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29 August, 2011

Fear and Loathing (and bliss?!) in the San Juans.

Last week, I traveled to one of the San Juan Islands. Sounds like a place in Latino Latitudes, but they are our northernmost islands, ever since I stopped counting Alaska. After S. Palin said she could see Russia from there, oligarchniks have quietly been buying back pieces of it, and they now own enough land, oil futures, and moorages to have reversed Seward's Folly.

Meanwhile, down south, I sat on the deck of a small workboat, skimming o'er glassy waters on the way to my favorite island this side of Kaua'i. It was an international expedition, more or less, there being employees of two sovereign nations aboard, but tensions were low. My coffee buzz, borne of a 4AM wake-up and 2 or 3 hours of not-quite-as-fast-as-that-douchebag-in-the-BMW driving, was gone by then, and the remainder were northwesterners, cool enough not to let their 30% caffeine bloodstream affect their behavior. 

My job was to make sure a little hilltop was an OK place--archaeologically speaking--to plant a small weather station. I knew this would only take a few minutes, but was interested in what the reps of this other nation had to say about the whereabouts of a place that all of us agree exists, but none of us has been able to locate on a map, much less on the ground. Or, too many people have been able to locate it on a map, but they don't agree. Not violently, or even vehemently, more in the manner of a loss collective.

So there was no drama. No conflict. No more to write about.

So I ambled over to a place where some workers had been, uh, working. With big machines. And they'd gone where they were not supposed to. And obliterated some stuff. 

Irrevocably. Done. Nothing more to say.

So I continued to the south beach. Solo, toward the solace of data collection. The home of a man who invented a particular kind of mill saw, reduced for the time being to notes and numbers. Measured, sketched, GPS'd, until there are hours to rediscover the stories and graft them back to this bare limbwork. Sounds dull as it gets, but the uncreative busy work soothed me just then.

Moving on, it was time to climb. 600 or so feet up is the summit of a hill called Olivine, and for part of the way I followed old miners' roads, weaving twixt boulders loosed from earth but not barged away. Higher still, heading for a bald patch where I might have left a bag carrying camera and binocs, lost on the last trip here. In the camera, a memory card holding the only images of that place that had been torn away by machines. In the binocular lenses and dark interior, lagging photons showing 21 years of birds and cliffs, of places unreachable and just plain look-worthy. Memory and data, at waypoint 680. Maybe.

But only after crumbly cliffs and a final steep ascent under a sun as glaring as it gets in these northern islands (Not saying that much, Hawaiians, but acclimated me felt hot.) And there, in the place I had sat: nothing. No camera, no binoculars. Oh well. A pretty day, views down to the island (and a camera to catch 'em), the channels, more islands and straits, ocean. Boats unzipping wakes. A bell clanging in its language, inscrutably charming to my ignorant ears.

It was all downhill from there, beginning easily enough with a trail. Becoming a trace. Then just places less tangled than others. Then ever more precipitous slope, alternating between slick bedrock and loose talus made one by a moss skin over a skeleton of roots and rot. One leg carefully lowering my entire weight, then the other. Zig-zag switch-back, starting to wonder if I'd be back to the dock on time at this gastropodean pace.

On the other hand, it gave me time to appreciate the ancient fire-scarred trees scattered in this slanted forest. Occasional grandfathers, gnarled and interesting, surrounded by young'uns. 

I was looking up at one, it's branches akimbo with codgerhood and a disregard for verticality not tolerated in the tree farms and young forests I usually travel. Hunter S. had gotten that way in his old age, and years earlier had been nearly as curmudgeonly in his dismissal of amateurs one toke over the line, scoffing that until they'd dealt with the acid bats descending near Barstow, they had nothing to whine about.

And maybe getting all worked up over a hallucination is not that big a deal either. Imaginary bats swooping from the sky may be bad, but real yellow-jackets swarming up from their nest in the depths of hell ain't no picnic either. I'd been strung three times  before my body responded. They never really entered my vision, barely nicked my consciousness as anything other than pain when I took off in a clumsy cetacean approximation of running. Another sting, and realization that I'd be stung to death and devoured by the yellow-jackets at this rate.

I either stumbled or decided to jump, who knows? In any case, I looked down-slope and saw my feet before me, plowing downhill as I slid my butt across moss and logs, bouncing off rocks, pawing and clutching at whatever could help me steer this descent, maybe keep it from accelerating out of control (any more than it was). Extreme luge...sleds and ice are for panty-wastes. My mind thinking only of getting away from bees. Eyes pitching in by trying to spot a precipice before it was too late, and managing to do so.

Stop. Stand. Stung.

Again with the mad down-ward dash. Hop and lope, slide and hope. Managing to stick most of the landings and surf over a salal patch without it clutching me. Finally finding myself having covered a lot of ground, much closer to my destination. More importantly, out of the airspace of the squadron scrambled to chase me away. Not long after, I walked onto another old road, ambling calmly dockward. About 5 stings big enough to qualify, but no gashes, serious bruises, or broken bones sticking out of my skin. 

All in all, not a bad day.

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