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Thursday, April 19, 2018


Burgers for Lunch

By Eric Peterson"
If you’re anything like me, you spot a glitzy private bus, big as a Greyhound, tooling down the interstate, and you wonder who might be in it: what rock band, what country singer, what up-and-coming tour golfer?

It may surprise you to know that most of these flashy, garish buses are owned by ordinary folks. I know this because my wife, Teresa, and I joined this particular club of itinerant travelers a few years back, when we bought Sarah Palin’s tour bus.  Yes, that Sarah Palin.
The Alaska plates were still affixed to this jet black, 42’ bus with a triple slideout floor plan, a tag axle, and the biggest Caterpillar diesel engine Country Coach has ever put in a motorhome. 

But other than a “Drill Baby Drill” bumper sticker that Teresa found tucked away in an overhead cabinet, there was little evidence that this bus had once served as home away from home—and rolling campaign headquarters—to a former governor, vice presidential candidate, and lightning rod for modern presidential politics.

“Like owning Napoleon’s horse,” one wag quipped.

Author's Country Club Coach (with siders extended) was once owned by Ex. Gov. Sarah Palin

We bought the massive coach because I had a new novel coming out, and I convinced Teresa that I desperately needed it for book signings. I may be an unknown author, but what reader could resist taking a walk through Sarah Palin’s tour bus?

Cranky Diner's Country Club coach
These buses are built for prolonged stretches on the road. They’re composed of a number of complex systems that work to deliver the creature comforts of home: water, electricity, air conditioning, satellite TV, a full kitchen, and a spacious master bedroom. Our Country Coach has Sirius satellite radio, an art niche and hutch, a washer and dryer, and an Italian etched glass shower enclosure in the bathroom. The Onan 12.5-kilowatt diesel generator ensures that Teresa’s hairdryer will function without limitation on any given day.

Palace on Wheels
People often ask me about life on the road. It’s a fun, flexible way to travel. No hotels, restaurants only when you want them, and none of the hassle of airline travel and rental cars. I enjoy the serenity of driving. Teresa likes to cook. We can both work from the road, and once we’re safely off the highway and parked for the night, we can toast our progress—and the new scenery—with a cocktail and a bottle of wine in the comfort of our own living room.

When not traveling for our own entertainment, or when not making appearances with the bus at book club meetings, where we flatten neighbors’ shrubbery, crush curbs, and knock over trees, Teresa and I keep our Country Coach parked in an industrial building on the US-Mexico border. The cavernous space is climate controlled and fully secure. Our Country Coach is one of perhaps 100 similarly sized, jaw-dropping buses kept in the facility, called the Big Toy Depot. 

The crackerjack staff monitors air, power, and water levels on the coaches, coordinates maintenance, and even washes the rigs when they’re delivered back to the barn. Like a marina, the Big Toy Depot charges its tenants by the foot.

Thursday, January 25
Teresa and I were on our way to Otay Mesa to pick up our Country Coach for a four-day trip when my brother, Chris, called. He and his wife, Carla, own a big luxury coach, too—a 43’ Monaco Diplomat—and together we were meeting two couples in Borrego Springs at a favorite RV park. Chris had bad news: his house batteries were dead. A mechanic was standing by to install replacements, but it meant pushing our departure to late afternoon.

The business with the batteries, a stop for fuel, gridlock getting out of San Diego, an accident that forced a one-hour freeway closure on I-15 at Pala Mesa, and suddenly the all-knowing Garmin had us arriving in Borrego Springs at 9:45 p.m. So it goes. It wasn’t like we had a plane to catch.

At the RV park in Borrego Springs, our friends John and Debbie graciously held dinner for our late-night arrival. They had recently bought a new motorhome—a dazzling 45’ Essex luxury motor coach by Newmar that dwarfs ours. As we filed in to their stylish, tastefully appointed living room, John and Debbie passed us big goblets of red wine as antidote to our road buzz. They introduced us to their good friends Robert and Sandy, who travel in a brand of coach that is the envy of all RVers: a stunning two-level, steel and glass Prevost bus.

Pappardelle noodles, a red meat sauce, and garlic French bread never tasted so good. Sandy made a fresh green salad. The four couples clicked. We went through eight bottles of wine. Robert’s Hispanic ancestors, we learned, once owned New Mexico from Las Cruces to Deming.

