Desert Retreat

Being someone who enjoys his own company and likes to contemplate on things, spending quiet time in thought and mediation, the idea of a formal retreat appeals to me. While I have yet to do a formal monastery retreat, that is still on my bucket list.

Given the pandemic situation, now is not the best time for such a structured effort, but certainly is a great time to do a self-imposed desert retreat. That is essentially what I began on December 5 here in extreme southeast California, so close to Yuma and Mexico I could almost ride a bike there. I am at the Imperial Dam LTVA, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA), until late February when I begin the arduous task of a beeline five-day drive back to Ann Arbor. For two weeks before the 5th I bought my long-term permit ($180 lets you stay from September 15 to April 15 each year) and bounced around various LTVAs in the region until I discovered the Imperial Dam LTVA. Here I have all the right supports and resources in place or nearby, from the landscape, to services (showers, water, dump, trash, mail/package service, propane, etc.), and a thirty-minute drive to Yuma, a good-sized city for groceries, laundry, etc.

I am isolated here, visually seeing other RVs but none closer than several hundred feet. My days are my own to control, and other than the infrequent chore days for refilling water, dumping waste, or driving into Yuma the van does not move and I fill my days with quiet thinking time, journaling, meditating, yoga, walking, reading, writing, etc. All that is missing to make this spot seem monastic is the chanting of monks (but I have an iPhone playlist for those if I wish).

The weather is ultra-cooperative, with nearly every day sunny in the high 60s or low 70s, with nights falling into the 40s. And dry with low humidity, so much that my hair has never been this straight for this many days in a row in recent or even distant memory! Helpful, since I am still sporting a pandemic hair style (translation: have not cut my hair in nearly a year).

Such an environment and freedom of external tasks and forces also allows for undisturbed writing time. I would love to say I have never been so productive with writing before, but that would be a little fib. Well, a big one actually. Writing projects lay orphaned, yet expectations and sheer hope remain that I will kick-start into those any day now! Not going to beat myself up about that, since I spend the days in present-mindedness and pursuing these nourishing self-care routines.

Still, I get to enjoy relaxed and unpressured days until I point VanGeist (my camper van) roughly northeast toward Michigan to begin the long pounding of interstate roads to get home between weather events. Should be fun. For now, though, all focus is on the now, on this opportunity for a desert retreat and the soul-sustaining energy that brings.

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.

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.

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.

Killing Time, California Style

Yesterday I had some time to kill waiting on an Amazon email telling me my two Amazon Locker packages were ready for pick up. So I did what apparently most Californians do when killing time or getting out in the sun on a Sunday: head to the beach.

I first drove to Newport Beach, thinking via the Google Maps view I could find a place to park and gaze out over the ocean. Nope. Massive amount of people and crammed together houses and zero parking near the beach. Going to Google Maps again, with a new, discerning eye, I headed out Pacific Coast Highway #1 and stopped at Huntington State Beach. Had to pay $15 entrance fee (am learning you have to pay for almost everything you do in California to somebody), but it did give me a chance to dump trash, recycling, and empty my onboard #1 guy bottles (if you don’t get that code, don’t ask!).

Nice beach, with lots of locals out bicycling and wandering about. NOT crowded (that’s almost worth the admission price) and able to park VanGeist sideways so I could sit and look out the slider door. Cool stuff.

Enjoy the photo gallery below of the various scenes, especially notable being the fleet of sitting cargo ships up and down the shore. No doubt part of the massive fleet of stalled deliveries off the west coast. Hard to photograph, but they extended almost as far down the beach as I could see. I’m sure those unavailable black rims I’ve wanted for the van tires are probably in one of those containers on one of those ships and been there for months!