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Daniel Miller and his wife, Jessica, not shown, prepare dinner while RVing at Wheeler Gorge campground in the Los Padres National Forest on June 10, 2020 in Ojai, California. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

 

Heading north on the Maricopa Highway toward Wheeler Gorge Campground in Southern California, I was finally comfortable behind the wheel of the 25-foot-long RV.

I'd gotten accustomed to the rental's hulking mass, adjusted to its vague steering and learned to ignore the clanging cutlery and cooking implements, which registered their noisy protests from the kitchen cupboards whenever the road got rough.

And then, about 15 minutes past downtown Ojai, I saw the sign by the side of the road. It noted a tunnel ahead, one with 13 feet, 4 inches of clearance.

Before leaving Cruise America's Carson branch a day earlier, I'd watched an instructional video that included a segment about the vehicle's dimensions. Now, a few hours into my family's three-day camping trip, it was information I could only vaguely recall.

As we approached the tunnel, I was thinking the husky RV was 12 feet tall — but was far from certain. I asked my wife, Jessica, to look it up on her mobile phone.

No service.

Things had been going well, so as the RV rattled deeper into Los Padres National Forest, I decided to chance the tunnel, which bored through a rocky hillside blanketed in chaparral. I ducked instinctively. Our two children, both under the age of 6, yelped gleefully in the darkness.

The mid-June trip, my family's first in an RV, was borne out of the coronavirus crisis. Like many others, our vacation plans had been roiled by the COVID-19 pandemic, so we sought an alternative that would allow for social distancing. And RVs typically feature all the necessities for traveling in isolation, including a bathroom and kitchen.

This vehicle, a standard model from Cruise America — the biggest RV sales and rental outfit in the U.S. — had those amenities and more. The question was, would our vision for the trip square with reality?

Our departure from L.A. on a midweek morning was a giddy one. These days, leaving the house for any reason is exciting, to say nothing of a trip like this. Jessica put on Tom Cochrane's early-'90s hit "Life Is a Highway," and even our children — with their questionable grasp of sarcasm — were rolling their eyes.

In Calabasas, luxury car dealerships gave way to the blackened remains of trees charred by a recent wildfire — Southern California's allure and danger blurring in quick succession as we crossed the L.A. County line.

Electronic roadside signs warned against texting while driving — and not about COVID-19 as had recently been the norm — even though cases were soaring. We had left little to chance, stocking the RV with groceries, drinking water and most everything else we would need.

The vehicle, which we rented for $180 a night (not including taxes and fees), was supplied with 40 gallons of water. We would need to be parsimonious with it, because we were "dry camping," which meant not using the RV's electrical, water and sewer hookups. This was partly out of necessity — the campground didn't offer those services — and also because, as novices, it seemed a complication best avoided.

We stopped in Ventura for lunch, picking up a phoned-in order at Pierpont Tacos and picnicking nearby at South Jetty Beach. The crispy potato tacos were the standout, competing for our attention with a view of the Channel Islands silhouetted in the marine haze.

An hour or so later, we turned into Wheeler Gorge as the midafternoon light strafed the sycamores and buckbrush.

When I'd planned the trip weeks earlier, state park campgrounds were closed — as were most national parks — but national forests such as Los Padres were open. Wheeler Gorge was one of the few public campgrounds in Southern California that was open and could accommodate an RV.

The campground lines both sides of the North Fork Matilija Creek, which offers respite from the area's triple-digit summer heat. Our campsite easily accommodated the RV, and like others at Wheeler Gorge included a fire ring, barbecue and picnic table, but no running water.

It was nearly dusk by the time we got situated, so we started prepping for dinner. On the menu: halibut we'd picked up at Wild Local Seafood Co. in Ventura. The fishmonger said it had been caught off the Channel Islands by an angler named Cliff.

The RV's compact kitchen included a propane range, microwave and sink. We'd paid for Cruise America's $110 kitchen provisioning kit, which provided cookware and more, eliminating a sizable section of the packing list.

We wanted to try the range, so we decided to pan-cook the halibut. Quickly, though, the RV's smoke alarm started blaring, an embarrassment that I was sure outed us as first-timers. Still, we finished the fish in the pan, lacquering its golden crust with a dill compound butter that Jessica had prepared at home the night before.

We ate at the picnic table while mohawked blue jays brazenly buzzed our heads. The kids were exhausted, so after strawberry shortcake, we readied the RV for bedtime. The dining booth converts into a bed, and there's a sleeping area atop the driver's compartment. Besides those options, a bed at the back of the ride ensures it comfortably sleeps four people.

With the kids asleep, Jessica and I built a campfire. Stars stained the sky. Small flying objects, perhaps satellites, pinged across the heavens. The frogs in the creek were louder than any I'd ever heard.

The North Fork Matilija Creek weaves through Wheeler Gorge, pooling in pebbled depressions and rushing over smooth rocks. It's the site's main attraction, especially for children. The stream ebbs as it runs over the campground's main road in a few places, and our kids loved riding their scooters though these shallows, splashing as they zoomed by.

Temperatures crept into the 80s before noon, and the creek beckoned. A few swimming holes were deep enough for a plunge, albeit a crouched one. The stream bottom wasn't too rough or muddy, making it easy for the children to navigate in search of tadpoles. A black-and-white-banded California king snake slithered by, attracting curious families who kept their distance — from each other and the creature.

Back at the campsite, the RV was stifling in the afternoon heat. We could've run the vehicle's generator to power the air conditioner, but its noisy combustion seemed inappropriate. So we idled away the hours outside, and before long, it was dinnertime.

After tucking into pizza cooked in a skillet over the campfire — along with peach crumble done the same way — we made s'mores as stars began to appear. The kids searched the sky, competing to spot the first constellation.

Around 9 p.m., the quiet was broken by the electric hum of a utility cart that two rangers rode to our campsite. They explained that a wildfire had broken out about 40 miles away near Lake Piru but said details were scant. It wasn't a big concern, they assured us, but noted the campground's lack of mobile phone service and raised the possibility of an evacuation.

In a year of chaos and catastrophe, cutting short our trip because of an approaching wildfire seemed almost too on-the-nose for 2020.

On cue, our neighboring campers began hastily packing their car. But ultimately only a few groups left, and soon an arriving RV lumbered into a nearby campsite. Putting faith in the rangers, we decided to stick it out. It was a good decision.

We awoke to a beautiful morning of hot chocolate and bacon and eggs. (We didn't know it then but at the time, the conflagration, dubbed the Lime fire, had charred 275 acres and was 70% contained.)

It was time to leave Wheeler Gorge. Stargazing, s'mores and even a snake sighting _ we'd had a classic adventure and managed it while keeping a safe distance from others.

The excursion was a restorative reminder of Southern California's striking natural bounty, which had been easy to forget amid months of quarantining in a digital fog. And seeing our children experience those wild charms — and delight in the quirky vehicle that made it possible — left me wanting to do it again.

Although the RV had some shortcomings — Bluetooth and a backup camera would have been nice — it made the experience far less stressful than a conventional camping trip would've been during these strange times.

As we headed home, I didn't give the tunnel a second thought. I floored it.

___

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