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This book may be sold in the travel section, but
it is a wonderfully light-hearted and philosophical look at present-day life.
Makes you want to take time out, lie in the grass and look at the stars.
Beautifully written and you'll be glad you took the journey!
I slowly read the
chapters, savoring each word. At one point I discovered my eyes were welling
with tears because I had to leave one of the islands. Ken writes with a
delightful touch, tossing humor into the most unexpectedly terrain, yet watches
man with a keen and knowing eye. I couldn't wait to read this book and now
If you love
nature and people and living a life of thoughtful introspection, buy this book
and struggles with the gifts of silence and solitude. The results are
careful, poetic, and often funny observations...
From the Publisher
A humorous and wise look at contemporary American life—and how time
spent alone in nature can give us a fresh perspective and greater
clarity about what matters most.
In this touching and
often humorous book, author Ken McAlpine does what many of us long to
do. Overwhelmed by the hectic pace of his life, he escapes to a
beautiful, remote location where he finds the open spaces and solitude
that bring him some peace of mind. McAlpine camps alone in the Channel
Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California, a place
where time slows down, the past reveals itself in prehistoric fossils,
and where a person can become attuned to the rhythms of the natural
world and find their rightful place in it. For McAlpine the
Channel Islands become a modern-day Walden Pond—an enchanting, isolated
location from which to reflect on nature, civilization, and what
matters most. Back on the mainland, McAlpine continues his explorations
by seeking out experiences that reflect who we are and what we value
today. His travels include spending time at a soup kitchen in Beverly
Hills; a Catholic monastery; and visiting Arlington West, a veteran-run
memorial to soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Islands Apart is
an engaging meditation on what we can learn about ourselves and our
world when we open ourselves to the wisdom of nature and begin to look
On the other
Channel Islands you are free to wander off on your own, but San Miguel Island
is different. Except for a few trails near the campground, you cannot hike
anywhere without a ranger. These restrictions are the result of an agreement
between the Navy – which still holds title to the island, and once shelled the
place – and the Park Service, which is agreeable in the matter. The Park
Service, for its part, does not want the natural glories of San Miguel
disturbed. The Navy, from what I could surmise, does not want hikers vaporized.
The Navy, I read in one official account, “will not guarantee that there are no
pieces of live ordnance still lying around the island”.
So each day I set
off with ranger Ian Williams to explore a different part of the island. San
Miguel is not small. As I mentioned, it comprises fourteen square miles. The
hike from the campground to Point Bennett, San Miguel’s westernmost point, is
fourteen miles roundtrip. Even short hikes on Miguel can be daunting.
The evening before, Ian had suggested we spend
my first day hiking to Cardwell Point. I had already utilized the campground’s
sole pit toilet, and so noted the map posted there. Cardwell Point was only
three miles from camp. At home in Ventura
I had also perused the topographic map I had intended to bring; though standing
outside the pit toilet I saw the map in my mind’s eye, still resting on my
desk. No matter. A quick scan of the map had, in professional outdoorsman
terms, revealed a blessed paucity of those tight-knit squiggly lines that
indicate sheer climbs and, worse still in my mind, the potential for terrifying
falls. The hike to Cardwell Point promised no more than a tepid decline to the
water, and an equally comfortable incline on the way back.
Ian was taking me to
see the elephant seals. Though it is impossible to measure such things – among
other things, San Miguel has seen a remarkable comeback for the resident island
fox - the island’s greatest boon may be its role as a pinniped sanctuary, a
haven for honking hordes of northern elephant seals, California sea lions,
harbor seals and northern fur seals who arrive on San Miguel at various times
of the year to snarf down fish and squid and bark, blare, breed, birth, belch
and bark some more. Nowhere in the world will you find more pinnipeds. Their
gathering on San Miguel represents one of the largest congregations of wildlife
in the world, and certainly one of the most vocal. The previous night,
answering Nature’s call in the aptly named wee hours, I had heard their cries
drifting up from the beach at Cuyler
Harbor. From a distance
the cacophony sounded like some insanely fun fraternity party to which I wasn’t
invited. During my time on the island, their noise waxed and waned, but, midday or midnight, it never ceased. It was as if they
had discovered the party-goers’ version of Viagra.
As we hiked toward
Cardwell Point, Ian told me that the height of elephant seal breeding season
had just passed. It had peaked, coincidentally, around Valentine’s Day, and, as
with any species, competition for mates was heated.
“It gets pretty
loud,” said Ian, who was also distinguishing himself as a master of
understatement. “There’s a lot of vocalization, posturing and bluff charging,
but there’s not a lot of actual fighting. A lot of it is settled at lower
levels of force. Every once in awhile the bulls will latch on to each other and
give each other a few swats, but that’s about it. It’s so much saner than what
humans do. We go straight for the trigger.”
The hike to Cardwell
Point was uneventful, but the beach was not. The cries of the elephant seals
and sea lions reached us long before we reached the point, and when we topped a
small rise and the beach came into view it was immediately apparent that most
everyone was exhausted from the Valentine’s festivities.
The sandy beach
formed an arrowhead whose blunted tip disappeared beneath emerald green inshore
waters that leapt and frothed in a dance of wave and wind. An inconceivable
tonnage of blubber lay scattered across the beach, bratwurst-like forms that,
for the most part, lay stone still, like a narcoleptic Sumo wrestling
convention. Many of the blubbery forms were small, at least by elephant seal
standards. The pups, for the most part, lay alone in the sand. Most of the
females had already left the island. Now and again a pup lifted its head and
issued a plaintive cry.
