Prior to the road trip, I’d never been to California. I had a lot of ideas about California. Stereotypes mostly, some true, some not. But one thing I knew for certain is that driving up the California coastline is a quintessential part of the Great American Road Trip. Burned into my imagination from a very young age owed in large part to TV shows and movies featuring cool people in convertibles driving along Highway 1, it was never the convertible nor the desire to be cool that landed the Pacific Coast Highway on my earliest bucket list, but the scenery. I know that you were probably under the impression that I am very cool in my bitchin mini van, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. I am not. As versatile as the Honda Odyssey is, they do not yet make them in convertible styles. But no matter, because as I said, I just wanted to coast along that incredible view.
A big part of me never really thought we’d make it to California. So far we’d done Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Two women, 5 little girls, 2 dogs, and very funny little cat in a a 1987 pop up camper. It was a lot. We were really far from home now. Up til this point it felt almost like we were dipping our toes in the water. Playing road trip. But now we were about to cross the California state line, and now it felt like we were real live grown up road trippers. We’d made it to the original destination of the trip that never came to be when I was a senior in high school. It was a big moment, and for the first time, we pulled over to take a picture with the sign.
My first incorrect assumption about California was that it was going to just suddenly be very different from all the Nevada we’d just driven through. Not being a total idiot, I knew that was silly on some level, but you know how it is. It’s California! California is iconic in everyone’s mind. It’s universal. The other day we were at a restaurant here in Saudi Arabia. The waiter asked us where in the United States we were from. We told him “Oklahoma” and he said “oh, yes! Oakland!” and we could not convince this man we were not from California because to most people, the United States is made up of sunny California, New York City, (where the Sex and the City girls live) and Texas, home of cowboys and outlaws.
So we crossed the state line and the dirt there was an extension of the Nevada dirt, and the desert you cross between the two states is absolutely brutal with heat. I almost felt a little down but when I posted on Instagram that we were in California, my friend Kim, who is from the area, immediately responded that we should stop at Eddie’s. At that exact moment we saw the exit for Eddie’s and pulled over. Eddie’s is a giant…gas station? In the same way Buccee’s is a gas station, but it was a little less redneck than Buccee’s. (If you know me, you know I consider redneck a compliment. But Buccee’s is a little obnoxious, ok? Don’t come after me I’m entitled to my opinion!) At Kim’s recommendation we got ice cream and sushi there (and gas, duh) and it was amazing and I was immensely cheered up. I think I also bought my kids each a stuffed animal there, because I am a sucker, and they’re just so cute. Have you seen my kids? They’re really, really cute. Brooke got Ridlee something too, because Ridlee is also super cute and Brooke is also a sucker.
We decided very, very last minute to skip San Diego because it was so far south, and we knew we wouldn’t stay long enough to do it any justice, so I set my GPS for Pismo Beach, for no other reason than that a friend from high school had lived there for a while and posted some pretty pictures of it. (hi Shirah!)
We drove through lots and lots of tiny towns, and lots and lots of farmland. Some vineyards, but mostly just rows of produce. We played a guessing game called “what the heck is that?” as we drove past vegetables we don’t grow in Oklahoma. Brooke managed to correctly identify artichokes which look super crazy coming out of the ground. I knew a lot of our food comes from California but it was really cool seeing it all close up and it was a good learning opportunity for the kids.
Finally we came up over a hill and we were coming into Pismo Beach and I got my first heart stopping glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, and I think I had a perma-smile from that moment on. It was such a cute, foggy town. It was getting late in the afternoon so we had to find a campsite. We drove into an RV park with no attendant. It was basically an honor system thing so we left some money in an envelope and found a nice grassy spot.
