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Learning New Tricks

When traveling, sometimes it’s best to let your dog lead the way

Author Ada Limón Illustration Jacqui Oakley

travelessayIf you were to sit next to me on a plane, chances are we would never actually meet. I’d have my nose buried in a book, a pair of earbuds firmly in place. There would be no get-to-know-you banter, and minimal eye contact. And should you, by some unfortunate stroke of luck, go on to share the same hotel as me, the same tour bus, the same scenic overlook, you’d find me in a similarly reclusive mood. I am, when it comes to travel, a contented and incurable loner.   

I know how that sounds. Travel is meant to foster a sense of wonder and discovery, which has as much to do with encountering unfamiliar people as it does unfamiliar places. And yet, for me, there’s something reassuring about retreating deep into my personal world when I’m out exploring the actual world. I love that view from a distance, that delightful scrim of isolation. Or at least I used to, before my boyfriend and I got the dog.

A 12-pound fawn-colored pug, this odd little creature named Lily Bean forced us to change how we travel. For one thing, I had to completely forget about being antisocial. “Who’s that? I love her!” Lily Bean will say with her entire shaking body as we approach the 100th new person of the day.

And when it comes to charting my own course, I now have Lily Bean’s internal compass to contend with. “Whoa, hold the phone! Is that a tree-lined walkway through a historic garden?” her wagging tail will convey as she pulls us out of a busy cityscape.

In the three years that we’ve had her, Lily Bean has flown in more than 20 planes, been to countless outdoor drinking establishments on both the East and West coasts, and finagled dog treats from strangers across the American South. And it’s clear that people—bankers, sales clerks, cooks, kids, cops, cabdrivers—want to meet Lily Bean as much as she wants to meet them. She is a social crackerjack, a master of the fleeting friendship, and we are inevitably caught up in the whirl.

Not long ago, my boyfriend and I drove from La Jolla, California, up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Sonoma Coast. We’d penciled in must-see spots like Big Sur’s Nepenthe and San Simeon’s Hearst Castle, but we also found ourselves seeking out stuff that would be fun for, well, the dog. The owner of a brewery we visited suggested Carmel, which he described as a kind of canine nirvana, with lots of off-leash beaches, pet-friendly restaurants and the famed Cypress Inn, co-owned by screen legend and animal lover Doris Day. So we revamped our itinerary and headed to Carmel-by-the-Sea.

The brewery owner hadn’t lied. Shortly after our arrival, Lily Bean was running free on white-sand beaches teeming with galloping, well-groomed dogs that were likely living, and eating, better than we were. We sat on a giant piece of driftwood and watched as she raced the waves and won over much larger dogs through the sheer force of her frenetic personality. The owners of her new playmates, inevitably, came over to chat.  

The truth is, there are times I miss the earbuds and the books, the tranquil ease of my self-imposed quarantine. But for the most part, I’ve come to appreciate Lily Bean’s unspoken introductions. After all, our pug-inspired conversations with strangers have ultimately led us to fantastic open-air cafés, hidden coastal hikes and leafy riverside parks in cities that I didn’t even know had rivers.

With the dog in tow, our travels have a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm. Maybe that’s the lesson here: to be more the lighthearted animal and less the uptight human. I’m not saying we should take to relieving ourselves on fire hydrants or throwing ourselves into strangers’ arms, but there is something to be said for following your curiosity, ducking down an unbeaten path, because, well, something just smells good in that direction.

That night in Carmel, we dined in the dog-friendly eatery at the Cypress Inn, with its Spanish Colonial detailing and framed pictures of Doris Day. Normally, a restaurant like this wouldn’t have been to our taste—too kitschy, too Hollywood—but we loved the place. Over wine, we met a young woman who’d brought her elderly Great Dane to the town as a sort of last hurrah. All of us laughed as an extra-squirmy Lily Bean desperately tried to make friends with the patient, aging giant.

At the end of the night, we headed back to our pet-friendly room feeling buoyed and oddly connected to this well-heeled town. To be honest, I’m not sure we would have liked Carmel as much if we hadn’t been with Lily Bean, and that goes for a lot of places we’ve gone together. In fact, it seems unthinkable now that we’d ever take another trip without this tiny navigator pulling us by the leash.

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