Donner Pass and Jelly Beans


The Jelly Belly mascot

Monday, December 22

Julie and I are up bright and early at 8 am.

Okay, maybe 8 am isn’t bright and early to some of you, but for those of us who’ve been working nights the past two months, 8 am feels alien and unnatural. The fact that we got to bed at 8:30 pm last night (helped along by a great mixed drink at BJ’s Restaurant in celebration) makes seeing the morning hours more tolerable.

Having hooked up and done most of the packing last night (before alcohol!), there isn’t much left to do. Dinnerware is packed away with non-skid runners to protect it and keep it from sliding around. The shower head on it’s bendable tubing is set down in the bathroom floor so that it doesn’t escape and fly around in transit. The refrigerator is rearranged so glass items are packed security in place to prevent breakage. All cupboard doors are checked, the electric hookup is the last thing to be unplugged, and the refrigerator gets switched to propane mode. It’s time to go!

We head west on I80, into the mountains.

It’s sunny and about 40 when we pull out of Sparks Marina RV park. Weather stations and the CA DOT web page all give a thumbs up for Donner Pass, so up we go into the Sierra Nevadas.

The climb is mild. Not far in the barren sandy hills around Reno are spouting pine trees, several different kinds. The mountains must get more rain than the valley below.

Fog in the Sierras

Fog in the Sierras

Low clouds become patchy fog as the road marches upwards. Delicate frost is visible on the needles of trees where it’s been kissed by the fog, Bertha’s temperature gauge is right at freezing.

A sign appears out of the mist: “All vehicles stop, agricultural inspection ahead.”

I stop at the kiosk and roll down my window to a man about my age bundled up against the cold, his arms are crossed and his expression is serious. “Where are you coming from?”

Well, isn’t that a loaded question. As a full-timer, I’m sort of from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But I can guess a valid answer that would be safe. “Reno most recently, but Madison, South Dakota.” That’s my “home” as far as the government is concerned. He then asks what I’m bringing for food into California. “Frozen meals and canned goods from Reno, I have no produce.” He nods and waves me ahead.

As we merge back into I80 Julie remembers that we actually do have four apples in the fridge that we’d gotten for free from a coworker at Amazon. Ooops, I’d forgotten completely about them. If anyone from the California Department of Agriculture is reading this, I’m very sorry.


Snow among the tall pines

Past the checkpoint, snow becomes more evident. It blankets the ground and still clings to the trees in a few places. The last snow having been on Friday though, the roads are all clear and mostly dry, and the temperature is climbing above freezing again as the sun rides higher in the sky and the low clouds dissipate. The sign for the summit is almost past before we realized we’ve reached it, Julie snaps a photo at the last second as proof. We’ve done it, Donner Pass in December, without snow tires, chains, or 4-wheel drive.

Almost missed it!

Almost missed it!

Now comes the part that makes me the most nervous though, getting down the other side of the mountain. A steep grade diamond comes into view, and I steel my nerves for the bad news:

“Caution, 5% grade next 3 miles, 50 mph recommended”

Really? Is that all? For some perspective, Death Valley had a 9% grade that lasted seven miles, and that on a curvy two lane road with minimal pull offs. On a four lane highway with big shoulders, this is nothing.

So for any who might be worried, I80 through Donner Pass really isn’t bad for RVs. Coming down the west side from the pass there are a couple more 5% grades, a few 4% grades, and only two 6% grades, one a three mile and one a two mile. I still wouldn’t want to do it in the snow, but if the roads are plowed and dry it’s pretty easy as far as mountain driving goes. A bonus for driving it this time of year: idyllic snowy scenery, perfect for getting one in the mood for Christmas!

The elevation signs fly by, soon we’re into the foothills and the snow disappears. A rest area where we stop to pull off our jackets features two deciduous trees showing off bright yellow foliage. I guess they got the memo about the arrival of winter a bit late. Further on, I do a double take at a section of hill that looks distinctly green “Moss I suppose?” Julie theorizes, but as we continue on there can be no denying it, it’s grass. New, vibrant, green, grass.


Am I excited? You bet I am!

Parts of California are finally seeing some relief from the intense drought that has stricken much of the west, and the grass along I80 is going nuts. It looks like spring, and as I spent the summer in dry Utah, the change is a welcome.

As the land flattens, towns, and inevitably, traffic follow. Some RVers hate driving on multi-lane roads in traffic. It’s not as fun as smaller roads without traffic, but it doesn’t bother me as much as some. Sticking to I80 is still the quickest way to get to our destination for today: Fairfield.

And what’s in Fairfield, CA you might ask? One of my coworkers at Amazon (and IO reader) Russ turned me on to the fact that the Jelly Belly factory isn’t far from Donner Pass.

Mmm, Jelly Bellys.

