Orcas Island had always been a part of our story. The first time Sachi and I spent a weekend away in 2000, we went to Orcas Island and stayed at West Beach Resort. In the following years, we came back to West Beach to stay in its tiny, sparsely-appointed seaside cabins with friends and built fires in makeshift rings overlooking the beach.
In 2011, Sachi and I spent about a month at Orcas as a kind of writing retreat. Most of my book, The Art of Explanation, was written there. We visited multiple times in between and always left shaking our heads in wonder. What a place.
After the hourlong ferry ride, we arrived on the island and walked into the real estate office that helped us on the month-long trip years before. We told them we were dreaming and curious. The kind woman listened, printed out a dozen listings and sent us in a few directions. At the very least, we had paper for starting a fire.
That afternoon we arrived at the campsite, set up the tent and arranged the prodigious car camping supplies we had accumulated over the years. After a short hike, we settled in with a box of red wine and a roaring fire as we prepared dinner. As salmon skin sizzled over the fire, we studied the listings. We discussed, we debated, we proposed. Tiny sparks of a different fire started to fly.
As the light grew dim and the box of wine emptied, we let ourselves dream about what was possible. We both went to sleep that night on our queen-sized inflatable mattress with Maybe keeping us warm and possibilities spinning in our minds.
The next morning we awoke expecting the light of day to have washed away our drunken dreams. Rarely do late night ideas survive the morning. But these did and it was all we wanted to talk about. Over breakfast, the listings were filtered and organized by potential. We traded a morning hike for a few hours of driving around the island, trying to find the vacant land and modest houses we had idealized by the fire.
Our night of dreaming eventually came face-to-face with the realities of our lives and the availability of properties that we could afford. It felt like we were forty years too late and left to sift through scraps of land that were left after generations built out the island. Our dream seemed to be realized by someone else in 1979.
We were still living firmly in dreamland, so our disappointment was simply a return to reality; a reality that came with financial and lifestyle commitments. Did we really want another place, hours away, to manage and maintain? We tempered our excitement with visions of leaky roofs, aging septic systems and debt.
Returning to the campsite that second evening, we talked not about property, real estate listings or the market, but about our lives. Aside from Orcas Island, were we looking for a change? Were we prepared to shake things up?
We weren’t entirely sure, but the possibility created new space in our lives for endless speculation. These are the ideas that spin in the background and come to the surface when work is over or there is a break in the conversation. What if? How would it work? When could it happen? We began to start discussions with a disclaimer, “Sorry to bring up Orcas again, but…” If we were honest, we weren’t sorry at all.
Being animated by a big idea like Orcas Island has a way of lifting our entire outlook by prompting us to think seriously about the future, near and far. The mere possibility of owning property forced us to ask big, philosophical questions about what we want from life and what will truly make us happy. For us, happiness lives in anticipation and in this case we saw an opportunity, however faint, that we could decide to change our lives. If we wanted it bad enough, we could take the risk and deal with the consequences.
On the ferry trip back to Seattle, we looked out the window at all the homes along the shoreline and in the hills of the San Juan Islands. Rustic cabins, glass-and-steel moderns, moss-covered cottages. They all had stories. Many of them represented, at some point, a dream that started on a visit, not unlike our own. What would those dreamers say to us? Would they tell tales of dreams realized, or perhaps, regret?