A Dream of Islands

A Dream of Islands

By Marc J. Elzenbeck

The Pacific scales in at about 70 million square miles. Thousands of islands, far fewer than you’d expect, scatter across its vast third of the Earth. Ours is nestled deep into the ocean’s easternmost pocket, bobbing on maps like a jagged splinter of cork near the bottom of a curvy wine bottle. It sports an assemblage of features which together verge on a perfection of sorts, an occasion for mild misbehaving. 

There is the sense of maritime, and a literal South Seas connection. By the time the Wilkes Expedition arrived to officially swan about on behalf of the United States in 1841, a contingent of Polynesians from M’oahu who worked for the Hudson Bay Company had already passed by 17 years before. They later returned in 1833 to build Fort Nisqually, and the Company’s diverse lot is said to have bought their food from the nearby coastal Salish villages, some of which were on what they called Deer Island. 

Despite evidence of habitation going back as far as 12,000 years, the first recorded admiration we have comes from a young Greek midshipman, George Colvocoresses, who was on board with the Wilkes Expedition. He watched a beautiful sunset over the south end’s Clam Cove (now known as Tahlequah) and wrote a worthy homage. This led Wilkes to name the island’s western passage in his honor, considerately abbreviating its name to Colvos. 

A former Tacoma resident who witnessed those same sunsets as a boy helped explain the modern appeal. Looking across from the boathouse at Point Defiance to Vashon like an unfulfilled Gatsby staring at the green lights winking on West Egg, he resolved: “They’re having fun over there I can’t get to! That’s what it means to have it made. And that’s where I’m going to live someday.” He did.

 Low-lying Anderson conveys no equal romance, nor do Fox or MacNeil. Blake, lovely and a half-hour paddle to the north, makes hints, has the advantages of blonde, sandy beaches that are gentle to moor on, and is rumored to be the birthplace of a feared warrior French and Spanish fur traders called “The Big Guy” (Chief Seattle). But it is small and simple. And Mercer? Why NOT build a bridge to Mercer Island? Build three! In fact, put a cross-country freeway on top and stop at the McDonald’s on your drive to Chicago.

Vashon has the rare insularity, size, and position to qualify it as a base of operations. It has been used as an air defense site and was recently selected by FEMA should The Big One hit nearby cities, to serve as a logistical center for the anticipated long rebuilding of their infrastructures. Traveling from stem to stern, it also has a curious ability to bend Seattle and Tacoma together, otherwise separate and distinct cities that commonly take an hour to traverse. Here, you can see both in 10 minutes.

The travel writer Paul Theroux had one of his characters say, “To be born is to be shipwrecked on an island.” If you were to make a list, this one would check the signal virtues: a watershed to feed salmon streams year-round; micro-climates to support everything from rainforest moss to berries, grape vines and olive trees; terrain not inhospitable, but invigorating and crenellated around its backbone, so when folded flat it might expand 2-3 times in size; both an outer and an inner harbor with two lagoons, one at its northwest inlet; a central Paradise Valley, where a glacial lake piled soils rich and deep; set on a mattress of loam and rocks churned together by the back-and-forth of the Vashon Glaciation into a surface so hard it is called Vashon Till the world over; the latter has to be jack-hammered out and is known to help bounce radio waves further.

Deer Island, The Rock, Place of Weird Free Couches, hideout for minor celebrities like the Home Depot Voice Guy. (Great work in ‘Ford v Ferrari.’) It always seems to have been part fishing village, part beach resort, castle and time machine, or at least a wonky mechanism for delaying somewhat. Walk or ride up the dock and things start to slow-w-w down, drawing in to buried treasure (yep, hundreds of pounds, almost forgot), to lurking sheep and llamas, the music of harmonicas and harps.  

It’s still a place where you can wheel your unregistered 1948 Willys Jeep pickup around to scout for free furniture without worrying about overheating its clutch and brakes in rush-hour traffic. Where you can find a cabin built mostly from driftwood by Michelob-drinking contractors on weekends during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, right next to a $20 million beach mansion across the road from someone living in their camper truck. 

Sometimes you can still see three boys strolling down the long main drag on the last day of school, carrying a conked-out black lab puppy on the first day of summer. The puppy’s name is Doug.

July 10, 2023

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