Weeks 33-34: Swooning Over San Diego

We enjoyed our two weeks in the Los Angeles area, but although the weather is great and there’s tons to do, the traffic is inhumane.  As we said in our blog post / rant, it doesn’t just make it hard to get around, it turns people into animals, and animals into… well, they stay animals, actually.  But they probably hate the traffic too.

So we headed south of LA, to a place with even better weather and a much more relaxed state of mind:  “San Diego.”  We may never know what it means, but we learned what it represents:  an awesome city with cool people and the best freaking weather ever.

Fair warning, friends… we may move there.

That Weather

As you can see above, when you talk about LA, you end up talking about traffic.  (This is the royal “you,” of course.)  Well, when you talk about San Diego, you end up talking about weather.  We originally planned to stay for 1 week, but after two days of being kissed by God, we immediately added on another week.  And this was in February!

If you’ve never been to San Diego, here’s what it was like.  We would wonder to ourselves, “I wonder what it’s like outside today?”  Then we’d step outside, and no matter what time it was, or whether we were wearing clothes, or violating public indecency laws, the answer was always: “perfect.”  Not too hot, not too cold.  It’s just always perfect out, all the time, always.  Think 75 degrees high, maybe 60 degrees low.  And it almost never rains – it’s rarely even cloudy! – so every day just rocks.

It was so, so hard to leave.

Food & Drink

Beyond the weather, San Diego is known for having tons of great restaurants and breweries, and it did not disappoint in that regard.  We visited the downtown Gaslamp Quarter, and enjoyed some delicious food and drink served with a side of people-watching.  We also met up with Heather’s friend Alena, who happened to be visiting for the weekend, at the enormous Stone brewery.  (It’s actually one of several!)  While some sort of blizzard was hitting the Northeast, we were eating our dinner on the outdoor patio, and arguing over whether that was really Slash at the other table.  Take that, former home!

Sorry Northeast, that was a little bit of a cheap shot.  We just really liked it in San Diego.  If it makes you feel better, it wasn’t really him, just some guy in a Slash costume.

A Whale’s Viewing Station

Cabrillo National Monument is at the end of a peninsula that juts out into San Diego’s harbor, and it offers gorgeous views of the city and the ocean.  From the promontory cliffs, we were even able to see whales in the ocean below.  The whales can be spotted by the circular bubbles that rise to the surface when they exhale below the waves, which is pretty cool.

Less cool were the people at the viewing area, who seemed compelled to announce every bubble ring they saw, loudly, to the entire group.  “There’s one!”  “Over there!”  “There’s one!”  “Over there!”  “There’s one!”


After a while of that, we escaped the viewing party and headed over to an old lighthouse and museum at the monument.  They were fine, notable mainly for the in-depth explanations in the exhibits.  (Not too many museums frequented by children provide the physics equations for refracting light through a lens!)  We then took a short hike down along the waterfront, passing the spot where the US military hid a camouflaged spotlight and gun battery during World War II.  It rolled in and out of a cave on rails, just like the obese during the 19th century.  [Ed. note: that is not at all what happened in the 19th century.]

History is fun. We also took a walk down to the tide pools around low tide. We didn’t find much sea life, but the rocky shoreline was pretty neat.

Hike Life

We’ve been hiking a lot on this trip, trying to work off the pounds and urbanity of New York City.  In San Diego, we did quite a few hikes, including several that started from our campground (a county park).  One of our favorites was at Torrey Pines, where we trekked up a bluff along the ocean for some beautiful views, some of which included a randomly vibrant patch of purple wildflowers.  (Spring comes early to San Diego.)  We then headed down to the beach and looped back, and although we were fearful of repeating our Cape Cod death march, our worries were unfounded.  Hardly anybody died this time.

The crown jewel hike, however, was Potato Chip Rock.  This was a wicked climb up Mount Woodson, under a blazing sun with no shade*, roughly 8 miles round-trip with a 2000 foot elevation gain.  The mountain is about 30 miles inland from the coast towards the desert, so it was noticeably hotter than San Diego proper.  Doesn’t sound like much fun, and to be honest, it wasn’t – until we got to the top.

Where it was all so. worth. it.

Potato Chip Rock is basically a sliver of stone sticking out from the peak of the mountain, shaped a little like a crescent potato chip (think Pringles).  It’s not as dangerous as it looks in pictures – the rock looks thin, but it’s pretty solid.  You can jump up and down on it as much as you want… until the day that changes, of course.

As for the cliff… well, there is definitely a cliff there.  But there is a little bit of ground right under the rock, so falling off wouldn’t kill you.  (The roll afterwards probably would, though.)  I (Jake) definitely get a bit nervous around heights, and I made it out there just fine.

That said, as a gentleman, I let Heather go first.

Animal Crossing

One of the frequently recommended places to visit in San Diego is La Jolla, a posh beach town.  We made it there for sunset and took a few snaps, along with about 1,000,000 other people.  It was another good spot for people watching – we particularly enjoyed the person using a drone to shoot engagement pictures from an otherwise-impossible angle.

Unfortunately, the animal watching wasn’t as much fun as the people.  The main attraction is supposed to be seals, who lounge around on the beach, fish, and model for the selfies of adventurous tourists.  But when we were there, “lounging” had seemingly progressed to “comatose” – only one of them was even moving, and we are pretty sure that was more of a gravity-assisted slide.

Far be it for us to criticize a lazy afternoon, but it was a bit of a letdown.  Luckily, we had another animal outing planned: a trip to the famous San Diego Zoo!

