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Weekend in Morro Bay

January 11 - 13, 2008


Horsetails created by strong offshore winds blowing over the waves in Morro Bay

Nothing puts a period on the holidays more than a January camping trip to usher in a new year of adventures, so we signed up for the Rainbow RV rally in Morro Bay before we even left for the Halloween weekend in Petaluma. By January Pat is ready to puke on the shoppers, the decorations, and the holiday music that begins at JCPenney in October. And for me it is time to exorcise the annual guilt trip of what to get him for Christmas.


Driving through the Salinas Valley on U.S. 101.

We actually passed a milestone this year on that latter point. We already have everything we want and if something else comes along, we simply buy it as the need arises. Gift giving at holidays and birthdays has become an exercise in assuaging the gift-giver’s guilt and the recipient gracefully appreciating something he really doesn’t want. I thought we had resolved the issue a year ago when we agreed to give each other tickets to the hottest show in San Francisco that was running during the holidays. Last January we saw Jersey Boys at the Curran Theatre and it was fabulous. This season’s best show in town was Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza which is still playing at AT&T Park.

So, in early December, I spent $200 online for tickets for January 11th, the closest date I could find that still had good seats available. The tickets came back via email, I printed them out and stuck them in an envelope to give Pat on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, I had neglected to pencil in our Morro Bay camping trip on my computer’s calendar and, sure enough, January 11th was the beginning of the weekend for that trip. Solution? Dump the Kooza tickets on Craig’s List. A quick check on their website revealed hundreds of tickets available through the end of December and I didn’t expect January to be any better. So, we gave the tickets to our niece and her husband as a Christmas present.


California 41 between Atascadero and Morro Bay.

The good news? We both kept our promise this year and gave each other nothing for Christmas. Instead, we tapped the household account and bought a laptop computer for our neighbor’s fifteen-year-old daughter whom we’ve known since she was four. Christmas, after all, is for kids and Tracci was thrilled.

We drove down to our RV storage lot in San Lorenzo on Monday night, the 7th, to bring the Bounder home and park it in the driveway for loading in prior to Friday’s departure. I spent all day Tuesday helping Eray while his Airstream was in the shop for maintenance and by the time I took him back to his mechanic at 6:00, I was too tired and the weather too crappy for Pat and me to drive to the DVMUG meeting in Walnut Creek as planned. Thursday night Pat loaded in the Bounder for the trip while I taught my monthly Photoshop class over in Pleasant Hill.


Fog rolls over Morro Rock as we arrive.

Up at 6:00 a.m. on Friday. Run through our computer-generated camping check list. Gather the cats. Hook up the tow-dolly and the car and we were ready to hit the road by ten o’clock for the five-hour drive down the coast when Pat mentioned the absence of a 2009 sticker on the Bounder’s license plate. Shit! A check of the current registration revealed it had expired three days ago, so back to the house to rummage through my desk for fifteen minutes before I finally located the DMV envelope from Sacramento. Lock up the house for the second time, walk back to the Bounder now parked on the street around the corner, affix the new sticker to the license plate, and Voilá! we started rolling down the road at 10:45.

After a week and a half of the worst winter storms we’ve had so far this season, it was nice to head towards the freeway on a precipitation-free morning albeit under a thick layer of our traditional fog. The forecast called for a possibility of light showers in the north bay followed by clearing and sunshine. We were headed south. Eray and Simon had left for the campground in their Airstream the previous day, so I had Pat call their cell phone once we pulled onto I-880 and we were delighted to hear that Morro Bay was sunny with temperatures in the mid to upper sixties.


Meet & Greet potluck Friday evening.

Twenty miles south I pulled into a closed weigh station to check the straps holding the car on the tow dolly and was shocked to discover one of them had come off completely. Of course I managed to rip the sleeve on my shirt while crawling underneath to untangle the mess in the webbing and re-secure it to the car’s passenger side front wheel. Another twenty minutes lost. Back on the road, successful transition through the constant traffic around San Jose, and finally onto U.S. 101 southbound and into the country. Pat kept me going with Dr. Peppers and raisin-oatmeal cookies and not a peep was heard out of the three cats buried somewhere in the back bedroom.

