Thursday, 17 December 2009

Happy Holidays from Skippin' Town!

Dear friends,
Wishing you a very Happy Holiday from New Rochelle, New York, where we are enjoying a brief respite from our cross-country adventure.

It's freezing cold here, but who cares when you're under a real roof!? Yes, we have at times questioned our sanity in taking this trip, but we do expect to return with renewed vigor to part II of our travels.

Over the holiday, we will catch up with some posts that never managed to get written.

In the meantime, we wish you, your families and friends a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, etc, and of course a happy, healthy and prosperous 2010.

Love from Claire, Daniel, Sophia & Lulu

Bathing baby

Here is a photo of our Lovely Lulu in the bath. Yes, she still **just** fits in the sink of the Airstream's amazingly feature-filled bathroom, which sits across the back of the trailer.

Daniel thinks it's not good use of space, and spends hours daydreaming of converting it into a bedroom, but for now it is intact and works a charm for bathing a 7-month old baby.

Back to bedmaking

Try as he might, Daniel couldn't stay away from DIY - or bedmaking - for long.

During our two-week stay-cation in Santa Margarita Lake, he designed and built bunk beds for the Airstream. This has totally transformed our life inside the trailer: Sophia, who sleeps on the top bunk, now has her own room, Barbara will have her own room when she comes to visit, and during the day, we have a whole new place to put stuff!

Thanks to the Santa Margarita Lake KOA for letting him borrow the drill!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Some of Daniel's paintings

Napa Valley and the Badlands

Marshmallows and pancakes

Still on stay-cation

It’s now been almost two weeks since we arrived at our campground, the one at Santa Margarita, for almost two weeks.

The KOA staff now feels like family (they said they feel the same way), and we’re getting the monthly rate.

We’ve lost track of the days and were surprised to find out last Friday that it was the weekend. Once we found out, we got excited. New people! Kids for Sophia!

There was a decent influx of new campers, and the ones we became friends with was a big group of university friends reuniting from all over California. Spread across four or five of the cabins, they numbered thirteen adults, four or so babies and two kids aged 5 and 9.

Meeting them on our morning walk to the showers, Sophia and I were immediately invited to join them in the evening. Which we did, after watching ‘Shrek II’ on the computer.

They were all really cool, telling us about themselves, how they met, what their couple/family/friend formations were….and apple pie.

I got on really well with one of the girls, Krystyn, who had taken here older daughter out of school to spend three months with her husband in Switzerland. Now that she has a new baby, she's on extended leave from work. Hopefully we'll all meet up in LA.

One guy in particular could not understand what we had been doing for the last ten days. Once pressed, we couldn’t really say.

We’ve been doing lots of laundry, working on Sophia’s birthday party invitations and our Christmas cards, and getting our car looked at every couple of days.

The fuel pump has been replaced, with the mechanic saying the other new one we got before setting off from New York may not have really been new. He also replaced some other, smaller parts, so the ignition is working really well.
Today, he’s trying to figure out why we get occasional misfires, and why the ‘service engine soon’ light sometimes goes on. This, they are doing for free, since we’ve become such good customers.

Given today’s torrential rain, they even dropped Lulu and I off at the local Starbucks – to give updates, they call Daniel and send me email updates. Sophia and Daniel are back at the campground working on building bunk beds in the Airstream.

We’ve explored the area quite a bit, visiting nearby San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Atascadero – this last one we now know like the backs of our hands, and people are starting to wave at us.

Yesterday, we could no longer ignore Hearst Castle, the Mediterranean pastiche dream home of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Set up on a rugged mountain overlooking the Pacific, built tirelessly by the architect Julia Morgan and home to many a glamorous party back in the day, it was pretty impressive.

With a very theatrical lady as a guide, the tour was 1 hour and 45 minutes long and followed by a highly produced movie on a giant screen.
We would have liked to hear more salacious anecdotes about all the Hollywood people, politicians and titans of industry who hung out at the place, though.
Here are some photos.

We do have to get a move on, however. There is beautiful coast to explore, Santa Barbara and its vineyards to visit, and friends waiting for us in LA.

Maybe tomorrow will be the day.

