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!

Illuminating the Shadows of Memory

This post may not interest most of you, since it is about visiting a real place lodged in my memories from 60+ years ago. If one is fortunate, an opportunity may arise to revisit such places and illuminate the shadows of memory.

I am in California for probably the next several weeks. I started off on October 25th in San Diego to complete some amazing van upgrades at Landed Gear. From there, plan is to wander up the coast, stopping to see sights and visit old friends, new friends, and online friends not met face-to-face yet. This trip is also one of nature immersion, since California is one amazing state when it comes to natural beauty and million-dollar views (and Oregon and Washington coming after California). 

I am still enduring the shock of California’s over-populated everything and over-vehicled roads. It is a place where anything and everything is available, and no doubt the birthplace of many creative and technological wonders. But these days of dealing with the mass of humanity has me yearning to go hide in nature. Fortunately, on November 2nd I will begin such solace by slowly wandering up the Pacific Coast Highway going north. 

Ironically, I am a native Californian, born in Coronado (San Diego) while my father was in the Navy aboard an aircraft carrier. I lived here probably six months after birth, so clearly not writing about those memories! But we returned when I was 5 through 6 years old, and lived in two San Diego area houses. It is fair to say some of my earliest memories are from these places and still live in me all these years later. 

I have vivid memories of the Claremont house especially, playing with my little cars and trucks in the flower bed, and sliding down the hill behind it, overgrown with what we called “pickleweed” (found some this trip and through a plant identification app discovered its name is blue chopsticks). Over the many years since, I have lost track of how often I searched for what that plant was, or to find anyone else who had fun sliding down atop a cardboard ”sled” (when the plant’s pickle- or french-fry-shaped leaves break, the liquid inside is super slick).

Human memory, of course, play tricks over the years regarding the accuracy of remembered events and places. But thanks to my father, who wrote a family history book and included the address of every place we had lived (and to my sister in Florida who looked up the addresses for me while I was in San Diego), I was able to Google Maps my way there. Would I have recognized these two merely by driving by? Probably not, although the Point Loma house looks nearly identical to memories of it, yet the Claremont house was harder to connect, having a more radical makeover and vegetation change than remembered. To add to the verification, I remembered the elementary school was three blocks away. I turned the van around in the direction of that memory, and in three blocks there stood the school.

It was a bittersweet moment revisiting these two house. Remembering fond times of youth in the presence of a real place puts a wry smile on one’s face. But bittersweet realization quickly follows of how long ago those times were. Still odd though, that in this recapture of two places in my life, the memory-painted “picture” is surprisingly faithful to the actual places.

Winding Toward Sedona

Entering Sedona
Entering Sedona

If you find yourself going to Sedona from Flagstaff, AZ, take highway 89A instead of 17 to get there as I did last week on my way to Phoenix. One of best mountain drives I have traveled in a long time. The video below gives you a small taste, but falls short of the experience of the elevation and extreme winding roads. Unlike some rocky mountain passes where road edges tend to be shear drops, 89A on the way to Sedona is lush with trees and guard rails! Nice concept, these guard rails on steep-sided roads.

As for Sedona, I am about to make a lot of people I know disagree with me. I loved the geography and the landscapes but Sedona itself was wholly depressing to me. Yet another beautiful natural setting, culture, and town completely neutered by money and privelege. I have seen too many of these amazing locations lose their culture, diversity, and personality from developers and money coming to town and conducting real estate genocide. Too pristine, too clinical, and too soulless for my tastes. I know many who love this place and embrace it as what they believe is a spiritual and soul-enhancing place, yet I see it as merely another Rodeo Drive built in the desert.

That said, I would like to come back some time to explore nature outside the town boundaries. Fortunately there are several national forest campgrounds on the winding drive in, and some good BLM land for boondocking south away from Sedona. Both would make excellent bases while exploring.

Continuing the drive I had mapped out to get into the mountains and away from the interstates, I stumbled on the delightful mountain-side town of Jerome, AZ. Like something one might drive through in Europe and the Alps, Jerome’s downtown buildings all seem to hang off the mountainside along the narrow and always winding road through town. A delightful drive, although I wish to be a passenger and not the driver some time when I can come back to explore Jerome. Too narrow, winding, and always a sheer drop off the edge to do much gawking (and forget about taking pictures!) as I steered VanGeist along the route and successful avoided rolling down the 1,000’+ sheer drops.

From there I wandered on to Prescott, encountering more winding mountain roads after Jerome more like those in the Rocky Mountains, meaning frequent sheer drops without guardrails and not as fun as the winding, moutain-side drive going into Sedona.

This part of Arizona I stumbled onto serendipitously is definitely on my list of places to return and spend more time. Maybe even stay a night in the Jerome Grand Hotel perched high up the mountainside with an amazing view, and wander the unusual and unique shops in the town. Certainly would be a good, physical workout!

Click video to play (and see options along bottom). Click on any image in the gallery to open a slideshow.