We pulled into our first rest area, i.e. the first one available, with just 44 miles to go in our 222-mile journey and reveled in the first sunshine and warm temperatures we had seen since December. I headed for the restroom while Pat chatted with the couple from the RV parked next to us. Yes, the Bounder has a bathroom, but a walk to and from a rest area’s restroom helps get the kinks out from four hours of nonstop driving.

Back onto the freeway, we pulled off of 101 in Atascadero for the short hop across the pass on state highway 41 to Morro Bay. With 7.9 miles to go showing on our GPS, we stopped for road construction, turned off the engine, and sat on the road waiting for a FOLLOW ME truck for twenty minutes. We pulled into the Morro Dunes campground at 4:10 p.m. Check in at the office, drive to our assigned campsite, unhook the car & tow-dolly, back in, hook up, and mount the rainbow flag to the pole-holder atop the back of the Bounder. We had arrived!


The fog retreats to sea just in time to reveal a spectacular sunset.

On our descent into Morro Bay from the mountain pass on CA-41, we had seen a huge fog bank out over the ocean that appeared to cover the shoreline. The campground is adjacent to the dunes and by the time we pulled in the fog had receded to half a mile offshore. By the time we finished setting up our campsite, it had dissipated altogether, replaced by a moderate offshore breeze that kept our rainbow flag fluttering steadily. Glenn Whittaker, the wagonmaster for this RRV rally, stopped by to welcome us and handed us a copy of the schedule for the weekend.

For those of you unfamiliar with California, it is 800 miles long from the Oregon state line to the Mexican border, hence we have two Rainbow RV chapters: northern and southern. The two chapters have their separate events in their respective portions of the state. This event was taking place along the central California coast at the geographical dividing line between the state’s two halves. Glenn was from Orange County in southern California. Eleven rigs, twenty-two people, and lord knows how many cats and dogs had arrived for this rally and we were evenly divided between northern and southern California members, stretching from Plymouth outside of Sacramento all the way down to San Diego. One couple had driven 300 miles to get here from Palm Springs.

At six o’clock we all gathered at Glenn’s campsite for a meet & greet potluck dinner, gorged ourselves on a huge assortment of dishes, washed the food down with wine, and caught up with friends from previous gatherings. The night air was getting a tad chilly and the offshore winds were picking up as we headed back to our respective rigs around eight o’clock. A crystal clear night sky displayed a billion stars twinkling overhead to the low rumble of waves rolling onto the beach a quarter mile away.

Back at the Bounder we found our outside carpet of astroturf scrunched up on the ground from the wind that also kept our flag at attention. Usually along the coast, the wind dies down after sunset; here, however, it appeared to be getting stronger. After 15 minutes of watching TV and distributing pinches of catnip to our three girls, I decided to go back outside and retract the awning.

The awning led to yawning. Both of us were exhausted from the 14-hour day and set a new record by going to bed at 8:15. The flagpole was attached to the Bounder’s roof-access ladder on the backside of the rig, directly over the bedroom. The wind outside was so strong I was beginning to worry if the flag would survive the night. The noise generated by its flapping would have kept me awake all night had I not reached for the earplugs on my night stand. By the next morning Pat was bitching about his lack of sleep from the flag’s night-long racket and vowed it was coming down before our second night.


Piedras Blancas Lighthouse then…

…and today.

Saturday morning I was up by 7:30 and got the coffee pot going while Pat continued to bitch about the noisy wind-battered flag that kept him from sleeping. By sunrise the wind had stopped and the flag outside was finally silent, the morning sky cloudless and free of fog. After a couple of cups of coffee, some sweet rolls, and making my daily ba tch of cigarettes, we wandered outside to get some photos of Morro Rock with the sun gleaming on its eastern flank. The best shots were taken from the roof of the Bounder where once again, we could feel some wind and see the horsetails created on the huge waves that were rolling onto the beach. The Mavericks surfing contest had been called for this day 200 miles north at Half Moon Bay and the fifteen to twenty foot waves here would be twenty to thirty feet up there.


