Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Long weekend

File under: 1000 Words, Home And Native Land, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:43 am.

There are dozens of islands scattered around the east coast of Vancouver Island. Each is accessible only by boat or by seaplane; no bridges connect them to Vancouver Island or the mainland. That sort of isolation, combined with the small populations of islands, forces islands to run more gently, more slowly than mainland communities, even ones of comparable size. Boats are slow, and small towns can’t operate as efficiently as cities, and no amount of rushing will make either of them any faster; so you might as well slow down, too.

I decided on a whim to spend a few days on one of the smaller of the southern Gulf Islands. The attendant at the harbour gave me an information pamphlet containing a map and a ferry schedule. The map looked like the sort of thing one would draw by hand in giving directions, showing only the relevant streets; but this map was complete. This island was around 12 square kilometers in area, and had a population of 350 at the time of the last census.

Nothing manmade could be seen from the ferry:

All of the local businesses were listed on the pamphlet. There was one store, named simply “Store”, at a marina in the south; a donut shop’s hours were listed as “9:00 am until we run out.” There were a dozen or so bed and breakfasts listed; more surprising was the address of the recycling depot. “We are a small community,” explained the pamplet, “and our garbage collection is not covered by taxes; we must take care of it ourselves. If you are visiting the island, we request that you bring your garbage with your when you leave. If you are staying for too long to make this practical, please consider making a donation to our garbage collection service.”

The exit from the ferry led right into secluded roads:

Soon after was the local elementary school, serving students in kindergarten through grade six:

The door to the school was unlocked, and no one was inside.

Older children, I found out later, go to school on Vancouver Island, commuting by ferry, which makes ten trips a day and is synchronized to the school schedule.

I drove around the island for an hour, stopping to take photos. In that hour, I did not encounter a soul. I stopped at what looked like a camping site on the east side of the island, with roads that looked more like wide trails than streets. Near the beach was a large building; looking inside, I saw that I’d happened upon a Christian retreat. Further inland were a dozen or so smaller cabins, each with bunkbeds and small bathrooms.

None was locked.

The mattresses of the bunkbeds were propped up, off the beds; it was clear that no one was staying in any of them. But they weren’t abandoned: no dust had collected anywhere, and everything looked new. I could, I realized, stay in one of them for the night. I contemplated the possibility for an hour or so as I wandered about the grounds, before finally deciding against it. It wasn’t a matter of being discovered and then kicked out; it was a matter of being discovered some days or weeks later, when someone found that the grounds were not exactly as they’d been left when I arrived at the island. And then people on the tiny island might react by beginning to lock their doors, and I didn’t want to be responsible for that.

I left the campgrounds, and then drove up north, along winding cliffs:

And to a beach at the northmost point:

Around dinnertime, I stopped at the only restaurant that was open, a pub right beside the Store, at the marina at the south. They closed at seven o’clock, I was told; after all, it was a weekend.

As darkness fell, I made my way to a B&B. The hosts, a retired couple from Vancouver, asked me if I’d eaten; “it’s hard to find anything to eat around here, I know,” said the husband. “Hard to find much at all,” he continued. “My truck’s almost out of gas; I’ll have to head over to Vancouver Island to fill up.”

The B&B had a private entrance for guests, and I sat on the balcony overlooking the water and the forest for an hour before darkness completely consumed the landscape. Inside, I found a breakfast menu, and ordered a light meal without thinking too much. By the time I arose at 6:30 the next morning, I was starving, and the meal, which arrived on schedule at 7:00, did not disappoint. Half an hour later, I asked the wife if I may have some more orange juice. “Certainly,” she said. “I was worried you’d ask for more earlier, and we were all out. But my husband just got back from Vancouver Island with more, so we have plenty.” Later, I checked the schedule: he’d taken the earliest ferry, which, round trip, takes an hour and twenty minutes.

As I packed to leave, the hosts asked me what my plans were for the day. “Well,” I said, “it’s Easter, so I don’t expect anything will be open, and I’ll need to eat - I’ll probably head back soon, anyway; I’ve got plenty of work to do.”

“Oh, you don’t have to go back just yet if it’s food you’re worried about,” the husband said, “I talked to Marilyn by the harbour, told her we had guests. She said in that case she’d open up her shop.”

At lunchtime I drove by Marilyn’s, a tiny shack no bigger than my bedroom. The previous day, the CLOSED sign had been visible from the road; that day, Easter Sunday, it was clearly marked as open.

