My love affair with islands began a long time ago in a faraway land. I have been an island girl for as long as I can remember, although I had never really considered that fact until recently. In my mind, the term “island girl” conjures up images of sunshine and palm trees, bronzed skin, boat drinks, and reggae beats paradisiacally playing in the background at some thatched-roof beach bar.
Contrary to my imagined “island girl” stereotype, my home island is floating in a frigid sea, with dramatic fjord-like mountaintops jutting thousands of feet high. The colors are muted: earth tones of browns and greens, and an ocean that’s almost black. Spirals of fog drift through towering sage-colored trees, while an abundance of wildlife clings on and around its rocky shore – seals, otters, salmon, orca and grey whales, bald eagles and osprey, and of course, the ever-present seagull.
No, the island that I was raised on isn’t the type of island that is dreamily featured on your desktop background, warming your cockles on a cold winter’s day in one quick glance. The vibrant smells of frangipani, hibiscus and night-blooming jasmine that I have become accustomed to in my tropical existence are replaced with earthy scents of lavender, rosemary, and salty ocean kelp. The gentle rustling of palm fronds in the breeze are an utter contrast to the lonely sounds of wind gusting through giant old growth fir trees. But an island is an island anywhere in the world as long as it’s surrounded by water, palm trees or not.
The area in which I am eluding to is a magical place called Washington State, with the dramatic wilderness of the Cascade Mountains to one side, the icy Puget Sound on the other, and an additional, no less dramatic mountain range called the Olympics further off in the distance.
In the 1940’s, my grandparents purchased a piece of waterfront property on Whidbey Island on the southern edge of the San Juan archipelago, located in what the Native Americans referred to as the Salish Sea. Back then, it would have felt like the ends of the earth, far far removed from the hustle and bustle of their life in Seattle. My grandparents had always planned to retire from their city lives and build their dream beach home on the property. However, after spending numerous years of weekend visits in their RV camper, they decided that the constant rumble of jets from the nearby Navy Base was too much commotion, so they bought property on the quieter Central Washington coast. My parents took on the task of building their own beach house on the Whidbey property in the mid-1990’s but even before that, we spent weekends in our family camper, cooking our meals over a campfire where the garage is now located.
Summers were spent barefoot, and I’m not sure how I did it. After living on a tropical island for so long now, I bundle up in my winter woolies each time I visit, no matter the time of year. To test all logic and reasoning entirely, we would regularly subject ourselves to swimming, even though the water temperature was a teeth-chattering 45 degrees, but we didn’t care, summertime meant swimming. We built forts out of driftwood, constructed elaborate sand structures, and chased the seagulls who were always lingering and waiting for the unexpected ham sandwich to slip out of a child’s fingers. We hiked in the woods and along a marshy lake so as not to be spotted on our stealth missions to the State Park to buy sweets from the concession stand; Ring Pops, Push Pops, Pop Rocks, Pixie Stix – a guaranteed sugar buzz for less than $1. We played flashlight tag at dusk. We kayaked, we fished and we set the crab pots, making periodic boat trips to check on our hopeful bounty. My sister and I joke that we were the two tannest girls in Washington from spending nearly every day outside.
The sounds of Bob Marley will forever remind me of our beach house. Bob Marley’s Legend album was slotted as #1 in our 6 disc CD changer, and God-forbid if anyone moved it. To this day, when I hear the intro to “Is This Love”, I picture my mom dancing around the kitchen and humming along with the tune while she unpacked the cooler, then by song #4 she would be mixing a cocktail and making her way down to the beach. Little did I know at the time that this Bob Marley character, so familiar in our household, hailed from a faraway tropical island in the Caribbean. To this day, his reggae beats are not reminiscent of white sandy beaches and rum drinks – to me, it’s the sounds of our cool northern beach house in summertime.
Along with summers at our beach house, I spent the winter weekends skiing in the mountains. For a long time, I couldn’t decide which was the better fit for me – the mountains or the ocean. I loved them both. I was simultaneously a skier, and a beach bum, but largely dependent on the season. Fall and spring were the bane of my young life, a painful time of year that appeared not once, but twice (along with the equally hated Daylight Savings), and my days were spent anxiously waiting for the next phase to approach. April was too late for ski season and too early to go to our beach house. September was even worse, school had started, the rain set in, everything turned brown and mucky while we waited in anticipation for the snow level to drop.
The cycles, seasons, and years passed until I was facing the next, and most uncertain stage thus far in my life; leaving home. My college years were spent in Eastern Washington at a campus nestled in the wheat fields. It was new and exciting but the sprawling open space felt foreign and desolate compared to the comfort of my towering mountains, evergreen trees and water in its many forms of sounds, tidal flats, inlets, straits, rivers, lakes and sloughs. I dug my heels in, did a few keg stands, and graduated in 4 years.
After college I took an unlikely path to Lake Tahoe, California and put my hard-earned degree aside to become a ski bum. I certainly got my mountain fix, but despite the expansive lake which glows in a clear Caribbean palette, fresh water just didn’t quite do it for me and I longed for the ocean. My home in the mountains couldn’t help but to have a nautical flare. I decorated with framed photos of boats, potted tropical palms, and votives filled with seashells. I continued my subscription to Coastal Living magazine and displayed them prominently on my coffee table, unlike my neighbors who had coffee table books by Ansel Adams and decorated with (what I thought were cliché) bear, moose, and pinecone prints, giving their homes a cozy lodge feel about them. My dog’s collar even had sailboats on it. Something wasn’t quite right, I wasn’t grasping the whole mountain vibe.
I missed the ever-changing coastal climate with its wind, rain, and clouds. “300 days of sunshine”, boasted the Lake Tahoe Tourism Board. The remaining 65 days were what we called “storm days” delivering huge servings of snow to the Sierra Nevadas. I wanted a rainy day, a cloudy day, a guilt-free stay-at-home-in-your-pajamas kind of day. I wanted salt spray and sand on the floors. I woke up one morning with an urgent sense that deep down, that island girl of my youth was calling me home. So I hung up my ski boots and moved to the Southeast Coast of the US, close to the ocean, but far from the mountains. I lived on a quiet island near the city of Charleston, and eventually moved onto my sailboat. One day, the winds from the Carolinas carried me to the Bahamas – an entire country made up of islands… an island girl’s dream. I landed and fell in love, both with a man and with the tiny island nation.
From time to time I miss the stillness of the mountains, the alpenglow (the soft rosy lighting at twilight), and the squeaky sound of walking in fresh snow, but I don’t feel empty without it. I am an island girl. I feel complete on a small landmass surrounded by water. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I am fortunate that my Dad now resides at our beach house as his full-time residence, so each summer I leave my tropical island and return home to my northern one. I take a deep breath of the pungent salty air. I used to say it smelled like dead fish. My mother loved it and although she has many years passed away, it is one place I can return to and always remember her. As an adult, I now love the scent of the pungent salty air as well. Something acquired, I suppose, like coffee or wine. I savor my quiet walks along the rocky gray shore. It’s lacking in vibrant colors of the tropics, but that’s not why I’m here. Sometimes you need to tone it down a bit.
I am an island girl – truly, always and forever.