Fabulous Feastivities

Growing up, Thanksgiving was always my family’s favorite holiday, and I think still is, despite my father and mother no longer part of the feastivities. Some of you might claim Christmas as your favorite family holiday, but for mine the highlight of the year was always the Thanksgiving feast and gathering. The days following found us enjoying leftovers and playing a variety of games or perhaps, lazily working a puzzle on the gaming table.

Raised always to be grateful and thankful throughout the year, not just one day a year, Thanksgiving was a culinary celebration. While the traditional mashed potatoes (real boiled potatoes mashed with heavy cream), gravy, cranberry sauce, yams, baked rolls, dressing, and pies of pumpkin and pecan persuasion were at the table every year, the main dish varied. Traditional butterball turkey made an appearance more than others, but sometimes we ventured into having a goose, individual cornish hens, honey baked ham (sometimes that was a second main dish), beef Wellington, or other non-traditional exotics.

But I will always remember my best eating came during the days after when I would craft my all-time favorite sandwich: turkey + mashed potatoes + dressing + cranberry sauce = bliss. To this day, I’ll grab one of those whenever I find one in the readymade section of a grocery store or on a restaurant’s menu (although never with mashed potatoes!). Of course, the store or restaurant versions pale by comparison in taste to the homemade kind, but still a treat that triggers past Thanksgiving memories.

As our family grew older and drifted apart, this November day rarely saw the whole family together but instead celebrating in our separate homes. I know a fond memory of my two adult sons during their years attending the University of Toledo were the Thanksgivings when I cooked a mega-fest and they took the short drive down to Findlay, Ohio, to enjoy the family’s traditional dinner. While they certainly enjoyed the meal time with Dad, I understood clearly their real mission that day was to take back most of the leftovers that would see them through the weekend. To that purpose, I always cooked way more than needed, and per their preference, always had a ham along with a main bird of some type (even duck one time). Ample leftover sides along with many slices of pumpkin and pecan pie also made the journey back to Toledo.

My highlight memory of this feast with them was always dessert, when they would take the can of whipping cream and bury their pie slice until it looked like a mini-igloo on the plate. We always laughed about that, from my traditional Dad joke of ”Want some pie with your whipped cream?” to the traditional first fork challenge to take away just enough whipping cream to reveal only the tip of the pie in that mountain of white.

This year, as I sit in my camper van in the warm sunshine of open land near Blythe, California, near the border of Arizona, I think of those feasting days and look forward to having more with my boys some day in the future. For now, I am thankful for the adventurous life I am leading, and for these fond memories of past family Thanksgiving days. I do have a somewhat festive mini feast of mine own planned today, courtesy of Trader Joe’s for the most part. Given that I eat healthy these days, this one decadent meal wisely does not include any traditional leftovers.

Hoping you are with yours on this day of marvelous feasting but if not, enjoy your own mini-feast while fondly remembering past times with family and friends.

Spiritual Cleansing: A Visit to Redwoods National Park

Long, long ago, I knew I wanted to visit the majestic redwoods on California’s northern coast. These have always been my favorite tree, despite never seeing one except in articles or photographs. I followed those early stories about tree-hugging hippies illegally camping high in a massive redwood tree to save it from the lumberjack’s chainsaw. I connected to their efforts but despite the peaceful protest, felt we would needlessly and eventually lose a special creation of nature.

Since back then, I have admired this amazing tree yet combined with shame and sadness at how our human race so quickly decimated the vast majority of these stately trees. Coastal California redwoods have been there for almost 20 million years and fossils of trees related to these coastal redwoods go back to the Jurassic Era, some 160 million years ago. Yet it took man less than one hundred years—from around 1850 on—to nearly wipe out these old-growth forests through relentless and uncontrolled harvesting.

Protection finally began around 1918 when a group began acquiring large acres of untouched old-growth forests. By the time national park designation came in 1968, what remained of the world’s old-growth redwood forests was a mere 5%. Scientists estimate the original coastal redwoods range was about two million acres. What’s left is about 116,000 acres. Over 95% of the world’s remaining old-growth redwoods are in California.

The history of these unbelievably huge and tall trees is both interesting and depressing, and serves to emphasize what a special privilege it is to walk among them and experience the spiritual cleansing that comes from being in wild, untouched nature such as these redwood forests. 

