California Travels

Every time I go away from California, people ask me what is so great about being in California.  In other words, when I am in Arizona people wonder why I want to go back to California with all of its crowds and high costs and taxes.  Taxes?   For God's sake: a 2.5-cent pop Californian tax that now includes a 3-cent water bottle tax!   If taxes were not so expensive, they would be a bad joke.

The reasons to go to California is to see the unbelievable varieties of extreme scenery and the many different cultures that have built the cities.  There are people who have picked one part of the state and spent a lifetime exploring it.  In my case, I spend most of my time in the San Francisco Bay area.

Scenic Highways and Places

Pacific Coast Highway

It ought to be required that every California citizen drive from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo once a year just to remember their heritage.   The drive is unbelievable.  Even driving down on a Saturday in a big, slow RV, the drivers happily waved and tooted at me when I pulled over to let them by.  Except 2 Volvos who honked and shook their fists.  There is something wrong with Volvo drivers everywhere so these did not ruin my day.  I stopped at one of the sand coves and walked the beach for a couple of hours.  I saw couples walking barefoot or in sandals in the sand.  It was 50 degrees and a heavy wind and a heavy surf but the love in their hearts shone through the jackets and scarves through the red flush on their faces.  I got too close to the surf and was waist high in salt water before I could get away.  I took a nice picture of a middle-aged couple staring out across the water before getting back up the hill to the RV.  Down the road I found a nice pullout and cooked some lunch while watching the surf continue to batter the same rocks it had battered for the last several eons with the primary effect of making the rocks more jagged and rugged with crevices to slosh the water back into the ocean.  But then if everyone drove it, the road would be more crowded and there would be more Californians in love with their state.

By mid-afternoon I pulled over to take a nap as the sun headed downward and the surf continued its pounding.

Yes, I have been to Coos Bay and the National Sea Shore and at sunset when the red washes over the rocks along with the surf.  It is indeed beautiful.  Like the California Pacific Coast Highway.  But to get to the PCH I went through beautiful towns and mountains and valleys.  In Oregon once I went through beautiful blue-green-black steaming forests.   That was a long time ago.   Now when I drive through Oregon, the primitive forests and wildlife have been replaced on the mountain sides with tree farms with the well-ordered white pines in multi-colored squares of mixed tree sizes.  Even driving in my Californiar through there the giant lumber logging trucks try to run me off of the roads as I go from town to town.  Even though it has been a while, I remember the Oregon governor telling California people to go back home be use we 'drive funny.'

I got to San Luis and Arroyo Grande about dinnertime to find out that they have laws against spending the night at Wal-Marts.  Places with too many resorts and not enough tourists pass those kind of laws.  Flagstaff has the same law.  So I parked in a Santa Maria KMart parking lot next to a battered RV.  The old fellow was waiting for his SS check.  He had worked in 1957 in the first KMart in Texas and knew its founders.   So many interesting people.

The Wal-Mart thing.  Years ago when I had a motorhome we could drive anywhere.  When we got tired we could pull over in a shopping mall parking lot or rest area or even in pullouts from the side of the highway.  Once we even pulled off into a rocky streambed up on the Mogollon rim.  The shopping malls will chase you away now.  Those were better days.  You have to worry about being robbed.  A lot of full-time RV people carry guns.  They do not advertise it because it is very sad and out of character.  But there are people out there who look for boondocked RVs, take the valuables and abandon the ransacked RV at their leisure.  This can happen even in lonely National Forest campgrounds.  So now you spend the nights between stops at Wal-Mart.  They have cameras in their parking lots.  Sometimes even security carts.  And lots of loyal customers.  I passed NFS campgrounds today with no hookups that cost $16 per night.  I Californian stay at private camps for half of that.  Sad.  We Californian thank Reagan and Bush for selling our public campgrounds to profit-making organizations.

