Layers of a Walk

San Juan Island #3

September 4, 2017

From the top of Mt. Grant, facing west toward Vancouver Island.

I despise exercise.

That rhymes, you’ll notice, and the first time that thought popped into my head, I noticed it too. Since then, whenever I exercise for exercise sake, that’s my mantra. It has a nice one, two, three rhythm. Like a waltz. Only faster. It goes well with the elliptical machine.

Now you may well say that I am defeating the purpose of exercise by being so down on it, but it’s not true. I am validating my detestation, and thereby allowing myself the freedom to hate it, even while I accomplish what it is meant to do—extend my quality and quantity of life by maximizing my protoplasmic capabilities for as long as possible.

You will never see me running. Runners wear expressions from the seven stages of the cross that terrified me in my short catholic upbringing. Swimming? Too cold. Too wet. If I must exercise (and I must, after all I tell my patients they must, and I’m a firm believer in trying not to be a hypocrite), you will find me weight lifting and doing cardio intervals, because I have discovered I can tolerate even things I hate for 30 seconds at a time, and it turns out this is enough to sweat my body into shape. At least that’s what the research says this week…

Mt. Baker as seen from Mt. Grant, looking east toward Cascades

However much I despise exercise, I love being active, whether it’s transplanting shrubs, moving the woodpile, or building a sidewalk. I even like shoveling snow and pulling weeds. Being outdoors is integral to my satisfaction with life. (I just realized: the only thing that could be better about my working on SJI is if I could see my patients outdoors. I confessed this to a patient recently and we both had a good laugh, deciding that San Juan Island would be just the place for that idea to take off!)

Here on the island, or at home, walking is one of my favorite activities, a time for contemplation and gratitude, a time to shrug off tension and worry, a time to solve problems, and a time to forget them. A good walk is a blank page on which to write a story. A wakeful dream where thoughts can float, and merge, drift and evaporate, like clouds.

While Rob was here, he and Tippy took a walk every day to soak up the bustle in the busy little village of Friday Harbor. The people, the ferries, the cars, bikes and boats. We walked each evening too, so I could get my fill of all the beauty this island has to offer. As though I could. As though anyone could. But since my loves are gone back home, I have sought solitude on my walks, eschewing the village for the coastlines and coves, the rocks and the heights, the towering fir forests and the gnarled Garry oaks. I have sought out eagles and whales, held my breath as deer passed by, so close. And I’ve noticed how sounds peel back, like the petals of a flower, when I’m alone.

I sit now on top of Mt. Grant typing this. You can drive up here on Sundays— but it’s Monday—and the rest of the week you have to walk the mile and a half uphill. The walk starts in a towering fir forest, with centuries of pine needles cushioning the path. I am first aware of my footfalls, and the fact that they are uneven—my left seems to flap a bit, while my right seems, well, not-flappy. It’s just a snippet of sound, not much to it, but it keeps me company. I marvel at the fact I can hear it at all, footsteps on a carpet, that quiet.

Which causes me to wonder why I can’t hear anything else. And then I do. I hear the sound of a car engine in the distance. The road, after all, isn’t too awfully far away; the whole island is only 8 by 20 miles. The engine disappears, but soon there is another grumbling, it’s distant, then closer: a plane coming in for a landing, no, a helicopter, which, with its beating rotors, makes a different sound than the single propeller of the small planes that fly here. It fades, its pulse lingering longer than its form.

The wind has been tame during my stay here. But I find its delicate notes here, in the treetops, whispering its way to my ears like a lover.

I am amazed there is no birdsong. Not a twitter or scurry of a small animal in the whole forty minutes of climb. I see a bird soaring on thermals, but it makes no sound. It is eerie, this absence of critters. I’m not sure what to make of it. I think I must ask someone.

I know there are owls. We hit one with the car. A great big barred owl. I know that’s what it was because after, when the adrenaline and the guilt wore off, I looked it up. After we screamed when it rolled up the windshield in slow motion. After we braked, but not soon enough to completely avoid it. After we found a place to turn around, and the great bird—thank goodness—had moved to the other side of the road, where it continued to sit like a giant bowling pin on the asphalt, exactly as we had encountered it, coming around a blind curve at dusk. This time we avoided it and pulled over. I tried to shoe it away, gently, with a twig. Like Poe’s raven, it remained, swiveling its massive head effortlessly, looking at me, through me. Five seconds, ten, fifteen, the owl and I were locked in mutual regard—standing there stunned, waiting for the next car to round the bend and hit both of us. Finally, it broke the spell and flew into a nearby tree. Rob and I ventured a sigh of relief, of hope. The only owl on the mountain today is the one I can’t get out of my head.

