“Well my bags are packed, I’m ready to go”…. Or so the song lyrics go. Of course I’d been packed and ready to go for days.
So here is the basic idea: Suzie and I link up with Leane, Richie and the dudes, for a couple of weeks of traveling in our VW camper vans down the Pacific Coast, with a turn around point at Big Sur California.
Note: The video highlight reel is at the end. So if you just can’t wait, scroll down there and give it a click.
Last winter we’d planned out an itinerary, and made reservations for a string of state park campgrounds along the way down. We shared that info with Lexy, Charlie (and Nalu) so they could drive north from Venice Beach in their VW camper, and rendezvous with us in Big Sur. Launch time was set for the very minute that the dudes got out of school for summer vacation.
Our first bit of fun came with the crossing of the Columbia River into Oregon. We escaped from the I-5 slab and followed WA Hwy 4 to the town of Cathlamet. A short bridge took us onto Puget Island where we boarded the last remaining small ferry, still working the lower Columbia.
On the south side of the river we continued west to Astoria and made a quick stop at the Goonies’ house. A few miles father west we came to rest in our first camp at Fort Stevens State Park. Our evenings entertainment was punctuated by a bike ride to visit the wreck of the Peter Iredale, and a ranger’s presentation about the Graveyard of the Pacific.
The next morning we were up and out, and rolling south. We stumbled into Cannon Beach where the sand carving contest was getting set up.
This is where I need to take a moment and tell you about this wonderful little dude:
So I have loved this beautiful little dude, with all my heart, since the very first moment I laid my eyes on him almost 8 years earlier. He never ceases to amaze me with his humor, intelligence, kindness… But on this day, as we were walking along the beach, I see Cadence just reach down and pick up a bunch of nasty trash, and then he carried that with him for 15-20 minutes until he found a trash bin to throw it away properly. Now nobody asked him to do that and he didn’t say a word to anyone about it. He just took it upon himself to be a good ocean shepherd. I was so choked up I almost couldn’t speak. A new word came to my mind to describe this marvelous little guy: RESPECT! Cade, you’re my hero. I love you pal.
We followed the three capes scenic route and were rewarded with stunning ocean views the whole day. Camp for the night was at South Beach State Park. We all hiked out to the beach where the dudes went crazy rolling down the sand dunes. Life on the road was pretty good… Even the over officious park ranger-electric plug nazi lady couldn’t harsh my mellow when she pulled up and told me we couldn’t have two vans plugged into the same power station. I kid you not, this old bat bails out of her ranger truck with her ticket book in hand, to march up and lecture me on the park rules. Forget about the fact that all through the camp there were giant RV’s sucking down 20 times the amps we were. Ridiculous!
Bullards Beach near Bandon OR was our next camp. We arrived early in the day and made a fairly long hike out to a beautiful deserted beach. The waves were pounding, the wind was screaming, and the dudes looked like sugar cookies in about two minutes.
Of course no trip down the Oregon coast would be complete for me without a stop at the massive sea stacks in Bandon, OR. The rest of the crew humored me with a few minutes of uninterrupted bird glassing time. I truly could sit on those cliffs all day and watch sea birds.
We crossed into California and rolled through the redwoods. Our next camp was Elk Prairie Redwoods State Park, and as the name implies we had a whole herd of elk visit us around dinner.
The next day included more elk, lots more giant redwood trees, and corkscrewing our way along CA Hwy 1, down the lost coast to MacKerricher State Park, just north of Fort Bragg. Our now routine hike to the beach took us across beautiful patches of ice plant, and out to a point where dozens of seals were hauled out on the rocks. Truth be told, our campsite was just a dirt pit under some trees, and the restroom gave a new definition to the term “sh!thole”, but we met some really nice people in the next campsite with two adorable little kids, and the dudes played in the dirt till well after dark.
We awoke to that customary pacific coast summer sea fog, and thick damp air. Our whole day was spent twisting and turning down CA Hwy 1. The fog gave a couple of fleeting glimpses of the sky, but it was really just a tease. Along with the fog came the wind… Lots of wind in some places.
The Point Arena Lighthouse provided a welcome diversion for the day.
We pressed on down the coast toward our intended campsite at Wrights Beach on the Sonoma Coast. But just when I was contemplating how epically brutal our beachside campsites were gonna be in this 20 knots of windy, wet fog… Richie’s van decided to have a flat tire.
We found a little sliver of shoulder on the side of the road and Richie went into full-on NASCAR mode with a tire change. Ok, admittedly I don’t know JACK about NASCAR, but he had the tire swapped out before I had a chance to take a leak… That seemed pretty fast.
