Eleven miles off the coast of Southern California, Anacapa is one of eight Channel Islands. It is the only one whose name is not Spanish, but comes from a native Chumash word meaning “mirage.” The first Europeans arrived in 1542, led by Juan Cabrillo, and like so many seekers in that Age of Exploration, Cabrillo was dreaming of something else entirely—a mirage of his own. He did not set out to “discover” California or its Channel Islands; he was searching for a route to China, perhaps the mythical Strait of Aniàn, or the Northwest Passage. Leading his three ships north along the Pacific coast from present-day El Salvador (The Savior), he claimed and named everything he saw for the Spanish crown.
When choosing names for newly-encountered land features, a typical practice by many French, Spanish, and Portuguese explorers was to look up the saint whose day the Catholic church said it was, and give it that name. Thus we have the St. Lawrence River, San Juan, São Tomé, and so on. In the same fashion, British explorers gave us Christmas Island and Easter Island. (Canadians like to joke about John Cabot sailing in 1497 under the British flag to what would be the East Coast of Canada—seeking another mirage, a mythical island called Hy-Brazil. We figure that when Cabot sighted a certain weathered Rock, he must have smote his breastplate and bellowed theatrically, “What shall I call—this new-found land?”)
For thousands of years, the Chumash and their coastal neighbors the Tongva were part of a thriving, sophisticated culture. Hunters, gatherers, and artisans traded along the Pacific coast, out to the Channel Islands, and inland among the Mojave and Shoshone. After Cabrillo’s visit, they would live on unmolested for another 200 years, save for occasional visits by whalers and seal-hunters. They could not know it was only a “grace period”—before more explorers, missionaries, soldiers, and settlers began to arrive, and, one way or another, destroy them. By that time, all the placenames Cabrillo dreamed up were forgotten and later renamed, but the principle remained: the other Channel Islands are Santa Catalina, San Clemente, San Nicolas, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, and Santa Cruz. The last four make up Channel Islands National Park, along with Anacapa.
Compared to some spurious saint’s name, this explorer finds Anacapa to be more evocative and attractive—in the true sense of that word: magnetic. Just to contemplate the Chumash people, thousands of years ago, having a word for “mirage”—that mystical abstraction forges a deeper connection across time than knowing their word for water or fish. They had illusions and imaginings, too, as well as words for them, and were likely more like us than we might imagine.
However, despite the lure of its name, Anacapa was not the first of the Channel Islands I would visit, or even the first I heard of—each of them took shape on my mental horizon over a lifetime, indistinctly, like a mirage.
The first connection is a childhood memory of a song called “26 Miles (Santa Catalina),” a hit for the Four Preps in 1958, the summer before I turned six. In our suburban split-level in Southern Ontario, or in our family Buick, my father always had the radio on, and I heard that song many times that year. The chorus echoes readily in memory, with its lilting shuffle.
Twenty-six miles across the sea
Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me
Santa Catalina, the island of romance (romance, romance, romance)
The following clever verse would not have registered on a five-year-old’s consciousness, or sense of humor, the way it does now.
Twenty-six miles, so near yet far
I’d swim with just some water-wings and my guitar
I could leave the wings—but I’ll need the guitar
For romance (romance, romance, romance)
It is one of the first pop songs I remember—though I notice the year did offer some other enduring hits: “Tequila” by the Champs (go Peewee Herman!), “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers (the version by Bobby Darin and Petula Clark is lovely, too), “The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley (well, maybe that one hasn’t endured so well, but at least it’s weird!), “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” by the Teddy Bears (Phil Spector’s first hit, said to have been inspired by his father’s epitaph), and a couple of doowop classics, “At the Hop” and “Get a Job” (source of Sha Na Na’s name, a recent crossword clue reminded me—and I can never forget when Rush opened for Sha Na Na at a school in Baltimore on my twenty-second birthday, Sept. 12, 1974).
Such lists always remind me that I have indeed lived in what the Chinese call “interesting times.”
Friend Craiggie and I visited Santa Cruz Island in 2009 (“Under the Marine Layer,” in Far and Away), almost exactly five years before our next visit to the Channel Islands—when the above photograph was taken. Our vessel of exploration this time was the powerboat in the foreground (or foresea), owned by my longtime riding partner and director of Homeland Security, Michael. He has another name for it, but I call it the SS Obtuse. (After its master.) He aspires to be a yacht-dwelling private investigator, like one from a previous generation, Frank Sinatra in Tony Rome and Lady in Cement (great title!)—both films part of what is called a “late ’sixties noir revival.” Certainly Michael would like nothing more than to be part of a noir revival, to have his imaginary life portrayed by a brooding young actor with chiseled cheekbones, as a combination of Sam Spade and Jason Bourne—gumshoe and ninja.
A girl’s gotta dream, I guess.
Mirage, mirage . . .
This may seem like gratuitous autoporn, or a sly reference to espionage fantasies, but the Channel Islands are there, I promise—just the way I first saw them. After I moved to Southern California in 2000, whenever I rode my motorcycle or drove a car on the Pacific Coast Highway north of Malibu—the wildest, prettiest stretch in Southern California—I would see their distant shadows way out to the northwest. Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa, as I know them now.
Around that time Carrie and I lived in a townhouse in Santa Monica, and its roofdeck had a fantastic view to the west, out through the shoreline of fan palms to the Pacific’s distant horizon. On clear days, I liked to see the jagged spine of Catalina in sharp relief, rippling green against the sparkling blue sea and sky. Even more rarely, maybe four or five times a year, often in winter’s clearer skies, I spied a tiny dot north of Catalina. If I stretched out my arm toward it, it was the size of the tip of my thumb. It seemed to float above the ocean, like a pale mirage, and I wasn’t even sure it was real.
