We just spent a week on the northern California coast.
We first did this trip 5 years ago as a kind of experiment: what happens when you totally escape, when you rent a remote cabin with a great ocean view and zero cell phone coverage and no internet, take all of your food and wine so you can totally abandon civilization (even the grocery store), bring your dogs (well, duh), and load the car with every book you’ve been saving for when you have hours and hours to do nothing but sit on the deck and read.
The first year was perfection. The drive up Highway 1 with some minutes edge-of-the-cliff driving and postcard views. The cabin and its deck hovering on an 80 ft cliff edge, advertised as “If you were any closer to the water you’d need a boat.” We had sunny skies and a clear view every single day; we were right up the road from a State park where we could hike with our 2 dogs, Lea and Lucy, every morning; we grilled dinner every night; we drank copious amounts of wine; we read every book we brought while the dogs napped at our feet. We couldn’t wait to return the next summer. I dreamed of spending more time here. Maybe next year we could stay for 2 weeks. Three! A month!!
Year two. We rented the same cabin but for more days, packed up some food and some wine, the dogs, more books. On the drive up, I found myself anticipating the minutes of on-the-edge cliff driving, the exactly 40 minutes on the edge with scarcely a guard rail. We brought less food and went into town for groceries, where we discovered wifi access in a real estate parking lot — only one or two bars of service, but connected!! The cabin was the same, but the fog rolled in often and stole our view and the warm sun, so we spent more time inside reading on the couch than on the deck. We did our morning hike everyday, but one day we lost Lucy long enough to panic. We read most of our books. On the drive home, I didn’t think I’d survive the 40 minutes of cliff driving — in heavy fog this time — particularly when we came around a hairpin turn to find a road packed with stray cattle. Where did they come from? With nowhere to go, we had to put the car in park, perched inches from on the edge of the earth, with Lucy barking like mad, and wait for them to move. It was a long drive.
Year three. Lucy had passed away but we still had Lea the lab, and we also had a new puppy — JoJo — all of 11 wks old. Cabin, food, wine, books. It would be great, right? It would be just like that first year.
JoJo cried most of the way up. I figured she just didn’t care for the crate and the car, but shortly after arriving and unpacking, I realized she wasn’t well and that I needed to find the local vet. “Just a urinary tract infection,” the vet said, and handed me a packet of pills. The meds kicked in right away. Puppy was back to her bouncing puppy self, but I was not. For the first time, I noticed the breaks in the fence on the cliff’s edge — breaks just wide enough for an 11 week old puppy to slip through and plummet to the rocks below— so that even though we had her tethered to the deck, she was constantly on the move and it was impossible for me to relax enough to read: I brought 8 books and read 1/4 of one. And we noticed the cabin now had wifi access and checked our emails a few times a day. So much for leaving civilization.
Two days before we were set to head home, on a Friday evening, we noticed JoJo was not waking up. By 9 pm, she’d curled into a tight, frozen ball and lost her bladder. I called the vet’s office, got his home # off the machine, and called him at home. That good man met us at his office 20 minutes later and, after suggesting the puppy might be so poisoned we’d need to drive 2 hours in the dark and fog over the cliff to the hospital, she stood up and wobbled like a drunkard. A good sign, he said. We figured she ate a mushroom or some fertilizer on that morning’s hike, but who knew? He gave her a shot of fluids to help wash out the poison and sent us back to our cabin. I stayed up all night, my eyes peeled on my pup. She got better by the hour and was her puppy-self by 6 a.m. Which is about the time I started packing the car and told my husband we were going home. So what if we had 2 days left on our cabin rental. I’d had enough of this “vacation.” For the 40 minutes of our cliff’s edge drive, I felt what I can only describe as my nerves coming completely undone; I couldn’t even look out the window; I said, ohmygod ohmygod a lot; I was certain we were all going to tumble to the rocks and sea below.
Year four. Fuck that fucking cabin. Fuck the drive. Let’s stay home.
