This Place

My first day on Whidbey Island is a distinct memory.  It was June, 1995, and I had just spent the few years since college graduation in training mode for the Navy.  Learning to fly in Pensacola and Corpus Christi, learning to operate the P-3C in Jacksonville, and learning to what to do if I were ever to be captured in combat in San Diego.  San Diego was the training site, not the theoretical location of combat, if that wasn’t clear.  There were also several boondoggles, mostly of my own making, thrown into that mix, made possible by the temporary glut of newly minted Naval Aviators at the time – I spent a few months hanging out in southern Spain with a C-130 squadron, and another few in Cambridge, England as part of a small permanent detachment flying King Airs.  But all of it was preparation for this, my check-in at my first fleet squadron, VP-40 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.  Two of my flight school friends who had checked into a sister squadron a few weeks earlier met me upon my arrival to show me around.  We had decided to share a rental house in nearby Anacortes, and they had set everything up and were eager to see what I thought of the house.  I drove onto the base via the back gate, and basically what I saw was this.

Had they plopped a Naval Air Station into the middle of a National Park by accident?  From the end of the runway and along the entire west side of the base you look out the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the mid-line of which serves as the border between the US and Canada.  To the south, the Olympic peninsula with its year-round snow-capped mountains rises jaggedly out of the water, and to the north the hundreds of San Juan Islands dot the calm ocean.  And everything’s green.  Except the water, of course, which is a deep blue that would make you want to jump into it if its temperature ever exceeded 50 degrees or so.  I was overwhelmed; I could not imagine that this was to be my workplace and home for the next three years. 

Check out the geographical setup above. Whidbey is the long island in the middle shaped like an old school telephone receiver, and the Naval Air Station is the somewhat lighter blotch just above the town of Oak Harbor. The nearest sizeable city as the crow flies is Victoria, BC, a few miles to the west.

Impossibly, the scenery got even prettier as we made the short drive up to Anacortes, first crossing the iconic Deception Pass bridge, under which several times per day the water roils itself into standing waves and whirlpools due to the rapid tidal currents. 

We pulled up to the house they had rented and I think my first words were “you can’t be serious.”  The entire front consisted of an A-shaped wall of windows that looked out upon the water, islands, and mountains.  This was to be my view, every day. 

Now, to be fair, I need to concede that I was extremely fortunate to be able to have formed my first impressions at the end of June.  Whidbey Island is a very different place from October to May.  This is not to say it is ever less than stunning, but the grey days, the misty rain, and the temperatures hovering mostly between 40 and 50 well into June at times can be oppressive.  But I didn’t know any of that then.  And it was never enough to keep this Southern California born and raised kid from loving the area for the three years I was there, enough so that Tacco and I moved back for another ten. 

It would have easily and happily been the place we raised our kids and likely retired had the opportunity for Tacco to teach back in Annapolis not arisen.  And at the beginning of our current traveling adventure, it held the front-runner spot by far in the where-do-we-settle competition. 

But the past is prologue, and here we were driving our flight of five in our moving home back onto the base to spend a week soaking up more of the Pacific Northwest summer vibe.  Tacco and I were curious how it would strike us, not to mention the kids, only one of whom had any real meaningful memories of living here. 

And of course this is what we saw. 

Cliffside Park, Whidbey’s RV campground, has got to be one of the nicest, if not the nicest in the military system.  It was given a major overhaul a few years back, and on top of the stunning natural waterfront setting, the trail system, the cheap (often free, depending who’s on duty) rental bikes, and the easy access to civilization, the gentleman who took the permanent camp host job happens to be a master gardener.  So you get this.

The playing comes naturally, and play we did. 