The vision fascinated me, and I had to know more about it, starting with finding out that it was indeed real—Santa Barbara Island, one square mile, the smallest of the Channel Islands, and almost forty miles offshore. In the way things or places become symbols and tug at you (or at least at me), I wanted to go there. Every time I looked at a map of the California coast, my eyes went to that dot in the blue part. On those rare super-clear days when I saw that thumb-tip so far out in the Pacific, a primitive, magnetic urge was triggered: “Want. Go there.”
Santa Barbara Island was open to the public, as part of the national park, but not easy to visit. At that time the National Park Service concessionaires only offered two boat trips a year, stretching over summer weekends, so getting to Santa Barbara Island would require long-range plans, and a well-organized camping expedition.
In April 2009, Greg Russell (Master of All Things Creative) hiked with me to the top of Sandstone Peak, the highest in the Santa Monica Mountains (though only around 3,000 feet). From there we looked west over the northern Channel Islands, and again they spoke of remoteness and mystery. And suddenly, science. (Natural science, mind you, not the dizzying theoretical stuff. But what a marvelous title: And Suddenly, Science.)
I had learned that despite its name, Sandstone Peak was an ancient volcano (entirely lacking in sandstone, strangely), and was part of a chain that continued out under the Pacific and formed those islands. My desire to get closer to them was becoming a tractor beam on my imagination, and finally grew strong enough to force the issue. Just a month later, Craiggie and I caught the Island Packers ferry from Ventura to Santa Cruz Island. The entire experience was the stuff of boyhood adventure, pausing along the way to watch a massive pod of dolphins perform an elaborate water ballet all around the motionless boat, seeing the forbidding shores of the islands materialize out of shifting curtains of mist and fog, then landing at Prisoners Harbor.
(I noted in “Under the Marine Layer” how the place names on Santa Cruz Island are right out of a Hardy Boys or Tintin adventure—Scorpion Ranch, Smugglers Cove, Chinese Cove, Black Point, Painted Cave, and Prisoners Harbor. That last name evokes a story, but its details are lost in the mirages of history. The bare bones are that during the Spanish era a number of convicts were marooned on the island, with water and provisions, and later they disappeared—either died off or rafted to the mainland, no one knows.)
Craiggie and I spent a few hours hiking (and lunching) in the island’s entrancing isolation (that word derives from the Latin insula, island), and decided we wanted to visit more of the Channel Islands. My map of California had suddenly become much bigger.
However, years went by when we pursued other adventures, though I still often thought of the Channel Islands—especially longing to visit little Santa Barbara Island, that occasional thumb-tip on the winter horizon. When our “Tony Rome” acquired the SS Obtuse last year, wheels started to turn in my head. I suggested that Craiggie and I charter Michael’s boat for a visit to famed Catalina (like Vegas, it’s always just Catalina, to insiders and hipsters, like all of us want to be), with a side expedition to Santa Barbara Island.
Our crossing was unusually rough, eight-to-ten-foot seas and a fierce wind tearing spindrift off the crests. Sheets of spray whipped high over us, lashing down across the deck and canvas top. All that kinetic energy was throwing the boat and its crew around some, of course, bucking and yawing, while the dinghy leaped and tossed in our churning wake. Later Michael said it was the heaviest weather he had experienced in at least a dozen crossings. We learned that just after we left the mainland harbor the Coast Guard had put up the red “small craft warning” flags. On the shortwave radio we heard a call to Vessel Assist (the nautical equivalent of the Auto Club) to come to the aid of a capsized sailboat. Michael and I had both done quite a lot of blue-water voyaging before, mainly under sail, him around the Hawaiian Islands and me in the Caribbean and New England, so we were used to a bit of weather, and weren’t unduly concerned. (Though we did sing a few choruses of the Gilligan’s Island theme song, including “The weather started getting rough/ The tiny ship was tossed/ If not for the courage of the fearless crew/ The Obtuse would be lost.”)
From when I first knew Craiggie as a teenager working at record stores in Southern Ontario, to forty years later in the music legals department at Fox Studios and living in South Pasadena, his life has sometimes spanned unbelievable tangents. He will start recounting some episode from when he was a barroom rocker, an actor in TV commercials, or a dirt-track racer, and I have to raise a hand and say, “Oh come on—you’re making that up!” However, his experiences had not included riding in a smallish boat in a rough sea, and he was feeling a little “unsettled.” With a nod toward Craiggie, Michael said to me, “You can always tell when they go quiet.” Craiggie sat still in a corner, silent and a little gray looking. We gave him the salty old advice about keeping his eyes on the horizon, and told stories about other people we’d sailed with being seasick, and about times when we had been afflicted with the mal-de-mer ourselves. (For me, just once on an overnight sail on the schooner Orianda in the stormy Atlantic between Nantucket and Newport. I was fine on deck, until I tried to go below and sleep. That didn’t work.)
When we finally motored into the lee of Catalina, and the waves calmed a little, I looked around at everybody and said, “At least nobody barfed.” Craggie raised his head with a grim face and held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, as if to say, “This close.”
Even in Avalon Harbor the wind was strong, driving hard against the boat’s sides, and Michael had an awful time trying to steer onto the mooring. The Harbor Patrol craft, like a small tugboat, took our stern line and helped guide us in, while I crouched in the bow to grab the upright pole on the mooring ball. The harbor master told us we were the only boat to come in from the mainland that day—in fact, all the ferries and tourboats into and out of Avalon were canceled, and even a massive cruise ship had changed course and anchored in Baja’s Ensenada instead. So it was some weather, all right.
We spent two nights ashore in a pleasant little hotel on the waterfront, enjoying the above view with our evening cocktails. I was pleased to discover that Catalina was more than I could have imagined—more and better. The port of Avalon was smaller than I had pictured—the entire island had just 4,000 permanent residents, mostly in Avalon—and that is always a nice surprise. I might say that Catalina’s closest analog in North America would be Key West, but that little island has 25,000 residents. Big difference. (But then, you can get to Key West by car.)
