Channel Islands: California's Answer to the Galapagos


An hour long journey to an island twenty miles off the coast of southern California. The relative isolation and sixty dollar ferry fee deter many from visiting Channel Islands National Park, but this did not stop me. That hour long ferry ride through the fog, past the eerie orange derricks glowing distantly, was nothing compared to my previous day’s journey from my current city of residence, San Jose, to Ojai where I would be staying with my friend, her boyfriend, and their old burner couple landlords. I left my apartment before the sun came up. I learned people don’t want to say “good morning” to you before day break when you’re carrying just a backpack and smoking a cigarette. I lose my sunglasses from my short’s pocket. 7-11 is closed. Fuck, I need coffee, food, diet soda for my endless journey. How could 7-11 be closed? Aren’t they supposed to be open all the time? Instead, I buy a Diet Dr. Pepper at a 76 Station next to the freeway on ramp and a chicken corn dog. Breakfast of fucking champions.

Diridon Station. Downtown San Jose. Six thirty in the morning. I’m the first in line. People line up after me and I feel the relief that I’m in the right place. I’m the first in line and people are queuing up behind me like they’re supposed to. The sun comes up over Mt. Hamilton, flashing off the sides of the meagre San Jose skyline. Really, city planners? Who builds a downtown in the flight path of an international airport?

I’m the first on the bus. I have no checked bags; my boarding is simple as possible. I set myself up on the top level, front of the bus on the right side. I have to sit on the right side, my talisman against motion sickness. I get set up: phone charger plugged in to a socket that never ends up working, seat in the upright position (call me weird, but I can’t stand my seat leaning back) and dig my first book out (this is a two book journey). I kill the first fifteen minutes texting my friend who has been on their own frustrating, endless journey on the other side of the country, cancelled flight after cancelled flight, but he must board his plane and I find myself dozing off as the bus cruises past the suburbanesque, post-agricultural town sprawl of San Jose. Change from 87 to 85 to 101, row after row of single story, single family homes, chain link fence marking off this is my territory, we can keep growing and growing there’s so much land until there isn’t anymore.

The journey is uneventful, exception being a stressful phone call with my mother. I’m not sure why I even qualify it, aren’t almost all phone calls with all mothers stressful? We stop once for a meal and I watch five overweight Russian women in the same exact pair of unflattering, black spandex leggings order vanilla milkshakes. If I took a photo, someone on the internet cleverer than I could make it a meme about things essential to America.

Six hours later it’s Burbank. I fumble my way through the Metrolink ticketing machine, thankful no one is standing behind me as I’m sure they would feel the same irritation that I feel when I stand behind twenty Giants fans trying to figure out what zone they need to go to and realizing, no, CalTrain machines do not take AmEx. Approximately an hour later, I’m at the Moorpark Metrolink Station. God forbid, the train goes all the way to Ventura. Thank fuck for Uber.

But sometimes Uber is an adventure. I get Rob, well, let’s call him Rob, who in the first two minutes of my drive not only needs to use the restroom but refers to Hispanic people as “illegals” and it hits me. I’m in SoCal. Oh god, I’m in SoCal.

Rob and I talk the politics of chickens and egg prices. He makes comments about “queers” in San Francisco when I mention my origins. Eventually, I get him slagging on Uber and we’ve found a topic that I’m only mildly uncomfortable with. By the time we get lost twice before he figures out where Main Street in Ventura is, I’m ready to jump out of the car and run to the overpriced hipster coffee shop so I can wash myself of his conservative filth.

Nearly twelve hours later, I am finally in Ventura. I need to kill an hour. I roam through the thrift shops, purchase a pair of gray skinny jeans, and chill out in the corner of the aforementioned hipster café with an equally pretentious but delicious lavender latte, charging my phone and awaiting my rescue by my friend. When my friend shows up, we walk, blazing up and chain smoking American Spirits. We catch up on our most recent joys and fuck ups.

In the morning, after achieving coffee and a ham cheese croissant, my friend drops me off at the harbor. I have no reservation, but they still have room on the first boat. I hand over my sixty dollars. The ticketing agent gives me the wrong slip. When I try to board, the guide collecting tickets yells at me. A senior crew member, seeing the look of clear astonishment on my face turning quickly to anger, calmly tells me to board and he would check with the ticketing agents. Turned out to be okay because ten minutes later the angry junior guide apologizes to me in a way that made it seem like he still thought it was my fault.

The boat ride out is smooth and uneventful. I normally suffer from serious motion sickness on boats, but I prepared with breakfast and plenty of water. A warning to all, even if it has been sunny and the weather forecast is warm: wear pants. Shorts with thigh high knit socks and a windbreaker weren’t really cutting it for me. My fellow passengers were pleasant in so much as they were quiet and didn’t try to talk to me.

