The boat docks in a tiny harbor at the base of a cliff on East Anacapa Island, off the coast of Southern California. I climb a switchback metal stairway bolted to the side of the cliff like a shelf — 157 grated stairs, through which I can see the rocking water of the cove below. The island is sun drenched in the middle of September, and there is no shade anywhere. A glittering heap of ancient seashell fragments scatters light: the casual litter of the Chumash, who came here five thousand years ago. They crossed the channel in rough dugout canoes, then hopped from island to island across the violent, foaming seas between. The island’s name comes from the Chumash word anyapakh, for “mirage.” A dozen miles away, across the wide channel, the mainland slides behind the haze.
Anacapa is really three steep, jagged islets, and only the eastern one is accessible. I walk the winding trails in the dazzling afternoon sun, above the shining sea and below a great dome of dark-blue sky. The crumbling edges of the island’s precipitous bluffs are marked by railroad ties, beyond which the land gives way. Beyond which you fall. I climb over a few sharp rocks at the very edge and look at the point of Middle Anacapa, a rocky ridge hundreds of feet high and just a few feet wide. It seems only a step away, beckoning. Tempting. Surely I could make that leap.
I am supposed to be writing a magazine story, a celebration of Channel Islands National Park. I’ve been hiking, kayaking into the caves, snorkeling in the cold kelp forests, and dutifully taking notes. Every day I ride the ferry for a few hours alongside a dozen or so cheerful people with backpacks and sturdy shoes. I study the long history of loss in this place. I read about the black rats who came to Anacapa on ships in the early twentieth century. They spread across the island and ate the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds, and nothing stopped them until all three islets were crop dusted with rodent poison.
I traveled here in an altered state, the strange calm after a funeral. I’ve been afraid to fly for many years, and when I do fly, I avoid small planes and take pills and lose myself in a cocoon of music and eye shades. But I flew to Los Angeles without fear, hardly even with attention. I just watched the rolling autumn clouds below.
I had already begun to pack when he died; the tickets were purchased, contracts signed, reservations set. There was no reason to change plans. Upon my arrival I found my rental car, drove north to Ventura, located the ferry landing, and checked into my hotel while still in a splendid anesthesia. Then I unpacked and repacked for the islands: hiking poles, swimsuit, towel, camera, notebook, jacket, lunch, water bottle, sunscreen, and books in careful piles.
And now I go to the islands every day — the lovely, enormous, uninhabited islands. I go to Anacapa and then to Santa Cruz Island, a tall pile of forested hills, grassy meadows, and sea caves. I am barely sleeping, barely speaking, wrapped in mourning as though hugged by a smothering aunt. Something has gone deeply, wholly still inside me. At times exhaustion overcomes me, as if I have been running for miles, and I just stand there, wherever I am. Then the shock of his death repeats itself, and I start shaking all over — in the hotel lobby or at the damp boat rail or on the very edge of East Anacapa.
I’m working, I remind myself. There are things I should do, places I should go. On the far end of the island chain is San Miguel, the most remote island in the park. San Miguel is an impossible four-hour boat ride each way, its route passing over the wrecks of many ships — a wind-riven, fogbound, storm-soaked place. It has one harbor and no pier; boats must anchor and drop a skiff for people to take through the surf to the shore. From the rocky beach the climb to the single campground is a mile long, and you must carry everything, including your water. The wind on San Miguel blows all the time and in every direction. There are no windbreaks except a few panels of wood put up by the Park Service.
There were trees on San Miguel once. In 1542 a Spaniard named Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (though perhaps he was a Portuguese man named Joaõ Cabrilho; historians aren’t sure) landed on the island, badly hurt from a tangle with Native Americans on the coast. He died three months later and may be buried there. Then some fool tried to make San Miguel into a sheep ranch. His wife eventually walked off a cliff. After the sheep ate nearly every blade of grass, the farmer, who at least had persistence, brought in burros. They chewed away until there was almost nothing left but sand. After the burros starved, the Navy used San Miguel for bombing practice. Today the island has only one living tree, a willow. Its hollow is called Willow Canyon. But even if I wanted to go, the island is closed to the public while the Navy searches for “unexploded ordnance.”