Yes, it is kind of brutally touristy, but it was still a fun way to spend a day.  The enclosures are large and the animals seem reasonably happy, which is important.  Plus, all the megafauna were there – big cats, elephants, Galapagos tortoises, and more apes and monkeys than you can shake a banana at.

We did see the famous giant pandas, but we have to say, it’s nothing you need to see before you die.  The scene reminded us of seeing the Mona Lisa – way too many people crammed into a tiny space, all to see something that’s a lot less cool in person than you’d imagine.

And the selfies!  Good god, the selfies.

Also, to get onto our soapbox for a moment, giant pandas are pretty useless animals.  They can barely keep themselves alive under optimal conditions, they are terrible at reproducing, and China trades on their popularity by bartering them for things that are objectively way more valuable – like URANIUM.  Frankly, if giant pandas weren’t cute, they’d have been ended long ago… although to be fair, that’s true of newborns, puppies, and kittens.

All of which is a thinly disguised excuse to link you to a video about babies playing with puppies and kittens.  Enjoy.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Near Salt Lake City, Utah, where we accidentally booked a campground in the beautiful but freezing mountains.  Whoops!

Next location?  About to start our grand tour of southern Utah, which involves something like 8 national parks in three weeks.  You may want to start getting jealous now to save time.

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Weeks 31-32: The City of Angels (and Traffic)

After seeing the sights at Joshua Tree and smelling the smells at the Salton Sea, it was finally time to head to fabled Los Angeles.  We were there for two weeks, and we found that Southern California has great tourist attractions, excellent museums, incredible weather, and way too much traffic to handle.

Traffic Snarls

Warning:  Long Rant Ahead

We should be clear before we start: we stayed in the “Los Angeles area,” but we definitely didn’t stay in Los Angeles.  The city of LA, proper, is definitely not conducive to #RVlife.  We stayed in Riverside, a suburb that would be about 45 minutes to the east with no traffic.

Unfortunately, there is never “no traffic” in the Los Angeles area.  In fact, the LA area is routinely cited as having the worst traffic in the country, a fact exacerbated by the extreme distance between locations and the general lack of public transport.  Aside from some buses and limited light rail, you’re on your own, which means everyone drives from place to place.

Everywhere.  Always.

Combine overwhelming usage with no real alternatives, and the result is daily clusterfucks of traffic, just unholy congestion that has no analogue in the rest of the United States.  (World-wide, the only thing we’ve seen that compares is Jakarta, Indonesia.)  Leave during rush hour or just at the wrong time, and 45 minutes of travel becomes 90 minutes, which becomes two hours, and then three.

Rant intermission:  OH MY GOD HE’S SMASHING THE CITY!! 

There’s just no way around it:  traffic rules life in LA.  Our friend Jeremy’s job moved to a different part of the LA area, and he was stuck with a 3.5 hour commute – each way – until the lease ended on his apartment.  For us, even with significant flexibility as to our schedule, we still routinely found ourselves stuck in gridlock on the freeway.

Predictably, the constant traffic also means that bad/angry driving habits are endemic in Southern California.  Drivers are fairly good about staying in lane during gridlock, but they are, umm, “discourteous,” tailgating aggressively at all times and refusing to help out by changing lanes.  Having been most of the way around the country, we are confident saying the LA area is probably the most unpleasant place to drive in the United States.  We didn’t think anyone could top the Boston Massholes and NYC craziness, but Southern California proved us wrong.

Living in an RV Down By The River(side)

All of the traffic talk is a long lead-up to the fact that Riverside was about as close to LA as we could get in the RV without going insane.  The final fifteen minutes of freeway driving were some of the most stressful we have encountered – despite being far from rush hour.  That said, we were happy with our choice, as the regional park we stayed at in Riverside had a lot of charm.  (Plus, it was dirt cheap!)

Our campsite was next to a duck pond, and for the next two weeks, we enjoyed watching an incredible number of birds in and around the water.  Notable were the two “zombie” ducks – weird-looking birds that wandered around near the RVs, making loud, panting noises like zombies hunting for brains (according to a 5-year old we met).  Unfortunately, we somehow forgot to get pictures of them!  D’oh.  The park also offered mini-golf and disc golf, and the sunsets were great.

In Riverside itself, we visited Graffiti Falls, a “waterfall” hidden deep in the suburbs which has been covered with (mostly) artistic graffiti.  It was tough but rewarding to find, and super-cool in person. Graffiti Falls is also definitely a local hang-out spot for teenagers – as we were leaving, two youths were apparently preparing for a pizza party (!), hiking along the semi-dangerous trail with boxes of pizza and bottles of ginger ale.

We also hiked up Mt. Rubidoux, a local landmark.  We went on a Monday morning, expecting it to be empty, but the trail was still packed full of people, of every age and demographic.  The top features a giant cross, and has been a popular spot for Easter morning hikes for more than 100 years.  We scored some great views from the easy-to-reach peak.

The Tourists’ Tour

Despite the content specter of traffic, we had a blast visiting some of the many sights in LA.  We did the really cheesy stuff, like seeing the Walk of Fame (conveniently located next to many seedy shops) and Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  Predictably, these were overrun with the types of tourists we hate to be identified with – loud, oblivious, and committed to blocking the sidewalk – but that’s par for the course at these types of places.  We did a little better by hiking Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park, which gave great views of the Hollywood sign and the Los Angeles Area.

We also checked out a few cool museums and attractions, including the beautiful new Broad Museum (pronounced like “brode”), next door to the iconic Disney Concert Hall.  It features some amazing contemporary art by a lot of well-known artists, the building is gorgeous, and it’s all totally free.  Thanks, rich people!

