I always leave Orcas with tears in my eyes.
Ever since moving away after 9th grade, knowing even then that Orcas Island would most likely never be home again, it’s impossible for me to leave the island dry-eyed.
Leaving Orcas is a process because it is, of course, an island. This means that you need: A) lots of money and a private plane or B) – the far likelier option – to take a ferry. A Washington State Ferry, to be exact. This means that you must arrive – at least in tourist season – at 10:00a.m. for the 3:15 ferry. This is because, as the only real option on and off the island, if you don’t arrive soon enough to claim your place in the ferry line, you will be stuck paying for yet another night at a hotel (if there are any vacancies), or driving your brother-in-law nuts when you drive back up the very same driveway from whence he waved goodbye to you several hours earlier, thus prolonging the inevitable teary last look as the ferry turns the corner, heading to Anacortes and The Main Land…aka, reality.
Islanders know to arrive early. Tourists are warned, but they don’t always heed the warning. I remember one time a few years ago, in the height of summer, waiting in the ferry line with three cranky kids in the back seat. One woman had the audacity to walk up to my window and say, “Would you mind trading places with me? I have a plane to catch in Seattle and won’t make it if I don’t catch the next ferry.”
I about slugged her.
I refrained from calling her names and telling her all the things flying through my head – not the least of which was, “How on earth do you even think that a car can get out of line and TRADE places with you?” – and instead mustered my patience (and my teacher voice) and said, “No, not with three kids to keep happy for what would then be another five hours.”
Sometimes kids make great excuses.
I love standing on the deck of the ferry and watching the red-roofed Orcas Hotel grow smaller as we chug away from the dock. I mean, I don’t LOVE it…in that I hate that I’m leaving…but I love the ferry. Though, to be sure, I didn’t love it nearly this much when I actually lived here.
One time, heading to my sister’s on Orcas for my college Christmas break, I was forced to spend the night on the mainland because the ferries couldn’t run in the high winds. My other sister had driven me to the ferry dock and dropped me off. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that I’d be stranded. It takes some pretty fierce winds to stop the ferries running. This turned out to be a terrible storm. The main power cable to Orcas was ripped out by the waves and my sister had no power for nine days. Thank God for wood stoves. I made my brother-in-law chocolate chip cookies (the mandatory toll for my prolonged visits), which I fried like pancakes on that stove. Gave me something to do.
For years I still thought of Orcas as home. I mean, I grew up there – spent the first 15 years of my life on its beautiful shores. Somewhere along the line Minnesota came to be home and Orcas Island became “the place where I grew up”.
And it was a wonderful place to grow up. Full of “only-on-Orcas-Island” events and moments. I remember telling a friend in college about one of those “only” things. She turned to me and said, serious as you please, “You grew up in a different world than I did, Gretchen.”
I had been telling her about visiting the orthodontist. Now, if you had to see the ortho for a routine check-up, you could go to your dentist’s office on one certain day a month right there on Orcas and get your business done.
BUT, if you had to actually get your braces on, or off, or had some other big reason to see him, then you had to go to his office, in Bellingham, WA. You could take the ferry like any normal person. OR…you could take the Tooth Fairy Flight. That’s right. A chartered plane called the Tooth Fairy Flight would come to the Orcas Island airport and take you and the other lucky saps who had to go see the orthodontist for some serious dental work, over to the mainland. It was terrific: an airplane ride, plus you got to miss an entire day of school, hang around downtown Bellingham ALONE, and fly in a plane like the rich kid you weren’t.
And if you can’t imagine such a thing, then you’ll understand how my friend felt.
Mostly, though, growing up on Orcas was…normal.
As normal as a place can be when you get there via airplane or ferryboat, which, for me, was very normal indeed.