This summer we decided to try again. The good memories of that first year had returned just enough, and JoJo was a big healthy dog. We still had Lea and had added Annie. We could pack up wine and food. We had books to read. We could do it.
When I called, the cabin was unavailable. For the entire summer. The owners were remodeling their house and would be living there. How dare they. How in the world would we find the perfect seaside cabin like that one, and one that would take three dogs? With very little research, I found a place that might work. It wasn’t perched on the cliff’s edge, but there was a view. Bookshelves were stocked with the classics and my husband took a few down from the shelf. He held up A TALE OF TWO CITIES.
“Never read it,” I said.
“Not possible!” he said. “It was the best of times ….”
“It was the worst of times…,” I continued. “And I’ve still never read it.”
He held up GREAT EXPECTATIONS. I shook my head.
“How’s that possible?” he said. “How?”
“I’ve never read any Dickens, and I’m not starting this week.”
I left my husband with the books and stepped outside. Unlike the original cabin of 5 years ago, this cabin was set a ways back from the ocean, and it was not remote. It was right next door to the owner’s big house. But the 2 acre yard was tightly fenced because the owners had 3 dogs themselves — my dogs could roam free — and we soon learned that the husband was the president of the local Humane Society. If any dog catastrophe hit, he would have connections; he would know just what to do. I felt myself relax.
All went well, or at least well enough. Our 3 dogs, their first time stuffed together in the car for hours of driving, were so good we hardly knew they were there. This cabin was much cleaner and nicer than the old cabin and the gardens were no less than spectacular, but we missed the remote factor — the owners were sweethearts, and their 3 giant Dobermans were even fine, but we weren’t really alone. Civilization was right next door, and their doors were always left open. So open that my dogs visited the neighbors inside their house daily and often: JoJo stole the husband’s shoe while he was naked in his hot tub, woke up the wife by jumping on her bed and then stealing her slippers, tried to swallow their cat’s toys; Lea found the Doberman’s food in their pantry and kept going back for more; Annie found the stash of rawhides in their garage. We had a strong internet connection and an iPad. While the rest of the nation was having a record heatwave, our temps rarely got above 55 degrees. My husband felt so ambitious he brought, and got through the opening pages of, WAR AND PEACE. I read Lily King’s FATHER OF THE RAIN and got about 1/3 of the way into Julia Glass’s THREE JUNES. We found a few State parks to hike in every morning with our dogs, but it must be said that it is more challenging to walk 3 dogs of varying physical abilities through strange landscapes than the 2 we used to have —- one morning we took them to a remote beach and I was so on-alert, so trying to keep track of all 3 running wild and loose in the surf (could Annie even swim? I wasn’t sure) that I couldn’t wait to get them back to the groomed path and safely on their leashes.
It was lovely. It was. But unlike that first year, the first year when we escaped all civilization and hiked freely and burrowed in with our stack of great books and dreamed of being holed-up even longer — Next year let’s go for 3 weeks! A month! — I realized that 6 days was plenty. We rested. We sipped wine and grilled out. We read a book or two. We hiked the sublime landscape and played with our dogs. And when we packed up, I was ready to head home.
On the drive back, I stared out at the landscape of rolling hills and vineyards, comforted by the winding inland roads and the lack of hairpin turns, and thought about my expectations, about how I can let my expectations of past perfection and/or my anticipation of disaster ruin a perfectly fine adventure. So I only finished one book. And my dogs weren’t perfectly behaved or perfectly healthy (but when are they??): Lea puked on day one, Annie panted too hard after our hikes, and JoJo most certainly wore out her welcome in the big house — but we had no emergencies; we never needed the vet. We drank our wine and grilled our dinners, and we enjoyed the sunsets even if it was from inside the house because evenings were so very cold and damp. All of this was fine, normal, and yet …. I see how easy it is for me to worry that it’s not what it could be. That it will never again be what it was.
And that’s okay. Isn’t it?