Approaching by sea, Avalon Bay had a quaint Mediterranean look, a curved shoreline of green dotted with scattered buildings in light colors rising in pleasantly irregular ranks. The northern point was a massive round structure called the Casino. (There was never any gambling there, but the name is said to come from the Italian word meaning “gathering place.”) The Avalon Casino, built in 1929, is a fantastic blend of Mission and Art Deco styles, and this observer admires both of those very much. One floor has the very first theater purpose-built for “talkies,” while above it is a vast circular dancehall that was famous in the big-band era—my father used to listen to radio broadcasts from the Avalon Casino in the 1940s, from our family dairy farm in Southern Ontario.
The narrow, picturesque streets in town were filled with electric golf carts of every description, parked and moving, but very few cars. Craiggie, Michael, and I visited some of the fine bars and restaurants, and especially enjoyed a perfect breakfast place called “The Original Jack’s Country Kitchen.” It truly was a scene from fifty years ago.
In the morning I took a hike up through the botanical gardens, wandering among many species endemic to the Channel Islands (one reason why they are called the Galápagos of North America, with at least 145 such unique plants and animals), as well as dry-climate plants from other parts of the world. Above the gardens, at the head of a chaparral canyon with a distant view of the ocean, stood a massive stone monument to William Wrigley Jr., of chewing gum fame. He bought a controlling interest in Catalina in 1919, and it was held in the Wrigley family until 1975, when ninety percent of its land was deeded to the Catalina Island Conservancy. The Wrigleys also owned the Chicago Cubs, who held their spring training in Avalon for over thirty seasons (a rare bit of sports trivia from Bubba).
The cruise ship that had avoided Catalina’s weather the previous day showed up that morning and anchored offshore. As the launches disgorged the ship’s passengers at the town dock, suddenly nearly 2,000 people were added to Avalon’s population. (A blessing for the locals, no doubt, but an intrusion on other visitors.) In the afternoon, the three of us escaped from all that by taking a Jeep tour inland, into the fenced-off Conservancy lands. Our driver and guide, Beth, steered us through the gates and into the backcountry, over rough tracks that truly needed high-clearance four-wheel-drive. Beth was about my age—a likewise-youthful sixtyish!—and had spent most of her life on Catalina. She told us many great stories about its history—and her own. Pointing to a tall communications tower on the island’s summit, she said, “After high-school graduation we climbed to the top of that. Probably a dumb thing to do.” (Suiting the modern response, “Ya think?”)
Almost immediately, we had what I would later tell Beth was my favorite moment, spotting one of the rare island foxes sitting by a roadside bench. It was tiny, the size of a housecat, evolved that way over tens of thousands of years into a species unique to the six larger Channel Islands—each of which has a separate sub-species (again, the Galápagos comparison applies). Beth pointed out its radio collar, and suggested that someone had probably been feeding it around there. The island foxes have only barely survived into this century, with great efforts from natural scientists and the park service. Whether or not one cares about a remnant population of dwarfish canines, their story is one of many complex environmental histories that unfolded on those islands—and perhaps it is emblematic of an entire rearguard struggle at which some might cheer, and others might jeer.
From the era of Spanish settlement, the vast ranchos, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and well into modern American times, the islands were overrun and devastated by cattle, sheep, and pigs. Other human-introduced invaders were rabbits, rats, and even housecats, plus many species of plants—range grasses for the animals, and groundcover to fight the erosion caused by overgrazing. Right there we see one vicious spiral—overgrazing, erosion, invasive species—and by the twentieth century, there were several such destructive patterns attacking the islands’ natural diversity.
The foxes’ troubles began with a bug-killer—DDT, a pesticide used widely in the 1960s until scientists finally proved (in a preview of modern times, against the resistance of lawmakers and corporations with vested interests) that the poison made its way through the food chain and weakened the eggshells of larger birds. Many birds of prey were affected, especially those who fed on fish, threatening the swift annihilation of ospreys, pelicans, hawks, and bald eagles. Unlike climate change, this was not gradual, but immediate—numbers were plunging radically every year. With so much agriculture in California, and flood, waste, and irrigation water running straight into the Pacific, the bald eagles that had long nested on the Channel Islands fed on fish contaminated by the runoff, and their nests began to fail. Within just a few years, the bald eagles disappeared from the islands, and larger golden eagles moved in from the onshore mountains. They didn’t eat fish, but one of their favorite foods was . . . foxes.
To remedy that imbalance, apart from banning DDT, it was necessary to reintroduce bald eagles to the islands, remove the golden eagles to the mainland, their “natural” habitat, and build the dwindling fox populations by captive breeding. Amazingly, all that was done, and now the foxes have a healthy population on each of their six island homes. One small miracle—or one little victory—in these times.
Another mirage that surrounds these islands—as it does anywhere on earth, really—is human history. Not just the obvious haziness of times and locales beyond one’s experience, but something that only those who take the trouble to learn about a place can even sense—an aura of ghosts. When you have read about a certain setting where things happened, then visit it, finally you lay eyes upon a natural stage where human dramas have played out. “Long ago and far away” is an immediate trigger for the “story impulse” in many of us, not unlike “once upon a time,” but with a sense of place as well.
For example, as a boy I was intrigued by the exotic settings in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books—picturing, say, Switzerland, Hong Kong, or Jamaica with fascination and yearning. Later in life, when I had actually visited those places, I noticed that reading about them in more modern thrillers, like the Jason Bourne books (say, those JB initials cannot be a coincidence), I could picture the backgrounds too clearly, and they had lost their mystery—their romance.
And there we stumble across another mirage—imagination. Many travelers have carried their own illusions to some storied destination and felt betrayed, by a place that proved to be too “real” to live up to their own fantasies. One example for me, coincidentally, is not far from the Channel Islands, over on the coastal mainland of Southern California—the Mission of San Juan Capistrano. As a young bird-lover I read about the swallows returning there every year, and always remembered a watercolor my great-grandfather had painted of that mission in the early twentieth century, with the swallows circling its bell-tower. When I finally visited Capistrano in the late ’80s, I found a tourist attraction of over-manicured ruins and a brand-new “replica” basilica built by the Catholic Church, jammed between strip malls and subdivisions. I wished I had never gone there.
