On the top of Santa Barbara Island
Though most of the island trails were blocked by makeshift barriers to protect nesting pelicans and seagulls, two prized trails were still open for conquest–the one to the peak of Santa Barbara Island, and another to a small lighthouse on the very edge of the island. We had sailed for hours from Catalina, seeing nothing but rolling waves and the occasional scavenging bird. Now was our time. Santa Barbara has no residents, and only a small ranger house, and we would exploit that freedom in every way possible…to enjoy what nature had set neatly and alone off the coast of California.
My stomach still wasn’t 100% for the shorter voyage from Catalina to Santa Barbara, so I enjoyed an interesting ride laying toward the stern, trying to convince my body to adjust to the rolling and rocking. The captain called us to order early, preparing a breakfast of fruit and other delicacies as he had for every meal. A subtle fog hung lazily over Catalina, and bands of dolphins danced beneath and around the Carmina Mare–our steed.
I had chose Santa Barbara as a secondary destination because of its exclusivity. Catalina is ‘well developed’ in its tourism. The captain protected us from the cruise ship-infested waters near the city of Avalon by anchoring us near Twin Harbors, but there were expectedly people, and tourists, and little time for reflection.
From the satellite photos Santa Barbara Island is small, with little to nothing visible. I asked the captain about it and he said it was inhabited mostly by sea lions and sea gulls…I was sold.
Rolling over Royal Blue ocean, listening to Bob Dylan or Great Big Sea on Carmina’s stereo, masked heavily an underlying reason for this journey–Joe’s ultimate deployment to Iraq. There’s always an impersonal feel to news reports involving troops, or families of troops, but that unfamiliarity becomes invasive when it involves a friend, or your own family, especially when that friend has been an integral part of epic adventures from high school to present day. We’d said enough times over the years “We should be dead” because of boating, camping, and life mishaps we’d encountered. But with a 24-hour plane ride to the Middle East, that statement seemed too real for the current situation.
It was fitting that sailing be our last outing before deployment anyway. Only a day before I confirmed both our employment at the Florida Sea Base for a summer of sailing, scuba, and scouting (Eagle Scouts are expected to share skills and skits while employed by a Boy Scout Camp) Joe enlisted in the Washington State National Guard. He was first just in a band unit, allowing him to play music for our country, while making a few extra bucks and doing what he liked. But then the opportunity for more training developed, then ROTC, then Airborne training, Ranger training, specialty assignments. He wasn’t just a French Horn player after long…soon he was a soldier, with a sense of duty and a desire to serve.
The first sight of Santa Barbara Island was nothing short of hazy–like a mirage without the payoff. All types of birds and wildlife dove in and above the water. A tall ship was just setting sail as we approached. Pelicans sat above the water waiting for curious fish. The rocks seemed to breathe, and move, but that motion was only the island’s most obnoxious residents: sea lions. The animals were everywhere, strewn over the rocks, moss, and even the wooden platform used by would-be adventurers to access the island.
Joe and I eagerly snapped photos of the animals, and sights as we began a long switch-backed staircase toward the main island. From the water the island resembled Southern California–dry, crackling brush with the occasional earth space. At the top of the staircase was a ranger house, and ‘visitor’s center’ complete with information panels. There, too, is the latrine–this is not 3 star accommodation. A map showing trails stood tall, with many of the trails being blocked due to nesting. Gulls and pelicans peeked their heads above brush while pretending to sit on eggs–most of the sitting birds were decoys.
We elected to visit a small lighthouse first. The trail was short, and a visiting scientist to the ranger house told us the view was remarkable. Down dirt-covered trails, we made our way through a flower covered landscape, reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz poppies, but with less Wicked Witch sleepy dust. The lighthouse was nothing more than a short pillar with a weather station attached, but the view was amazing. A strong, and constant wind blew unforgivingly toward us. Mixed species of pelican and gull simply rode the air above us, their wings outstretched but never flapping. It seemed as if the birds could move, without working, but they had no control of where they were headed.
Soldiers endearingly call the Middle East the ‘Sandbox.’ It’s a fascinating nickname if only because of the irony. Sandboxes are places for children to grow, and discover, and play, and the Middle East is a region rich in history, religion, struggle and pride. I can’t begin to put myself in the shoes of a soldier, like Joe, but it seems a desired outcome after the ‘Sandbox’ is just survival; to make it home with life and love. I’m reading now an account of Iraq from journalist Michael Weisskopf, given to me by Joe. Weisskopf instinctively picked up a grenade thrown into his military transport, but it detonated before he released it. The result was an embedded journalist had saved 4 soldiers’ lives, at the cost of his right hand–he survived, but at great cost.
I’m a realist, and war is scary. Some journalists wish nothing more than to be embedded on patrol, writing frantically while under fire, but I cannot. War is not a story to me, it’s a devastating result of human activity and desire. Debating nobility in a cause will take time but solve nothing…even the noblest of causes fought in the noblest of wars will result in pain. I’m not a pacifist…I’m a realist, and war is scary.
Perhaps war is so scary to me because I understand why a good man like Joe feels he has to go–in another time I am that man. Joe is a leader, much like I think I am, and he’s one who handles himself well under pressure. “If not me, who will do it,” he says. I can’t answer him with anything other than “I guess me.”
An underlying and continued discussion Joe and I had while on the Carmina Mare involved the realities of war. Joe had been dating a woman for a few months, with the prospects of their life looking positive. He and I always had an open door policy when it came to relationships…if one of us saw something wrong, we’d speak up.
“Have you talked about you going to war yet,” I asked directly.
“A little…I’ve been waiting for the right time.”
“I have to be honest, man. You could die. You could show up to the ‘Sandbox’ and an IED blows up your humvee, or you’re shot. And you have a girl back home hoping for the best. That’s a discussion you have to have.”
A lot of my case for Joe’s sensitivity came from my own situation. I had only been married for 4 months, and the thought of leaving my wife, and facing death, shatters my core. Joe took in my concerns, and we sat for hours in the rocking Carmina delving deeper into war and relationships.
He proposed to his girlfriend shortly after our trip…just before his deployment to Iraq.
With a short time before the captain would meet us at the wooden platform with his dinghy, Joe and I decided to climb the island’s highest peak. We walked briskly through the fields of red flowers and golden grass, rolling up and down hills toward the high point on the other side of the mountain.
I was, and probably am, out of shape, but Joe stuck with me. The wind grew stronger as we approached the edge, until one final blast of air held constant on our faces. We sat with our legs dangling off the side of the island, looking into the ocean, thinking of our lives. There was peace at that place, and the gravity of life was reversed for a time.
As we headed back to the Carmina, we both knew the trip was already a success, but we had a long sail back to the ‘real world’ in the morning–more time to think, and reflect.
The first sight of Santa Barbara Island was nothing short of hazy–like a mirage without the payoff. But really, it wasn’t a mirage, it was nature in a pure state. And that dose of reality was what both Joe and I needed, though for very different reasons.
In Search of Blue Water: Part 3…coming soon.