Now the plan was to drive past Wrights Beach into the tiny town of Bodega Bay and see about getting the flat tire fixed. Nobody wanted to be stuck on the lost coast without a spare tire. Towns are few and far between, and there was zero cell phone coverage.
No tire shop in Bodega Bay so it was time to call an audible play. We headed inland to Petaluma… Land of Big O Tire, Best Western Inn (with a pool) Pizza, Laundry, and a perfect staging point for our next day’s exploration of San Francisco.
Initially my plan was to ride my bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, but as we approached it was absolutely blanketed in a thick cold fog. As the saying goes, “The coldest winter I ever spent, was the summer I spent in San Francisco”. Scrapping that plan, we pressed on to Fisherman’s Wharf. Remarkably, we found some on street parking and bailed out for some touristy sightseeing. And as luck would have it, the fog pretty much stayed clinging to the bridge… The sun was shinning on our part of the SF bay, affording us peak-a-boo views of Alcatraz. The Rock!
We had a really fun lunch of sourdough bread bowls filled with clam chowder at Boudin Bakery Cafe. Apparently this was the place where that whole idea of cutting your loaf of bread into a bowl was “thunked up”. We even wandered through the sourdough museum and watched the process in the big kitchen viewing windows. Then on to conquer Ghirardelli Square where just about everybody in the VanSlam crew ended up with ice cream dripping off their faces and hands. Hum?
Our home for the night was our only pre-planned hotel stay on the trip. Nick’s Sea Breeze motel and restaurant at Rockaway Beach was like being in a time machine, and landing back in the 1930’s.
With the ocean right out our doorstep it didn’t take long before all 3 dudes were soggy and sandy. We ate our dinner while watching brown pelicans plunging into the surf for their dinner. Oh, and a note about the tiny little double bed in our room… It too was from the 1930’s. I woke up thankful that the next few nights I would be back up in the top rack of our VW camper van.
We rolled south from Rockaway Beach on CA Hwy 1, in a blanket of heavy fog. Our first stop was the tiny harbor town of Pillar Point, where we drove out to the point hoping to catch a glimpse of the world famous Mavericks’ surf break. But alas, the fog did not cooperate, the entire ocean was just a big mass of grey. You couldn’t even see where the sky stopped and the water began.
Eventually we did catch some blue ocean views. All along the Big Sur coast the views were breathtaking. Naturally we (well, really just me) had to stop and shoot some video and photos at the historic Bixby Creek bridge. They say it is the most photographed site along CA Hwy. 1.
Fernwood Resort was the bottom end of our route. So don’t let the name “resort” take your mind’s eye to some vision of a fancy spa on the cliffs high above the Big Sur crashing surf… This was just camping in the dirt again, but with a few little conveniences like a power hookup, and a nifty little creek behind our camp.
Fernwood was where we rendezvoused with Lexy, Charlie, Nalu, and as a bonus, they brought along Charlie’s best pal Dan (all the way from Chicago). The Chexy crew (as they are affectionately know around the world) drove up from Venice Beach in their VW Westfalia camper van after picking Dan up at LAX.
I guess if one was going to try to trace back and find the roots or the birthplace of this whole VanSlam idea, you wouldn’t have to look too far past the fact that as little cousins growing up Leane and Lexy logged thousands of miles with Susan and me in our van on road trip adventures all over North America. Bringing everybody and their extended families back together once or twice a year is a marvelous way to keep the tradition alive.
We spent a few days at Frenwood enjoying the Big Sur River. The dudes all got floaty tubes, so after using every last puff of air from my lungs helping Richie blow the tubes up, I jumped on the Rockhopper and headed further down the coast. Now the term “down” the coast is a bit of a misnomer because the granny-gear-grind up out of the Big Sur river canyon was as long and hard as those 3 years I spent in the 8th grade. But the views, once I did get back over to the actual coast were spectacular. I was on high alert for California condors, but after a dozen or more miles it was all turkey vultures… No condors, so I turned around and headed back to camp. Some type of shift in the Teutonic plates, or a seismic anomaly caused the road surface to shift and it turned out to be uphill both ways. And here is a “Pro Tip” for northbound cyclist on CA Hwy 1 – That almost imperceptible shoulder on the southbound side of the road, is totally non-existent as you head north. But if you spray chain lube all over your left shoulder to help the RV’s slide by you’ll be fine.
The dudes were still in the river when I returned and in fact stayed in the river all day. Kingston had to be physically extracted for dinner, kicking and screaming all the way. We had a great night of campfire tales, story discs, and music with the Chexy crew, and what may have been the highlight of my trip… I had the dudes, one-two-three, in order, fall asleep in my arms. Duke was actually conked out before the s’mores were done… But he got his second wind and worked through about half a s’more before he nodded off in mid-bite. Kingston was next up for snuggle time. We got him in his PJ’s and I tucked him into my coat. He laid across my lap, watching the stars until he couldn’t hold his eyes open any longer. Then, just before he was out for the night, in a quiet moment he said…”Grandpa, I love you”. (I’ll give you a minute to go get a tissue.)
