Here’s what camping is to millions of people my age: a childhood memory (sometimes treasured, sometimes not) of the hours packing everything you’re allowed to bring into two tiny bags, a backpack, and mess kit, the latter of which will hang each night on a branch out of the reach of bears but somehow still within your reach, and the former which you’ll end up using either as a pillow atop the rocky cold tent bottom or additional heat source on top of your sleeping bag that’s either too small and too tight or too lightweight or somehow not waterproof. You wake up to dew falling from the top of your tent on your face to discover it’s 4 a.m. (you think, Dad’s watch is fogged over), spend two hours cooking and cleaning up after breakfast, then hike far too long in the hot sun, spend too many hours fishing for the meager meal you’re all supposed to share after it’s been charred on a campfire that night by the same chef who somehow even manages to burn s’mores. You either loved it or hated it, but trust me, by the time you’re 40, you aren’t doing it anymore.
But here's why you shouldn't kick camping off your list. One of the fastest-growing travel genres (can travel be a genre? No, maybe segment? Arena?) — OK, one of the fastest growing travel arenas for same-sex couples and LGBT singles and families is camping. I know, because I am their queen.
My co-pilot and I used to camp across the country, driving from state to state, pitching a tent at a local, state, or federal campground or wilderness area, spending hours languishing near that campfire, playing gin rummy or other nonelectronic games by the lantern in our tent, and generally using the rhythm of the sun to schedule our days (which, yes, often means going to sleep at 6 p.m. and waking up by 5 a.m.). Squatting a cop (i.e. going to pee outdoors), diving in any water source (yep, got the Giardia parasite more than once), and finding creative ways to rehydrate beef for protein (my stepfather gave me the recipe for what the Army soldiers called S.O.S., but campers call chipped beef) were never a problem for us. Often we’d roll into a park or campground in the dark of night after eight or nine hours of driving through unfamiliar roadways, rushing toward sleep. You find a campsite, pay your money in an envelope the rangers will open the next day, pitch a tent, and sleep.
We'd often awaken in a world much different than the one we saw at night, by headlight, as we unfurled our sleeping bags. Once we woke up in an awkward spot: painfully close to a dropoff that led to the Mississippi River on one side, railroad tracks on the other (don’t ask why there were railroad tracks in a public campground). Another time, we were thrilled to find ourselves in front of a lake, the gorgeous gleaming navy-colored water of Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas — which just happens to be attached on one shore to the state’s only nuclear power plant, Arkansas Nuclear One, which we hadn't noticed at night. Another time, outside Carson City, Nev., we fell asleep piled atop each other, the co-pilot, our two dogs, and me. When we woke, we were all scratching, covered in red marks on nearly every surface, even that one. The ground we were camped on was infested with fleas, and now so were we.
Still, it was always an adventure, a great story to tell back at the office, and a cheap way to see the country when we were young and always broke. By the time we hit our 40s we were simply no longer able-bodied enough to do that kind of camping. In fact, we were no longer able to do the kind of sensible car camping middle-class people with kids like to do. We have different needs, and our tastes have been refined from the days when we could combine mystery meat and refried beans straight out of the can on a tortilla and call it dinner. So I had guessed our camping days were over.
The along came GoRVing.com, and on a recent trip to California’s overlooked wine country, I discovered something much better.
This is the kind of thing you can only do when you're camping. And this hot.
Gays On the Road
Twenty years ago, more often than not, if you were into recreational vehicles it meant you were retired, over 60 years old, white, and straight. Black comics made jokes about white people's love of camping; gay men shuddered at the thought of visiting backwater burgs where antigay nutjobs might be lurking around any corner. RV parks weren’t always comfortable for same-sex couples or single women, regardless of orientation. For lesbians, RVing was attractive option (What’s better for a U-Haul lesbian? When your house moves with you!), but safety was always a concern. Then along came an organization called RVing Women, a social and recreation group that connected women who were interested in RVing — those who owned or rented RVs, those who were dreaming of doing so on weekends, those who were full-timers (living in their RVs year-round). The group was a networking behemoth that offered women info on everything from safety to how to fix a broken septic system on the road, and lesbians flocked to the group in droves. They were welcomed, and soon you could find lesbian couples at RV parks quite frequently, even if fellow travelers often mistook them for sisters.
