Island life

Six days on a Puget Sound island -- you can't help but learn to love.

Published August 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

My friend Zoltan smiled as we described our odyssey. June and I would leave town in a week, giving up high-profile jobs in city government. "We're heading west," I told him, "no kids, no spouses, no middle-class hassles." We packed sleeping bags in the trunk along with a cookstove and tarp in case it rains.

"No tent?" he asked.

"We want to be under the stars," I said.

"Romantic us," June added. We had left our marriages three months before and moved in together. She had teenage daughters, I had preteen sons, and neither of us knew where this would take us ... except we wanted to be together. We had no itinerary other than heading west, no timetable other than returning to the kids "in a few months".

We planned to resume modest writing careers from years before. Marriage and child-rearing had intervened, and we had opted for the safety of secure employment. Now, we wanted to break away.

"I have an idea for you," Zoltan said, describing land he owned on Cyprus Island in Puget Sound. "It's uninhabited; it would be a great place for you to write. My wife and I spent five days there when we returned from our Peace Corps assignment," he said. "It changed our lives."

"Great!" we both said.

Two months later we were at the bow of an open boat, plowing our way through choppy, chilly Puget Sound about 150 miles north of Seattle. We were on our way to Zoltan's island in the San Juan chain, known also as the "Sunshine Islands" because of steady, daily sunshine. We'd been camping without a tent almost every night, trying to resurrect our writing talents. We kept journals, tried personal essays and short story openings ... but nothing seemed to work.

"Do you suppose it was this tough for Fitzgerald?" June wondered.

"I feel rusty," I said.

"None of this feels right!"

Maybe we needed to be in one location awhile, instead of jumping in the car every morning and speeding somewhere new. Were we mixing up our priorities? Were we writing because we wanted to travel or were we traveling because we wanted to write?

"Over there!" the boat captain pointed. Rising in the mist was a dome-topped island, green and shadowy. "That's Cyprus," he said. "It rises to over 800 feet, and it'll take you the better part of a day to walk around."

In the distance the sunlight played on several seals floating lazily in the blue-black water. "Water temp's about 43 degrees," the captain said. "You're not gonna want to swim."

June and I exchanged a look. Water cold enough for seals meant it would be chilly when the sun went down. But we'd packed well. We had sweaters and warm slacks as well as bags of supermarket food, jugs of water and our cookstove.

And our writing cases, of course.

Twenty minutes later we stood on the pebbly shore of Cyprus Island, watching the boat slide into the mist. The captain's final words echoed in our minds: "I'll be back in six days," he said. "You have an emergency, just make a bonfire on the beach."

It's scant reassurance when you're suddenly alone, and the nearest human is 15 miles away. No radio, no cell phone, no e-mail. June and I looked at one another, and the starkness of our situation blossomed. For months we had lived together, but always there had been an agenda: going here, there, planning to do this or that. Now we had nothing but six days on an uninhabited island. No crutch for the relationship, no way to avoid or slip around unpleasantness.

Thirty feet above the beach hung a series of wide rock ledges, and we chose one for our camp. We hauled our supplies up, broke out a bottle of wine to celebrate and enjoyed the softness of the late afternoon weather.

"Let's have dinner on the beach," June suggested, and she sent me to find boulders to sit on while she made a special chef's salad. "I have a couple of secret ingredients, and I want to surprise you," she said, and I made my way to the beach to wait for her.

Twenty minutes later I heard her cry. Looking up, I saw remnants of salad flying through the air. She'd started down the rock path and slid bottom-first down to the beach, her surprise salad destroyed.

"I wanted to make this such a nice surprise," she managed tearfully. I looked up, and on the ledge was our empty wine bottle. When I had gone to the beach, it was more than half filled.

"You drank the wine!" I said.

"I felt like celebrating," she said.

"This isn't a Fourth of July picnic ..." I saw a flash come into her eyes and took a breath. In our months together, drinking had never been a major problem; here on the island, it could become one very quickly.

I leaned over and kissed her. "It's OK," I said and helped her to her feet. "What if I make us steaks?"

"I'll clean up the mess," she said.

The next morning after coffee and a hike along the shore (where we came upon a herd of grazing deer -- they swim from island to island, it turns out), we settled ourselves on the beach to write. The sunlight was bright and clear and sparkles of mist played on the tree line far above us.

"It's so beautiful," June breathed.

I felt myself growing impatient. I wanted to get to my writing, and June didn't sense the urgency.

"It'll be there all day," I muttered, turning my back so I could concentrate on my words.

