I read somewhere that 72 percent of Angelenos have never been to Catalina Island, despite the fact that it hangs out in the Pacific Ocean like a painting, just 22-miles away, an hour on the ferry and 14 -minutes on the helicopter from shore. I am not one of those who fall into that segment of the pie chart. I took a few day trips to the island in my teens, got my open water dive certification there, and even sailed to Avalon from Marina Del Rey when I needed two extra credits in college and signed up for a course. My dad shot a few episodes of the TV show Riptide out there in the early '80s, and my aunt and uncle were married there 30 years ago. It's a place that's been sprinkled through my childhood memories, but a place I'd forgotten all about, or hadn't really reconsidered, until a recent assignment took me back and solidified the notion that travel close to home can be transformative.
I was taken aback in many ways this past week for the apparent reasons that Catalina Island is fabulous, but more consequentially for the hovering and serendipitous moments of discovery that snuck in left when I was looking right. Maybe it was the fact that I was unexpectedly traveling with an old friend or that the ex Island Express owner whom I met on the ride over gave us a lift from the helipad (I'd never get in the car with a stranger in L.A.). Or maybe it was that the locals endearingly referred to Catalina as "our island" and called the mainland "over town." It could have been that the ziplines cascaded toward the sea at 40 mph or that Lolo, an island native and local barber who once tried out for the Chicago Cubs (they spring trained on Catalina for 30 years), showed us black and white photos of famous visitors to the island. Whatever it was, Catalina doled out the charm at every turn and I was smitten. Steamer ships used to bring well-heeled patrons to the island for USO dinner dances, golf carts are the main mode of transportation, Norma Jean Baker (aka Marilyn Monroe) once pulled salt water taffy at Lloyd's Candy Shop, and Zane Grey wrote novels from his house perched above the harbor. But all these things are presumed to make a traveler swoon. What often blindsides me on journeys are the unexpected connections made along the way.
On my last night on the island, we crashed a private party at Luau Larry's where we found ourselves with their famous Wiki Wackers (a potent drink) in hand and straw hats on our heads, passing the evening and wee hours with a group of friends who'd gathered for a wedding. Their lives spanned timezones and generations, their histories had addresses that included Kenya and Vietnam and the White House, and their resumes were bullet pointed with accomplishments that included heroic helicopter rescues, a Pulitzer prize, and helping a man make history as he jumped from space. We were invited into their close knit clan and their lives, doused with attention and flattery, and we were made to feel like long lost comrades---even though our paths would likely have never crossed had we not been, at the exact same time, seeking out a Wiki Wacker.
It occurred to me at some point during the night that even in the familiar landscape of my own backyard there exists the possibility for surprise, which surprised me. And it's one of the things I love most about travel.
Wherever I go, that potential for the unexpected excites and spins me until I'm dizzy, then pushes me stumbling in directions I'd have never thought of venturing. I didn't travel great distances this time, and I'll never see any of those ephemeral friends again, which made me a little sad as I said goodbye. But spontaneous moments and the resulting memories shouldn't be measured with mile markers or promises to recreate them. They are significant in their precise circumstance, frozen in a place inside of us that we can always return to. This is gospel for my gypsy spirit.
This week, Catalina was my church.