My ride is a 2019 Ford Transit CamperVan fully outfitted by ModVans. (Courtesy photo)

The Great American Road Trip – Part One

A three-part series chronicling road travel as America slowly reopens

As an admitted travel addict, me simply having the idea of going on a journey once the lockdown ended made being housebound bearable. Though a bit of an aviation geek, I still wasn’t quite ready to take to the not-so-friendly skies with its double whammy of close proximity to potential asymptomatic vectors and a plethora of possibly contaminated surfaces.

So instead I challenged my inner Jack Kerouac minus the angst and drugs and embarked on “The Great American Road Trip” to get out of the city with my favorite – and only – daughter. Mainly I wanted to be outside.

These were obviously not normal times. COVID-19 resulted in closures of travel conveniences, like public rest stops. Many gas stations, while open for fuel, closed their restrooms. By the end of May, things were slowly opening up so I set a June 1 departure.

Still concerned about finding open facilities and not wanting to subsist on a fast-food diet, I wanted flexibility, convenience and safety. An outfitted CamperVan would do the trick. But me, “camping?” My husband’s laughter was deafening.

I knew couldn’t spend two weeks in a CamperVan, no matter how nice. Originally intending to cross the country, the logistics were difficult as many RV parks near national parks already were full, some were closed, hotels were reopening and I simply didn’t know what I would find.

Also, some states were imposing 14-day quarantines from out-of-state visitors. So this trip would combine hotels, lodges, yurts, a ranch and yes, sleeping in the CamperVan, in five or six Western states. For me keeping socially distant while traveling was key and having the ability to change plans if needed for weather or otherwise would make that possible.

Packing up my ride

ModVans, a family owned start-up in Oxnard, sells custom outfitted CamperVans on CV1 Ford Transit 150 chassis.

My 2019 model – think NYC studio apartment on wheels – had sumptuous leather seats. It’s less spacious than an RV, but the trade off was driving ease, fuel efficiency and effortless standard parking. While technically could sleep four, it was perfect with two adults. The 2020 models have factory all-wheel drive and upgraded electronics.

Fabulously designed, it had a refrigerator, two-burner stove top, stainless sink, built-in microwave and ample storage. Comfortable bedding, strategically placed outlets, lighting and USB ports made resting easy. Most important, it had a toilet and outdoor shower offering comfort and trip flexibility. This was one smooth ride with everything I needed at my fingertips.

It was thrilling to forget about TSA’s three-ounce rule and airlines’ 20-pound carry-on luggage maximums while packing the CamperVan. Gleefully I tossed in a large bottle of sunscreen and an even larger bottle of Merlot. Also packed: food, clothing for the wide temperature ranges we’d encounter, wipers, disposable gloves for gas pumps and face masks. Strange traveling times.

Perhaps abetted by the lockdown, I felt a level of freedom I hadn’t experienced in years. Heading towards the freeway, my neighborhood Ralph’s grocery and nearby shops were prophylactically boarded up in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s heartbreaking, shameful, senseless murder. Choking back tears, it was time to get out of Dodge.

A joyful journey

Travel can often be a salve to normalcy. And given this new normal, putting pedal to the metal was a blissful balm.

An hour from the California/Arizona border at former Camp Young, part of World War II’s Desert Training Center, is the General George S. Patton Memorial Museum. Though temporarily closed there’s a variety of M4 Sherman Tanks and other WWII vehicles visible in the tank yard.

Onward to Phoenix where my daughter had a meeting, we then headed to Scottsdale where 43 percent of land area is dedicated open spaces. After such a long drive, checking in – behind retrofitted plexiglass by mask-donning employees – at The Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa was quick and easy.

On 53 manicured acres, its 109 spacious suites were spread out and there was plenty of room to stretch. Offered housekeeping during our two-night stay, I declined, though anything needed was provided on request. Majestic views of Praying Monk Rock competed with the peaceful desert showcasing dramatic sunsets. Individually wrapped wipers were strategically placed near every touch point in the room. It has four pools, so swimming while social distancing was a snap.

Scottsdale’s Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa offers majestic views. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Looters and resulting police activity in Scottsdale’s Old Town altered our evening plans, but chef Beau Macmillan at The Sanctuary’s Element Restaurant shined impeccably during my first post-lockdown restaurant meal.

Spicy shishito peppers complemented artisan fiery chili and mandarin cocktails.

The phenomenal Korean wagyu beef cheek didn’t require a knife. Neither did the prime New York strip with black garlic bone marrow butter. The rock shrimp sticky rice with nori seaweed happily took me back to my Hawaiian childhood home.

Napoleon is said to have claimed that an army marches on its stomach. If true, then eating Chef MacMillan’s creations would make conquering the west in a CamperVan easy.

Heading North

The mercury hit 110 in Scottsdale so Flagstaff was a relief at 75 degrees. Anxious to get back to open space, I continued driving.

Two hours past the Grand Canyon’s south rim, like a phoenix rising out of the earth, the steel arch bridge over Glen Canyon Dam impossibly appeared. When completed in 1959, this engineering feat was America’s tallest arched bridge.

Appearing mirage-like is the arched bridge at Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The 710-foot high dam forms the impressive Lake Powell, one of the nation’s largest man-made reservoirs. While the Welcome Center – and restrooms – were closed, we parked the CamperVan, now dubbed Vinny Von Van, and marveled at the dam’s massive scale.

After crossing into Utah I pulled into in a peaceful little park in Kanab and made lunch. The ability to eat where and when I wanted made my affection for Vinny deepen.

I thought of stopping to see the good people at Kanab’s Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, home-between-home to more than 1,600 furry critters. But every time I go to an animal sanctuary, I adopt and we already had a puppy on the way. More on that in Part Two.

Happily, outside high-tax California, gas was averaging $2.35 a gallon. In the tiny hamlet of Orderville, population 577, if one felt the urge to buy a rock or two, there were shops for that.

Arriving at Red Canyon, part of Dixie National Forest, Utah’s second largest, along iconic Scenic Byway 12, we went hiking and caught our first glimpses of hoodoos – the tall, thin, totem-pole like spires – for which the region is famous. Wanting more, we hiked nearby Mossy Cave trail with its cave and waterfall.

The crimson-colored hoodoos of Utah’s Red Canyon. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Exhausted, I pulled into Tropic’s Stone Canyon Inn with four secluded, comfortable bungalows with views of the eastern valley’s 10,000-foot Powell Point Plateau. At Stone Hearth Grille, talented chef Ron Baker prepared roasted beets with tofu cream and delicious house-smoked, grilled chicken. Cheesecake made by Kristina Barton easily rivaled any New York deli’s.

Chef Ron Baker at Stone Hearth Grille prepared excellent grilled scallops and barley risotto. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

After driving 350 miles in one day, hiking five and devouring the Bakers’ great meal, I fell into bed as happy as a clam contentedly contemplating what treasures were still waiting on the road.

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at


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