The Ultimate Road Trip: THE SILVER SNAIL : A solo woman's full-time RV adventure
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San Francisco, California

After the agricultural checkpoint at the California border, where they searched my vehicle and refrigerator for contraband produce, I passed up a gas station that had gas for $4.99. There was a sign saying there were more services 35 miles away, and with 1/3 tank of gas, I figured I'd be fine to wait for a hopefully better price. I didn't know that the Mojave desert was a void of desolate nothingness and that I'd be fighting headwinds and climbing the whole way. i watched the needle on the gas gauge drop as I drove in the 105-degree temperatures and fearfully took in the desert landscape. I can see why the miitary uses this land for training. It is the most inhospitable, unfriendly region I had ever been in - miles and miles of dusty sand, black rock, and prickly things in scorching temperatures. No exits. No services....and sooner than I had expected, the light went on telling me I was on empty. Where were the services that sign was talking about? I slowed waaaay down and prayed and hoped and prayed that I wouldn't get stuck out there... please please PLEASE. I wasn't so worried about myself, as I was for Riley and Peyote. I remembered that I had a book that tells me what services are available at the interstate exits, so I took a look and saw that I had five miles to go. Whew! We weren't going to die in the desert. I got there safely only to pay $5.69/gallon, which was aggravating, but THANK YOU for even being there. I had originally considered stopping for the night in the Mojave, but now that I was in it, I just wanted to be out of it, so I continued driving until I was in a friendly place. I didn't expect those miles to be so unsettling for me. Some people can do deserts. Not me. I can do oceans and giant trees.


By dusk, I was in the town of Mojave, which didn't offer much for a pleasant night's stay, so I parked, got online and found the Tehapachi Mountain Valley Airport RV Park. It was an oasis on the edge of the desert. This small park, surrounded by green hills and a glider airport, was uncrowded and perfect for a restful night.

The next day was another marathon drive to get to Olema, California. My good friend Dan was coming to stay for a week and explore San Francisco with me, so I wanted to get to my new digs with at least a day to get settled. Finding places to stay around San Francisco is not an easy matter. Either you pay $70/night to be squished in a parking lot right next to the highway, or you stay about an hour outside the city and pay half as much to hopefully be surrounded by more space and trees. I chose the latter and was pleasantly surprised when I arrived in Olema.


There are a ton of beautiful California state parks, but few of them offer the amenities that I needed to keep the income flowing - namely, electricity. So, in order to be near San Francisco, Point Reyes and the coast, my only option was to stay in a commercial campground. They are more expensive, but oh the joys of full hookups and showering in my own home! The campground in Olema works out to about $36/night with the weekly discount. That's about twice as much as I would like to pay, and while I can squawk all I want about that, the fact still remains that I probably couldn't be here for an extended period of time any other way. It'd be hard to RENT a small studio in these parts for that price. And think about how much it would be if I were paying HOTEL prices. So, in the end, this is still the way to go, and I'm glad to have the Olema campground right there, where I want to be. And, to be fair, $36/night for a full hookup is actually pretty decent compared to $25/night at the state park down the road that doesn't offer any services at all.

Olema is literally the intersection of Highway 1 and Sir Francis Drake Blvd. There's not much to it - a general store, a couple places to stay, some cows - it's cute. Three miles north is Point Reyes Station, where the Palace Market has all sorts of local, tasty, organic and artisanal good foods. Stinson Beach, about 20 minutes south on twisty Highway 1 was Riley's favorite place to go because the north end of the beach allows dogs to be off-leash and the water was usually relatively calm there. With lots of happy dogs walking/playing with their happy people surrounded by this beautiful landscape, it was always great. The Bolinas Ridge trail was also a good place for Riley. The trail followed a ridge overlooking the golden hills of Marin County and cut right through cow pastures, so if Riley wasn't on a leash, I had to keep an eye out for cows. I'm pretty sure Riley wouldn't be interested in them anyway, but I didn't want to risk an agressive mom-cow protecting her young. They can be pretty big, those cows. I really liked having them around too. On some evenings and mornings in the campground, I'd hear them mooing and there was something really nice about that - like a fog horn or a buoy on the water.

