Note: photos are by Bill and Kate Poss
Here we are already on the third leg of our road trip with Bertie the Ford Explorer and Marion the Trillium trailer.
Along the way we’ve had heartfelt conversation with our camping neighbors and stretched our own comfort levels to see the light in another.
It was painful to leave Keough Hot Springs, south of Bishop, and our campsite 7a. Something about the desert, the High Sierra to the west, and the Inyo mountains to the east, holds our soul like no other place.
But more wild country in the Eastern Sierra beckoned. Onion Valley evoked a good feeling once, but we hadn’t been there for more than 40 years, and had forgotten why we loved it so much.
Upper Grays Meadow campground on Onion Valley Road, up a mountain canyon from the town of Independence, has rough pavement and crumbling-at-the-edge pads to park a trailer on. It’s primitive camping. It’s not for the big RV’s, which often shadow and dwarf our tiny Marion. At the time, water was unavailable at the campground. But we brought our own jugs filled up from Keough’s resort. Great tasting mountain water straight from the High Sierra. There is little cell coverage at this 6,100 foot aerie. But who needs technology when you’re perched on the edge of a mountain with views of the valley and mountains below? Bill and I can sit and gaze at mountains, along with the soaring ravens, and cloud shadows, and feel the lift.
We chose site #29 for its terrific panorama of sawtoothed ridges behind us and the desert and the Inyo mountains below. Grays Meadow campground was one of the few places available on a weekend as more popular places get filled up. The pit toilets are impeccably maintained by our campground host. Saturday morning Bill woke up, looked out the window and pointed to a Western Tanager perched on the branches of a tree just outside the window.
Western Tanagers have special meaning to us. And we’ve only seen them four times, once at our suet feeder in Langley. Before my mama died, I asked where she would like her ashes spread. While we have a family plot in Kenosha, Wisconsin, she said she would like to have some of her ashes spread in Yosemite, a place she and my dad loved visiting.
On the day of the ash spreading (I was given permission by Yosemite then to do so), the crowds were so thick we thought we should find another location besides Yosemite Valley. As we walked along Merced River, a Western Tanager flew by and we took it as a sign from my mom to hold the ceremony for her there. Our children, Gillian and Raymo, my brother’s daughters and their families all arrived and found parking! We gathered under a giant lone Ponderosa Pine. I played my mama’s favorite church song, How Great Thou Art, on my squeezebox. We sang it in Hawaiian, just like Mama Helen did with the choir at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church where she lived in Kihei.
Back at Grays Meadow, on that Western Tanager morning, I stood outside waiting for the loo. I met and talked with Armin Schwegler, a retired linguistics professor from University of California, Irvine, who gave us one of his hand built birdhouses.
Radiant in his being, he told us that this campground was his all-time favorite in all of his many world travels. We caught his look, one true mountain-loving people get, on the faces of our fellow campers, who were there for the vistas and the deep peace of being up close to the ridges of ancient stone. Surrounding our campsite were native sage, Mormon tea, also known as Ephedra (thank you, Facebook friends, for the positive identification), and mountain mahogany. Independence Creek flows nearby, giving us a continual river concert, a low shushing sound. Bill took the solar shower over to the creek, filled it up, and placed it on our brown metal bear box. It heated up nicely for a shampoo following a hike up in nearby Onion Valley.
One of the holiest of holies is nearby Onion Valley, where you’re able to drive 7.3 miles and be up close and personal with the face of the peaks. The elevation is 9,180 feet. Here on a Saturday afternoon there were about 20 cars in the parking lot. Thrilling driving up to this location with its hairpin curves, steep drop-offs and no guardrail. It’s not for folks with vertigo, though having rocky granite and basalt in your face at every turn is eye-popping, though scary, should the boulders decide to fall on your car, or if someone else is driving along the narrow road from the opposite direction. The road has been closed in the past due to rockslides. Our camp neighbor Armin said he rides his mountain bike up to Onion Valley now and then. Sometimes he drives there and hikes. He visits as often as he can. Armin took a friend who had never been camping up to this remote aerie. I asked Jacobo Stefami, a UCI professor of Mexican and Latin American literature, if he was a convert to the high country yet, and he said he still needed some time. If anyone could get someone to love the mountains, Dr. Armin could. Dr. Armin wrote later in an email that that Jacobo has become a ‘camping champion.
Meanwhile, Dr. Armin did a UC Irvine TEDx talk about how linguists and population geneticists reconstruct people’s origins, here is the link:
A braided waterfall hung on a sawtooth ridge of light framing the Onion Valley parking lot. Along our moderate hike, we heard the rhythmic drumbeat love call of a sage grouse. I could feel the vibrations in my chest. A song sparrow singing the sweetest piccolo tune played the high notes to the bass beat of the sage grouse. We were grateful for our walking sticks, made by our late friend Fred Bixby. Fred told us he imbued them with magic runes. The magic sticks sure made taking big uphill steps a lot easier and downhill steps kinder on the knees.
We returned to our campsite renewed from Onion Valley’s magnificent gifts. We watched the evening light make mountain shadows across the Inyos. The Milky Way and endless stars lit up the night sky. We would cross the divide the next day into coastal California.