A very American Thanksgiving

The day before Thanksgiving, we were in a charming café with terrible food, watching Glenn Beck, a talk show host on the Fox Network.
The episode's main premise was that the Founding Fathers of the USA had originally meant the country to be based on ‘Life, Liberty and Property,’ but that this last theme had to be changed to ‘Prosperity’ because of the slave issue.
He then went on to echo some conservatives’ view that the Constitution and other historical documents have been misinterpreted, and as such, require new study.
Beck was very concerned that the Pilgrims, whose arrival and eventual flourishing Thanksgiving commemorates, would be very upset if they had seen their ideals trampled upon by the Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular.
America, he continued, is a country of individuals, whose allegiance is to themselves and their families, and reliance on the government for support will only weaken the nation as a whole.

In contrast, we felt pretty good about America. Laura and I have both spent many years living outside the country, so it was nice to be back.

Thanksgiving is a flexible holiday celebrated across religions (though you don’t have to bring God into it if you don’t want to) and cultures, so everyone’s welcome to garnish their thankfulness and meals with whatever they please.

The main thing is to stop for a day, to give thanks for all the nice things in we have in our lives. With no gifts or cards.

Oh, and you get to stuff yourself as well, since it’s also a harvest holiday.

Laura brought a delicious selection of cheeses, which she garnished with dates and the crispiest crackers. We wrapped lots of food items (wild Alaskan salmon, sweet potatoes, garlic and onions, chestnuts) in tin foil, and Daniel cooked all of these to perfection in the campfire. I made wild rice and tried to emulate Olivia’s amazing Brussels sprouts, which are cut into strips and sautéed with loads of garlic and seasoning.

We drank wine, tore off Kalamata olive bread, and all was well. Once it was dark, and we were roasting marshmallows, Laura looked at her watch and was shocked to see it was only 6:15.

That’s the thing when you’re camping in winter – it gets dark suddenly and you think it’s bedtime, but it’s always way earlier.

Once we had retired back inside the Airstream, Laura suggested we revive the American custom of going around the table and saying why we’re all thankful.

I started, saying I was thankful for this year off, an amazing opportunity to spend serious time with my wonderful husband and beautiful daughters.

Laura said thanks for the chance to study again (she’s pursuing a Masters in Spiritual Psychology and an eventual Doctorate in Relationship Counseling.

Sophia said thanks for the marshmallows.

Daniel declined to participate in our sappy tradition.

Lulu looked at us all, in pursuit of more food.

Our first guest

Laura, a great university friend, drove up from LA with her dog Claude to spend Thanksgiving weekend with us in Santa Margarita, which is just inland from California’s Central Coast and just north of San Luis Obispo.

This was our first time hosting a guest, so we were excited.

We cleaned the Airstream until it was spick and span, and most importantly, found a campground that would accommodate a tent, a dog and an extra vehicle on our site.

It worked really well, Laura and Claude staying in a tent a few feet from the trailer and all of us having meals and activities together.

Sophia and Claude became bosom buddies, and Laura helped entertain both girls.
We went on hikes, visited a wine tasting room and all caught up.

Their visit also served a practical purpose, since Daniel’s mom Barbara will be joining us for 3 weeks or so in January and February. We still haven’t figured out the sleeping arrangements – the weather is much colder than we had anticipated, and our tent too difficult to assemble day in, day out if we make a lot of stops.

So one night, we tried out an alternative sleeping plan. Laura, Claude and Sophia slept in the Airstream, while Daniel, Lulu and I slept on an inflatable mattress in the back of our car (the backseat folds down).

That turned out not to be a viable solution, so it’s back to the drawing board.

Big Sur

Big Sur, the hump protruding from California after Monterey Bay, is amazing. It’s basically a wilderness area sitting on top of prime real estate along the Pacific, with a surprisingly low population and shockingly high cliffs.

Sadly, the perfect clear and water is too dangerous to swim in (let alone reach), so visitors must satisfy themselves with azure fantasies.

We had hoped to spend Thanksgiving at Big Sur, but so did lots of other people so all the good places were booked up.

Having attempted to stay at one campground, which can only accept reservations ten days in advance owing to a precarious entry bridge over the sometimes swollen Big Sur River, we had to go.
The staff was friendly, but the place was a Big Disappointment. Sitting in a dark forest with no means of disposing of sewage or water, the campground felt a million miles away from the startling beauty of the Redwoods and coast.

So further south we went, on towards San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


We can’t believe it’s December. Not only is my monthly Sagittarius horoscope ready for viewing online, but it’s almost Christmas!

