So I meet a lot of interesting people on the road. Every so often, some of these people let me into their own lives. While waiting for some repairs in Long Beach, I met a couple who has lived full-time on Catalina Island for the past 20 years. They invited me on a personal tour of the island, and I quickly accepted.
Part of the Channel Islands, Santa Catalina Island (people just call it Catalina) is about 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles. I opted to take the hour-long ferry ride to get to the island, but one day I will fly to the Catalina Airport myself — one day. It was a pretty choppy day across the channel; in fact, the previous ferry was cancelled due to high winds. It was about as uncomfortable a boat ride as I would have preferred, but so well worth the ride!
The only incorporated city on the island is Avalon. Its streets overlooking the Pacific Ocean are full of touristy stores, restaurants, bars, and hotels. There are very, very few cars on the island; street legal golf carts are everywhere! The town just has a calm and serene vibe to it. There is also a Chicago connection to Avalon and the entire Catalina Island. The Wrigley family owned the island for many years, and the Chicago Cubs even used the island for spring training back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The Catalina Island Conservancy now owns 88% of the island.
With the exception of the city of Avalon, a few remote houses, some farms, camps, and resorts — oh, and the Airport-in-the-Sky — Catalina Island looks like California looked like 200 years ago. I know California gets a bad rap sometimes, but let me tell you, California has some absolutely stunning scenery. And Catalina Island has some of the best scenery in all of California.
Anyone visiting the Los Angeles area absolutely, positively needs to visit Catalina Island! Thanks for the tour, Laurie!Read More
Anyone following my journey for the last year has probably noticed my lack of traveling the past few months. Well, that is about to change! The reason for my stationary status was due to one reason, and one reason alone: flying lessons. On my 35th birthday, I passed my check ride and officially became a licensed pilot. Legally it is a certificate and not a license, but I won’t get into semantics. Anyway, with my flying lessons complete, I will finally be leaving the San Diego area to explore the rest of the US and Canada. Before I get back on the road, I thought I would share my experience of learning to fly.
Airplanes and I go way back. In the 1970s, my dad and grandpa carved out an airstrip in our backyard in Montana. It is still very active: Ferndale Airfield (53U). As far back as I can remember, summer nights often included a quick flight around the Flathead Valley with my dad in our Cessna 150. I took a few lessons in high school, tried again while living in Chicago, took some more at a small airport in Indiana, and then decided to do this whole Airstream adventure. With the peace and solitude of Airstream living came the opportunity to really take flying lessons seriously. And as time had passed, aviation caught up with technology: finally, GPS was available in the cockpit; digital instruments were common; and fuel-efficient engines actually made the cost a little more reasonable.
I found a flight school just outside San Diego. Appropriately named San Diego Sport Flyers, it had the Sport Cruiser airplane I wanted to fly. I flew a couple dozen hours, studied night after night, and eventually summoned the courage to test my skills out in front of a Designated Pilot Examiner. This is my story.
The day began at 6:30 AM with a check of the weather and the realization that all my previous night’s calculations were a little off because the winds aloft had switched a complete 180 degrees in direction. Let me back up. The whole process has two parts: an oral knowledge exam, and a practical flying check ride in the air (if the previous knowledge exam goes well). The first part includes a mock flight plan to a pre-determined airport in the area. This flight plan is old school and literally includes getting out a ruler, plotting points, computing routes, headings, and distances — all with wind correction angles and variations with isogonic lines. Yeah, fun stuff, let me tell you! The whole point is to figure out how much fuel it takes to get from Point A to Point B. After all, there are no rest areas up in the air!
After I redid all my calculations, it was off to the flight school to meet with the examiner and hopefully go flying in a couple of hours. Little did I know those couple of hours turned into four hours. That’s right. Four hours. In a closed room. With no bathroom or food break. Talking about everything imaginable: from the scientific effects of density altitude to flash cards of airport markings. Those of you who know me, know that four hours without food is a feat in and of itself! With the knowledge portion over, it was now time to take to the skies.
The first beautiful Saturday in weeks, Gillespie Field Airport was overflowing with air traffic. We took off Runway 27R with a right downwind departure towards El Capitan Reservoir. The next hour and half was a blur of steep turns, power on stalls, power off stalls, emergency descents, turns around a point, slow flight; you name it. I managed to do all the maneuvers, so we flew over to Ramona Airport to practice various types of landings.
My most memorable part of the day was over at Ramona. After making a somewhat pathetic short field landing (trying to land within 200 feet of the numbers on the runway), my examiner made me go around and attempt the same thing again — but without power. On the downwind leg, I pulled the throttle and started the all-important glide towards the ground. I made the turns back to the airport, applied flaps, eased it down, and landed directly on the numbers with the two main wheels first — just as the doctor ordered. The examiner looked at me, punched my shoulder, and said it was an absolutely beautiful landing. I think they were my first, and only, words of encouragement all day! We flew back to Gillespie, made one last landing, and I got two thumbs up — apparently universal pilot examiner speak for “You passed!”
So, the next step is for me to graduate from a safe pilot to a good, safe pilot. I will be going to various airports around the country to practice my flying skills. In fact, the next stop I have planned is to a little town in northern Vermont to get my float plane rating. I am now free to move about the country, and I can’t wait!