Hearst Castle as seen from Highway 1.

At ten o’clock we walked up to Glenn’s campsite for the morning get together of coffee, orange juice, sweet rolls, and fresh fruit. Glenn’s partner, Bob, had been a docent at Hearst Castle and was to lead a tour of our group there today. Unfortunately, he hadn’t arrived at the campground yet, so everyone was on their own.

By eleven o’clock we were driving out of the campground in our car, turning north on Highway 1, and driving the 30 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway through Cambria and San Simeon to the cutoff for Hearst Castle. The last time Pat and I had been along the San Luis Obispo County coast was in 1998 while driving back from L.A. with our then new pop-up camper. It was Memorial Day weekend, we had no reservations, and all the campgrounds were full, hence we passed through Morro Bay without stopping. We eventually found a field full of ice plant and RVs just north of San Simeon that we pulled into for ten bucks which turned out to be one of the best camping experiences we’ve ever had. But the next morning we had to soldier on up through Big Sur to get home with no time to visit Hearst Castle.

This time, of course, we had all day to putter around so instead of taking the turnoff to Hearst Castle, I drove an additional five miles north to the road heading into Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. Ten years ago I had photographed it from the ice plant field two miles away. A locked gate blocked us from going in, but a 200 mm camera lens does wonders for an object a quarter mile away. The lens room of Piedras Blancas (white rocks in Spanish) was blown off in 1949, the tower was capped, and a rotating beacon mounted in place of the lantern room.

After the lighthouse photo-shoot, we doubled back and turned into Hearst Castle State Historic Monument where we bought our twenty-dollar tickets for the five-mile bus ride from sea level up to the castle’s 1,585 foot perch in the coastal range. Forty-plus years had elapsed since the last time Pat had been here with his parents and in the interim major improvements had been made to the visitor center, parking lot, and even the buses that take tourists up to the mansion. For him it was similar to the shock I had received when I took him to Mount Rushmore last spring and was startled by all the changes there since my last visit in 1972. We've come to the sad realization that at our age, we can't take each other back to places we remember fondly from our pasts; they no longer exist.

I’m an east coast boy, born and raised, who stopped off in Nebraska for 25 years before finally settling in California in 1996. The only thing I had ever heard about William Randolph Hearst was that he was Patti Hearst’s grandfather. But here in California he is a legend around which the movie Citizen Kane was made. Every native Californian knows about William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper empire he built, and the audacious castle he built along the coast at San Simeon.

A tourguide met our bus at the top of the hill, warned us not to use any flash photography, then led us past the statuary, up the marble staircases pointing out this and that while peppering his tale with the names of Hollywood legends who had stayed here, and bringing us to the outdoor Olympic pool. We’re not talking Olympic-sized pool as used in swimming competitions but rather a palatial Greek style pool with a view of the adjacent hills and Pacific coastline to die for.

The interior of a guest house was next, so dark and lavish as to be fit for kings and queens. More gardens, more statuary, more Hollywood legend anecdotes leading to our arrival at the main castle, Casa Grandé, its bell towers rising 200 feet above the plaza before it. The interior was dark and grandiose, as one would expect of a castle, and filled with artwork Hearst had collected from all over the world. Indeed, Casa Grandé struck me as a cross between a museum and a Renaissance cathedral: quite beautiful in architecture and appointment, but totally lacking in home appeal. Cathedrals are beautiful, but who would want to live in one?

A few minutes in the Gothic dining room, a pause in the grand parlor, a quick pass through Hearst’s personal movie theatre, then downstairs to the indoor pool before re-boarding the bus for the trip back down to the visitors center. We headed to the National Geographic Theatre to see a forty minute film on building Hearst’s dreamhouse before heading back to the car.

