How a determined dog and memories of baby red-tailed hawks are getting me through 2023’s stormy start

Claudia Sternbach is looking for a sign the new year will be brighter than 2022.
Claudia Sternbach is looking for a sign the new year will be brighter than 2022.
(Via Claudia Sternbach)

Lookout columnist Claudia Sternbach was looking for a sign that 2023 would be a tad brighter than 2022. She found it in a determined dog who, just after the New Year’s Eve storm, had slipped down an embankment and was struggling to “return to its people,” who were standing on a ledge calling to it. Sternbach unfolds the story here — and contemplates the unexpected sense of community that emerges during a crisis.

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Claudia Sternbach

It was all riding on the dog.

Like many, my family had experienced quite a few unexpected hiccups over the holidays, (thanks, Southwest) and I was beginning to look for signs that 2023 was going to be more enjoyable. Perhaps in 2023 we would actually visit the charming Airbnb we had rented in Los Angeles for Christmas weekend, but never were able to revel in since Southwest “misplaced” our plane’s pilot. At least I was able to sleep in my own bed that night rather than in an airport lounge wondering where my luggage was.

Oh, I am fully aware that this was not in any way a true disaster; this was just a pebble in my shoe compared to so many challenges good folks experience. I am not living in a war-torn country. I am not experiencing a major health crisis. We have a roof which doesn’t leak over our heads and food in the pantry.

I am lucky. But still, can we all agree it would be nice if 2023 had a bit more spark and shimmer than 2022?

It comes back to the dog.

In the break between storms last week, I headed down to Seacliff State Beach for my first walk of the new year. I parked at the south end and noticed a crowd beginning to gather. As I got out and began to adjust my earbuds and push the play button, I turned around to see what was so interesting.

There is a bluff that runs along the parking area. It is a steep, rather sheer cliff. At the top is the upper-level parking lot. A mid-sized dog, perhaps a retriever, had slipped down the embankment and was now struggling to return to its people, who were standing at the top looking over the ledge calling to it, encouraging it to try to climb back up.

It looked so iffy I wasn’t even sure I wanted to watch. But I couldn’t look away. And the crowd was growing.

Years ago, I stood alongside another group of folks who were all gathered in New York’s Central Park, staring up with binoculars and hope. A pair of red-tailed hawks, descendants of Pale Male and his partner Lola, who had first come to live in the city a decade earlier in the 1990s, had nested in a tall building across the street from the park and after weeks of watching, the eggs had hatched.

Red-tailed hawks nesting in New York in the 2000s.
Red-tailed hawks nesting in New York in the 2000s.

The babies were growing. And all signs indicated that first flight would soon commence. The gathering became more and more festive as the days of watching and waiting went by. Cupcakes arrived. Champagne waited to be popped. An impromptu family had been created. It was lovely. People from all walks of life, all different backgrounds, had come together wishing for nothing more than to witness the success of these tiny raptors.

A cheer rose when the first small, rather timid-looking creature took wing. There were hugs and even a few tears. And then we dispersed and returned to our lives, but so much better for the experience shared.

We had no cupcakes or celebratory bubbles down at the beach “the day of the dog.”

And as we all watched this determined canine continue to attempt the climb, I could not decide if the odds of a successful outcome would be better if the dog gave up trying to climb up and instead turned around and gave sliding down a shot. But its people were calling and it was determined to follow their command.

In my experience, dogs adore their owners. They want nothing more than to please them. This was a big-hearted dog.

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It had rained heavily the day before, which I think was helpful to the pooch. The hillside was wet and muddy and perhaps it would allow the dog to dig in a bit. Give him some traction. But oh how the dog was struggling.

I held my breath and hoped. I began to place great importance on this event.

If the dog survives, the new year would be better, I told myself. If not, I would take it as a sign of things to come.

Then, with a burst of energy and frantic cheering, the dog made it to the summit. His people grabbed his collar and pulled him to safety. There were smiles and a few high-fives all around. It felt as if we had been holding our collective breaths for hours, but I know in reality it had been less than 30 minutes.

Truth be told, I have no idea what this next year will bring. But it is a grand feeling indeed to know how quickly a group of people of all backgrounds and political beliefs can put all differences aside and come together for a cause bigger than themselves and focus on only one thing. Reuniting a family with its dog. Or watching a red-tailed hawk take its inaugural flight.

In any case, I slept well believing in good signs sent from the universe.

And then this happened.

Storm damage at Seacliff State Beach.
Damage at Seacliff State Beach in Aptos.
(Via Claudia Sternbach)

It made me realize I might have put too much importance on the dog’s success.

Or, perhaps the panicked canine did, indeed, provide a bit of 2023 good luck. Right now, it is difficult to see it through all of the debris along our coastline.

Looking for hope amid the damage

We will have to sort it all out once the rain has stopped and the sea has calmed. I do know that as bad as things look, they could always be worse.

Between storms, my husband and I were drawn to the overlook above Seacliff State Beach to check out what remained of the pier and the cement ship. (Yes, I know it is made of concrete, but it has been known as the cement ship for as long as I can remember, so I’m sticking with it. Call me sentimental.)

The damage was fresh and the work crews had hardly begun. We were not the only folks taking in the view. Once again I was standing alongside strangers who, even though we did not know each other, seemed to be sharing the same feelings and emotions. Wonder at the power of nature. Gratitude that it hadn’t been worse. Grief for those who suffered severe damage to their homes and businesses and that uncomfortable feeling of adrenaline when one is thrown into an unexpected experience.

We were a quiet bunch of locals walking slowly along the bluff. The same bluff that the dog had climbed up just a few days before. A park ranger came by to remind us to stand back. A good suggestion, as I doubt any of us would have been as successful as the pup had been should we have fallen.

Later, back home, the wind came up once more and the rain pounded. But rather than feel isolated, I pictured the members of our community standing looking out to sea and knew that we were all in this together.

Sunday, my husband and I returned to the beach. We walked down the hill and joined rain-jacketed residents of the community to assess the damage closer up. My eyes filled with tears when I saw the wreckage. The sea had taken big bites out of the walking path. Picnic tables were scattered. Parts of the pier were pushed up against bathroom doors.

This is where I walk every day. This is where I go to sort out my feelings. To experience joy, to deal with overwhelming sadness, to appreciate all I have, to mourn what I have lost. And I don’t think I’m alone. I know I’m not.

This is where my sister’s ashes are scattered. This is where there is a small memorial dedicated to her. Gazing around at everyone picking their way carefully through the muck and mess, each of us trying to imagine how we will put things back together, I had no doubt we will.

Because we have before. This time will be no different.

A lone man looking for riches after the storms in Aptos.
(Via Claudia Sternbach)

And as we were leaving, I witnessed a lone person wearing a heavy storm jacket and high rubber boots walking in the surf holding a metal detector, literally looking for the silver lining in the storm.

And with days of rain still in the forecast, I, too, am looking for the light.

Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press), which also includes stories about her sisters. Her previous piece for Lookout, “This really is the season for magic and memories,” ran in December.

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