This past Friday the Swiss Family Shea and friends took off for our Hidden Island Redoubt. Evidently we left just in time and avoided some kind of controversy in St. Blog’s. Good. I much prefer how I spent my weekend to the burnt embers of rancor that washed up in my mailbox when I returned. My work there is done and I didn’t even have to do it!
Anyway, back to important stuff. I haven’t had a full vacation vacation in years. Can’t afford it. Taking two weeks off is a mighty huge bite out of writing time and we live on a financial knife edge. So instead we take mini-vacations now and then. Four days is usually max. And typically those four days happen on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends and around Christmas (and I usually take Good Friday off, though that’s not very vacationy).
What we do is head for an Undisclosed Location in the gorgeous San Juan Islands. The San Juans are located in a rain shadow caused by the Olympic Mountains wringing out the clouds and creating the Hoh Rain Forest on the side facing the Pacific. By the time the weather reaches our campsite it’s dry, clear and lovely more often than not (though we have gotten soaked on occasion).
First phase: drive up to Anacortes and get in the long ferry line at the dock on Fidalgo Island. (“By the way, Mark,” you may be asking, “what’s with all the Spanish names? I thought everything in Washington is Anglo or Indian names!” Ah! That is where you are wrong, Gentle Reader! In addition to the English-but-not-very-Anglo-named George Vancouver, for whom neither Victoria, BC nor Seattle are named, Puget Sound was explored by the somewhat-embarrassingly-named Juan de Fuca (for whom the Strait by which you enter the Sound is named) and the northern part of the Sound is speckled with Spanish names (San Juan, Lopez, Rosario). Clearly a failure to secure our borders. Doubtless al-Quaida explored here too, which could account for the explosion of Mt. St. Helens.)
Anyway, after packing the car to the rafters with stuff and youthly types (a defenseless Jan and I as the only adults managing 16 kids ranging from early 20s down to 8 years or so) you go to Fidalgo Island Ferry dock and purchase a ticket for Undisclosed Location Island and get in line with the folks with dreadlocks, mandolins, Obama stickers, old duffers with dogs, young lovers, guys in kilts, kite fliers, beachcombers, earthy crunchy people, young families with kids, aerobie tossers, quiet book lovers, flocks of children, and the whole gang of folk who love the Islands as much as you do. The trick, of course, is to realize that waiting in the ferry line is part of the vacation, not a delay in starting it. Jan being the military planner of supplies and materiel that she is, there is plenty of food for the starving metabolisms of the youthly types, who feed on bagels and hard boiled eggs and various drinks before vanishing to explore the beach since the ferry will be along in an hour or two. On other trips the adult to kid ratio is much higher since we generally have about 40 friends along who have booked their own site at [MESSAGE REDACTED] campgrounds. But this time it’s Jan and I hanging out and relaxing with each other.
I tell the kids to stick together (they are good about including the young’uns) and go get a walk on pass for two of the Teen Girl Squad (my niece and her pal). Then they catch up with other girls. I leave them to go back to the van and resume A Canticle for Leibowitz, providentially provided for me from the overflowing library of Scott Hahn after Peter Kreeft insisted my life was a failure till I had read it). It’s very good.
Eventually the boat shows up and it’s time to load. Everybody gets in but the youngest has a sliver in his finger and goes to Jan in the other car to get it taken out. Time is pressing and the cars start moving, so we have to move too. I start rolling forward slowly and here comes little Neal, running down the sidewalk at top speed, trying to catch the car. Iwonder if he thought we were just going to leave him on Fidalgo? We stop the car for a moment and he piles in, out of breath. On to [MESSAGE REDACTED] Island!
The ferry ride is another profound pleasure. Some people are, I assume, as sick of ferries as they are of air travel. It never loses its glory for me. The salt air is like a tonic and I take great gulps of it and walk around on the upper deck, watching the gulls play in the updrafts and the great wake of the ship wrinkle the deep blue-green surface that glitters under the pure blue sky in late August. Incredibly, most of the human race is not here and is wasting its time being someplace else. Who can fathom the mind of such people? The air is cool, but not cold and as I get to the stern, the stink of the diesel from the smokestacks motivates me to get back up to the bow.
Finally, I decide to pop inside and check on the Youthly Rabble. They are, as such Rabble tend to be, all hanging around together, lolling in the sun or cracking wise or munching something. 45 minutes later, we see our dock in the distance and get back down to the car deck. I am driving The Behemoth, my sister-in-law’s ginormo van built to hold Youthly Rabbles. We drive up the dock and there is scattered cheering as the wheels touch Isla Firma for the first time.
