John Laird: After an election, lose yourself in the San Juan Islands

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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photoJohn Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.

Four weeks ago I wrote about temporarily escaping pre-election tensions by taking a walk in Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver. Refreshing as that experience became, it was a walk in the park compared with my post-election sabbatical: three days in the San Juan Islands.

This was my third venture to the pastoral archipelago that includes four islands served by state ferries but more than 170 named islands varying in size from large boulders to 57-square-mile Orcas Island. And this was my second November trip to the San Juans. Such timing during the tourism off-season is a gamble with fickle fall weather. But we lucked out this time; the weather cleared up for most of our stay in paradise. Restaurant choices and eatery hours were seasonally limited, but that was offset by the pleasant sparsity of crowds.

Once again, I was eager to meet my imperious old friend Hiliaeetus Leucocephalus, whose name might sound Greek but he's actually more solvent due to his refusal to accept entitlements. Instead, Hiliaeetus looks out for his own bad self, using his superior vision, a lethal combination of speed and stealth, and viselike talons to stalk creatures, kill them and eat them.

I found my friend half-way up the drive to the 2,400-foot summit of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island. He was perched on a stately Douglas fir throne, looking for all the world as if he knew he is the American national bird, but looking even more for something to clutch, kill and eat. This is one reason I love the San Juans: They boast one of the largest American bald eagle populations -- migratory and permanently nesting -- in the lower 48 states.

Exploring nature's gift shop

Another reason is the natural beauty. After languishing in the desert for 54 often-unproductive years, I now cherish the magnificent greens and stunning blues of the Pacific Northwest, all embodied best, in my opinion, by the lush San Juans.

What an exhilarating refuge from big-city strains and the national political strife. I kind of wish now I had never learned that San Juan County's voting habits are even more liberal than King County's. That kind of knowledge sort of spoils everything. But when I clear my mind and focus on Hiliaeetus guarding the flanks of Mount Constitution, or chat amiably with domesticated blacktail deer at Rosario resort, or savor thick, steaming clam chowder at Roche Harbor on San Juan Island while watching the fog saunter toward Haro Strait … well, politics are obliterated from my consciousness.

Another reason I love the San Juans is the trip there. Ferry rides are every bit as spellbinding as they are restorative. I think it's the warm comfort of total surrender. Instead of being packed sardinelike into a tube full of sneezing, cacophonous yokels six miles in the air, you're in another world on a ferry. You're free to stroll and sightsee as the vessel meanders placidly at 20 mph or slower. Your cares cascade overboard. Your ferry even has a name. This trip, I sailed on the Chelan, the Evergreen State and the Yakima. Airplane names, rare these days, are not so inspiring.

And I'm still beguiled by the uniqueness of riding for an hour and half on a huge craft and then actually driving off of it in your own car. And then, after driving a few days in what seems like a foreign country, you drive your own car back onto the vessel for the return trip. Airlines never let me check my car.

The intensity of the San Juans experience is magnified during the off-season, as I said if you luck out on the weather. The bumper sticker "Slow down, you're not on the mainland," I suppose is meant to describe Hawaii. But this concept of compulsory tranquility belongs even more properly in the San Juan Islands.

Many of you I know have grown to love these islands. Some of you own property there. Others of you prefer destinations elsewhere in the Northwest. Trust me, we should never take these treasures for granted. Almost 10 years ago, I traded roadrunners for eagles and cockroaches for barnacles. One of my better transactions.