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Life on California's beautiful Central Coast

Running with dogs



Yesterday my family and I were talking about dogs. You could safely call us “dog people.” We all have dogs, and have since I was 13 and my brother was 9, when we adopted our first dog, the amazing Kasha Montana, from a classified ad in the Santa Barbara newspaper. I will remember the drive to pick see her for the first time until the day I die.

It was my brother who wanted a dog so badly that he begged my parents to let us have one. As we had recently moved to a sprawling ranch outside of Los Olivos, and we were old enough to play with her responsibly, they didn’t have much choice but to say yes.

We’d picked out the name Montana because it was one of our mutual favorite states after many family road trips. But Kasha was a good name, one that I’m even fonder of now that I’ve been to Kasha Katuwe (Tent Rocks) monument near Cochiti, New Mexico. Sometimes life surprises you. Until my first trip to New Mexico I always thought her previous owner named her after wheat cereal. But it stuck. It was a great name and she was a great dog.

She was the first dog I ever drove around with in the car, after I got my driver’s license. And she appeared with me in Runner’s World when I was 16 years old and writing about why I loved running so much. We didn’t run together every day, but she was my first running dog.

I never spent a lot of time thinking about “when I’m grown up, I’ll have a dog that .. ” or “when I’m older I’ll go running with my dog every day.” Then again, I never spent any time thinking about “when I’m grown up I’ll have a family and two kids.” Which I don’t – and that’s OK.

But I do have a dog, my crazy corgi, and I spend a lot of time in the company of dogs. It turns out that dogs, like children, are better raised by a village. It also turns out that when you have suffered severe emotional trauma, dogs can help you heal.

This morning I woke up from deep sleep in an S shape. B – the corgi – was curled up behind my knees. Sam – the Rhodesian – was curled up next to my face and chest. This is our little pack, I thought to myself. We are completely safe and happy in our own little world.

While it was still dark, we went out to run. I’ve run with a lot of dogs over the years, but these two are the most fun. Sam is the ultimate running dog. Essentially he lopes along humoring us while B and I struggle to keep up. There’s a reason why they say that Rhodesians are the ideal running dogs. They make marathons look easy.

For the corgi, on the other hand, it takes a half-dozen steps to make up for one stride made by me or the near-miniature horse. But Bulleit has a heart that must be about as big as his body. He pushes himself to the limit to keep on hanging with us. It’s the kind of thing that makes me feel proud, like a parent would. I realize a lot of people think the idea of “dog mom” is absolutely ridiculous, and I get that. But I’m not just his owner, so maybe it’s best put to say that I’m proud to be part of his pack.

This weekend the three of us ran 9 miles together on Saturday, and Sam and I covered 10 on Sunday (we left B at home to rest). Miles go faster with friends, whether they have four legs or two. Sunsets are more spectacular and moments of joy more joyous. I know I can trust these two not to leave me behind. And that’s a lot more than I can say about some of the people I’ve met.




A letter to my niece


You are one week old today, and Donald Trump has been President for 12 days so far.

I am so glad you are too little to understand what this means. But to be honest, even those of us who claim to be “grown up” are still figuring that out. It has been 12 long days of surprising twists, turns and turmoil on a national stage.

Let’s just say that so far it has been a pretty dark time to be a conscientious American who favors equal rights and liberal social policies. I have shed a lot of tears on behalf of many friends who are affected by sudden changes to immigration, health care and environmental law. And I’ve been sleepless at night worried about where we are going to end up in the weeks, months and years ahead.

You are going to grow up in California, which is essentially a different country from the America that decided our current President was a wise choice.  For the most part, people here are reasonable and fair. They don’t judge others based on their gender, sexuality, religion or color of their skin. I am sad to say that in the year 2017, that is not a universal standard in the United States of America. Some of us (including me) were deluded into thinking it was until quite recently. Turns out we were very wrong.

Our current president does not believe that you or I deserve to be paid equally to a man doing the same type of job. He does not believe that we deserve access to affordable health care. He does not believe we are entitled to make decisions about our own bodies and their reproductive capabilities. He does not believe that global warming is happening. And he believes that America should close its borders to immigrants, severing the 400-year-old umbilical cord that made this country what it is today.