Friday, January 26
The next morning, six of us gathered in the campground and walked up to Borrego’s Christmas Circle, a town square with a round shape where music played over loudspeakers under tall pine trees, and where a low-key farmers market was underway. The day was already hot. Collectively we came away with four avocados, one dress, several tins of hummus, and two fresh-baked pies. Chris gave a few dollars to a weather-beaten woman who sat off to the side in a plastic chair. She wore a white nurse’s costume and was collecting money to fight cancer.

The ensuing afternoon passed quickly. I tinkered with a circuit breaker panel, trying to figure out why our coach wasn’t getting hot water. Teresa and I tow a Jeep Grand Cherokee behind our bus. I used the Jeep to drive Chris, Carla, and Teresa to the local grocery store, where we bought $400 worth of food, wine, and spirits. Our same cancer-fundraising nurse was in the checkout lane ahead of us, buying Cheez-It crackers and wine. Chris wondered if he’d been scammed.

As twilight fell, Teresa went for a shower in the Country Coach and got nothing but cold water. Luckily for both of us, this RV park had showers in its attractive, Santa Fe style pool complex. The showers were clean and hot, but the night air was chilly as we walked back to our coach. 

Sunsets and the fun begins
The party began in earnest next door, in Chris and Carla’s Monaco. Robert brought appetizers: beef short ribs that he’d smoked on his new Traegor grill. Chris poured vodka Rickeys and cooked eight humongous double-cut rib eye steaks on his own grill. My one vodka turned into three. Teresa contributed a colorful vegetable tian to the dinner. It was a good party. Dancing after the late meal, one of the ladies went down over a coffee table.

At well after 11:00 p.m., back in our Country Coach, Teresa and I put an extra woolen blanket on our queen-size bed. January nights in Borrego Springs, we’ve learned, can be quite cold.

Saturday, January 27
At 8:30 a.m. the next day, our campsites came alive. It was Chris’s birthday, and we intended to celebrate in style. Chris and I set out in the Jeep, looking for cigars, but after four stops, the only stogies we found were at a dank, messy liquor store with mostly bare shelves. The last three cigars in Borrego Springs set us back a total of $9.00.
Back at the campsite, Robert graciously offered to diagnose our hot water problem and quickly pinpointed the issue: operator error. 

Our Aqua-Hot hydronic heating system was bone dry of its necessary boiler antifreeze. Miraculously, I found a gallon of the stuff at a local hardware store. Robert soon restored our hot water system to operational equilibrium.

A product of the Bloody Mary bar.

Meanwhile, at the adjoining campsite, preparations were underway for Chris’s birthday lunch. Carla draped two outdoor picnic table with fresh tablecloths. Chris and Sandy teamed up on a Bloody Mary bar, Chris furnishing the vodka and tomato juice; Sandy setting out a mouthwatering array of garnishes: shrimp, bacon strips, pickle spears, horseradish, olives, cubes of cheese and bits of salami.

Carla served a beautiful egg frittata with potato, onion, kale, and roasted peppers. She had turned the previous night’s leftover rib eye steaks into a tasty beef hash, and Teresa’s leftover vegetable tian found its way to the table. For dessert, Debbie served strawberries and raspberries. After lunch, Chris, Robert, and I sat in the warm sunshine and smoked those cheap cigars. We doused the harsh aftertaste with lusty swigs of ice-cold beer from tall cans of Miller High Life. John, a reformed cigarette smoker, abstained from having a cigar, but his witty conversation never flagged. He drank scotch.

We spent the rest of the day at the pool, reading and napping in the sun. From our horizontal position on the desert floor, the views of the surrounding mountains were astonishing.

As dusk fell and the temperature dropped, Teresa and I showered and dressed for dinner. Thanks to Robert, our hot water troubles were behind us. Teresa and Carla worked together in the galley, creating a zesty Caesar salad, which we carried to Robert and Sandy’s campsite. To our surprise, Robert and Sandy had elected to eat alfresco, in spite of the cold night. 