Soon, in the late 1990s, other groups came along — those aimed specifically at LGBT folks, including Rainbow RV, which now bills itself as the largest LGBT RV and tent-camping membership club in North America. RainbowRV now has 7,000 members, LGBT couples and singles, who can join private group camping events, connect with other RVers in areas they’d like to visit, find LGBT-written reviews of RV parks and campgrounds in nearly any state in the nation, and, as with AAA or Good Sam, get discounts on services aimed at RVers.
A quick scour of Google, though, brings up more campground listings, like CampGayUSA, which has listings for gay, lesbian, gay-lesbian, gay-friendly, and gay-owned campgrounds in the U.S., Canada, and abroad. There are also private gay RV communities, like The Hunting Club, on secluded wooded grounds and an 11-acre pond, located in Vidalia, Ga. (the city famous for its onions). There’s Jones Pond, a clothing-optional RV park in Angelica, N.Y., catering to gay men that has also been owned by gay men since the early 1990s, and Highlands Resort, an LGBT campground resort in Guerneville, Calif. (in the famous
Russian River gay resort region, which LGBT San Franciscans flood to on weekends). The Resort on Carefree Blvd. (often just called Carefree by the women who live there), the Southwest Florida resort thought to be the largest planned community of lesbians in U.S. — there are over 275 homes there — has a spot for RVers. The two major mainstream affiliate organizations for RVers, Good Sam and Escapees, both have LGBT groups within them now.
Clearly, for LGBT RVers, today is a different day.
The Roadtrek RV (above)
No More Behemoths XL
It’s with that knowledge that volunteered for a glorious weekend RV trip, the co-pilot, three Chihuahuas, and me. And it began with a Roadtrek RS-Adventurous, which is literally the Mercedes-Benz of recreational vehicles. Originally Mercedes’ European cargo vans, these Roadtreks combine Mercedes-Benz engineering with a sort of ingenious RV design that packs in everything you really need in an RV but is so small it can be parked in a regular spot instead of those giant spots reserved for semi-trucks and haulers. The Roadtrek is perfect for a couple and dogs (or maybe even a couple of little kids) because it’s smart and compact; all four of the front seats swivel around to gather around a dining table that you can pop up in a breeze; you can undo an extra folding mattress up front if you need to sleep more than a couple; the whole thing is open from front to end and you can see panoramic views anywhere in the RV as well as the drivers around you on the road; and the bathroom is so fascinatingly small and functional I actually tweeted a picture of it.
The thing though about driving this little beast is that, unlike conventional RVs, it felt so un-beastlike on the road. It was fun to drive, eco-conscious, never got sidelined by Santa Ana winds, and I was never afraid of running over or under things (including curbs and small animals) because I couldn’t see around the RV. It had all the things we needed in an RV (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, fridge) as well as things I didn’t realize I should expect but now will in perpetuity (including a home theater system with a 17-inch flat screen TV and surround sound).
After a helpful distributor delivered the Roadtrek and gave me the five-minute how-to, I spent 10 minutes worrying that it might be too small and then the next two days brainstorming ways to buy one as soon as our camping trip was over. Yes, I was now a walking ad for Roadtrek, but where could I take this puppy? Oh, right, this is a story about wine country camping and the joy of travel without waiting in line at the airport, staying in a stuffy hotel I can barely afford, and having to leave my dogs at home with a (pricey) babysitter.
Fe Ciega Vineyard in Santa Inez Valley
Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties
I told my new friend at GoRVing — a coalition of RV manufacturers, component suppliers, dealers, and campgrounds — that I thought Lake Arrowhead would make a great destination. She reminded me that Lake Arrowhead was around 115 degrees that week and would probably not be a great place for tiny apartment-size dogs. Right. So I let her choose a spot on the map then, and she came up with the Santa Ynez Valley, one of the fastest-growing wine regions in a state famous for its wine, and an area in central part of the state that offers a lot of other adventures, from hiking to glider flights to the wonderful Danish village of Solvang.
We stopped first in Santa Paula, at the Ventura Ranch KOA, a 76-acre campground nestled in Heritage Valley at the foot of Ventura County’s highest mountain, Topa Topa. Considering the KOA (that’s the country’s largest chain of developed campgrounds for the uninitiated) is up a mountain, next to a creek, surrounded by wildlife, and littered with stars, it was hard to believe it was only 15 miles from both the beach and even less from a freeway.