We left the high country early Sunday, heading through Lake Isabella and the Kern River. We listened to Merle Haggard singing Kern River. We tuned our iPod next to Walking Jim Stoltz singing Morning in the Mountains: “Live each day like you mean it. Grab hold of each dawn that comes your way. And if it’s blessings you’re a countin’, try a morning in the mountains. There ain’t no better way to start the day.”
Indeed! There ain’t no better way to start the day.
Franklin Hot Springs, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo
As we left the Eastern Sierra behind, we enjoyed driving through desert stands of Joshua trees along Highway 178 heading towards Bakersfield. As we passed through the Kern River Canyon we noticed how very, very low the water level of Kern River is this early in the year. Had a great Mother’s Day lunch at Mexican Mesa Grill in Bakersfield. This meal was so generous, I had it for dinner the following two nights. Heading out of Bakersfield on Seventh Standard Road, we noticed vendors selling balloons and flowers for Mother’s Day.
After heading north on Interstate 5 for a while, we turned west on Highway 46, passing oil rigs pumping oil at the Lost Hills exit, the rigs eerily similar to the drones in Star Wars films. Then we drove by acres of Pacific Almond agribusiness orchards. We saw few birds.
The much-taken-from land gave way to ranch country as we approached Paso Robles. We relaxed at seeing the land less indentured.
It was hot — 91 degrees — in Paso Robles, a trendy wine city. I bought a gelato from a bored teen. An unmasked family glared at we masked ones inside the building. But it was good to sit outside in the shade on a Mother’s Day afternoon and watch the well-dressed people stroll by.
To celebrate my mama Helen Burbey, who passed away in 2012, we toasted her with her favorite cocktail, a Bloody Mary. Sitting outside at the La Cosecha Bar and Restaurant, we watched people picnicking at the city park. Here we saw a great mix of people, more to our style.
Afterward we walked back to our car and heard live music coming from a distance. We followed the sound as if led by Odysseus’ sirens till we stopped at the Pour House, a craft brewery featuring a good live blues band. Other vaccinated elders like ourselves let go and danced. Oh, it felt good, after a year of having to hide away.
By late afternoon we pulled into the Franklin Hot Springs, which is a diamond in the rough of genteel Paso Robles. Its appeal is in the welcoming atmosphere and friendliness of the characters there. Norman and Cindy Franklin run the resort nowadays, following in the footsteps of Norman’s minister/farmer/engineer father, Wesley. Wes moved to Paso Robles in 1951 with his wife Lydia and acquired over 1,500 acres of land. An original founder of Grace Baptist Church, Les worked with others to bring the gospel to down-and-outers in prisons and rescue missions in California. Texaco approached Les about drilling for oil on his land, but found a hot springs well instead. Les built lakes and a swimming area, which to this day remain a wildlife refuge.
Now, Norman is his own kind of minister, still holding space and bringing amazing grace to wildlife of all kinds, such as Dave, the former surfer and finish carpenter, whose arthritis was so bad. Dave lives there, helping out. Dave will tell you how much better he is now thanks to the healing waters. He even swims with his eyes open and said his vision has improved! Guests leave their cans and bottles for Dave, which he cashes in to help pay his car insurance. He is a natural story teller and we were captivated by his tales. Our next door neighbor was a man living in his tent who looked like the wild man, John the Baptist. Jim, whose countenance is radiant, spoke about the healing qualities of the hot springs and their curative affect on his arthritis.
I swam laps in the twilight while families, mostly Hispanic, celebrated Mother’s Day in the pool and on the grounds. I liked their family atmosphere of connection. We went to sleep to the night sounds of a croaking bullfrog in the wetland pond behind our trailer.
The 98-degree hot springs pool has an earthen bottom. Our camp neighbor Jim suggested collecting the mud and putting it on our skin. But we didn’t get around to that. The pond outside of our trailer window supports ducks, geese, Canadian geese, our croaking bullfrog, and in the early morning hours I heard a pack of coyotes yipping nearby. I hoped they hadn’t caught one of the feral cats that roamed, or the eccentric waterfowl. In the pool, a pair of mallards and a mama with eight babies paddled in the hot springs with we humans, taking no mind.
Talking to Dave the morning before leaving Franklin Hot Springs, he said the hot springs attract positives and negatives. “When the negatives are there, I won’t go in,” Dave said. I mentioned we were heading out to visit Nepenthe in Big Sur. How nepenthe was a drug used in ancient Greece that helped one forget sorrow. Dave’s brow lifted and he said, “I’d like to forget some bad memories from growing up. I learned to surf down in Redondo Beach because nature was the only place that I could feel at home.”
Forgetting our sorrows along the Pacific Coast Highway heading to Big Sur
On a foggy morning we drove along Hwy 46, and connected with Highway 1, where we would drive a ribbon of highway perched between steep bluffs and high redwood and wildflower-covered cliffs. Pacific Coast Highway had re-opened April 23 following closure due to a landslide that cost taxpayers $11.5 million to repair.
