Four Days on a Deserted Island, part one

Well, not really deserted, but to city folk like us, Whidbey Island certainly felt like it.

We wanted to get out of Seattle for the holidays... for several reasons, but mostly just because we thought a road trip sounded better than sticking around town for dysfunctional family Thanksgiving followed by the insane mobs and traffic on Black Friday.

Speaking of insanity, that was precisely the accusation friends and relatives leveled at us for making any travel plans at all for the holiday. Because on the Monday of Thanksgiving week, we got snow. Our annual blizzard that shuts the entire city down for thirty-six hours or so.

Seattle has a reputation -- largely deserved -- as being a city that greets even the slightest dusting of snow with complete panic. Out-of-towners scoff at us as being "sissies" who "don't know how to drive in the snow."

Would that this were true. The problem isn't the local snow sissies. They are safely at home, cowering in their beds, calling in sick to everything and anything while the local TV news guys are showing scary pictures of the weather, complete with specially-created logos like WINTER BLAST 2010 and SNOWMAGEDDON.

[caption id="attachment_65432" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="A lot of the citywide panic is cheerfully abetted by local newspeople, who delight in showing us pictures like these. All my weather pics here are from local TV news blogs."]


So the problem is never the sissified locals. It's the people from out of town who are snow idiots.

The problem is twofold. We have all our software-engineer types who've migrated here from Silicon Valley and have never actually experienced weather at all. They are completely freaked out by the snow-- Frozen water falls from the skies! The gods are angered!-- and immediately rush out to the grocery store to stock up for the impending apocalypse, skidding and sliding every which way.

Those people are bad enough. But far more destructive are the smug folks who've moved here from eastern Washington and Idaho and Montana who are used to getting eight or ten inches of snow every winter. They have four-wheel drive and traction tires. They can handle it. Except when they can't. Because unlike Spokane or Boise or wherever they're from.... Seattle is not flat. It's nothing but hills jammed together.

So invariably, you have some angry bubba-type who's used to driving on hard-packed powder snow in the flat plains of eastern Washington, sliding slowly backwards into an intersection the first time he tries to get up the forty-degree angle streets of, say, Capitol Hill or Queen Anne. Viciously gunning his four-wheel-drive SUV all the while, wondering why he's still not going forward. Or maybe he can get his vehicle moving... only to realize that now he has no way of stopping it. Traction tires don't do jack for him when the streets are iced over and then frosted with slush on top of that. Think I'm kidding? Behold.

(I like to think it was a born-and-raised Seattleite that put that up on YouTube, grinning to herself all the while. Yeah, that SUV's not such a big deal now that you're not in Yakima, is it, tough guy?)

...sorry, ranting. Anyway, all that's why everyone we knew was looking at us like we were crazy people when we told them we were spending the holiday weekend on Whidbey Island.

The snow started late Monday and we were leaving Wednesday afternoon. Our relatives were worried -- Julie's sister was sure the hotels would be overbooked with stranded travelers, and her husband kept muttering about "Greg and Julie-sicles found on the side of the road."

After two days of this sort of thing from everyone we know, even Julie was a little wired by departure day and she is normally quite rational about snow. I was just getting irritated and snappish. "For God's sake," I fumed, "everyone is acting like we're going to the top of Stevens Pass on foot. It's just Whidbey, it's barely half an hour out of downtown."

Which is true. But only if you take the ferry at Mukilteo. Here's a map. Bear in mind we're coming from the south, and that maybe another inch or so out of frame from the bottom corner is where the Seattle city limits would be.

So it really is just a short hop from Seattle to Whidbey Island...BUT!

...That's only if you go across to the island by ferry to its southern tip. We discovered the ferries were closed. Because of the snow panic.

At this point some people might have just given up. But the bottom line for me boiled down to two things -- one, I really didn't want to stay home, and two, the hotel was already paid for. I was certain the roads would be clear by Wednesday, and we would just drive up to the northern tip of the island and use the bridge at Deception Pass. Okay, our forty-minute drive had just ballooned up to about three hours, but I was sure we could handle it.

Honestly my biggest worry wasn't the snow, it never really stops the city for more than a day or two. I was more concerned about the horrible traffic that clogs Interstate 5 out of Seattle the day before Thanksgiving. (I still occasionally flash back with a shudder to the time it took me five hours to get seven miles one year, and that was crisp clear fall weather. Just jammed up traffic.)

So Wednesday we set out, the city still snowy but with largely-cleared roads, early in the afternoon in an effort to miss as much of the traffic as possible. We took 99 as far north as we could, and just before cutting over to the interstate I realized that I'd been so obsessed with getting Julie's insulin and other prescriptions safely packed I'd completely forgotten one of MY cases that we couldn't do without, not for four days.

So we doubled back to go get it, and lost an hour and a half doing it. So much for beating the traffic out of town before the big five PM pre-holiday exodus. I was starting to feel a bit persecuted, and also--privately-- even wondering a little myself if I wasn't starting the slow slide downhill from stubborn to out-and-out stupid.

But that was the last incident. The trip north (after we retrieved the case) was smooth sailing, and there really wasn't much traffic even on the interstate. Everyone had apparently fled south this Thanksgiving. We did fine right up to Deception Pass itself, at which point it started snowing again. Hard.

So the last few minutes were a little nervewracking. But here the closed ferries worked in our favor, because coming in from the north put us much closer to our hotel in Oak Harbor, so we were only on bad roads for a couple of miles. We were safely checked in and in our room by seven PM. Mission accomplished.

We spent Thanksgiving Day snowed in at our hotel, enjoying what has become a time-honored holiday tradition among my people -- the cable television James Bond marathon.