Then it’s on to camp. Unpacking takes a half hour or so, what with the manyhandslightwork principle and all. We make a concerted effort to get beds and kitchen set up now, while it’s daylight and then we can all start Project Goof Off.
As to the weekend itself, the only thing we *needed* to do, schedule-wise, was make it to Mass (a lovely little white clapboard Church with a delightful SOLT priest who I instantly took a liking to). The folks there have gotten used to us traipsing in on those two weekends and filling the place to bursting. Since the parish is served by a priest who island hops, the Sunday Mass is, oddly but delightfully, on Saturday morning at 10:30. It’s a small community and everybody knows everybody. They make you feel welcome instantly. Wonderful folk.
After that there is the Roll Down the Hill for the kids–and for sprightly adults. Then we take the Group Shot and it’s off to… somewhere. Some years we have taken the Young Men out swim out to The Rock, thereby proving their awesome manliness in the freezing waters of the Sound. Sometimes it’s the cliff overlooking the sea lions and some tide pool perusing. Sometimes it’s off to the Village for lunch with The Prisoner (just kidding!). This time it was off to the Village with me and the Youthly Rabble while Jan went back to camp. Once there I mosied around while the YR went to the Farmer’s Market. When we met up, I persuaded the oldest kid to drive the mob back to camp (four miles away on the other side of the Island) while I walked home. They eagerly agreed. I mosied over to the Bakery (a cherished location for bicyclists to refuel) and splurged on a couple of chocolate chip cookies and three bottles of milk (“The Christian Aphrodisiac” said an atheist wag I once knew in college).
The genius of my plan was that I, Type II Diabetes Dude, then burned off all that glucose in the ensuing walk back to camp across the Island Paradise, thereby having my cookie and eating it.
It was a lovely walk, bright and sunny with great fields stretching off to dark evergreen forests on the hills. The traffic is minimal on the Island and the drivers are all friendly and well-known for the [NAME REDACTED] Island Wave. I said the Rosary as I stumped along and when I got about a mile from the Village, the kids went zooming past in the Behemoth, with Son Peter gleefully shouting “LOSER!” as they sped past (an old family joke). I smiled at them and waved and they disappeared. I walked on another quarter mile or so, sweating profusely in the sun and beginning to dream wistfully of the water fountain three miles away when suddenly there appeared a bright Chariot of Hope! It was my nephew and his buddy coming from camp in their car. They stopped to chat and I asked if they had any water. They produced a gallon of it with a flourish and bade me drink my fill. I think I polished off about half a gallon. One of the most delicious drinks of water in my life.
They moved on to go explore a nearby bay and I continued my joyful walk. Actually, it was a Luminous Walk since it was Saturday and I was saying the Rosary. Got to the Institution of the Eucharist and started thinking about Thanksgiving as the fundamental duty of any rational creature. Before all else, there is the duty to say “Thanks!” for the ridiculous and unthinkable generosity of a God who just… *gave* us all this stuff: our lives, this island, our friends, that carpenter ant flapping clumsily past, those big dumb improbable cattle over there, this breath of air, every single thing I can see or imagine or taste or hear–the whole riot is a gift! So Jesus, even on the eve of his awful death, give thanks! And it’s that thanks that somehow holds the world together, keeps it from centrifuging to pieces. It’s not just a thanks for sunny days and easy times. It’s a thanks that is spoken when you’ve just watched your former friend walk out the door with his back to you to sell you to people who mean to beat you nearly to death and then spike you up on a cross to finish the job. I can’t do that without boocoo grace.
I stump along and sing in my heart with gratitude for this place meanwhile. Finally I reach the long road to the campsite and start up. Lovely fields full of produce stretch away south and in a separate enclosure, there are sheep and the smell of lanoline wafts across the field. I finally make the shade of the forest that fills the park. Once again the breeze is cool and full of marine scent. By the time I make camp I’m ready for a rest and another long pull of water. Ahh….
Aside from Mass, there are, of course, other things you *need* to do in order for the Island Experience to be complete. You *must* have S’mores of course. And therefore you *must* have a fire. But these are soul necessities, not physical ones. Sometimes there are songs and poems (I’m fond of “Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors and Perished Miserably”) and there are lots of other things that people pull out of the treasury of hidden talents). There is also the soul need for a walk on the beach.
I took the little guys down there late in the afternoon. They walked their bikes down while I regaled them about Chlorophyll and how important it is. Uncles have an obligation to slip science education into what promised to be a school-free experience. After we got down to the Spit they ran off and rode their bikes around while I flooped on the ground and read my book. The sun was westering but still warm and it felt good. The breeze is constant there and reminds you of Heaven. Eventually, the kids came back and we stumped back to camp for the Beth Burgers (made by one of my nieces). Tasty goodness.