Cadence was up next and wasted no time in snuggling into my coat. We talked about our trip so far, and made a plan for the next day. So Cade didn’t actually fall asleep in my arms but we sure went to cozy level 5 before I passed him off to Richie for the transfer to his bunk.
The next morning, Sunday, I think, team Chexy was up early and fixin’ to roll out. They hung out at camp with us for a while, and Richie made all the “real” grown-ups Bloody Mary’s. The elaborate process involved several different steps and a picnic table full of ingredients. The dudes and I broke out our bushcraft skills and made hand carved skewers for every one’s olives, bacon, and cheese.
Our entire days’ entertainment was only a few steps away in the river.
Monday it was time to pull up stakes (metaphorically speaking) and head north, up into the Napa wine country for a couple of days. As soon as we cut inland from the coast it started to get pretty hot.
We looped around the east side of the Bay Area through the San Jose megatropolis. I think we did pretty good passing through during mid day and missing most of the traffic, and I think I can speak for everyone when I say it was pretty “yucky”. Brown grass, brown road surface, brown water, brown sky, and I’m sure lots of brown air came into my lungs.
We rolled into Bothe-Napa State Park in mid afternoon. The heat was kind of crushing, but there were lovely shade trees everywhere and with a whisper of a breeze, it was kind of manageable. But CAUTION was the word of the day. The woods were absolutely blanketed with poison oak. I mean every place a little dude would walk and explore was thick with poison oak.
The decision was made on the spot that this camp site was going be a “one night stand”. Suzie booked us hotel rooms (with a pool) for the next night, 134 miles up the road in Corning.
So here’s another Pro Tip: Bothe-Napa, although beautiful for a grandpa dude to sit in his favorite camp chair reading a book, was not a great place for 3 adventuresome children.
Author’s Note: the temperature as I typed this paragraph at Bothe-Napa was 82 degrees F. at 1754 hours. Just for fun I also checked the temp at Shasta – 106!
So this was where the trip took an interesting twist. About 2000 hours Suzie reached up to close the roof vent on our van, slipped and gashed her finger in the hinge. I was standing right there saying, “hey, I’ll get that”…. I’m gonna stop with any of the gory details of the cut right here because it traumatizes me just thinking about it.
But let me tell you this part: I did a quick assessment and some first aid on the spot. We folded up the camp and shot off to the St. Helena ER. They got Suzie in the exam room and cleaned the wound (the cut went all the way to her tendon). She got 10 stitches and some shots, and a splint on her finger… Dude, this was her trigger finger too. And them bam! Right back to camp.
Wholly crap, grandma Suzie is a tough as nails total bad ass. You know in my past life I had seen a lot of trauma, heck, I’d inflected a lot of trauma… But Susan was as hard core as any SWAT operator I’d ever worked with in my 25 years as a SWAT guy.
Even before the the finger incident we’d made the decision to escape the poison oak forest and skip our last day at Bothe-Napa and head north a ways for a hotel (spelled pool) for a day. Corning, CA filled the bill perfectly.
Another day, another camp. We motored up to the top of Lake Shasta to the Lakeshore RV park and campground, in Lakehead, CA. It was hot, for sure. But really (I can’t believe I’m saying this) only 90 degrees. The camp was pretty kid friendly. They had a pool, so the dudes were set for the next 3 days. As far as the lake was concerned it was in typical “July” mode… A little river, hiding 300-400 feet down steep red dirt embankments. But up on the bank where we were camped we had Western scrub jays and acorn woodpeckers to entertain us.
Regarding the people camped next to us: all I can say is “Stella”! Suffice to say that some people are just not cut out to be campers… Or parents, for that matter.
So what do you think would happen if you gave 3 water happy little dudes unlimited access to a swimming pool (in 100 degree heat) for a few days. Well, their swimming skills would skyrocket! Both Cadence and Kingston started actually working on technique… And Duke, holy cow, he turned into a swimmer. Of course the downside to that was he now needed a dedicated water assistant full time, because he was already absolutely fearless around the water.
We spent a scorching Independence Day (day) and a rockus Independence Day (evening) at Lakeshore Park and then, the next day…”Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway”.
We motored up to Salem, OR for the evening. The Red Lion hotel (with a pool) was a welcome refuge from the heat. The next day was Cadence’s 8th birthday so a big day was planned around stopping in Vancouver, WA to see the new Transformers movie.
As promised, here is our video:
That’s about it for this one. We’re already making plans for the next VanSlam.
Thanks for following along.