The Chumash were driven away from these islands — captured, converted, starved — by the Spanish, and the Spanish were followed by hermits, pirates, whalers, rumrunners, speculators, and Navy bombers. Santa Rosa, an enormous island, has secret waterways, hidden beaches with seal colonies, and big sand dunes. Entire skeletons of the pygmy mammoth have been found there. During the Ice Age, when the channel was only a few miles wide, mammoths swam across and slowly evolved into a dwarf species, barely six feet tall. The sheep are gone now, and what’s left is a broken beauty. The munchkin liveforever plant exists in the wild here and nowhere else on earth.
I should go to Santa Rosa, but the rough boat ride takes hours, and the boat doesn’t run every day. Most visitors camp there for a few nights, and I have no camping gear. Time is short, and I am . . . not really able. Every night I argue with myself. I’m supposed to be working. I need more notes. I should go to Santa Rosa. I sit in my hotel until I’ve put the trip off too long for me to take the boat.
I call Channel Islands Aviation, which has been flying to Santa Rosa for more than forty years. I make the call in a kind of daze, a fine psychic celibacy. I haven’t been on a small plane in many years. They offer me a seat on the next day’s flight.
I find my way to the airport in Camarillo in the fresh hours of early morning. A part of me is wondering what the hell I am doing, planning to fly over the sea in a tiny craft, sober. But the greater part is in an inertial slide toward whatever’s next.
The plain room with its single counter is cool after the heat of the parking lot. The plump, smiling woman there tells me she is sorry, but the flight to Santa Rosa has been called off. Instead the pilot will take a Park Service biologist out to San Miguel and bring home the biologist who has been there for a week. I would be welcome to join the pilot for free. She pushes the passenger ledger toward me. The flight would be a quick trip, she says — twenty minutes each way, with perhaps an hour to explore, as long as I don’t go far from the ranger station.
People work hard to get to San Miguel in order to see the pinnipeds. Off San Miguel’s Point Bennett there are thirty thousand of them: northern fur seals, harbor seals, California sea lions, and northern elephant seals, all lying atop and under and beside each other in massive, wriggling piles of fatty flesh, one of the largest concentrations of animals in the world. You can hear them barking from miles away. To get a free plane ride to San Miguel is like winning the remote-island-exploration lottery.
I sign in. The woman weighs me and my backpack. Then I sit in the bare waiting room — a few cheap plastic chairs, some old sailing magazines. I flip through articles about racing yachts. The pilot, a middle-aged white man in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, steps into the waiting room and beckons to me, and I walk onto the runway with him. His name is Jonathon, he says, and it’s a lovely day to fly.
The plane is the size of a couch. This is what I am doing, I think. This is what’s next.
Andy, the biologist, is already waiting. Trim and quiet, he tosses his duffel on top of a few crates of bottled water and canned food, then crawls in after it. Jonathon helps me into the seat beside his, climbs in, hands me a large headset, and flips a switch. I fasten my thick seat belt. The propeller races into a blur, we zip along the runway for a moment, and then we simply rise into the air, sunlight flashing through the glass.
“Magic carpet,” Jonathon says into my headphones, with a quick smile.
The little machine seems to float into the sunshine with barely a bobble. We fly a few hundred feet above the sea. A long, dark shadow slides briefly below the whitecaps — a whale, blue or humpback this time of year. I’ve seen them spouting beside the hundreds of dolphins who escort the ferries across the channel. Andy sprawls behind me on a lumpy pile of boxes and doesn’t try to speak over the noise of the engine. We skate along the air. The plane is like a tiny shell we carry, hermit crabs over a toy world. I can see the solitary square of the island of Santa Barbara more than fifty miles to the south, alone in the ocean like a block half buried in blue sand. Scattered oil rigs plunge drills deep into the ocean floor.
He died only a week ago. His heart blew itself up, erased him like a pencil smudge. I fell to the floor when I heard the news. I couldn’t breathe, clutching the phone. Now I am aware mostly of the absence of almost everything I’m used to feeling. In my vague derangement I notice something else: I am not afraid in this plane. Perhaps it is only enervation, but I am not afraid, and it is a strange, light sensation. With a spurt of curiosity I think, This is why people love to fly. We slide over the royal sea, its jewel surface blue as the sky on a clear day.
We head due west, past toothy Anacapa, the rust and green of Santa Cruz, and then over the rumpled hills of Santa Rosa. The channel is smooth on the leeward side of the islands, choppy and bright to the windward. A pencil-thin line of clouds surrounds the larger islands, following their every curve. At San Miguel we fly low over the colony of seals and sea lions, thousands upon thousands of fat, strong bodies all along the southside beaches. Then Jonathon turns inland, toward the tiny runway. Abrupt as a door slamming, the land disappears in a cloud.
