When the sun started to set over the Pacific Ocean, I sprang into motion. I pulled off Highway 1 and parked alongside bluffs softened by swaying grass. I opened the rear hatch, filled the kettle from the sink faucet and lit the gas stove. While the water boiled, I prepared the Penthouse. Ladder down, shelter up.
I climbed into the rooftop tent, tea in hand, and watched the fiery orb drop like the New Year's Eve ball. After the sun completed its descent, I tapped my legs against the vehicle, transmitting a Morse code of contentment to my buddy on this California road trip.
Unless you drive-about in the Land Down Under, introductions might be in order. Meet Jucy, the camper-van rental company that was founded in New Zealand in 2001, expanded to Australia and opened three U.S. locations in the States — Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco's Bay Area — four years ago.
The Jucy Champs, custom-designed Dodge Caravans, stand out in traffic. The mini-RVs are painted asparagus green with purple accents and wear a rooftop carrier like a hard hat. Lettering on the exterior hints at the domesticated world within: "This Jucy RV comes with everything including the kitchen sink."
To be sure, an entire house — minus the bathroom — squeezes into a 17-foot frame. Erect the table in the center space, and the back transforms into a den or dining room. Pop a movie into the DVD player, and bask in your own private theater. Unfold the seats and wrap the cushions in linens, and a bedroom for two materializes. Raise the structure on the roof for additional sleeping quarters. Open the rear door for the much-heralded kitchen.
And when the road beckons, simply revert Jucy to its firstborn role.
The minivans occupy a niche bracketed by RV-tripping and car camping. In a Jucymobile, for example, I could maneuver along narrow, curvy roads, such as the Pacific Coast Highway, with temerity and park without fear of toppling trees. I could reserve tent sites, which are often more numerous than RV spots, and cook and sleep without having to disturb the ghosts of Girl Scouts. The only skill required: folding furniture.
In mid-November, during the off-season, I booked a car for three nights, at a cost of $55 per night. The winter price included a personal kit with bedding and towels for four people and 100 miles per day. Knowing my penchant for wandering (translation: getting lost), I paid an additional $36 to double my mileage allotment for the entire adventure. I drafted a rough route that started in San Francisco, wriggled south to Big Sur and looped back through Mountain View. I didn't set a hard plan because I knew that no matter where I was, I would always have room and board for the night.
The Jucy outpost sits a few miles from the Oakland airport, buttressed by the usual air transportation businesses. Several campers lined the lot, a cheery bolt of color in the otherwise drab landscape. Inside the tiny office, an employee told me that most travelers drive east to Yosemite or Vegas, north to Oregon, or south along Highway 1. Renters, however, are not permitted to take the vehicles to Death Valley or other sizzling desert regions from mid-May through mid-September. The reason, per the rental agreement: "Because it is SUPER HOT there!" Nor can you coast up to Alaska. Mexico will soon be permitted (an insurance thing), and Canada is on the list of approved destinations. In addition, festival-goers attending Burning Man in Nevada must pay $700 in cleaning fees in advance. (Up to $350 is refundable, based on the condition of the car.)
I shared my itinerary with the employee. I wasn't afraid of dust but of exceeding my mileage limit. Her calculation (about 400 miles) allayed one of my biggest fears: having to pay 25 cents per additional mile.
We stepped outside for a quick tour of the vehicle. She showed me how to set up the bed (remember to push the front seats forward) and free the Penthouse from its carapace (release ladder and straps, and press the magic button with the engine on). She warned me not to store luggage or heavy objects upstairs when on the move, a tenet that covered a similar question about driving with a guest in the second bedroom. In the kitchen, which comes with a fridge and dishware, she demonstrated the lighting of the single-burner stove, which pulls out like a secret drawer hidden under the sink. She said that one butane canister can last for 90 minutes to three hours of cooking.
Notes for food-shopping excursion: Buy instant rice, not long-grain.
