New money and no money

They may be buffered by salt water from some of the pressures of the mainland, but the islands are not immune to change. San Juan County's population grew 40 percent in a decade, from 10,035 in 1990 to 14,077 in 2000 ― more, apparently, than nature had designed for. Water, of all things, is becoming an issue. "Fifty percent of the wells on Lopez Island are in danger of saltwater intrusion," says Rhea Miller, who spends a good chunk of her time as county commissioner dealing with environmental issues.

Then there are more subtle social changes. Rolling off the ferry into Friday Harbor, I read the story of the contemporary San Juans in the two cars just ahead of mine. One is a 1974 Civic with mismatched body panels and a plywood pooch pad in lieu of a backseat ― an "island beater" in the local parlance. "We don't drive very far, and we need to repair 'em ourselves," the beater's owner, artist Tom Pemberton, later tells me. The other vehicle is a sparkling behemoth Lincoln Navigator, three times the size and probably 50 times the value of the Honda. The two vehicles perfectly represent the increasingly extreme polarities of island life: new money and no money. Beginning in the 1970s, wealth began splashing up onto the rocks, coexisting in no great tension with the farmers, artists, and outsiders that had long been the San Juans' backbone. But in the 1990s, the splash became a tide, and the price of real estate soared. By 2000, it rivaled Seattle. Steve Buck, CEO of the largest real estate office in San Juan County, says most homes now sell between $250,000 and $1 million. But incomes are a fraction of Seattle's. Jobs tend to be in local government or June-through-September tourism. "Most artists work part-time at other jobs―construction, office work, or something they invent," says Emily Reed. "It takes ingenuity."

The island beater people view the Lincoln Navigator people with ambivalence. On one hand, they welcome the newcomer who builds a trophy home on 4 acres because they'd rather see that than a warren of 60 condos on the same land. On the other, the flaunting of wealth is grossly at odds with island tradition. Suzanne Lyons, owner of a small gift shop on Orcas Island, tells me about a captain of industry who moved onto the island and began tooling about in his $50,000 BMW. "Finally I saw him in the grocery store, and I just told him, 'C'mon, sell it and buy an old pickup.' And you know what? He did."