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James and the Giant Island

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Santa Cruz Island. | Photo: guy_incognito/Flickr/Creative Commons License

I first met my friend James Bensinger when he called from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia where he was studying to be an elementary teacher. From the get go, James was professional and proper.

"How are you today, sir?" asked the chipper voice on the other end of the line.

I looked over my shoulder, but my father was nowhere in sight.

I told James I was fine. I waited to be told that our carpets needed cleaning or that I must be supremely excited, having been selected for a once-in-my-lifetime shot at a time share in Fargo.

Instead the voice said, "The Channel Islands must be very beautiful."

Again, I thought for a moment. The Channel Islands are bereft of carpeting.

While I was still pondering the voice spoke again, this time without a trace of stiffness or formality.

"I mean the islands sound fantastic. One day I'm going to see them."

The thrill in the voice was so genuine that, in that instant, James Bensinger became my friend.

I bring this phone call up because in March Channel Islands National Park celebrates its 33rd anniversary as our nation's 40th national park. The five islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara) and the surrounding one mile of ocean that comprise Channel Island National Park were designated on March 5, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 96-199.

Because these are four numbers and a date you have already forgotten, I will tell you about James, for Channel Islands National Park and its birthday deserve your attention, if only for one beautifully simple but infinitely complex reason.

Regarding James, the details of our first conversation are unimportant except for these few facts. James explained that he and his classmates had read my book "Islands Apart: A Year on the Edge of Civilization" -- which takes place, in part, on the Park's five islands -- for a class that was using the book as part of its criteria. James told me he had read my book twice -- "Once just to see how it was, and then next for content" -- something perhaps only my editor had heretofore done. Perhaps he had also read it twice because some of his classmates hadn't read it at all (James didn't rat on his classmates; I surmised this from an ensuing Skype discussion, during which some class members tucked expertly behind their fellows). I did not fault his classmates. I myself once attended college, where I had many interests outside of class assignments.

Still that Skype discussion went splendidly, largely because James carried the day, asking insightful questions and pointing out details in the book that even the author had forgotten. James, I had quickly learned, was very meticulous. And James, I would come to learn, was a man of his word. Several months later James called again. He had his plane ticket. He was coming out to see the Channel Islands. Would I go with him?

Of course, I said.

There was a pause. Anybody who was ever a college student knows what comes next.

"Ummmmm," said James. "Can I stay with you?"

And so, on a glorious spring day, James and I walked down the gangplank in Ventura Harbor to board the Island Packers boat that would take us to Santa Cruz Island. James fairly skipped along the dock, chattering madly.

"No phone, no watch, no technology!" he exclaimed.

While James had already grasped one facet of the Channel Islands' beauty, he had a somewhat overblown idea of his companion's importance.

Leaning close, he whispered, "Do you think anybody on the boat will recognize you?"

Not unless I owed them money.

The boat left the harbor. The noise and blur of civilization fell away and we were under a wide blue sky. James grabbed my elbow. For an uncomfortable moment I thought he might kiss me.

"I can't believe I'm really going out to the islands," he said, and then he scurried up to the bow to take the first of a National Geographic archive's worth of photos.

James was not alone in his enthusiasm. Many people are very enthusiastic about Channel Islands National Park and its offerings. On my previous boat ride out to Santa Cruz Island I had shared a bench seat with a young German couple. Michael and Sonya had spent several weeks exploring America's western parks. They had been to Zion, Bryce, and Yosemite and were muchly impressed, but the Channel Islands were the icing on their outdoor cake.

"We have done very much reading about the Channel Islands Park!" said Michael. "These islands, they are remarkable! So close to civilization and so far away! And you cannot drive there! We very much want to see an island fox!"

Michael was friendly, but the bark of his mother tongue made his words sound like an order. If we do not see an island fox, I will inform the captain that you must be keelhauled! And so I told Michael that he and Sonya's odds of seeing the rare (found only on the Channel Islands) and diminutive (about the size of a house cat) fox on Santa Cruz were quite good, especially at the Scorpion Canyon campground where the boat would drop us off.