To this day I’m still trying to put my finger on my underwhelming reaction to the estate. I’ve been to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina and have read about the estates of Carnegie, Melon, Rockefeller, et.al. in New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. The latter were all built in the 1800s and somehow, in my mind, that makes a difference. Hearst Castle was built in the twentieth century and thus its ostentatiousness is out of place for me. It struck me more as over-the-top Hollywood glitz than a glamorous old-money estate.

A few miles down the road from the Hearst Castle turnoff we spotted a herd of zebra in a field, part of the larger Hearst estate and mentioned as something to look for by our castle tourguide. We stopped at an outdoor cafe in Cambria for a long-overdue lunch and afterwards ran into Eray and Simon who were just finishing up their antique shopping in the small town. Back at the campground, Pat popped an enchilada casserole that he had prepared before leaving Oakland into the oven for the scheduled five o’clock potluck.

We arrived fashionably late, as did everyone else. Five o’clock did seem a tad early for dinner, especially for us as lunch in Cambria was at three. Unimaginably, there were twice as many dishes brought to the picnic table tonight as last night. Two more boxes of wine. A serving thermos of hot chocolate next to a bottle of Kahlua for an exotic twist. And another smokey fire pit to gather around and socialize. Glenn’s partner, Bob, had finally arrived and those of us who had toured the castle peppered him with questions that only an insider who had served as a docent there for years could possibly answer truthfully without fear of losing his job.


Sunday morning departure breakfast.

Rainbow RV California is an early-to-bed crowd and the potluck started breaking up around 7:30. Tomorrow was departure day and although some of us had toured the castle, others had gone tasting at local wineries, and a few had spent the day antique hunting. All were tired. Back in the Bounder, Pat and I stayed up late watching a little TV and playing with the cats. Real late. We didn’t go to bed until 8:45! No wind tonight; the flag stayed quiet.

The sun flooding into the bedroom Sunday morning brought me awake and when I noticed Pat had already left for the kitchen, I got dressed and headed out to get the coffee pot going. The reason Pat hadn’t made the coffee, and I wouldn’t have either had he still been in bed, is because the coffee bean grinder makes so much noise. After fresh coffee, a couple of sweet rolls, and rolling my daily supply of cigarettes, we ventured outside and decided to walk across the street to the dunes and beach. At last night’s potluck when someone asked where our rig was, I pointed out our rainbow flag fluttering four sections down from our gathering spot. “Oh, that’s your flag!” he said. “We can see it clearly from the beach and use it to find our way back to the campground.”

Sure enough, you could see our flag flying from anywhere on the dunes or beach. Oddly, we were the only Rainbow RVers flying a rainbow flag at this event. After taking some more pictures we headed back to the campground and walked to Glenn’s campsite where folks were starting to gather for the goodbye morning breakfast of, like yesterday, coffee, juice, sweet rolls, and fresh fruit. This event was Glenn’s first shot at organizing and he did a fabulous job.


Say JESUS! Glenn's original Sunday morning group shot.

Everybody wanted a group photo before we all returned to our rigs to decamp, so Glenn went around gathering stragglers. The best shot would have been down on the beach with Morro Rock behind us, but we settled for a picnic table in the campground. Once everyone was arranged, a passerby walking his dog offered to take the photo so everyone could be in it. Imagine our surprise as a gay RV group when the dog walker said, “Okay everybody. Say Jesus!” Actually it worked quite well; everyone had a broad smile on their face.


Okay, so the guys in the back row look like they're levitating and they're flipped around to match the sunlight & shadows…

…but here they look like they're actually standing on the steps!

We all said our goodbyes and headed back to our rigs to decamp. Pat and I were on our way by eleven o’clock and after a 45-minute stop in Atascadero for gas, were home by four. When I received the emailed photo from Glenn on Monday, I worked a little Photoshop magic and put us all on the beach. Unable to resist, I also posed us in front of Casa Grandé at Hearst Castle.

Another fun RRV weekend. Short, but fun… and definitely memorable!