We also stopped at the La Brea Tar Pits, which was pretty unique.  There are real, bubbling tar pits in LA, full of millions of fossils from animals that wandered into the tar pits and became trapped.  There was an entire display case full of dire wolf skulls!  (Sorry, House Stark.)  The tar pits also touch on the real reason LA became huge:  not because of Hollywood, but because huge quantities of oil were found there.  By 1930, California produced about 1/4 of the world’s oil!  In fact, they still pump oil in the area today, and we actually spotted a few derricks ourselves.

Next door to the Tar Pits was the highly-regarded Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Unfortunately, we were running out of time (and museum-ed out) at this point, so we just enjoyed some of the excellent sculptures surrounding the museum.

The Locals Tour

After checking out some of the sights ourselves, we met up with Jake’s college friend Jeremy (referenced above), an LA native, who graciously offered to take us and his transplant girlfriend Katie on a “locals’ tour” of Los Angeles.  This is a rare deal, since LA types usually avoid the tourist traps; it’s like a New Yorker agreeing to go with you to Guy Fieri’s restaurant in Times Square. [Ed. note: we physically shuddered just writing that]

To minimize traffic, we went on a Sunday, and specifically Super Bowl Sunday.  None of us had a rooting interest in the game, so we figured, why not miss the crowds that do?  It was a pretty awesome day, as Jeremy showed us a variety of cool LA landmarks with an efficiency that can only come from growing up in the area.  The weather was perfect, and we saw the Venice canals and strolled along Venice Beach, walked out to the Santa Monica pier, and got some In-N-Out for lunch (Heather’s first time!).

We drove north of the city up into the hills, getting some nice views of LA.  We then headed up Mount Wilson for an even more panoramic view of the city, before heading back to catch the second half of the Super Bowl (a blowout).  It was all over by about 7 o’clock – that’s the magic of the West Coast.  Thanks again, Jeremy and Katie!

The Getty Museum

Our final stop in the LA area was the J. Paul Getty Museum.  Friends, we don’t say this lightly, but: the Getty might be the most beautiful museum in the world.  Certainly, the collection can’t compete with, say, the Louvre (artworks of people sneezing/yawning excepted), but the architecture is incredible.  Perfectly landscaped with gleaming white marble everywhere, it feels opulent, like a billionaire’s mansion, and the view is extraordinary.  Even the monorail that takes you from the parking garage to the hilltop is fancy!

We could go on and on, but really, just check out the pictures below. We can’t even imagine how beautiful it would look with the trees and flowers in bloom.

After seeing the Getty, we stopped by Jake’s aunt and uncle’s house for a great home-cooked dinner (and leftovers!).  We have to say, there are a lot of great things about this road trip, but visiting people all around the country has been one of our favorites.  Thanks for having us, Fran and Bob!

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Seattle, Washington, where we just got another awesome locals’ tour.

Next location?  We’re visiting Vancouver, then heading southeast towards Utah – the holy grail for national park lovers.

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Week 30.1: Joshua Tree National Park

In late January, we gave our noses a respite from the smell of the Salton Sea and headed to Joshua Tree National Park.  Beloved by southern Californians and immortalized in numerous songs (even a U2 album), the park encompasses a vast and beautiful desert, as well as numerous examples of its namesake, the Joshua Tree.  It was an unforgettable day.

Cuddly Cactus

Our initial impression upon entering Joshua Tree (through its southern entrance) is that it was empty.  Most of the good stuff is in the northwestern corner, and as the park map makes plain, the other three quadrants contain mostly… nothing.

It was nonetheless a really enjoyable area, just a little lackluster after having visited the incredible Big Bend.  Guess we’re national park snobs now!  But soon, we came to the awesome Cholla Cactus Garden, named after the pretty cholla cactus.

They’re known as the “Teddy Bear Cholla,” and they’re kind of cute!  But they’re also very murderous.  Even the slightest touch can cause barbs to be implanted in your skin, where they hurt like hell and are nearly impossible to remove.  A placard near the garden provided the following quotation:

“If the plant bears any helpful or even innocent part in the scheme of things on this planet, I should be glad to hear of it.” — J Smeaton Chase

There are thousands of cholla cactuses clustered in a small area at Joshua Tree, with a little path winding its way through them.  Strangely, they seem to be found nowhere else in the park.  We enjoyed strolling through the cholla garden, but we definitely did so carefully.

Rocking Out

After our careful exploration of the cactus garden, we headed further northwest, to the “White Tanks” and imaginatively-named “Jumbo Rocks” campground area.  Here, we found huge boulders, scattered across the landscape in fascinating shapes and formations.

We stopped for a picnic lunch in an area that looked like it came right out of the Flintstones.  (We’re not the only ones who have made this connection!)  We wandered around through fields of giant boulders, many of which take on familiar shapes – ears, battlements, a Martian’s head.  It was surreal and awesome.

We soon came to a large natural archway, which Jake climbed up nearly gracefully.  The top turned out to be a little too difficult to reach, but he got pretty close.  (The theme of the day was: “don’t die at Joshua Tree.”)

We also visited a boulder known as Skull Rock, for reasons that should be apparent.  We have to say, in real life it wasn’t too impressive, but the face really comes out in the photos.

Joshua Trees!

Continuing on, we soon came to the park’s star attraction:  Joshua Trees.  These tall, spindly trees are only found in this region of the world – although not only in the park – and they grow into fantastic, gnarled shapes.  A large Joshua Tree often looks like it’s tying itself into knots!  (See the one on the far right below.)