“Most of these
elephant seal pups were born this winter,” said Ian. “Some of the pups get kind
of whiny when Mom leaves. They’re kind of wondering where their free meal went.
But by the time their mothers leave they don’t need the mother’s milk anymore. They’ll
spend about two months just living on their fat.”
The mature males
were easy to pick out. Their great noses wobbled like some grotesque amalgam of
elephant trunk and turkey neck, and the rest of them was roughly the size of a
barn. For the most part the males also lay still, though now and again one
lifted its head as if suddenly goosed and made a basso, throaty plocking noise
not unlike a clogged sink finally draining. Certain males found additional
energy reserves. Rising slightly, they inch-wormed forward, their great bodies
exhibiting a Jello-like rippling, as if their back ends, forced to wait for a
beat to pursue forward momentum, were hurrying along to catch up. These bursts
were short-lived. Like a plane nosing into a runway, the elephant seals
abruptly followed their dangling proboscis back into the sand.
I watched a large
male emerge from the water. Actually he let the waves push him. When the waves
weren’t pushing, he simply lay flat, surrounded by soupy froth. Elephant seals,
like the males of other species, dispense their energy wisely. Lest you think
them lazy, consider that a single alpha male may mate with fifty or more
females, an enticing prospect turned exhausting.
Ian and I sat atop a
bluff, eating lunch in a submissive hunch. If the males on the beach saw us,
they might consider themselves challenged. Except for the sea lions and
elephant seals the windswept beach was lonely, and sorely alluring.
“Big as they are,
they’re surprisingly quick,” Ian said, munching on his sandwich.
Between bites he
casually informed me that, though most of the females were gone, many of the
males remained randy. Now and again the randiest attempted to mate with a pup,
a sometimes deadly pairing.
Ian said nothing
more, but I did not miss the implication. If the males didn’t regard me as a
threat, they might regard me as a beau.
We looked across a
deep blue expanse toward the emptiness of Santa Rosa
Ian spoke quietly.
“It’s hard to
believe that all this happens so close to civilization.”
The wind shoved at
me, its cold biting my cheeks. Down on the beach the elephant seals lay as if
sunbathing at St. Tropez. Crouched on the bluff, my skinny, goose-pimply frame
encased in long underwear and down, it occurred to me yet again how our
achievements, while impressive, blind us to the fact we remain feebly adapted
to the rawer world. The elephant seals and sea lions on the beach below us came
and went as they pleased. Man arrived only when the weather gods smiled. The
current population dichotomy of San Miguel highlighted this. Pinnipeds, in the
thousands; humankind, four.
Some might call
Cardwell Point a lonely beach, but it wasn’t lonely at all. It was a
springboard for a new generation.
The wind bit even
colder when we turned for home. At first I noted this absently. In short order,
I realized the wind was blowing directly in our faces. I leaned forward
slightly, assuming a mildly monkish bent, but now again a gust stood me
upright, and once my baseball cap flew off my head, whirly-gigging twenty yards
before falling to into the shin-high grass, which, in turn, ran in a visible
river back toward Cardwell Point.
I tried to adopt a
cheery attitude – the sky was a lovely blue, outdone only by the purple
flowered lupine on the gently rolling hillsides – but the incessant wind turned
me peevish. How far was it back to
the campsite? It felt like we had already been hiking for an hour. Was Ian
lost? How the hell could that happen?
The man had been stationed on the island for sixteen years, for crissakes; it was like forgetting your way to
the bathroom in your own home. The thick grass along the hillsides continued to
ripple as if the earth itself had turned liquid, and alongside the trail
shrubby bushes jerked about madly, as if each experiencing their own joyous
and sporting a reddish beard lightly touched by gray, Ian still reminded me of
a small boy. Maybe it was his reddish hair, but he bore a vague resemblance to
Opie, or, if you’ve never seen the Andy Griffith Show, then Ron Howard with
hair. At Cardwell Point he had even unwrapped a white bread sandwich.
As we hiked, he
seemed to grow younger and younger. He walked much faster than a
forty-seven-year-old should, and, since he was behind me, I had to do the same
to keep him from hiking right up and over my back. I walked faster. He walked
faster. I had the distinct impression he was herding me back to camp. He
probably had filet mignon defrosting on the counter. Despite the wind I began
sweating profusely. I wanted to kick the orgiastic bushes and Ian too.
At one point the
trail dipped mercifully into a small ravine. It was as if someone had suddenly
thrown a switch. Ian used the blessed respite from whopping to speak.
“Like they say,” he
opined cheerily, “it’s three miles down to Cardwell Point and thirty miles
I tried not to bare
“Is this wind
“This is par for the
Ian was already
lifting one foot and then the other, the universal hiking signal for moving on.
Unfortunately I was still standing in front of him, and the ravine was too
narrow to step aside and allow him the lead. He was clever as a sheep dog too.
That evening I ate
lasagna from a bag and watched the world go dark. The gloaming came on as
discreetly as dawn had arrived. Nature feels no need to beat her chest.
Twilight deepened, but a spectral glow remained. The sea of yellow coreopsis
flowers seemed to throw back the light of the departed sun, but the bushes
still stood silently before the falling night, like a respectful crowd. As it
grew darker, the world lost the sharp edges of reality. In the distance the
peaks of Santa Rosa Island flattened; close at
hand the coreopsis dissolved so that lollipop bushes heavy with lemon drops
could indeed exist. In the darkness, lovers become who you want them to be. At
the very last the blackest sky bent down and kissed the earth.
How often do we
stand outside and watch darkness fall? Not often enough.