On January 21, I went out and marched down the street in Santa Barbara with several thousand others, because I don’t think any of this is OK. So did more than a million other women and men around the country. We walked and we shouted and we sang and we cried, because it is our right as voting Americans to do so. Your dad and mom and older brother were out there marching too. It felt like one of very few constructive things we could do to stand up for an open, free, authentic America that upholds the Constitution and welcomes everyone.

I’ll write you more letters in the coming months, because I want to keep a record of this odd national journey we find ourselves on these days. Please know that your family is out being outspoken on your behalf. We want you to have Title IX intact so you have opportunities to play sports, Roe v. Wade standing so you can make your own decisions about your body, and when it’s time to go to work, you should be paid just as much as the guy in the office next to you. Even if the President doesn’t think so.

We love you,

Your aunt Leah

“I went to your blog but you hadn’t posted in forever!”

Hello, readers. (If there are any of you still out there!)

I recently learned that occasionally folks will come by here, checking to see if I have posted anything, and seeing yet again that I have not. I apologize for the long hiatus. Life took some unusual detours, and only recently have I felt like I am getting back to being myself again.

My hope is to begin remedying the “lack of regular posts” situation in the year ahead.

Lately I have been traveling for work and running, to places like Mississippi, where I ran in the inaugural Gulf Coast Half Marathon from Gulfport to Biloxi. It was my first race in quite awhile and it was great to be back out there competing again.


My most recent work trip was to Philadelphia, where I took advantage of any free moments to check out the Barnes Museum, Reading Terminal Market, and of course the famous LOVE statue, temporarily housed on Dilworth Plaza in front of Philadelphia City Hall.


If you’d like to see what I’m up to, or what B the wonder corgi is up to, you can follow us on Instagram, where we post daily updates about our adventures.

My personal account: https://www.instagram.com/leah.etling/

Bulleit’s account: https://www.instagram.com/sbcorgi/


We’ve been really happy to finally be getting some rain in Santa Barbara County this winter, leading to beautiful green landscapes at home in the valley.


And amazing runoff experiences like this one from the Ocean Meadows Golf Course this morning:


Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you’ll read more from me soon.

Another stellar local sunset

Taken earlier this month at Hendry's Beach.

Taken earlier this month at Hendry’s Beach.

Stellar Santa Barbara Sunset


I took this photo last night at Haskell’s Beach, next to the Bacara Resort in Goleta. Enjoy – and season’s greetings from the South Coast!

A couple things I learned at my high school reunion

I went to my first high school reunion last weekend. It wasn’t the tenth, 15th, or 20th, the timeline on which such events are normally held. Rather, it was the 17th summer since my class of 1997 headed out of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.

Why now? Well, that was my fault. I planned the darn thing.

Class reunions, by traditional American protocols, are supposed to be organized by the president of the class. I wasn’t in student government – nor had I even gone to a single party in high school that wasn’t school-sanctioned or associated with a team, club or class that I happened to be in. I wasn’t an especially popular kid, and often felt like I didn’t fit in.

You could probably best describe my high school self as a very focused student-athlete. I had my share of crushes on boys and problems with other girls and lots of very vague and hopeful plans for the future, but mostly I was running down a road or had my nose in a book. I was comfortable in those spaces. They were easy and attainable and rewarding and didn’t involve a lot of risk. Being social was a lot harder.

So fast forward more than a decade and a half and change, and why was I stressing out big time over Facebook RSVP’s and trying to track down the few people who didn’t seem to have any social media presence whatsoever and cajoling others to ask their friends to ask their sister-in-law if she could make it? I guess because at the end of the day, I liked high school, and just about all of the people who were there with me, even if we didn’t know each other as well as we could have or should have.

I loved going to high school football games and cheering on our team. I loved being on the Yearbook staff and writing up all the cool accomplishments everyone had all year. And I loved graduation, knowing that we all had the rest of our lives to do amazing things, and were just getting started on our very own magical mystery world tours.

Not even half of our class members were able to make it to the event, but I’m glad we had it anyway. It was at a park on a hot summer Saturday, but people brought their kids and a couple kegs of beer and some stayed all the way until the end. There were a lot of laughs and fond memories and even the chance to get to know people that we didn’t really know back then. There was also really good BBQ, thanks to a great guy named Chris Perez.