The outdoor lighting around their Prevost bus was stunning. A few extra jackets and Chris, Carla, Teresa, and I were good to go. Robert grilled enormous Alaskan halibut fillets. He’d caught the fish himself and had it flash frozen and shipped to his home near San Diego. Robert is an accomplished chef. His garlic and onion sauce on the halibut, along with Teresa’s Caesar, made for a memorable dinner. The wine flowed. Sandi put out two bowls of guacamole, which Chris and I reduced to rubble.

Sunday, January 28
We awoke at 8:30 to another clear, windless morning. We took a long stroll through the RV park and then through an adjoining mobile home park. The compact lots were situated around a well-manicured executive golf course. The citrus on the mature trees—enormous grapefruit, lemons, and oranges—made our eyes pop. We stopped in at the clean, though somewhat dated clubhouse and were greeted by a friendly, white-haired woman who was setting up for a memorial luncheon—one of their long-time, well-liked neighbors in the trailer park had recently passed. From the pictures on the posters, he looked like a fun guy—one of us, even.

Back at the RV park, standing alongside his gleaming Prevost bus, Robert was grilling thick burger patties. Teresa contributed roasted asparagus soup and a pack of Old Wisconsin polish sausages to the impromptu lunch. Carla passed around what remained of the previous day’s frittata. Robert’s burgers were huge. It was a good—and filling—meal. After lunch I lay on the bed in the bedroom of our Country Coach, and to the gentle hum of the air conditioning, I took a long nap.

Later in the day, while Robert and John treated their wives to a round of margaritas at the swanky Casa Del Zorro resort, Chris and I set out in the Jeep for the liquor store (again). Chris was out of Tito’s vodka, a near-fatal condition on a camping trip. We bought more wine. As the sun fell behind the rugged mountains, Teresa and I took a dip in the resort’s swimming pool. While there, we couldn’t help but bask a few minutes in one of the hot mineral baths. Robert and Sandy settled into the roiling spa next to us, Robert disgusted with himself for having put our six-pound prime rib roast on his new smoker too early in the day.

Smoked to perfection
At 6:00 p.m., the cocktail flag went up. Teresa and I were hosting the prime rib dinner at our coach. Teresa put out beef-and-veal meatballs as a starter. Chris and Carla had recently spent a weekend at the Sparrows Lodge, a restored 1950s, 20-room retreat in Palm Springs. Chris lit incense from the Lodge and waved it around in an attempt to ward off evil spirits. It apparently worked. Robert’s prime rib roast was delicious and perfectly cooked, and to my knowledge, not a single evil spirit found his way into our coach. The end-of-night wine-bottle tally was par for this course: eight bottles.

Monday, January 29
Departure day. No walk this morning, no time even for breakfast. High winds were forecast for I-8, the Kumeyaay Highway, between Jacumba Hot Springs and Alpine, our route home. We wanted to get through the pass before the CHP closed the road to high-profile vehicles.
Robert and Sandy were the first to leave. At our campsite, they alighted from their growling Prevost to say goodbye. 

John and Debbie left next. They swung their imposing coach east toward Arizona, planning to spend the rest of the week at the Phoenix Open golf tournament. Chris and Carla caravanned with us out of Borrego Springs, through the wasteland of Ocotillo Wells and the stop-and-go streets of El Centro, and finally west on I-8.

Our three-hour run home to San Diego was marked by strong winds at the higher elevations, but behind the wheel of our heavy Country Coach, the gusts felt like little more than a gentle tailwind. We reached Otay Mesa at 4:00 p.m. Teresa and I filled the back of our Jeep with food, dirty laundry, leftover booze, and hanging clothes, all to be sorted out at home. We left the coach in the capable hands of the crew at Big Toy Depot.

Not glamorous, but it’s how these trips generally end.


Eric Peterson's debut novel, Life as a Sandwich, was a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards. His most recent book, The Dining Car, won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for Popular Fiction, the San Diego Book Award Gold Medal for Best Published Contemporary Fiction, and the Readers’ Favorite Book Award Silver Medal for Literary Fiction. The story follows a former college football star who signs on as bartender and personal valet to a legendary food writer and social critic who travels the country by private railroad car.  The Dining Car is available in bookstores and the more popular online book retailing sites. 

The Cranky Diner appears exclusively on Daily Magazine Style Blog.
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