THE “LAND OF ENCHANTMENT” HAS ITS MOMENTS, especially the wide, wide, blue sky, seen in the panorama from my brother’s back porch outside of Taos.
Barbara and I are back from a week of red rocks, 95-degree days and immersion in the world of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was our first visit to New Mexico, prompted by my brother Doug’s move there last February.
Now, the cool September mornings on Center Island have never felt so good, but we enjoyed a dose of Southwest sagebrush, piñon pines and Pueblo culture.
O’Keeffe, known for her sensuous paintings of New Mexico landscapes, flowers and bleached skulls found in the desert, spent much of her later life at Ghost Ranch and the nearby village of Abiquiu, about 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe.
I enjoyed a hike with Doug at Ghost Ranch up to Chimney Rock, which included a view down on O’Keeffe’s former ranch home. The next day we toured the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, for an interesting look at the life of this creative and reclusive personality.
Another highlight was a drive up to Taos Ski Valley, at almost the same 10,100-foot elevation as Camp Muir on Mount Rainier, to see the golden aspens turning color.
We also helped harvest Doug’s rather ostentatious (by Center Island standards) tomato crop, grown with the aid of many drip hoses and long, hot days. The morning we left Taos, we picked 102 ripe tomatoes, some of which went to neighbors and many of which went in his fridge, aimed toward a large batch of spaghetti sauce — and perhaps a bit of saucy New Mexico salsa.
IT’S A SOUL-SOOTHING SUNDAY on Center Island. Cool and cloudy, with light rain freshening the air with a scent like newly laundered sheets hung out to dry.
The post-Labor Day exodus has happened, and the island is quiet. Thirsty trees and parched moss are soaking up the life-giving liquid and the whole place has a nurturing feeling of rest and regeneration after a summer of crowds and dust.
For me, it’s lumberjack season.
The hints of coming winter have prompted me to put down my journalist’s pen — usually just a blue Bic — and pick up an orange-handled Fiskars splitting axe that I swing above my head like a mad conductor carried away by Tchaikovsky.
The Finns know how to make cutting implements. One good whack often renders a nice piece of firewood no longer than 15 inches so it fits in our Lopi wood stove.
I’ve devoted an hour on several recent afternoons to splitting some of the many large rounds of Douglas fir that we’ve stacked up over the past two years from trees that have come down on our property. Our island community has a gas-powered hydraulic wood splitter I could rent that would probably finish the job in a day. But I get such a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from stacking wood I’ve cut myself. And instead of gas fumes, I just breathe the sweet perfume of pitch and sawdust.
Wood is our primary source of heat in The Nuthatch, and this will be the first winter in which we’ll have burned a fire every day instead of just on our monthly visits. I have no idea whether we’ll have enough firewood. So I chop. And when I think about winter and get a little nervous, I go chop some more.
It’s therapy, of a sort. And it beats the heck out of sitting in an office. Come December, I’ll let you know how the wood supply is holding up.
Meanwhile, in the immortal words of the Monty Python crew, I’m a lumberjack, and I’m OK. (And I am not hanging around in bars.)
“Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” — Henry Ford
NEXT WEEK: Posting from New Mexico, as Barbara and I visit my brother who recently moved to Taos. I’m told the jackrabbits are Paul Bunyan-size, and one can enjoy a game of “Spot the Coyote” while quaffing morning coffee on the deck.
ADMITTEDLY, WE OCCASIONALLY broke out into some von Trapp Family singing, because how can you not when confronted with the alpine wonders of the North Cascades on a sunny day at the end of August?
Daughter Lillian (who is just about to turn 27) and I took off together for a couple days of pre-Labor Day camping and hiking that was a delightful chance to renew our bonds while enjoying some of the most magnificent mountain scenery anywhere.
I was a little shocked to realize it was Lilly’s first time crossing the North Cascades Highway, testimony to the fact that boats and water-borne vacations have dominated my family’s life in the past couple decades. Now that we live closer to that part of the world, we plan to make up for lost trail time.
