No deceit. I’m warning you right now, from the get go, this can only be a love letter to a dog. If somehow you don’t know, Harlow is my eleven year old, yellow Labrador mix. This wasn’t my original plan. My proposal was solid; visit dog beach, my favorite fish tacos spot and then check out a little mom and pop winery. It was going to be a fun day full of adventures and plenty to spin into a blog post. You know, the one you’re reading. Best laid plans of mice of men. Intentions being what they may, when I comb through my notes and try to put thoughts to phrases, it’s quite apparent what this will…well, what this is. It could get, gulp, mushy. So I am giving you, the reader, a heads up in case you’re not comfortable with that sort of thing. Either way, decide quickly, this train is pulling out of the station. We’re heading south on interstate 5 this Saturday morning. Next stop, Huntington Dog Beach.
Actually there are many more stops on the way to Orange County; like hundreds, like stop and go traffic at 9AM on a Saturday morning. I handle it with my usual zen-like calm and ease. And by that I mean, I violently swear and thrash around in the driver’s seat. I’m convinced the traffic in LA is getting worse. Molly Knight, best selling author of The Best Team Money Can Buy, my favorite twitter feed, and I think, my soul mate (?), tweeted last night after an NLCS game “Next time you rip Dodger fans for leaving early…we left our seats an hour ago and are still stuck in the parking lot”. It feels like that more and more and more. It doesn’t help that old age has ushered in a period of panic in Harlow whenever I take her anywhere in the car. She starts shaking with worry in her eyes. I try to soothe her fears by telling her our destination is her happy place. But she doesn’t understand. Even after all these years together she stubbornly refuses to learn more then a few words of English. She’s always happy once we arrive at the park, hike, friends’ house, beach, etc.; really anywhere. I am told, (by my amazing friend Joy who’s a trainer), that stress is good for dogs. I try not to be a baby about my baby. So while it’s hard on me, I push her through it. This behavior wasn’t present in Harlow’s younger years. Harlow and I have spent a lot of time in the car. Many trips taken together; the grandest of all, driving cross country, out and around and back again. We two have toured most of this great land; walked Broadway, Bourbon, the Strip and Beale street. We’ve visited mountains, desert, wine country, New England, and lived in the Atlanta. And for, let’s say, all of 2013, Harlow and I visited Huntington Dog Beach once a week. You read that correctly, once a week. There are a few reasons. It’s her favorite place, bringing her such joy. For me, I’ve always loved the beach. Always craved a certain amount of nature in my life, the sea my nature of choice. The town of Huntington also reminds me a bit of Long Beach, where I summered with my Grandparents when I was kid. Special memories. Finally, It’s been a good place to fight through shit in my noggin. Long story short, Harlow and I have taken hundreds of trips here. Don’t listen to false claims by Disneyland; the dog beach is the happiest place on earth. I’ve gotten off Interstate 405 and that cool ocean air cuts through the heat and whispers across my face. Harlow is standing on the arm rest with her head out the window. She’s still shaking, but now it’s cause her tail is swinging back and forth. She knows exactly where we are heading.
After a mile or two of chain stores and restaurants it mellows out into local, mom and pop businesses. There’s plenty of seafarer, captain, fish and generally ocean themed stores and restaurants. One main street cuts through like a parade. Narrow sand blown side streets streak off in both directions. The people you see are all beach types; athletic, sun kissed, tank tops, bleached blondes, cut off jean shorts, sinewy kids and salty old men. Harlow takes intense meaningful breaths. I wish we could be locals. The beach teases on the passenger side for a mile or two before we reach the dog beach. We pass surfers, RV camping grounds. Parking ain’t bad this October Saturday. I leave Harlow in the car as I go to pay at one the parking stations. She makes her hurt at this betrayal abundantly clear. Funny, this part, she never remembers. We’re on the beach quickly. Harlow’s joy is as pure and explosive as ever. Ball, required immediately, this will be an unrelenting game of fetch. After the first retrieval, Harlow heads to the water and wades soulfully in the surf. I take off my shoes, keep my eyes on the girl, and walk down a ways. It’s so much hotter than I imagined it would be today. I didn’t even wear a suit, what is wrong with me? I drop my bag and walk to the water with Harlow. It’s begins, I throw, she takes off down the beach into the sun. I roll up my jeans and put my feet in the water. I grab handfuls of sea water and splash it on my face.