But they wouldn't come. I was bogged down in the opening of a personal essay, and whatever I tried came out trite and inconsequential.

"Maybe you're trying too hard," June suggested.

After the sixth attempt I slammed my writing case down on the pebbly beach. "Nothing works!" I said.

In the meantime June had started a short story, and her pen seemed to fly across the pages.

"At least you've got it going," I said.

She held up three sheets of paper covered with her handwriting. "See this?" she asked. "It's shit!" and she ripped each of the pages in half.

I stood up. "Let's climb to the top of the island," I said, suddenly glad of an excuse not to write.

An hour later, sweaty and puffing, we reached an outcropping just below the summit. Our view was panoramic. We spotted some of the other islands and tracked boat traffic on the horizon. Some clouds had come in, and strange shadows dotted the coves and inlets throughout the island chain. Far in the distance we could see the outline of the mainland, and our remoteness was magnified. For an instant I thought of myself as a moon traveler. All alone in the vastness of this uninhabited space, I could sense what Neil Armstrong and the others had felt -- the cocoon of solitude at once invigorating and terrifying.

Late that afternoon, sipping from a new bottle of wine on our rock ledge, I said, "Maybe we're doing this wrong."

June shrugged. "I hate what I'm writing."

"You can't expect miracles so quickly."

There were tears in her eyes. "I miss the kids," and she gave me a fierce look.

"What if ..." I began, but she struggled to her feet and walked into the pine forest behind our rock ledge. She was swallowed by the shadows. I decided not to follow. But as dusk slowly filtered down, she hadn't returned. Though the island harbored no wild animals that I knew about, I began to imagine she could have fallen into a ravine or plunged off a cliff. But where to look? I had only a single flashlight and our camp lantern with enough fuel for a few hours.

When night came and the blackness was complete, I was reassured by the moon's icicle-white solemnity, which gave eerie light to trees and outcroppings. I decided to follow her path, but 50 feet into the pine forest, it was hopeless. She could have gone in any direction. So I turned the glow of the lantern as high as I could and hung it from a bare pine branch. Its light could penetrate the phalanx of pine boughs -- at least far enough so it could guide her back if she had become lost.

I sat down to wait, listening as hard as I could.

It must have been an hour or so later, my despair having grown by the minute, when I heard a sob and a cry. June burst into the ring of light that I had been tending.

"I was so scared," she managed, flinging herself into my arms. "God, don't let me go off like that again!"

"I'll always be here," I said.

"We're a team," she whispered, holding on as tight as she could.

The next afternoon, we made our way to the beach intending to write. That morning, we had explored the other side of the island and discovered the remnants of a sawmill. Only some rotting timbers remained, but the outline of the several buildings could be made out. At one time, then, there had been human life on Cyprus Island, and somehow it made us both feel good.

"We aren't so alone, are we?" June asked.

"If you believe in ghosts," I said, and we both laughed.

Now we arrayed ourselves on the beach, and a thought came that had been in mind since the day before. "What if," I began, "what if we tried to write something together? Something joint, like a team."

"As co-authors?"

"We have shared experiences," I said. "Why not?"

June gave me a long look. "I've never written with anyone."

"Maybe we can make each other better writers."

She looked into the distance where the misty horizon was dappled with sunlight and high above, its apex barely formed, were the blue, yellow and red strands of a budding rainbow.

"Is that a sign?" she asked.

We arrived back home three months later after more extensive camping and a slow melding of our two lives into one. On a windswept coastal promontory overlooking the Pacific, we decided to marry once our divorces were final, and as we drove we started to put article and story ideas together. It was as though a huge boulder had been rolled away from our joint cave of creativity. We could hardly wait to get back and get to work ... together!

We saw Zoltan not long after our return, and he was eager to hear about our adventure. When we told him we had decided to marry, and that those days on his island had convinced us we belonged together, he let out a sigh and smiled.

"Cyprus Island was crucial for my life." he said. "When my wife and I spent those five days there alone, we knew our marriage had been a mistake."

"What happened?" we asked.

"It showed us we might be friends but never lovers. So we divorced before the year was out."

"You offered us the island as a test," June said.

"You could say that," Zoltan nodded.

By way of a postscript, June and I wrote five books together over the subsequent years. We also wrote numerous short pieces together, and before she passed away some years back following a gallant struggle, we frequently spoke at writer's conferences -- always together.

By Bill Noble

Bill Noble is the co-author of "How to Live With Other People's Children" and "Steal This Plot," among other books.

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