Not that you can really tell here, just inland from California’s Central Coast. It freezes at night (we found ice on our picnic table this morning), but during the day it can get really warm. Yesterday in Atascadero, we actually needed an ice-cold horchata.

Today, Sophia cracked open her (first of two) Advent calendar, and by the time she opens window 18, she’ll be four.

Later this month, we will be cheating on our road trip: flying to New York for two weeks over Christmas, and joining my family for the holidays.

We can’t wait.

My friends Soo-Hyun and Joseph have graciously agreed to keep the Airstream in their driveway and be guest camping bloggers in our absence, starting in two weeks’ time.

A new way of swearing

Swearing is satisfying. If something goes wrong, or you hit yourself in the head (something that happens quite often in a seventeen foot trailer), it feels so good to shout – or at least utter – a swear word.

Until you hear your almost four-year old repeat said word (or words).

So Daniel and I are working on new ways to swear, since silence just isn’t an option.

“Darn it!”, “Oh F”, “Shoot”, I say, while Daniel experiments with the rather hilarious “Golly gosh”, “Oh fiddlysticks” or “blimey”.

Now Sophia’s learned those ones, hopefully having deleted the others. Sometimes, when it’s just Lulu around, we allow ourselves the real thing. It feels great.

Vacation from the vacation

We’ve now spent more on repairs to our car than the $5000 we spent on the vehicle itself.
This is despite having spoiling the darn thing, replacing all manner of oils, plus windshield wipers, brake pads and rotors, tightening up the steering (“removing the play”, Daniel says that's called), new drums.
And now we’re replacing the fuel pump for a second time.
There’s more, but we can’t remember the details right now.

Right now, the car is at Mike Howe’s Automotive in the neighboring town of Atascadero. We have a courtesy car, a white Toyota Camry – the same exact one my
friend Katie Gleason’s family had in high school, automatic seatbelts and all.

Daniel had to sign something saying he was insured to drive it, which may or may not be the case.

So we’re extending our stay at the KOA campground at Lake Santa Margarita, which is a quiet, rural place nestled among sudden, rounded hills covered with that soft, native Californian grass.

Our site has plenty of space, and actually, we have the run of most of the campground since aside from a few Montana snowbirds, we are the only residents.

As soon as the Thanksgiving crowds dispersed, all manner of birds – from hummingbirds to sparrows to hawks – took back their rightful land.

When it gets dark, we hear a yelping of unknown provenance, the screams of coyotes, the hiss of something that might be a raccoon or bobcat, an unknown yelping and a mysterious thumping, galloping sound.

By day, we’re having a whale of a time entertaining ourselves. I’m working on the blog and reading (Vanity Fair from a month or two ago and ‘America and Americans’ by John Steinbeck; Daniel’s doing sketches and watercolors; Sophia’s working on painting and song performances (delivered from a giant tree stump); and Lulu is getting very close to crawling – she managed to move herself about two feet the other day.

This may sound surprising, but it’s only the second time we’ve had time to stop and relax since we started out in the Airstream in Iowa. We are on an extended holiday, yes, but being on the move all the time is exhausting.

This break is great, and perfectly timed since we have nowhere to be until the morning of December 15. We’ve been here nearly a week, long enough for the staff here to give us a night free of charge (thanks, KOA!).

We’ll send photos once we retrieve the camera charger from our (hopefully repaired for good) car.

Jam tasting and merry-go-rounds

After eschewing yet another RV Park(ing lot) – this one just outside San Francisco in Pacifica, costing $51 for a spot next to the highway with a hook-up we couldn’t reach - we decided to flee an overcast sky and head south.

Passing countless state parks, dramatic winding turns and beaches populated by surfers, we didn’t stop…until we saw signs for Jam Tasting. How can anyone skip Jam Tasting?

This one (are there others?) was at a café at the all-organic Swanton Berry Farm that served up strawberry shortcake, berry compotes, whole pies, cauliflower soup and coffee – all customers had to do was take what they wanted and leave payment in a box.

Only in California.

So we took refuge from the ocean wind, jam tasting and enjoying a sweet snack, together with surfers, families and couples.