We had originally planned to go for a couple nights of backpacking in the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness, southeast of Mount Baker, but the fact that Lilly was getting over a cold and the weather forecast for the area was damp and in the 40s put the kibosh to that plan. So I cooked up a last-minute Plan B, which involved car camping at Klipchuck Campground, in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near the west end of the sunny-and-much-warmer Methow Valley.
Wildfires were burning within 20 miles or so to the north and south, but I counted on predicted west winds to keep the area smoke-free, and hoped that the campground’s relative obscurity (it’s a mile off Highway 20) and its first-come, first-served policy would allow us to find a campsite on the Thursday before Labor Day.
Still, I was a little edgy about finding a campsite so we didn’t tarry as we drove across the high mountains that day. But not to worry. We arrived on a sunny afternoon to find only 3 of the 46 campsites occupied. We took our time choosing our favorite! And not a puff of smoke to be seen the three days we were there.
That first night, I let her beat me at a round of Munchkin, one of her favorite fantasy card games (I did at least win the Potion of General Studliness). We played late into the night at the picnic table by lantern-light, before retiring under a sky lit up by the Milky Way.
The, ahem, peak experience was our day hike on Friday. We tackled the challenging but
oh-so-worth-it Maple Pass loop trail, circling pretty emerald-green Lake Ann and soaring to ridgetops offering in-your-face encounters with too many rugged mountaintops to count. It was a little more than 7 miles, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain on tracks often resembling mountain-goat paths. Having camped not far away the previous night, we got a relatively early start when it was mostly just us, the “meep”-ing pikas and a few curious Clark’s nutcrackers.
We sang a hiking song or two, nibbled blue huckleberries near the lake, admired late-season wildflowers and sat on a rocky promontory to munch on multigrain Wasa crackers topped with ripe avocado, roasted-pepper hummus and dijon mustard (the perfect hiking lunch).
At the tiptop, elevation 6,650 feet, we watched discreetly from a distance as a young man obviously asked his happily tearful sweetie to marry him. As they passed us on the trail later we offered congratulations.
At hike’s end, Lil and I trundled back to our campsite to soak our feet and chill some beer cans in nearby Early Winters Creek. (Let the name guide you as to the water temperature. Froze the feet but got the beer nice and cold!)
It was a great trip, and I finally got to break in my new Vasque hiking boots, a parting gift from my friends at The Seattle Times. (Sure footing all the way, and not a blister. Thanks again!) Back on Center Island now for Labor Day. Cheers!
ONE LITTLE CHALLENGE for us folk who no longer go to an office every day: remembering what day it is. Don’t make any “senior moment” jokes; it’s just that, hey, weekends don’t mean what they used to. Saturday and Tuesday aren’t a lot different, and it’s kind of delightful. (Remember Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess character in “Downton Abbey” asking with luscious distaste, “What is a ‘weekend’?”)
Sharing a bottle of wine with dinner used to be a weekend treat for us. Now, we try to exercise restraint and remember that not every night is “bottle o’ wine” night. Becoming a retired lush is such a cliché.
A glass of wine with Monday dinner is no sin, of course. And I enjoy a cold beer on the deck after a long day of working on the boat or pounding the keyboard. But as an alternative to alcoholic beverages we’ve discovered a refreshing new quaff that is a lot more interesting than iced tea. It’s shrub.
The shrub we’ve started making is a vinegar-based drink popularized in Colonial America. Barbara is the Nuthatch cabin’s shrubmistress, infusing coconut vinegar (she likes it better than apple-cider vinegar) with fruit that she purees in her new Vitamix blender, which her family gave her as a retirement gift (a machine so powerful that if the 90-horse Evinrude on our Skagit Express Cruiser ever dies, I’m thinking we’ll just get a really long extension cord and hang the Vitamix off the transom).
An online column from the Institute for Culinary Education says that the word “shrub” is derived from the Arabic word “sharbah,” which translates as “drink,” and that even sailors from the 16th-18th centuries drank shrubs to prevent scurvy. No scurvy on our sailboat, I’ve always said as I squeezed plenty of fresh lime into the G&Ts. And now we’re fighting scurvy on our island, too — but a little more soberly.
