California for the Holidays

Silicon Valley, Santa Cruz, Livermore, San Francisco, Ventura, San Jose, Highway 1 (parts of)

Our first new home was Sanborn County Park just south of Saratoga. It is the closest commute for Gabrielle to Mountain View and its a nice quiet park with lots of deer, turkeys, newts and birds.

Gabrielle’s friend from Oak Park Tricia and her husband Damian live in Mountain View so we have been able to hang out with them several times! Our first night we went out for dinner, came back to their apartment, played some games and then the boys fell asleep on the couch next to each other!

Our second campground was Coyote Valley, located in the southeast of San Jose up in the foothills of the Coastal Mountains. It’s a newer campground with nice facilities. The campsites are spread out and one whole section was empty so I turned it into my disc golf practice area! There are some really great trails here that give you beautiful views of the valley. I saw a lot of wildlife here including many firsts like my bobcat encounter! After seeing me, the bobcat trotted the other way stopping now and then to look around. It might have been a juvenile just starting out on its own since you usually don’t see them in the middle of the day. 

For our Thanksgiving weekend we headed to Monterey Bay! This was our first visit to Santa Cruz and it certainly would not be our last… We parked at the Boardwalk and walked the beach and the famous wharf. It is the longest wooden wharf on the west coast at 2,745 feet! There are restaurants and shops, fishermen and benches for seal watching, even parking for the many custom classic cars that people drive to the beach to show off and hang out. It’s a whole culture in itself. We had Thanksgiving day lunch at a restaurant sitting next to the window overlooking the bay. Sea lions poked their heads up out of the waves as we ate. It was wonderful.

That night we headed to our campsite south of Santa Cruz along the Hwy 1 to Sunset State Beach. The whole campground sits on top a huge hill rising quickly above the beach below. Our campsite was a short walk from the top of the long set of stairs to walk to the beach. It really wasn’t that bad, especially since being that close to the cliffside yielded great sunset beach views. Due to the nature of our weekend on the road, we knew we weren’t going to have the time to make a big, classic Thanksgiving meal (plus, we had done that last year and wanted to switch it up). So instead, we’d picked up Boston Market carryout for Thanksgiving dinner which started the day early waiting in line for an hour… so worth it! Although we waited too long apparently to heat up our dinner since the campground host came knocking on our door yelling at us to turn off our generator because it was after quiet hours oops. HA, oh well, everything was already hot by that point anyway!

The next day aka Black Friday we headed back north on the 1 past Santa Cruz in search of the secret Shark Fin Cove! It’s not really a secret, but if you were to drive by quickly, you can’t see it from the highway (just a brief second, then it’s obscured by rocks) so it looks like just another parking lot for people looking to walk to the cliffs and look at the ocean view. However, in classic-Gabrielle fashion, she’d researched ahead of time the best hidden gems/beach coves, so we made a point to stop and walk down the steep path to check out the small cove…what a reward. It has since become one of our favorite places to return to in the recent months. 

Its namesake is a large rock formation rising up just off the beach in the triangular shape of a shark fin. The pure energy of the ocean in this cove is intoxicating – waves wrap around the rocks and ricochet in every direction so there is foam and spray and the sound of crashing water almost all around you. The waves are so forceful so that the beach closest to the ocean is soft, constantly being molded anew like clay in a potter’s hand, so that you sink down to your ankle when you get close. It is NOT recommended for swimming! That turbulence could take control of you. There’s a little tunnel cavern that has been eroded by the beach over time, and you can walk through and feel like you’re walking through a secret passageway to a whole different place, coming out right at the waves. 

We lingered in this magical spot for a few hours, having brought some beach chairs and snacks along. The confluence of the waves from every angle here is hypnotic, the crashing sounds so close to you all-encompassing. I found myself unable to look away at times, lost in thought.

We continued north and found ourselves coming up to a big sign for Highway 1 Brewing Company using the California highway symbol for their logo. So we had to of course make a pit stop! We had a nice flight of satisfying brews on their large back patio complete with the local blue scrub jays ready to grab any abandoned fries or chips they could find (definitely the prettiest bird of the the traditional “scavengers” like pigeons, grackles, and seagulls!). If you ever find yourself in this area, this is a cool spot with great looking food.

