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Off the beaten path

I never got around to writing about my tour of the Gulf Islands last June.

* * *
The public transit system that serves the Gulf Islands is unreliable when you’re in a hurry, but it’s friendly and it’s free. During my forays onto Salt Spring and Pender, I quickly marked myself as an outsider by looking askance as would-be commuters faced me, their thumbs extended. I recognized that this was how Islanders got by, but I was raised in a city, where strangers were not to be trusted.

The three picnickers on Cortes Island were different, however, and I slowed down when I saw them. The oldest of the them thanked me for stopping, and told me that she wasn’t coming along for the ride, but that Megan and Katie appreciated not having to walk to the community hall on such a hot day. No problem, I replied; I was happy to help. But I wasn’t from around here; where, I asked, was the community hall? The woman pointed to a junction on my map – not far at all – and thanked me again. She paused before turning around, and then said to the other two, strapped into seatbelts in the backseat – careful the traffic when you cross the street.

I introduced myself to my passengers. They were sisters, as I’d suspected. Megan was nine, and Katie was seven, and they were going to the community hall to rehearse for a play.

* * *
I never met the host of the inn on Mayne Island where I spent a rainy night. I’d called the innkeeper a few nights before to reserve a room, and she’d told me that she probably wouldn’t be around when I arrived. But she’d leave me a note and a key in the mailbox, and I should make myself at home as soon as I got in.

When I got off the ferry, I headed right for the inn, but I didn’t see a sign. I stopped at a bakery to ask for directions, and the baker asked me my name. “Oh, she told me she was expecting you,” he said when I answered. “Inn’s right next door, behind the tree. It’s hard to see the sign from the road.”

I thanked him, and found the key. The $60 room I’d booked was larger than my apartment. It had huge windows on two sides, and I selected a bed adjacent to one of them. I awoke early the next morning; my host was nowhere to be found. I put some money and a thank-you note in an envelope, stuck the envelope under the door, and left.

There was a note posted on the front door. It was dated two days earlier; I’d obviously missed it when I arrived. In the same formal script that had appeared on my note was a message: I will be out of town all week. If you would like a room at the inn, please see the baker next door.

* * *
Denman Island is the flattest of the Gulf Islands, and as such, it is also one of the most cyclist-friendly. There are bikes everywhere on the island – in the many parks, in front of the community school, in the middle of driveways. Unlocked, all of them.

“You can’t leave your bike unattended for a minute where I live,” I remarked to the owner of the bed and breakfast. “I lock mine even when I’m just running in and out of a store; otherwise, someone would take it for sure. It’s amazing that you can trust that no one would do that here.”

She shrugged. “People take bikes here, too,” she said.

“And you still leave them like that?” I said, gesturing toward the trendy mountain bike that was propped up against a tree.

“They take them, but we always end up finding them sooner or later,” she said. “I know what my neighbour’s bike looks like, and so does everyone else. Someone finds a purple hybrid near the Hornby ferry, they know it’s his.” And then, almost as an afterthought: “It’s an island. How far could they go?”

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