To survive in the desert, the leaves are long, narrow, and waxy, preventing water loss.  Since there are very few other sources of shade, Joshua Trees are an integral part of the desert ecosystem.  They grow in huge, carefully spaced groves, and are endlessly fun to photograph.  We stopped the car about 12 times while driving, just to hop out and take a picture of this cool Joshua Tree, then that one… you get the picture.

Lunar Light

One great thing about National Parks is that there’s always something else to do.  After seeing our fill of Joshua Trees, we stopped at Keys View for a gorgeous look out over the desert hills, and the Coachella Valley beyond.  Our pictures don’t quite capture the panoramic effect, so you’ll have to use the power of imagination.

Afterwards, we explored an area called “Hidden Valley,” which was entirely encircled by stone until a hole was blown open by cattle ranchers.  Joshua Tree is big on literal names, apparently.  We walked a mile loop inside Hidden Valley, enjoying the scenery, which was a mixture of boulders, different boulders, and trees.

Near the end of our hike, we were treated to a full moon rising over the valley cliffs, resulting in one of our favorite pictures from our entire trip (the featured image at the top).

All Downhill From Here

With night falling, we headed back to the Salton Sea from Hidden Valley after a long but very enjoyable day.  The drive back itself was actually pretty great too, because Joshua Tree rises in elevation from south to north.  After slowly making our way uphill all day, we rode back in neutral from ~6,000 feet to lower than sea level.  It took about an hour total, and amazingly, we almost never needed to use the gas pedal the entire way.  We have to say, quietly gliding through a national park beneath the full moon was an amazing experience.

As we exited the park, we were treated to one last delight:  a spectacular sunset over the valley below.  The desert is awesome.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Portland, Oregon, where we’ve had an awesome string of weather (until today).

Next location?  Seattle, Vancouver, etc.

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Week 30: The Stinking Salton Sea

After camping out for three days at Elderly Burning Man, we headed west from Quartzsite into California.  Before we crossed over the border, we stopped to get some gas, because California’s gasoline taxes are insane.  At this time, in mid-January, gas in most of the country – including Arizona, but excluding the Northeast – was at around $1.70.  In California?  $2.60 if we were lucky.

So, we filled our RV’s 55 gallon tank to capacity and crossed over the border to the Golden State, our home for the next 2.5 months.  After a short distance, we turned south off the interstate, and drove through a narrow box canyon and past sprawling farmlands to our home for the next five days:  the Salton Sea.

The smell hit us almost immediately.

This Should Not Be

If you’re not from California, you probably have no idea what the Salton Sea is – we certainly didn’t.  The short answer is that it’s an ecological disaster, but the story of how it got that way is worth telling.

Let’s take a quick jaunt back in time.  In 1905, workers were attempting to cut an irrigation canal from the Colorado River into an extremely low-lying area of California, only 5 feet higher than Death Valley.  However, the canal was cut too deeply, and the water flow overwhelmed their ability to stop it.  The Colorado River poured into the valley for two years before the damage was repaired, and the resulting inflow formed the Salton Sea – California’s largest lake.

In the 1950’s, the Salton Sea was a popular tourist attraction for boating and fishing.  But the lake doesn’t receive enough new water to offset losses from evaporation, and it has been gradually shrinking for decades.  Today, because there is less water, the salt level of the lake has risen dramatically, as have levels of pesticides and other pollutants used by the nearby farming operations.  The Salton Sea is now saltier than the ocean, and the freshwater fish living in the lake are dying.

As we said, the Salton Sea is an ecological disaster.  The lake itself is surprisingly beautiful – the sunsets were some of the best we have seen, anywhere – but it is dying nonetheless.  The shore is lined with the rotting carcasses of dead fish, even at the state beach we were staying at.  From a distance, the beach looks like pristine white sand, but upon further investigation, you discover that it is composed of the bleached bones of fish and barnacles. And when the wind blows in off the water, the smell – oh, the smell! – can be totally overwhelming.  The resort towns from the 1950’s have become ghost towns.

That said, we couldn’t get a damn reservation anywhere else we wanted to go.  So we stayed by the Salton Sea, and closed our windows tight.

Desert Religion

There were two areas we wanted to see near the Salton Sea, and the first was Joshua Tree National Park.  We’re going to give that one its own post, so we’ll tell you about the second:  Salvation Mountain, Slab City, and East Jesus.

Salvation Mountain is located east of the Salton Sea off a rough desert road, just beyond the edge of normal living.  It’s the product of decades of work by a local resident, Leonard Knight, who created it from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of brightly-colored paint (much of which was donated by visitors).  Basically, he built and painted a mountain with slogans about God and Love.  And he didn’t stop there – nearby buildings, vehicles, and even trees were all brought into the fold.

It’s like Dr. Seuss took a bunch of acid and created a bible study class.

It’s an incredibly trippy place, a tourist attraction in its own right.  We saw at least two dozen other visitors while we were there, which is significant considering how far away it is from normal civilization.  Meanwhile, some sort of homemade flying contraption, basically a glider with a giant fan in the back, buzzed around overhead.  (If we hadn’t captured it on camera, we probably wouldn’t have believed it.)  And amidst all this surreality, a group of young women took approximately 1,000 duck-face selfies in front of the mountain.

Truly a magical place.