The campground, just off Highway 150 between Santa Paula and Ojai (which is the sort of the yoga retreat of the stars), was packed with people, some in tents and cabins, others like us in RVs, and even some in the park’s Native American teepees. There was a dog park on the grounds, but we spent our time walking our dogs along the trails that ran alongside the Santa Paula River. The river trail actually ran into an area the rangers there have dubbed Bigfoot’s Watering Hole, and they lead walks every Saturday night called Bigfoot Adventure Walks, in which kids go in search of the elusive creature by starlight.
The weekend we were there, the Ventura KOA was a flurry of activity, with kids and adults clamoring to get onto the local zip line (check that off my bucket list), the rock-climbing tower, race car pedal bike route, and something called a jumping pillow (sort of like a giant, safe trampoline), which gets so hot in the summer that it has a mister that goes off while you (or your kids) jump. During the season they play movies under the stars every Friday (bring your own blankets and popcorn). There was so much to do — especially if you have kids — that we needn’t have left the park to enjoy the day.
However, we’re drunken snobs with no kids, so after a nature hike and a zip line we headed out to the Citrus Classic Balloon Festival, an annual local tradition where you see hundreds of amazingly colorful hot air balloons, listen to live music, watch sky divers, drink it up in the beer garden, and try out a 15-foot tethered balloon flight that is perfect for wusses like me.
The next day we packed up (in an RV that takes about five minutes to stow your clothes and unplug the electricity — compare that to the old days of station wagon campouts!) and headed to Flying Flags RV Resort, just outside Solvang, a little Danish town in the heart of Santa Barbara County’s wine country.
Aebleskiver with raspberry jam from Solvang Restaurant
Solvang is a quaint Danish enclave that’s managed to retain its Scandinavian charm since Danish-Americans escaping harsh Iowa winters founded it over a century ago. There’s an annual Danish Days Festival every September and the wonderfully quaint Winterfest in December, but for me all it takes to feel the velkommen of the town is a walk along its European village-style streets, riding the Honen (a replica 1915 streetcar pulled by honey-colored draft horses), and chowing down on a plate of aebleskiver, a traditional dish from Denmark that is essentially round pancake balls often toped with powdered sugar and raspberry jam. (Try Solvang Restaurant or Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery, considered one of the best bakeries in the West for several decades).
There's something very attractive about farm life.
Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground in Buellton is one of the larger RV resorts in the state, with fairly gorgeous landscaped grounds and regular planned excursions to things like golfing or wine country. We would have been happy enough to stay in our Roadtrek (which by now I was really attached to) or in one of the campground’s refurbished Airstreams (Google “Airstream” and you’ll get a sense of the cult fan base those silver bullets have with LGBT folks, retro lovers, and hipsters, among others). But instead, at Flying Flags we agreed to test out the fastest growing camping option in America: the park model. Park models are essentially fully furnished cabins meant to give travelers the campground experience even without an RV or a tent (yes, it is to camping what the “girlfriend experience” is to sex work). Folks just drive in, camp in the park model cabin, and then drive away without all the setup or tear-down of tents, or the fuss of driving an RV. The lesbian couple in the cabin next to us had their granddaughter and a Scottie dog and what seemed like many bags of groceries, all of which had come packed in a small Toyota Prius. (Next to them, we did look like we were driving a behemoth.)
There were a surprising number of people who drive their RVs and still stay overnight in the park models, which makes sense when you realize that you have a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen and tons of space to spread out in — something even die-hard RVers need occasionally.
Flying Flags is a hard place to drag yourself from, especially once you realize it has a huge pool, an ice cream bar, and two large spas (one for adults only, where we spent time swapping stories with about a dozen people, including two same-sex couples). But the Santa Ynez Valley awaited.
Green Acres Is the Place to Be
There are 70 wineries throughout the valley as well as tasting rooms in Solvang and other nearby towns (it’s quite easy to find pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay, and syrah), where you can also explore arts (Los Olivos), antiques (Los Alamos), a historic saloon (Santa Ynez), and some Solvang musts. Among the latter: The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, and the Mission Santa Ines, which is historic landmark and one of the famed 21 Catholic missions built along the California coast in the 1800s.