First a bit of work for me though, as I flew up to Anchorage to meet a plane which I then piloted back down to Portland.  It was the only leg I was required to fly on this particular trip, and was the result of another boondoggle for me, the type that rarely falls into an airline pilot’s lap but is hugely welcome when it does.  Here’s what happened… Essentially a flight had gotten “stuck” in Anchorage, presumably because the pilot who had been scheduled to fly it out the following day got sick.  Not having any reserve pilots available on the West Coast able to get to Alaska in time, they began calling “local” pilots to see if any were able to operate the flight, and since I had recently changed my “home city” of record to Portland (seemed as good as anywhere to list, given our lifestyle), I got the call from our scheduling folks just before our family’s departure from Seattle.  If this doesn’t yet seem like a boondoggle, it’s because I haven’t yet described how such a trip pays out.  Essentially what I would need to do is get myself up to Anchorage (easy to do from Seattle) and fly to Portland.  That’s it.  BUT… as I am technically still based in Boston for my airline, they’re required to pay me for the trip from Boston to Anchorage, as well as the return leg from Portland to Boston.  AND… it’s paid at a higher rate due to its being an emergency assignment – almost double.  And as if that weren’t enough, they “bought” my next trip, which I would now not be legal to fly due to my flying this one – i.e. they paid me for it without my flying it.  Basically that’s about as good as it gets airline trip-wise.  And lest you think that description of the ins and outs of how airline flying can sometimes break insanely favorable was excessive, there was a point to it, which will come into play in a future post.

At any rate, I returned to the family happily settled into Whidbey’s rhythms.  The tidal swing there is high, about 15 feet from the highest high to the lowest low, and that makes for fruitful exploring at low tide.  As Cliffside’s beach is quite shallow, that much tidal swing makes for several hundred yards of extra beach when the tide is out, much of which is teeming with semi-trapped sea life that isn’t used to being sought out by curious kiddos.

The crabs were not as easy to see as we imagined they would be, given the fact that they tend to dig mostly into the sand when the water recedes.  But once we knew what to look for (and not to step on, oops…) we were able to spot several Red Rock crab and a few baby Dungeness, whose parents were presumably out foraging in deeper water.

The clams were somewhat trickier to capture, as they tended to be visible only via a jet of water they would shoot from their foot, only the top of which was exposed.  What’s more, they’re skilled diggers, and can immediately sense probing hands.  Keeper was pretty proud of himself for managing to unearth this one (which he shortly thereafter returned to the wet sand). 

And then there was this guy.  A baby flounder maybe?  Not entirely up on my flatfish, but we spotted him hiding from us in at the bottom of a large, shallow pool that had been open water a half hour before.  Keeper chased him a bit, and to both of our surprises managed to grab him once before he skittled away.  Not enough for dinner, or even a snack, but good to know my son can catch fish with his bare hands if it ever comes to that.

In keeping with our National Park site theme, we visited nearby Fort Casey, which I had flown over at low altitude hundreds of times, but never spent the time to visit during my time as a local.  Puget Sound’s relatively narrow and deep waterways make for easily defendable chokepoints, overlooking which sit several gun embankments.  I had ridden by a few of them while mountain biking or unsuccessfully fishing for salmon, but never took the time to learn much about them. The girls did so while earning their Junior Ranger badges, and filled me in.

The rest of the time we spent beachcombing, wandering, and playing in the campground for the most part.  And it was soul-soothing. 

Whidbey is such a relaxing place; it’s difficult to convey how calming looking out at this water is on a perfect 75-degree day, so I’ll just post the pictures.

After this we drive the few miles north to Anacortes, where we’ll camp at a few of our favorite places and attempt to pay attention to what our guts tell us about its prospects as our future home.  It has dropped in the rankings throughout our travels during our time on the road, but that’s possibly just a factor of our prolonged absence rather than anything rational or even emotional.  I’m curious to see where this goes.  In a week we return to Annapolis to close on the house (again), which I’m certain will spool us back up.  But right now, savoring the serenity is the order of the day. 

Sea/Sun/Sky-attle

Still discombobulated from the previous week’s flurry of activity, we flew back to the Pacific Northwest eager to join our friends in Seattle.  Twice before we had made plans to spend time with them at their gorgeous house on Lake Washington, and both plans had been thwarted at the last minute by illness.  Fortunately no wayward bugs this time around, and we lumbered our beastly rig up into their golf course neighborhood on a stunning Friday afternoon.  The only uncertainty that remained at this point was whether we would actually be able to maneuver into their driveway.  My friend had made rough measurements which indicated that we’d make it, but you never know about the angles, the slope, or the vertical obstacles, all of which had bitten us in the past.  His measurements were good though, and I squeaked Davista down and into place in front of their garage.  Let the recreation begin!

