Every year since 2012 (except last year because we had a new baby) we try to take the boys camping for spring break. (You would be AMAZED how much stuff fits in a Prius! Really. It’s impressive) It’s generally gone pretty smoothly other than little things like underestimating how cold it gets at night. We have a big tent, more than enough sleeping bags, and all of the essentials neatly organized in Rubbermaid bins.
The only difference this year is we have this super cool Jeep and this rad tent trailer we’ve spent a few hours rehabbing. I was SUPER excited to get back out there and try again. We gutted the Blue Buffalo over the winter and put in a new floor so she really needed to get out for a test run before we decided if/ how we want to finish the interior.
Our previous spring breaks have taken us north- Big Sur, Morro Bay, Pismo Beach. I thought it would be fun to do something a little different this time, so we planned our trip to Joshua Tree. Amazingly at only 130 ish miles away, neither of us had ever been there. April looks like the perfect time to go; not to hot during the day and not too cold at night.
So the planning began. I have been traveling my whole life; I’ve logged thousands upon thousands of miles on the road. Hundreds of campgrounds. I have crossed the country in its entirety 3 times plus countless “half crossings” and back. I’ve flown coast to coast a jillion times. We flew to Europe for a 2 week cruise. Never in my 38 years have I planned and organized as well as we did for this three-day, 300 mile trip. (That’s a lie. I planned for months when I moved myself and 2 children 3000 miles but I don’t think that counts)
Victor is a planner… I am a “let’s see what happens” kind of gal although I’m starting to plan a bit more as I get older. He even researched and compared coolers for a solid week before we bought a new one. My darling had me download Google Keep awhile back so we can share checklists and be more organized together. It’s been pretty effective for a few things so I suppose we’ll ‘keep’ on (see what I did there?).
We not only had a checklist of items to take, we also had a to-do list, a meal plan, and a shopping list. It worked out really well; we had everything ready to go exactly on schedule. Victor even made a bike rack so we could take all 4 bikes along. The trailer was packed on Sunday so all we had to do was pick up ice, pack the cooler and put it in the Jeep, load in the dry goods/ food, and attach the bikes. We should have been out the door by 10 and it should have been a 3 ish hour drive (135 miles , allow for traffic, a stop for gas, and a stop for food).
“Should have been”
We left at 2. How?? I don’t actually know what happened. There are no words I can type to explain how it took an additional FOUR HOURS to leave. An hour I can understand because of going to get the ice and attaching the bikes and rack for the first time. But four? The only logical explanation is that we fell into some sort of vacuum where space and time do not peacefully coexist.
Traffic wasn’t too bad for the most part, considering the first 90 miles were getting out of Los Angeles. We hit a few slow patches but nothing toooo bad; the slowest slow down was, according to Google Maps, about a 15 minute delay. However. It took over 3 hours to travel 92 miles (I just mapped it to check the actual mileage). That means we averaged less than 30 miles an hour…
Our first stop was in Cabazon at Morongo Casino. Well, not AT the casino but next to it there is a large gas station and a couple of places to get food. We all needed to stretch our legs and eat, and Helena definitely needed to run around a bit. Fuel, food, back in the road. So far so good.
The city melted away in the rearview so traffic was no longer an issue and we were trucking right along. After passing through a valley of wind turbines, it was time to exit the freeway and head up into the high desert. It was beautiful! Fields of yellow wild flowers danced alongside the highway cheering us on up the hills. The peacefulness of the view made me forget the hours in traffic and the smog and the noise we left behind.
But half way up the big hill, the Jeep started making some not-so-good noises. Like something was misfiring or the transmission was starting to slip. The tranny went out on my Santa Fe in 2011 when I went to Sequoia National Park so I had some experience with that but we’re talking about a 2005 V6 vs a 1987 V8 so it could have been. My gut told me it wasn’t the transmission though and it was definitely a misfire. We kept pushing on because really, we were in the middle of nowhere.
The beast tackled that mountain in grizzly old man fashion. And of course the baby pooped because that’s what she does whenever we have a somewhat significant change in altitude and also when it is incredibly inconvenient. So we stopped again for gas at the base of the hill that led into Joshua Tree, this time filling the gerry cans and getting some firewood as well. The Googles said we would be pulling into camp right at sundown- 7:20.
Victor had a bit of anxiety brewing after the rough climb of the last big hill and now we needed to go up again into the unknown, into the relatively human free, and into no cellphone reception. It felt like forever. The engine puttered and coughed like an 80-year-old smoker. We watched the sun set and the moon rise before the road leveled out. And we passed two signs saying all of the campgrounds were full. We had come too far to admit defeat so we drove through the campground just in case there was an empty spot … spoiler alert: there wasn’t.
At this point, the engine sounded like it was running on our willpower. The biggest thing we had going for us was the fact that we were towing a bed and food so if the Jeep died, we would set up camp totally illegally on the side of the road. I had a hard time believing anyone would give us a ticket after seeing that the car died and we have kids. Luckily we didn’t have to find out. The town of Twenty-Nine Palms lives on the other side of Joshua Tree and happens to be alllll downhill to get there. We headed for a hotel since camping was off the table.
