The San Juan Islands: Social Distancing At Its Best

Amid the chaos and uncertainty of the times with the Coronavirus pandemic underway, I felt a growing need to burst from my quarantined cocoon and socially distance in a responsible and fulfilling way. And thus, I set off for San Juan Island, located in the Northwest corner of the Lower 48 in Washington state. Just east of Vancouver Island in Canada, the San Juan Islands are a chain of islands famous for their natural beauty. From the beautiful turquoise waters, to the jagged cliffs overhanging the shorelines, to the lush, grassy hillsides looking out over the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, there is a treasure here for anyone with a wandering spirit.

            My trip to San Juan Island in particular held a special place in my heart. The journey up its lush hillsides and along its sprawling, majestic coastlines held an emotional resonance for me in this particular stage in my life, and the world at large. I have felt a swirling, tumultuous storm of worry, uncertainty, doubt, and loneliness over the past few weeks, as so many others have felt I am sure. I have been working in Seattle for a couple of months now and with everything going on with the pandemic, I have felt a greater and greater pull to be towards family. The sting of loneliness sometimes pummels me at night, as I miss my family back home in Tennessee. Nights are the worst, for the time difference means everyone I know back east is sleeping and I am kind of in limbo with my thoughts. They can become very loud and fill a dark room in the recesses of an evening.

And so, I felt I must escape, if only for a moment, into the warm embrace of nature and perhaps take in the quiet lessons it has to offer. Nature has a notoriously beautiful way of giving you fresh perspective, and so escape into it I did. My first stop on San Juan Island was up Mt Grant, one of the tallest points in the middle of the island with a 360-degree view of the surrounding land. I remember weaving up the trail in the early hours of the morning through the dense forest of oak, hemlocks, and firs, to the top of the ridge.

Pacific Northwest forests are unforgettable. There is a stark lushness to their aesthetic. The combination of ferns that blanket the forest floors and the variety of mosses that cover almost every tree are mesmerizing. When the morning light hits the trees, they illuminate in a series of vivid greens that light your path in the most enchanted way. Small streams and ponds passed me by as I ventured upwards and the occasion newt crossed paths with me as I headed up the trail.

            As I made my way to the top, there was a sudden clearing that opened up the landscape, and my imagination. I was a bit winded and so I decided to sit for a time. I simply sat on a log and listened and observed. So much of the time, I tend to get bogged down in the planning of a trip and it feels like I am constantly on the move and thinking about the next step and the next spot. But here, I was almost ensnared by the vista around me. It demanded intimate attention, and so I simply sat, took in a series of deep breaths, cleared my mind, and listened.

The calling of eagles and distant seabirds echoed through the lush hills which bled out into the surrounding waters of the strait. It was almost hypnotic. For a moment I felt completely removed from the human world, from all the worry, hustle and bustle, stress, and expectations of modern adult life. I had the recurring epiphany that the world is far larger than I realize, free from the anxieties and human frameworks we are so used to. As a bald eagle passed overhead, I realized that the Coronavirus means nothing to this creature and to the thousands of other lifeforms that surely surrounded me. How small it all seemed then. How insignificant to the grander picture did all our collective stress seem.

 The eagle perched on the highest branch of the highest tree there at the top of the ridge and together we both sat, staring off into the distant lands. There was a deep connection then in that unspoken moment, and for some reason I pictured my late grandfather, whom I have missed dearly since his passing some years ago. The eagle almost felt like the embodiment of his spirit and in that moment, I knew peace, for I felt the eternal nature of us all. Just like the foam that forms in the recess of the incoming waves off the distant shore, we are formed temporarily and then are swept away again, only to be reformed later. Nature is an endless cycle and dance of energy.

I felt an overwhelming sense of peace in the motions and sounds around me and in that moment, I couldn’t help but tear up. I was overcome with the beauty of the moment, and of how silly all of the head games I play with myself seemed day after day, week after week. Like so many, I get bogged down in worry and planning, hardly seeing past my own thoughts as life passes me by. But not today, not in this moment. How beautiful and temporary it all is, I thought. These bodies are temporary and yet our spirits are eternal and free. It is the beautiful contradiction of reality. The quiet moment with the eagle there on the mountaintop conveyed this concept very well for me and I realized that he and I really aren’t so different after all.

I ventured down off the mountain and headed to the Western shore of the island, which directly looked over to Canada’s Vancouver Island. Getting close to the water, the thing that initially struck me was the depth and layers of colors within the water as it ebbed and flowed with the tide. The lichens and mosses painted a brilliant canvas of the already stunningly textured rocks. It was here, by a solitary lighthouse that I sat and wandered. As I listened to the gentle waves and felt the cool breeze on my skin, I looked over to Canada. The island was close, maybe a ten-minute boat ride, but I thought about the complexity of just taking a boat or kayak over to the adjacent island. How simple of an act it would be, and yet not an option without a passport and border questioning and the like.

It was then that it became clear how little nature cares about boundaries and borders. There is no line in the sand. To a gull or an eagle or a seal or an orca, there is no distinction. It made me chuckle to myself how so much of what we believe to be true isn’t actually evident in nature. Borders are a fiction we collectively agree upon to keep some sense of order and control. Nature simply resists this black and white depiction. Nature is a sea of grey, ever flowing and unequivocally connected together. This is one giant world we inhabit and the sooner we realize how everything impacts everything else, the better. How silly we humans must seem to other creatures as we make up stories, draw imaginary lines in the sand, create concepts like money and value, all of which aren’t actually tangible but more of an agreement we are taught and perpetuate.

I drove down to the Southern edge of the island in the early afternoon. There one can walk along the high grasslands overlooking the dramatic, rocky cliffs that lead to the distant shore below. Across the water, the brilliant Olympic Mountains can be seen. That afternoon, the way the fogs had gathered at the base of the range and the particular way the sun was highlighting the peaks, the mountains almost seemed to exist in a realm all their own. They were a heavenly backdrop as I walked along the trail on the cliff edge. Occasional gulls and even a couple of eagles flew overhead curiously checking me out. As I got down to the shore, I found that the occasional harbor sea would poke its head up out of the water to do the same thing. What a wonderful diversity of life to be caught up in I thought to myself.

I sat down near the water on the rocks to eat lunch. As I was eating, I noticed a small puddle beside me, leftover from high tide. It looked like any ordinary puddle of water so I initially paid no mind to it. After a time, though, as I looked closer, I noticed a multitude of tiny water bugs frantically swimming about through the water and in and out of the seaweeds collected on the underlying rock. There were even larger bugs chaser the smaller ones and I realized that this seemingly inconsequential puddle was home to an entire ecosystem that I could curiously observe. The intricacies and varieties of life, even in such a small place humbled me and further gave me a sense of how inconceivably complex this world is and how easily I could have just passed it by. I entertained the notions of what it would be like to be a water bug and for a second I imagined its life as complicated as my own, and once again a sense of connection and peace washed over me.

After a time on the shore, I smiled, closed my eyes and took a series of deep breaths knowing I had to return home after a reviving day. I left the island with a sense of gratitude, wonder, and hope for the future. My job back in Seattle may not be available soon and many people are still getting sick and there is plenty of stress to go around, but noting the variety of life as I did that day, I realized that we are all still here, surviving. We have made it through countless challenges before and we will continue to make it, in one form or another. Nothing is new under the sun and life has a magnificent way of pushing forward through the toughest of times and circumstances. Against the endless waves of disease, natural disasters, and hardships of eons past, we still fight and we still stand strong. Life, in its endless, beautiful forms, finds a way to push through….and so will we.

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