It’s not just Harlow, it’s a carnival of dogs wet, wrestling, running, fetching, and being generally silly. Dogs of all ages, sizes and breeds. Some love the water and some fear it. There is always one misguided owner dragging their unwilling dog into the ocean that once released races for the sand like it’s escaping from ghosts. Harlow is mostly oblivious to other dogs. A smell or two here or there but mostly this is about fetch, with brief wading in the ocean interludes. Harlow’s got her own version of fetch. She drops the ball then runs madly in one direction, as far as she can, as fast as she can. The expectation is I will throw it (which I do) pretty far (which I can) and eventually it will fall in front of her. Part of the game for me has always been my accuracy, I need to drop it in somewhere ahead of her but careful not to hit any pedestrians. If I ever don’t throw it she spins around and looks for it in the sky, waiting for it to drop. After some time if it doesn’t, she glares back at me like, “What gives?”. We’re always a show for passerby. The distance and her tics seems to really amuse people. Her one other beach pleasure is digging in the sand around my blanket. This usually means my blanket is surrounded by a number of trenches. No one can sneak up and attack me on the beach! But fetch is always the primary activity. In the past there were times we played for hours, to the point where she could barely run, but just sort of stumbled down the beach and back again. But still dropping the ball, still waiting for the throw, still refusing to stop the game. We’d spend hours. As she’s gotten older I have to protect against it. I’ve learned the hard way at 11 she’s not capable of what she once was. If I let her go, the next day she can’t walk and her legs shake. I guess she’s not the only one; inflammation of the joint, inflammation of the tendon, fraying of the tendons and adhesions forming were the results of my right shoulder MRI. While the length of time shorter, Harlow and I still live our best selves this day. When she sees me pick up the ball she begins to run as fast as she can. No hesitation, I wind up and let it fly. I can still toss it the better part of a football field and she can still hunt it down. Harlow is at max effort racing down the beach on the wet sand. Folks look up to see a ball soaring above them as Harlow streaks by. An airplane spins designs in the air with smoke. The ball drops into the crash of a small wave on the shore and Harlow quickly races in diving her nose to retrieve. She is oblivious to the airplane designs in the sky as she runs back, ears a flopping. She then veers off into the water next to me, showing with a smile the orange and blue rubber ball in her mouth.
90 minutes and I call it. Harlow trails 15 feet behind me as we make our way to the exit. I have to keep prodding her to keep up. This is her regular silent protest. I know she wants to stay but I’m not convinced I haven’t pushed her too hard already. I’m certainly going to feel it in my shoulder tonight; and tomorrow. In the parking lot we do our usual comedy duet as I try to dry her and brush the sand off whilst she goes dead weight. Her demeanor screams, “Papi! You’re embarrassing me!”. As I load her into the car I notice the passengers waiting in the vehicle to claim my spot are in stitches having watched the scene play out. I take a bow. They clap.
The beach isn’t our only tradition. Taco Surf may be a chain, but they serve some of the tastiest, grilled fish tacos I have ever eaten. Fish tacos are my LA pizza. I have Taco Surf saved as a contact in my phone. It’s that serious. If I call as I pull out of the dog beach parking lot, my order will be ready when I arrive. I love the short drive to Taco Surf. The car is invaded by a cool ocean breeze. I asses the level of salt, sea and sun on my skin. Harlow stretches out in the back, ready to fall off into sleep. The only flaw of Taco Surf is that they have no pet friendly seating. Usually I eat and drive. Yes, I have dropped plenty onto my lap and car seat. Today I sit with Harlow on the bench outside. Grilled tilapia, guacamole, pico de gayo, shredded cheddar, shredded cabbage, radish, lime, salt, pepper wrapped in a flour tortilla. They never let me down. A side of chips and top quality homemade salsa included. I get two, it costs about $8. I can’t say enough how perfect a lunch this is. Harlow has stretched out on the floor. Her head is raised high, her eyes closed. She looks regal. At one point there is a log jam of guests exiting the restaurant because each is taking turn bending over and scratching her. Harlow never moves. She welcomes the affection and doles out some licks. “What a perfect dog”, one father says.
