For the past 30 years, every Memorial Day has found the Shea family here
at our Hidden Island Redoubt in the San Juans, giving ourselves up to pure jollification for Memorial Day weekend.
Except this year and–maybe–next year, due to the Pandemic.
I have no hard feelings about it. It’s a small sacrifice for not watching those I love and care about–or perhaps a total stranger somebody else loves and cares about, die in anguish as they drown in their own lungs.
It’s a puny sacrifice, really. Barely a sacrifice at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the place. It’s part of my breath and bone now. None of our kids can remember a time when we did not go there, which is something I am grateful to God for being able to give them as a childhood memory locked away in their hearts.
It’s a simple thing in many ways. You load up the car with food for a few days, get on the ferry out to the San Juans (having parked in line long enough to share a simple meal and go poke about on the beach and smell the wild roses). On the ferry, there are jigsaws to do, there’s salt air to smell, strangers to engage in easy conversation. Everybody is looser, less guarded. We’re all on Island time and we have nothing to protect. We give ourselves up to wonder at the beauty of the world. You point out old sights we all seen before because they are old friends and who isn’t glad to see and old friend?
The trip is about 45 minutes and as we head down to our cars and pile in, the anticipation builds as you see the Lopez Ferry dock swing into view and feel the boat slow as the mighty engines create a backwash to slow her down. Then they flag you off the boat and all the kids cheer as we drive up the dock and feel the wheels hit isla firma for the first time.
The drive to the campsite is not long. We pass the Fire Danger sign on the road (it would be very low this damp weekend) and take the country roads on this beautifully rural island to Spencer Spit. There we gather with some 40 friends and family who have all gotten their own sites in addition to our group site with an Adirondack. There is a bustle of hauling stuff–bedding, food, kitchen things, chairs, various paraphernalia for staying warm, cool, unburnt, bug-free, and doing critter watching, as well as beachy things, and clam-diggy things, etc.
And then it’s just… hanging out. Walks, books on the beach, visiting the local wildlife, sitting by fires, star-gazing, aurora-gazing, sunshine through trees, frisbees, beachcombing, prayer walks, singing, poems, a playground where the kids go hang out together. Shea McMuffins for breakfast. Hamburglers in the evening. My friend Brian makes the greatest clam chowder in history on Saturday night. He also makes a great nettle soup from the nettles that grow on site.
Our sole scheduled appointment the entire weekend (apart from the ferries) is Mass. This is, due to the schedule of the priest who serves all the San Juans, on Saturday morning at 10:30, which serves as our Sunday obligation (though “obligation” is a poor word to describe the pleasure of it). He has to fly to the various parishes on various islands and this is when he gets to Lopez. They used to have Mass at 2 in the afternoon on Sunday, when we were all grubby and tired. You would sit in a pool of warm May sunshine with a warm child dozing against you and struggle unsuccessfully to stay awake. I like Saturday mornings because you are wide awake, still pretty clean, and can participate with your full wits. We pack our 40 bodies into a little white clapboard church designed for a much smaller group, but the locals are gracious and lovely and Mass is always a joy.
After Mass, we typically get our picture tooken by sundry fellow campers outside the church, after which kids (and some adults) roll down the ample grass-covered hill. It’s a tradition, what can I say?
Then we often head for the Farmer’s Market and/or the Dump. The Dump has a nifty Exchange where people give away stuff they don’t want and take stuff they do. It’s all free. The Farmer’s Market is where the locals sell their wares and crafts of various sorts. A lovely place to hold your sweetie’s hand and amble. Once upon a time, I would typically give Pete and Sean some $$$ so they could wander over to the Fudge Shop or the Holly B Bakery with their friends and buy them a treat, but these days they have their own income sources and don’t need me. I miss them being little.
I will often walk home from Fisherman Village. It’s a four mile walk across the island to our campsite, which is just about perfect for me. Cars pass me now and then on the road, and drivers give the customary Lopez Wave. Mostly though, it’s just me and the trees and fields and cattle and sheep and birds–including birds of prey like eagles and carrion fowl like turkey vultures (I don’t think they are waiting my death, but they probably wouldn’t object to a juicy treat like me either).
Sometimes I will read as a I walk. Other times, I say a rosary. Or I noodle something I’m pondering. By the time I get home to the camp, I’m good and tired, and often thirsty.
There are lots of different places to go on the island, with evocative names like Iceberg Point, Shark Reef, and Watmough Bay (featuring Skull Island offshore). And you can grab an inter-island ferry and go bike or expl0re other islands. I’ve gone biking out to Lime Kiln Park to see orcas while I ate lunch on the bluff above the Sound. I’ve biked out to visit the Benedictine nuns and have a picnic while the kids helped feed the geese. And I’ve seen the English camp on San Juan and been around Orcas Island.
It’s all over sooner than you’d believe. On Monday morning, we are re-packing the car in order to get in the ferry line and linger the last few loving hours. Some people cook their breakfast on gas stoves while they wait. Others go out on the rock overlooking the dock. Some just nap in their car. The line is hundreds of cars long, but the boats can hold and astonishing number of cars.
Then it’s the long drive home, the emptying of the car and the collapse in exhaustion on the couch or chair, followed by a sweet night’s sleep in your own bed.
We can’t do that this year. But we can savor it in our memory any time. And for that I am grateful.
I am grateful as well for those who have given up their lives in the service of this country. And I am equally grateful to those who are right now risking their lives in health care and other essential services all over the country–another form of service. If the paltry loss of a little vacation time will help lighten the load they bear and keep even one person safe, that’s worth it to me. Bravo to heroes living and dead, and may God see us through this Pandemic till that time we can all see one another and embrace in love!
If you have a treasured memory of camping or other times with loved ones, please share it in the comboxes below. It feeds people’s hearts.