Coming in to Pismo Beach, we knew we had a work-heavy week ahead of us. This casual beach town is only 10 miles from San Luis Obispo, which is home to California Polytechnic State University and a host of big box stores. We planned to make the SLO Costco our last major Costco restocking visit before we spend about 6 weeks in the desert southwest, and were pleased to find a Whole Foods in SLO as well. More important, as the last place we’ll be camped for a while that has both an electricity hookup and consistent cell coverage, we knew we needed to focus on planning our route for next year while we could spend all day online researching and making reservations.
To help accommodate the major food restocking, I reprioritized our pantry space. For example, we finally finished off a canister of oats that has been traveling with us since Miami. We are apparently among the silent majority of people who claim to like oatmeal, but never actually make it. Nonetheless, those oats were a great addition to a hearty batch of oatmeal raisin bar cookies. We also enjoyed devouring our artisan cheese from Cowgirl Creamery alongside one of the nicer bottles of wine that we picked up in Napa. Even after using up some of the less-critical pantry and fridge items, it turned out we were still challenged to find places to store all our canned goods and other shelf-stable items. But there’s nothing weird about storing canned tomatoes in a cabinet with long underwear and slippers, right?
We also spent quite a bit of time at Home Depot selecting various solvents and lubricants to help us do some necessary cleaning and maintenance on the trailer. The environments we have experienced this year ranged from hot, dry high desert to incredibly moist temperate rain forest, and the Airstream has plenty of squeaky hinges, temperamental latches, and sticky windows to show for it. One of our main tasks at our next stop is to clean all the problem areas and apply lubricants.
So Much Planning
The biggest lift during the week, however, was travel planning for 2019. As we suspected, once we completed the Lewis & Clark Trail and our family visit for Thanksgiving, the blank slate ahead of us was a little overwhelming. We have the ability to travel virtually anywhere (so long as there is a road system), which means that we suffer from an overabundance of choices. We love the outdoors and impressive wildlife. Should we go to Alaska next year? We also enjoyed learning so much about American history this year. Should we go back to the east coast to visit Civil War sites like Gettysburg? We’ve never spent any significant time in the Midwest – how about Chicago and a summer along the Michigan shore? I can tell you from personal experience that the Paradox of Choice is a real thing.
We do our planning as a committee of two. This means that it certainly takes longer than just one person making executive decisions, as we each do independent research and throw out ideas, then spend hours discussing the alternatives. On the other hand, unlike any committee I’ve previously been a part of, our collaboration actually yields better results than either one of us would achieve alone. But it’s a slow process that was made slower by our near-total paralysis by analysis.
Our starting point was that we would be greeting the new year in the Southern California desert, and intended to spend the coldest months of the year in Arizona. What we didn’t consider is that Arizona, like Florida, is one of the top destinations for RVers in the winter. We know exactly how busy things get in snowbird season in Florida, but foolishly didn’t apply that knowledge to making our plans for Arizona. This week when we initially mapped out a game plan for the winter and spring, we were dismayed to discover that most of the public parks where we wanted to camp in Arizona were already booked solid. We had hoped to slow down our travel pace, making longer visits in each location, but this effort was stymied by only being able to get reservations of a few days at a time at each potential location.
Full time travel really requires planning ahead for busy destinations, and the mix of reservation windows makes for a big challenge. For example, most federal campgrounds can be reserved up to 6 months in advance, while state and local parks typically range from three months to as much as eleven months in advance (Florida). So at any given time we might need to be booking multiple locations in totally different states and seasons, working on 90-day planning at the same time as 180-day planning and even longer-term projections of where we might be and how long we might want to stay there. Needless to say, it’s a logistical nightmare.
We managed to avoid the issue the last few months by procrastinating and ignoring the task, and paid the price when it came time to reserve sites in Arizona in January and February. We also experienced three consecutive days of rain during the week, which didn’t improve our moods. Drought-stricken California really needed the rain to reduce fire risk. Anxiety-stricken me, on the other hand, really did not need to spend three solid days trapped in an aluminum tube staring hopelessly at Recreation.gov and ReserveAmerica.com. It was also unnerving discussing our budget for the upcoming year while the stock market was making stomach churning moves on a daily basis. Meanwhile, a colony of ants found shelter from the rain by moving into the trailer with us. Boo.
Despite all these setbacks, we managed to work through the challenges and come up with Plan B, Plan C, and ultimately settle on Plan D or Plan E. Our general outline for the year will have us spending the winter in Arizona, spring in Utah, summer in Colorado, and the fall in New Mexico. We have some nice long stays booked in several locations, so we can minimize the risk of experiencing terrible travel days. Our route for the year will take us to even more breathtaking scenery, especially in states we have not explored. It should be great, but mostly we are just relieved to have a plan in place with reservations secured. And while it certainly felt like we spent the entire week shaking our fists at the sky in frustration, we did have some time for a few fun activities in the area.
