Desert Living

Joshua Tree National Park with my parents and good friends visiting from NY.
So many lovely relatives and friends to talk to! And chips to eat.

We’ve had an unusually social few weeks in San Diego and Palm Springs, with family and friends in town from the East Coast and local friends visiting the area. It’s been wonderful to spend time with everyone, and good for all of us to have so much social interaction. Especially for Chris and me. We didn’t realize how much we were missing – adult conversation! With a variety of adults!

We’ve enjoyed being back in Desert Hot Springs, at the same RV park we stayed at in December. We’re going to miss the relaxing hot spring mineral pools and the big swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. The awesome free yoga classes, and the open scrubland across the street for off-leash dog walks. The expansive valley and mountain views, and the Pokémon Go Pokestop conveniently located at the RV park entrance (if you don’t know what that last part means, just ask Charlie). However, we are all ready to hit the road in March and explore new places again. We need to get back into the National Park Junior Ranger programs to augment my slacking-off roadschool curriculum. But before we start making our gradual way toward the East Coast, I’d like to share some photos from our time in the beautiful Coachella Valley, starting with some desert culture.

Free yoga on the Great Lawn at Sunnylands Center and Garden. It was special to get to experience a class with my Mom and Rita in such a spectacular setting.
The Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center, right in the center of town. The kids read books in the former vault, now gift shop, of this 1961 bank building.
Rita and I enjoyed free admission on Thursday evenings to the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Another outpost of the Palm Springs Art Museum, a great sculpture garden in Palm Desert.
The incredible Cabot’s Pueblo Museum. I’m going to need a separate blog post about the homesteader Cabot Yerxa who built this place by hand.
View from above Cabot’s Pueblo in Desert Hot Springs, with the Coachella Valley and San Jacinto mountains in the distance.
Tahquitz Falls, the spectacular reward for a hike into Tahquitz Canyon.
Hiking into Tahquitz Canyon
McCallum Grove, a genuine oasis in the desert, and just a short hike from the Thousand Palms Preserve Visitor Center – another oasis. All this water bubbling up to the surface is due to the San Andreas Fault.
Hiking through Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve.
We are going to miss the pools at Sam’s.
The open land across from our RV park is great for a walk with the dogs, and incredibly green thanks to all the recent rain.
Sam’s has been our home longer than anywhere else since we left our house!

Ready to hit the open road again. (That’s the road to Sam’s with San Gorgonio in the distance.)

San Diego Has a Beach?

Canyon views from Kwaay Paay Peak Trail

Jan 27 – We’ve been staying in San Diego County since January 1st but hadn’t been into the city yet. I had to tell Rita and Charlie that San Diego is on the ocean, and we will get to go to the beach! The main reason we’ve been holding off is to wait until family and friends from the East Coast arrived yesterday for a few days to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. Also: rain. Lots of rain.

As the sun finally emerges again and the temperature starts warming up to an acceptable level for vacationing East Coasters, I’m excited to get to spend lots of time with my family exploring the beaches, parks, and historical sites in San Diego.

Before the festivities begin, I want to write about the incredible Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the largest urban parks in the US. The landscape in East County San Diego is rugged and gorgeous –  steep hills and deep canyons that are bright green, thanks to all that rain, and the rocky Cuyamaca Mountains. Mission Trails covers over 7,000 acres, but even the little bit we’ve explored over a couple days is wonderfully diverse.

We’ve been in a lot of State and National Park Visitor Centers over the past few months. Mission Trails stands out as one of the best overall, and entrance to the park is free. Rita, Charlie, and I comfortably spent a few hours at the Visitor Center one day while it rained on and off. The kids worked on activity books in the engaging Interpretive Center. We used telescopes to look at the cool mountain rocks up close. We watched an excellent 16-minute film, one of several available, about the native Kumeyaay people. We sat in the cozy library where I wrote, and Rita and Charlie read National Geographic Kids magazines. The whole time we could admire a panoramic view of the mountain-framed valley from inside, and even got to see a rainbow. (Full story: When we were in the library I had my back to the windows as I was telling the kids to speak quietly and not bother me while I was working. Rita interrupted to say there was a rainbow behind me. Fine, lecture over.)