I parked by the side of the road, and entered. A radio was on, tuned to CBC Radio Two, and there were pies and produce on the shelves. There was no cash register, though, and no attendant. Nor was there anyone in back, I knew, because there was no back, just the one room. I stepped out to see if Marilyn or someone else had left for a minute; but the area was isolated, and there was nowhere to leave to. But this wasn’t the first time in the past day that I’d entered unattended, though obviously not abandoned, buildings; I shouldn’t have been surprised, and I was in no rush. It’s impossible to be in a rush on small islands. It was then that I saw the sign on the wall:

I’d wanted to buy a package of spring rolls, but I had no change, only twenties. I picked out the spring rolls, a pie, and three apples, put $20 in the locked box by the door, and recorded my purchases in the ledger. The previous record, I saw, was four days old; but the pie, I could tell, was fresh. Then I set out for the ferry, back to a world thirty minutes and a hundred years away.


  1. Amazing.

    I’ve seen small college towns were people leave cars and houses unlocked all the time, but it’s been ages since I’ve seen a store run on the honor-system.

    - talon karrde — 3/30/2005 @ 9:54 am

  2. Like the previous poster, I have to start with a breathless “wow…” It sounds so idyllic and peaceful. (I live on Long Island in the suburbs, so the thought of a calm, quiet town like that is real inviting).

    - Rich Bateman — 3/30/2005 @ 12:43 pm

  3. Ah, madrone trees.  I’ll not forget those anytime soon.

    - Engineer-Poet — 3/30/2005 @ 1:11 pm

  4. Thank you for the reminder that there remain places so utterly civilized.

    I once lived in a house which had no locks, surrounded by open space preserves in the mountains above Palo Alto. Nothing but the tops of trees as far as the eye could see. In place of TV, we watched the fog roll in every night over Skyline Blvd. It was a peaceful existance.

    - Ron Avitzur — 3/30/2005 @ 2:05 pm

  5. Sounds lovely. I’ve never gone to Vancouver island or any of the other islands; I’d quite like to. And I am amused at the two spellings of hono(u)r.

    - wolfangel — 3/30/2005 @ 6:41 pm

  6. The Gulf Islands are tailor-made for relaxing vacations. (My landlord just told me about another one I have to visit - no cars are allowed on this one, only bikes. Apparently a lot of draft dodgers settled there in the 70’s, and now the entire island is basically one big grow-op.) I’d move to one in a heartbeat if it weren’t for the jobs thing; as should be perfectly evident from this blog, I am not cut out for the hospitality industry, which is the main game in town.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/30/2005 @ 9:19 pm

  7. A grow-op, you say?  Is this island visible from the US side of the sound, say from Stuart Island?  I think I may have had it pointed out to me.

    - Engineer-Poet — 3/31/2005 @ 6:23 am

  8. I doubt it; the island I’m talking about is further north. But there are a lot of grow-ops in BC.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/31/2005 @ 7:00 am

  9. The village where everybody knows everybody else, and they’re all friends. Idyllic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

    My wife grew up on Vashon Island (Washington) - she’s told me about the way of life, the ferryboats, the pace.

    I wonder, though, if any of us who have grown up in the modern world, could stand more than a few days there.

    - Mike — 3/31/2005 @ 9:43 am

  10. Thank you for this lovely description of how wonderful simplicity and trust is. Between the time I started reading and the time I finished, my mind completely relaxed.

    - Laurie Briggs — 3/31/2005 @ 9:28 pm

  11. Mike, I’m an introvert with a capital I, in the “people exhaust me” sense of the word. So I can say with confidence that I could definitely stand more than a few days in such places. It’s whether or not I could afford it, that’s the issue. I am one of those rare folks, apparently, who is both very much an intellectual and very much not an urban person; so I don’t know what sort of work I’d find in such a remote place. (Which, incidentally, is what I love about Vancouver: it’s a city with good food and good employment, but it’s also right on the water and has ample forest area.)

    Tonight I wrote the last of my postcards from the island while supervising a test. I was struck immediately by the contrast between the Islanders’ (justified) trust in the honour system, and my own decision not to have my students hand in homework for grading because I know from past experience that cheating is rampant. Maybe if I were a trusted member of the community rather than a transplant teaching this course, they wouldn’t want to cheat.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/31/2005 @ 9:41 pm

  12. Hey, MS, I’m studying in a similar location. A small town (used to be a big mining town) in Michigan, on the shores of Lake Superior. The Tech. U. used to be the state College of Mines.

    Of course, we don’t have an island nearby that can create such an island culture. And the summers up here are packed with vacationers from down south, renting a breachfront vacation house for a week. Still, I’ve known college students in town to lose track of their keys, and leave their house-doors unlocked for the rest of the semester.

    Of the intellectuals that I know, “urban person” doesn’t appear to be the mean value. On the other hand, such people might be drawn to the University I’m studying at, since it’s 100 miles from anything resembling a metropolis.

    - talon karrde — 4/1/2005 @ 7:54 am

  13. Wow, what a cool to go for a vacation or a few days off. And what excellent writing! I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind about writing a novel, have you?

    - wes — 4/1/2005 @ 9:01 am

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