In mid-November, even though not the best time to visit, I had two days and three nights to immerse into the woods. That time of the year is unpredictably cool but predictably wet. Between the fog that rolls in and nourishes the forest, and the fronts that come in from over the ocean, the area is, in concept, basically a rain forest. One realizes this in a few minutes after hiking into the woods and seeing the predominance of ferns and mosses around these gigantic trees and also covering the fallen tree trunks and limbs.

One of my favorite quotes says it all about how I feel when in a place like the redwood forests:

I believe in God, only I spell it n-a-t-u-r-e.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Anytime I visit natural places where the beauty, scale, and sheer variety of life and form exists without evidence of human interference, trash, etc., I have felt closer to something spiritual than in any man-made edifice. It is unusual, however, to hike into a place so void of humanness both in sight and sound as it was hiking two long trails in the Redwoods National Park.

Redwoods N.P. - The Big Tree
Redwoods N.P. – The Big Tree

I have been thinking about what to write about these silent denizens of a very special forest in the week since I was there. To say I was moved to be in their midst does not convey the punch I felt. To reiterate, it was both humbling and sad to realizing the vast numbers lost before conservation took place is obvious, and I think most everyone would feel that as well.

From the rangers I learned that most who venture into these old-growth forests mention it being a religious or spiritual moment, or did not know trees grew as big as these redwoods, or found the absolute quiet of the deep woods both amazing and disarming. For me, I can add the amazement of unrelenting natural beauty at every turn and dip and rise along the soft paths. I have had some amazing hikes in my life, but the 10-mile hike the second day that took me ever deeper into the redwood forest may be the best I have ever trekked, if not the top two or three. 

Photographically, I have never tried to capture the essence of tree like these before only to fail. Their immensity alone makes for difficult shots and lack of context or scale. Between the woods bathed in low light and the inability to back up to catch the enormity in the viewfinder, I managed to catch a few hikers beside trees and a few selfies of myself, but even these do not relate what my eyes were feasting on.

I will return and planning to spend at least a week there next summer, but I expect, because of crowds, my isolated experience will not be so easily repeatable. A helpful ranger, however, helped me understand the better trails to go on next time and the secret for better enjoyment in season: out walk the tourists. Most who visit rarely venture more than a mile or two into the popular trails. With over 75 miles of gorgeous, soft-pathed trails (from fallen ferns and redwood needles) throughout the park, hiking past most visitors should be doable.

I hope you enjoy the photos in the galleries below. I went a little crazy with the cameras (mix of Nikon and iPhone shots) but can assure you this is just a small selection of all the shots I took! If you are ever near the park, you will not regret stopping for a few days to wander amidst these giants who silently live out their lives (some to 2,000 years old) and quietly, spiritually, connect life and nature.

Click on any image below to begin a slide show.

Small Town Farmer’s Market

Arcata Farmer’s Market

Today’s walk through the Arcata, CA farmer’s market was under crystal clear blue skies and 60 degree/light wind weather. Always fun to wander aimlessly through a small town’s farmer’s market, and especially when it is in a completely different part of the country than home.

Held around the town’s downtown square (a perfect location), the locals were out in force including the young and old, homeless and well-heeled, dogs and kiddies. Delighted to see most of the booths were local produce farmers or honey merchants or bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. There were a few arts & crafts booths, but all seemed locally made goods.

Arcata Farmer’s Market

The gorgeous garden-fresh produce made me regret stocking up three days ago! I can only carry so much in the van, so I had to restrain, only picking up some unusual baby purple broccoli and one nice, plump kohlrabi. Since it was near my 10 a.m. breakfast time, I treated myself to local fresh coffee and a Nicaraguan vegetarian breakfast burrito, followed by a gluten-free pumpkin spice scone. Sadly the scone was bland despite the promise of its name, but the other two were delightful.

Despite the scone’s disappointment, hard not to be blissful sitting in the sun enjoying my breakfast. Great people watching of the interesting locals in this slightly rural, slightly retro small, northern California town, one twinged with a touch of hippie and earthy artisanal sensibilities.

If the temperatures were not enough to remind me I was not in Michigan, that gorgeous green grass was!