The 70-mile route to Santa Cruz is a roller-coaster ride of sharp curves, steep climbs and winding plunges. Behind me, my luggage reeled and the dishes rattled with each elbow poke in the road. However, the Champ stayed in its lane and easily kept up with the SUVs and sports cars, as well as its hippie ancestor, the VW camper.
I had booked a campsite at Sunset State Beach, south of Santa Cruz, but didn't feel any pressure to arrive before dusk: Jucy comes with interior lights. My trip coincided with the winter migration of the monarch butterflies, which vacation in Natural Bridges State Beach from October through February. A chalkboard at the entrance booth announced, "The monarchs are here!" A ranger confirmed that thousands of butterflies had already landed, with more en route from west of the Rockies. At the height of the season, she said, up to 100,000 monarchs will settle in the grove, transforming the eucalyptus forest into an overdecorated Christmas tree farm.
On the way to the natural preserve, I read about the journeying bugs on informational plaques. The insects fly 60 to 100 miles per day, for example, and feast on the nectar of milkweed flowers. After resting in Santa Cruz, they will return north, where their tale turns Dostoevskian: "They lay their eggs and die."
Their inescapable fate was months away, and on a sunny fall day, the monarchs were basking in the amber light streaming through the treetops. The weather was cool, so most of the insects huddled on the high branches, forming brown clumps that tricked the eye.
"Those bundles that look like dead leaves are the butterflies," a mother informed her dubious son.
On the wooden platform, I joined a family resting on their backs and looked upward. I watched a few of the more intrepid butterflies float through the air like small paper airplanes with no immediate plans to land.
Inside the gift shop, I asked a volunteer whether the monarchs wintered elsewhere in town. He directed me to Lighthouse Field State Beach, which attracts about 300 butterflies. I walked along a dirt trail, following clues (stray butterflies) to the treasure trove (trees lumpy with monarchs). A couple joined me at the roped-in area.
"There aren't that many," the guy said, clearly disenchanted. "I grew up here. We used to see clouds of monarchs."
Before leaving, he issued a public service announcement: "You need to plant milkweed."
Moment-of-truth time: How well had I listened to the Jucy instructions?
Verdict: Pretty well, but definitely room for improvement.
At my first campsite, I set up the bed without any serious struggles and used the two bags of bedding to build a sultan's lair. For a pre-dinner stroll in the moonlight, I decided to make a cup of tea. I dug out the kettle from the cabinet and removed the cutting board covering the sink. I pushed hard on the pump. Air hissed at me. Across the way, a pair of tent campers had laid out a spread of burgers, chips, beer and a jug of water. I enviously eyed their nonalcoholic beverage.
Plan B: Hit up the bathroom sink.
For the stove, I struggled with the butane can, which refused to lock into place. I switched it out with the other can. Come on, Jucy, light my fire. I poured the tea into a thermos (my own) and ventured toward the beach. A few feet away, I saw a sight worthy of a detour. Hint: It was green and purple.
Through the windshield, I spotted a Jucy compatriot sitting in the back seat, flipping through photos on his computer. I knocked on the window and introduced myself. He told me that he had started in Los Angeles and was on his third night in the camper. I asked him whether he had experienced any problems. He mentioned a busted USB port and a fluky fridge. I told him about my sink drought. He advised me to throw some muscle into it and the water would gush forth. And for my parting question: Had he overnighted in the Penthouse?
"I spent the first night in the tent, and it was cold," he said. "I had to warm up with oatmeal and tea, and I bought a blanket."
Since then, he has slept only in the main cabin.
On my drive down from San Francisco, I had planned an ambitious dinner for my inaugural meal. After my campground amble, I was feeling cold and lazy. I made a bowl of cereal and curled up under the covers. I fell asleep with my clothes on - just like a true camper.
At Limekiln State Park, my second campground, I resolved to elevate my meal plan. For inspiration, I checked my peripheral view.
Santa Cruz County is home to more than 650 farms that groom their fields for lettuces, berries and assorted vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, a multimillion-dollar crop. At Farm Fresh Produce, an aggrandized stand near Moss Landing, I roamed the aisles stacked high with avocados, artichokes, pomegranates, kiwis, strawberries, kale and more. I bought a stalk of Brussels sprouts as long as a walking stick, plus pasta, a mustardy sauce, radishes, persimmons, and a bottle of water, just in case.
