California: Take your bus and git

I’ll preface this post by saying that we have nothing but love for California. This state houses our favorite parks, drives, food, and views. It’s a must-visit. But, if you’re visiting in a bus, I have some words of caution for you.

That California cool epitomized by the iconic VW bus? Californians seem to despise it. Well, that might be a tad strong; they don’t like it much. Maybe because the bus is now such a marketed symbol or they equate the bus with van lifers who are clogging up the beaches and streets—beats me, but this is the first time in 25,000 miles and 36 states that we felt distinctly unwelcome. Yes, everyone is in a hurry here and Adie tops out around 65 on a flat road, so that meant we were being passed on the double yellow two-lanes by everyone who owns a white GMC truck (which, I think, might be a requirement in central California). Honking they think is also an effective way to increase my engine’s horsepower. I don’t know—maybe they think that between the photons from flashing their brights and the sonic burst of their horn hitting the back of the bus, it’ll give us the little extra push we need to go from the highway speed of 65 to the steady 93 everyone else maintains. Part of driving a bus is clucking at the impatient drivers who are willing to risk a head-on mountainside collision in order to gain entire seconds before making a right-hand turn one quarter mile up the road. California drivers apparently are really strapped for time and don’t have much to live for. California motorcyclists are apparently exempt from all laws, but do make sure you look twice and save a life!

But it isn’t the driving that is so bad as the stopping—trying to find where you are welcome. About every two weeks, Miracle and I stop at RV parks for the night. We discovered this trick early on. Generally RV parks have clean bathrooms, hookups, and laundry facilities that are significantly cheaper than a laundromat. We’ve stayed at amazing RV parks in Texas where the rate was $15 and had laundry included. In Monterey we were about due for an RV park stay and Miracle began to call around. 

Miracle’s usual spiel begins with the make and model of our vehicle. Oftentimes over the past several months the phrase “VW bus” is met with an exclamation of delight or a “how cool.” We’ve had the phrase open doors for us—places that were fully booked suddenly found a corner they could put us for, say, ten bucks? Sure! 

Californians don’t care about your really dope VW bus. One park practically hung up on Miracle after she said the dreaded words. Another park kindly informed us that most of the RV parks in California wouldn’t take us. “Try saying campervan,” I suggested. 

That helped. We found an RV park outside of Merced run by the Elks. Miracle said we were in a camper van and asked if they had showers, bathrooms, laundry. Yes, yes and yes. She asked if we had to be Elks to camp there. No, but it does cost five more dollars. Great; we were on our way. 

We pulled in to the campground and the host trotted out—not the woman on the phone. He eyed the bus hard and gritted his teeth. “You’re not self-contained,” he said. 

It was hot out. I was tired. We just had emergency work done on the bus after our brakes failed on Highway 1 (more on that in another post). There were no other campgrounds, let alone RV parks within an hour’s drive. I let him know we checked ahead of time; we called and said we had a camper van and Miracle asked about showers and toilets and laundry. 

This gentleman looked at me sternly and said this was a quiet RV park and no one would be heading into the shower to clean up after me. “We can’t have you making messes,” he said. They only dealt in cash and I needed exact change because they don’t carry change because they don’t want to get robbed. I had two twenties and the camp fee was $30. We drove out to town to get change. (Which also meant getting actual change for the laundry as they did not have coins on the property. Because robbers.) 

When we returned a teardrop trailer pulled in, no problem, which led me to believe that perhaps the issue was not self-containment, but rather something else. 

The bus. You’ll see the picture at the top of the blog page and it’s a common one around Morro Bay. For one reason or another, the bus is the symbol they use to show that camping is not allowed. We laughed about this later when we did a Harvest Host near Sacramento. The winemaker said, yeah, buses are trouble because of homelessness and drugs and hippie culture. But we shouldn’t feel bad because a lot of RV parks don’t accept any vehicles older than 10 years. As I said earlier, Miracle and I have been at this living in the bus thing for almost nine months now and have logged enough miles to make it around the Earth one time, but have not experienced this sort of abrasiveness from any other state. It is uniquely Californian. So if you are planning to drive your bus, van, or older-than-a-decade RV through California, here are some tips: 

  1. As always, avoid the highways. You’ll see more and this is truly a beautiful state. People’s madness increases with speed (and that applies to every state).
  2. Avoid rush hour. The traffic I described above is Monday at 10 a.m. traffic and Tuesday at 2 p.m. traffic. I cannot fathom what it looks like at 5:15 p.m.
  3. Plan your stays ahead of time. Usually we can make gametime decisions. Not so in California. Campgrounds are booked way out. Driveway stays are a little harder because of HOAs and local ordinances that prohibit vanlifers. As a rule, the locals hate out-of-town bus owners. 
  4. Use BLM and USFS lands. If you score a campground, it will be expensive (think around $30 for no hookups and a patch of asphalt). You will need to book online and there will be a fee and taxes and your $30 site is now $42. If there are showers, they will be coin operated and you may also have to pay a day use fee.
  5. Carry a roll of quarters. It’s just good practice everywhere, but especially here, where getting a roll of quarters usually means you have to purchase something somewhere in addition to making the currency to specie trade.
  6. If you’re a Harvest Host member, this is a state with plenty of vineyards. Yes, you are supposed to be self-contained (and we are when we are not paying for use of a shower and toilets). If you’re going to spend money on a bottle of wine, the Harvest Host stay is a great deal. Sort of. Because everything, including wine, in California is expensive. Which brings me to…
  7. Double your budget for this state. Everything costs more—like a lot more. Gas in Death Valley was $10/gallon. Outside of there, it was a steal at $8.20. But it falls in line for everything else, including brake repair, food, and well, everything.

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