I ended up staying a total of three weeks in Olema, but i left after the first two weeks to try the Anthony Chabot park in the East Bay region. After 5 days there, I decided I needed more time at Point Reyes and came back for one more week. That third week I had great new neighbors from Florida - Gerry, Sue and their dog Luke (as in Cool Hand Luke). Luke was the most chill yellow lab I'd ever met. Gerry and Sue were there to visit their daughter and new grandson, Milo, who was a real cutie. Gerry would like everyone to know that he predicts a landslide victory for Barack. :) I hope he's right, but this is a travel log, not a soapbox.

I also met Patrick and Globee, his 21-foot 1973 Airstream trailer. He was still getting acquainted with Globee, which he had only recently purchased and was in really beautiful shape. We became quick friends and I was sorry that he had only stayed that one night and was on his way out. We exchanged contact info, though, and hoped to meet up again soon. This third week in Olema is when the air started to turn smoky. I was there to take photos, and the smoke was making the sky not-so-pretty, so the photo opps not-so-good. I couldn't ride my bike either, because I didn't want to be breathing hard when the air quality was so poor. I didn't think it was too terrible, though, and I figured it would blow over soon. When my final week was up, I thought I'd continue with my plans to explore northern California and head up to the wine country for a bit, where I'd likely meet up with Patrick again. The wildfires and smoke ended up changing those plans, though....more on that later...

Point Reyes! Point Reyes is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It's precariously sitting on the Pacific plate in the San Andreas fault zone which means it shifts about two inches to the northwest each year. It's a huge park with a lot of topographic diversity and variation in the landscape. From historic dairy farms and ranches to it's wild coastline and forested hills - it's big and wide open and you can easily find yourself on the remote, rugged beach with nobody else around - just the powerful Pacific surf and towering cliffs - and your dog, of course. And even though it's no fun for the dog, it's better to keep him on a leash on these beaches because he could easily be swept away by a giant wave or overpowered by the dangerous undertow. It's almost always foggy in the morning and has a completely different weather pattern than Olema, just a few miles away. I loved the 45-minute drive out to the lighthouse and the Chimney Rock trail, through Inverness on Tomales Bay and through a handful of ranches with ocean waves crashing in the distance, and barely another car in site. It reminded me a bit of the drive out to St Mary's in Newfoundland.


So my good friend Dan came to visit the first week I was out here and it was so great exploring San Francisco with him. Cities are best experienced with friends, i think. Though it was a bit of a drive to get there from Olema, it was an extraordinary drive. Going south on narrow Route 1, the road zig-zagged and hugged the coastline atop cliffs overlooking the Pacific. With few guardrails, it was easy to imagine careening off the edge if I gazed at the view for more than a moment. If we chose to go the less scenic way, we could stop for a coffee in Fairfax, a friendly hippie town at the base of Mt. Tam. I decided this could be a good spot to live - a nice small town equidistant to the happenings of the city, and the natural wonders of Point Reyes National Seashore.

Dan and I explored all the neighborhoods of San Francisco, spent a day in Berkeley, and took a drive down to Santa Cruz - which was all nicely balanced, in my humble opinion, by our homebase in un-crowded Olema with cows for neighbors. Driving and parking in crowded SF is crazy, but we managed it just fine and I decided that North Beach was the coolest part of town, with it's beatnik history, coffee and books. We were lucky enough to be in Berkeley when the farmer's market was happening, which was a most beautiful display of organic produce and artisan goods.

Since Dan was staying, it was an opportunity to break down the dinette and turn it into the second bed. It's good this way - i like it. In fact, I decided to leave it that way from now on for Riley. Yes, now he has a bed just like mine and I have sacrificed my desk and dining table so that he can stretch out. He's lumpy and elderly and I love him - what can I say? Because the roads here are all very twisty curvy and roller-coastery, he seemed to be getting a little uncomfortable in the car and I was getting concerned for his well-being. So now he has a big bed all to himself, and he loves it and that makes me happy. Besides, it also means that I'm not stepping over him when I move around, and it's nice to have the floor clear. And it's also a good place for me to lounge.

Did I mention the cycling? This is the most bicycle-friendly region I have ever experienced. There are bike lanes everywhere - even in the city - ESPECIALLY in the city, and signs everywhere alerting motorists to respect the cyclists. EVERYONE cycles around here. The billboard advertisements target cyclists, as if they were the only audience here - and they very well might be. It feels like peer pressure. Even narrow coastal Route 1, with all its cliffs, switchbacks, blind spots, and reckless drivers, doesn't dissuade the roadies from jamming it on the weekends. Yeah, it'd be a beautiful ride, but it's perilous, if you ask me. There are also a million trails to ride, off the road. I couldn't stand it any longer - seeing all these cyclists was like pouring salt into my wound and I ached to experience this region by bike. So, I broke down and got myself a crosstrail bike that essentially can go anywhere comfortably - on the roads and trails. Not the fastest and lightest on-road, and not the best for anything more challenging than a fire road....but a good all-around bike for traveling that will get me places and get my heart pumping. It's the best thing I could've done for myself here.