Our next stop was Pigeon Point Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse on the west coast. Built in 1871 and still in use, it stand 115 feet tall on a pivotal point on the coast to warn ships but mostly to take selfies with. There are some cabins you can rent on the peninsula, as well as a small gift shop/museum. The cliffs all around are beautifully adorned with lush ground cover leading to sharp rocks and waves below and lots of seals!

Sunset was upon us so we stopped at San Gregorio State Beach and walked out to bask in powerful color array against the ocean. We stayed for a while but they close the official parking lots at dusk and we eyed a spot on the cliff side just before the beach. There was one RV there and some cars of ppl still leaving from sunset. It’s called the South Coast on google maps and is honestly just a small dirt lot on top of a cliff right off the highway that isn’t regulated. Soooo a perfect overnight spot for RVs or camper vans! (Shhh, don’t tell). You wake up to the sounds of the ocean and walk out to the cliff with your coffee or tea and a chair to just relax. We have stayed here several times now as a nice in-between stop on our way to and from destinations.

Some good friends from Colorado, Jason & Cheryle, were going to be in San Fransisco for the day coming back from a cruise and we planned to have lunch with them. The driving from our South Cliff spot to downtown San Fransisco was, frankly speaking, QUITE the experience. Up and down large hills along the ocean, diving through a small tunnel to Pacifica, then merging with 280 in South San Fransisco before heading into to the city. It was all going pretty well with great views, but then I get off the highway into the tight urban streets packed with pedestrians, vehicles, street cars, buses, and potholes. And remember we are driving our 29 foot RV! When we had to merge in front of a street train…because the light rails go through car lanes and cars have to merge around and with them….and cars are zooming around us and honking and the light rail was still coming towards us….Gabrielle had to cover her eyes. Later, she claimed that it was the most stressful and nerve-wracking RV experience to-date, and she wasn’t even driving! HA! We did make it eventually squeezing into a street parking spot.  Don’t even get me started on the sharp, vertical hills that this city is known for. We decided it was the Sundancer’s last trip to downtown San Francisco.

After a great lunch we ventured over to a beer bar with Jason, Cheryle, and their friends from the city. A fun afternoon filled with hilarious stories of the cruise, new friends, old friends, and great beer trying made all the better by a cool, witty bartender who we all became instant friends with. As they headed off to the airport, we headed back south to Pacifica, a beach town just south of San Francisco.

Ended the night with a good dinner at Pacifica Brewing Co. Notable story: As tends to happen when Gabrielle is around, we got a free dessert out of the manager for some bad beers. Most of them were tasty though and we had a good time. There was a bowling alley next door, but after hearing there was an hour wait for a lane we hit the hay. 

The beginning of December brought us to Del Valle County Park campground just south of Livermore. The joke of this campground was that Gabrielle never saw it during the day! She would leave early to get to her morning meeting in Mountain View at 7:30 AM sharp, and not get home until after it was already dark. We only stayed there during the week while she worked, so by the time we’d come back from weekend adventures elsewhere on Sunday night, it would already be dark and she’d leave in the dark morning all over again! We’ll likely make it back to Del Valle this summer, and chances are she’ll finally get to see it in the light since evening daylight lasts so much longer in the warm seasons. Also this campground had no wifi and you had to hike 2 miles to get cell signal or drive 10 minutes up the hill toward town – sometimes great to get away and unplug, sometimes annoying when you’re trying to accomplish things. It was nice though, similar to Coyote Valley. Some days David would hike up with his lunch, backpacking chair and/or hammock and have a few hours of signal. There was a big reservoir with lots of pelicans and other water fowl.

One of the weekends in December we explored Livermore, the town closest to Del Valle Regional Park. We went Christmas shopping, stopped for coffee, got lobster rolls at a food truck, tried whiskey at a fully-stocked whiskey bar, and attended the Livermore Christmas parade with oh-so-may lights and abounding holiday cheer in everyone around us. We stood in front of a round fountain that all of the children wanted to climb on to see the parade better. 