Pismo Beach Walking
When we were not dogged by rain, we loved walking on the wide, flat beach at Pismo State Beach. Our campsite at Oceano Campground was centrally situated within the State Beach, so a mere 5 minute walk across the dunes brought us onto a beach that stretched for miles in each direction. It was the first Pacific Beach where I’ve been warm enough to walk barefooted, and it felt great to get sand between my toes.
The one strange aspect of Pismo Beach is that it is a major destination for vehicular traffic. People drive cars and trucks up and down the beach (and up, and down, and up, and down) in an activity that I just don’t get. Even stranger was the large number of people who chose to drive onto the beach with large motorhomes and trailers, even pulling up into the soft sand. They are obviously far bolder than us. We had the opportunity to laugh at the driver of a huge fifth wheel who drove down the hard-packed “road” in the sand, barreled up the beach into soft dunes, promptly got stuck, and seemed surprised by this turn of events. On the other hand, we saw plenty of RVs driving on the beach with no issue, so maybe getting stuck really is a surprise.
The weirdest part of the beach is near a section of dune where Off Highway Vehicles (OHVs) are allowed, since rental companies have set up veritable parking lots of vehicles for rent, and campers living in giant toyhaulers have their own mini parking lots of personal ATVs, dune buggies, and more. The scene was reminiscent of Mad Max and was all pretty wild, but since we didn’t get run over while walking on the beach it all worked out fine. Just watching the crashing waves and scampering seabirds helped us ignore the crazy drivers and ease the stress of travel planning.
Monarch Butterfly Grove
An interesting area within the Pismo Beach State Beach park is a grove of eucalyptus trees that has historically served as an overwintering site for monarch butterflies. I say “historically” because the annual overwintering population has crashed from 250,000 twenty years ago to a measly 3,000 insects counted this season. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see (a few) monarchs suspended from the trees in clusters. Unlike the Florida monarch population, which is active and breeding year round, western monarchs go into a period of dormancy over the winter in which they eat very little and do not reproduce. The best location to do this is a grove of trees with the correct height and canopy density to trap humidity, repel rain, and maintain a consistently cool environment. While eucalyptus trees are not native to California, most of the oak trees that covered the pre-Columbian California coast were cut down by the middle of the 19th century, and the butterflies found that eucalyptus made an adequate substitute.
Historically the colonies of butterflies would renew their normal life patterns in spring when warmer weather arrived, providing the signal to awake and mate. Unfortunately, increasingly warm winter weather has made this portion of the California coast far less favorable for overwintering, since the butterflies are not consistently cool enough to remain in suspended animation. On warm days, they apparently get pretty active and with enough warm days their bodies become fully mature for reproduction.
And in yet another painful example of unintended consequences, researchers from CalPoly think that the factors leading to the demise of the monarch population include the well-intentioned efforts of people in the neighboring communities who plant milkweed, the monarch caterpillar host plant. Apparently monarchs have such sensitive chemical receptors, finely attuned to locating milkweed, that if they catch wind of milkweed within five miles of the overwintering site they will come out of dormancy and start mating. The females may even successfully lay eggs on the nearby milkweed, but once the caterpillars eat their initial host and complete metamorphosis, the resulting adult butterflies can’t find food when they follow their instincts and head north into still-frigid areas. But there is hope: while the butterfly population here in Pismo is suffering, they have the opportunity to return to using historic overwintering sites in the coastal redwoods forests along the coast of northern California, which remain protected and cool in the winter.
One day we took a short day trip 20 miles up the coast to Morro Bay State Park, which surrounds a peaceful lagoon that is protected from the Pacific by a narrow strip of beach. The iconic Morro Rock serves as a sentinel guarding the narrow entrance from the open ocean. The lagoon is an outstanding habitat for many kinds of birds as well as marine mammals, while the calm, glassy surface makes it a paradise for kayaking and paddleboarding. During our brief visit we enjoyed a few short hikes along the water’s edge and up to the pinnacle of Black Hill, soaking in views of familiar wading birds and the impressive coastal scenery.
San Luis Obispo Mission
We also made a quick stop in downtown San Luis Obispo to visit the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Founded in 1772 by the famous Junipero Serra himself, the mission is the core of the namesake town that grew up around it. The mission complex includes an interesting small museum of artifacts ranging from native Chumash items to artwork, tools, and religious objects from the earliest days of the mission. Though we remain ambivalent about both the purpose and methods employed by the Franciscans at the missions, the historic buildings and artifacts were interesting. I also enjoyed getting a glimpse of the historic city center of SLO. It struck me as a more authentic and charming version of Napa, and a place that would be worth exploring in greater depth.
Next we head further south to Ventura, to spend a final week soaking in the Pacific before we head inland to the desert.