Our next stop was Santa Cruz, a delightful, offbeat university town down the coast from San Francisco and on the northernmost side of Monterey Bay. I had visited on two previous trips to San Francisco – once to visit my high school friends Justin and Ben, who were students at the University of California Santa Cruz, and once to go to the amusement park with my friend Laura and her friend Aaron.
So we took Sophia to the amusement park, which is right on the boardwalk overlooking the Pacific. She rode the ancient merry-go-round twice before venturing onto other kiddy rides in a helicopter and racecar. She screamed with glee, and so did we.
Sad to go, we sought solace in the pastel pink-and-blue sunset punctuated by tall palms.

View from a hill

Olivia and her Canadian husband David, together with their nine-year old Alfie and three-year old William are in San Francisco for a year or so while David works on a movie project for DreamWorks. Olivia’s on sabbatical from the same company, looking after the kids and working on a screenplay about a LA, a woman and trees…it sounds really cool.

Very kindly, they offered to put us up for a weekend at their amazing house in Bernal Heights, on the side of a massive hill just above The Mission neighborhood and overlooking the whole of San Francisco. So even staying inside – watching the monolith-like fog overtake the metropolis or the reflection of the sunset on glass skyscrapers built to outlast earthquakes - you are really doing the city.

Snug on this vantage point, we enjoyed three days and nights of really delicious food, quite a few bottles of wine, lots of catching up and the sound of three-year olds mostly playing very nicely together. Alfie, for his part, sat with the grown-ups and was a delight. At night, we got to sleep in real beds(!) in a house(!), which was beyond wonderful.

We ventured from the house a few times: twice to the bottom of the hill into the Mission, and once up the hill to a park at the summit and then over the other side to Bernal Heights.

San Francisco is a beautiful city, full of fine food from all nations, overflowing with sophisticated people and plenty of arts, music and culture. Sitting between the Pacific and the Bay, and further beautified with all species of warm weather trees and flowers, the city forms an odd microclimate with a temperature that only varies by about twenty degrees year round. So it is neither hot nor cold, just something in between.

The Mission is a great melting pot of a place, serving as a point of landing for the city’s many immigrants. Full of lively restaurants serving ultra fresh food from all of Latin America and beyond, the neighborhood also has lots of small galleries, excellent bookshops and cool clothing boutiques.

Daniel totally wants to move to San Francisco.

A less than graceful entrance

San Francisco and trailers don’t really go together. After a spectacular entrance into the city, across the majestic Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County and up the main (mostly flat) drag of Van Ness, things got dramatic.

For anyone who’s never been to San Francisco, those hills are serious. We’re talking gradients of 15% and cars that have to park pointed out onto the street to stop them from sliding down.

Our own ascents and descents were accompanied by the sounds of tha-dumps (the trailer), violent churnings and squeaks (the hitch) and general clatter (our belongings inside the trailer).

Daniel looked increasingly worried.

Luckily, having already crossed the Rockies, we knew how the car’s gears worked.

That didn’t stop the general public from rushing onto the street to watch us drag the Airstream up Bernal Hill and then partly back down it at what looked like a near-vertical angle, as we approached the home of my friend Olivia Mole.

Londoner Olivia spent a summer in Pelham, New York, living with the Rowlands (who seem to directly or indirectly have introduced us to much of northern California) when we were both 18. We met again in London, once I had moved there, and then she relocated to LA to take advantage of a green card she had won and pursue a career in animation.

At the crest of the rollercoaster-like hill, Daniel suggested I run to the bottom to photograph the truck and trailer’s descent – for your enjoyment, dear reader.

Having done this and hugged Olivia, who had been watching the spectacle of our arrival out various windows of her house, I turned around to see the Airstream caught in a tree – and hear the scratching of twigs and gnawing of large branches against its lovingly mirror polished surface.

Face fallen, Daniel couldn’t go forward or back. We all looked up to the sky for divine intervention. Amazingly, it arrived immediately, in the form of a saw wielding lady named Jill.

“The people who live in front of this tree and the one over there are renters, I do this all the time,” she said, casually.
“The city collects garden refuse once a week”, she added, indicating towards the green bin she had thoughtfully wheeled with her.

And she started sawing. Once she had gotten the most offensive large branches down, she handed over the saw to Daniel, who worked on the medium sized ones. Then Olivia and I finished off the smallest ones, to facilitate Daniel’s painful reversal up the giant hill.

After a meticulous parking job and unhitching, we all giggled nervously and kind of decided to pretend nothing had happened.

Sorry, San Francisco.