I even ventured out to the grocery store down the street to pick us up some turkey sandwiches. Really, it was a delightful Thanksgiving.

Of course, the next day was Black Friday.... but thankfully, that particular madness seemed to bypass life on Whidbey. Despite being not very far from the city -- well, it's normally not very far away, that is to say when the ferries are running -- the island really has an isolated, country-living vibe. The chief industry of the place is providing services to the families of the military personnel stationed at the two bases nearby -- the airbase at Oak Harbor and the naval installation at Anacortes. And there's some farming, a couple of wineries, that kind of thing. But Whidbey is a wonderfully quiet and laid-back sort of place.

...you know, I just realized I've been kind of rambling on about the weather and and life on the island and all of that stuff and I never really bothered to explain why it's relevant to the subject of this column, which is allegedly supposed to be comics and books and nerd culture in general.

So you should know that the reason we were there wasn't just because it seemed like a nice quiet place to get away from the holiday hubbub for a couple of days.... we discovered at the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair that Whidbey is also a prime destination for Northwest book people. A great many secondhand bookstores and rare book dealers are based on the island, including the actual founder of the Book Fair.

So that was why we'd picked Whidbey. We'd never been there and it sounded like our ideal hangout, judging from what we'd heard at the exhibition. We were there to do some bookscouting.

Friday morning it rained and washed the snow away to almost nothing, and so we eagerly embarked on our explorations. We began with where we were staying, the town of Oak Harbor itself. I'd looked up a few likely addresses the previous evening, and we set out to see if we could find them.

It was harder than you'd think -- Oak Harbor's not very big, but the streets are awfully twisty and difficult to navigate if you have no idea how they're laid out. But after a little poking around we landed at the Wind and Tide bookstore, a wonderful little nook of a place on the waterfront.

It wasn't really very big and the selection was kind of eclectic... but we still fell in love at first sight. It's sort of the anti-Barnes and Noble.

We opened the door and immediately it was obvious we weren't in the city any more, because a big basset hound bounded up to greet us, barking excitedly all the while.

Julie was delighted. "Well, good morning!"

The owner, a plump middle-aged lady with dark hair, turned and smiled at us with some embarrassment. "He's always excited about the first customers of the day," she explained. "Flash! Stop that!"

Flash paid her no mind, but continued barking joyously until Julie knelt and scratched his ears and told him he was a good boy. Obviously Flash has a schtick that's working for him.

I paused for a moment to enjoy the idea of a basset hound named Flash, then wandered back to look at the stacks.

There wasn't that much of interest in the adult section, at least not in Mystery, Sci-Fi, or General Fiction. But I struck pay dirt in the juveniles.

For one thing, there was one of the Graphic Audio DC adaptations, the full-cast audioplay of Infinite Crisis.

I'd been curious about these in a column a couple of weeks before, and by golly, here one was. Clearly, it was fate. We tried it out in the car and I have to admit, I like it a lot. It's really a dramatic reading of the Greg Cox novel, but incorporating sound effects and a cast of actors performing the dialogue. I'd run across this technique before, with Harris Yulin's adaptations of Ross MacDonald, and have thought ever since that it was the ideal way to do an audiobook.

[caption id="attachment_65700" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="By the way? These are awesome. They really need to get them out on CD. "]


I also found a couple of juvenile books that looked interesting, and they were only fifty cents each, so I scooped them up.

The Mystery of the Loch Ness Monster suckered me. I thought it was an adventure story, but it's actually a documentary piece. Jeanne Bendick, it turns out, wrote a great, great many popular-science books for young readers, and as far as I know, she's still at it -- publication dates for her work range from the fifties to 2009. Still, it's a nice little hardcover with lots of cool photos and anecdotes and legends, and I figured either Phenix or Kerowyn would enjoy it. For fifty cents, it easily qualified as a "Why not?" purchase.

Likewise, The Queen Geek Social Club caught my eye just on the title. I haven't got to it yet, but it looks like a cute read and I thought maybe I'd pass it on to my student aide Katrina when I'm done. Christmas is coming, after all.

The real find, though, was The Secret of Hermit's Peak. This was clearly a Stratemeyer product, but one I'd never heard of -- the Bret King books were a short-lived Western series that ran from 1960 to 1964. The star is eighteen-year-old Bret King, a cowboy whose father Big Jim King owns the Rimrock Ranch in New Mexico. Bret is, naturally, a gifted rider and all-around rancher. He has a sixteen-year-old sister, Jinx, and a kid brother named Rusty. His other friends are the young Navajo, Ace Tallchief; latino Benny Ortega (or “New Mexican Spanish," as it's referred to in the books) and city boy Vic Martinson, a newcomer to the West but quick to “savvy cowboy.” Nine in all, this was the second of the series. No dust jacket, but otherwise in such good shape it seemed almost new, and with really fine-looking illustrations by famed Western artist Joe Beeler... a pre-fame Joe Beeler, but you can see how good the guy was, even on what was certainly one of his earliest jobs.

Interesting bit of trivia I picked up, researching this when we got home -- the books were written by "Dan Scott," a pseudonym for Squire Omar Barker. Barker wrote many westerns, both under his own name and a variety of pen names, until his death in 1985. But the thing he's actually most famous for is "A Cowboy's Christmas Prayer."

Meanwhile, Julie had been chatting with the owner about Flash the dog, who as it turned out was just one member of the owner's menagerie.

We made our purchases and headed back out on to the street. Maybe the trip up had been a little rocky, but overall this felt like an auspicious beginning to our stay at the bookscout's island getaway.


And it appears I've rambled on to the point where it looks like I'll have to cut this account in two. So I'll stop now, and invite you to join me back here for more adventures-- rarities and obscurities and a couple of real scores --next week. See you then.

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