So, perhaps, in the end it is the islands that will change their residents, and not the other way around. People who settle here do seem to end up doing things they haven't done before, things that wouldn't make sense in a mainland life. There is a sensation not only of physical but also of cultural separation, as if the straits form a kind of moat, one that liberates opportunity even as it restricts access. San Juan refugees sometimes refer to the mainland as "Back in America." It's a joke, but also, it's not.
Back in America, farmers don't put their eggs out in an unmanned kiosk by the roadside with an honor box for payment. In America, landed-gentry Republicans don't vote Green. (Here many do, at least for local offices.) In America, parents worry a bit more about their kids. "The natural beauty eradicates a lot of the threat of drugs," says Ben White, an animal protection activist and father of children, 12 and 16. "If you've already got a rich life, why would you need them?" His daughter swims in the ocean in the middle of the night, following the phosphorescence, or hikes through the hills with the coons and the owls. He says he doesn't worry so much.
This island zeitgeist can enrapture visitors as it does residents. I first visited the San Juans in 1996, soon after my conversion from desert rat to mossy Northwesterner. On Orcas Island, my wife and I noticed a sandwich board advertising half-day sea kayak expeditions, "No Experience Necessary."
On a whim, we enlisted. Half an hour into our first adventure at sea in these 50-pound fiberglass bananas, we knew we were hooked―for life. Since then we've taken numerous courses, bought and built kayaks, and ventured frequently into the San Juans, always plotting the currents and checking marine weather forecasts. The San Juans are one of the world's great sea-kayaking destinations, but they can seduce paddlers into situations beyond their abilities, sometimes with tragic consequences. You have to respect the Maytag.
We spend too much of our San Juan week on land, looking longingly at the water. When we finally slip our kayaks off Orcas for a day trip to Jones Island State Park, we stumble onto the perfect evocation of the island spirit.
The water is blue satin, the breeze as slack as a snoozing cat. Paddling at a casual three knots, we overtake a small sloop, its owner lounging on the deck. "Great day for paddling, maybe not so great for sailing," I call out.
"No, it's a great day for sailing," he replies.
"You're not going to go very fast," I observe.
"Why would I want to go anywhere fast?"