Quartzite Time

Beautiful in its own way
Beautiful in its own way

If you happen to watch (or read) Nomadland, you glimpse part of Quartzite, AZ, probably the best known BLM camping area in the U.S. This is my first visit, and I arrived with preconceptions of what it would be like. After finding a spot, setting up, and wandering about a bit, I quickly realized my expectations were way off.

Quartzite is also a town where a surprising number of permanent homes and residents exist. With a population close to 4,000, a median age of 69, and median income a bit over $20,000, it seems primarily a retirement destination. Yet I do wonder if those in houses really live here during the summer when temps average +100 degrees and often well exceed that mark. In the RV and van life world, this is the mecca of cheap, long-term in-vehicle living especially suited to the winter season. Many such dwellers will live here in the winter, then migrate north into the Arizona mountains, then back to Quartzite the next fall and winter.

It is a stark place, yet has a beauty apparent after you settle in, stare out the van window for some quiet reflection, then take time to wander through the landscape. Right now it is quiet here, although after Thanksgiving when the snowbirds descend en masse I imagine quiet would not be a useful description. Vegetation and wildlife survive despite the struggle evident by the disfigured saguaro cactus and long-dead weathered trees. The landscape of mostly scrub bushes, gnarly trees, and more rocks strewn about than I have ever seen, are obvious hints little rainfall happens here and few days of relief from blistering sunshine. Whatever vegetation dies here lives on in another form, the wind, heat, and low humidity weathering and preserving remains, vestiges of former plant lives in fascinating shapes and extreme textures. I expected a typical desert, but there is far less sand and soil here than you might think. In the eon-long war waged here between sand and rocks, clearly the rocks won long ago.

As someone who enjoys rock hunting, Quartzite is a treasure trove where one could spend hours hiking without ever looking up, step after step leading your eyes to one cool rock after another. On this morning’s two+ mile hike, I over-weighted my down vest’s pockets to the point I worried about tearing them and had to jettison a few choices I picked up. Truth is, if I stayed here long, I would undoubtedly fill boxes of rocks to take home.

This stopover of three days happened between time in Phoenix to resolve a van coach heating issue and an appointment in San Diego next week for some seriously cool van upgrades. It gave me a chance to check out BLM Quartztite since my tentative winter plans may include spending several months here. Better to dip my toes first now before showing up unaware for a long stay later. Where I am now is in Hi Jolly Campground, one of the free, 14-day-max-stay areas. There are LTVA locations (long-term visiter area) where one can stay up to seven months at a stretch, and I will settle in one of those campgrounds for the longer visit. LTVA spots are $180 flat fee regardless of stay, but offer the luxuries of onsite trash facilities, water, and dump stations, whereas the 14-day free spots require one to leave and go into town for those supports.

On my walk this morning I slowly felt my notions of this landscape change from desolate and stark, to appreciating the beauty and variety it offers if one takes the time to immerse, open the mind and senses, and let go of any preconceived notions and restrictions defining beauty in nature. From the amazing textures of weathered wood, to the variety of rocks, to the living vegetation that is surviving despite the odds, this Sonoran Desert landscape is a wonderland in its own way.

Lost in Wanderlust

Solitude is creativity’s best friend. – Naomi Judd

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. – Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Solo traveling with few hard dates or appointments leaves time for contemplation and to wander through whatever doors open along the way. Solitary time is fertile soil for growing any creative endeavor.

Over my first 30 days wandering in VanGeist, my intent was not a full month of self-discovery, but to focus on setting up VanGeist and honing daily rituals for life on the road. Unfortunately, the bane of those who first begin van life, “vacation mode,” settled in like a barely known relative ignoring all hints to leave.

Whether from the wind-in-the-hair feeling of unfettered freedom, or absent the bond of home routines, vacation mode rarely lasts a full van life month. Not that there is anything wrong with wandering and playing and visiting wonderful places, all while treating oneself to amazing local foods. But now, for me, time to change.

VanGeist’s odometer tells the story: 3,300 miles since starting September 20. Averaged over 30 days, that is a lot of road time. While I am happy with my efforts to set up VanGeist to suit my needs, and have certainly immersed in nature both where I have been before and new to me, two of the important reasons for this adventure of near-full-time solo travel have yet to appear.

Over the previous six months, my work to stabilize diet, lose weight, and increase walking/hiking combined to allow me to be in the best physical condition since…well, more years than I care to admit. But who goes on vacation restricting foods to mostly vegetables, little fat or sugar, healthy protein, and no alcohol? If you must know the answer, it is NO ONE. Such is part of the dark side of prolonging vacation mode. And for the record, I believe part of the blame should go to Trader Joe’s and their October pumpkin-everything madness.

Also AWOL during this inaugural month was any serious writing time. That was probably the key, hoped-for activity from my new, solitary travels. Momentum from expected time spent in secluded spots should have built toward honing skills and taking me closer on the path to publishing. But such efforts, other than blogging and journaling, were clearly MIA.

If all this sounds like I have not enjoyed myself these past 30 days, that would be misleading. I have had a blast and enjoying every day, so no regrets per se. But I feel a strong tug to “come home” from the vacation and get to work. Guess it is time to trade in the Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts for working clothes.