State Highway 37

There is a highway from Novato to Vallejo (CA 37) that takes you through the Bay wetlands.  If you like wetlands, this is the place.  There are few places to stop along here to enjoy the area.   You can see small wetland areas along the coast.  There is one at Bodega Bay.

San Francisco Bay

When I first moved to the Bay area, I commented in a group meeting at work that the glacial hills surrounding the Bay were beautiful.  I was jumped on: they are not glacial.  Sorry.  But they are.  And they are beautiful and they grow grapes.  North.  South.  East.  Grapes.  Further inland are orchards and further than that are crops of all sorts that enjoy the mild climate up to the severe climate of the Sierra Nevada that cuts through the middle of the state.  There are serious dams making lakes such as Lake Berryessa.  There are grasslands and wetlands as seen in the east bay and the northbay.  There are waterways all the way to Sacramento, which lists itself as a port.

Tioga pass

There is the drive out the east entrance past Tuolumne Meadows to Lee Vining.  This is a major drive through many switchbacks down to the Nevada/California desert.  This is the Tioga pass.  If you do this, take lots of pictures: you are driving down the giant granite slabs of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Closed after the first snow, this is one of the more unappreciated parts of the park.  I skipped this part on this trip as I have done it several times before.


From there to Yosemite (TTN) where I had a campsite so close to the river that I looked down out of my bedroom window at the water below and the gray tracks of the animals in the yellow sand as they had crossed the river during the night.  I was nestled in between several lodgepole pine trees so that my RV was never in the direct sun.  Every day I could walk a mile up the forest road to the store and look down on the valley where I and the other campers were hidden in the trees.  I guess I could find someplace sort of like that in Wyoming.  10 miles up the road is a canyon that people come from all over the world to see. 

California is a funny place.  Yosemite National Park is composed of a range of mountains with a round canyon in the middle.  At the bottom of the canyon there are lodges, stores, campgrounds, trails, etc.  Absolutely beautiful.  It is a long, steep drive to the bottom.  The campsites are all on the reservation system.  There are campgrounds up on the rim.  The closest campground is on the reservation system.  To the misguided, this is Yosemite.  There is so much more. 

Leaving Yosemite to the west, I drove down through orchards of many different trees and talked with a young woman selling nuts at a roadside stand.  She dreamed of getting out of the land of orchards into a big city.

South Rim

You can take the road to the south of the canyon and get a view of the entire canyon from the rim.  There are shuttle buses from the valley if you do not want to drive.  There is also a trail from here to the bottom passing all of the sites that the people on the bottom hike up to see.  Right.  I can take the day and make a comfortable hike to the bottom after paying for the shuttle bus ride to the top.  Or I can hike up the canyon walls to the falls and sites (but never see the top) and be concerned about popping my heart from overexertion or slipping on the mossy steps by the falls because I have no more energy to stand upright.  The difference?  A level of commitment to do the entire trail and run into crowds at the bottom or, alternatively, being able to turn back at any point but never seeing all of the canyon and having to deal with crowds of day-walkers.  You know my choice: start at the top and take lots of water, some apples, and a few sandwiches.

There are campgrounds on the south rim past the redwood grove on the way to Tuolumne.  These are never full.  I have gone there on Saturday on Memorial Day weekend and found them less than 25% full.  If you have a tent, this is all you could ask.  If you have an RV and need hookups, then go to the valley with your reservations or stay in an RV park outside the park.  So it costs an extra drive to the valley -- you don't want to live in the same crowds that you have to endure during the day, do you?



At Pleasanton I parked in a Wal-Mart taking the BART into Berkeley to see my daughter.  California-Berkeley and Stanford are 2 of the best engineering schools in the world -- and their campuses are beautiful.  On what campus other than Berkeley would I find more sushi and curry and greens than hamburgers?  Who else has both Bioengineering and Celtic majors?  And I get there in 45 minutes from 30 miles away across another beautiful valley and pass.  On one trip the BART had problems and I talked with a pretty young woman with her hopes up: she was interviewing the Pleasanton Herald for her first newspaper-reporting job.  She had graduated 4 years before and had just returned to the valley after working on web sites since graduation.  I want to learn more about Horace Greeley. 

