The story picks up right where the Arizona drama left off. We crossed into California as the sun was setting. Apparently there are huge, pretty sand dunes in the “Inland Empire” area of California along Interstate 8, but we didn’t see much in the dark. The only sign of it was the neon color LED lights on the dune buggies that were ripping around the dark shapes of the dunes.
For possibly the only time in our trip, our campground for the night had a drop dead closing time of 7 p.m. At the Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado between San Diego and Tijuana, the person with the keys locks the gates to the campground at 7 p.m. and disappears until 7 a.m. the next morning. None of this changes and there are apparently no other options, even if you explain that you had tire drama in Yuma and have already paid a non-refundable $50 for the night at Silver Strand.
We checked other campgrounds including circling through one, only to find they were booked solid. Coming in after 9:30 p.m., the best we could find was a $41 per night county park east of San Diego.
We had to get the campground host Herman out of bed to check us in. I remember he was named Herman because he was young, shirtless and long haired — basically, he didn’t look anything like a Herman. Welcome to California.
The park turned out to be great and was way up in the hills with a beautiful view of the city.
Very quickly on the road in the morning, even Braden realized Southern California was a different kind of place. “Why are there so many cars?” he asked. “Why are there so many buildings? Is the whole world in California?”
I had really thought seeing the Pacific for the first time on the trip would really be a big moment, like with Lewis and Clark. As it turned out, I was watching the traffic in front of me too much to even notice at first.
Once we finally made it to Silver Strand State Beach, we were pleased that it was right on the beach and the Pacific Ocean. We were disappointed that it was a parking lot with electric and water hookups. Oh, and those gates still closed at 7 p.m. with no access for cars or RVs. Jess called the park The Old Folks Home, because everyone had to turn in by 7 p.m. It’s almost like something out of The Purge or some other movie where they drive around in a truck at 6:45 with a loudspeaker telling you they are about to lock the gates and you either need to be in or out. Don’t ask us what San Diego is like at night because we were locked in before dark.
When we got out to ride bikes around the coast after work, I found out we had another flat tire — this time on my bike. We took it to a bike shop in Coronado where they guy said I had picked up a cactus spine at Saguaro and it popped the tube. We pulled back in at 6:45 p.m. just in time to hear the truck with the loudspeaker announce we were about to be sealed off from the outside world.
For three days, Braden demonstrated how much he really loves sand and doesn’t mind it getting in odd places like his ear hole. He throws it in the air, digs in it and makes sand angels. The ocean was brutally cold so we only got out a little over our ankles. Still, considering we could have still been stuck at a Pep Boys in Yuma, we were happy to be where we were.
While we were at Silver Strand, we passed a deadline at work for new clients to sign up with us in the Dakotas and Minnesota. I had spent a good chunk of time meeting people last summer and even more time calling and sending messages over the winter. It was very rewarding to have two new clients sign up with us. Growing the company had been a big part of my sales pitch for this trip to my boss. This meant that companies I had met with since we hit the road had accounted for 20 percent growth in my division. This was a weight off me to feel like I was holding my part of the bargain.
So riding high from that professional win, I promptly made our first big navigational error of the trip and programmed in the wrong state park for our next night. The park we were supposed to go to was an hour north in San Elijo. The park I put into the GPS was 2 hours north on the other side of Laguna Beach. I realized my error when the park rangers told me they couldn’t find my reservation. We drove back through Laguna Beach an hour south to San Elijo. Oops. At San Elijo, we were rewarded with a beautiful campsite on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. We watched surfers riding the waves and enjoyed one of the prettiest sunsets I’ve ever seen.
We were working our way north to see my brother Adam in North Hollywood and had planned to stay the next night at Dana Point, San Clemente or Bolsa Chica but the coast was set to get slammed by vicious winds and storms. We changed plans and pushed farther north and inland to Balboa RV Park in Van Nuys. That storm turned out to be the most rainfall Southern California had gotten in about 14 years and is part of why they are no longer in a drought. In Van Nuys, we watched the cement ditch behind our site called Balboa Creek rise about 5 or 6 feet before receding.
