One of my biggest personal challenges in taking a year out to travel was the idea of spending a year away from all my friends and family. This wasn’t something that seemed to worry John that much, which is not to say he doesn’t love them all, just that we differ in how we adjust to absences. I’ve actually not found the past few months as difficult as I expected. It’s taught me how blessed we are to have family and friends who will keep in touch with us, and show us they care, wherever we or they are in the world, and that John and I can happily spend every day together in a confined space without anything being thrown – as long as we have a few thousand acres of National Park to hike about in of course..!
But my excitement was still beyond compare when I woke up in a noisy, cramped San Diego campground, sandwiched between an interstate and a railroad track, on the day that one of my dearest friends was flying in to join us. I actually felt a bit anxious to realise that we would be laying bare our new life to our friends, wondering how it would be sharing our little home on wheels. Another lovely friend of mine quickly diagnosed this (vi WhatsApp) as ‘just being excited’ so I stopped worrying, penned a home made sign, and we headed to the airport to pick up the beautiful Osborne sisters, Carly and Erin, looking tired but beautiful after their respective flights (Erin having been travelling for nearly 24 hours with a stop over in JFK).
More exciting than seeing these guys (well, nearly) was that Carly had loaded her suitcase with 320 bags of Yorkshire Gold (subject of recent trailer disputes since John grossly underestimated the number of bags we’d need and vetoed my purchase in the ‘English section’ of our final Florida grocery store), as well as aerosol deodorant (expensive and tricky to find), and Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. So once I’d had a big hug from my girl and John had fed her a grilled cheese sandwich, we settled down for a catch up over a brew. While FaceTime and WhatsApp have been treasures, nothing beats a cup of tea and a chat face to face.
Night one was spent in the San Diego car park and the girls adapted well, especially considering that they had both had very long flights. John and I had bought an air bed so that visitors can have our bed (no-one needs to sleep on a floor after a trans-atlantic trip) and we were happy with how well we slept on it so everyone woke seeming fairly perky, ready for the real adventure to begin.Carly and I are kindred spirits and love our comforts. She responded well when I suggested that we try a couple of nights of dry camping as we’d found a rare ocean-side spot at a state beach in Carlsbad, but how would the reality shape up?
After our first pack up and hitch, we got on the road in good time and made it to South Carlsbad State Beach early, where the over zealous ranger insisted on the 2pm check in time, thus forcing us to go for burgers at Five Guys. We’d recently tried In-and -Out Burger, a popular Californian chain with a cult-like following and a well known ‘secret menu’. I’d rated it a posher McDonald’s and wasn’t that fussed, John liked it more. Five Guys, however, was a whole different ball game. A mountain of fresh cut fries, meaty burgers with great toppings, and an amazing array of milkshake flavours set us up with a 2,000 calorie plus lunch and an afternoon of lounging around the campsite (well, girls lounging, chatting and drinking tea, John going to Lowes and fixing the trailer steps).
Dry camping went better than expected, with the only real considerations that we had to remember to get the air bed inflated during generator hours (before 8pm) and to all shower in the coin-operated restrooms. Carly and Erin really embraced a couple of relaxed evenings round the campfire, perfecting their s’mores techniques and listening to the sounds of the ocean. We were all in bed early, and Carly, who heads marketing for a global haircare brand, told me later she’d enjoyed how well she adapted to sleeping and waking with the sun.
We had a day to spend in San Diego and decided to start off with a big American brunch, to get the girls acclimatised. And when I say ‘big’, this was of epic proportions. After accidentally ordering pint-sized Bloody Marys, Carly and I compounded our errors by opting for for a fried chicken/eggs/biscuit/potato combo that the waitress subsequently informed us was a dish featured on Man Versus Food. Erin’s pancake was bigger than her head, and John had a huge grill featuring who knows what. Tasty though it was, we waddled out, to go boxes in hand, feeling decidedly shaky and all agreeing a walk was in order.
That turned out to be wishful thinking, and we collapsed into the car with no particular place to go until a short drive found us at San Diego Zoo, where a Monday afternoon carpark was pretty empty. With Carly and I about to slide into a carb-induced comas, it was down to Erin to take on tour duties, and her enthusiasm for the zoo soon perked us all up as we took on the challenge of covering as much ground as possible before closing time. And cover ground we did, Erin bounding of ahead of us, John striding behind, Carly and I dragging our food babies slowly from flamingo to penguin, tortoise to elephant. The Giant Pandas put on a quite a show for us and I enjoyed the whole thing more than I expected, as it’s not something John and I would have prioritised. This, I have quickly come to learn, is one of the greatest things about having friends with us – it pushes us beyond our normal hiking/birding/brewery visiting comfort zone to try new things.
