Salmon BBQ proposal launches Mendocino magic for Woodland newlyweds.
Aaron Swinford’s favorite place on earth is Fort Bragg.
He wanted Alondra Llamas to love it just as much.
“I lived in Fort Bragg for about three years. It’s the most beautiful place on earth to me. I connected to nature and to the ocean there. I found myself there. She was actually getting a little tired of hearing how much I love Fort Bragg and the Mendocino Coast,” Swinford said.
The Tony’s Fine Foods route driver from Woodland enlisted the help of Harvest Market manager Tim Bosma and other local friends to help give Llamas an unforgettable Fort Bragg memory at the World’s Largest Salmon Barbecue in July.
But even he wasn’t ready for how much of a remembrance his wedding proposal would turn out to be- or that a thrilling string of magical experiences would last until mid-October.
The annual July 4 weekend barbecue is one of Swinford’s favorite events, having helped serve coffee there for the Knights of Columbus in the past. The event did impress Llamas.
“I told her thousands of people come but you know you are not really prepared until you get there.” His parents and many relatives came to the event, knowing he was about to propose.
Tony’s bought a room for two nights, with just a little weekend work to do. When the couple went through the line, Llamas fell into his trap, buying a ticket for a raffle of John Hewitt’s painting “Rivals,” depicting two male salmon competing for a female, subtitled ‘horny fish.”
That was both a surprise and smile for the couple. And that is when his grand plan started to come unraveled. Bosma announced Llamas as raffle winner, reading off a non-existent ticket. But they couldn’t hear the stage and the announcement. Swinford waited and waited. Bosma announced and announced. Swinford’s dad paced with the camera.
“There were just so many people and it was so noisy…Swinford said. Finally Swinford started toward the stage and saw Bosma talking nervously and fiddling with his glasses.
“When he saw me, he got the biggest look of relief on his face,
Swinford said. Llamas was still bemused. She had written Aaron’s name on the ticket. And how could the drawing have happened so fast?
The impatient crowd had been waiting for the couple and a little chaos settled in. She figured out what happened even before someone shouted “get down on your knee!”
He did and she was a bit overwhelmed and by more that the big question.
“I said ‘honey, you have to say something,’”
Getting the ring on her finger was tricky.
“Yes, Yes, get up, get up,” she said, he recalled.
In the chaos, dad missed the moment with the camera. He is still looking for a photographer named Jim Rickles who captured the entire event.
“It was so awesome, the event was great and people all day were congratulating us, telling us about their proposal story from 50 years ago. It went on and on and was so fun for us. I felt great, having succeeded for creating that special memory.”
But the special Coast memories were just getting started.
Mendocino Eco Artists conducts the raffle for the Salmon Restoration Association at the annual barbecue as one of their fundraising efforts for environmental causes.
Normally MEA ends the raffle after displaying the painting at summer shows. This year, due to logistical issues, the extra summer raffle sales fizzled.
“In past summers we had the drawing at an exhibit party,” said Cynthia Crocker Scott, an MEA artist and Salmon Restoration Association Board member. This year the party at Glendeven was cancelled because too much was going on at the same time and we feared a low turn out. So we just decided to do it on Second Saturday,” Scott said.
That was the second Saturday of October, which was just when Alondra Llamas was becoming Alondra Swinford.
“We had a fairly big wedding, with all the family there. She did a great job of planning the entire thing,” Swinford said.
But the honeymoon was still up in the air.
“We had been planning to drive down to Monterey, but nothing was really set up,” Swinford said.
When Hewitt reached in the jar, the raffle ticket he pulled out had Swinford’s name on it. The ruse Bosma had pulled turned out to be true. The real ticket with Aaron’s name on it was the winner. Swinford thought it might even be another joke, but Suzi Long, whose gallery the painting was hanging in wasn’t kidding.
“I was so amazed. We said this just has to be for a reason. We decided to just go with it, drive to Mendocino and be spontaneous with the honeymoon.”
They hadn’t thought about the painting but it seemed an ideal wedding present.
“I was the lucky winner and in more ways than one,” he said.
Aaron Swinford said everything was better than perfect on the honeymoon.
“We never saw a cloud in the sky the whole time,” he said.
Fort Bragg was having a record October “heat wave” at the time.
“Everything we wished for happened, it was so great,” he said.
They met a diver at a deli in Mendocino. She told them about a special spot to the south.
When we got there, the trail was closed for restoration. We stopped above and found our own magical spot. “The trees were creaking and it was like they were talking, it was really unusual. We both said we are just meant to be here,” he said.
The honeymoon continued in San Francisco and Monterey. The one wish Alondra had that didn’t come true was to see a whale, being the wrong time of year.
“When we were leaving on the last day, there was a whale toy and we both saw it at the same time,” Aaron Swinford said.
“That’s just how it went the whole time, we had such a great time.”
The painting turned out to be the first item on the walls in their new place, fitting neatly into her plan.
“Being a guy, I hadn’t given that much thought to what would go on the walls.”
The couple will be back next year for the barbecue where Aaron Swinford has many friends in the restaurant and grocery business from his route. He also wants to take Alondra to Paul Bunyan Days.
MEA raised $1263 for the Salmon Restoration Association in 2012, less than in past years, but more fun than ever.
Long, who had the painting in her water tower gallery in Mendocino, got a vicarious thrill
“They had the perfect room for it and they seemed to be the perfect match. It was wonderful to be part of it. It was one of those ‘only in Mendocino’ moments.”