The girls and pets ran around and stretched their legs and played while Brooke and I popped up the camper. I saw Brooke’s face fall as a dreaded realization hit her. When we’d popped the camper up at the junkyard in Arizona for the tire guy to take a look at the broken arms, we’d left all four of the support poles for the slide outs lying on the ground, where they blended it with all the other rusty scrap metal lying around. We’d stayed in hotels since then, so we were very far away from them now. The camper is utterly useless without them. You can not sleep in the slide outs with no steel supports. And for the first time, maybe ever, Brooke was rattled. And it’s so funny because I am the spaz. I am the anxious one. She’s the sensible, calm one. But when someone needs me to be the calm, level headed one, you better believe I’m there for it. “Heather. What the heck are we going to do?” but I still had my perma smile one. “Girl I’m not even worried about it. We passed an RV parts store not even a mile back. It’ll be open in the morning. Nobody carries Pop Up parts but they’ll have some ideas I bet. Let’s pull these picnic tables over to the slide outs and rest the slide outs on them for support. Problem solved. We have the tent if all else fails.”
We drove back into town for some burgers because we were too tired to cook, then we went back and slept like babies in the camper.
The next morning I made a big breakfast and I was confronted by my second incorrect assumption about California: It is not always sunny in California. It is not warm on the California coast in the summer time. In fact it’s actually pretty cold and so very foggy. Do you think that stopped us from swimming in the ocean? No. No it did not.
After we went swimming we stopped at the RV parts store and they literally had zero things that could help us. I thought surely the supports for real RV slide outs could be made to work, but no…. I was out of luck. And when I say nobody carries pop up parts, I mean nobody. We went back to the camper for the kids to run around and play and Brooke started some stew on the camp stove. She was pretty deep into the boxed wine at this point, if I remember correctly (boxed wine was our constant companion on non-drive days.) I stared at the bottom of the slide outs for a while. I measured the distance between the slots for the poles using a piece of floss. I told Brooke I’d be back in a little while and headed to the nearest hardware store. I found an associate and said “I need four steel pipes, as long as this piece of floss, and exactly as big around as this coke bottle cap.” He looked at me like I was nuts, but he found the proper width and cut four poles for me. I took them back to the campsite and using the hammer that Brooke very wisely brought, hammered the ish out of those bad boys until one end of each was narrow enough to fit in the top slots. That they managed to be the exact right angle was solely due to the Good Lord smiling down on us. The new support poles are exactly like the old ones, except they aren’t rusted. It felt good to save the day because I’m usually the one going “cool, what’s the plan? Tell me what to do and I’ll make it happen.” And its nice to be reminded that when necessity demands it, I can be a useful human being. We celebrated with a trip to the park, the amazingly delicious stew, several rounds of card games with the kids, and roasted marshmallows. On our way out of town the next day we stopped at a really cute coffee shop and bought some cool geodes. At some point we ate at a diner in an old train car, but I can’t for the life of me remember when we did this.
We set our sights on Monterey. Somewhere around halfway there we needed gas, and I needed a new phone charger cable so we pulled over in a very busy, very cute touristy town called Cambria. As I was paying way too much for my new charger I asked the teenaged cashier if there was a good, scenic place to have a picnic and he gave me the name of a park, Moonstone Beach Park. We routed to it and were not disappointed. We had the entire beach to ourselves so we sat and watched the waves while we ate our leftover stew (kept warm by the Wonder Bag, which I mentioned in this post)
The drive between Pismo and Monterrey was really beautiful. I sort of thought the PCH would be like, I don’t know, short stretches of scenic coastline interrupted by long stretches of times where the view of the ocean would be obstructed by this or that, but no… you can pretty much see the incredible views of the pacific for miles and miles and miles. Brooke was driving for most of this, and we soon crossed into Big Sur. The kids and I were just soaking in the views. At one point I was staring into the water and I saw something that made my heart stop. “Brooke. BROOKE! Pull over. Something HUGE…something MASSIVE just came out of the water.” Fortunately, there was a scenic turnout right there, and she quickly pulled over. Brooke and the big kids ran to the edge of the cliff while I unbuckled Margaret and they saw the back of the blue whale and a stream of water shoot out from it’s blowhole. By the time baby and I got there, we did not see it again, but we saw a school of orcas jumping out of the water. We watched in stunned disbelief, having not expected at all to see whales. I started to doubt my eyes about what I had seen. Are there even blue whales here? This time of year? Why is it here with the orcas? Brooke said, “It almost seems like the orcas were hunting the big one.” So I hopped on the Google real fast and it turns out, yes, orcas hunt blue whales on the coast of Big Sur in late summer.