Here’s the setting.  Imagine waking up to this view every morning.  “But wait, isn’t it always raining in Seattle?” you say.  Yes, absolutely.  Especially in the summer.  Every day.  Whatever you do, don’t move there. 

Our arrival was a bit late in the day for watersports, but we knew there was plenty of that on tap for the weekend, so dug into the first of several tasty outdoors meals instead while the kids got reacquainted.  Their two sons are the same age as Keeper and Firebolt.  In fact, we took a trip to Tuscany with them back when Keeper and their oldest were just over two months old (they were born two weeks apart).

Summer days are long, but summer days in Washington are even longer, and the wine and conversation stretched well into the evening as the sun didn’t set until well after 9PM.

The following day was Seafair day, Seafair being an annual August festival that centers on Lake Washington and peaks with boat races and an airshow.  It’s quite the floating party, with the best airshow viewing location by far being Lake Washington’s center, where a giant, morphing raft of loosely connected boats bob and drift and their occupants jump in and out of the water.  Water fights tend to spring up frequently as well, and our kids spent some time building up their arsenal. 

First, though, some pre-airshow tubing.  The girls were less interested in getting bounced around on the water, so we took the boys out early.  Probably safe to say they enjoyed themselves.  “Flossing” is even trickier when you’re doing it on a speeding tube, “dabbing” less so.

After returning to the dock and packing up our gear we headed to Seafair central, where a couple more families (friends of our friends) were already anchored and in full celebration mode.  After a few unsuccessful attempts to set our own anchor in the deep water, we tied up to their boat instead, unrolled the floating “party island” and got busy enjoying the day.

Quick Seattle geography digression.  Everyone knows that Seattle is on the water, but some likely don’t appreciate the full diversity of its waterfronts and waterways. 

Essentially it sits on a strip of land between Puget Sound and Lake Washington.  Puget Sound is a large inlet of the Pacific Ocean carved out by glaciers, which left it with countless islands, canals, and passageways.  On the western side of Puget Sound lie several islands and the Kitsap Peninsula, and beyond that, the Olympic Peninsula, with its year-round snow-capped peaks.  To the east, the equally jagged and glacier-dotted Cascades run the length of the state from north to south.  When you see the area from the air, it essentially looks like a maze of waterways sandwiched between the two snowy mountain ranges.  It’s easy to think that they’re all saltwater since they’re all connected.  But Lake Washington is entirely freshwater, fed by the Cascades’ snowmelt.  Lake Washington feeds into Lake Union, which is right in the center of Seattle, and then to the Sound via a series of locks which bring the water down to sea level, as well as regulating the level of the lakes. 

Here’s the point of all that, or at least a point – the perception of Seattle is that the water is too cold to swim in, and that’s true of the Sound.  The lakes, however, are pristine, fresh, and warm up nicely in the summer.  Perfect for swimming and playing.  Best of all worlds.

This being the third time we had seen a Blue Angel show, the novelty had largely worn off, and it was tough to get the kids too enthused about it.  But the water fights and general good cheer more than overcame any airshow ambivalence they were fostering. 

It was more or less a perfect day, capped off by another lakeside dinner and some sunset waterplay. 

Though we opted to depart Sunday afternoon due to our friends having commitments the following morning, we managed to get another tubing run in that morning, with my getting talked into joining my friend and his younger son on the tube.  My initial hesitation sprung from my not finding tubing especially exciting, but evidently that is entirely driver-dependent, as I would soon discover.  We got flipped around like rag dolls back there.  I didn’t know my face could do that.

The ride culminated in this spectacular spill.  Evidently I was in the “lucky” seat.

No one hurt, but we did decide to cut our losses while we were still laughing and get back into the boat.

I think my favorite part of a weekend that was one long highlight was watching the kids play together.  It’s been awhile, but I know that I’ve mentioned one of my overarching concerns about this trip was the lack of “play with other kids” time that we’ve been able to provide for ours.  Their kids are not only close in age to ours, but also close in temperament.  I have the feeling that if they lived near to each other they would become lifelong friends.

That would seem to lead to an argument for considering Seattle, more specifically their area of Seattle (which is actually Kenmore) as an ultimate destination.  Schools are good, we know we love Seattle, there’s an airport nearby and good recreation around…. But of course it’s never that simple.  Seattle of late has gone through a real estate boom that is comparable to the one in California’s Bay Area.  Houses get snapped off the market within days, at prices higher than the asking price.  Which means that we can’t afford it. 

