Escaping gray skies: our New Years trip to Northern California

If you’ve spent much time in the Pacific Northwest during the fall and winter seasons, you know that the skies eventually start closing in on you. Last year we escaped to Hawaii in January, which was lovely but not doable financially every winter. This year because of how the holidays fell, we decided to take a long road trip to NorCal for a few days. Here’s our trip!

 

Prep

With a week long trip planned — our longest yet in this new-to-us camper — we brought Fleetwood Mac to the house to get everything in place after our first few tumultuous adventures. I tracked some serious mileage walking food, blankets, and dog supplies from our front door to the camper. We’re working on getting duplicates of everything so that eventually we have camper towels in a color different from house towels to make them easy to identify, camper only sheets, etc. to make trip preparation less work.

In the weeks before this trip, Mr. B. installed a composting toilet in the camper and this adventure would be our first time using it. To say that I was a little nervous about this new addition would be a huge understatement! I was a little terrified it would make our bathroom feel like those icky pit toilets at state parks.

We also decided to use the dinette table area as a dog palace while traveling. We collapsed the table, covered it in blankets and dog beds, and added a barrier to keep the puppers in place. It wasn’t much to look at this trip because we just used items we had on hand, but I’ll add an update when we have a more permanent and pretty solution in place!

Hitting the road!

We hooked up the CRV behind us and left (not so) bright and early on Saturday with the plan to find a place to boondock the first night. We made good timing, landing in dry and sunny California by mid afternoon.

The roads were clear as we headed off the Interstate to find a camping spot on a well traveled forest service road, but as soon as we started hitting some elevation, the road started icing over. In a car this would be stressful enough, but we’re traveling in a 31’ foot camper and towing a CRV behind us. Eek! This was when I started getting a little concerned.

Luckily, after driving for about five more minutes — during which the road conditions kept deteriorating — we found a pull off where we could disconnect the CRV. This was our first trip towing the CRV, and this was certainly a stressful way to break in hooking and unhooking it!

Thankfully, it takes less than five minutes to do so and it made me grateful that we chose to flat tow instead of using a trailer to haul our Civic. Mr. B. was able to turn around the camper and I followed him down the hill and we headed back to civilization.

After that experience, we changed course and ended up spending that first night at an expensive private campground that lacked fresh water, but we were thankful to have a safe and warm space to stay. The next morning, we experienced an icky disaster when Mr. B. emptied our tanks and sewage spilled out from what was supposed to be a completely empty black tank. Yes, ew. Very ew. After my husband of the year* cleaned up the mess, we rolled out of the campground and hit the road again for day two of traveling.

* No contest, friends, he wins this award annually.

As we rolled into Redding, I took a photo of a roadside sign and sent it to a friend who lives in DC, but is originally from the area.

Our New Years trip to Northern California in our motorhome

A minute later I got an excited call from my friend because she had just passed the same road sign! She was in the area visiting family and they were driving down to San Francisco. As luck would have it, they were just a mile ahead of us on the road! We made plans to meet for lunch at their usual spot when traveling down I-5.

 

It was wonderful to catch up with my friend and her parents, who are just salt of the earth-type of people. And their taste in restaurants is spot on! Granzella’s in Williams, California is the ideal spot to stop while traveling up or down I-5, especially if you are in a camper! The food was great — I highly recommend getting the egg salad with pickles on sourdough bread — and there is a huge parking lot with plenty of room for large trailers and motorhomes.

Review of Granzella's Restaurant in Williams, California

Refreshed from a good lunch and even better company, we made the final leg of our journey and enjoyed a sunny afternoon drive through wine country to Petaluma.

After two days on the road, I was thrilled to pull into our campground and get settled into our spot. I took the dogs for a well deserved walk while Mr. B.. stayed behind to get the camper set up. After a nice stroll, I walked in the camper door and instantly knew something was wrong based on the look on my husband’s face. I just didn’t know how bad it would be.

Our camper has two things that are called slides. They are motorized spaces that slide out to open up the camper and give you more floor space. The kitchen and couch on our driver’s side is a side out, as is the bed on our passenger side. And that slide had stopped working and was stuck out. Mr. B. started investigating by removing the wooden panel that separated the bed space from the motor and inner workings on the slide, only to discover that the motor had literally broken in half. In half!

When disaster strikes in your motorhome while on a trip...

This was about the time that I started wishing that we’d stopped for me to do tastings at a few wineries during our drive instead of just enjoying the scenery. I went into panic mode, imaging us trying to do the 12 hour or so drive back home with a slide out. I also wondered — not for the first time since buying Fleetwood Mac — if we could just set the damn thing on fire.

The nice thing about marriage is that there’s a rule that no two people can lose their minds completely at the same time, and that the one who is losing it the least can usually rally the other party back to sanity or at least convince them not to set the camper on fire. And while my husband should have been the one losing it the most, as you can probably gather he wasn’t, and so his voice of reason was what got us through this crisis… or what very much felt like a crisis to me.

Cooler heads prevailed, and I started researching our options and trying to find the closest RV parts dealer. I quickly discovered that the closest Camping World was more than an hour away without traffic, but currently at two and climbing. Not to mention that a replacement motor looked to be anywhere from $300-$800, and possibly more depending on the model we need.