We just stared for a while, totally stunned at this surreal, unexpected experience. Just then, something equally bizarre came out of the water below, which crashed violently against the jagged rocks, and climbed up the steep rocky cliff. A man in diving gear. We stared some more as the skinny figure approached. I noticed for the first time an old truck parked nearby. The man removed his goggles and headpiece, shaking his long, white-blonde hair and revealing a deeply tanned, age-worn face. What in the James Bond hell is this? Can you be any more mysterious? Emerging from rocky, rough, killer whale infested waters, far from civilization, and climbing a cliff men half his age would have struggled to scale. Dude was easily 70 years old. Assuming we’re about to meet The Most Interesting Man in the World in the flesh, we naturally had to say hello. “Hallo there!” he said, in a thick German accent. We couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity and asked if he knew there were orcas in the water. “Is there?” he looked out to the horizon and nodded. “They come here sometimes,” he noted casually. While we talked he began to strip off his neoprene suit until he was standing there in nothing but the tiniest Speedo. It was like we were seeing the oldest living California surfer dude in his natural habitat. I don’t know why I was equal parts wildly amused and absolutely fascinated by this person, but I was. I still wish I knew this guy’s story.. We asked if it was allowed to dive there and he quipped something about asking forgiveness instead of permission. In my experience, Germans appreciate rules, so this amused me even more. I asked what part of Germany he was from and he raised his eyebrows. “How did you know?” Um, well, the accent, bruh. “really? I’ve lived in the States for a long time.” This guy really doesn’t know he has a super thick German accent? Ok then. I told him my 3rd child was born not far from his hometown and he was pleased at this information for some reason, and acknowledged her. Then as suddenly as he appeared, he bid us auf wiedersehen and drove away. We walked around some more, where Brooke and Bella nearly stepped on a snake, and having enough surprises for one day, we got back in the van and kept driving.
As we pulled into Monterey we started to panic a little because I could not find us a camp site. All the camping spots were filled up. We drove to one after another. We started calling RV parks which aren’t our first choice, as they’re expensive and often not as scenic. They were all either full, way too expensive, didn’t allow pets, didn’t allow kids, didn’t allow pop up campers, or weren’t answering the phone. Then I remembered! Wait a minute! I’m an army wife! Most military bases have campsites! I called the Naval base and I was given the “Of COURSE we have room for you! Your pets are absolutely welcome! Thank you so much for your service! Godspeed to your husband, you poor sweet dear” treatment and paid a very reasonable price (discount for deployed husbands, score!) for a gorgeous little campsite in a wooded area just off the golf course.
The first day we mostly hung around the campsite so the kids and pets could run and play, but the next morning we explored gorgeous downtown Monterey, got donuts, had lunch at a cute café. We found a dog friendly beach and spent hours letting the kids and dogs splash around in the chilly water. We didn’t spend much time at the pier but Brooke did go to the market and get a very freshly caught Ling Cod, and then we went to Whole Foods to stock up on groceries. Did you know you can buy raw cream in California? You can. It is a magical, magical place. Our coffee game was strong in California.
When we got back to camp, I made guacamole and baja rice while Brooke cooked the cod with this crazy delicious herb parmesan crust. I complained loudly that it was too bad we didn’t bring a pitcher with us, and the nice army wife in the RV next to us said “I think I have a pitcher for you!” Brooke said “she’s making white wine sangria” and it was quickly decided that she definitely had a pitcher for us. I still think about that meal. It was hands down one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and we had enough to share with the neighbors, who turned out to be a really nice family. (Hi ) The kids had a lot of fun running around and our time in Monterey was super relaxing. The next morning the girls and I went to mass at a 200 year old church, and then we got back to camp to pack up so we could get on move on to see the Golden Gate Bridge.