This is not to say that we would live in Seattle if it weren’t for the cost.  We’ve considered it during our brainstorming sessions several times, and it always comes in high on our list.  But the final analysis we’re drawn to smaller towns – traffic drives Tacco batty, and to an extent I agree.  We both want fewer people around.

It’s not ruled out of course… nothing is really.  But we left in a melancholy mood after enjoying ourselves so thoroughly.  The kids connected deeply within 2 days, and we’re pulling them back onto the road and pushing their rediscovered friends back to “hey let’s play Fortnite together sometime” status.  

We did have a little fun with photography before departing.  There are a couple classic pictures of the two oldest kids (and some of the adults) from our Tuscany trip 12 years ago, so we decided to re-create them.  Did a decent job, too, though we couldn’t quite get them into Baby Bjorns.

Ultimately, yet another highlight, leaving us with much more to reflect upon as we head north back to Anacortes, where it all began.

Diversion / Resolution

In aviation-speak, a diversion is the term for when unusual circumstances dictate that you change your destination and land somewhere you hadn’t planned to.

So there we were.  Shocked into silence in the kitchen, haven’t slept, home deal almost certainly about to implode (spoiler: it did), motorhome back in Portland not fixed, pool about to be opened with an expensive new liner that we don’t particularly like in a house in which we no longer live, packing everything out but suddenly realizing that we would have to instead get the house back to “show ready”  in the next couple days.

While I realize that having a home sale deal fall through barely even registers on the “unusual events” seismograph (we had already had that happen once after all, though much earlier in the process), there were so many second and third-order effects tied to this particular event for us, that it was too much to process. We had to just stop, pop a bottle of wine, and detach.

My first thought was “Trip’s over!  We’re pulling the house off the market and moving back to Maryland.”  In all the disorientation, it was difficult to see another viable option.  Not how we wanted to end this.

Fortunately we were able to detach enough to recognize that we were in no condition to make any decisions, and we slept on it. 

It was not a fun week.  But it resolved.  And everything’s fine. Rather than drag you through the chaos of the rest of our time in Annapolis, I’ll tell you how it ended:

  • We committed to Plan Moon.  Plan Moon, if you read our earlier post, was one of two “big picture” scenarios we were weighing, and entailed NOT settling as originally planned, but instead staying on the road, continuing our travels (though scaled down somewhat), and home/road-schooling the kids for another year.  The prospect had been slightly terrifying to me when first proposed, but I had warmed to it in the interim, and these recent developments made it the only logical choice.  It felt both right and good to make that call.  A relief.
  • They finally fixed Davista.  Well, maybe.  They “fixed” her.  At some point the technicians back in Portland threw up their hands and opened an assist case with the Ford mothership.  After a string of troubleshooting steps, they landed on the serpentine belt tensioner, which apparently was at least marginally defective on our model of engine.  “Huh??” you say?  Me too.  It took some mental gymnastics to connect a potentially loose belt to random misfires of multiple cylinders, but I pushed the “I believe” button after accepting the Portland folks’ assurances and reading through the self-styled internet experts’ descriptions of how a fluttering belt could case tiny rpm fluctuations, which could be interpreted as misfires, and and and… ok, sure, fine, enough. 
  • Three days after the home deal’s implosion, that word somehow got out, and we got two more potential offers.  Evidently the new sense of urgency spurred them into action. One offer was contingent on at least one home sale and gave us headaches, but the other looked promising, and they wanted a short closing time.  We haggled the price a bit and accepted.  Closing at the end of August.

We flew back to Portland, re-packed ourselves into Davista and hooked up our Toad, and set off for Seattle, where we had arranged to visit some dear friends for the long weekend.  They live right on Lake Washington, with a boat and many toys, they’re some of our favorite people, they like good food and drink as much as we do, their kids are our two older kids’ age, and on top of all that, it was Seafair weekend in Seattle, the pinnacle of which is the Blue Angels airshow over the Lake.  We would be watching from the water, and there is nowhere in the world better to be in August than the Pacific Northwest. 

So ready for this.