Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Scenes from Orcas Island, Washington

I mentioned a while back that I might post some more stuff about the San Juan Islands, a little group of islands in Washington state that captured my heart on my first solo trip. 

In that vein, here’s a blog I posted on September 29th, 2009, about a day trip to Orcas Island. My total walking distance (shortened slightly by some hitchhiking I forgot to mention) was 12 miles— a distance that became pretty routine later on in my traveling. Oh well. I had to start somewhere.


“Can you walk 1.3 miles?” I asked myself, staring at the trail ahead.

“Of course,” I answered myself. “That’s like walking to the depot. No problem.” But still I balked, staring up at the trail that meandered through the pine trees at a gradual slope. Sure, I could walk 1.3 miles. Never mind that it had taken me five-and-a-half-mile walk to get to this point. None of that mattered now. I could walk 1.3 miles.

There’s a reason people make analogies about life being a road. The trail immediately got harder, sloping up to a 45ยบ angle as it wound between rocks bound up in lichen and feathery moss. I trudged onward, sometimes collapsing in exhaustion, but always moving upward, always asking myself, “Can you walk 1.3 miles?” How many miles I’d walked before didn’t matter, and how many miles I’d have to walk afterward didn’t matter. I only had to walk 1.3.

I did indeed reach the top of Ship Peak and took in the scenery. I didn’t stay there long; the view was breathtaking, but I only felt the need to take it in for ten minutes or so. I sat in the shade of a pine and listened to scores of tiny birds making all manner of chirps, whirs, cackles and twitters, like a musical box. Then I headed down for the long walk back. After the initial slopes, which taxed my knees and back, the ground leveled out and my feet knew how to walk again. It was an easy walk back, as I constantly asked myself, “Can you walk until you reach the harbor?”

Orcas Island is like a dozen islands in one, for the landscape changes quickly even at a walking pace. I walked through dark evergreen forests, where silence was a sentient presence so thick that no birds sang. I hiked past woodland pastures with small run-down farms and cream or brown sheep grazing, rather like West Virginia. I passed West Bay, which boasts a marina and several ranch houses, and I explored the beach for a bit, feet crunching on the pebbles and shells. I found several tide pools with limpets and barnacles, and discovered three dead jellyfish, each one’s umbrella the color of grape or strawberry jam. The bay stayed constant on my left for much of the walk, and I marveled at the Pacific madrone trees: tall for beach growth, with the twisted thick tangle of twigs common of ocean trees. Their bark is thin as crepe paper and brittle as parchment. The wood beneath the peeling layers is skin colored, but the bark nearly glows in the sunlight: a shocking burnt orange-red. 

I felt like I was receiving a lesson in the various habitats of the northern pacific islands— and all this in a three-hour hike.


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