An illustrated love letter to Vashon Island.
“Every day, every act, is an island, washed by time and space, and has an island’s completion.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh
They appear soon after the Washington State ferry pulls away from the mainland – the magnificent, blue and white slopes of Mount Rainier.
For the next fifteen minutes, as the ferry churns a slow straight line across the Puget Sound, you stand motionless on the sundeck, hands curled around the teal green railing, mesmerized by the mountain’s magnetic presence on the eastern horizon. There is also the wind stinging your eyes and whipping your hair in a thousand ferocious directions, but it’s a small price to pay for the momentary sensation of being out on the open sea.
And then, just as suddenly as it appeared, Mount Rainer is eclipsed by the densely forested slopes of Vashon Island. It’s just about thirteen miles long by eight miles wide, and is one of several islands situated not far off the coast from Seattle.
You can feel the engine easing up as the ferry prepares to dock at the terminal, and you can feel an easing up of your soul as well. All these little ties that held you down to earth are released. Without even trying, you find your breaths are deeper; your steps lighter; your mind a little clearer.
From now on, for as long as you are here, you’re on island time.
* * *
For the last five weeks, I’ve been on Vashon Island time – my abode for the month the beautiful waterfront home owned by my dear late friend, Vera Campbell. Her house sits right on the edge of Quartermaster Harbor; at high tide, the water becomes a natural compost bin, with food scraps and egg shells tossed over her back porch into the sound.
My mornings have begun with the calls of crew coaches, shadowing their rowing recruits in boats with loudspeakers in hand. My evenings have ended with the cries of geese and seagulls. And it didn’t take long for all the sun-soaked hours in between to settle into their own rhythm.
There were the almost-daily kayak rides on the Puget Sound. On the weekends, the harbor filled with sailboats – sleek wooden vessels with names like “The Odyssey” and “No Doubt,” and sails that rippled noisily in the wind – but on weekdays, I’d often have the sound to myself. I’d slip a bright blue kayak into the water (and by slip I mean awkwardly struggle to maneuver sixty pounds of blue plastic down the bulkhead’s stairs), pass over schools of translucent moon jellyfish, and pause whenever a shy harbor seal peered his head above the surface like a periscope.
There were the twilight walks to pick blackberries. This was a favorite activity for my friend Erin and I last summer, when we were on Vashon for a few nights to visit her grandmother Vera. We’d walk up and down the road outside Vera’s house, both sides of the way lined with rambling wild bushes. I continued our tradition this summer, plucking only the ripest of the ripe from the vine, lingering to chat with neighbors out watering their plants, feeling the bowl grow ever heavier in my hands.
And there was the nightly respite at just about 8.30pm, as I stopped whatever I was doing at the time to take a photo of the sunset. It never ceased to amaze me how the same parts – same sea, same sky, same sun – could come together and create such vastly different wholes every night; from crystalline skies turned to gold and sapphire, to spectacular sunbeams-bursting-through-clouds affairs, to one night when the sky was suddenly suffused with the richest shades of lavender and electric pink.
Every little routine on Vashon felt like a ritual, giving my days an almost sacred sense of order.
* * *
Last Thursday, I began driving home from the north end ferry terminal. I had hopped over to the mainland for the afternoon to meet up with my friends Carmel and Shawn, who have just returned from a yearlong trip around the world.
Back in my borrowed meter maid scooter, I started the slow chug up Vashon’s hills. The snail-like pace at which I was going gave me a few seconds to look in one of the scooter’s mirrors and realize it was the last time I would see the Puget Sound in my rear-view reflection. The mirror held everything I have come to love about this region over the last month – the open skies and cobalt-colored sea, the brushstroke branches of evergreen trees, and Vashon’s winding roads, which are often abuzz with ferry traffic, but when the coast is clear they’re as calm as country lanes.
All at once it hit me that I would be leaving in five days for good, and the quiet rituals I’d formed on the island would be exchanged for several months of steady movement. I’d formed friendships here as well, most especially with Vera’s son Richard and his wife Claudia, and they had made me feel incredibly welcome and at home on the island. It suddenly hit me that saying goodbye to Vashon was going to be much harder than I’d expected.
And as I studied the scene in my little rectangular rear-view mirror (all the while hoping no other cars would appear and force me to continue on my way), I realized that the greatest gift that Vashon gave me this summer was reflection – the gift of looking back.
I’m always a fan of full-circle moments, of thinking over where you were this time last year and about where you are now, but it seemed even more significant given that I have now been on Vashon two summers in a row. For the first time, a full-circle moment had the same physical place holding the two halves together. I thought about the projects I’ve been working on and the relationships in my life, and how this one small island in the Puget Sound has been the site of so much transformation.
As I write this, I’m in the lovely city of Portland, Oregon, on my way back to the Bay Area on Friday, and then very soon to South America.
For now, though, I can tell my soul is still lingering on Vashon, and on Vashon I shall let it remain.
* * *