Berkeley is located on the hillside, overlooking San Francisco Bay.  You can see the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.  You can also see many people enjoying a legendary lifestyle.  You must go to the Berkeley Bowl up on Shattuck near Ashby.  This is a grocery store of sorts.  The only place I have seen that carries 6 different kinds of bananas.  The produce section is huge.  The prices are good.  And if you think all milk is the same, buy some Berkeley Farms brand.

Bodega Bay

Last night I stayed at Bodega Bay at the Dorn County Park.  This is a cute little park on a jetty into the bay.  Most of the people are local so gone are the big rigs and in their places (mostly) are Class C’s and tents.  This is primarily a reservation park so if you want to spend the weekend, call ahead.  I have no idea who to call.  I think they reserve the phone numbers for the local residents.  You have to get used to the fog horns when you are near the water in any of these parks.

 The highway along here is much the same as the PCH.  I drove along here and then over to Santa Rosa along the Russian River.  There are many small towns around here that remind you of the small towns anywhere – each celebrating themselves and enjoying their lives.

From the coast to the inland cities along US 101 granite river canyons with trees of all shapes and sizes from birch to redwoods.  You can stop along the roadway but you cannot stay.


Home of the Garlic Festival.  This used to be a quaint town with its own idiosyncratic holiday.  I mean they even have garlic ice cream.  Now it has the largest Costco you have ever seen and people ask me how to find the old red barn and the festival.  Like Morgan Hill, it has tried to maintain its old downtown by making traffic lanes convenient to the stores and not for those passing through.  This is good for touriusts but bad for RVs – drive around and walk back through.


After San Diego I spent a few weeks near Lancaster/Palmdale (TTN) at Soledad Canyon.  You know, home of the U-2 and the SR-71.  Soledad (nowhere near here) is known for its prisons.  From where I was all I could see was beautiful desert mountains with lots of Joshua Trees.  After I die, I hope there is someone who will look at a Joshua tree and think of me.  What a beautiful plant.  I think many desert plants are beautiful.  I met a woman who ran a store on the boardwalk in Venice, California at the same time my sister, Jeanne, lived there.  My cat ran away the first couple of days and never seen again.  Sad. 

Lee Vining

There are National Forest campgrounds nere Lee Vining.  A long time ago my wife and I spent the night in a tent on our motorcycle trip.  It was very cold there in May.  The scenery on the east side of the Sierra Nevada is breathtaking with the desert to the east and the granite walls to the west.

Morgan Hill

From there I moved to Morgan Hill (TTN), the heart of grape country.   Different.  Kids living in the RV park walking to school in the morning.  Cell phones never work in these places.  Morgan Hill reminds me of Gilbert, Arizona.  The old downtown is there, little shops, funny streets and sidewalks.  I guess lots of places are like this.  Jackson Hole has this.  Maybe Morgan Hill is not so special.  But I did net a really helpful, friendly Post Office Manager in Morgan Hill.  I never wanted to read a Steinbeck book before -- I must get one next trip to Tucson (books are inexpensive there). 


After being in Berkeley for several days, I go down to Salinas and over to Monterey.  This is another seaside community with too much affluence except here they have a giant aquarium.  It is worth seeing.  Outside the door you can see the marina where the ocean life begins for many who have boats.


I got over to Napa in Sonoma County.  Napa has such a confusion of streets that it takes longer to get through here than it does through all of San Francisco.  If you are brave and want to see some beautiful scenery, take 121/128 across from Napa to the dam and down into Winters.  There is a little campground, Canyon Creek, at the base that accepts Coast to Coast if you can make the u-turn into their parking lot.