While we were at Del Valle, we had a gasket bust that leaked out all of our engine coolant. #RVlifeproblems. Finding a place to work on RVs is tough enough already, even more so one that will work on the chassis side of things…and we needed one fast! Guess we had some holiday luck in that we found an RV repair shop in Fremont that would get us in the next week. Also lucky: There was a brand new campground just down the road called Dumbarton Quarry that is built right up on the East Bay near an old quarry. The commute for Gabrielle was better than Livermore – she doesn’t mind doing the longer commutes for a while, but she likes having breaks periods in between with shorter, less stop-and-go traffic commutes (I mean, who doesn’t?). David got in a couple of nice hikes here where you can see all the way up the bay to San Fransisco and Oakland. Again, lots of birds! 

Long story short, we got the RV fixed and the guy said we should try to find a more permanent home to help not having to drive as much for a while. So we began our search for a monthly lease at a private campground which is hard here because a lot of them are either way too $$$ or they don’t take RVs that are older than 10 years old… (our 1994 Winnebago is almost an antique lol). We’ve jokingly taken to calling this unfair exclusivity in campgrounds “RV ageism.” In the year and a half we’ve been living our nomad life in the Sundancer and in the myriad of states we’ve explored, California if the first place we’ve encountered this. There’s more to the story here, for sure, but I won’t get into that now. We had to submit photos of our RV on all sides for them to see if it’s aesthetically up to par and guarantee them it’s in good working order. We finally got accepted at Smithwoods RV Park in Felton starting on January 2nd!

We found an RV community next to a big park in the middle of Mountain View were Gabrielle worked and a 10 min walk to our friends Tricia & Damian’s apartment. We got the last spot on the street where it looks like a lot of these RVs have been posted up for years. After seeing a yard sign nearby saying “We support our RV neighbors” with a hashtag and QR code, we learned that this area near the park is units of people who had jobs in the area but could not afford to buy a home or even rent an apartment because of how expensive it is in Silicon Valley (or the Bay Area or just California in general). Here’s the website it directed us to:

It was a good, free place for the time being although with no electric hookup it meant no heat, so we just had to put on an extra layer in the evenings and have more snuggles with the kitty. Really not that bad – I mean, this is coastal California winters we’re talking about, they’re MILD compared to what we were used to in CO and IL. It was great for grabbing the train to SF! Plus, Gabrielle had her favorite commute to-date: Roll out of bed, throw on clothes and drive 7 minutes up the road to the morning meeting!

The weekend before Christmas we took the early train into San Fransisco for a full day in the famous Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. First stop should always be the amazing Boudin Bakery Cafe where they make their famous sourdough bread in hundreds of shapes and characters. They also have clam chowder and lobster bisque bread bowls that are mouthwatering.

The big attraction in Fisherman’s Wharf is Pier 39 which has rides, shops, bars, restaurants, and an aquarium. It has two levels and it reminded us of an amusement park. On the end of the pier is a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge. Also lots of sea lions on the nearby floating docks. 

Another cool place along the wharf is the Musée Mécanique, a fascinating hybrid of an arcade and museum in which you could spend hours and hours and easily whittle away a whole bag of quarters. It is filled to the brim with a history of coin operated entertainment ranging from late 1800s antique hand crank music boxes to modern arcade games, to everything in between. You could just pick an era and play the games or watch the kind of entertainment people had in that era. Our favorite were the completing surprising series of death machines where you pay a coin to watch a show of puppets executing people! It was hilarious and also absurd to think how children from the turn of the century fed quarters to watch a puppet guillotine head chop, or another puppet getting hung from a noose. There were at least 6 of them…not to mention one with the title “opium den.” If you’re interested in seeing these videos, reach out to either of us and we’ll text them to you haha.

earby, Pier 45 houses some old ships that are now museums and you can explore through parts of them. Unfortunately it closed while we were inside the arcade so add it to the bucket list for next time. Onward towards San Francisco’s famous Ghirardelli Square, a personal bucket-list item of Gabrielle’s since college!

Gab has a soft spot for Ghirardelli because Jil’s family – one of her best friends from college – owned a condo in Chicago that sat right above the Ghirardelli across from the water tower on Pearson & Michigan Ave. The girls (and later David when he was accepted by the girls into the cool kids club) would go there every time they’d stay at the condo to get a free square of chocolate…and hey, if we walked by the storefront multiple times in a day, who’s counting squares?! ) And sometimes ice cream sundaes. Or shakes blended with caramel chocolate squares. I mean, we have been to Hershey, PA. It is incredible. But if we had to choose: Ghirardelli is superior chocolate. 