Dubbed “America’s Finest City,” San Diego has always been on my list of cities to visit. And since the rest of the country seems to be permanently frozen, now is a perfect time to stay warm in “America’s Finest City.”
San Diego (and the surrounding area) definitely has my attention. The geographic diversity and climate changes of the beaches, valleys, mountains, and desert are refreshing. So far, I have checked out downtown, Point Loma, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, Torrey Pines, East County, and Julian. And there is still more to see!
I really have enjoyed my time in the San Diego area. In fact, I like it so much, I plan to stay here at least another month!Read More
So I left all my winter gear in storage somewhere in Chicago. That means I will spend the winter months in the warmth of California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. It also means very few blog updates for the next couple of months. In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter!Read More
Pacific. Coast. Highway. Drive it. Seriously, it has to be the most scenic highway in all of America. My plan is to eventually drive all of Highway 1 from Canada to Mexico, but that is for another time. For now, I found plenty to do and see along the P.C.H. from Big Sur up to Sonoma. I had an outdoor dinner with impressive views at Big Sur, hung out with great friends in Carmel and Monterey, golfed at the famous Poppy Hills Golf Course along 17-Mile Drive, made it over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, drank some of the wonderful local wine in Napa Valley, and took in the natural beauty of the Sonoma Coast. Not a bad way to spend a week!Read More
So, remember when I said Lake Tahoe had the most impressive scenery and extreme driving requirements to match? Scratch that, because Yosemite National Park now takes home top honors. I think I spent the entire weekend with my eyes wide open, grasping for a description of the sights. The one word that came to mind was “grandeur”.
The first part of Yosemite actually started out a little rough. I left Tahoe with a full tank of gas, a gung-ho attitude, and a campground reservation just on the other side of the park. By the end of the day, all three were in short supply. After a relatively easy drive through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, as I got close to the entrance of the park, one particular mountain peak caught my eye. I kept thinking, “I really hope I don’t have to go up that. I really hope I don’t have to go up that.” But it kept getting closer, and closer, and closer, until I found myself going right on up it. With the engine revved almost to the max I didn’t even stop for a photo, fearful I wouldn’t be able to climb from a complete stop. I maintained a pretty steady 45mph on the straightaways, and finally reached the friendly ranger at the Tioga Pass Entrance to Yosemite with an elevation of 9,945 feet! It is apparently the highest mountain pass in the entire state of California. I drove the length of the park and then began my descent back down towards my campground. With the endless curves, cliffs, and cars, by the time I got down to the other side, I was absolutely 100% spent. All I could think of was a nice spot to relax and spend the night.
So, back to the campground. I have stayed in a wide variety of sites; some incredible, and some, not so much. Even though I was exhausted, even though it was a holiday weekend, even though I had no internet access to find another campground, I quickly decided to ask for a refund and hit the road. Why, oh why, do you ask? My reserved spot, the one and only spot left in the entire campground, was about the size of a VW Beetle. There were two big dogs chained up next to it, and a large group of people overflowed from their spot into my reserved spot. It was basically the sweatshop version of a campground. To be fair, the manager was completely apologetic and gave me directions to some other possible options.
I drove to the tiny town of Mariposa, California and stumbled upon the Mariposa Fairgrounds that just happened to offer a 24-hour self-registration area with full hookups. Call it complete luck, call it divine intervention, call it whatever you like, but I decided to call it home for two nights. It ended up being absolutely perfect! The next morning I left the Airstream behind, and went back to Yosemite with just the Touareg. As I traveled the exact same route, I couldn’t believe I had done it with 23 extra feet and 6,000 extra pounds just the day before. Completely safe? Yes. Completely insane? That, too.
I explored Yosemite all day, took some great photos and video, and came back to find the 4th of July Fireworks for the whole county set up a feet away from my site. It may not have been the biggest, brightest, or longest fireworks display of all time, but it was definitely the most convenient! It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.
After months of anticipation, I finally got to test out the Touareg and the Airstream in the mountains. Admittedly, I still haven’t done the tallest peaks on my itinerary, but I got up over 7,500 feet with some serious ascents and descents.
My first mountain stop was in Park City, Utah. I actually had forgotten it was on my route, and had no plans to stay there until I rolled through on I-80. I pulled up Google Maps, picked the first campground on the list (Park City RV Resort), and ended up staying a couple of days. I toured Olympic Park, visited the trendy downtown, and even drove to some of the surrounding towns. Park City definitely made my Top 10 list!
After a quick stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats a few hours west of Salt Lake City, I drove across the high desert of northern Nevada. Man, there is just not much going on for miles and miles (well, other than the endless road construction). But, the final destination of Lake Tahoe made the boring drive completely worth it!
Seriously, how have I never been to Lake Tahoe? With majestic mountains, water as blue as an ocean and beaches with smooth white sand, it is paradise at 6,200 feet above sea level! I kayaked through the clear waters of Zephyr Cove and Emerald Bay, relaxed on the beach at D.L. Bliss State Park, and even got some work done at the Tiki bar just steps away from my 3-day home at Zephyr Cove RV Park & Campground. During my stay, I met two other families with new Airstreams. Hope you guys stay in touch!
In addition to the usual photos, I broke out the video camera to show just a glimpse of the roads around Lake Tahoe. I slowly made it around the lake just fine, but some of the steep climbs and hairpin curves were intense. Of the nearly 10,000 miles so far, the last 50 were easily the hardest.