If you have time while in San Diego, I highly recommend a visit to Mission Trails Regional Park. It’s only 30 minutes from the beach and a great opportunity to take a mountain hike, learn some local history, and experience another beautiful yet dramatically different Southern California landscape. 

Visitor Center view with rainbow (and a few raindrops falling on Charlie’s head)
Visitor Center with traditional Kumeyaay shelters (and less traditional headgear)
The two-level Interpretive Center
View from the Visitor Center’s second story
The library, stocked with nature books and kids’ books and magazines.
Visitor Center Loop Trail
The 200-year-old Old Mission Dam
Indian Grinding Rocks at the San Diego River, just off the Visitor Loop Trail
View of El Capitan and the city of Santee, from the Kwaay Paay Peak Trail (we did not make it to the peak – imagine that view!).

Falling in Love with an Unlikely Place

Just a few weeks into our full time travel adventures, before starting this blog, we found ourselves in the town of Likely in the northeastern most county of California. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, and it was wonderful. Read about our experience and see more photos of this underexplored corner of California in an article I wrote for the online travel magazine GoMad Nomad:

The Joys of Reading

January 11, 2017 – I had to leave behind daily hot pool soaks to get motivated to write my next post. We’ve enjoyed the relaxed pace of staying put for a month at a time, first in Desert Hot Springs and now at Santee Lakes outside San Diego. The campground is part of a state recreational area with a string of 7 small lakes, long walking and biking trails, multiple playgrounds, and interesting wildlife (pelicans and coyotes and frogs, oh my!). We really only have to leave to get groceries.

Instead of writing about our latest adventures in the great outdoors, I’ve been thinking about our love for the great indoors pursuit of reading. We’ve been spending more time inside, thanks to the much-needed rain that’s been hitting Southern California, and I’ve been able to get a local library card since we’re staying for a few weeks. It’s been great to be able to borrow new books and DVDs (especially the DVDs!).

I’ve always enjoyed going to the library to write, and the kids are happy to spend time playing on the computer or gorging on picture books. Rita’s on the 5th Harry Potter book since starting the series in November, and Charlie’s reading chapter books, but they both still love the short stories and illustrations of picture books. It doesn’t make sense for us to buy and store these in the RV when they go through them so fast, so the kids take advantage of the opportunity to pull anything off the shelf that catches their eye at the library and to read as many as they can in a sitting.

I’m typing this at the Santee Public Library, a 5 minute drive from our RV park. Charlie is across from me with a pile of books, and Rita jumped in with a dozen boys in an after-school chess club. Last week they both joined an awesome hour-long kids yoga class. The library in Desert Hot Springs was small, but always busy and the staff was friendly and helpful. Another thing I’ve appreciated about becoming a regular visitor is being able to observe and to feel a part of the local community. We love libraries.

When we were traveling around more frequently we searched out independent and secondhand bookstores to browse and stock up. We found some notable shops, like Hein & Company in Jackson, CA with a second floor dedicated to all things Sherlock Holmes including detailed period rooms, a tea shop, and costumed docents. Or Eureka Books, a beautiful store with a wrap-around second story balcony, that had a nice mix of new and used books. The Bookworm in Santa Maria was in a small nondescript storefront in a strip mall, but it had an incredible selection and a friendly and knowledgeable owner.

We’ll still go to a Barnes & Noble if we’re looking for something specific, but I’ve enjoyed finding whatever might be available in a particular store, either a title I haven’t read yet by a favorite author, or something on my running list of books-to-look-for based on reviews and recommendations from friends.

Our inventory of books has slowly crept up since we moved into the RV. I started out borrowing library books on my iPad. I liked the idea, but with spotty Wifi and competing demands for the iPad between my writing and the kids’ games, I migrated back to actual books. We’re storing them in overhead cabinets in plastic bins and in a space under our bed, but there are still always a few books piled up on the dining table, on the windowsill in our room, and on the kids’ beds. I try to cull through them frequently and give away as many as we’re bringing in.