When I break into the sunshine, a meadow of sun-burnt grass greets me, rolling down the slope to the shore, and though I strain my ears toward the waving blades, I can’t hear them. The Olympic Mountains, only 15 miles away across the Haro Strait, are visible now as I near the top of my climb. In the lazy haze of afternoon they are a string of silver sawtooths drawn with a child’s crayon, a flash of snow winking here and there off the highest peaks, stealing all our rain but rewarding us day after day with Camelot clear blue skies.

Startled grasshoppers wing past me, tatta-tatta-tatta, as I negotiate my last steps through thickets of thorny shrubs daring to eke out an existence in the arid landscape of this summit.

Standing at last on glacial-carved rock, 600 feet above the sparkling sea, there is nothing left but a faint ringing, the sound of silence in aging ears.

Gob-smacked wonder reigns. The sky holds back time.

Or so it seems.

Then, comes the crunch of tires on gravel rising and falling through switchbacks, like a bee buzzing back and forth among flowers. Closer now. The engine cuts. A car door. Two. Footsteps. Others have joined me here, at the end of the world. No worries, there’s plenty of space.

I wonder if they can hear it too.






San Juan Islands #2


Tippy the Adventure Dog

A story in pictures

July 1, 2017. We’re going on an adventure. That’s a new word for me. When MJ said it, she sounded excited, like it was a treat! or a walk!  I’m dubious. I’m pretty sure it involves getting inside that red thing, which she’s been trying to tempt me into for weeks. I’m not buying it.



This is more like it, finally, after spending all day wedged under the seat in that red abomination. Ugh. MJ says everybody’s stuffed into airplanes these days, so I shouldn’t take it personally. But now I’m sitting up high on a seaplane! An I-can-see-plane! Seattle! The water! The islands! YES! That’s the pilot on the left—he’s a good guy. We were best buds from the moment he said, “No dogs in crates,” for the hop from Seattle to Friday Harbor. He was petting me and flying the plane–at the same time! I could tell MJ was a little tense when he kept turning around, but I thought he was great! The other guy—the not-co-pilot on the right—started drinking at the airport. I don’t think he likes to fly.


We’re here! Yay! And Rob’s already sitting.  Why is he sitting? We’ve been sitting for hours. I want to go for a walk. New smells! 




Things to do on San Juan Island:

4th of July parade. There were boats. And bagpipes. And giant fish. I can tell we’re not in Ohio anymore.






Fireworks are very loud. I already knew this. They should have left me home and texted a photo.







Here I am taking Rob on a ferry ride while MJ is at work. He likes to look at the water and all the islands. Sometimes there are even whales.

I find the water just makes me sleepy…








…so does the air. And pillows.








Lots of walks!

Rob and I walk down to the harbor nearly every morning and watch the people and the boats. It’s a very busy place.
Here we are on top of the world! It’s a long way for my little legs!



I love go to the farmer’s market, but they won’t let me in. If they did, I’d go straight for the paella.
Here we are strolling through a field of lavender. My people liked it, but if you ask me, it all smelled the same. BTW, nice hair.
A walk onto the pier. I don’t know what this is, and I’ll never figure it out if I can’t smell it. Where is its bum?







All that walking makes me…sleepy. And, did I mention, I like pillows?







A fundraiser for the local animal shelter. This guy was supposed to jump in the water to retrieve the winning lottery ball. He stood there and stood there making like he was gonna go. Yeah. No. Yeah. No. No. Ummm. No. Whose idea was this anyway?








They should’ve asked me! Woohoo!







Now I leave you to your own adventures. May the Force be with you!






San Juan Islands #1


Ten Weeks

One of the ferries docked at Friday Harbor Marina.