Napa Valley

Having stayed four days in Sonoma County, one of California’s most famous wine countries, we naturally had to check out Napa Valley, surely the state’s premier vineyard region.

Arriving in Calistoga, we checked into the Napa Valley Fairgrounds RV park, which at $40 a night was rather reasonable for an upmarket, spa-centric area. Most, if not all counties in California seem to have fairgrounds that host agricultural and commercial events, and these usually have an adjoining RV park offering basic bathrooms and showers, water and electric hook-up and WiFi (which may or may

We escaped our parking lot home in minutes, anxious to start the trek down the Silverado Trail. This route and the larger Highway 29 to the west are the main arteries of the narrow valley, which is home to hundreds of wineries.

Traveling off-season, we were among very few fellow tourists, but boy are those locals feisty! If you don’t drive fast – at least 60 miles an hour – they get mad: tailgating, honking and shaking their fists if you fail to keep up the pace. It is really hard to read those tiny winery signs at 60, and pulling a trailer down an unfamiliar, smallish, curving road at that speed is probably not recommended either.

But living among tipsy tourists must understandably get annoying, and they probably want the place to themselves for the winter.

We were, though, treated to an extremely tasteful display of autumn colors, as row upon row of vines neared harvest. This maturity, set against the bluest sky and two ranges of small mountains, was very calming indeed.

Wine tasting probably isn’t the best activity for young kids, so during our three-day stay we sampled just two wineries.

At one end of the spectrum was Casa Nuestra, a very rustic feeling place that encouraged picnicking, didn’t mind Sophia running around with the vineyard dog, Trigger and played NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ in the background. Coinciding with us was a giddy foursome from Cleveland that extolled the place’s simplicity (and comparatively lower prices). Chattily, they wanted to know everything about us and when they left, we all got hearty hugs and well wishes.

From my last visit, about ten years ago, I didn’t remember Napa Valley being so stingy. Now, visitors are generally charged $10 for a tasting, which consists of six or so of the teeniest sips of reds and whites. This charge is deducted against any purchases, presumably discouraging visitors from running rampant free of charge through the valley.

Daniel and I shared a tasting, just in case we didn’t want to buy a bottle. Perhaps sensing our lack of commitment, our server - who was very nice and then later very helpful with things to do in the area – gave us ever smaller droplets to divide between us.
Or was that our imagination?

The second place we visited, Paraduxx, came highly recommended by our friends The Rowlands, who we visited at Chico, in northern California. Managed by Perrin’s close friend Jenny K, the lady herself gave us a personal, knowledgeable and unrushed tasting, even taking time to coo over Lulu and chat with Sophia, who sang loud songs next to hushed lunchtime tasters.

“It’s so Ibiza”, Daniel noted. Owing to the warm autumn day, we and the other visitors had been shown to the winery’s back garden, which features endless vine views, comfy bamboo furniture and even chill-out music. Inside, the furniture is very modern – stainless steel and black leather.

Another highlight was the generous portions, accompanied by yummy cheese and crackers to help us distinguish the different wine flavors.

Despite its relative youth, Paraduxx, a label belonging to the larger Duckhorn group, seems to have been a favorite of George W Bush’s White House, having been served three times at state dinners.

Thanks, Jenny!

In a few days, we'll be posting Daniel's watercolor from Napa on this entry, so please check back in to see it!

People like us

At last, we have met people like us: a couple with a young child and a baby, traveling cross-country and off-season in a recreational vehicle.

Having relocated from France to Montreal several years ago for a job opportunity, Virginie and Arnaud, with their eight month old son Baptiste and almost two year old daughter Olivia, the time seemed right to take advantage of a second parental leave to cross Canada and return to Quebec via the USA.

They bought an old Dodge Ram for about 4500 Canadian dollars and had reached Bodega Bay on the Sonoma coast, where we overlapped for a night. After San Francisco, they planned to head east towards Las Vegas, with a view to returning to Montreal by January.

They came over for a drink, bringing with them some rather delicious smoked salmon acquired further north.

We compared notes, and seemed to have traveled an almost identical route down from Vancouver. They said they had even seen us a few days earlier, at a vantage point for elk viewing.

The kids all played merrily, Sophia and Olivia bonding over some building blocks my aunt Gretchen had given us, and Lulu and Baptiste removing toys from each other’s grasps.

Sadly, we bid our new friends adieu the next morning.