We got a taste of Hollywood early as the campground is right next door to the studio where they film Master Chef and Hell’s Kitchen. It had been used in an episode of NCIS when the stars of the show were investigating someone who lived in an RV Park. They had photos in the RV park office where they blew up a travel trailer in the episode.
The park was pricey and crowded (sounds like Southern California?), but they obviously took a lot of pride in it with murals and other art sprinkled throughout. Many of the people in the campground worked in some facet of show biz. The staff was nice and the laundry was cheap.
The park in Van Nuys was the closest one we could find to where my brother Adam lives. We had planned for a couple of months to be visiting him on Braden’s birthday and my parents had decided to fly out from Atlanta for a joint visit and birthday party. We packed a lot into a couple of days, including lunch and an Aztec dance demonstration at Olvera Street, seeing the Lego Batman Movie in Burbank, eating artichoke on pizza, visiting the La Brea Tar Pits, seeing the space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center and sharing cake and presents at Adam’s apartment. We even briefly saw the Hollywood sign through the fog and rain. Not to dwell on the negative, but Southern California was oddly the rainiest stop on our entire trip so far. There was rain almost everyday, and sometimes a drizzle for a couple of hours.
While Braden was impressed by the shuttle, the Batman movie and the Tar Pits, he has talked about Adam’s girlfriend Lea’s dog Gidget and Adam’s friend Harley at the comic book store more often than anything else. Go figure.
Most importantly, we really enjoyed seeing everyone. Braden especially enjoyed seeing his Uncle Beebo, Nana and Pops, and not just because my dad even smuggled some of the single-serving cups of Nutella to us from his hotel’s complimentary breakfast.
Since we were going to be in Los Angeles, and since it was Braden’s birthday, we decide to take him to Disneyland. We’d heard it was a little more laid back than Disney World and since neither of us had ever been, we decided to jump in and embrace the madness. As an added bonus, my folks were able to go with us for Braden to get a little more time with them. We moved the RV to the Anaheim RV park which had a shuttle bus directly to the gate. This was the perfect way to get to and from Disneyland.
We didn’t tell Braden until the morning of the visit. We continue to be grateful that he’s such an easy-going, gracious kid, because I think he knew Disney was right there, but never asked about going. That morning, he was pretty excited when we got him up early and told him.
The weather cleared up and we rode just about everything he wanted to ride, including Peter Pan, It’s a Small World, Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Haunted Mansion, Nemo’s submarine, Pinocchio, Alice and Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a new Star Wars ride and some Buzz Lightyear Toy Story ride where you get to shoot lasers. At the end of almost every ride, Braden asked to ride again — even the ones we thought might scare him a little bit.
We met with Mickey, flashed back to New Orleans with Mickey-shaped beignets and watched the entire Main Street Electrical Parade. The parade really exceeded our expectations and was both fun and a little retro. In the end, Braden fell asleep in his clothes in our bed and didn’t wake up until the next morning despite being moved to his bed. You know it’s a fun day when your kid falls asleep in his clothes.
On the shuttle to the park we met some fellow campers Richard and Victoria who were ministers in Oregon. We had a good time talking with them about their RV trips and were surprised the next morning when they brought Braden a birthday present they had gotten for him at the park. That same morning, the people at the RV park found out it was his birthday and gave him a special birthday surprise including a couple of Star Wars action figures. It’s been an unusual year of travel for the little guy, but one thing can be said for sure: he knows he had a birthday.
Then to further prove Disneyland is a special place, Jess finally “pulled an Andy” as she calls it and started a conversation with strangers simply based on the fact the dad was wearing an Atlanta Braves cap. While she talks to strangers often for work, small talk with strangers in public that she will probably never see again is never at the top of her list. Or even on her list. Branching out was rewarded this time and she met a nice family that was moving back to Alpharetta, Ga. (the next town over from where Andy grew up) after 9 years in Australia. They had taken a cross country RV trip with their sons before settling back down.
There was plenty more to do in California, but that’s all that will fit right here, for now!