Our first stop was at the Fairfield Marriott but they claimed to be sold out. It seemed a wee bit strange considering it was a small town in the desert on a Monday night but what do I know? There was a Best Western a quarter-mile up so Victor called them to make sure they had a room (they did). If willpower got the Jeep this far, I think something a bit more powerful carried it that last stretch.
After checking in at the BW, Victor came out to move us to a parking spot for the night. Rrrrrrr rrrrrrr rrrrrr *poof* white smoke erupts from under the hood like a magician about to disappear. We all sat there in silence for a moment. Did that just happen??? Oh yes. Yes, that did just happen. My always cool-as-a-cucumber fake husband almost melted into the seat. In 6 years, I have never seen this man stressed out like he was at that moment.
Assess the situation. Car is not going to start. We’re going to have to push it and the trailer. That spot? No. How about this one? Maybe. Ok, let’s unhitch the trailer. The Jeep goes to that spot over there and the trailer will go next to it. Perfect. The bikes will come in the room with us. Ready. Set. Break! The plan was flawless. The best part is that it went off without a hitch. (see what I did there?)
Once in the room, Victor went into problem solving mode. At 9:30pm. In the middle of not really anywhere. He wanted to call AAA and use the 100 mile tow to get the Jeep back to Riverside; he’ll go in the tow truck and rent me a car to take the trailer and the kids home. He’s feverishly browsing the interwebs to find a rental and a tow… honey, please relax. Let’s do this in the morning. We have a room and everything is ok for the rest of the night. Take a load off. Watch something funny on tv. I love you.
None of us slept very well, or at least I didn’t. Vic was up and under the hood by 9:30 (we aren’t morning people so that’s early for us). The hotel had a decent breakfast so we filled our bellies before tackling the problem at hand. He seemed pretty set on the plan of having it towed and renting a car but there wasn’t a rental place anywhere nearby. Plan B was to ask my parents to drive out and pick us up (they have a truck that could tow the trailer) while he went with the tow truck. After some back and forth, we settled on Plan C which was to see if there was a local mechanic because it would be cheaper than any of the other plans.
Vic quickly found a mechanic less than a mile away who said they’d come pick it up and diagnose the problem for $75. Cool! We had a good idea what the problem was based on our last camping adventure so we had one of the parts with us. The guy said he’d swap the part out included in the price since it would be super easy and take 5 minutes.
Somehow things that should be easy for us end up being not easy. The watered down version is there was a whole list of problems (but the main thing was what we thought plus 1 other part that was related) which we decided to just go ahead and fix some of them to make the rest of the trip less stressful. It all needed to be done anyway and chances are, these guys would charge less than anyone in LA.
We booked the room for a second night and spent the afternoon at the pool. Ooohh noooo, we had to hang out at the poooool. How awful! There was a really nice open area of desert behind the hotel so we took a short walk and then later in the evening took a much longer hike to explore and take pictures. Pizza for dinner and then V and I went out to photograph the full moon over the desert. Gorgeous.
The Jeep was ready by the time we finished breakfast so he rode his bike down to pick it up. $700 later. Ugh. We loaded up and decided to try the campground again; on the way back into the park, we passed a sign that said “Old Dale” which seemed like a fitting name for this beast of a Jeep. One cannot simply name a vehicle without asking the vehicle’s consent- “if you approve of being called Old Dale, honk twice”. Honk honk Now, this may not seem impressive until I tell you how the horn doesn’t work- and hasn’t worked since then. And thus, Old Dale was born.
Buuuuut the campground was full. Just barely. We saw people who clearly just got there and kicked ourselves for not pulling out 10 minutes earlier. As we were about to leave, I saw some folks who could have been coming or going so I hopped out to talk to them. Victor turned the Jeep off because he was worried about it overheating… it didn’t start again.
On a funny note, the kid at the next campsite was from Evan’s school so they chatted for a few minutes while we tried to see what was wrong. Turned out that the ignition coil, which is the thing that poofed the white smoke, had slipped from the bracket and was resting on a thing that made it hot… which is why the car wouldn’t start. The cooler full of ice came in handy to cool things off quickly so V could fix the bracket. Maybe 20 minutes later we were up and running.
I was all for checking the other campground or going to the overflow camp for the night. Because adventure! Unfortunately, Victor was deflated and defeated and wanted to just go home. It made me a little sad but I understood why he felt that way. It was a nice drive through the park but we didn’t stop for fear we would stay stopped. Joshua Tree is gorgeous; we will definitely go back and try it again.
The drive home was uneventful. Thankfully. We took a pit stop in Redlands to get gas and decided to find a park for a break and a snack. Kimberly Crest park is lovely and has a wonderful view overlooking Riverside. Should you ever happen to be in the area and need a place to relax for a few minutes.
While this was far from the trip we planned and definitely 10x over budget and not in a good way, we made the best of things. If nothing else, it was still nice to get out of the house for a few days. Maybe I can convince these guys to go camping again in a few months…