As night fell, Jan and I strolled out into the dark to take in the Oldest and Biggest Show on Earth: the Universe! Glorious elven stars splashed across the sky like fine-powdered pearl and diamonds. What can you say about it? Wait! I know! “Thanks!” None of it needed to be here at all. The whole thing is an absurdly lavish gift. And all the repayment in the world we can ever give is “Thanks” (plus our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength). But “thanks” is the place to start. Candlelight in the heart replying to the fires of a trillion trillion trillion suns and saying, “I can do something you can’t: I can choose to praise God and thank him for you and me.”
Eventually, we made it back to camp. Everybody had gone down to the beach and the little guys had sensibly put themselves to bed. Jan and I sat by the fire for a time and looked at the stars some more. Did you know that the light we see from Deneb (top of the Northern Cross and home of the Denebian Slime Devil according to the Klingon in the barfight in “The Trouble with Tribbles”) started on its way when David was king in Jerusalem? Amazing. We lay there in our comfy lean-back-and-look-at-the-stars chairs holding hands in silence, this woman I’ve loved for 30 years and who has loved me back, God knows why. What do you say to such a gift?
Oh yeah. “Thanks!” Such a weak return to such an immense gift. But it’s what I have.
Eventually, we realized we were drifting off, so we stood by the fire warming ourselves a bit and looking at the embers. Jan says, “I don’t think there is any jewel in the world that can come close to matching the beauty of a glowing ember.” She’s right of course. And it’s jewel a million beggars can see without paying a cent.
We finally headed off to bed somewhere around 10 (the body tends to obey the rhythms of light and dark when you get away from electricity) and I was asleep when my head hit the pillow.
Next morning was another beautiful one. Light on 10 million leaves. One little frog skrrrrrritching somewhere in the underbrush. Birdsong everywhere. Like waking up in heaven. I decided to take a morning constitutional and headed around the loop and then out of camp. Another cool bright morning. I vaguely decided to head for some blackberries out on the long road out of camp. The light–morning light is not like other light–poured over me as I cleared the trees. There was a thin mist over the fields and a certain slant of the light and the breeze and the coolness all sang together in a chord that suddenly made me think of the playground at Fairmount Elementary School when I was in kindergarten. Amazing how your heart can leap five decades like that, a vault as great as from Deneb to earth in some ways.
The blackberries turned out to be either imaginary or picked clean, so I continued moseying on down to the end of the road, surrounded by a flock of cowbirds with their bright golden eyes like sequins. At the end of the road, I thought, “I wonder what happens if I go right instead of left. I’ve never done that.” This seemed sufficient reason to attempt the deed, so I headed right and was soon rewarded with cows. They were plodding past, with calves bawling for mother’s milk and Mama Moo ignoring the bawling till she got to her preferred grazing spot. We considered each other for some time, with me evidently being less interesting since Mama Moo left off pondering me and continued on her way well before I left off pondering her.
I continued walking, then made a left, then eventually another left and one thing led to another till I found I had walked another five miles or so. I met a few people on the road. A lady picking berries and, eventually, a powerline crew that finished their work and drove off before I reached them. Finally a guy came out of a farm house and ambled down to the road to see if he could tell what the problem was with the electricity. We chatted briefly. He was a nice man and was very strangely proportioned, with a noticeably long neck. He told me he was raised on the Island and that he used to run the route I’d just walked. That’s how I found out it was five-ish miles.
I got back to camp and was ready to crash after breakfast. So, this being vacation and all, that’s exactly what I did!
A couple of hours later Jan woke me and said it was time to take the Rabble to a special hidden beach we know about. So off we went, driving around and getting lost till eventually we figured out where we were going. The little kids got to swim in the freezing water and the big ones climbed around on the rocks. I read my book and dozed. Not much else. Finally we headed back for chili and another fine evening for stargazing before hitting the hay and exercising my charism of sleep, which I always use for good and not for evil.
Next day, it was time to leave and we packed it in with relatively little effort thanks to hard effort on everybody’s part. Paradox. Whoa.
We got down to the ferry line about 9:30 for the 10:45. Bad news: We were 118-119 in line for the boat. Good news: the boat held 146 cars. So we got back at a decent hour in the afternoon and had time to rest up from our rest. We bade farewell to the dispersing Rabble and Jan and I looked at each other with that fine sense of both having accomplished something and of having accomplished as little as possible.
For that, thanks as well.