The Limekiln campground is nestled in tall redwoods that form peepholes around starry skies. I arrived after dark and started to prep my dinner. As the water heated up, I padded over to a bridge and hiking trail that led to two limekilns that operated in the 1800s. While the pasta cooked, I explored the opposite direction, discovering the restroom and a pathway to the beach. By the time dinner was ready, I had completed my evening campsite rounds.
I erected the table in the center of the camper and set it buffet-style - an assembly line of bowls with spoons. I slid open the back door, switched off the overhead light and dined by the flickering flames of my neighbor's fire.
My pilgrimage to Googleplex required, well, some Googling.
I wanted to take Jucy to the search engine responsible for bringing us together. However, I needed a legal place to park for the night. As part of my advance reconnaissance, I had uncovered Towle Camp in Foothills Park, which permitted camping but only from May through October. Plus, I had to be a Mountain View resident. I checked Walmart, but an online directory listed the store as one of the locations that don't permit RV slumber parties. I called REI, hoping to appeal to a kindred adventurer, but an apologetic employee said the lot was private property. I rang the police and asked whether I could safely overnight on the street. The officer said I could, but I quickly realized the flaw in that plan: no bathroom. Finally, a friend floated the idea of Airbnb, a revelation that I molded to my needs.
On Couchsurfing, I reached out to Danielle and David, who lived in Mountain View. David worked at Tesla, and I emphasized the cool car factor in my guest request.
"I was wondering if I could perhaps park in your driveway or outside your home and use your bathroom before bed and in the morning," I wrote. "I would love to have you over for a tour of my 'home,' which includes accommodations for four, a kitchen and a TV."
They agreed, opening up their (free) pavement to me.
Jucy fit right in at Google. Employees scoot around campus on bikes painted the RYBG colors of the company logo. At a rack filled with the basketed two-wheelers, I eased into a saddle and rang the tinkly bell - chirpier than the Champ's horn. I drifted over to a patio of outdoor tables where T-shirted Googlers drank beer under umbrellas. A symphony of grunts and cheers arose from a game of volleyball on a nearby sand court. Four men were selling shirts in support of Movember, which raises awareness of men's health issues.
A security guard handed me a map of the lawn statues. I located the green Android robot clutching a giant marshmallow and a T. rex wearing gold sunglasses and a charm necklace with a "G" and a heart. A box contained additional accessories for dressing up the dinosaur.
On the way to my hosts' place, I drove alongside a guy pedaling hard on a Google bike. I lost sight of him by the ramp leading to the 101.
At the house, Danielle instructed me to park on the leafy street. She invited me inside to shower, wash my dishes (without pumping) and relax in the living room. She then disappeared into her office to work on an engineering project. When David returned home, I gave them a tour of the camper, including a demo of the Rise of the Penthouse. They were duly impressed.
They asked me to accompany them on their evening ritual: walking downtown for bubble tea. At Tapioca Express, I scanned the menu in English and Chinese, imagining my taste buds' reaction to avocado or taro flavors. I spared them with watermelon.
Back at the house, David made popcorn, and we kicked back on the couch to watch a documentary I had purchased from the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. Before heading upstairs, Danielle encouraged me to spend the night on their proper Couchsurfing bed. I appreciated her offer, but my home was on the curb.
Under the glow of street lamps, I reheated my dinner and watched "Oscar," which I had borrowed from their DVD library. The next morning, I woke to the whoosh of morning commuters and the rattle of a skateboarder — the alarm clock of an urban camper.
Jucy RV Rental
800-650-4180; www. jucyrvrentals.com
Jucy rents camper vans at six locations each in Australia and New Zealand and three locations in the States; Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Oakland, California. Prices start at $42 a night. November-March price includes 100 miles per day; four mileage packages are available during high season, from $12 a day for 100 miles. The company also offers relocation deals for $1 a day; check Twitter for the specials.