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Copyright © 2002 Daniel Hays.
All rights reserved.
We've been driving for 3,260 miles, two weeks through twelve states. Summer-hot blacktop, the whining of my off-road tires louder than my radio. I like to think that for the whole trip I've been dragging this enormous eraser behind my truck and it has eradicated all of my past, nothing but dust bunnies in my wake. Receding farther and farther in the distance is a twelve-by-thirty-foot storage garage, the tightly packed, stacked, and compressed mass of stuff I've been calling my life for too many years. I secretly pray for a fire.
Wendy and Stephan follow in her new Subaru. I'm driving my beat-up Toyota truck (third engine, mismatched body parts, and 4 percent structural duct tape). I have our two dogs, who pant and drool on me. I find the need for toilets on long drives ridiculous, but breaking a new wife into the enlightened mind-set of squatting is a fearsome task.
"There's a nice tree, honey," I say at a dog break.
"You're taking me to the next gas station, and I want a nice one!" she says. Stephan and I sigh.
We've been camping out every other night, and tonight we stop at a hotel for showers and clean sheets. I've heard that being a parent is like thinking you can catch a landing airplane in a baseball mitt. Perhaps add that it is night and the plane has no landing lights, nor any desire to land. So what do I say to my eleven-year-old boy when he starts masturbating right after the lights go out and he's in a bed just three feet from me and his mother? I pause and pray for just a little divine intervention.
This whole dad thing is new to me. When I got married, I figured that taking on a nine-year-old son would probably be a little harder than getting a puppy—after all, I got my dog Bear when he was only twelve days old, so I knew all about bottle-feeding and cleaning up poop.
How much harder could a kid be?
So lying there in a hotel room at this obviously pivotal moment in Stephan's life, remembering all I could from Freud, Dr. Spock, Laura Schlessinger, and Kurt Vonnegut, I spoke these words of infinite wisdom: "Hey, stop that."
We arrive at the Calais-St. Stephen border, the easternmost crossing into Canada. Having been arrested at this very place five years and thousands of dollars in legal fees ago, I'm a little on edge. As we drive over the bridge, no-man's-land, the dogs sense my unease and begin yelping.
Three years ago I was single and had just (explosively) quit my job. My first book was about to be on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. I suddenly had way too much money in the bank. I was "doing a Melville," and as I had been a wilderness-survival instructor for the previous six years, I was packed up to hide on my island until . . . well, I wasn't really sure what I was looking for, or hiding from, but I was clear nobody would be getting in my way. I hadn't counted on a perceptive customs agent. It wasn't that I had that many illegal items with me; it was that the overall picture I painted was—well, an "undesirable" is how one of the many immigration papers described me.
Although this time I am not carrying any trip-wire booby traps, smoke flares, or night-vision goggles, I do have what still might appear to be the supplies for a suspect organization. I've packed a set of two-way radios, satellite navigation equipment, 12-volt batteries, a quarter mile of wire, good binoculars, a forty-five-pound box of reconditioned napalm (great for getting wet firewood going), camo clothing, an army first-aid kit (including sutures, pain killers, trauma dressings, and field-surgery tools), two small lasers, and a marine radio with a nine-foot antenna. "You know, just stuff . . ." I hear myself saying defensively to the customs officer.
All goes reasonably well until the officer points and asks me, "What is that for?" Being a teacher at heart I figure a demonstration is in order, so I test my brand-new deluxe imperial fire starter by scraping an impressive shower of sparks in the general direction of this nice uniformed lady. It works better than expected, and although she does not ignite, she does scream.
I see Junior standing by the boat shed with his hands on his hips and his usual "Oh jeez, here come the Americans" look. It is as if he'd been waiting for us and standing exactly where I left him sometime last year. Junior is the patriarch of Kingsland, the town on the shore closest to Whale Island. He grew up on Kingsland Island, son of the lighthouse keeper. Then he was the lighthouse keeper for thirty-two years. He and his wife, Becky, raised their three children on the island. In 1979 the lighthouse was automated and they moved to the mainland. The house he lives in now commands a view of the entire harbor.
I have yet to arrive at Junior's dock undetected by land or by sea. If I hit a rock on the way in, beyond his view, he knows. If I take a shortcut over a shallow spot, he knows. He and his family are practically the only folks we know here, and they are plenty.
The kids of theirs whom I know are Mike and Peter. Mike is older, in his forties, and looks like Paul Newman. Peter is shy, the youngest, and difficult to engage in conversation. Both their lives revolve around the water. Lobster, mackerel, sea urchins, scallops, and a lot of hard work provide their income. When I met Peter I immediately felt a kindred spirit in his inability to function around others. On land he is like a fish who can't quite get his gills to work. The third brother—I don't even know his name—is simply not discussed. I don't ask anymore.
In 1988 a real estate agent showed me a Xerox of an aerial photograph of Whale Island. He handed it to me almost embarrassed, because the property was so far away. "It's damn near impossible to get to," he said. "There's nothing on it but rocks and trees, and it's practically frozen in the ice pack half the year." Perfect, I thought.