Julie and I arrive at the factory around 2 pm. It being Winter Break for area schools, a lot of families have come out for the tour, and the parking lot is packed. A security guard has his car parked squarely in the middle of of the currently empty RV parking row, and he’s prowling around. As we pull up he flags us down and tells us he’ll move his car over so we can get in the front row spot: “We say right on the website that RVs are welcome, so it’s important to keep these spots open, even if there aren’t currently any RVs visiting. It’s a full-time job trying to keep the smaller vehicles out of these spots.” I appreciate his tenacity and tell him so. He helpfully directs us to the side entrance, which is closer to the starting point of the factory tour, since that’s what we’re here for.


9′ x 5′ dragon mural….made from Jelly Bellys

What can I say about the factory, it’s awfully fun. Giant jelly beans hang from the ceiling, pictures made from jelly beans line the walls, and of course the gift shop has every kind of Jelly Belly flavor imaginable (grass clippings or baby wipe flavor, anyone?). There’s a wait for the tour (free), but the line moves pretty fast so it’s not a bother. We’re issued fun collapsible hats that are required on the factory floor, and are ushered in with free samples.

The process for making Jelly Bellys is more complex than I would have thought.

First, the jelly center is made by mixing and refining the real flavor of the item they’re recreating, it starts as a liquid and cools in molds overnight, like tiny ice cube trays. Then the centers are coated to prevent them from sticking to each other and enter a large mixing pot where the shell is created by alternating corn starch and syrup, layer after layer. By the end of this process the beans are full-sized, but still not finished. Another day or two, and the final coating is added to make them look shiny and polished. Once the coating is dried, they’re ready to have the Jelly Belly logo stamped on them.

The tour offers some other interesting history and trivia as well. Licorice is the most popular Jelly Belly flavor, and President Ronald Reagan is credited with turning Jelly Belly beans from a local treat to a national sensation.


An accident on I80 in the distance

After the tour (did I mention you get free samples?) Julie and I head to the gift shop and browse the wares. I come out pretty good with ½ pound of beans for under $5, and try some flavors I wouldn’t buy but was curious about (Tabasco – which is as hot as the real thing, Kiwi – which the tour mentioned was one of the hardest flavors to master given how touchy the fruit is, Margarita – wait, it doesn’t have alcohol in it? Coulda fooled me).

As we climb back into Bertha after the tour and get ready to backtrack to tonight’s stop, a plume of black smoke billows up into the sky ahead. Uh-oh, that doesn’t look good. A quick search on our phone confirms that a big rig is on fire on I80 and causing quite the traffic jam. Time for a detour.

Having successfully avoided the accident, we find ourselves tonight at the Walmart in Dixon. Why didn’t we keep going on I80? Because California is a challenging state to places that allow dry camping in, especially in more populated areas. I looked at Overnight RV Parking for this part of the state, and while there are gravel turnouts ahead that are green on the map (dry camping allowed), Cas is still winterized until we’re sure we get out of the freezing weather, so we don’t have a toilet right now. Walmarts have bathrooms that are open 24 hours, and parking security to keep honest people honest unlike unmarked gravel turnouts.

It might not be glamorous, but it’s only one night. Tomorrow night we have reservations someplace much more fun! I’ll give you all a hint, it involves big trees. Very big trees…

Cases and cases of jelly beans,and there's a sale going! Someone get me out of here quick...

Cases and cases of jelly beans, and there’s a sale going! Someone get me out of here quick…

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  1. Ramen on December 25, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Glad you gals made it down safely and avoided the crazy lady that was running people off the roads over the past two weekends on I80 around Auburn. Its been all over the news.

    I’ve got to check out that Jelly Belly tour one of these days since its not too far away. That place would be more crowded if it were near SF. Its a good thing its a little distance away.

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 11:03 pm

      It was pretty crowded that day being near the holidays, going once the kids are back in school on a weekday would be ideal I think. But yes, you should go!

  2. ibrich on December 24, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Welcome to the west. It is fascinating to read your adventures entering our world with new eyes. Hope you get a chance to come up north, especially along the coast to Oregon. No snow there, usually.

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 11:02 pm

      Some day I’ll make it up there. 🙂 Glad you’re enjoying it.

  3. Wayne from PA on December 24, 2014 at 5:47 am

    Hi Becky,

    A friend and I were driving to CA many years ago in a car and when we got to the Ag inspection station and asked if we had fresh fruits and vegetables, we said, “No”, and the agent asked, “What about those bananas on your back seat?” Sure enough, we forgot we had bought a couple bananas at breakfast and they were laying in a clear plastic bag in the back seat.

    We were embarrassed, and a little scared, since we’d just inadvertently lied to a state agent. But he was a pretty good guy and as we stumbled through our apology, he told us that people forget all the time…all we had to do was eat them right there or throw them out. It had been a couple of hours since breakfast, so, we wolfed them down, trashed the peels, and continued our trip.

    Enjoy your time in California. I used to live in Redondo Beach. Go to the beach while you’re there…Have fun!

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 11:01 pm

      Yes we’ll make it to the beach for sure! That’s a pretty funny story, luckily the apples were well hidden from view.

