After two months on the road — two months of sharing cramped spaces, squinting at maps, making meal choices, pitching and breaking down camp, packing and repacking bags, cursing bad Internet connections, and waking up in the middle of the night to let sick dogs out of second-floor Motel 6 rooms — Jill and I decided to pick our first fight of the trip on the most beautiful highway in America.

It started over the windows of car. I wanted them down. She wanted them up.

I, of course, was in the right. We were driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, for goodness sake. The sun was out. The ocean sparkled. Iridescent, cottony clouds gave dimension to the impossibly blue sky. I switched on the radio and — no lie — the first chords of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” rang through the speakers. I cranked the volume and fantasized about swerving down the PCH in a convertible Mustang — a 1968 California Special with cream-colored seats and an inlaid-wood steering wheel. Instead I was stuck in a top-heavy Honda CRV that smelled like wet dogs. The least I could do was roll down the windows.

Jill, however, is not crazy about rushing wind. It sets her on edge. It blows wisps of her hair that are too short to be piled atop her head. But, dang, the Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny day? Exceptions must be made.

Or not.

“Can you roll up the windows a little?” Jill yelled over the wind and music. I cast a perturbed glance at her that I’m sure the mirrored lenses of my cheap sunglasses did not conceal. But I complied. The rush of the wind fell to a hoarse whisper. I turned down the Petty. My freedom had been impinged.

“You don’t have to roll them up that much — just a little,” Jill offered. “It’s OK,” I said. But, really, it wasn’t.

At the next overlook I pulled off the road and killed the engine. I leashed the dogs while Jill dug into her camera bag. She shut her door, and I closed the hatch, careful not to let it slam. I started to walk toward our continent’s western edge when Jill stopped me.

“Did you lock it?”


“The windows are still down. Can you roll them up?”

“We’re not going far.”

“My gear’s in there.”

“We can see the car from the overlook.”

“Don’t fight me.”

“I’m not fighting you. I’m trying to rationalize with you.”

My tone may have suggested otherwise. Exasperated, I tugged the dogs back to the car, unlocked it, and rolled up all four windows. I left the sunroof cracked. Maybe I did so out of logic, to let the car to breathe a little, expelling the odor of wet dogs and dirty laundry. Maybe spite played a small role. Either way, Jill wasn’t having it.

“Can you close the sun roof, too?”

“Seriously? Who’s going to get in? It’s barely open, and the roof rack hangs over it. A double-jointed Chinese gymnast couldn’t get through there.”

But, again, I acquiesced. Then we walked our separate ways, she north, me south. I stared into the deep blue forever of the Pacific and seethed. A hundred feet away Jill hid behind her camera and squeezed the shutter with disdain. When we reconvened at the car, we did so in silence. I started the ignition and cracked the windows. A sliver.

Jill can ride out angry silences forever. I cannot. I have to explain, justify, convince. I have to win. Only then can I have closure. It is, perhaps, a flaw.

So I broke the silence, stating my position in what I perceived to be measured tones. I don’t remember much of what I said, but I do recall telling Jill that her stress over unlocked doors and cracked windows and was unhealthier than my one-dimensional diet of red meat, and that eventually those worries would take years off her life. I suggested salvation lie only in learning from my relentlessly laissez fare world view.

Jill picked up the gauntlet with both hands. She explained how her laptop and portable hard drives contained every photo from our trip, and that her piece of mind was more important than a few inches of ventilation. She said driving with the wind in your hair does not make you carefree, and, after days upon days of eating PBJs, showering in dank bath houses, and camping without water or electricity, I had no right to paint her as a party-pooping nag.

Like any good fight, ours escalated and mutated, oozing through cracks in the walls of reason and rushing past safety barriers of truth and logic. Our disagreement over the windows eventually morphed into referendums on our respective personalities. Ironclad arguments rammed impotently into stubborn wills, and impassioned pleas slid from deaf ears to the floorboards. Sighs got heavy. Words got careless. Then, finally, the crescendo, falling from Jill’s lips as I knew it eventually must:

“Why did I ever decide to do this?”

My heart broke like a bar of motel soap. I didn’t say another word. I just rolled down my window — all the way — and drove. We’d only come a few thousand miles of a 30,000-mile journey, but already I’d gone too far.

I’m not real comfortable writing about personal stuff, and I relate this story only because every person we meet on the road (especially people who are married) eventually asks us one question: “Do you guys fight?” I usually deflect this one by joking that if our trip ends in divorce, it will make a great book. But my joke unfailingly elicits only awkward chuckles, if any chuckles at all.

Some folks we meet, especially the kindly retired couples who are most often our campground neighbors, take a liking to us and then get to worrying about our wellbeing. Others just want us to confirm that life on the road is no more of an emotional picnic than life tethered to work and kids and TiVo.

One day I might tether myself to children, and maybe even to work (never to TiVo), and then I can weigh the joys and pains of that life against those of this one. For now, all I can offer is cliché: Some days on the road are better than others. Jill and I certainly suffer from occasional pangs of homesickness. We miss our friends in Phoenix. We miss eating at Tuck Shop. We miss sitting in our backyard, watching the sprinklers and dreaming up adventures and future life scenarios. One thing that sucks about living the dream is that it makes it difficult to sit around and concoct something better — and that kind of dreaming is life fuel for Jill and me. But, hell, it’s a good problem to have, and we aim to solve it one of these nights around the campfire.

As for our squabbles, at home or abroad, they are infrequent and insubstantial. Which is why the duration and harshness of first big road-trip fight took me aback. But the show had to roll on. Jill and were stuck together, for better or worse, separated by two feet of molded plastic and gray upholstery. Besides, it was lunchtime. Past it, actually.