Thankfully my husband was able to crank the slide in and out manually, although we were left feeling mildly concerned about its ability to stay in nice and tight while we were traveling back home. At this point, I decided for the next few days to try to pretend that none of this was happening, and didn’t once worry that the slide would open up as we were driving home while going around a curve which causes us to plummet down a sharp embankment to our deaths.

I made dinner, we watched a little TV, and then we went to bed… hoping for a vacay reset in the morning.


The next day was New Years Eve, and we decided to load the puppers up in the car and drive to the coast to say goodbye to 2018 and welcome in the new year.

Our New Years trip to Northern California in our motorhome

The drive to the coast is almost entirely farmland and rolling hills. There are black dairy cows everywhere. I even spotted the farm where some of the milk we buy comes from. With all of this sunshine and the coast view, I’m partly buying the idea of happy California cows.

Our first stop along the way was this crazy rock formation.

Our New Years trip to Northern California in our motorhome

You can’t really tell from here, but it’s quite the drop off! I stayed away from the edge.

Our New Years trip to Northern California in our motorhome

After a quick stop, we made our way to the coast.

Our New Years trip to Northern California in our motorhome

And these guys were excited!

We were starving on our way back to the camper and struggled to find a place to stop, as it’s coast then farm, farm, farm, farm, farm. Luckily, we stumbled upon this gem in the middle of nowhere.

Review of Estero Cafe in Valley Ford, California

Estero Cafe in Valley Ford was to die for. Our meal was not cheap, but from what I could gather everything was farm fresh so you were paying for quality ingredients and you could taste it in every bite. I ordered the mushroom sandwich which was delicious but the true star was the side of onion rings — my mouth is watering just typing about them several weeks later!

We then meandered our way back to the camper for a relaxing afternoon and evening.

I am only mildly embarrassed to admit that I fell asleep just shortly after 9 p.m., a.k.a. East Coast New Years, after my annual call to my father to ask if he’s showered this year.

New Years Day was a quiet one for us. We walked around downtown Petaluma for a bit, not fully anticipating that nearly everything would be closed for the holiday. There are a lot of cute little shops and a theater that I would like to check out the next time we go back.

Review of Lagunitas Brewing Company tour in Petaluma, California

The next day we took a tour of the Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma. It was one of the better brewery tours that I’ve taken, and one of the longest. The first hour or so is beer tasting, and they are more than generous with the pours. It is well worth a stop if you are 21+ and enjoy beer and fanciful storytelling.

The next morning, we packed up and got ready to go. I was full of anxiety as we buckled down the hatches in the camper, and Mr. B. manually cranked in the slide. As we hit the highway, I kept my eye on the rearview window — checking every two to three minutes to see if the slide had fallen out yet. It was a very relaxing ride, let me tell you. When we hit a few bumps the slide moved out a tiny bit, we stopped and Mr. B. adjusted it.

We made one more stop at Granzella’s on our way north and had a fairly uneventful drive for the rest of the way through California, minus a hilariously awful gas station pit stop on the edge of no man’s land.

We drove a few more hours north with me checking the rearview mirror every few minutes to see if the slide was still in until we crossed the Oregon border and made our way to Valley of the Rogue State Park in Gold Hill. Located just off the highway, it’s a good stopping spot for a night while traveling up and down I-5.

After a good night’s rest, we made the final leg home. It was such a relief to see our house after perhaps not the most relaxing trip, when we pulled in front of our house and…

Crunch!

Not exactly the sound you want to hear after a long and eventful trip.

When disaster strikes during your motorhome trip

The body of our camper is a little bit wider than the cab, and it just scraped the railroad ties that we have as borders in front of our house. Thankfully, it was only a superficial wound to the camper and Mr. B. assures me that it’s nothing a little super glue can’t fix.

That Mr. B. He’s the best. And when I asked him about how he felt about camping after everything that went wrong this trip (and the few before it), he thought for a second and said:

Worth it.
— Mr. B.

A few lessons learned from our trip

This trip was quite an adventure and I even left out a few things that went haywire for the sake of brevity and in an attempt not to be a completely Debbie Downer. So I would love to share a few tidbits that we learned from this trip.

Check your expectations.

We bought a used camper which has its positives and its negatives. The positives being that we could afford it and the negatives being that — even though it’s in relatively good shape — it’s going to have things go wrong with it. And that can be frustrating and stressful, especially for me because I don’t know how to fix anything, so it’s probably best that I remind myself when these things happen how much we would have to pay for a new camper.

Don’t drive in the dark

We’ve always had a rule about arriving before sundown, which hasn’t always happened in the past and that’s usually when disaster strikes. Trying to find a boondocking spot at sunset on our first night led to a lot of unnecessary stress, and then we ended up paying much more than we typically would for a camping spot out of desperation.

Keep it half full

When it comes to your life outlook and the gas and propane tanks, always keep them half full. If we had stopped to fill up our tanks earlier, we wouldn’t have needed to make that ill-fated gas stop that ended up taking us nearly an hour. My second piece of gas advice is to try to avoid smaller stations and instead try to stick to truck stops and travel centers when driving a 31’ camper and towing a car behind you.

And if your vacation turns out to be more of a Trip with a capital T, two to three hours worth of Real Housewives and a bucket full of chips and salsa when you get home will fix you every time.