Back at the dock at the end of that day, Michael strode up to me.

"We did not see the foxes!" he barked. I gave a silent prayer that Island Packers had recently cleaned the underside of their boat. "But," he exclaimed joyously, "we saw a lot of their shit!"

James was cut from the same undimmed Nature lover's cloth. As we neared the island and I took several dozen photos of James with the ever-looming Scorpion Canyon anchorage in the background, he turned positively apoplectic.

"I'm really here!" he said. "I want to see everything!"

I had promised Michael an island fox and failed, so now I patiently explained to James that Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the islands in the park. In fact, it is the largest island off the west coast of the United States. At 96 square miles it is four times the size of Manhattan and there are no cabs. Seeing everything would prove difficult. But such vastness, I told James, had its beauty too.

"Most of the people who visit the island don't stray out of the canyon and the campground," I said. "A fifteen minute hike and we'll pretty much have it all to ourselves."

I proposed we make the 90-minute hike to Smuggler's Cove, an entrancing crescent of cobbled beach backed by rustling blue-gum eucalyptus and a tidily aligned grove of olive trees, the latter planted by long ago ranchers who at one time saw money in olives. Ninety minutes out and 90 minutes back would still allow us plenty of time for the most important part of any Nature outing, namely lounging about doing nothing.

We hiked up the steep path leading away from the campground. At the top, we stopped. The sun beat down. We looked across the dark blue water toward the blue hummocks of Anacapa Island. Nineteen miles away, the cacophonous mainland wavered silent and blue beneath the wide blue sky. As you have surmised, it was an impossibly blue day.

James fairly shouted at the mainland.

"Away from it all! I can't believe I'm here! It's so peaceful!"

You don't have to hike far from the campground at Scorpion Canyon to find solitude and solace. You only have to go as far as Delphine's Grove, which we reached after another five minutes of walking. A small stand of cypress pines on a sloping hillside amidst a Serengeti Plain of grass, Delphine's Grove is one of my favorite places on earth. Performing due and diligent research for my book, I had spent hours sprawled beneath the pines listening to the wind in the boughs. Through the sort of concentrated and thankless observation that can only be achieved by laying on one's back I had ascertained that the sound of the wind through the pines was always different, depending partly on the winds and largely on the leanings of my imagination. Sometimes the wind through Delphine's Grove was simply the constant drum of distant breaking surf. Sometimes the wind came and went in distinct gusts, a trundling train passing as I waited at a long-ago railroad station. Sometimes the boughs creaked, making the sound of a porch swing rocking slowly, a kindly uncle, now long gone, riding his own memories.

Winds, I had discovered, can be like songs, taking you back to forgotten moments.

But winds can only do this if they are carefully attended. As we lay in the grass beneath the pines, James asked an incessant stream of questions. He recalled passages from my book, resurrecting them in such detail that I began to wonder if he had written the book instead of me. He said he loved Delphine's Grove.

"You know," he said to the sky, "I could stay here forever."

We left Delphine's Grove. We hiked along ridgelines, looking out over a sea of swaying grass to a sea of whitecaps. We reached Smuggler's Cove, lounged there and then headed back. We encountered a few hikers, but mostly it was just us. James had grown increasingly quiet.

Breezes came and went, sounding memories to me. I had no idea what they sounded like to James. I didn't ask him. It was his personal business.

But eventually he said, "You know, when I was a kid there was a creek I always played in. I never really thought about it then, but it made me appreciate moments like this."

My friend James and I stood silent among the dun-colored grasses beneath a wide sky.

Solitude helps you remember, but it is not just an exercise in pleasant reminiscing. Solitude recalls the things that really matter.

And so on March 5th I will raise my glass to Channel Islands National Park and my friend James, who have both reminded me of a simple but infinitely valuable lesson.

When we lose touch with the wilds, we lose touch with a part of ourselves.

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