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Born and raised on California’s central coast, I thought I had experienced all the travel adventures it had to offer. But one fine spring day, I discovered there was something I had missed. I’m not talking about a previously undiscovered Big Sur panorama here. But a Big Sur odor-rama? That one had eluded me.
It was Maggie, my calendar-pretty, 100-pound Shepherd-Collie mix, who introduced me to this new perspective. Most of the time, Maggie was at the top of her class when it came to dignified behavior. But put her within smelling proximity of putrid substances, and all pretence at Lassie went down the tubes. Like many of her species, she saw the world through her nose, and I have never met another so completely committed to the rank and rancid. When it came to disgusting, Maggie was a connoisseur.
On my day of discovery, we left San Francisco for a drive down Highway 1; it was a work trip requiring my arrival in San Luis Obispo for a potluck dinner and meeting that evening. I intended to stop along the way to check out a few project sites for my employer, a California conservation organization. Some of these spots were remote and lonely. Maggie would be my protector.
As soon as I opened the door at our first stop just south of Carmel, Maggie took off like a rocket, muzzle high in the wind. Ten minutes later I found her tunneling through a mountain of deer poop. Scolding her was useless. Her eyes had glazed over, a sure sign of retreat into the foul. Leaping into the car, she settled into her co-pilot position and pointed her nose south. “Onward, Jeeves,” she all but said. “There’s even better up ahead.”
She was right. Our next stop was a Big Sur beach, requiring a long climb down a steep cliff. As I descended the rocky trail, Maggie shot by, nearly knocking me over. Emerging from the brush five minutes later, I found her knee-deep in a long-dead elephant seal. Maggots squirmed in panic as she flung herself upon them with unrestrained gusto. Each time she did, her body hit the carcass with the power of an asteroid, forcing chunks of putrefied blubber and maggots to erupt onto my pants leg.
Needless to say, the car was not a pleasant place to be after this, but we had just begun. Our next stops involved fish guts, seaweed, guano, a dolphin head and the remains of an unidentifiable shorebird, in that order. Some of these items were rolled in, with enthusiasm undiminished since the elephant seal. Others were quickly gulped, their rancid vapors emerging from Maggie’s digestive track at regular intervals, forcing me to turn on the car’s 4WRD.
This was our air-conditioning system, identified for me by an Arizona gas station attendant one boiling summer day years earlier. “Hey, I see ya got 4WRD in your car,” he deadpanned, as I wiped my dripping forehead with an already-drenched handkerchief. Not wanting to be seen as an ignorant bimbo, I nodded in agreement. “Yep, Four Windows Rolled Down,” he shrieked, as he fell over in hysterics. Yuck, yuck, yuck.
Ears flat to the wind, Maggie inhaled the bracing coastal air as we sped past Hearst Castle. But the welcome relief of fresh air was soon denied me when I realized I had forgotten to buy a promised dessert for the potluck that evening. At a rural grocery store, I chose a baked but frozen fruit pie over Ho Hos and Twinkies. I drove with closed windows and the car heater at full throttle to thaw it out.
During the remaining 50 miles, the car morphed into a germ warfare lab. Maggie’s carefully concocted blend of deer poop, rotten seal, fish guts, seaweed, rancid dolphin, fresh guano and dead shorebird wafted off her coat like a biological weapon.
I wondered about the effect on the pie. Would it be edible? Should I serve it? Pondering my future as a homicide-by-poisoning suspect, I glanced over at Maggie. Ensconced on her throne like a fine-perfumed princess, she was clearly proud of a job well done. I pulled over and tossed the pie in a dumpster.
Maggie is now gone, but one of the many ways I remember her is in my heightened awareness of the full range of adventures the California coast has to offer. As I wax poetic over the deep violet hues of a Pacific sunset, I can imagine her on high, winging her way through fluffy white clouds from one holy stench to another. As committed to fetid foraging as she was here on earth, she has probably opened a business. “Maggie’s Heavenly Tours,” she calls it. “Divine Panoramas? Definitely not! Divine Odor-ramas? Guaranteed!”
Photos by Carol J. Arnold