Here’s a short list of things I learned from the reunion experience. If you’re thinking about planning one or even trying to decide whether or not to attend, maybe they’ll help.

1. It’s OK that you look older – maturity is really attractive.

2. It’s amazing to see the adorable kids of people you knew when they were just kids themselves.

3. Cliques were dumb. And are even dumber now.

4. You never know if you’ll ever get the chance to see these people again. And they’ll probably bring back some memories of times that you haven’t thought about in years.

5. It never hurts to think back to when you were 18, and life was just getting started. What did you dream of? And what could you start doing tomorrow that would help make those dreams come true?

With many thanks to the class of ’97 members and their families who made it out to this summer’s very random event.

From the sports archives

I was reading an article today on the Daily Beast, about Wyoming’s best high school basketball team, Native American life, poverty, and growing up with ambition fueled by sports. You can find it here.

The story reminded me so vividly of one that I had written myself, about 12 years ago, while working as a sports reporter for a daily newspaper in Northern California.

It takes place in a little reservation town called Covelo, within Mendocino County’s Round Valley. Simply driving there – and back to Santa Rosa again – for this basketball game was an experience that will stick with me for life.

Like the writer of this Wyoming piece, the weather en route to the reporting was dramatic. It was a freezing cold January day, threatening to snow if any precipitation began to fall from the sky. As I returned from Round Valley to a deserted Highway 101 in the middle of the night, a work crew along the narrow mountain road had lit a giant bonfire, both by which to see to work and to keep themselves warm.

It was much later that I started reading CJ Box novels, but it now reminds me of one of his scenes, where the landscapes are often so still and black that you can disappear into them, and every headlight might draw attention.

Here is the story, called “Support on the Court.” I might have given it a different name. Basketball was this little community’s bright spot – and not just on a cold winter’s night.

(Originally published Feb. 5, 2002.)

COVELO – On a frigid winter night in Round Valley, the full moon illuminates snow-covered hillsides and barren farmland, but a brighter glow emanates from downtown.

The handful of businesses and shops that line Highway 162 as it runs through Covelo and onto the Round Valley Indian Reservation are deserted, but take a left on Howard Street and go down two blocks to the high school and things are jumping.

It’s an icy Tuesday night in January, but more than 200 people pack the round-roofed gymnasium, watching four basketball games back-to-back. They cram onto the four rows of bleachers across the north side of the gym. It’s the league home opener against Potter Valley for the varsity and junior varsity Mustangs, girls and boys, and their fans are out in force.

“This community loves these kids and it loves sports,” said school principal and counselor Renee East, who greets each of the high school students by name as they walk by her in the gym. “You’ll never find this gym more packed then on a night like this.”

Usually, it’s standing-room-only at Round Valley games, and people leave work early to get a good seat. The grandmother of one of the varsity boys arrives at 3 p.m. to find a place at the top of the bleachers, even though her grandson won’t start playing for nearly five hours, at 7:45.

The draw of basketball in Round Valley is not new. Many of the people in the stands played for the Mustangs when they were in school. But the teams have taken a different role in the community as of late, providing not just entertainment, but motivation for the athletes to explore a world beyond their tiny hometown.

The population of Round Valley, including the town of Covelo and the checkered reservation lands, is 1,057. The 2000 Census showed a nearly even split between those living on reservation property and the town of Covelo. About 85 percent of the school’s students are American Indians.

Varsity girls coach Kim Stillwell, who played basketball in Round Valley, said the sport gives kids a chance for recognition and realization. “Basketball helps them to realize the opportunities they have and helps them to go on to colleges and junior college,” said Stillwell, who graduated in 1981.

She’s the aunt of one of her players and spends early afternoon games watching over like a mother hawk, observing not just the athletes on the court but the flock of younger children who shoot around between halves.

American Indian scholar Greg Sarris, who grew up in Santa Rosa and now holds an endowed chair of English literature at Loyola Marymount University, said sports have become increasingly important to communities like Round Valley, for people of all ages.

“It’s one of the healthier ways men and women in Indian communities can distinguish themselves,” said Sarris, who serves as chairman of his tribe, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. “Playing sports and being focused is a shot in the arm as far as self-esteem and worth.”

Stillwell, who works at the Round Valley Inn when she’s not coaching, tries to get her team into as many tournaments as possible so the players can see new places and experience new things. Basketball and the Future Farmers of America, a program in which students raise animals and learn about agriculture, are the primary chances kids have to travel, Stillwell said.