Our favourite animal spot of the day came later, when we drove home via the seaside town of La Jolla. This was a revisit for Carly and me, as we’d come here as part of a California road trip in 2009 and decided it could go on the ‘to live’ list. Watching seals basking in the sunset over the beautiful bay did not change that perception, and Erin is now also on Team La Jolla. There were hundreds of seals, putting on a show, and they rounded off the day nicely so that we were ready to return to camp, and maybe a few s’mores…
Campsite three was about a three hundred mile journey north, in Pismo Beach, a stretch John and I would normally drive as a whole day activity. This was a great example of being out of our routine, with Carly putting in a special request to stop at Santa Monica Pier. Towing a 26′ trailer through LA is always going to be a challenge, but parking is the main issue in urban areas. Arriving at a pier shrouded in thick fog and seeing parking charges upwards of $40 for RVs, things didn’t seem to be going well, but the parking attendant somehow undercharged us and $20 got us the rest of the afternoon in a nice big spot, right next to the pier. The sun must have been shining on us somewhere.
We decided to head away from the water for lunch to see if the fog cleared and so began a lovely (sunny) afternoon of tacos, cocktails (for we girls, anyway) and shopping (again, for the girls). I’ve barely done any serious shopping since we’ve been away, and while budget obviously required restraint, my birthday was coming up and I did enjoy wandering around with Erin and Carly, who helped me replace my now battered sun glasses with a nice new pair, as well as some new workout gear and underwear to refresh a wardrobe that has been bashed about by campground washers. In the end, with his credit card battered and many sympathetic looks from shop assistants, John dragged us away so that we could complete the next 200 miles to our Pismo Beach campground, where we rolled in after dark and collapsed into bed as soon as we’d set up the basics.
Pismo Beach didn’t seem the most salubrious of spots, especially when we were woken at 3am to flashing blues and twos and the sounds of “Get down!” as gun-toting cops chased some guy round the RV park (you can’t write this stuff). John seemed remarkably unconcerned as he settled back down into our slightly deflated airbed, while Carly and I remained on high alert, wondering whether all of us could squeeze in the corridor between the bathroom and the fridge, rather than take our chances of bullets tearing through the flimsy trailer walls. The next day dawned quietly, and less foggy, though disconcertingly we found a strange conspiracy of silence around the campsite, with staff and security denying all knowledge of the early morning fracas. The girls and I dealt with this the best way we knew how – by heading to the beach to enjoy a few hours of sun in what had been an otherwise cloudy California week. It was great to chat and sunbathe (John was off doing jobs again) and then all meet for lunch and tacky cocktails on the seafront.
Day two Pismo was surf day. John had surfed before when he toured California with one of his mates, and Erin and I were both up for a lesson. Carly, on the other hand, has one nemesis – sharks. There was no way she was coming in the water, known to be frequented by Great Whites, so we were fortunate enough to have an official photographer capturing every wipe out, and even the odd stand up moment. We soon realised quite how hard surfing is, not just technique-wise, but for the physical demands, and we had truly earned our breakfast when we finished the morning.
All of us managed up on our boards – here’s Erin!
Breakfast was from Surfside Donuts, a tip I’d found on Instagram. Their selection is huge, their donuts are divine and at times they sell out by 11am (they sold out to the people standing in line behind us that day!). We spent a disproportionate amount of our time at Pismo figuring out how we could squeeze in a few more donuts, and I’m glad I wasn’t trying to get in a wetsuit a week later.
We were of course in San Louis Obispo County, an area known for its vineyards, so we took the opportunity to try out some local wines at the tasting rooms, set in beautiful lush green valleys. Our favourite was a place called Autry, known according to the winery down the road as ‘The Mad Scientist’. Mr. Autry doesn’t grown grapes, he buys them from the growers nearby, selecting what he considers the best grapes and trying ‘not to mess them up’. It seemed to us that he does a good job, and we discovered a grape we’d not previously tried, called Petit Syrah, and loaded up on a few bottles of this, including a port-style wine, to drink round the campfire. As we would later find out on a our trip north to Sonoma, tasting and buying wine in SLO county is pretty good value, and this paired with some decent cheese from a local market had us sorted for easy meals, followed of course, by more s’mores.
From here we would be heading up Highway One, minus the trailer, along the beautiful Big Sur Coast, to Monterey, where we’d check into a hotel for my birthday and then to San Francisco. We loved sharing the camping experience with Carly and Erin; it’s hard to really explain to friends at home what it’s like living this lifestyle and it means a lot to me that they were so up for everything and that we will be able to share these memories when we’re back in England. That’s not to say, though, that after 7 months without my daily bath and monthly beauty rituals, I was anything less than ready for the ceremonial opening of the luxury budget, and some serious treats to come…!