Islands are no different than other real estate: there is a complete variety available, with a range of locations and costs. Close to New York City you can spend a million dollars for a half-acre island that connects to the mainland via a small causeway. In 1985 you could have bought John Wayne's old island, near Panama, complete with mansions and an airstrip, for half a million dollars. My father bought an island on the Thames River, in Connecticut, for $25,000 in 1975, less than one acre. Today, several hundred thousand dollars will buy you a twenty-acre island in Maine, but almost all such islands are in sight of the busy coastal roads. Whale Island was the first I could afford, around $80,000 U.S. More important, it was what I'd dreamed of: no lights and no roads, its open shores completely exposed to the ocean. Fifty acres of trees, rocks, and wild. It was a piece of unedited earth, "unimproved," and perfect in every way.
When I was sixteen and in high school, a biology teacher of mine had our class design a garden and wood plot. The assignment was to create an essentially self-sufficient system in which we could live. I remember that fifty forested acres would supply me with seven cords of wood per year forever. That was the wood required to heat a New England farmhouse. I needed to somehow generate electricity; the alternatives were wind, solar, or hydroelectric (best done when a stream or river is nearby, although there are systems that harness tidal energy). I needed a big garden, one hundred feet by fifty feet, if I remember correctly. Since that time it has always been my desire to live that way. It became a place my mind would wander off to. I wanted to live independently from someone else's electricity, water, and sewer system. I'd know where my food and my heat came from. I read Walden Pond. I wanted "to live deliberately."
That summer my dad and I built a small house on his island in Connecticut. It was a long and hot summer; we worked hard, and by fall the house was habitable. It was gorgeous, rising over the rocks on steel stilts, overlooking the mouth of the Thames River. It blended in with the rocks, and seemed to have always been there. Unfortunately, it was surrounded by a navy shipyard, a chemical factory, and a small but growing city. Long Island protected us from the raw Atlantic. A nuclear-power plant was also nearby, and although all of its lights sort of looked like Paris at night, it was not what I craved.
In the spring of 1989, when I was twenty-nine, I packed a blow-up boat, an outboard engine, and the only oar I could find into my jeep. I took a ferry from Portland, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and then drove for half a day to a remote town with the enticing name of Weed Harbor. I hadn't even noticed Kingsland on the map. A spring gale was just getting started, and I'd never seen it snow parallel to the ocean before. Actually, it was worse than parallel: it seemed to snow up from the ocean.
I asked several guys around the dock if they would take me out to Whale Island. The response was immediate.
"No, not in this wind, no way."
"Try one of them Carters in Kingsland—they'll go out in anything," one man finally volunteered.
I have since found that anyone in Kingsland who must mention Weed Harbor at all will include some colorful and descriptive metaphors in their response. Who knows how far back in time this feud goes? Nova Scotia was visited long before Columbus by Vikings, and Weed Harbor is only a day's row from the suspected first settlement. Maybe Weed Harbor boys are direct descendants of the Vikings and their barbaric ways. It would explain a lot, according to the Kingsland boys, anyway.
I drove farther east for another hour and found Kingsland. The town seemed deserted, literally at the end of a road. There were no stores, no phone booths, no traffic. But I did see beautiful workboats in the small harbor. I found a truck whose hood was warm, and in the building that was closest to it I first met Peter. He was building lobster pots, and my first thought was that he'd been doing it all winter, standing in his shed surrounded by rope, wood, wire, and tools. I introduced myself and asked would he take me out to Whale Island? He mumbled something about his boat being "laid up for a while," and pointed me toward a house, where I eventually found his brother Mike. Again, I introduced myself and asked if he'd take me out.
"By Jesus, what the hell would you want to go out in this snot for?"
"Fifty dollars?" I suggested. He looked at me quizzically.
"And a bottle of rum," I hastily added.
Mike took me out through the storm. He didn't even flinch. He had to test the rum, to make sure I wasn't pulling something on him, and then I had to be polite. Along the way, I saw the ocean as one finds it only at sea: waves as big as school buses surging over barn-sized rocks. Great masses of ocean, so unquestionably powerful that I always feel humble in their presence. People often talk of man against the sea, which to my mind is as counterintuitive as challenging gravity. A storm is a magnificent glimpse into the heart of nature to be regarded with wonder, not ego.
And that storm has made all the difference.
I bought Whale Island later that week. My passion and enthusiasm, combined with a complete lack of business sense, were not assets during the purchase negotiations. I was played like a fiddle. I closed the deal paying somehow twice the initial asking price. I justified that allowing myself to be manipulated by a savvy European businessman was evidence that I was incapable of associating with the real world. I actually needed an island, I reasoned, for my own safety.