This beautiful square sits above a park overlooking the Bay in all its lit up glory. Better get in line for that famous sundae because it’s already formed daily when they open the doors. You can get all their varieties of chocolate, lots of sundaes, and our favorite that I mentioned before, the square shake.

It’s been so popular and busy they opened a 2nd ice cream and chocolate shop on the other end of the square! There are some other shops and restaurants here as well, including San Fransisco Brewing Co tucked away in a corner. We had some tasters and played on their badass, full length shuffleboard table! Both of us are pretty evenly matched at shuffleboard skills, so it just depends on which way the wind is blowing that night, haha.

We had a late night dinner reservation at the legitimately famous Scoma’s Restaurant on the Bay where we finally got to try THE local seafood dish of San Francisco: Dungeness crab! It was delightful. Gabrielle got the Lazy Man’s Cioppino, a kind of stew/gumbo with the crab (amongst other seafood) that originated in this neighborhood. It was equally delectable, and also very warming after being out in wind once the sun had set. 

It was an absolutely wonderful day, filled to the brim with memories and laughs. We were WIPED. Caught the train station out of the city at 12:05 AM and fell asleep on the train ride home.

Another weekend, we spent an evening in at Tricia and Damian’s building gingerbread houses, watching Jingle All the Way, having holiday drinks, and baking cookies. Well…Tricia baked cookies. Gabrielle helped where she could, and the boys just talked, drank their drinks, and at the fresh cookies. Tricia knocked it out of the park this year – she baked a TON of cookies from scratch so she could make little gift baskets for all of her coworkers, and ended up being able to make around 25 little boxes of around 5-10 cookies each. TWENTY FIVE! So glad I have this generous, amazing friend back in my life. If you’re reading this, Trish, LOVE YOU ❤

We knew we couldn’t afford to fly home for Christmas and Gabrielle was out of vacation time. So we took our 3 days, rented a car and drive down to Ventura to spend Christmas with Gabrielle’s brother Jake and his wife Allie! 

Did we mention they live across the street from the beach and have a nice pool and hot tub at their apartment?! It was three days of “sibling Christmas!” with a Christmas Day afternoon hike up a mountain, Grandma Lolly’s hilarious Christmas glasses that we wore on the hike and in the hot tub, dinner out in Ventura, boxes of presents sent from the midwest, cat toys, and bundt cakes! My parents sent us a dozen bundt cakes… SO MANY BUNT CAKES! So delicious. 

For the week leading up to New Years, we house-sat and cat-sat at Tricia & Damian’s place while they flew to Chicago for the week. We brought our cat Beaker with us to hang out with their cat, Bean! Let’s just say they coexisted with some separation at times…no cat fights, but some hissing . By the end of the week they would be okay being in close proximity to each other, but there was never any cuddling. It was good though and nice for us to have a little more space. We wouldn’t trade our Sundancer experience these past years for anything, but after living in it for so long you do start to miss and appreciate large indoor spaces. (Insert quote from Step Brothers “There’s so much room for ACTIVITIES!”)

The Great Standoff.

For New Year’s Eve we thought about going to San Francisco but decided that since we don’t have Elon Musk money, we should find something local. The night before New Year’s Eve, David just happened upon a website for San Jose area and found that the local amusement park was hosting a New Year’s Eve party with 6 hours in the park and fireworks! Tickets weren’t too bad so we thought why not? We like rollercoasters. 

If we as a couple had a middle name, pretty sure it would be Spontaneity. 

And so: California Great America for WinterFest NYE! Holiday music and dance shows, dazzling themed lights and decorations, spiked eggnog topped with a cookie pierced on the straw, NYE hats and noisemakers, cranberry chutney topped chicken fingers with french fries, arcading (in which Gabrielle played DDR for the first time since high school and finished scowling and claiming that the roll out pad she’d had at home to play was far superior lol), fireworks midway through the night, and…sprinkled in between it all….ROLLER COASTERS. The best was RailBlazer (quite Raging Bull in it’s style and feel, for all you Illinois people) with Flight Deck taking a close 2nd. 

It’s a good thing we each found a partner that loved roller coasters just as much as the other. 

I’ll let our ridiculous pictures from this night close out the post. 

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