Other places, like London, Paris, or Venice, to give high-profile examples from this traveler’s experience, often grew beyond the fantasy into something richer and deeper—a part of my own life.
Yet in that life, a far greater number of places have just exploded into my consciousness. Many times I have stood in some amazing setting and had thoughts similar to “A week ago I had never even heard of this place!” The massively surreal mud mosque in Djenné, Mali, the medieval setpiece of Rothenburg in Bavaria, or Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah were like that—first unknown, then unforgettable.
Or first unknown—then unbelievable!
It is fitting that the word mirage comes from the Latin mirare: “1) be amazed/ surprised/ bewildered at, 2) look in wonder/ awe/ admiration at.”
From that root we also get “admire” and “mirror” (humorous if you look again at those definitions—nailing two common human polarities in our reactions to mirrors: horror and delight).
Oxford’s definition of the figurative sense of mirage is telling, too: “Something that appears real or possible but is not in fact so.”
Then there are sights that are real, but don’t appear possible—like this bison, one of the 150 that live on Catalina. We saw a good percentage of them on our tour, and like so many stories that drift to us through the fog of even the recent past, their history is hazy. One version tells that fourteen bison were brought to the island in 1924 for a silent film of a Zane Grey story called The Vanishing American. (From 1925 until his death in 1939, Zane Grey had an adobe house in Avalon. It still survives, sometimes as a hotel. And just by the way, what a story Zane Grey is!) However, a Catalina journalist reported that the film The Vanishing American “does not contain any bison whatsoever and shows no terrain that even remotely resembles Catalina.”
In any case, the herd multiplied to as many as 600 big animals, chewing up the flora and bulldozing the terrain. The Conservancy determined that the island could properly sustain one quarter of that number, and at first the surplus animals were auctioned off on the mainland, or sent to an Oglala reservation in South Dakota. Beth told us that nowadays their numbers are kept down by—believe it or not—birth control! Before mating season, rangers shoot exploding vials of contraceptives into the females. I joked to Beth, “Has anyone told the pope about this? Or the Republicans?”
She laughed politely, and I added, “’Cause they’d defund it for sure.”
After three hours of bouncing around the island’s interior, we were simply amazed at the monumental splendor of the landscapes and seascapes. I reflected that it was nice to feel that after hearing of Catalina since I was a boy, over fifty years ago, it had joined my lifelist of Good Places.
Unfortunately, Craiggie’s sufferings continued. After dinner that night he had a nasty attack of food poisoning (one bad piece of fish, he guessed), leaving him intestinally drained and sleepless. When I called on him in the morning, Craiggie stood at the door in his robe, his usual amiable features haggard and miserable. He groaned and shook his head as he told me about it, and said he was thinking about taking the ferry back to the mainland. I couldn’t stand the thought of him missing the rest of the trip—the best part was to come, I was sure!—and I scrambled to give him one last chance, even exert a little peer pressure, if necessary. I said, “Take an hour—maybe pull yourself together and go downstairs for a little tea and oatmeal. We’ll go eat at Jack’s, then pick up some provisions, dinghy back to the boat and head for the fuel dock. If you’re feeling any better, you can meet us there.”
Craiggie showed up as Michael and I were filling the diesel tanks, but he was still not feeling (or looking) much better. Fortunately the wind and waves had calmed, and the sun was bright as we motored around the island’s western point and cruised its shore. Soon after Catalina passed astern, I spotted the rounded hump on the horizon—my desire for so long, Santa Barbara Island. It looked barren, like most of the islands, which have no native trees save for stands of endemic Torrey pines and live-oaks on the larger ones, and a few introduced cottonwoods and eucalyptus trees planted around the former ranch buildings.
We anchored in Landing Cove just as one of the park service boats was leaving the small dock that clung to the shore like a barnacle. Through my binoculars I saw two tiny figures humping loads on their backs high up to the buildings atop the cliffs. Later I learned they were two young biologists there to study the nesting seabirds. The dock looked forbidding, and there didn’t seem to be any way for me to get ashore.
Once the anchor was down, Craiggie took to a bunk, and Michael ferried me in the dinghy. We motored along the shore looking for another landing place, and all the while he had to try to steer clear of the kelp beds. The long, ropy strands would tangle around the propeller until it cut through (“making salad,” Michael called it, leaving a wake of chewed-up greenery), or we had to stop and reverse the prop, or even cut away the sinewy stems with a knife. The actual shoreline was all sharp rocks—not friendly to an inflatable rubber boat—and we circled back around for a closer look at the dock. A twisted metal ladder appeared between two of the upright pilings, and when Michael drove the dinghy straight between them, I could just reach a crossbar and haul myself up. Later I learned that a storm had battered the dock’s entire structure, almost destroying the landing ladder, and at that time it was closed to visitors. The arriving naturalists had removed the sign and set it aside while they hauled their gear ashore.
Good thing for me, because that sign might have discouraged me—and thus caused me to miss a wonderful experience ashore. The switchback trail led steeply upward through waist-high shrubs of giant coreopsis, or tree sunflower—another species endemic to each island, and spectacular when in bloom. They look the opposite of “giant,” more like a shrunken tree—they have been compared to a Dr. Seuss character, with strange twisted limbs and tufts of beard. In a unique adaptation to the islands’ rainfall patterns, coreopsis are called “summer deciduous,” losing their leaves during the dry summers rather than in fall or winter. Now that I have gotten to “know” the look of coreopsis shrubs, I notice them along the Pacific Coast Highway, in the Santa Monica Mountains. It is thought they evolved on the islands, then spread to the mainland—again, the reverse of usual natural history.