So Dan only stayed for a week and I was sorry to see him go. We both really loved it out here and I loved having him around to explore with. Maybe in the near future he'll move to the city, so I can have a place to crash and I'll find a place in Marin county, so he can have a place to breathe....notice the smog:

There was a 2-week limit at Olema RV, so when it was time to go, I backtracked a little to Anthony Chabot Regional Park in the East Bay. I wanted to scope this place out because it was a bit closer to San Francisco, and $10/night cheaper for full hookups. It's a good alternative, with a beautiful big lake and miles and miles of hike/bike trails. Now that I had my bike, I rode the hilly 13.5-mile bike loop and Riley and I hiked down the steep trails to the lake everyday. I thought I would use this as a base to go into SF each day, but I only went once - I was tired of driving on congested highways and paying bridge tolls! The one time I went in was to meet Caitlyn, who is the neice of a friend in Portland and a budding graphic designer. I did my best to give her an honest perspective of the field from my point of view and I think she still wants to pursue it. I made her promise to hire me when she lands that big gig in the big city. Caitlyn's great - thanks for connecting us, Mary!

I was finally able to wash my trailer and put a coat of walbernize on it. Yes! Finally! I've been waiting for a campground that didn't have a "no-washing" rule, and here it was. So the Silver Snail got all clean and shiny. It's a big job - not one I particularly look forward to doing again.

I feel a need to comment on the gas prices now. Exploring these parts is starting to add up. I remember the good old days, just 4 months ago, when I was in Florida and gas was just $2.89. Yeah, remember when? Those were the days. Here in Northern California, I'm very lucky to find anything under $4.50. And since it's hard to be centrally located with a trailer in a city, you end up driving a lot. After hitting all the places I wanted to see (SF, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Sausalito), I had to start being more conservative and decided to lay low and spend that third week in Olema focused entirely on Point Reyes.


I had a delightful day. Riley and I went to Stinson Beach and while he chased tennis balls in the surf, I contemplated how fortunate I was to be where I was on this particular day. Then Riley got nailed by a young crazy dog who tackled him when he wasn't looking and sent him somersaulting into the waves. There was some snarling confusion for a second, and then both dogs bounced up pretty quickly. Soon after, Riley was limping and had a hard time getting into the car. Poor ol' guy. He's like 80 years old now - and that was like a big beefy teenage football player tackling a lumpy 80 year old man from behind. So I made sure he was okay and comfortable in the spacious back of the 4-Runner before driving again into the city for one last hurrah. He was fine - just a little sore from the impact. Right before crossing the Golden Gate, though, I wanted to see what the Marin Headlands were all about - and I found my San Francicisco moment - the best view of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. In the evening, I met up with Caitlyn again and had a great time drinking margaritas at Tres Agaves and managing the drunk guys next to us, who were kind enough to take our picture. All in all, it was a great day and a particularly exceptional year to celebrate my existence and be grateful for the life I am living.


So my third week was up in Olema, and I made plans to move on to wine country where I was hoping to spend a couple weeks tasting wine, spending time with new friends, exploring by bike, finishing some work projects and just experiencing the region. Well, I got to my new campground on the Russian River and the air quality was terribly smoky. Not only that, the campground was cramped, crowded and noisy and not someplace I wanted to spend the next two weeks. So I had to change my plan overnight. The air quality was getting worse, and I didn't believe that it was going to get better in a few days, so I decided to make an escape to Oregon. There were big wildfires in most of northern California and Oregon seemed to be the best option for fresh air. I didn't really want to go. I wasn't looking forward to a long day of driving and leaving beautiful California. The wildfires were still raging, though, so it really wasn't the best place to be and in the morning I took Highway 101 straight to Oregon, where we were greeted with fog, rain and cold - but FRESH fog, rain, and cold - no smoke! Hopefully the fires will be contained soon and the smoke will clear and we will go back.


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All images and words © Sharon Pieniak
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