East of Jesus

Salvation Mountain is near, or part of (depending on where you draw the boundaries), a place called Slab City.  Basically, Slab City is our post-apocalyptic future.  The government demolished a military base here but left the foundations (the “slabs”), and people live on them in shacks, RVs, mobile homes, converted buses, and anything else with a roof.  It felt like a permanent continuation of the winter-only Quartzsite, only much more on the fringe.  Slab City is a world with no government or services, only what you can build or make use of.

To be honest, it was kind of cool.  This is where people come to live when they no longer want to live in civilization, but civilization persists nonetheless.  There are multiple give-a-book, take-a-book type libraries, and certainly a lot of solar panels.  That said, it’s also pretty trashy, with fences made from tires and beer cans, and drunken / stoned drifters wandering around and yelling in the middle of the day.

We didn’t feel unsafe – everyone keeps to themselves, really – but we didn’t exactly linger.  Instead, we drove through the “town” and around a few bends (thanks, Google Maps!) until we came to an artists’ enclave known as “East Jesus.”  It’s a crazy sculpture park made of repurposed items, and it was really freaking awesome.

East Jesus is not very large, but there are endless things to see.  An elephant made from tires and sewer hoses?  Check.

Alligator made out of… something?  Check.

Homemade desert bowling alley?  Check.

Random propaganda against dolphins (“whose team are they on, anyway”)?  Check.

A wall of TVs with satirical slogans painted on them?  That’s a big check.

The TV wall was actually the reason we came to East Jesus, after seeing pictures posted on social media by some of our new friends from Quartzsite.  The wall is really cool in person (and fun to photograph), but even better, the creator was there when we were, working on adding another layer on top.  He was very friendly, and quite sane – he’s a photographer by trade, with a great Instagram feed – and said we were actually one of the very few to have met him here.

After chatting for a bit, we left him to his building and drilling (there’s a large wood frame back there) and finished making the rounds.  We’ve got a few more pictures below.  East Jesus is deeply weird and utterly whimsical, and one of our favorite places from this trip.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Portland, Oregon, still getting our blog post on.

Next location?  Seattle and Vancouver!

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Week 29: Elderly Burning Man

As we wrote before, after our crazy road trip back to the Northeast, we spent a few days recharging in Phoenix.  Then, we headed back out onto the road in our RV, southwest from Phoenix into the desert.  Our destination was Quartzsite, Arizona, home of what we call “Elderly Burning Man.”

Gathering of the Clans

Quartzsite is not just annoying to spell, it’s a highway town of 3,600, very near the border between Arizona and California.  Quartzsite is in the for-real desert, and it is nearly “deserted” in the summer, when temperatures can reach 120+ degrees.  But in the winter?  Oh, that’s quite different.

For reasons we still do not fully understand, Quartzsite is the winter meetup location for over one hundred thousand RVers.  Every winter, swarms of people come and meet up in the desert outside of the town, where you can park for free for as long as you like.  Some people live there all winter long.  There are very few places to hook up, but this area attracts an off-grid crowd, with large solar panels and giant tanks that can go weeks without filling.

This is where the hardcore RVers go, and as we know well from our travels, full-timers are almost exclusively retired.  We’d guess the average age is about 80.  (Relatively) wealthy, white retirees, with a… let’s say, “Midwestern” build, gathering in their off-grid RVs in the middle of the desert.

Elderly Burning Man:  It doesn’t get much weirder than this.

Desert Sea

Vendors set up tents and stalls in a huge area inside the town, and we walked through.  There was a lot of RV-related stuff, but also plenty of touristy stuff, rocks and minerals, and especially deep-fried food.  Considering the demographics, Quartzsite is more than a little like being in an Iowa county fair, just mysteriously transported into the desert.

Some of the stuff we saw was just bizarre – dozens of cow skulls, laid out for sale, next to fifty large geodes and a table full of T-shirts.  A few of the stands appeared to just be piles of junk to scavenge through – the desert drifter dream.  Nearby, there were crazy RVs for sale, with kitchen islands, electric fireplaces, and full master bathrooms.

There are also a few permanent shops in the town, and the one we wish we had visited is the Quartzsite Yacht Club.  Despite being utterly landlocked, the Quartzsite Yacht Club touts itself as having the “largest membership in the world.”  Membership is open to the public for a nominal fee, and it comes with one real perk: “real” yacht clubs often offer reciprocal access to members of other clubs, so membership in Quartzsite can get you in the door elsewhere (they claim).

It was so crowded everywhere we decided not to bother trying, but we’ll likely always regret it.  If nothing else, it probably would have helped Jake’s odds at becoming a maritime lawyer.

Thug Life

Not having been there before, we were a little unsure what to do.  We ended up just driving into the desert, weaving between all the other RVs (they gather in packs), and parking in a random unoccupied area.  Everything seemed fine, until the next night, some new entrants parked, like, 8 feet away.  In the middle of a giant, empty desert.

And then they glared at us, every time we went outside.

We have guessed, in retrospect, that we were somehow encroaching on their (unmarked, unoccupied) “turf.”  Friends, we have never claimed to be the most heroic of travelers, and it’s fair to say we fled from this confrontation.  Those “toughs” were up to no good, and there were more of them than us, never mind that they were in their 80s.  Like Jesus, we turned the other cheek, and like Sir Robin, we bravely drove off to a different, empty spot in the desert.

After getting muscled out of our first spot by the infirm, we took a stroll around our new, neighborless backyard. Highlights of our hike included: a cactus that looks like an armless man buried headfirst, lots of rocks, and a coaster from cybererotica.com – “It’s where you go to make money!”