At the top of the steps was a small unmanned visitor center, where I was pleasantly surprised to collect a passport stamp for my journal. Another small building with a row of four doors appeared to be simple accommodations for visiting park personnel and scientists, and a screened nursery held specimens of the many native plants they were trying to reintroduce to each island.
From there I followed a narrow footpath up through low, grassy vegetation toward higher ground. I am always in search of the best view, and it would not be difficult to reach on this tiny island. A few side trails were closed to protect nesting pelicans and a rare little seabird called the murrelet (ninety-nine percent of Southern California’s seabirds nest on the Channel Islands), but the main trail to the island’s western point was open. Unfortunately, in trying to set my camera’s timer for a “selfie,” I somehow switched it to low resolution, and the rest of the photos I took that day were blurry.
But to feel so alone in the middle of all that open space, barren island under my boots and the infinite ocean all around like a flat blue disk. The constant wind swept through the grasses and against my clothes, billowing my hooded parka, and the western gulls stood at their nesting sites and squawked, sometimes jumping into the air and circling above as I moved among their “nests” (not much to those; lifemate pairs claim a patch of territory about four feet square, make a scrape in the middle, and share the incubation and feeding). Many chicks were hatched, toddling about in their downy gray and black camouflage (called “cryptic coloration”), but the parents keep them close. Wandering into another couple’s territory can lead to adoption—or death. I saw a few who had met the latter fate.
Michael had given me a portable two-way radio to carry in my pack, so I could call him when I was ready to be picked up. That proved to be a good idea in other ways. As I crested the island’s central ridge, able to see in all directions now, I looked east and saw the SS Obtuse at anchor. At the same moment I saw a white dot that looked a lot like our dinghy, but instead of being tied to the stern, it was far offshore. My first concern was that Michael was still in it, as we had been having trouble with the outboard after all that salad-making. Craiggie would be asleep, wouldn’t answer the radio, and... then what?
I pressed the transmit button a little nervously, “Shore party to Obtuse, shore party to Obtuse, over.” Michael answered with the reverse, and I said, “Um, what’s up with the dinghy?”
Then remembered to add, “Over.” That was the end of our radio formalities.
He spat out, “Hold on a sec,” then returned a few seconds later and spelled out, “AYFKM?” (Our shorthand for “are you kidding me,” with added emphasis.)
I laughed and said, “I guess you’re going for a boat ride.”
“I guess I am.”
After Michael dropped me off and returned to the boat, he had simply looped the bowline in the dinghy’s painter over a cleat, and the rolling swells had lifted it free. From my high vantage I watched as he raised the anchor and sped away, then I turned and kept walking toward Signal Hill, the highest lookout (630 feet).
The only other people on the island were the two biologists, busy with their tasks at Landing Cove, so I felt deliciously alone and free. As long as I stayed on the trail, the gulls did not become too upset, and I talked to them as I walked. “Don’t worry moms and dads, I won’t bother your babies.”
I tried to picture the lives of the fifteen people who had lived there from 1914 until the ’20s—the three Hyder brothers and their wives and children. On an island with no fresh water—it all had to be brought in by boat—somehow they raised sheep, goats, pigs, chicken, turkeys, rabbits, and even cultivated hay. About the weather, a son who grew up on the island, Buster, recalled, “Our house had big cables on the west side of it to keep it from blowin’ over the hill when them hard winds would come up. We watched more gosh-darn chickens and turkeys blow out in that ocean.”
About the scarcity of drinking water (and perhaps the multitudes of mice), he said, “A lotta times we had to drink ‘mice water.’ It was terrible. I took the mice out of the water every day. I had a long cane pole with holes in it so the water drained out around ’em. Boy, it was hard to drink it.”
Whatever romantic notions one might entertain about solitude and self-sufficiency, no question it was a hard life, backbreaking labor with few pleasures.
After a couple of hours of wandering, I circled back around to Landing Cove and radioed Michael to pick me up. On my way down to the dock I encountered the two young naturalists humping another load upward. The girl passed me with a red-faced smile, and the young man rested on a bench. I asked him, “How many loads have you carried up?”
He responded, “Today? Or in my life?”
I laughed and said, “Today,” and he answered, “Five, I guess. So far. A few more still to go.” I learned that the two of them were stationed on the island in eight-day shifts by a non-governmental research organization, under the park service, to study the nesting birds. Back on the boat, as the sun set behind the island, we saw their silhouettes hiking back from the point, and Michael gave free reign to his fantasies.
Craiggie had found a little rest and recovery by then, and was up and around. I was feeling elevated by my experience—and the idea of it: I had finally walked on Santa Barbara Island, that thumb-tip on the horizon. The single-malt whisky tasted wonderful in the salt-tanged air. (Everything tastes better at sea.) The barking of sea lions carried on the wind gusts, and we were the only boat there. Craiggie put the potatoes and corn on the barbecue, while I prepared a butter and garlic rub for the steaks and opened a bottle of Malbec. We would not starve.
All was well until about four a.m., when I heard the main engines fire up. Michael had been awake most of the night, worried about the anchor’s bite (it was my suspicion the anchor was too small for that boat—a diagnosis Michael at first argued about then later agreed with, in a passive-aggressive way, by buying a larger one). In the wee hours of that dark night, he decided we were dragging anchor, and the currents were shifting—we would have to head for shore.
In utter darkness.
Modern navigation instruments are wonderfully helpful, of course, and the radar screens display not only nautical information, but mark the location and course of every vessel from small fishing boats to massive freighters, tankers, and container ships—even their names and destinations. Still, it was worrisome to be crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world—the nautical chart showed the northbound and southbound lanes like an interstate highway, between them the “Separation Zone.” (That area figured dramatically in T. C. Boyle’s novel about the Channel Islands, When the Killing’s Done. More about that book in a minute.) A couple of nervous hours later, Michael, Craiggie, and I were glad to see sunlight leaking above the mainland ahead of us—showing us the huge container ship approaching straight across our course.
After a somewhat tense, tired, and hungry four hours, we made it back to Michael’s slip, and I fried us up some bacon and eggs. Craiggie was feeling better now—just to be back on land . . .
