Last winter, Sachi and I were invited to a small house party to celebrate Chinese New Year. We knew the hosts, Nik and Natalie, but few other people. Eventually, I made my way into the kitchen and met a friendly guy named Mike who had an interesting story, like so many who end up on Orcas. He is a professional potter who trained in China’s porcelain capital.
Our conversation soon moved to the adjustments we all make in moving and how Orcas differs from other places. Along the way, he mentioned someone he knew who moved up from Seattle and was trying to adapt to island life
We talked about transitioning to a more rural, small-town environment and how things are generally slower, farther away, and less convenient. Compared to the city, anonymity isn’t as possible and the scuttlebutt travels quickly. These are common observations. But, Mike said something that I’d never heard before and it stuck with me. His friend was having a hard time with the dirtiness of island life.
Ever since, I’ve thought about that observation. Is it dirtier? What does that mean?
Of course, dirt is part of island life. Just after we moved, we were eating dinner at a cafe with farm-to-table food and cocktails. I asked the server for recommendations and she pointed to the menu with a fingernail stained with dirt. For a moment, I was aghast. That doesn’t happen in Seattle. But on Orcas, it’s nothing. The cafe prides itself on growing their own food and it seemed like she came directly from the garden to our table. The food was delicious and dirt-free.
In discussions about the dirtiness of things, context matters. Dirt, in whatever manifestation, is relative and I saw examples of that in Seattle.
Like many places, Seattle is surrounded by rural farmland. When there are events in the city like concerts or festivals, people arrive from all over. As a city-dweller, it was always easy to tell who had arrived from the small farming towns. They arrived in big trucks and were dressed in a more country fashion, with jeans and work boots. But it wasn’t simply their clothes. Compared to city people, there was a dustiness to their appearance.
I remember noticing how they stuck out against the shiny urbanites and wondering if it was intentional or not. While I was perhaps smug at the time, I now see the contrast from a different perspective.
Orcas Island has nicely paved roads, but most people use dirt or gravel roads on a regular basis. Most houses are surrounded by natural surfaces like rocks, grass, ground cover, etc. This is true for us now and will be true for the new house. By simply stepping outside and driving off the property, you can’t help but collect some pine needles or dirt. In the summer, the gravel roads ensure a fine dust coats everything. In the winter, the consistent rain keeps everything muddy or at least splashy.
The reality of the surface became very real two weeks ago when we visited the construction site. I stepped out of the car and my phone dropped to the ground. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, as most surfaces are flat and a rubbery case protects the back and edges of the phone. But in this case, a rock was perfectly positioned to crack my phone’s screen on impact. Over a decade of having iPhones and this was the first cracked screen, thanks to living around gravel.
The dirtier experience of Orcas has also had a slow, but obvious impact on how I dress. The first time I noticed it was looking for new shoes. I realized that I may never own another pair of shoes with white soles. They are impossible to keep clean on Orcas. The same is true for pants and shirts. My recent selections tend toward the earthy tones. This is mostly a practical consideration because I can live with dirt as long as it’s not so visible.
The same is true for vehicles. In the summer, the dust is so thick on our back window that we have to use the wiper blade to see. It’s an inescapable element of living on a gravel road and we’ve grown used to it. In fact, we’ve come to see it as a strange badge of honor that differentiates us from the tourists who arrive in pristine cars. If you want to find a tourist in the summer, look for a shiny car.