An Oasis of Youth

It wasn’t all snark and fear in Quartzsite, as we did have one positive interaction with other humans.  We learned via social media that the “Xscapers,” a “working-aged” sub-group of an RV community, was meeting up in Quartzsite at the same time we were there.  We crashed their meet-up, and were rewarded by meeting friendly people who were – *gasp – approximately our own age!

Yes, it was an exciting night for us, although sobering.  (Not literally – we of course brought beer.)  Because our online business has been lackluster, we can’t live like nomads in the desert forever, like many of these folks do.  Still, it was a fun time, and we were invited back for movie night the next day.

The movie was “The Martian,” projected onto a screen.  Although we had seen it before, it was still kind of a trip to watch a story of survival while under the stars, running off of solar power and batteries, in the harsh desert landscape of Arizona.  Thanks, Xscapers!

Those Sunsets

We stayed in Quartzsite for three nights, which is about as long as we can last before our batteries run low.  If you’re curious, we have a generator for power in a pinch, but it doesn’t do much to recharge the batteries, and we don’t have any fancy solar panels to help out.

Of course, we could always put away our computers and phones and just live in the moment, but on the other hand, no, we aren’t doing that.

We won’t miss the crowds, the bizarre bazaar, or the elderly gangs, but there is one thing we’ll certainly miss from Quartzsite.  Desert sunsets are always amazing.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Portland, Oregon, getting our blog post on!

Next location?  We’ll be here for a while longer, then on to Seattle!  For more information, check out our shiny new road trip plan.

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Weeks 25-28: The Great Inception Road Trip

As we said in our last blog post, we stayed in Phoenix for two different weeks a month apart.  “But what happened in between?” you are probably wondering, helpfully.

“An adventure within an adventure,” we reply to your internal monologue, mysteriously.  “Travels within travels.  A road trip within a road trip.”

“You mean…?”

“That’s right:  we incepted our road trip.”

We must go deeper.

The Best Laid Plans

Our Inception road trip started with us in Phoenix in mid-December.  Our families live in Pittsburgh, Albany, Connecticut, and Long Island (among other places).  Our thinking was basically this:  instead of paying for expensive holiday plane tickets plus a rental car, or skipping out on our family and lazily hanging out in southern California for Christmas and New Year’s, let’s drive back to the Northeast!

Our plan was to travel light, move fast, and stop at a few places in the middle parts of the country we’d otherwise miss.  So we further thought: since it’s so far and we want to save money, let’s drive back in our Honda Fit tow car because it gets great gas mileage, instead of in our large lumbering RV!  Even though the RV is basically specifically designed for long-distance travel, and can store many useful things like “food” and “clothes.”

And that’s what we did.  Let’s start with an initial observation:  this was a terrible, terrible idea.  The drive ended up being 6,742 miles in 25 days, and most of it was through the most mind-numbingly boring terrain possible.  Q:  How much of Oklahoma or Indiana do you want to see?  A:  not as much as there is.

Thank God for podcasts!  Oh, and those cost savings?  Yeah… about that.  We actually spent far more on car repairs than we theoretically saved by driving.

But whatever.  We got to see the world’s biggest mailbox.

The Trip

Since we had basically nothing else to do, we documented our trip.  We took photos from the passenger seat, roughly every hour (or whenever it looked cool), unless it was dark. From those photos, Heather made the awesome video above, hand-animating the locations and travel lines for your viewing pleasure.

As you can see in the video, while driving those 6,700 miles, we visited the following places:

Drive East:  Phoenix -> El Paso, TX -> Roswell, NM -> Texas Panhandle -> Oklahoma City -> Nashville -> Memphis -> Pittsburgh

Holiday Social Travel:  Pittsburgh (Christmas) -> Albany -> Long Island -> NYC -> Connecticut -> Boston (New Year’s Eve)

Drive West:  Boston -> Pittsburgh -> St. Louis -> Kansas City -> Boulder, CO -> New Mexico -> Phoenix

Yes, it was a lot.  As we mentioned, this was a terrible idea.  A big thank you to all the friends and family who let us crash with them overnight.

Also, you may notice we cleverly left ourselves in Boston for New Year’s, making the drive back as inhumanly long as possible.  S-M-R-T smart


Since we (Jake) are (Jake) nerds (Jake), we went beyond photographs, and kept a few stats during our trip.  Here’s what we’ve got.  All these numbers are from December 2015/January 2016:

  • Unique overnight locations: 13 (Pittsburgh twice)
  • Longest stretch of straight road: A mind-blowing 28 miles without a curve in New Mexico, north of El Paso
  • Construction zones: 63 (immediately regretted tracking these)
  • Earliest advertisement: “The Thing”, 106 miles in advance
  • Tumbleweeds: 0 (unexpected result)
  • Animals in road: 2 (cat, German shepherd)
  • Times we cursed our decision not to fly: too many to count

We also tracked our gas consumption:

  • Fill-ups: 27, for a total of roughly 209 gallons (avg 32.2 mpg – despite some engine troubles)
  • Best MPG: 41.3 (Alamogordo, NM to Friona, TX)
  • Cheapest gas: $1.57, in Hereford, Texas (if you like cows and low prices, this is the place to be)
  • Total gas cost: $424 (median price $1.93)
  • Number of times a gentleman kindly but confusingly paid for our gas: 1 (Pueblo, CO)

And finally, a few photo/video statistics:

  • Number of photos taken: 1,268
  • Number of photos used: 210
  • Number of those photos borrowed from Google Street View: 10
  • Days spent making: no comment

Dispatches From The Road

Since we are professional road-trippers, you won’t be surprised to learn we stopped to sightsee a few times along the way.  There’s a lot to get through here, so we’ve tried to slim it down; we’re not going to bore you with an account of, like, the sandwich and beef jerky store we went to in Oklahoma (literally the only non-fast food or chain restaurant within 60 miles).  Oops, guess we just did that anyway!