Click on any image below to start a slide show.

The Siren Song of the Sea

California Coasts PCH 1
California coast along Pacific California Highway 1

One thing I looked forward to when I got to California was the drive up the coast via Pacific California Highway 1.

It did not disappoint. At times it is a challenging drive with curves and extreme drop-offs (often without guard rails), but the scenery more than makes up for any driving inconvenience.

My decision to keep each day’s driving to 3-5 hours at most turned out to be a wise move. I quickly lost track of how many stops I made just to take in the view and snap some photos. I credit the abundance of pullouts and overlooks, each more beautiful than the last, and seemingly endless opportunities to stare at the amazing views. At some point I had to accept I had seen enough through the camera and drive on past some stunning views.

I am in northern California now, staying for a bit with some friends in Arcata. And I expect as I continue up the coast and go along the ocean in Oregon that there will be plenty more stops along the way to take in nature’s wonder where land meets sea.

Click to open any image below and start a slide show to see them all.

Waiting for the Knock on the Door

Stealth camping
Stealth camping, San Luis Obispo, CA

One of the few times (to me) in van life that’s on the margin is stealth parking on an urban street in hopes of getting a quiet sleep for the night. In California it is far more difficult than any state I visited to do this. Most of the usual choices for a night stopover when driving through somewhere (WalMart, restaurants, quiet residential streets, e.g.) are prohibited here by laws and fines with lots of posted signs, a ridiculous about of signs even on highways well beyond city limits.

In some places where I see numerous run-down RVs parked and obviously camped out for much more than one night despite the signs, I drive on. I always prefer places populated by active van lifers and RVers than those living in a parked RV. Thankfully, due to some apps I use, I can often locate places like the photo above from last night, places where someone’s posted a review of a successful knock-less night. But sometimes those places don’t pass my inner comfort critic, so I move on to something similar nearby.

Last night was an alternate spot, and a restless evening somewhat from outside noises but certainly from 1 a.m. brightly colored flashing lights. I can fully black out VanGeist where even if I have inside lights on, you cannot see in from the outside. Plus, my van more resembles a working trade van than an actual RV (partly from Winnebago’s design but mostly from my outside modifications for this generic look).

As I peeked out the back window through the smallest unzippered slit in the window cover I could make, I saw a commotion won the short block a bit. Two officers where shining flashlights over and in two darkened parked cars. After a few minutes, they got in their car and drove exactly one car length further on my side of the street, got out, and knocked on a car’s window. The occupant responded and was greeted by ”Get out of the car,” yet I could hear him say ”I thought it was okay to park here overnight.” More mumbling, more flashlights, but soon the car’s occupant went back inside and the police drove past me to the corner and turned at the next street.

I do not think they were cleansing the street of vehicles with people sleeping in them. Seemed more like they were looking for someone or something specific. I spent the rest of the night restless, tensing a bit when any vehicle passed by, wondering if they would stop and I would get the knock on the door. But night passed, and in the early dawn hot coffee with a breakfast burrito from just around the corner rewarded my perseverance to hang in there for the night.

This was the closest I came to a knock on the door in the middle of the night in well over two years of van traveling and street camping. I am doing more of that this Van Life 2.0 in VanGeist than I did in my Travato in 2019. So far, I have learned a lot about picking locations, watching for signs whether a spot is viable and above all, cultivating an inner sense to stay or go. Cool thing about being in a van is if the vibe is off or you feel uncomfortable even if not knowing why, you simply drive on to somewhere else.

Sometimes in life we seem stuck in a tensed state, metaphorically waiting for that knock on the door. Whether it is our internal mental fear generator that takes a few coincidences and weaves together an angst-riddled false conclusion or a series of body pains that tips our mind over into dark places, it is often difficult to break free from, or logically dispel, these phantom threats.

Being someone who worked through anxieties decades ago, part of what helped me was a cartoon I kept on my refrigerator. One person is seated, and other standing at a large wall graph with a pointer. The graph is a huge, jagged bell curve which she points to near the top of the curve and states ”This is what we worry about.” Then she points to the end of the bell curve where the line barely is above the base axis and says “And this is what we worry about that actually happens.” Something to thing about next time the worry gremlins tap you on the shoulder and want to get in.