And now for what really inspired this post, a photo collection of the kids in a few of the many great bookstores and libraries we’ve visited, doing one of the things they enjoy most.

Exploring Family History

A view of the San Jacinto Mountains from Sam’s Family Spa

December 14 – We are settled in Desert Hot Springs, CA for one month (with a little side trip to Santa Cruz). After traveling around so much since August, never spending more than a week at a place, more often 3 or 4 days, it feels good to stay put for a little while. We’re at a great RV park: Sam’s Family Spa Hot Water Resort. Let me tell you, it does not take long to become accustomed to daily soaks in the mineral hot pools, followed by a couple hours at the huge, spring-heated swimming pool. Not long at all.

Never Leaving

Chris’ mother’s family is from the Coachella Valley. We learned more about his family history, in some unexpected ways, during our travels in Arizona before we arrived in the high desert. While in Tucson we visited Mission San Xavier del Bac on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, where Chris’ grandmother was born and where his great-grandmother is buried. The Mission is gorgeous, well worth a visit on its own, but it was special for the kids to learn about their heritage while seeing it for the first time. When I posted a picture on Facebook, Chris’ mother Cec and his Uncle George shared stories about their mother, Josephine, whose humble origins are in stark contrast to the rich facade of San Xavier.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Josephine was born in 1925, the third of six siblings, with an older brother and sister, a younger sister, and twins who did not survive infancy. They spent most of their time traveling between Tucson and Casa Grande, about halfway to Phoenix, living in a covered wagon and sleeping underneath it at night. Their father, Jose, made money by gathering firewood, and sometimes resorting to cattle rustling. Jose was in and out of jail. When the children’s mother, Maria, passed away at age 29, Jose left the four siblings to live with an aunt in the Coachella Valley in California.

This journey from Tuscon, Arizona, along what is now Interstate 8, included a crossing of the Imperial Sand Dunes on the Plank Road. Consisting of 13,000 wooden planks, the development of this road over the soft sands was spurred on by a competition between San Diego and Los Angeles for the fastest automobile route from Phoenix to Southern California. (The history of the road is fascinating; read here for more details.)

Chris found that a portion of the Old Plank Road was kept preserved as a California Historical Landmark not far from where we were staying in Yuma, Arizona. This 1,500 foot section was pieced together in the 1970’s from remnants found throughout the dunes. It was pretty amazing to walk along the weather-beaten planks and twisted iron rails, some almost completely buried in sand, so soon after learning the existence of this piece of history of the American West, and its place in our family history.

Rita walking in the footsteps of her Great-Grandmother

Once we arrived in Palm Springs we met up with Cec and Uncle George. The kids got to talk with them about visiting San Xavier and the Plank Road, and we heard more stories about Grandma Josie and her family, many of which had been told by Josie’s older sister, Rita. (Our Rita is named both for her great-aunt and for my grandmother.) This kind of immersion into history and serendipitous discovery is something we hoped for when we took the leap to travel full time.

A replica of the Plank Road, with the original in the background

Going to the Dentist in Mexico

Rita at lunch in Los Algodones
We’ve ended up spending over a week in Yuma, AZ, which didn’t seem likely when we were calling around to make a reservation. This is a major snowbird destination, and most RV parks only allow ages 55 and over. Plus, many places have dog breed restrictions, with pit bulls at the top of the list. We finally found a park that allows both kids and all types of dogs (I had to keep myself from groveling: “We won’t be a problem, I promise!”, after getting an affirmative answer to both questions). 

Who doesn’t want this happy guy in their RV park?

The reason we stopped in Yuma was to go to the dentist in Mexico. The town of Los Algodones right across the border is a big “medical tourism” destination, offering prescriptions and dental and vision services for a fraction of the cost in the US and Canada. I’ll be up front that I didn’t know anything about it, and was a bit skeptical when Chris suggested we all go and get our teeth cleaned across the border. But I learned that the industry in Los Algodones is well established and respected. There are lots of reviews online, many for extensive dental work. We only needed cleanings, so I figured it was low risk. And with all of the rhetoric regarding the US-Mexican border, I was curious to experience a (round-trip, hopefully!) crossing by foot.