The yawning mouth of the ferry as it approaches San Juan Island is apparent even from a distance. It rounds the bend from Shaw Island and glides as smoothly as a swan on the most placid lake, magisterial in size, yet dwarfed by the magnificence of Mt. Baker behind it, looming over the still snow-capped Cascades. The foghorn croons one long, low tone announcing its arrival into the port of Friday Harbor, and the echo courses once, twice, three times, off the bluffs of surrounding islands, fading into oblivion like a stone skipping over the water.

 Thus begins this Saturday morning, the start of my tenth week on San Juan Island.

 I am on a working assignment at the one and only hospital/ outpatient facility in the San Juans, an archipelago off the coast of Washington. I waken each morning, my head on the pillow of a bed whose mattress is raised, literally, to the height of breasts (young breasts, not old ones). There are 2 stairs to climb up onto this Olympian plateau, which I eschew because I am fearful of breaking a toe on them during a nighttime expedition. Instead, I have pushed the stairs under the bed (plenty of room there for a yoga class), and each night opt for a vault, in pike position with full one-and-a-half twist to attain nosebleed height. This degree of physicality is not a great prelude to sleep, so I have to read a while to calm my heart rate, which is a good problem to have. These days I get more than 3 paragraphs in before I recover from the gymnastics. Yay.

Morning 1 from condo featuring “great view”. Hm.

 But the point is, it became apparent to me after about a week, when the smoke and haze from wildfires in British Columbia and Washington cleared, exactly why the bed had been ordered in giant-size: without moving my head from the pillow I can see no fewer than 3 islands and the mainland, with the water rolling out like a pink, orange, blue or gray carpet, depending on the weather, to the magnificent edifice of Mt. Baker. Then, I get to get up and sip coffee while I leisurely read the morning news, and alternately go stupid watching the sunrise, and the swirling currents of the tides, and the sailboats take wing. I no longer have to set an alarm to wake up—the sun does that for me, and my eagerness to see just what colors the dawn has in store that day. But I do still set my alarm—for the last possible second for when I have to start getting ready for work, because the view is so intoxicating, demanding attention, time, day after day.

The weather and smoke are clearing.

Work is a delightful experience, difficult to call, actually, work. I can hear a sigh of wonder erupting from my recent colleagues as they read those words and know, because they are still in the soup and I so recently escaped, just how marvelous this is. I am seeing 12– 15 out-patients per day—just as promised by the client. In addition, I share hospital rounds and overnight calls with 2 other doctors. Our average hospital census is 0.7 patients per day. (I have worked this out to torso, 2 arms and a leg.) I have enough time to spend with each patient on my schedule, most of whom are delightful. They are educated to taking care of themselves. They are genuinely thrilled when I tell them they don’t need an antibiotic. They’ve heard of viral illnesses. Antibiotic resistance. The importance of microbiomes. My first day, when I asked one woman if she smoked, she said, “It’s 2017. Who still smokes?” I almost fell over. Most of my patients back in Ohio.


Wow. Note the dense fogbank in the distance. That's Mt. Baker just beginning to show itself.
Wow. Note the dense fogbank in the distance. That’s Mt. Baker just beginning to show itself.

I do have a few obese patients, not many. Everyone exercises. There is alcoholism here, and heroin abuse. Depression and suicide, and the dying. But there is also community among the 2000+ year-round residents who know one another intimately and support those in all manner of need. There remain the difficult conversations necessary around the country, the world. And because I am filling in for only 3 months while this site searches for a permanent doc, they have not given me the difficult long-term non-compliant diabetics to manage, so part of the la-la land I am in is due to my transience. I am grateful for all of it. In fact it feels like I have died and must have gone to heaven, despite my numerous and serious shortcomings.

Of course, while my colleagues here are so kind, missing from my heaven are the kisses and hugs of family and friends, the eye contact not possible even with face time. Technology only goes so far; I miss just being in the same room with my people. My tribes. Rob was here, and our love child (Tippy, the Adventure Dog) for the first 7 weeks, which was wonderful. Then my sister came for a few days during which we cavorted like the old people we are, which is to say we ate well, celebrated happy hour, laughed a lot, and went to bed early. But everyone is back home now, and I am left here for 3 more weeks. Despite the sadness nibbling around the edges, being here, now, is the best problem in the world to have. Ah, life!

Pinch me.
Pinch me.

Next up: Tippy, the Adventure Dog