From our cabin on Orcas Island in Washington state, I can see the silver blue waters of the ocean, framed by fir trees that rise higher to the heavens than any tree in Colorado: cedars and Douglas firs—four times as wide as the ponderosa pine that abuts my Colorado cabin. I get dizzy trying to see to the tops, to where the bald eagles perch.
But it feels like something’s missing here, some key component of my life in Colorado, and it takes me a few days to figure it out. There’s almost no wind here. Orcas is protected from the strong ocean currents and winds by a series of islands that extend west and northward, toward the mainland of Canada.
At first, I miss the wind, the one in Colorado that stirs life constantly, chasing the tops of the trees and the fields of green grasses, disturbs the surfaces of ponds. Especially in the old-growth forests on this island, there’s an almost unnatural calm that takes some getting used to, as if some essential component of life was missing.
Hiking amid the towering Douglas firs and cedars, I can’t even find evidence of animal life, like the loud Bronx cheers I get from the gray squirrels in Colorado or the raucous crows that loudly announce the arrival of a coyote at my cabin. No hummingbirds buzzing in frantic pursuit of each other. In these damp, almost impenetrable forests, if I'm lucky I'll hear the distant tapping of a woodpecker on a tree or the lone cry of a hermit thrush piercing this silence.
Yet, the deeper I get into these dark forests, I start to feel the quiet and peace. Everything is covered in green, as if some ooze leaked out and froze everything in place: rocks and downed tree limbs. From up high, a pale green light is filtered through the tops of the firs and big-leafed maples, while the ground is covered with different shades of ferns. Gradually, my heartbeat slows to the slight waving of the cedar branch, to the slight stirring of the fern frond. Life becomes measured at the pace of the slug that inches its way through the pine needles. What need is there for speed? These trees are thousands of years old. Time, they tell me, is nothing to be rushed, but something to be enjoyed, to be savored.
After a few day of talking to the locals, I can see that the island residents have adapted themselves to the same measured pace. When we ask them where they go for diversion and supplies —what mainland city or other island to visit—they look at us with some incomprehension. Once you’re here, there is no other place to go; this is where you want to be; there’s no reason to go anyplace else.
On an island only 57 square miles, with one grocery store, bank, hardware store and several restaurants and gift stores, and spotty Internet and cell phone service, that means slowing down your life to an almost unimaginable speed to those of us accustomed to the frenzied pace of modern life.
Indeed, after three days of probing every corner of this island and doing every activity offered (sailing, kayaking, canoeing, biplane riding), we finally realize we have everything we need at our ocean cabin.
Every evening, as the sun slowly descends into the sea, the same parade of creatures passes by our beach cabana: families of geese, with the same squabbles every night; a solitary pigeon guillemot peering intently into the sea before diving in; the rounded heads of harbor seals poking up from the flat water. When a river otter hauls up on shore one evening with its catch of the day and proceeds to chow it down three feet from us, it’s almost more excitement than we can stand.
Even the waves are subdued, polite, rolling in to smack the shore with loud wet kisses, nothing like the storms I’ve seen on the California coast. Sunset lingers until 10, the reds and oranges stretching out into the sky, fading so slowly it seems that darkness will never come. As the sun goes down, I can see more clearly the serrated peaks of the mainland of Canada in the distance, with strings of lights along the shore.
The waves uncurl through the pebbles on the beach, a hissing sound that gently unfolds up and down the beach. Slowly, slowly, I unwind.