OK.  You have heard of Wine Country?  You are in the middle of it.  In fact all of the coastland hills from Santa Barbara up to Oregon grow grapes.  Further inland they grow everything.  In the Napa area you see all of the brand name farms that you are used to seeing on the sides of bottles.


Just another small town in Marin County north of the Bay.  It is not even on the water.  See Highway 37


I spent the night at Wal-Mart.  I have several times.  This was a Friday night.  There is a Starbucks in the same lot next to Wendy’s.  There are always police gathering at Starbuck’s.  In any case, this must have been some Mexican Holiday.  Around 9pm the entire Chicano community seemed to gather in the parking lot.  There must have been another 8 RVs in the lot.  The owners were huddled together wondering what sort of damage was about to occur.  I left them, they were depressing.  The community was having a party in the parking lot. These people know how to party.  Firecrackers, hot cars, lots of happiness spread around the crowd.  The police watched: nothing bad was happening.  I really enjoyed this.  I must learn the language.

I started reading John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”.  He gives a description of the Salinas Valley that no one else could have written.  It is the beginning of the book.  You do not even have to find it – just read the first 10 pages.

San Diego

Last month I was in the hills east of San Diego (TTN) walking along the INS roads that the little green and white Ford things roar up and down seeking out illegal immigrants.  The immigrants I met were really nice.  As a matter of fact, the INS people I met were really nice.  So many people, so little time to meet and to know them.  Did I say hills?  When I lived in Florida, I would die for hills like these.

Santa Barbara

In the morning I pulled out of the parking lot and headed into the Los Padres National Forest to my new home, Rancho Oso (TTN), for the next 2 weeks.  50 miles off the freeway of more hills and canyons got me to an RV space looking into a river canyon.  It is about 5 miles to the water and mostly severely downhill.  From the back of the RV to the ground is about 15 feet. 

I really enjoy parking the RV so that the rear overhang is above the scenery.  I Californian lie in bed and watch God's trees and water down below and look across at the bright blue sky.  It will get up to 75-80 today.  It was 50 last night.  The RV park is full.  A couple of hundred other drivers saw fit to drive the same 50 miles off of the freeway to get to this little park.  And they have horseback riding and cell phones sort-of work and they have Internet access.  I do have to walk a quarter mile to the laundry.  People have spilled cleanser on the ground around their tires.  That means ants are a problem.  RV people tend to not have many poisons around.  Did you know that bay leaves are great for getting rid of ants? I have lots of bay leaves.  No, I do not have any ants.  I last saw ants in Tucson. 

There is no snow in the forest here.  In Yosemite a couple weeks ago we had a snow warning and it rained for a couple of days.  In two months, two days it rained.  All of the other days the sky has been crystal blue.  Anyplace else with so little rain would be called a desert.  I guess.  Some of the places I went could be called a desert. 

That is why I come back to California: to meet the people at the Laundromat.  Beause the people here know why they are in California and I do not have to explain it to them.  But then people at Laundromats are interesting in all small towns everywhere. 

Santa Cruz

Not this trip.  I have been here before.   This is an upscale city on the Pacific Coast.  There is a nice boardwalk and a small amusement park.  Sort of like Santa Barbara North except smaller.  There are shops in town and a small amusement park.  A couple of nice restaurants on the pier from fish and chips to exclusive.


This is a quaint little town with a nice boardwark next to the river.  Like many California towns, Vacaville was nicer twenty years ago.   Now it is hard to find the boardwalk and old-town.   The historic stores have been replaced with real estate agents and barber shops.   The Interstate has the biggest collection of stores and malls anywhere around.   They just got a Costco if you can find it.   Ten years ago you could see the Wal-mart from the highway.   Now all you can see is the sign and have to search for the store.   Here and in Concord are the only Sam’s Clubs anywhere near San Francisco.


I see no use for Vallejo: just another affluent city near the Bay.   Maybe this is the bedroom community for the naval yards on Mare Island.   See Highway 37.

Written:  2003          Updated:  Friday, September 12, 2003