I get a bit turned around and have to do some hunting for Seal Beach Winery. It’s buried in this nondescript maze of office spaces that look more industrial than welcoming. There are no signs and I almost give up when I find it. One peek at the tasting room and I see there is no outdoor seating. In wine country, wonderfully, most tasting rooms are dog friendly but I have my doubts here. It’s around 80 degrees and I don’t want to leave Harlow in the car. I decide to pop in for a sec and get the lay of the land. I tell Jose, who’s running the tasting room today that I wanted to taste but might just buy a bottle and go, explaining my situation. “You dog is welcome inside” are the magic words heard I had hoped for. As I’ve alluded, this wont be Harlow’s first wine tasting. Harlow was adopted February of 2008 and in March we visited Santa Barbara, my first time ever, new puppy in tow. She was much the same then as now entering a tasting room. Bull in China shop. She tugs madly at the leash, pulling her way inside, tail moving this way and that, excited to see and smell everyone and everything. “Hi, I’m Harlow!!”. “Give it just a second and she’ll relax”, I sheepishly tell Jose. And she does. After a requisite once over smelling, she not so delicately sprawls out across the wood floor in the center of the room to enjoy the generous AC. Again, welcoming to any and all that wish to approach and pay patronage. And they do.
The Seal Beach Winery tasting room is modest in size. Wood bar, two high top tables, windows, some wines and swag on display for purchase. It’s a satellite tasting room, the grapes are grown in Los Olivos and Santa Rita Hills, the wine fermented and aged elsewhere. The Seal Beach Winery started in winemaker Michael Dawson’s garage, Jose tells me, expanded to the tasting room but has continued to outgrow it’s confines. Jose takes great pride and ownership in the label. He adores the wines, brags about their accolades. It’s something I love about dealing with wineries. So often family businesses or family feeling; that artistry of winemaking holding hands with agriculture and commerce. Crops, nature, business, flavor, people, a good buzz. It’s always personal and Jose does a great job of communicating that today. With his help I choose a flight of 6 tastes; Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Grenache, Tempranillo, Syrah and Cabernet. The wines are loud; big notes, large doses of flavor. While I find some unbalanced, I never find them boring; high quality, “announcing their presence with authority”, (to quote my beloved Bull Durham), and worth the exploration. If shimmying to the groove of malolactic fermentation is your thing, try the Chardonnay, it is high viscosity, buttery, creamy goodness. Playfully I make my way through the flight. When Harlow and I are briefly left alone in the tasting room I whisper to her that I love her, followed by a description of the manner in which I plan on cooking and eating her this evening. There is wine pairing involved. She takes it in stride.
I purchase a bottle and bid my farewell to Jose. It’s time to make our way home. Harlow stands staring into the car, dancing with her feet. She’s uncertain about about obeying my “up” command; her old lady legs are tired, unsure they can make the jump. I hoist her into the back seat, taking the opportunity to steal a squeeze. She smells of the beach. I crunch the traces of sand playing stowaway in my sneakers. As I head out on our way, I look at Harlow in the rearview mirror. She’s stretched across the backseat, head up but eyes closed, nodding off to the breeze spilling in through the cracked window. February will mark the 11th anniversary of the day I adopted Harlow from the shelter. She will officially be my longest relationship. Turns out the love of my life is a Labrador. Totally okay with that.
Hey, I warned you. Keep scrolling.