Off a tip from the proprietor of a small outdoors shop south of Big Sur, I turned off the highway onto a narrow road that descended to Pfeiffer Beach. I parked the car, and we silently went through the now-familiar motions of packing a picnic lunch. We hauled our food to the beach, unleashed the dogs, and sat on a log weathered to a smooth patina by surf and sand and wind.

I don’t remember who spoke first, but thereafter the apologies fell easy, as though pulled by tidal forces. The blessings of our journey were remembered and counted. The dogs ran, the surf rolled, and Jill and I shared a cold can of Coke. I guess old logs aren’t the only things smoothed by surf and sand and wind.

So cheers to the healing power of the Pacific Coast Highway, which taught me that it’s folly to argue about windows when the view beyond them is so distractingly beautiful. Jill and I will no doubt fight again, on another road in another state, but don’t expect to read about it here. I’m done airing dirty laundry. That kind of stuff belongs in the back seat — with the windows rolled up and doors locked.

— Scott

I like Phoenix. I like its grit. Same reason I like great cities like Milwaukee, Chicago and San Francisco. I want some diversity, some authenticity, some signs of aging.

The only grit I found in Carmel-by-the-Sea was the puddle of coastal sand collecting in our car’s floorboard. This town is one of the cleanest, meticulously maintained cities I’ve ever been in. And the only thing that seems to be aging is its populace — the median age is 54.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is beautiful and charming, but it seems a little self conscious about just how beautiful and charming it is. I guess this vibe is to be expected from a city that feels the need to add a hyphenated prepositional phrase to its name. Carmel-by-the-Sea. Did former mayor Clint Eastwood approve of this?

Being a Californian who grew up near dairy farms and cotton fields instead of the coast, maybe I’m just a little bitter. But what makes Carmel different from other upscale California beach towns is not its hyphens; it’s the city’s absolute devotion to dogs. And I mean all dogs — not just ones that fit inside Louis Vuitton bags.

Scott and I probably aren’t the kind of dog-loving guests the Carmel tourism board prefers. Unable to afford a hotel by the sea, we camped at a Veteran’s Memorial Park in neighboring Monterey. Unable to afford lunch by the sea, we picnicked on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But one thing in Carmel is free, and we drove 5.3 miles from Monterey every day to enjoy it: Carmel City Beach.

At nearly any time of day, Carmel City Beach is full of off-leash dogs. They play in the sand, fetch sticks in the ocean and trot along the surf. This beach is all about dogs, and I’ve never seen so many dogs so happy.

Carmel City Beach is a great example of how responsible dog owners and a committed city can maintain a clean beach that is fun for dogs and dog owners alike. And this is not just any beach — it’s extraordinarily beautiful. The northward shoreline parallels Pebble Beach Golf Links and affords a view of the course’s much-photographed Lone Cypress Tree. If only managers of other California beaches, many of which don’t allow dogs at all, were as dedicated as Carmel’s city fathers.

This was Jack and Isabel’s first (legal) taste of off-leash beach life, and they loved it. But it would be a stretch to say they fit right in. Carmel City Beach is the ultimate dog pageant. Awards could be handed out for best coat, most fit and longest swim into the ocean for a stick. If, like me, you are fascinated by pure-breed dogs, then this is the place to see the best of them — Great Pyrenees, Bernese Mountain Dogs, German Shorthairs, Basenjis and more. Introducing our mutts into such a blue-blood playground was a bit like taking shoeless bumpkins to a private school. I was worried Jack and Isabel might develop a complex, but they were recklessly oblivious. Isabel chased sticks into the sea while Jack chased toy poodles along the shore.

At one point, Jack climbed the steep inland bank and squatted above the green, grassy rough along a Pebble Beach fairway. Scott now can forever say he picked up dog poop on one of America’s greatest golf courses.

Tired dogs are well-behaved dogs, which made it possible for us to peacefully relax at one of Carmel’s many dog-friendly, outdoor patios after our first visit to the beach. We chose Cypress Inn.

Owned by Doris Day and located a few blocks from the beach, Cypress Inn is not only pet-friendly — its patio provides an area to rinse off your dogs after a day of playing in the sand. The Garden Courtyard is a great place to nosh on a cheese platter and have a cocktail while the dogs relax by the outdoor fire. We even caught a glimpse of a Cocker Spaniel joining its owner for dinner inside the restaurant.

Downtown Carmel is doggie heaven. Owners walk their dogs, sip coffee with their dogs, shop for their dogs. The Forge in the Forest is one of several restaurants with a special menu for dogs, offering kibble, hamburgers, chicken strips or a $13 New York steak.

There are nearly 50 eating and drinking establishments in Carmel that are dog-friendly — that is, if your dogs don’t act like jerks.  Dog boutiques cater to extreme dog lovers with specialty items such as gingham puppy harnesses ($34) and angora sweaters ($56). You can also find the latest Ed Hardy gear for your four-legged friend. But you won’t catch Jack or Isabel wearing a sweater, much less a hoodie with a panther and koi fish bedazzled on the back.

For all of Carmel’s fuss over gourmet dog menus, boutiques and day spas — including massage and color-therapy services — it’s the off-leash beach that makes the city such a dog lover’s dream. You could spend a small fortune making your dog look good, but nothing compares to watching your filthy mongrel, pink tongue flapping and chin bearded in slobber, sprint through surf and bound over driftwood in an effort to catch some poor woman’s white poodle.

That kind of joy can’t be bought, by the sea or anywhere else.

— Jill