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Islands Apart - A Year on the Edge of Civilization from hank tovar on Vimeo.



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 treasure it.

If you love nature and people and living a life of thoughtful introspection, buy this book YESTERDAY! 

McAlpine celebrates 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 more deeply. 


   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 Island.

  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 orgasm.

  Though forty-seven 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 back.” 

  I tried not to bare my teeth.

  “Is this wind normal?”

  “This is par for the course.”

  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.

-Trumpeter Books/Shambhala Publications

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