“We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.” - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
After a big breakfast of omelettes with Portuguese sausage, tomatoes and chives, I read another story out loud while Greg did dishes, which became our custom for the rest of the trip. It was a chapter from The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex written by the mate, Owen Chase (an appropriate name for a whale hunter, eh?).
I knew of the book – I knew Herman Melville had based Moby Dick on Owen’s account – but I had never read it. We were both bowled over. In the story, Chase claims that the whale was 85 feet long: that’s two and a half feet shorter than his ship. Such size is not uncommon for a blue whale, but this was one extraordinarily big sperm whale. After the captain harpooned one of the whale’s smaller companions – likely her calf, as the sperm whale will stay with her calves for more than ten years – the leviathan dipped down and resurfaced about ship’s length away, then came straight forward, ramming them at a speed of three knots. Then she thrashed around a while, collected herself, swam some distance off and returned, Chase claims, at a speed of six knots. The ship had already been taking in water; at this second blow, her bow was crushed and she sank within minutes. Crazy! I mean, how amazing – that she seemed to know exactly how to disarm them. Perhaps to her the vessel looked like another large animal, a threat that needed to be taken out.
After Greg finished the dishes and I my story, we took a hike to Raggers Point, the highest point near us overlooking the harbor, and along the way we examined several dead seal lions on the beach. If the wind blew in the right direction, it was nauseating: the smell of rotting fatty flesh mingled with that of drying kelp.
The Annie Dillard quote above is from her Pulitzer-prize-winning book. A cat has just come through the window, waking her up, its bloodied paws from a night of hunting leave “painted roses” on her chest and sheets.
“These are morning matters,” she writes, “pictures you dream as the final wave heaves you up on the sand to the bright fight and drying air. You remember pressure, and a curved sleep you rested against, soft, like a scallop in its shell. But the air hardens your skin; you stand; you leave the lighted shore to explore some dim headland, and soon you’re lost in the leafy interior, intent, remembering nothing.”
On the road we passed a guy who was hiking across the island. He asked us for directions, but seemed in a hurry and did not stop long to talk. That reminded Greg of the time he took a shuttle across the island. It was driven by a woman who told him to look out the window for the two crows that regularly followed the van on its trips between Two Harbors and Avalon. “We call them Heckle and Jeckle,” she told him.
From Raggers Point we could barely make out San Nicolas Island in the distance. Greg looked at the map. At its height it rises 900 feet above sea level. Neighboring San Clemente sticks out 1300 and the peak on Catalina, Mt. Orizaba, crests at 2000 feet. In other words, San Nicolas is fairly flat and low-lying; we would not see it again the rest of our trip.
Here’s what else I know about San Nicolas: it was home to the girl on which Island of the Blue Dolphins was based, and it sounds like a desolate place. Several years ago they discovered a cave on the island which they think may have been home to the “lone woman of San Nicolas.” In the cave they found roughly 200 tools and an abalone shell they called “the jewelry box” filled with small objects: “Some stone pieces had been sharpened, others had been shaped to resemble sea mammals. There was even a button.”
After our walk I put on my wetsuit and prepared myself for what I thought would be a cold wake-up call, but my sleek new layer of neoprene kept me comfortable as I swam over kelp and ocean grasses, looking down on juvenile garibaldi (still with electric blue spots), opaleye, paisley-patterned rock wrasse, and kelpbass. I’m wishing I had my iPhone on, but Greg went under, too, and took some film, which he’s piecing together.
When he came up from his dive Greg held two abalone shells in his hands. He climbed on the boat and grabbed an older shell from a shelf beside the berth. It held a few rocks and shells he’d collected, a terra cotta token a friend had given him, and a button.
“These are prettier, don’t you think?” I examined the abalone shells, each as big as my whole hand, with their mountains of barnacles on one side and their gleaming pearly beds on the other. I nodded and Greg transferred the contents of the old shell to one of the new shells. Then he threw the old shell into the sea.
For dinner we grilled pizza. It was my favorite meal of the trip. I’d caramelized onions for several hours in the oven at home, and I used those for the sauce, then I topped that with mozzarella and prosciutto americano from my local cheese and meats shop. Once off the grill, we added spinach and a bit of balsamic reduction.
After dinner Greg went lobster hunting. He had set the trap the night before but lost the bait, so he set it again, this time attaching the bait container to the net. When he checked the trap after a few hours, there was indeed a lobster in it – but he was too small to keep. No lobster risotto this trip. Which meant I didn’t need to reserve the Calvados for cooking, so I poured two glasses.
“Do you think you could live on an island?” I asked Greg.
“Sure,” he said. “I’m actually tired of L.A. I’m ready for a change.” Then he told me about how that shuttle driver he’d mentioned got here. She and her husband had lived in L.A. until one day they bought a sailboat and decided to go cruising, but they made it only as far as Avalon. “We liked it here so much that we decided to stay,” she told him.
This reminded me of a couple I’d met when I was briefly stranded on St. Croix. They wanted me to stay and open a restaurant there. It would’ve worked. It was a good idea. “I don’t know,” I replied. “After a few weeks on St. Croix I felt like I would know everything about it and everyone would know me within a few months.”
“That’s not a good thing?” Greg asked.
“We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed,” wrote Dillard, in answer to the question: why are we here? “Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.”
There are few things I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of growing old alone. And I’m afraid of falling asleep at the wheel of life – of waking one morning, blind to the beauty around me. It’s not just genetics, this wanderlust of mine. As they say, fear is a powerful motivator.
That night Greg took the second shell from where he’d left it near cockpit. “Should I throw it back?” he asked. That’s when I realized that he’d retrieved the other one for me.