Narrative time out for major exposition and lesson island history both natural and human. The five islands in the park, the largest of which is Santa Cruz Island, are home to over 2,000 species of plants and animals. Three of these two thousand species are endemic mammals: the deer mouse, spotted skunk, and Channel Islands Fox. My friend later tells me that the islands were never part of California and these species came over by rafting or seed dispersal. I get a ridiculous amount of happiness thinking of a little fox riding a raft across the 20 mile channel; in fact, I can’t believe Disney hasn’t made a live action film out of it. The mountainous terrain and sea cliffs of Santa Cruz Island are a look back at southern California before invasive species (French broom, ice plant, cape ivy, eucalyptus, 1970s track homes) took over the land. Quite adorable fact: each island has an endemic subspecies of Channels Islands Fox, several of which I saw on the island.

We disembark at Scorpion Ranch, a dilapidated collection of sheep ranch buildings from the over hundred year history of sheep ranching on the island (or so the informational placards tell me). The majority of the group peels off to the left for a $200 dollar sea kayaking trip, which I would have done if I had the disposable income and less distaste for kayaking. I select my destination: Smuggler’s Cove. Long enough hike at 8 miles round trip to take up most of my day, but leave time for one of the shorter hikes. Plus, I want to see any place that named after bootleggers and sheep smugglers.

And I push myself up the steep hillside, then the next one and the next one for the next four miles. It’s pretty, the hills dotted with little yellow and pink flowers, and the weather perfect: cloudy and cool, but not cold and the steep mountains trap fog in the valleys between. I’m completely alone, huge crows excepting, and my mind meanders, passing the time until I reach my destination.

Smuggler’s Cove is a gentle horseshoe, a beach strewn with rounded rocks and bleached bird bones. But this is it: a simple, nice place to eat my stale roast beef Safeway sandwich and banana. I feel spoiled and oversaturated on the beauty I experienced everyday living in Santa Cruz; maybe I can’t really enjoy it as much as I should. I am more enamored with the idea of being there than the actual place.

I spend another ten minutes admiring the view of Anacapa, home of the last permanent light house built on the California coast in 1932, in relative solitude until a group of kayakers mar the vista. I had zero interest at this point in exploring the abandoned buildings. I think there were abandoned buildings, but my memory is as hazy as the western horizon. The afternoon sun was quickly burning off the fog and I wanted to make my way back to Scorpion Ranch.

Uphill, downhill, more uphill, then more downhill, I pass several groups puffing their way to Smuggler’s Cove. Three older people, probably in their late sixties leaning over hiking poles, one of whom is an old crotchety gent, let’s call him Russell, who decides while nursing a singular Budweiser on the ferry back, that he has to talk to me and we get into this long, convoluted conversation about the effects of texting, Twitter, Instagram, snap chatting all that 150 character internet shit which is ruining the upcoming generation’s ability to communicate in written fucking language, greet me and ask me,

“How is it?”

I reply, “It’s okay. I’m not sure how much it’s worth the walk.” And by the way, I know that was a fucking run on where I mention the ruination of the English written language.

Cavern Point Loop is a short hike accessed by the Potato Harbor trail through the Scorpion Ranch campground. Earlier in the day, one of the volunteer guides provided an interpretive walk, but I can’t get myself to focus long enough to ever listen on those and the guides always make some lukewarm attempt at humor that makes me uncomfortable. That and people walk really slow. I can get my information from park literature and those nifty informational placards with the topographic maps. It’s while I’m walking through the campground past the hammocks and tents that I see my first Channel Islands Fox: small and gray loping through the campsites trying to find shards of potato chips which the aforementioned guide earlier warned us would lead to our eternal damnation.

The trail hugs a gully between two hills and up again I go. I pass more hikers and visitors in this area of the island, as these are closer to the visitor’s center and the hikes are shorter. Halfway up the trail forks: to the left is Potato Harbor and to the right is the more direct route to the Cavern Point. Having already hiked eight miles and it getting hotter every minute, I choose the shorter, more direct route. At the top of the trail, the island rewards me with excellent coastal vistas and peeks of the sea caverns which that ridiculously expensive kayaking trip will take you to.

The trail curves, northward, eastward, west? I’m terrible with my directions. I see another fox; this one is hunting not potato chips but a small rodent in the brush. Down the steep hillside above Scorpion Ranch, I watch the people, the shifting clouds, and I’m down to my last layers.

Two hours from departure, the sun has burned off the fog and like many others I claim a spot on the rocky beach near the dock and pull my second book of the trip from my backpack. Burning a considerable portion of my chest, I doze and the children to my right chatter simultaneously in Dutch and English, conversing about really nothing in particular. I’m impressed. People are just chilling out.

It’s hot. I venture about five feet out into the water and watch the clouds float over Anacapa. I want to convince myself that I can see the mainland, but I know I can’t. During those many times, those countless trips from Santa Cruz and Ventura and back again in my Focus, the Jetta, the early 1990s maroon Dodge Caravan, inherited from my grandparents, I selected when I was four or five for a road trip to Wyoming, I always looked west, trying to see the islands. And now I’m there and I’m looking east at the mainland. I’m feeling trapped; there is only way off the island.

I admit relief when our boat pulls up to the dock. The hills are pretty and the beaches restful, but I am done with my island adventure.