Holiday multi-tasking on the mainland

The aisles are empty for our early arrival at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Daughter Lillian gathers her energy for a busy morning of holiday shopping.

I WON’T ASK FOR TOO MUCH SYMPATHY. Living on a small island in the San Juans isn’t too painful, I admit.

But this remote life with no stores, no garbage pickup, and no bridges to the mainland has its challenges. Anytime I leave Nuthatch Cabin for an overnight outing requires days of planning and preparation. And once I’m walking among the landlubbers, I’m a multi-tasking fiend. Especially as winter sets in.

Friends have expressed curiosity about my shopping and travel routines, so here’s an example from a recent four-day visit to the Outside (as bush-living Alaskans call the rest of the world).

Getting there

  • SEVERAL WEEKS in advance, I trade emails with friends or family to see if a guest room is available for me and possibly Galley Cat.
  • FIVE DAYS in advance: I text Paraclete Charters, my preference of the two local water-taxi services (because their boat has a cargo area protected from the elements). I request a booking for passage back and forth to their base at Skyline Marina in Anacortes. It’s a 35-minute boat ride from my Center Island dock, though that can be considerably longer when they stop at other islands. Rather than take my vintage runabout to Anacortes, I rely on the water taxi for the 5-mile crossing of Rosario Strait, which can kick up nasty any time of year. My Paraclete friends and I trade notes about preferred travel times; they make two or three round-trips to the islands each day. Once we’ve settled on an itinerary, they confirm my reservations.
  • A FEW DAYS AHEAD, I figure out how many cargo totes I’ll need. I pack one with bagged trash, to deposit in a mainland dumpster. Another carries snacks, cat supplies and a few food items; I usually try to contribute to a meal at my host’s home. I have a lot of grocery-shopping needs this time. I seem to have run out of everything at once, and winter is coming. I feel like a worried squirrel whose store of nuts is low. I bring a large hard-sided ice chest to transport frozen foods and an empty 18-gallon plastic tote to hold other groceries on my return trip. While nearby Lopez Island has a sizable supermarket and a well-stocked natural foods store, inflated island prices encourage me to do the bulk of my grocery shopping on the mainland. A small soft-sided suitcase takes my clothes, plus a soft-sided cat carrier for Galley Cat.
  • TIME TO CLEAN HOUSE. I hate to come home to a messy cabin. Out comes the vacuum, the broom, the duster and the spray cleaner. Galley, not a fan of roaring machines and spritzing spray bottles, flees outside for an hour.
  • PACKING clothes and supplies takes up the day before my departure. When Galley is to accompany me on a trip, I do packing the day before leaving. She is generally a good traveler on road trips, but by far prefers that we stay home by the fire. When the suitcase comes out and I start cleaning like a fiend, she knows she’s about to be scooped into her travel carrier, so she hides under a bed. Prying her out can be like wrestling a grumpy Tasmanian Devil from its den. So, on departure morning, 30 minutes before it’s time to load my baggage on to my golf cart for the trip to the dock, I pop her into the bathroom and close the door so as not to be chasing her frantically around the cabin when it’s time to catch the boat.
  • ON THE BOAT RIDE, when not looking out the window at Stellar sea lions that hang out on Bird Rocks, I write a check for the $38 fare (one-way) and text my Farmers Insurance agent letting her know I’ll be using the car for a few days. She takes my Honda Civic off the “storage” rate and I pay an extra $3 a day for insurance while I use it.
  • ROOM AT THE INN: After I drive south for a couple hours, sister- and brother-in-law Margaret and Tom Hartley host me and Galley at their comfortable home in Shoreline, just north of Seattle. I enjoy good company, a delicious home-cooked dinner and a DVD viewing of “Love Actually.” Galley stays in the guest room to avoid conflicts with my hosts’ tabby.

A multi-tasking whirl

  • SATURDAY, daughter Lillian and I wade out into the rain on our annual day of Christmas shopping at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, reached by a light-rail ride from Northgate. We start with Eggs Benedict for breakfast at the Athenian Restaurant, from which we gaze out the window to watch scuttling ferries on Elliott Bay. Favorite shopping stops include Perennial Tea Room, with loose-leaf teas galore, and Golden Age Collectables, which claims to be the world’s oldest comic-book store. We watch fish getting tossed, we have tea and crumpets for “elevenses,” and give a Christmas-sized tip to the busking piano man. By the time we head back to the rail station, our giant plastic shopping bag bulges with gift purchases.
  • SUNDAY, I spend the forenoon piling carts high with groceries at Trader Joe’s, Fred Meyer and Costco (the total tab: $435.90; I really was out of everything). At the car, playing something akin to Grocery Tetris, I meticulously wedge my purchases into totes for homeward transport. Next stop: Shoreline’s Holyrood Cemetery, where I place Christmas wreaths on the graves of my parents and in-laws and sing them a lonely carol. (The couples are buried about 100 yards from each other.) The day concludes with the annual Burns Family Christmas potluck at the Kenmore home of my sister- and brother-in-law, Sarah and Danny Mansour. The gathering is a highlight of the year for my late wife’s family, sharing good food, good drink and lots of socializing.
  • BUT IT’S NOT OVER YET: Monday morning at 7:45 I check in for an annual dental check-up and cleaning at Willamette Dental in Mountlake Terrace. Multi-tasking, remember? With a clean bill of dental health (and sparkling teeth), three hours later I’m the carpool driver for a couple of old friends, Kristin Jackson and Steve Miletich, on our way to a lunch gathering in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District with other former Seattle Times colleagues, Terry Tazioli and Lynn Thompson. The dim-sum carts don’t stop rolling at Joyale Seafood Restaurant. Eventually, we waddle back to the parking garage, and I buzz back to Shoreline to fetch my kitty cat and hit the highway back to Anacortes for a 4 p.m. sailing to Center Island. Among my many other purchases I’ve filled a 5-gallon jug with gasoline to add to the tank of my pickup truck next time I voyage to Lopez Island, where gas costs twice as much.

By 5 p.m., I’ve trundled all my groceries back to the Nuthatch, filled the fridge and freezer, lit a fire and poured a glass of wine. Time to rest up for the next trip to the mainland.

Meanwhile, happy holidays! May you all feast from a larder as full as mine. As a Christmas bonus, here are more colorful images from the Pike Place Market.

Fillets for flinging: Salmon and more wait for the fish-throwers to practice their sport at Pike Place Fish.
Crab priced like gold? Maybe a wise man will bring some as a gift to you on Christmas Eve.
Dazzling colors match the bold flavors for sale at a Pike Place produce stand.
The scruffy urchins of Charles Dickens’ London have a spiny counterpart on the seafood counters of Pike Place Market.
Dungeness crabs line up for a photo.