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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…