“Fog coming in,” says Jonathon. “We’ll have to move fast. I can’t do an instrument takeoff there.” He is suddenly busy. “I need visibility.”
We bounce down through ivory shreds, nothing to see but the fog. He lands into the wind on a dodgy track of dirt and dry grass that appears out of nowhere. Robyn, the biologist who is ending her week’s work, is waiting by a small ranger station wrapped in the thickening blanket of white.
“Move fast,” urges Jonathon. There will be no time for me to look around.
We jump out, unload the gear and water, and load up Robyn’s gear and empty water bottles in a few moments. Robyn gets in, and Jonathon and I take our seats and buckle up. He flips a few switches, turns the key, and the starboard propeller spins. But the port engine doesn’t start. I watch him tap-tap on a gauge, wait a moment, then turn the key again. Nothing happens.
“Well,” Jonathon says.
We climb out and go into the station. He sits at the radio and calls the airport mechanic, then ducks out into the wind to try something. He returns, shaking his head. The engine will start now, he tells us, but the fog is too thick for takeoff. We’ll have to wait.
I explore the station. Andy has headed off into the fog; he has research to do alone and a week to do it. The huddle of buildings includes a small private residence with phone and Internet, an office, and a six-bed dorm with a kitchen, an old Monopoly game, and piles of National Geographic magazines and used paperbacks. If we’re stuck, we’ll survive. Robyn, who has short brown hair and the muscles of a wrestler, tells me the weather is always like this — unpredictable and often severe. She is careful when hiking alone, carrying water and enough clothes that she could curl up outdoors for the night. “I always, always have my phone,” she tells me. This wind today is nothing much, she adds — a mere twenty-six knots, not quite a gale.
I want to go outside.
“Stay near,” she says.
The station disappears behind me after only a few steps. The wind is like a river fattened with spring melt: fast, insistent, loud. I am in the middle of a scudding cloud; scarves of white swirl around me. To go more than a few yards alone feels dangerous. I can see only the scoured dirt in front of me; some scruffy, colorless ground cover; and a pair of bumpy tire tracks fading into the mist.
Robyn has followed me. “Let’s go to the end of the runway,” she says. She is a bit restless but unsurprised by the delay; plans are subject to change on San Miguel. We knock about in the middle of the cloud, following the tracks to one end of the short bluff and back.
The world is strangely bleached, like an old photograph. A clump of plants appears, then fades; a hummock of dead grass looms beside me, then disappears. As we walk, the milky air seems to shimmer with shades of pearl. It’s like walking in a mirage, a dream where you cannot focus and can see only a corner, an edge, a shivering line — a dream where you are looking into the future and seeing a small trace of it; everything else to come is behind the haze. Waiting.
Robyn and I talk with the odd intimacy of strangers stuck in an elevator. Mostly we discuss the island foxes that she and Andy study, the smallest canid species in North America, weighing about five pounds each. They almost went extinct. On Santa Cruz I caught the barest glance of one dashing across the trail — a fox the size of a house cat, with a shiny, bushy tail.
We stand in the middle of the runway, the wind twisting our hair into knots, and Robyn tells me how beautiful the island will be when the flowers bloom in a few months. Winter is the growing season, and there are hundreds of different flowers — also clear days and long views and peregrine falcons and walruses. And foxes.
It’s getting late. Soon it will be too dark to fly. The chalky tangles of fog skid by us over the ground, which will be beautiful soon. Which is beautiful now. On the walk back to the station we lapse into silence. Then a slit of dying blue appears in the wall of white outside. Jonathon runs out, and this time the engine starts. Robyn and I race to the plane. As soon as I fasten myself in, we are up like a mosquito leaping straight off the cliff into the clouds. The plane leans hard to starboard, the fog tears apart, and we enter a clear bowl of blue, glowing in the gold of the setting sun. I am not afraid. I feel as if I will never be afraid again. Someone has died. Someone I loved the way I love my own hands. And I am alive in the bright, fading day, flying above the earth and sea. We leave the fog behind and skate smoothly home over flat water, in a cloudless sky, and land as softly as a moth and unload our bags and say goodbye.