Walking distance from our property on Orcas, there are a few roads that lead up into the hills. When we were new to the island and still understanding how things worked, we decided to drive up into the these hidden neighborhoods, see what the properties were like and get the lay of the land.
Like many neighborhoods on the island, the first one we explored had a nice sign with a creative and slightly pretentious name along with a small sign, that said “Private Road - Residents Only”. These signs are everywhere on the island, including on our road, but we had been told to ignore them in the past when looking at vacant land. Being bona fide property owners from just down the road, I figured we could do a little exploring.
The neighborhood on the hill is small, with maybe fifteen homes in all. Some are on the roadside, some have long driveways that lead back to unknown quarters. Just off the main road, we saw a small, moss covered sign that said “Wetland Trail” that had clearly been created by a neighborhood resident. This was the kind of thing we’d hoped to find; a new place to explore.
Just after noticing the sign, we came upon a man and woman doing yard work and I asked Sachi to stop the car. Being a neighbor, I thought I would introduce myself and ask about the trail and if we might be able to walk through it. Surely this nice couple would be open to helping a neighbor.
I knew something was off as soon as I made my way up the yard and got close enough to see their faces, which were glum and cold. I said, in my friendliest small town tone, that my name is Lee and I’m a neighbor. Still no smiles or waves. Not knowing what else to say, I started to ask about the trail and before I could finish my sentence, the woman said sternly, “Where do you live?”
I said that I’m just one road away and that we recently bought property and her immediate reaction was “So you’re NOT a neighbor. This is a private neighborhood and you need to have permission to be here.” Her words had the air of a mean school teacher. Needless to say, this put me on my heels.
I started to make nice and try to salvage some pride from the situation. But then I stopped. It was clear that this was a dead end. I was on her private property. My attitude changed in an instant.
Before she could finish the next sentence, I said “I see. Thank you and have a nice day.” and walked away with a stunned look on my face. As I did, I noticed that the man with her, who didn’t say a word, had a sly smile. It was like he had seen this all before. I ran face first into the buzz saw and he couldn’t help but marvel at the awkwardness of the situation.
As I turned around, she immediately switched into neighbor mode, probably sensing that I was offended. She started to tell me about the history of the wetland trail. Neighbors built it in… whatever. To me, the conversation was over and I couldn’t get to the car fast enough. Before getting in, I waved and said “thank you” and “have a good day” as if we’d just shared tea and told stories. It felt like the only thing I could do was be an opposing force. I could be nice, even if I knew that my every word dripped with sarcasm.
Once the car door closed, I sat back and took a deep breath as I recounted the event to Sachi. The experience was so far from what I expected that I didn’t know how to process it. Did I just stumble upon the grinch of Orcas Island?
This ended up being an important lesson for us both. First, we learned never to go into that neighborhood. I now consider it haunted. More than that, we’ve come to understand how private roads work on Orcas and what could have made that person so protective.
It starts with Orcas Island having a mix of public and private roads. The public roads are managed by the county and virtually everything else is managed by citizens in the form of homeowners associations. When we bought our property, we became members of a “road and park” association, which has a board, annual dues, etc.
Our association has about twenty members who live on a few contiguous roads owned by the association and not the county. They are private property and it’s up to the association to maintain them. That’s a big reason we pay dues: to have nice roads and a means to make collective decisions about the neighborhood.
It’s this issue of private property, associations and dues that caused the problem with the woman on the hill. She was right. We should not have been on private property. We were using roads she paid to maintain and if I fell and broke my leg on it, her association could have some liability.
The same is true for our road, which has only a handful of houses. There is a very clear “Private Road - No Trespassing” sign at the beginning of it. My dues paid for that road and now, I’ve become protective. When a stranger is spotted on the road, emails start flying. Who was that? Do Lee and Sachi have friends in town? There is no reason a stranger should be there.
While private roads close the island to many, their forbidden nature does add a bit of mystery to the island experience. As we’ve made friends, we’ve been able to discover, bit-by-bit, parts of the island that are intentionally hidden. With them as our hosts, we get glimpses of neighborhoods and roads that few tourists ever get to see. A ramshackle sign and gravel driveway can become a portal into a labyrinth of waterfront properties or houses perched on the top of mountains. That’s part of the fun. A house party can be an opportunity to explore, with permission.
Today, I can empathize with the grinch on the hill. She had a point. My experience with her reminded me that there are people who want to make friends and there are people who just want to be left alone. Apparently, I chose poorly. In recounting this story to our neighbors we learned that she has a reputation among those in the area.
They said, “Oh, you went up that road? Most of them are really nice, but don’t go as far as HER house. Yikes.”
From this event, I do take inspiration. If a friendly island resident shows up on my road asking questions, I’m quite sure I would explain the situation and why roads are private. But I’d also be nice about it. Is that so difficult?
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