Our favorite part of the area wasn’t the museums (though I do recommend the privately owned Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps and Petroliana), the horseback riding (Rancho Oso offers great rides and you can also camp with your horse at their resort!), the locally made Trikkes (though I want one badly), or the gorgeous valley glider rides from Windhaven Glider Rides. It was the local farms, many of which are open to the public for drop-ins or pre-arranged farm tours. Meryl Tanz’s Clairmont Farms offers five acres of lavender and products made from it (and you might recognize it from films and TV commercials shot on location there). You can get to know llamas at Flying V Llama Ranch (805-735-3577), ostriches and emus at Ostrich Land (a 33-acre breeding farm; 805-686-9696), and alpacas (at Alpacas at West Ranch).
But we wanted food and were thrilled to discover numerous pick-your-own farms for everything from apples to dates. At Morrell Nut and Berry Farm you can pick olallieberries, blackberries, and more from June through August. Even better, there’s a great tour called ATVs for Agriculture, which is run by a nonprofit group to promote sustainable local farming. Tours take you out on an all-terrain vehicles to Nojoqui Falls Ranch, an organic farming and grass-fed cattle operation, where you learn about the inner workings of the 100-plus year old ranch and explore the gorgeous terrain it’s on.
And of course, there’s the wine. Santa Barbara County actually has four wine-growing regions — including the Santa Ynez Valley — each with longer growing seasons (and a long “hang time,” meaning grapes stay on the vine longer, which creates distinctive characteristics). The Santa Barbara County Vintners Association website, SBCountyWines.com, lists all the area wineries and what they produce, along with info on tours, tasting rooms, and events. There are numerous wine trails in the region, but what we loved most about the Santa Ynez wine trail is how integrated it is with the working farms and ranches — not just tasting room stop-offs — so you meander along rolling country roads and see horses and fields along with working wineries. It makes for a perfect day trip for both the drinkers and the designated driver (it’s not hard to find food and fun, freshly made, nonboozy beverages).
Clairmont Lavender Farm
At the end of what was a relaxing yet expedient weekend trip, as we drove south back to L.A. in that perfect little Mercedes-powered Roadtrek RV I was reluctantly having to give back to the dealer the next morning, we pondered over the trip, about how something so decidedly common and middle-class (like camping) could turn into a pretty sophisticated adventure that spans from zip lining to wine and tapas rooms, made all the better by driving a drool-worthy vehicle and landing in a couple of great campgrounds. Sure, you could call it "glamping" (which magazine writers use to mean upscale camping; it combines “glamour” and “camping” but really sounds like it could be “gay” and “lamping” too). But I think this trip was more than just glamping.
We got a glimpse at contemporary Americana, a type of travel as old as the auto but so thoroughly remade for the modern era that even chi-chi LGBT folks (and their families) are diving in, no longer searching for safety and belonging on the sidelines, but manning the wheel at the forefront of this travel reinvention. And their spouses, along for the ride, busily mapping the wine tours.
Some Important Details if You Go
GoRVing.com can help you find local RV dealers, RV rentals, and any of the 16,000 campgrounds.
SolvangUSA.com offers info on visiting this little Danish town.
The Danish escaped those Midwest winters for Solvang, Calif., a reminder that the best times to go to Santa Barbara County is basically anytime you have a weekend or more to go. The weather is always good. But do know that December is a great time to visit the region. Winterfest happens all month in Solvang with Nativity pageants, carolers, tree-lighting ceremony, ice skating, and a holiday wine walk among other festivities. Los Alamos has a Holiday Stroll December 14, when revelers walk the seven-block-long Bell Street main thoroughfare, where there are art galleries, antique shops, and wine-tasting rooms, and the streets are lined with Mexican luminarias and a bonfire. And December 7 Los Olivos hosts its small-town-feeling Old Fashioned Christmas, where the streets are filled with luminarias and the smell of popcorn and roasted walnuts.
There’s an Antique and Retro Shopper’s Map to Santa Barbara and Ventura County that highlights some of the great spots for pop-ins like Buellton’s femmetastic Pink Trash & Treasure. You can download the map at ShoppersMap.com.
The only thing we missed that we may need to head back for soon is the Lake Cachuma Eagle Cruises, two-hour water treks with a naturalist aboard a 45-passenger pontoon boat, the Osprey, in search of the elusive bald eagle and other migratory birds. The tours go November through February and are accessible enough for my wheelchair-using friends and anyone over 4. (For reservations, call 805-686-5050),