Only a month later, in early July, I chartered the SS Obtuse again, planning to add a few more islands to my collection. By that time I had a new ambition: to try to visit all of them. I had learned there actually was an “All Eight Club,” its website listing those who had set foot on each of the Channel Islands—only about 150 people in twenty years, so a fairly exclusive club.
The most difficult islands to go ashore on would be San Clemente and San Nicolas, which were held by the U.S. Navy as target ranges. I was hoping Michael’s membership in the Coast Guard Auxiliary might one day be helpful in getting us permission to land on those. For now, I would concentrate on the remaining islands in the national park.
After the Catalina and Santa Barbara Island voyage, Craiggie had continued to insist that he hadn’t been seasick—he would have been fine except for the food poisoning.
Some jokes went around among our mutual friends from a song in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, when the captain is strutting and boasting to his crew.
CAPT. Though related to a peer,
I can hand, reef, and steer,
And ship a selvagee;
I am never known to quail
At the fury of a gale,
And I’m never, never sick at sea!
ALL. What, never?
CAPT. No, never!
ALL. What, never?
CAPT. Well, hardly ever!
ALL. He’s hardly ever sick at sea!
Despite all Craiggie’s protestations, on that first crossing to Catalina Michael and I had seen his green face, and weren’t surprised to hear he wasn’t keen to repeat the experience. I invited our friend Chris Stankee, fellow motorcyclist, drummer, and “good man in a storm” (even if from land-locked Iowa). Michael had acquired a more suitable anchor, but this time we would be putting our hook down overnight in relatively exposed shelters. To help with anchor watch, he recruited one of his yacht-club buddies, Steve, who had the gift of being able to sleep anywhere, anytime, and thus stay awake late at night—the perfect man for overnight anchor watches.
We were heading for Anacapa this time, then to Santa Rosa. The final one I needed from the national park, San Miguel, was currently closed to visitors by the navy. They had used it as a target for shelling and missiles up to 1980, and now claimed to have discovered “unexploded ordnance” there. The official announcement said they expected the island to remain closed for at least the rest of that year. (It is not too paranoid to wonder about government skulduggery in cases like that. On anchor watch that night, Michael listened on the shortwave as the Coast Guard directed the big ships in the Santa Barbara Channel away from a certain area at a certain time, because of a missile test.)
Part of the lure San Miguel had for me was that I had just read T.C. Boyle’s historical novel San Miguel, based on the true histories of families who had settled on that island in the 1880s and in the 1930s. (Another name for San Miguel, the outermost island where so many ships came to grief, is “Graveyard of the Pacific.”) The T.C. Boyle novel mentioned earlier, When the Killing’s Done, is set in modern times, mainly on Anacapa and Santa Cruz. Its theme is the conflict between the natural scientists who wanted to restore the islands to their natural state and the kneejerk reactionaries who protested the killing of the feral pigs to further that goal.
Little Anacapa underwent the same struggle—in its case, against the rats that had come ashore from a shipwreck (the paddle-steamer Winfield Scott crashed into the island at full speed on a foggy night in 1853—miraculously no one was killed). The rats multiplied and played havoc with nesting seabirds (Anacapa is the largest breeding site for the endangered brown pelicans, as well as for western gulls), and were only finally eradicated in 2003. The operation was a likewise controversial helicopter distribution of poison pellets, complicated because Anacapa also has an endemic species of deer mouse that they didn’t want to kill. But with careful timing and strategy, the program was a success.
Michael and Steve picked up Chris and me at a harbor near Ventura, and we motored out on calm seas (later I told Craiggie “You wouldn’t’a liked it”). By late afternoon, we were cruising around the tip of East Anacapa, with its emblematic Arch Rock, scouting the best anchorage. We eventually settled in Cathedral Cove, and as on Santa Barbara Island, we were the only boat around.
In the morning Michael ferried Chris and me to the landing dock, the ocean calm under gray skies. A national park service boat was approaching at the same time, and we circled in the narrow cove and waited to see what they wanted us to do. A uniformed ranger standing on the dock waved us in, and Chris and I scrambled up the metal ladder to the landing. The ranger shook our hands and directed us up to the trail, telling us we were welcome to visit the lighthouse, and the main trail to Inspiration Point, though some of the trails were closed to protect nesting seabirds. From higher up we paused to watch the park service boat ease stern-in to the pier, an impressive bit of boat-handling. About a dozen passengers in red lifejackets clustered around the large cargo deck, ready to debark—they proved to be groups of botanists and a diving team.
Chris and I carried on up the hill to the ranger buildings, then turned on the trail to the lighthouse. Because Anacapa was nearest to the shipping lanes, and thus important for navigation, it had long been controlled by the Bureau of Lighthouses—the only one of the Channel Islands that had never been privately owned. Its lighthouse was the last one to be built on the West Coast, in 1932, though of course it was now automated. I told Chris, “The earliest ambition I can recall is wanting to be a lighthouse keeper.” He snorted and said, “You could have saved the world from a lot of noise that way.”
In the visitor center we admired the lighthouse’s original lens, a massive egg-shaped arrangement of rounded segments of thick ground crystal giving off prismatic reflections, in an orbital framework of bronze. Its Art Deco effect was intricate and symmetrical, graceful, like a work of art—a giant Fabergé egg. I told Chris, “One time in the ’eighties I bicycled with a friend from San Francisco to the lighthouse at Point Reyes, and toured around it. The lightkeeper told me about its original French-made Fresnel lens, how it amplified the light by many thousands of . . .” (with an unscientific grin) “um, light units?”
Demonstrating how my boyhood fascination continued into adulthood, I went on, “Later that same year I visited a lighthouse in Negril, Jamaica, and the keeper there showed me their old Fresnel lens. It was damaged and missing some parts, but the man loved it, and wished he could restore it. He shook his head and said he had no idea how to find parts for it. So later I wrote to the keeper at Point Reyes and asked if he could do anything to help his Jamaican brother. I never heard anything more about it, but hoped I had somehow helped.” (A Fresnel lens is also an important plot point in Jimmy Buffett’s A Salty Piece of Land.)