Almost everyone had a story involving a relation who had once owned Whale Island. "My great-granddaddy bought it for two dollars in 1910, and he always said he paid too damn much. He fished here in the summers," one man told us. "I remember a shipwreck when I was little, a boatload of molasses, thick as oil it was. Her anchor's still on the shore over there," he said, pointing. Another spoke of coming here for picnics as he grew up, finding parts of shipwrecks on the beach, and how "a crazy American once lived here, I think he was the last fellow to winter on the island, didn't get on too good with anybody. Them windows you're replacing there was shot out, you know."
The stories kept pouring in. "Three men was buried on the north shore. I remember a cross used to mark the spot. I came here with my daddy when I was little. He'd leave me ashore while he pulled traps in the narrows there. Of course that stretch of island was washed away in '56." Another told us of a herd of deer who swam out and lived on the island for a while. In 1928 there was a fire. These stories left me wondering how my own time on the island would be described to future generations.
My father is a terrific designer. He actually learned the trade by designing stage sets on Broadway in 1955. The eight-by-eleven-foot shed we rebuilt became as snug as the two sailboats we'd built years before. We planked the inside with pine, made bunks and a kitchen, and installed lots of hooks so wet clothing could dry. We put in a tiny woodstove.
We put in windows and a new roof. A few years later it fed eight friends for the five summer weeks it took us to build the main house.
There is no easy way to summarize the building of our home: 100 pounds of nails; 150 pounds of nuts, bolts, and washers; between 12 and 15 tons of lumber; 1 ton of cement; and 100 gallons of water for the cement. In all, the house cost me under $20,000 to build. The friends who came to help stayed about a week each. We worked—my father, the friends, and I—from sunup till sundown. We made about eighty trips to the shore to pick up our supplies, a total of over eleven hundred miles, or nearly the distance between New York and Miami.
We unloaded much of the lumber onto a rocky peninsula closer to the house than our main harbor. We could do this only at high tide, and the sea had to be calm. Probably a third of everything fell into the water at least once. One bag of cement is still visible at low tide. There are 652 steps up a steep and winding path leading to the house. Friends named this "the Trail of Tears" after a week of carrying almost half of the future house on their backs.
This was a long, hot summer.
Now, bringing my new family to this place for the first time, I remember how the main house is still not quite finished. The fishing shed will act as a guest house, and maybe a retreat for later on, when cabin fever strikes.
No road—or even footpath—can follow the coast between the harbors of Kingsland and Weed Harbor. The mainland is rife with bogs and inlets, some cutting way inland. These natural walls keep the roads far away. Whale Island is on the outer curvy part of a bulge of wilderness land along the eastern shore. From the island we see no sign of civilization except, at twelve-second intervals, the flash of the Kingsland lighthouse. By boat it is seven miles to the closest road, in Kingsland. There is no way to walk along the coast toward the island from either town without having to ford the inlets, and you would probably die from mosquito bites.
Most of Whale Island is forever hidden. The trees are so dense that penetrating the thicker parts is possible only by walking backward. You just lean and push like hell, and the trees snap back into place behind you. If not for the constant sound of the ocean you would become lost after about ten feet, at which time where you came from would no longer be visible, gone in solid walls of dark green. Once, determined to get to the center of the island, I bravely launched myself into the void. After only about two minutes I walked right off a cliff. It took me a full twenty seconds to "fall" the ten or fifteen feet through the clutching spruce trees. I landed, if it can be called that, safe and happy on thick moss. I climbed up the way I had come and headed for the shore's constant music. I have not tried again.
From space Whale Island looks like an aggravated baby pterodactyl. When I look at a map of it, I always wait for a twitch, or I listen for a screech reminiscent of the cartoon Jonny Quest. The island is quite alive for me.
There is also a small sandy beach, a flat rock beach composed only of skipping stones, a marsh, a beach of pebbles, some areas where dirt falls directly into the sea, and some jagged steep-sided inlets where I can barely hang on. And there is one beach where all the ocean seems to deposit its flotsam, a terrific place to find buoys and pieces of wood for building stuff. There are unbroken rock peninsulas of solid bedrock, earth bones. There are pools where rainwater collects, tidal pools full of squirming life, and flat stretches of rock where the seagulls come to drop and crack open sea urchins or crabs so they can get to the soft meat inside.
Now at Junior's dock, the end of the road, our two dogs explode from the truck in a flurry of pee urgency. They run directly for Junior. Abby is an overbred neurotic Airedale. Bear is a studly Idaho sheepherding mutt. They are in love with each other. Both engulf Junior, completely disregarding his cool Irish demeanor. Abby leaps toward his face like a dart, her tongue desperate for a proper introduction.
The air is clean and I fill my lungs deeply, starting at that exact moment a new life. We are at the end of the road, with everywhere to go before us.
"Yup. Here we are. You better like us 'cause you're stuck with us for a year," I say. Junior almost smiles. "Well, by Jeezus, I'm willing to put up with you is all." (High praise, I think.)
Excerpted from ON WHALE ISLAND by Daniel Hays. Copyright © 2002 by Daniel Hays. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted March 3, 2011
If you love a dry sense of humor than you'll love this book as much as I do! And it's true! You just can't do any better than that!
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Posted November 18, 2009
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