Once in a while, you experience a moment so poignant words are inadequate to describe it. A bittersweet ache pierces your core and tears swell your throat as you listen to the heartbeat of creation. These moments are rare, and yet I experienced three of them during a recent trip to San Juan Island.
The trip combined a family getaway with research for Deceptive Tide (Islands of Intrigue: San Juans), which I am currently writing. Although Orcas, another island paradise in this archipelago off the coast of Washington state, is the setting for my romantic mystery novel, part of the action takes place on San Juan Island.
On a pleasant day in May, we boarded a ferry to cross Puget Sound on a course from the mainland. Despite the fair weather, standing on the forward passenger deck turned into a contest against a wind that hadn’t gotten the memo about it being late spring. We retreated to the rear deck, where the ferry’s hulk sheltered us from the wind of its passing. Whichever direction you faced, the view as the ferry cut through the island channels was spectacular.
Golden grasslands covered the area of California where I grew up in the summer, very different from these evergreen-clad hilsides, dark rocks, and intensely blue waters. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for years now, but its beauty still amazes me.
After about an hour, the ferry took a wide turn to reveal the town of Friday Harbor rising above its marina. The Ferry docked, and we followed the line of cars in front of us to debark. The adventure began immediately when we took a wrong turn and became lost. After cruising past picturesque shops, returning to the same parking area twice, and having a heated discussion with my husband about which road to take, we managed to point our vehicle toward the first stop.
American Camp, dates from 1859, during the time when ownership of the San Juan Islands was hotly disputed between the United States and Britain. The Oregon Treaty of 1846, drawn up to settle boundary disputes between America and England, had given the dividing line as the center of the strait at the 49th parallel in the north. The trouble with that is that there are two straits at that location, San Juan de Fuca and Harro, with the San Juan Islands between them. Both England and the United States occupied San Juan Island for a 12-year period while awaiting resolution of the dispute.
Such an arrangement, as you might imagine, created abundant opportunity for conflict. Sentiment on both sides escalated when an American farmer shot a pig allowed by its British owner to wander into his potato patch. Thankfully, saner heads prevailed on both sides.
Only a few buildings and the fence surrounding the parade ground remain in American Camp. These were locked and silent, guarding their history. An arched gate led to a path and a redoubt (mounds created as a fortification for guns) area. The open meadow beyond the redoubt was strewn with granite boulders, deposited long ago by the glacier that had flattened the land. It was here, overlooking water that sparkled like diamonds, with meadow larks singing and the wind lifting my hair, that the first moment of vivid awareness arrived.
Soldiers at the camp had once stood here, looking out across the same terrain, touched by the same appreciation on nature.. It seemed almost that I could reach through time and touch a hand. And yet, those people are all gone, as I will be one day, too. Others will come after, and perhaps think back to those who went before, and feel a comradeship.
It was, appropriately enough, at English Camp that the second epiphany moment came. My husband and I climbed high on a bluff to the location of the Commanding Officer’s home. This home had been a solid structure that sheltered an entire family. It was quite a place, built in the Victorian style, and had nine rooms plus a kitchen and servant’s quarters. There had even been a rose garden. Walking through the flattened area where the home had stood gave no hint that it had ever stood there. I wanted so badly to find some trace of the home, of the lives that had gone before.
Afterglow Vista Mausoleum
While on San Juan Island, we also visited Afterglow Vista, also known as Roche Harbor Mausoleum. This elaborate crypt was very carefully designed by John S. McMillan, founder of the town of Roche Harbor. From the number of stairs leading to concrete chairs grouped around a limestone table, to the broken pillar (said to represent that man’s work is left unfinished), the mortuary has a lot of symbolism. Each of the chairs contains the ashes of one of the family members, and the ashes of Ada Beane, John McMillan’s loyal secretary, are also here.
The Mausoleum has been described as ‘wierd’ or ‘strange,’ and it might exceed anything the average person might build, but to me it seems that a man with the wherewithal to build a grandiose final resting place for his dearly beloved had accomplished that task.
This site has been vandalized. One of the chairs was removed entirely, and the table has an ugly gash in it that wasn’t there during an earlier visit.
It struck me, with a pang of sadness, that Mr. McMillan might have been trying to control death, itself.
Nothing lasts, and nothing we can build lasts. But there is something that can.
What Mark Will You Leave?
I’ve never met them,
These silent strangers.
They are to me but
A name on a stone –
Or no name at all,
Just a depression,
A mound of earth,
They lived before me
In a younger world –
Real people sighing
Before I took on
Flesh and breath.
They’re gone now –
It doesn’t seem fair.
They might never
Have existed at all –
For good or ill,
They came to rest here,
On this windy hill –
I cannot know them,
I who am living.
God alone has
Decided their fate.
I walk from the place
And leave them behind.
I must make a mark
Not written on stone.
by Janalyn Voigt