San Francisco was originally one of the few cities I planned to spend some time in, but after Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and Monterey I was ready to be in the wilderness again. The Pacific Northwest was calling my name. We were content to just pass through. As long as I got a glimpse of the Painted Ladies, the harbor, and of course the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, I’d be happy to see the city in my rearview mirror. And we saw the harbor. And the famous Victorian architecture. But the bridge? Well. We didn’t see it at all. Brooke drove us across it…but we didn’t see it. How is this, you might be wondering? Fog. Did I mention the fog on the California coast? It’s foggy. So foggy that you can not even see the massive golden bridge even when you are literally on it. So we passed through and set our sights on Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, California, driving along even more of the stunning Pacific Coast Highway
Just before the sun went down we drove through Anderson Valley wine country, where vineyards are sprawled out on the mountain sides and quaint farms are nestled in the valleys. It was such a pleasant surprise We watched the sun go down behind the mountains and I decided that as soon as the kids are grown, Daniel and I are taking a romantic vacation to Anderson Valley to stay in a bed and breakfast and tour the wineries. Brooke was trooper driving during these constant hairpin switchbacks and we all got a little carsick. As it got dark we started to enter the beginning of the Redwood forests, and for some reason the thick, dark forests looming directly along the narrow roads shrouded in mist seemed really creepy and we started to freak ourselves out with, “what if we break down here?” scenarios. We both had zero cell service. Brooke, for all her bravery, does not like ghost stories, so she cussed at me when I noted out loud that it had to be the woods from the Blair Witch Project. Finally we made it to Fort Bragg.
Fort Bragg is cold and foggy too. It’s another adorable little touristy town on the coast. We got there too late to set up camp so we found a hotel downtown and went straight to bed. Well, the kids and I did. Brooke stayed up checking under her bed for the Blair Witch. The next morning we walked from our hotel to the most highly recommended breakfast spot in town, a little Wizard of Oz themed diner with all kinds of hilarious little details. After breakfast we were all cold, so we went to a t-shirt shop to get the girls some sweaters and I bought myself a shirt.
A short walk from the restaurant is Glass Beach. A long time ago, the beach was a dump for glass, and over the years the waves have smoothed down the shattered glass into smooth, colored glass “sand.” It’s really beautiful. Walking back to the car we picked wild blackberries to eat and saw some wild deer.
It was still early in the day but we decided to get back on the road so we could see more of our scenic drive in the light of day. As you near the Oregon border, the Pacific Coast highway gets more beautiful, but the road becomes more narrow and winding and also increases drastically in altitude as you head into the Cascades. The views are indescribably beautiful, but you feel very much like you are on a cliff that plunges into the rocky waters below. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been a nervous driver but my confidence grew so much during the trip that I was intent on driving, and pulling our camper, on this famously harrowing stretch of road. If you want to feel alive, I can’t recommend driving the northern part of the pch highly enough. It’s scary, but the views of the cliffs and the ocean are worth it. The pacific northwest is hands down the most beautiful part of the lower 48 (well, I’ve only been to 44 of them, but I have a good feeling about it.) To me, this was the ultimate test of “am I an ok driver?” and Brooke might disagree, but I think I passed with flying colors.
This is also the part of California where you start to really come into the Redwood forest. I know everybody likes trees, but when I say I love trees, I mean it in a super weird way, ok? Like, I get emotional anytime I’m in the forest. It’s weird. So more than all the mountain ranges and all the oceans and the canyons and everything we saw on the trip, the redwoods were my favorite. Redwoods are huge. The first time you see them you can’t believe the enormity of them. In fact, the entire time we were in NorCal and Oregon, I’m pretty sure Brooke got really tired of hearing me say “oh my gosh. Look at that tree. LOOK AT IT! They are so big! How are they this big?” I pretty much just freaked out about them nonstop. We weren’t looking for it, but when we saw a sign for the famous drive-through redwood, we took a quick detour to see it. We weren’t able to drive through it because of our car top cargo bag, but we stood inside it. We pulled over more than once just to admire the trees and stand in awe and take pictures.
That afternoon, we crossed into Oregon, where we stayed at my favorite coastal campgrounds. But that’s a story for next time.