of Napa Valley are a hellscape of burned forest and I don’t know how something like that comes back, or if it ever does.

Aetna Springs Resort

We got to see the ruins of the abandoned Aetna Springs Resort, a historic go to destination from the 1890s to 1970s. That area has an interesting history and the buildings that are standing give a window into California’s past, complete with the location where Ronald Regan announced his run for governor in 1966, as well as the subsequent occupancy by the Moonies. But perhaps the highlight of the bike/car side trips was the fact that the Passport has plenty of room to stow Richard’s bike atop all the other stuff. That’s a big win there.

Putah Canyon Campground still there – just barely

We thank our hosts profoundly for the opportunity. It was important for me to get out on that horse again before too much time had passed. The drive home was noticeably less tense than the drive up and the entry back into the garage went far more smoothly than the exit (also, it really helped to let air out of the Caravan Mover jockey wheel tires). We went home via Putah Canyon to dump waste tanks and I took backroads as much as possible. Really this made things far more enjoyable and maybe I’ll just keep doing that. The stretch of 680 from 24 to 4 is the least pleasant driving of almost any trip. So even if it takes more time to go the back way, perhaps that’s the wiser thing to do.

Happy new year to all! 2020 was … well, that was something. With luck, 2021 might bring some less socially distanced camping. It would be lovely to share stories and laughs with camping friends.

Total miles via Putah Canyon and taking back roads: 82.7 miles, 15.4 mpg. The Passport does not have a trip time feature anymore. I wrote down that we left at 12:40 but then forgot to write down when we arrived at home. Time data might stop happening. Dumped at Putah Canyon $15.

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