Then I said, “Funny—the other ambition I remember was wanting to be a forest ranger—and here I am, among both.”
As we walked through the heath of low plants and dry brown coreopsis shrubs, standing white gulls dotted the dry ground in every direction, like bowling pins. Many of their young were quite large now, though still with their “cryptic coloration,” and a gangly, adolescent look. Some of the parents were overly protective, jumping into the air to circle overhead and strafe us. Chris had a good laugh when one of them dropped some “ordnance” on me, all across my chest and the back of my pants.
As I posed for a portrait of my anointing, Chris said, “Obviously not a Rush fan.”
The ranger we had met on the dock overtook us near the park buildings, which seemed mostly to date back to the manned lighthouse era of the 1930s—and all the more charming for that. The ranger told us he was about to check on the water tanks, and offered to show us “something most people don’t get to see.” That was an irresistible invitation, and we met him at the two-storey frame building that resembled a small church.
Along the way I spotted a wren, with its characteristic upturned tail flicking among the coreopsis. (Bewick’s wren, since you ask.) Seabirds dominated the island visually, but many songbirds also nested there—especially since the rats have been eradicated.
The ranger led us inside, into a vast space warm with unfinished wood and light filtered through old glass. Two enormous redwood cisterns, like huge barrels, were built by the Bureau of Lighthouses in the 1930s. They held 55,000 gallons of water, all delivered by ship and pumped up through underground pipes from the dock.
As Chris and I prepared to hike onward, glad of the cool overcast, a pair of older ladies in outdoor clothing walked by. The ranger told me they were botanists, and I asked them about a couple of the small flowering plants nearby, and they told me their names—gumplant, pale buckwheat, and tiny blue flowers called phacelia. (Prettier when spoken, “fa-kay-lee-ah.”)
The ladies told me one of their main projects was trying to remove the red-flowered iceplant, a South African groundcover brought in by the Bureau of Lighthouses to combat the erosion caused by overgrazing—that cycle again. (Later Chris remarked about the ranger and the botanists, “Those people just light up when they see you!” I guess they sense my genuine interest in what they’re doing, which must be rare in their professions. To me, they are rockstars!)
I told one of the ladies about a realization that had dawned on me only recently, as I gradually assembled the complicated mosaic of California’s history. Looking at the hills of Central California, for example, the rolling golden grasslands dotted with dark live-oak trees that I always called the “lion-colored hills,” I knew that for maybe 200 years ranchers had spread grasses and grains that cows liked to eat, displacing the native vegetation permanently. Sadly, we will never know what it really looked like before, because you might replace and restore everything else in a national forest, or on an island, but it would be impossible to change the grass.
I suggested my distant hope, “Maybe in a hundred years or so genetic engineering will be able to alter introduced grasses back to the native species.”
She smiled and said, “Maybe.”
The gray sky and attenuated light suited the mood of Anacapa—Mirage Island. Among the coreopsis in summer brown and the parched grass (California’s five-year drought was felt out there, too), the gulls dotted the landscape all around, motionless and alert. Farther along the trail I saw a group of four oldish men down on their hands and knees in the windswept foliage. Likewise garbed in sturdy outdoor wear, they were digging up iceplant. One of them looked up at Chris and me and said, “Hi there! We’ve got a few extra tools if you want to pitch in!”
I laughed and said, “Yeah, we’ll be back a little later—after we talk to the birds for a while.”
In a friendly manner, he said, “What brings you out here to Anacapa?” and I replied, “Just curiosity, really. I love places like this, and I’m trying to visit each of the islands, and hopefully get to all eight.”
He smiled and said, “I almost wore that hat today—I’m number one-forty-four.” Right away I knew he meant the All Eight Club, and felt a twinge of envy—not the poison kind, the inspiring kind. I had seen only 153 names on that list, so he was fairly recent. I told him which islands I had visited, and mentioned that I had been hoping to get to San Miguel on this trip. He told me about hiking right across it, from the west side to the old ranch site (the background for much of T. C. Boyle’s San Miguel). I said, “Oh, I want to do that!”
I had expressed that wish to our ranger friend as well, and he told me that Ranger Williams was posted on San Miguel at the time, and he was a good guy. If I came ashore at low tide, he would probably let me put my feet in the sand at the water’s edge. (Some technicality, where the ban on visitation started at the high-tide waterline.) But I decided no, I didn’t want to do it like that. I had truly experienced Santa Cruz, Catalina, Santa Barbara, Anacapa, and later that day, would hike on Santa Rosa. I decided to hold out until I could at least walk properly on the other three. Make it mean something, not just a symbolic relay race to earn the All Eight Club pennant.
We radioed the SS Obtuse for pickup, and Michael drove the dinghy to the landing in slow arcs, to avoid the long ropes of kelp—part of the rich underwater forest that made the cove a popular scuba diving site. When we had landed, the ranger warned Michael that later there could be divers in the water, and on the way down the stairs I saw a team of wetsuited divers preparing their equipment. The “Diver Down” flag was hoisted, but one of them told me no one was down right then, which I relayed to Michael. The diver said they were getting ready for a “live dive” in twenty minutes, and I smiled at those words and said, “That sounds preferable to the other kind!”
He chuckled and clarified, “I mean they’ll be broadcasting it live,” and I nodded, “I figured that.”
With our anchor raised and the dinghy secured astern, the twin diesel Caterpillars clattered to life with a deep throb. Throttling up to a steady burble, Steve steered the SS Obtuse west and around Middle Anacapa and West Anacapa, then up the long, wild coast of Santa Cruz (the largest Channel Island, it is four times the size of Manhattan). The sky had cleared by early afternoon and ahead of us Santa Rosa glowed in sunlight. We motored through the channel and cruised its eastern shore to look at possible anchorages.
