Catalina, as you perhaps know but I did not, is a geographic anomaly. Unlike California's other seven Channel Islands, it didn't break away from the mainland, but was formed by the upward heave of tectonic plates. It is, in fact, a mountain, and would be the highest in California if three-fourths of it weren't beneath the sea.
Instead, it's all tip, a vertiginous place of sea and soar, where long, narrow strips of pebbly sand yield abruptly to ruddy cliffs topped with brushy kiwi fuzz. There's not a lot of middle ground, no gradual altitude gain. You're at sea level or at the summit (a rather nice visual metaphor, if you think about it, for the vagaries of romantic love).
Because we, as a couple and a family, are adventurous (or so I like to think), we decided, within a day of arriving in Avalon, to strike out for the summit.
"We call this stretch the China Wall," our guide is saying, as he pulls our open Jeep to a stop along a narrow dirt track. "It's the highest drop on the island." Beside us, the road's shoulder plummets more than 1,200 feet, as sharply as if it had been scythed. My husband and son lean out over the side of the Jeep, peering down with interest. I squeeze my eyes shut. A while later, when I reopen them, we've left behind the ledge and now are driving through a wide, mesalike space. Rounded, Rubenesque hills flow toward the horizon. I sigh happily. The country-side feels deeply peaceful, far removed from the human bustle of Avalon.
We are about midway through a four-hour Jeep tour of the interior of Catalina, having ascended out of Avalon on Stage Road, the only major route into the backcountry. Catalina's geography means that most of the island is interior, and because of the magnanimity of its onetime owner, chewing gum and baseball baron William Wrigley Jr., most of this ― 42,000 acres, or about 88 percent of the entire island ― has been designated a nature preserve. Bald eagles, foxes, squirrels, quails, and a few other lucky species live here, along with the famous Catalina bison, which are not indigenous, although don't tell them that. When our Jeep halts before a few of the hulking, scruffy animals in a broad meadow, they glance our way, then with almost palpable disdain, return to their grazing. We have been dismissed. (The original herd was brought over in the 1920s for the movie The Vanishing American. They were cut from the film; bison don't respond to direction.)