  4. dawn from camano island on December 24, 2014 at 3:32 am

    Bare & dry pavement is good news this time of the year! The tour sounds like a lot of fun–it’s great that someone is out in their lot protecting the RV parking spots–two thumbs up for JB on that one. Baby wipe? Seriously? Give me licorce any time! Happy trails!

    • Karla Kirk on December 24, 2014 at 4:18 am

      Am so glad you all got over Donner Pass without snow on the road. I really enjoyed the pictures of the jellybean factory. Am so looking forward to your California pictures. Have never been there. Want to wish you a wonderful 2015, full of pleasant experiences and unexpected blessings!!!

    • donna on December 24, 2014 at 5:48 am

      Hello, Dawn ~ Merry Christmas from Whidbey Island!

      • dawn from camano island on December 29, 2014 at 3:24 am

        Hi Donna! Hope all is well on your side of Saratoga Passage!

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      Haha, yeah I didn’t have the guts to try the baby wipes or vomit. Even buttered popcorn was pushing the envelope. Give me fruity flavors any day.

  5. Dwayne on December 24, 2014 at 1:22 am

    Hi Becky:
    Speaking from someone who worked at one of the inspection stations, a couple of apples are no problem as long as they were purchased from a store. Someone’s backyard trees can be a problem.
    Glad you had no problems. I got over the pass on very early Friday morning about 1 am.
    7000 ft. (7200 summit) I got a short snow flurry. Thinking. please, just 15 minutes more.
    Made it ok.
    Home about 10 miles from the redwoods almost to Oregon. Need a place, let me know!

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 9:45 am

      Glad to hear you made it over Dwayne. I would have been nervous if it had started snowing at the top, even briefly.

      I turned south after the Jelly Belly factory, but I’ll head further up the coast some day!

  6. Ken on December 23, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    I enjoyed reading your post about crossing Donner Pass. I was an hour or so behind you, having left GSR at about 10:30. I stopped at the summit rest area and have you same picture of the sign but from the parking side.

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 9:43 am

      Nice Ken! I would have been so sad if we’d missed that picture, especially with all the snow around. It feels like a real accomplishment to have made it over in winter, like I now have bragging rights when I talk to other RVers, haha.

  7. Russell on December 23, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Thanks for the shout-out … I’m glade you two enjoyed the tour.

    We had tow dolly issues with melted and smoking wheel bearing. We are hanging out in Colfax, CA until we can pick up the dolly on 24 Dec. We should be back on the road and in Fairfield by mid day on the 24th. Internet here is slow, so I will post all about when we get to a place with a stronger single.

    Have fun at your next stop … big trees … CA …. Redwood NP?
    Russell recently posted..… AND THEN THERE WAS NONEMy Profile

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 9:41 am

      You’re welcome Russ, so sorry to hear about the tow issues but I’m glad you’re both alright and the fix is hopefully now done. I have a spare set of wheel bearings for the trailer hanging out in the truck in case they give out since I don’t really know when the last owner replaced them.

      Redwoods yes, NP, no. 😉 Just put the latest post up now that I have WiFi access again.

  8. Norm H. on December 23, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    Made me homesick reading your post. Lived in the greater Sacramento area for over 32 years. Glad you enjoyed Jelly Belly. My kids always loved that stop! Bet I can guess where you’re headed but maybe you’ll surprise me. Have fun, a Merry Christmas to you and Julie. Should you need any suggestions for that part of the world feel free to pm me. Cheers.

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 9:36 am

      We did have a good Christmas Norm, I hope you did too. The next post is now up, so you let me know if it’s where you thought it was. 😉

  9. jonthebru on December 23, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Certainly not to put down any posts you have made in the past, they are all good. But this post was definitely penned in a very happy positive mood. I perceive that the vagabond “move on down the road” life is what you are destined for. Very nice.

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 9:35 am

      Glad you enjoyed this Jon.

  10. Ron Stacy on December 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    I haven’t commented in a long time, so I thought I’d let you know how proud I am that you made it over Donner without issue. But, at this point you’re hardly a rookie at mountains. Be safe and Merry Christmas to you and Julie.

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 9:34 am

      Thank you Ron, I’m glad you commented again! We did have a good Christmas I hope you did too.

  11. Jodee Gravel on December 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    The Belly Flops were my favorite – do they still sell those “mistakes”? Such a fun stop! Safe travels to the giant trees (sure glad you missed the accident). Happy Holidays to you and Julie 🙂
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Holiday Musings…..Room for EveryoneMy Profile

    • Ron Stacy on December 23, 2014 at 3:48 pm

      As a matter of fact, my wife just brought home two small bags of “mistakes” she got from a local Oregon store..Bi-Mart here in Gresham.

    • Becky on December 27, 2014 at 9:33 am

      Jodee – Yes they do still sell those! $10 for a 2 lb bag. They’re a good deal, but I like selecting my favorite flavors.

      Ron – Nice! I’ve never seen the flops for sale in stores before.

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