Settled in Bechers Bay, Michael ferried Chris and me ashore. The pier was massive, over 500 feet long, and had been built in 2009 at a cost of over ten million dollars. Up close you could see the engineering and construction it demanded, the thick pilings interwoven with a network of metal-gridded walkways and stairs—all of it designed to weather the area’s violent storms. Unlike the steep, high ladder we had to scale on Anacapa, not to mention the storm-twisted wreckage I’d climbed on Santa Barbara, this was a much easier reach to the landing ladder.
It was mid-afternoon by then, and I had planned a “flexible hike”—aiming for the island’s highest point (seemed a natural choice—go for the view), at Vail Peak (1589 feet), along a trail called Telephone Road. I suggested to Chris, “Wherever we get to after an hour, we’ll turn around from there,” and he agreed it was a good plan.
We started out passing some of the old buildings from the Vail and Vickers Ranch, one home shaded by a beautiful specimen of the unique Torrey pine species. That ranch represented a history of human settlement on Santa Rosa reaching back at least 13,000 years.
From the National Park Service description of Santa Rosa’s history of habitation:
In addition to the native Chumash, European explorers, Aleut sea otter hunters, Chinese abalone fishermen, Spanish missionaries, Mexican and American ranchers, and the U.S. military all have left their mark on the Santa Rosa landscape. Visitors can see relics of these occupations in remnants of fishing camps, water troughs and fence lines, the buildings and equipment of the historic Vail and Vickers ranch at Bechers Bay, the remains of the military installations, and a great diversity of sites to be discovered all around the island.
After a long slog uphill on the narrow gravel road for an hour or so, we turned around and headed back to the pier. Under a sunny blue sky, the winding canyons and low vegetation offered wide-open panoramas all around, and bright little flowers occasionally appeared among the low scrub. The air tasted wonderful, of desert vegetation and salty air at the same time.
By late afternoon we were back aboard the SS Obtuse, enjoying cocktails and starting to prepare the night’s feast. I had brought a frozen batch of my bolognese sauce, which was thawing in the fridge, as well as a box of bowtie pasta and some fresh Reggiano. Chris had brought the makings of a Caesar salad, so once again, we would not starve.
After dinner I sat on the windy foredeck and watched the light fade away, and the first stars appear. I thought about all I had learned about the Channel Islands, and especially about the Europeans who had settled in such a remote place to try to carve out their livings. Yes, they had permanently damaged the “natural world,” but truly unwittingly—not imagining for a moment there was anything wrong with bringing cattle, sheep, pigs, rabbits, and even housecats out there. They were just building a life, and that had to be done, after all.
Judging the people who exploited those islands from our vantage is simply wrong. They were doing what they had to do, and doing what they could—for themselves and their families, the only “metric” that counts, ultimately. A few individuals much higher up the food chain may have been getting wealthy from that exploitation, but those who were actually doing it—the hunters, the ranchers, the farmers, the fishermen—were only trying to make their livelihood, feed their family, the best way they could. They couldn’t help doing what they couldn’t help doing.
And how that phrase has resonated for this observer recently. At closer range, in our own everyday lives, we all encounter people who behave in ways that may annoy us, but ultimately, when you look a little deeper, they can’t help it at all. Acts of aggression, hostility, rudeness, and/ or thoughtlessness are not “deliberate,” in the sense of considered and intentional. Likewise, it is seldom “just the way they’re made”—but rather the way they have been programmed, often from earliest childhood.
I kind of wish that observation had been available to me in my twenties and thirties, as it might have saved me a lot of aggravation and friction. One gift of what I might call a “reflective maturity” is that one mirage has finally cleared a little—the mystery of other people. Over time I have gained a bit of understanding about what makes others tick, and it sometimes helps.
Knowing how shaped we all are by events and people not only out of our control, but sometimes even out of our memory, more and more the quirky or annoying behavior I observe in others starts to feel like it’s “not their fault.” They can’t help doing what they can’t help doing.
Sometimes the extreme scope of that notion—like nothing any of us do is our fault, or our choice—feels overwhelming. Because you start running into people who hurt others and “can’t help themselves.” However, I once defined good behavior as “behaving better than we are”—or at least, “better than we feel.” In other words, being good often takes some effort. Maybe even, like magic, it requires some planning.
People we encounter with insecurities or anger issues likely came by them “honestly,” and they can no more choose to react differently to the world—to you—than they can change the scars that made them that way.
We do not usually find too many such issues in our friends—because we would not choose friends like that—but there is the family you do not choose, as well as, say, inlaws and coworkers. People whose company you are compelled to share for a good part of your life, for reasons other than . . . personal magnetism.
Albert Camus famously said, “Hell is other people,” and we all know what he meant. These days when people around me behave in obliviously upsetting ways, I try to remind myself, “He can’t help doing what he can’t help doing.”
Same with “she,” of course.
Part of this generous insight derives from the philosopher Philo, reminding us to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Or Aldous Huxley, whose sum of advice at the end of a long and contemplative life was given almost apologetically, “Try to be a little kinder.”
Apart from being more generous with judgments and reactions, the only other option open to this reporter is to watch for such feelings and behavior in myself, and try to moderate them. Try to be a little kinder. A great French teacher named Jean Gallia once outlined his views to me and the Guys at Work: “Don’t judge people for something they can’t change.” There is wisdom there, but it leaves . . . “room for improvement.”
Because, after all, people can change their wilful ignorance, their nonsensical beliefs, and especially their anti-social behavior. Many could be helped in the battle against their self-defeating demons by therapy—however long it might take—but for one reason or another, they won’t. Too bad for them—and for the rest of us who have to live with them.
For myself, I will keep chasing mirages, getting excited about places and finding a way to visit them (including the other three Channel Islands), then sitting down to try to share them in words and images.
Because I can’t help doing what I can’t help doing. And I like it.
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