After staying overnight in El Paso, we drove northeast to Roswell, New Mexico.  The drive to Roswell was beautiful, going up and over some mountains covered with snow-covered pines.  (New Mexico always surprises.)  We have heard Roswell itself is a cool, artsy town given a bad rap by the ridiculous UFO tourism.  But like a government spokesperson, we can neither confirm nor deny those rumors, since we just went for the ridiculous UFO tourism.  A warehouse full of fake alien scenes you can take pictures with?  Yes, please!

A+++, would pose with aliens again.

Oklahoma City Memorial

We stayed overnight in the Texas panhandle, where literally the only restaurants were steakhouses.  Two in our tiny town; four in the next town over.  So, we got some steaks (kinda “meh”).

We stopped the next day at the Oklahoma City bombing memorial.  It is a touching memorial:  sad but serene, painful yet beautiful, and a reminder that extremism takes many forms.

We were quiet in the car for a while afterwards.

Memphis & Nashville

As a reward for three straight days of driving, we treated ourselves to nights out in Memphis and Nashville.  Both cities are legendary for their live music scene, but both were pretty quiet when we were there.  In fairness, it was 40 degrees out, and for Nashville, a Sunday night.  We also treated ourselves to some amazing hot chicken, a fried & spicy local delicacy.

As you can see in the above photographs, we clearly had completely different experiences in Memphis (top) and Nashville (bottom).

We skipped Graceland because of its unreasonable ticket prices, but we did check out one Tennessee attraction.  The Memphis Pyramid was built in 1991 as a sports arena and entertainment venue, and it’s huge:  the 10th largest pyramid in the world.

Although it used to be home to basketball teams including the Memphis Grizzlies, it hasn’t been used for sports since 2004.  Instead it has become… the biggest and weirdest Bass Pro Shop in the world.

It’s cavernously huge inside, although they tried their best to fill the space.  There’s a hotel, restaurant, archery range, crocodile tank, bowling alley, observation deck, and much more, plus the usual assortment of outdoor clothing and merchandise.  (They’re considering adding a zipline.)  Bizarrely, the entire place is decorated as though it were in a forest, so you can shop for sunglasses beneath the judgmental eyes of a herd of taxidermied deer.

A+++, would avoid paying $130 at Graceland to wander around inside a giant pyramid again.

Friends and Family

We don’t need to go into the details of Christmas and New Year’s, except to say that it was great to see everyone again.  Thanks again to everyone that let us stay with them!  We traveled all over the Northeast, had lots of great food, and even successfully completed an Escape Room.  (Sorry, El Pasoans.)

Casey At The Bat

On our return trip, after a quick layover in Pittsburgh, we headed west towards St. Louis.  On our way there, we stopped to get gas in Casey, Illinois, a small town which turned out to have a big secret.  While fueling up, we noticed a sign promising the “world’s largest windchime,” a short drive into the town.  Since seeing the “World’s Largest X” is a staple of any road trip, of course we went to go check it out.

Well, the world’s largest wind chime was cool, but you know what was better?  How about the world’s largest rocking chair, right across the street?  And while we were admiring them both, an older gentleman advised us to go down the street a bit in the other direction.  We then found the world’s largest mailbox, pencil, and birdcage.

Yes, Casey, Illinois has been living out a quixotic dream to become our favorite highway rest stop ever.  They are officially the home to at least eight world-record “largest” objects, including a pitchfork, wooden clogs, golf tee, knitting needles, and crochet hook, with more planned.

A++++, best random roadtrip stop ever.  Better crane your neck upwards now to save time!

St. Louis & Kansas City

We were treated to a beautiful sunset outside of Casey.  That place never stops giving!  The next morning, we did our best to see the St. Louis (“Gateway”) Arch.  Unfortunately, the Arch is under construction at the base, so our shots had to be carefully framed.  Also, it was freezing.  But hey – at least there were no crowds!

We kept moving, and stopped for lunch at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, a multiple-award-winning rib joint famously located in a gas station mini-mart.  That description is slightly misleading – it’s more like they share a parking lot – but holy crap, the ribs were amazing.  The flavor was quite mild, but they were cooked to such tender perfection that our mouth is watering just thinking about it.

A+++, would eat way too much then slip into a food coma again.

Rocky Mountain High

Taking advantage of the time zone changes, we blasted through Kansas and made it in late to Boulder, Colorado, to see Jake’s sister Kate.  We had a really good time, hiking, hanging out, and drinking plenty of beer, made all the more enjoyable due to the warm, sunny weather.  “Hmm,” we thought, “maybe Colorado should be at the top of our ‘move-to’ list.”

Then, of course, the weather changed.  Our plan called for us to head west over the mountains and see a National Park or two, maybe even the Grand Canyon, but the sudden snowfall made that impossible.  We ended up having to stay an extra day (thanks Kate!), before we headed back to Phoenix via the “easy” route.

Of course, “easy” is relative here.  We still had to slog through slush and snow on the highway, on tires we were later told were “almost completely bare.”  Yikes!  There was so much sand and dirt on the road, we went through nearly an entire container of windshield wiper fluid just to be able to see.  But we eventually made it over the Raton Pass – at a mere 7,800 feet – and were soon in familiar territory near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  From there, it was smooth sailing.

Alpine, Arizona?