A future after high school

Principal East, who played basketball at Santa Rosa Junior College, has seen a change in the mentality of the school’s student-athletes since she began teaching at Round Valley nine years ago. At that time, she said, only 15 to 20 percent pursued higher education after high school. On this year’s varsity girls team, all seven seniors are planning futures of school, work, travel and perhaps even more basketball.

The school has had success breaking the cycle of unemployment that often typifies reservation communities. Of the 2001 graduating class, everyone went on to a college, junior college or trade school program, joined the military, or got a job.

About 50 of the school’s 120 students are involved in athletics. More than 30 of those play basketball. Knowing they must keep their grade-point average at 2.0 or higher helps, East said, though four basketball players and a cheerleader were through for the season after semester grades came out.

“There’s a lot more focus this year as far as accountability for their grades. Most of them realize there’s not a lot of resources there and they’ve got to go out and get a job or education to pursue the resources that they want,” East said.

That mentality flourished on the girls varsity team. Five players returned from last year’s North Central League III championship team, an honor that has made their team one of the school’s premier athletic programs.

Senior forward Trista Freeman, a key player for the Mustangs who has been invited to play in a Las Vegas junior national game this spring, said fan support brings success. And fan support has grown stronger since last season’s league title.

“Half our crowd comes to our out-of-town games, too,” she said. That means the Round Valley fans usually outnumber the home-team fans.

In the blue and white home gym, though, which has a 12-foot high Mustang painted on the wall, the advantage is overwhelming. During the JV girls game, Round Valley is down by one point, 36-35, with 35 seconds remaining. The small Potter Valley crowd tries to start a rallying call of “de-fense,” but gets drowned out by the uncoordinated cacophony and bleacher banging coming from the Mustangs’ fans.

When the JV boys team runs out to warm up just minutes after the girls’ game has ended, it’s not to blasting rap music, but to the jarring screams of their fans. The younger the players, the louder the yells.

“It’s our boys playing,” said sophomore Patricia Cortez, who is watching the game from the unofficial student section in a corner of the gym. She and her friend Danielle Bettega come to every home game, even though they aren’t on the team. Being on the high school roster isn’t the only way to participate.

“Everyone here plays basketball, some just aren’t on the team,” Bettega explains. She has asthma that keeps her off the court.

Family atmosphere

Some fans don’t have children or grandchildren on the court, but an assortment of relatives they keep up with. Iian Hoaglen has four cousins on the girls varsity team and a niece who’s a Round Valley cheerleader. He and fellow retiree Hank Gonzales arrive at around 3:15 to see the games, bringing padded pillows to make the bleachers more comfortable.

“It’s the only team we’ve got here,” Hoaglen noted. He’ll go on the road for some games to cheer his cousins — leading scorer Liz Oliver, Freeman, Teresa Bettega and Monica Whipple.

Fans and the athletes speak of the basketball teams as ambassadors of sorts, spreading the word that Round Valley’s reputation as a place where kids run wild is not accurate.

The locals prefer to believe that incidents such as cars being egged and tires slashed are due to boredom, for which basketball is the primary antidote.

“It might be a nice place for older people to retire and stuff, but it’s not a town for young kids,” said Misty Watts, a senior on the varsity team.

Kept in line by basketball

East says that’s not a problem Covelo faces alone. “You’re going to have problems no matter where you go in this world,” she said. “There are aunts, uncles, foster parents and grandparents here. Native or non-native, it makes no difference. These families are supporting these kids.”

Freeman admits she has been kept in line by the sport. “If I wasn’t playing basketball, I’d probably be messing up,” says Freeman, who may attend Mendocino College after high school. “Playing basketball made me want to go to school, keep my grades up, and gave me something to look up to.”

Ken and Connie Watts have seen basketball give their daughter Misty a jolt of ambition. She’s planning to attend Butte Junior College in Chico next year.

If she wasn’t playing basketball, Watts probably would be home watching TV, she said.

“All the people on the basketball teams have a good attitude,” said Watts, whose father played basketball at Round Valley. She’s sitting in the bleachers before the girls game, visiting with friends and cheering on the JV team.

“We’re trying to rebuild our rep to be good.”