But just because they’re not alcoholic doesn’t mean shrubs aren’t fun.
Following in her sister Margaret’s footsteps, Barbara has experimented with different shrub recipes, such as blueberry with lavender, blackberry with apple, and blueberry with ginger and mango (quite nice). We typically add sparkling water infused with lemon and lime to make a frothy drink that is as titillating to the taste buds as a fine wine. And because Barbara uses much less sugar than some recipes call for, it’s also healthful (full of antioxidants, and vinegar that is good for your gut). The latest brew to start aging on our kitchen counter: freshly-picked Center Island blackberries, heritage apples from an old homestead on Lopez Island, and peppery nasturtium flowers grown on our deck. Sounds deliciously intriguing.
Got a favorite shrub recipe? Please click on the “comments” and share it.
FUNDAMENTAL TO LIVING ON A SMALL ISLAND with no stores — in fact, no businesses of any kind — is that you learn to do a lot of things for yourself.
On Center Island, we’re not all alone in that. We’re part of a community association formed in the early 1960s, one of 180 property owners who pool our resources to make life work here. (It’s called the Center Island Association, or CIA, though the only clandestine activities involve things like figuring out who on the island is bending the rules on crab season.) Among the island’s shared resources: a tractor.
And we’re not talking a little tiny tractor you use for mowing the lawn or pulling a cart of garden tools. This is a decent-sized orange Kubota tractor with a giant shovel sort of bucket on the front and big old knobbly tires that enable it to climb, well, just about anything you might feel like climbing.
It also has a ball hitch on the back — a selection of different sizes, in fact — as the most common use for our tractor is to pull boat trailers. We use the tractor to haul boats out of the water and to relaunch them again because nobody on the island can drive their own giant pickup (island covenants don’t allow private vehicles with internal combustion engines).
So I’ve gone from being the “mild-mannered reporter” (if you remember your Clark Kent) to being a tractor driver. So far, having hauled our 1957 Skagit Express Cruiser, the WeLike, out of the water twice for cleanup and routine maintenance, I’ve managed to not flatten the caretaker’s pickup truck (the covenants don’t apply to him) though it was a near thing today. (Can I help it if he parked in a bad spot?) And I haven’t accidentally dug up anyone’s buried telephone line (unlike one of my neighbors who forgot to raise the big scoop thing before hitting the accelerator).
Next step: I plan to get some more flannel shirts. And I’m thinking of taking up chewing tobacco. (I’m told you shouldn’t spit into the wind, right?)
NO, I‘M NOT POSTING ANY CAT VIDEOS. But here’s the next best thing for you petaholics: a posting on how our two boat cats have adjusted to island life.
Purrr-ty well, I will (somewhat shamefacedly) say.
We’ve given boat-y names to a succession of felines who’ve lived with us on our sailboat over the years. There was Compass and Rose, and now Bosun and Galley Cat.
Bosun, aka Bobo, and Galley have visited the Center Island cabin many times over the years, but now they’re here to stay. And the big life-change for Galley: She gets to roam outside on her own, for the first time, at age 6. Bobo, a big handsome tuxedo cat, at age 15 is too skittish and set in his ways to go out unaccompanied. (He’s between 77 and 90 years old in human years, depending on whose formula you follow; I am only 11 in cat years, I was pleased to discover. Maybe I’ll start using that when people ask.)
On the boat, both cats wore harnesses (not made for cats; typically they wear size “Small Dog”) and went out on the sailboat’s deck on tethers that kept them from jumping on to the dock. They could soak up sun and get fresh air while kingfishers baited them from the mast spreaders.
But now, for Galley, it’s like a jailbird breaking out of the Big House. She’s loving it.
Galley is a sweet, odd little ginger girl who is just about the exact color of the dried August grasses on Center Island, so she gets to play “lion of the Serengeti.” So far she has been unsuccessful at stalking birds, and if she gets better at it we will reconsider her liberation, since watching birds is one of our favorite new pastimes. She did succeed in catching a small garter snake, but when I picked it up and moved it away, it appeared to only be playing dead, so I think she was more interested in poking at it than killing it. (The conquest earned her the nickname “Snakelips.”)