After one last blast in the eyes from the Albuquerque sun, we spent the night in Gallup, New Mexico, where we had some pretty amazing Mexican food.  Our last leg was in sight!

Since we had already traveled to Phoenix via Flagstaff, we took a different route, through Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests.  It was a wise choice, as the road took us through a strikingly beautiful alpine forest, covered with feet of snow (thankfully not on the road this time).  The experience reminded us once again that we know nothing about the geography of western states.


When we made it back, our RV was just as we left it.  Except the battery had died after weeks of not being charged, which meant the fridge had stopped running (it can run on propane, but needs a trickle of battery power to work).  Since the fridge stopped working, everything in our freezer had melted, leaving a disgusting soup of water, ravioli, potstickers, and of course, raw beef and chicken pieces.  Which we had to slowly remove via a turkey baster.

Ah well.  It’s like we always say: if your adventure doesn’t end with a disgusting soup of water, ravioli, potstickers, and raw beef and chicken, you haven’t been adventuring hard enough.

(Also, we need to borrow your turkey baster.)

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Portland, Oregon, recuperating from a bit of travel and way too much video creations.

Next location?  We’re here for a week, then on to Seattle!

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Week 24+ : Driving Down and Climbing Up in Phoenix

After a short stay in Holbrook, Arizona to visit the Petrified Forest, we had hoped to head to the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately, it was December, and the weather at the Grand Canyon was literally freezing (and also snowing).  Rather than freeze ourselves in our little metal house, we decided to take the lead of snowbirds everywhere and fly south for the winter.  We changed our destination to Phoenix, via Flagstaff, Arizona.

Diminishing Turns

We knew nothing about Flagstaff before we traveled through it, but now we know one thing:  it’s really high.  Flagstaff sits at an ear-popping 6,900 feet, and as a result, the landscape is more “alpine forest” than the Arizona desert landscape you probably picture.  As it turns out, Flagstaff sits along a mountainous ridge that extends over most of Arizona; Phoenix, much lower in the Valley of the Sun, is more of an outlier than Flagstaff!

Since we performed our typical “none” level of research, we knew “none” of this at the time.  However, we could tell the elevation was high as we were driving through Flagstaff, due to our homemade altimeter: a bag of Tostitos we bought in Florida and never opened.  We leave it in the RV now because it is pressurized at sea level, and it’s fun to watch it expand when we travel to places at a higher elevations.  As we passed through Flagstaff, we genuinely thought it might explode.  [Ed. note:  we took pictures, but sadly lost them.]

From Flagstaff, we descended 6,000 feet in about 100 miles to get to Phoenix, which sounds scary but was quite well managed.  It took longer than expected, but we did make it to our beautiful campsite at Phoenix, spirits high and Tostitos bag deflated.  This would be as far as we would go for the next month.

Aged Like Fine Wine

Our first impression of Phoenix was that it was much nicer than we imagined.  It was winter, so unlike this classic Arrested Development bit, it wasn’t hot.  In fact, the temperature was quite comfortable, and since we were staying at a county park outside of the city proper, the landscape was surprisingly green.  All the buildings were nice and new (thanks, housing bubble!), but retail signage was subdued, with most of the stores located in brown, adobe-style buildings.  (Aesthetically pleasing, although a bit confusing in practice.)

Almost everyone we met was friendly and relaxed, in part we were pretty far outside the city center, but also because everybody around us was a retiree.  Now, we certainly expected there would be a fair number of older folks around, but the sheer uniformity of it was staggering.  The deli counter people at the (gloriously huge) grocery store we went to were retirement age, as were the checkout clerks at Target.  (Gotta make those balloon mortgage payments, we guessed.)  Everywhere we went, the grey-haired workers were friendly, hard-working, and slow-moving.

It wasn’t bad, really, but it was certainly unique.

Cactus Fight!

We were in Phoenix in early December, and as the holidays approached, most of our time was spent running errands and making preparations for our upcoming roadtrip-within-a-roadtrip. We then returned to Phoenix in January, but after traveling across the country twice (see next blog post!), we didn’t have the stomach for much travel sightseeing.

In other words: we didn’t take many pictures.

However, we did spend a fair bit of time hiking within the park we were staying at.  There was a nice trail which went up and around a mountain, offering beautiful views of the valley Phoenix sits in, along with many very tall cacti.

Obviously, we enjoyed this all in a classy and respectful fashion.

My money is on the Saguaro.

The Straw That Broke

We did do one adventure while in Phoenix, climbing Camelback Mountain, a tall mountain which sits very close to downtown Phoenix.  Before we went, we read online that it was tough, but as seasoned-ish hikers, we assumed it wouldn’t be a problem.  We didn’t even bat an eye at the “double black diamond” designation at the base of the trail.

Friends, let us tell you, Camelback Mountain is no joke.  It climbs to a height of 2,700 feet very steeply, and the final section involves scrambling around and over huge boulders, propped up precariously and proximately to a cliff.  They try to make the trail clear by marking it with blue paint, but it’s pretty easy to lose it, especially near the top.

Oh yes… there’s the trail.

The hike is as exhausting as it is legitimately dangerous – multiple people have died, and dozens have to be rescued every year.  In fact, a man saved a woman from falling off the edge by grabbing her ankle just a month ago!

In other words, Camelback is intense.  That said, the view from the top is truly spectacular.  Definitely recommend, but be ready for a workout – and tread cautiously.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  The tiny town of Trinidad, California, in the land of old-growth redwoods.

Next location?  We’re here for a week, then heading further up the California coast.  Get ready for a lot of redwood pictures.

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