Van Go: West Coast Winging It (Part One)
Story & photos by Julie Snyder
Wide awake in our Barstow, California hotel room at 3 a.m., Joe and I pondered our next move. Did we carry on east to the Grand Canyon despite the winter travel advisory and frigid temperatures? Or cancel our reservations and point Van Go west to the considerably more temperate Pacific Coast?
We had already missed our chance to spend a day in Death Valley. A mechanical hiccup—resolved with a new battery and alternator—kept us in Sausalito for a second night. Were our visits to Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon national parks to be scrapped as well?
The prospect of climbing into the canyon lands without snow tires and frigid nights in our tin-can van made our decision a no-brainer. Van Go was going coastal.
One pandemic positive is the easing of travel cancellation fees. Within minutes of our decision to deep-six our parks plan, I had arranged refunds for our entire itinerary save a non-refundable $18 service fee.
Finding available campsites on the California Coast was another matter. By 4 a.m., I gave up and uttered one of Joe’s favorite phrases—one he rarely hears from me, the obsessive organizer.
“Looks like we’re winging it.”
No response. He was either stunned or asleep.
The following day we drove along Barstow’s Main Street, a stretch of the original Route 66 from Santa Monica to Chicago. Mom-and-pop hotels, the first Del Taco restaurant, and dozens of colorful murals dot the desert drag. My favorite was a 20-mule team, like the one accompanying then-actor Ronald Reagan in ads for Borax in the 1960s. The Route 66 Mother Road Museum—located in Casa del Desierto, a Harvey House hotel, restaurant, and rail station back in the day—was still in Covid closure.
After extricating ourselves from a Starbucks’ drive-thru designed for VW Beetles, not VW vans, we broke out into the desert and motored west. We could smell the ocean as Van Go carved through the canyons north of Los Angeles. And then, there it was, in all its glittering glory. Joe’s a mountain guy, but give me a sandy shore or rocky roost seaside, and I’m golden.
First stop, Ventura, for the required dip into the Patagonia store and tea with my artist niece. Then we cruised the coast north to Santa Barbara for a chatty alfresco dinner with an old friend. Along the way, I enviously eyed the beached RVs whose occupants would sleep to the sound of the surf while we snoozed to the hum of hotel AC.
Early on in our Van Go adventures, we learned that a hotel night after a few shower-less days sleeping on a 43-inch-wide mattress made for happy campers. Our original itinerary had a two-to-one campground to hotel ratio. But we were traveling during Spring Break, and our “winging it” approach flipped the formula—hotel rooms were far easier to find than campsites.
We were lucky to nab a spot for Van Go at Avila Hot Springs in Avila Beach. The campground was basic, but amenities more than compensated. The steamy mineral water was divine. Even more divine—the fresh-water lap pool where I swam for the first time in over a year. When Joe finally dragged me out of the water, we pedaled the Bob Jones “City to the Sea” Trail three miles to the beach. There, on the waterfront promenade, we soaked up the sun while people-watching (Joe) and writing haiku (me).
Our campground neighbors, a genial family from California’s Central Valley, partied non-stop with their friends. Both music and barbecue were fired up from dawn until midnight. Fortunately, the music mellowed after dark, and we slept—until the snoring in stereo began in the tent next door. Gotta love camping!
Cruising north to Morro Bay, we stopped for coffee at pet-friendly Rescue Me Coffee Co., where clever Covid signs request patrons remain an alligator’s distance apart. A chat with a fellow java drinker proved fortuitous. We had our eye on a first-come-first-serve clifftop campsite on the Big Sur coast, just south of where a recent mudslide had taken out the road. But according to our new acquaintance, the access road through the hills to the highway was closed as well.
The prospect of big-time backtracking discouraged us from trying to claim a campsite, as perfect as it may have been. Instead, we carried on to the Monterey Peninsula and lucked into the last room at the Pacific Grove Inn. A bonus: a secure parking lot for Van Go and a room large enough to accommodate our bicycles.
The inn is only a few blocks from Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove’s main street near Monterey Bay. The evening was mild, and we strolled the length of the avenue to assess our dining options. Restaurants were festooned with fairy lights, and a sidewalk jazz band boosted the festiveness. Our choice was cozy Max’s Grill for French onion soup and crab cakes (Joe), beet salad and an ahi tuna roll (me).
The next morning, I walked a few miles along the coast path, entertained by seagulls and kayakers. Joe and I rendezvoused for breakfast at Toasties Café, a local favorite. Then it was north again, this time for a reunion weekend in Santa Cruz.
I lived in Santa Cruz for a decade before Joe and I married. Several friendships have thrived despite time and distance—returning feels like a huge hug. We settled into friend Sandy’s redwood-cradled mountain home and joined her ritual. Every morning she lays out a small feast for forest creatures—blacktail deer, wild turkeys, stellar jays, juncos, bandtail pigeons, and squirrels—and enjoys their company with her coffee. The hungry crew didn’t seem to mind my crashing their breakfast.
We idled away the weekend. Leisurely hours on the deck in conversation with old pals and hikes through cool, shaded thickets and poppy-studded meadows with ocean views restored both body and soul. “Trading old rocks for old friends was inspired,” Joe said, comfy in the guest bed.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.