We’ve wrestled with a few parental concerns. We keep her inside after 4 p.m. to avoid confrontations with nocturnal natives such as raccoons or the occasional mink. And we’ve treated her with special rub-in drops that make her unattractive to fleas and ticks. One worry we happily don’t have: busy streets and speeding traffic. (I took her on a walk to the grass air strip once and a plane suddenly landed right in front of us, causing her to just about jump out of her skin, so I think that taught her to stay away from the field where Birds the Size of a House fall out of the sky.)
It’s been a real pleasure watching her discover the joys of running around the woods and taking her first stabs at tree climbing. So far, she hasn’t gone up far, and usually leaps right back down. (If she gets stuck up a tree, there’s no fire department to call, so I suppose I’d have to haul out the big ladder.)
Part of our new routine has become a joyful part of my day. When I make the steep climb up the rocky knoll to Wee Nooke, my writing hut, Galley invariably comes dashing up the narrow path from behind and rockets to the top ahead of me — sometimes finishing with a 6-foot climb up a tree, just to show off. (I always applaud.) When I leave Wee Nooke’s door open on warm days, she’ll wander in and out to say hello (and to get one of the kitty treats I keep in a jar). At day’s end, she’ll rocket down the trail past me, just to finish things right.
She’s gained a bit of weight, perhaps from all those kitty treats, but also from some new muscle, I think. And she’s been sleeping really solidly.
While she gets to have all that fun, it doesn’t mean old Bosun is cooped up all the time. We put his harness on him and tether him on the cabin’s deck where he’s pretty happy to lay on the warm cedar boards and soak up hot sun on his old bones. And he smells really fresh when he comes in.
We love having cats. They keep each other company if we have to go away for a night or two. And we’ve been lucky to find a conscientious high-school boy on the island who cares for them when we’ve gone for longer sojourns.
OK, LOYAL READERS (BOTH OF YOU), don’t say that this scribe isn’t heedful of his public. I’ve had a request for a closer look at the writing studio (or writing hut, more accurately) from which I fire off these juicy missives. So here you go.
This humble structure originated as a playhouse (or escape hatch) for daughter Lillian, who was 12 when we bought our island cabin in 2003. With a 6-foot-square interior, it came as a kit, designed to be a cedar garden shed, and it fits nicely in the grassy space atop our rocky knoll behind the cabin we’ve come to call The Nuthatch.
Thanks to my dear wife’s Australian upbringing, the hut was first called the Wendy House, after the British term for playhouse, taken from “Peter Pan.” (You can take the Aussies out of the empire, but you can’t take the…)
Lillian was given free reign to decorate the interior as she wished. In her blooming teenager-hood, the world was one of infinite possibilities, apparently. So at the top of one interior wall she painted the question, “Why not?” She then went to the University of Washington library, where her mother worked, and interviewed foreign-language librarians to find out how to write “Why not?” in other languages. To this day, the question is painted inside in 18 different languages, ranging from Vietnamese (“tai sao khong?”) to Dutch (“waarom niet?”) to what I finally recognized the other day to be Pig Latin (“Y-whay ot-nay?”).
I’ve kept most of her decor, including the zebra-striped rug, though I did take down the many circa-2003 Johnny Depp posters (Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” film had just come out), which were encrusted with dead spiders after these many years. One poster even concealed a tiny hibernating bat that had found its way inside.
I also renamed the writing hut. It’s new name, announced by a wooden placard that Lil made for me as a Father’s Day gift last month, is “Wee Nooke.”
The moniker is taken from a P.G. Wodehouse story in which bon vivant Bertie Wooster rents a country cottage of that name. Unfortunately, a pesky Boy Scout named Edwin, committed to doing daily acts of kindness, attempts to clean the cottage’s chimney using gunpowder and paraffin, burning Wee Nooke to the ground.
So, it’s a literary name. What better to inspire a writer? I might even put in a woodstove for winter — with a chimney, of course. If so, I promise I’ll keep an eye peeled for wayward Boy Scouts.