This is a story about dogs. And Carmel Beach. And dogtography. But mostly, this is a story about dogs – about the pure joy of just running, untethered, galloping free, without the weight of thought.
Two dog-owning friends and myself book two nights at Blue Sky Lodge, a dog-friendly hotel in Carmel, California, for a weekend getaway. No husbands, no work, no real thinking. Just three humans and four canines headed to a world of tall trees and wild ocean swells.
We are road-tripping in my Dogmobile, a 2006 Denali I have decked out to accommodate canine passengers by removing a row of seats and inserting a mattress. On the one-and-a-half hour trip down from San Jose, we take turns driving. As Carla drives, Kim navigates, and I lie in the back, happily covered by dog slobber and fur. My body gets massaged by dog paws stepping all over me. I am in heaven.
We chose Carmel for our getaway because we love dogs. In Carmel, twenty-five hotels, every outdoor restaurant, and many indoor stores welcome dogs. Leash-free Carmel Beach becomes an exclusive canine country club at sunrise and sunset. A good weekend away here with our dogs might just be the antidote to our making-a-living doldrums.
Garland Ranch Regional Park is our first stop, atop the northern crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains and along the willow-covered banks of the Carmel River. Cottonwood, sycamores and hundred-year-old oak grow on the lush floodplain. Throughout the park are reminders of Carmel Valley’s wild past: Rumsen Indian habitation sites evidenced by old arrowheads and bows; an old barn homestead with yokes and axes, hunting and logging remains; livestock trails, ponds, and springs.
As we explore, our four dogs dart in and out of neon-green fields dotted with orange poppy, yellow sourgrass, and purple lupin meadows. Dense oak woodlands and thick stands of chaparral offer shade. The moist air fills our noses. Our voices echo in the hills and bounce off the rocks.
We stop to bathe in the creek to escape the April heat. Free from obligation, all of us unwind. As the dogs venture into the swollen river, I think back to a time one year ago when they all refused to get into any water, let alone a rushing creek. And now they are swimming. They have figured their puppy bodies out and gained a confidence that propels them. Their young fearfulness has been replaced with curiosity.
Their lightheartedness, alone, is a kind of poetry. They’re devoted to their own hedonistic desire to smell, howl, frolic, shimmy. They welcome the mud and grime. With them, in this moment, we all belong to our childhood. And also, somehow, to an ancient civilization not yet tainted by lawsuits, overpopulated urban areas, and cell phones.
As we pay homage to the scent of eucalyptus and pine, the cool river absorbs the weight of our bodies and we simply exist.
The dogs are at peace within their bodies, simply guided by pleasure. Today, they don’t feel owned.
Marveling at the dogs, I think about the idea of being guided by such simple genetic instinct. Dogs are lucky: they’re a creature of two worlds – a rich, pure, and still magical first world of hedonistic delight, guided by graceful physicality and the acuity of the senses, living by smell and movement.
The second world they belong to demands walking leashed and obedient down the sidewalk, freshly groomed with human smells, passing up wonderful street smells because they are asked to do so. In this second world, there is nothing wild or mysterious. A dog gets along. Does his job. Rolls over for a single biscuit. Grovels for love. Sits when asked.
It’s that conflict between obedience to others and loyalty to self that gnaws at my soul.
Here in this open space in the heart of the valley, all three of us, and our four canine companions, are temporarily emancipated. Free in that first-world way.
But then, the second world grabs us. We feel the need for acknowledgement. For our own enjoyment, we make the dogs balance on old eucalyptus stumps for a photo before heading out.
We drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea, an artists’ colony on the central California coast. The main strip of the town is in pristine condition. Thanks to wise zoning laws, there are no fast-food restaurants, t-shirt shops, or even a boardwalk to mar its old-world appeal. The homes and businesses look as if they materialized wholesale from a fantastical children's story. And almost everyone has a dog.
At the end of the main drag is the Scenic Bluff Path, a well-maintained gravel pathway that parallels Scenic Road just above Carmel Beach. Looking down to the beach from the bluff, there are more dogs than people. As we walk along the jagged coastline and see a sea of four-leggeds running with wild abandon, none of us can help but smile.
Down on the beach, low tide catches the yellow-hued afternoon light, as the exiting swell of the ocean creates gentle tide pools that reflect the sun. All of our pack run and play, feeling the bliss of like-minded companionship.
Face-to-face with ocean spray, the dogs are at peace within their bodies, simply guided by pleasure. Today, on the beach, they don’t feel owned.
There is a solace in being off-leash. Here on the beach, all of us carve our initials in the wet sand of life and embrace our feral nature. Because the dogs have shown us how.
Sherri currently teaches English in California’s Silicon Valley, holds an MA in Modern Fiction, and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She believes that the childhood force that gave shape to her thinking was the opportunity to travel.