Along the way we talked of being grateful to Bill’s Grandad and his wife Maree. They loved us unconditionally and inspired us through their stories of trailering to get a trailer of our own. When Grandad’s daughter Marion passed away in 2012, Bill and his siblings inherited her Carmel Valley estate, whose proceeds allowed us to buy and refurbish our Marion. You can guess why our little vacation home earned her name.
Marion was married to Philippe De Lacy, an orphaned WW1 French refugee who was adopted by an American nurse who lived in Southern California. For a while, Philippe worked as a child actor in silent film. Later he made his living as an ad executive with J. Walter Thompson. We travel with Marion, along with a bronzed likeness of Philippe as a boy, and a framed photo of Grandad and Maree with one of their trailers.
I met Bill when we were both 18 and soon after he introduced me to his grandparents, John and Maree Poss. At our early age, we wanted to live like they had, with love and adventure. Grandad was told by his doctor that he retire from real estate development or else he’d have a heart attack. So he bought a trailer and traveled with Maree, making educational slideshows, which Bill and I saw in school. Here we are at 66, traveling simply with a trailer, writing blogs, hoping to bring some light to people.
Bill swooned over the golden lupine blooming in clumps and the beautiful oak-covered green hills and the fog as we drove. He felt a moment of ecstasy, “I want to be one with this,” he said, tears choking his voice. “My love for California has only grown because of the absence.”
Due to COVID, we did not travel outside of Washington for more than a year. And then, it was four short camping trips.
Our iPod score for the morning drive was Mary Black, singing, Golden Mile.
And on we drove toward Big Sur. We saw through the windows, vivid orange Monterey paintbrush, sticky monkey flowers, white sage, pink and white morning glory, purple protea, red and yellow columbine, purple iceplant, Monterey pine along the misty cliffs. No shoulder. Yet we see folks with seemingly iron corded legs riding their bicycles.
Perched more than 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean, we sat outside at Cafe Kevah, where we saw beautiful light in our server’s clear gray eyes. We ordered breakfast and were warned about how quickly the Stellar jays could fly in and share our meal. We saw the cheeky blue birds posted on the railings. And slipped them some bread.
The Phoenix Shop gave me one of the best shopping and looking at manmade beauty experiences I’ve ever had. I have low tolerance for kitschy tourist stuff. This is authentic creativity. The books, the textiles, the crafted things. Nepenthe owners, Lolly and Bill Fassett’s son Kaffe is a talented fabric and textile designer. So is his sister Erin Lee Gafill. You can check out Kaffe’s wonderful books through Sno-Isle libraries. Leslie Franzen, who manages the Coupeville Library, where I once enjoyed working, introduced me to Kaffe Fassett’s books. I love his use of color and patterns. And this morning, I dreamed I was back working at Coupeville with Leslie.
After our heady experience at Nepenthe, we drove to Carmel Valley to camp at Saddle Mountain Ranch RV and Campground, up a windy road nestled in the hills. The road is not for the faint of heart. It is one lane and without pullouts in spots. As we drove a steep uphill into the resort, we were met by a downhill UPS delivery truck. He kindly backed up for us and let us pass. We had requested a tent site, because the RV sites run $110 a night. Assigned site #32, we drove up steep switchbacks, Bill getting very nervous. At the top of a steep incline was our site. All Bill could do is head in; there was no way he could maneuver a backup on the inclined gravel. Aye yi yi. I phoned the camp office and said we needed an RV site; we couldn’t negotiate any kind of turn around (though our friend Dave Hardesty of Napa Auto Parts in Freeland could have managed it, I suppose). So I walked beside Bill as he put Bertie into reverse and slowly backed out and down the road past a near-vertical road cut. We are now parked in a cozy corner in site #14. The kind staff charged us the tent rate for our trouble. I swim alone in the 68-degree sparkling pool surrounded by oak and bayleaf-covered green hills.
Next morning we ate breakfast at Kathy’s Little Kitchen, run by Silvia and Roberto Osornio. Our breakfast burritos tasted of love and home cooking. The little place is named for the couple’s daughter Kathy. The family lost their home in the August 2020 fire. The community organized a GoFundMe campaign and reached its goal. This community is much like our Langley Village by the Sea in its community support. Nowadays Roberto and Silvia work six days a week to make heartfelt and delicious food for lucky diners.
We were due to meet our dear friend Sheila Gibbons-Heibert, who took us to lunch at Jeffrey’s Grill & Catering in Carmel Valley. I became friends with Sheila and her husband, Ray Heibert, during the summer of 2009, when I worked as a cook on the Snowgoose Alaska. Sheila and Ray were aboard with some of their friends and we recognized kinship in each other right away. We’ve kept in touch ever since and have visited a few times in the past. Then they lived in Baltimore, Maryland. They retired to Carmel Valley. Ray’s health is slipping some, so he stayed home during this visit. Reuniting with Sheila was joyous! We had much to share with one another. We closed the place down at 2:30. Ah, we are lucky to know this couple!
Carmel Valley is also the former home of Marion and Philippe, Bill’s aunti and uncle. We drove by their home, now owned by someone else. I peeked through the board fence and gave thanks once again to these generous people, whose generosity helped give us our dear vacation home on wheels.