Based on reviews, I called an 800 number for Sani Dental Group on Saturday and was able to make back-to-back appointments for the four of us on Tuesday. We drove a few miles to a large parking lot at the border run by the local Quechan tribe. There is no town on the US side, only the border crossing. The Colorado River is narrow here, and the buildings in Los Algodones, including the very noticeable and obviously named Purple Pharmacy, are visible above the river reeds and cattails just a couple hundred feet away. We followed a sidewalk along the road that passes through the border and walked into Mexico without any checks. The little of the town that we saw was compact and bustling. There were a few people handing out cards for doctors, and craft and souvenir stands lining the sidewalks. It looked like a port-of-call tourist town, except for all of the medical offices, and the young doctors and technicians in scrubs walking around amidst the older North American tourists.

Before crossing I called for the dental group’s free shuttle bus, and a minivan was waiting for us in front of the Purple Pharmacy as promised. The Sani Dental Platinum office was clean and modern, with a round reception desk in the center and long white couches. The kids quickly settled in to watch Zorro in Spanish on the large TV while Chris and I filled out our registration forms. 

Charlie went first. I accompanied him to the exam room and met Dr. Gretter, a young woman who mentioned later that she was from Cuba. Dr. Gretter and the hygienist were very professional, but also affectionate towards Charlie; they exclaimed “que lindo” and kissed him on the cheek. Multiple times. He passed his check up.

Rita’s always been good with dentists and doctors – unless a needle is involved. Things were going great until Dr. Gretter found that she had a small cavity, her first, on one of her permanent molars. Chris and I both agreed that we should go ahead with the procedure after the dentist explained that there would be minimal drilling and a resin filling. Fortunately for all of us, it did not hurt, as Rita had been assured. She survived her first cavity and is a much more thorough brusher now.

Chris and my cleanings were a lot more pleasant and quicker than expected since they used an ultrasonic scaler (I looked it up later) rather than the manual scraping we’re used to enduring. 

Happy patients with Dr. Gretter
After eating at a restaurant nearby recommended by the reception staff (Charlie was very excited to get to eat his favorite food, a bean and cheese burrito, in Mexico), we walked the couple blocks back to the border and joined the alarmingly long line to walk across. The line moved slowly but steadily, and had shade cover and benches. When we arrived at the checkpoint an hour later, our two passports (one expired) and two original birth certificates were accepted with no issue, and there was no bag check.

We walked back to our car, drove back to our RV park, and took the dogs out. Total cost for four cleanings and one filling: $185, plus $6 for parking. It was an interesting and positive experience – and the kids’ first trip abroad! We promised them that we would visit Mexico again, and not just to go to the dentist.

It was also Rita’s 8th birthday on Monday. We celebrated with a fun lunch at the legendary Lutes Casino (not a casino currently, but a restaurant/bar) in oldtown Yuma followed by bowling. I also ordered up this rainbow, although Rita was still asleep when it appeared:

Birthday rainbow over our RV park
Rita got a sundae and Happy Birthday sung by the staff at Lutes.
Charlie’s favorite dish (at Lutes Casino): bean and cheese burrito

Grand Canyon

Route 66 between Oatman and Topock AZ

Nov 13, 2016 – We have seen a lot since the last post: family and friends during a super quick visit back to LA for Halloween, a good portion of desolate and beautiful old Route 66 between Needles CA and Williams AZ, and petroglyphs on a hike outside of Williams. I had to scroll back through my pictures to remember, because it pretty much all pales in comparison to Grand Canyon, the next stop after Williams.

Our timing lucked out with it being low season but still not too cold. We were able to get a spot at Trailer Village, the one full hookup (water, electricity, sewer) RV park at the South Rim. Chris has been to Grand Canyon when he was a teenager, but this was my first time, and I was so excited. We arrived in the afternoon, and even though I was dying to see the Canyon for the first time (we did get a glimpse on the drive in), we waited a couple hours so we could be there for the sunset. The RV park is paved, and there are bike paths connecting the lodge and store near us with the Village and Visitor Center. I took the kids for a ride, and just outside the RV park we ran into a couple of elk, grazing alongside the bike path. It was a thrill; of course, this was before we knew that elk and deer like to hang out and graze in the RV park and we had several more up-close viewings.

