Monday, Sept. 23, 1996
Spent yesterday enmeshed in the Xeno’s paradox of travel: You cross your first 3,000 miles in five hours; your next 100 in five hours; your next 10 in about, oh, five hours. Then you wait around going nowhere for five hours. It’s been a long trip from New York to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands between British Columbia and Washington state, where I’ve come to fulfill my Faustian bargain with SLATE: I get to wander over the woods and waters of these islands for a few days and get paid to report on what I encounter, which I hope will include orcas and eagles. An otter would be nice, too. Maybe a porpoise. I’m easy.
But in exchange I have to send in these diary entries every day, which will entail taking the emblems of what radical environmentalist Doug Peacock calls “syphilization” into the wilderness: a laptop and a cell phone–agents of not-being-here-now, of having your mind elsewhere and your thoughts anticipating possible futures instead of being where and when you are. Not to mention that they don’t take to water, and I’m planning on spending Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday kayaking. Why am I doing this? The recurring gag in Heathers keeps running through my mind: ” ‘Cause I’m an idiot.”
And yet. Faust got something out of his deal. Unlike Peacock I like civilization a lot, but it does grind you in ways only wilderness can heal. And I’ve been wanting to get in a kayak ever since I had a conversation earlier this summer with a kayaker on a pier in the Hudson River. Only I was on the pier, actually. He was in the brown-black waters of the river, paddling slowly toward Albany against the current, looking well exercised yet serene, moving at a meditative pace that left time to talk to curious doofuses who hailed him from shore. Focusing my attention on his slowness I had time to notice the little fish leaping out of the water as bigger fish came up underneath them, and the cormorants working the river for dinner. (The birds need a long runway for takeoff, so they run along the water, leaving a trail of white plashes where their feet hit before they got airborne.) That was New York City. I’m hoping the San Juans will reward Kayaker’s Attentiveness even more. Counting on it, actually.
The small van that brought me north from the Seattle airport to the ferry that got me to the San Juans was like a parable of the Ages of Man, what with the 3-month-old baby wriggling in her mother’s arms two seats up ahead, and the young couple entwined in each other across the aisle, and the white-haired lady sitting next to me. This turned out be Bernadette Farley, who was heading to one of the smaller island towns, where she lives with her daughter. Bernadette Farley has white hair, eyebrows outlined with an ochre shadow, big purple sunglasses and a purple sweater that matches, a wedding ring worn around her neck on a chain (“I was married for 66 years”) and one of those bags little old ladies carry that have their sweaters and money and clippings and notes.
She also has an uncommon interest in aviation. “What altitude did you fly at? My flight to Sacramento, we flew at 30,000 feet but, coming back, we flew at 28,000, because there was another plane above us.” The first airplane she ever saw was The Spirit of Saint Louis, when Lindbergh flew over her school in Seattle after his trans-Atlantic flight. But her enthusiasm had nothing to do with that.
It turns out Mrs. Farley had been afraid to fly for decades after she lost some friends to plane crashes. She’s interested in flying not because of a lifelong fascination, but because she avoided it and has now changed her mind. She goes on to tell me about graduating from college at 65 and about the five years she and her late husband spent wandering the country in a mobile home, without a fixed address.
I like Bernadette Farley. She seems to have spent her whole life concerned with what she was going to do next. The baby didn’t cry; the young couple didn’t fight. Maybe the cell phone will actually work.