I’m not going to try to describe seeing Grand Canyon for the first time, except to say that it lives up to all hype and expectations. We drove to the Visitor Center nearby, the kids picked up their Junior Ranger workbooks, and then we walked to the Rim. Mather Point is an easily accessible and popular viewpoint, and it was busy, but not crowded. Rita gasped with delight; it was great to experience seeing it with her for the first time. Charlie was impressed, until he found out that Grand Canyon is full of Pokémon and that was more impressive. (Seriously, if you play Pokémon Go, consider a trip to Grand Canyon.) 

We found out pretty quickly that a challenge of going to Grand Canyon with young children, besides an obsession with Pokémon that makes one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders pale in comparison to catching imaginary beings on a cell phone, is the lack of guardrails. Standing at the Rim created a dizzying combination of vertigo and fear, along with awe, that made it clear from that first visit that we would not be comfortable doing any major hikes here. We told the kids that the reason there are few railings in the National Parks is to preserve the views, and that people are trusted to behave responsibly. We told them that every year a few people fall, and they die. And we told them that the people we saw right at the edge taking selfies or posing for pictures were idiots.   

So, no hike down Bright Angel Trail into the Canyon for us. But there was still plenty to see and do along the Rim Trail and in the Village, with both El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge. (I love a National Park Lodge.) We listened to a Ranger talk about the California Condor, and the federal population recovery program that has brought the Condor population from a total of 23 single birds in the mid-1980’s to over 400 currently in captivity and the wild. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see a California Condor, but the kids had an extra special Junior Ranger pledge given by Ranger Sarah right at the Rim (with railings!).   

We took the shuttle bus seven miles west from the Village to Hermit’s Rest, with stops at several viewpoints along the way. This was a great way to see a lot more of the Canyon without hiking along the Rim. Hermit’s Rest is one of several historic Grand Canyon buildings designed by the architect Mary Colter between 1905 and 1935. Learning about her career in the Southwest, and seeing her revolutionary Rustic buildings in the landscape they were specifically designed for, was one of the highlights of the visit for me. 

Another highlight was watching the sunrise. Chris and Charlie were neutral to the suggestion, but Rita enthusiastically agreed to be woken up early to join me, even though she’s a kid who loves to sleep well past 8am. We left the RV park around 6:30 just as the sky was getting light, found ourselves a seat on a rock wall with an open view, and cuddled together under a blanket. As the sun rose behind us, the contours and colors of the Canyon slowly and subtly became more apparent, until the sun broke over the horizon and the tops of the Canyon peaks were a glowing pink. It was wonderful, and a special moment to share with Rita. (I hope she remembers it; I’ll be sure to remind her every couple years until she is at least 30.)

We drove east out of the park, enjoying new vantage points and stopping at Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower. Now we are in Flagstaff for a few days, which is a cool town surrounded by an embarrassment of stunning landscapes and National Monuments. I documented on Instagram our visits to three National Monuments: Wupatki and Walnut Canyon, two ancient Native dwellings, very different from each other but each spectacular; and the nearby Sunset Crater Volcano

In addition to enjoying the natural beauty and history of the area, I’ve done ten loads of laundry (A+ rating: lots of machines, low price per load, big table for folding, no closing time, close to our campsite), and we’ve had our second playground injury. Charlie’s face, again – he landed on it when he fell off the monkey bars – but thankfully this time no ER visit was necessary. After surviving the Grand Canyon, the steep and narrow walkways around Walnut Canyon, and a hike on a rocky trail just this morning, it was the campground playground that drew blood yet again.  

It is starting to get real, actual cold at night now, so after a drive to Sedona tomorrow and one more night (and one more load of laundry) in Flagstaff we are heading south to Tucson

In the box canyon with petroglyphs, outside Williams AZ

First visit to Grand Canyon South Rim, almost sunset

Mary Colter’s Lookout Studio in Grand Canyon Village

The balcony on Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower