Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Smell of caramel

Truly memorable travel experiences are hard come by. Pleasant experiences – a day on the beach in the Bahamas, a hike in Zion National Park, a concert in Las Vegas, a sunset in Oregon – those are both pretty commonplace and some of the reasons we travel.

In just four days in the San Juan Islands we actually had a number of memorable moments. Places always make a big impact the first time you see them. I remember far more about my first visit to Mexico than my most recent.

Traveling with a puppy, it turns out, both adds to the complexity of the trip and provides unexpected memories. Charlie is not quite five months old and had lost three of his four baby canine teeth before we hit the road. Considering that he had to gum some of his food, he was a good sport. Now, toward the end of our stay on Orcas Island, the adult canines are beginning to appear.

Kathleen has been working with Charlie to get him socialized with other dogs. He has no issue with people – loves them all with enthusiasm. Last night, while waiting for what became a spectacular sunset (more on that later) we were wandering about with Charlie along the beachfront where a line of cabins sits on the edge of the Salish Sea (we’re in No. 12). It sort of reminds me of what it might have been like in the Fifties to spend the summer at a lake in the Catskills (see “Dirty Dancing”).

Anyway, there was no shortage of dogs big and small, young and old, and Charlie, initially wary, decided he would play tag, only all the other dogs were always “it.” He would race up to a dog (always choosing a small one), bark in its face, then start running figure eights through the trees and around the dogs. Mostly they just stared at him like he’d lost his mind. Finally, one joined in and Charlie ran like a dog crazed. Then he took a poop and was done for the night. That was a memorable moment for us. It was a generally frolicky day for Charlie, who spent part of the afternoon chasing peach-flavored bubbles blown from a wand that Kathleen had purchased earlier at a pet store. Spoiled? His Royal Puppyness?

Meanwhile, another moment was unfolding to the west. The sun was setting behind a nearby island, broken by a few clouds, and the water and sky turned purple and gold and orange. We see great sunsets nearly every night at home, but this was something special. A three-image panorama I took at the crucial moment will end up on a wall somewhere.

The night before Kathleen got permission from the owner and chef of Allium, a fine restaurant in Eastsound here on the island, to bring Charlie in for dinner. She graciously agreed, then promptly fell so in love with him that she brought her smart phone out for pictures. The food – polenta and vegetables topped by two sunnyside-up eggs for me, scallops for Kathleen – was truly, delightfully, well, memorable. It was so good, in fact, that we returned the next night and I ordered the same dish, while Kathleen had a steak. The chef came out before we left and Charlie gave her a couple of goodbye licks on her cheek.

We drove to the top of Constitution Mountain (the highest point in the San Juans at more than 2,000 feet), but we hit fog about halfway up and the famous view from the top was completely smothered in clouds. We might try it again this afternoon. Allium is closed on Tuesdays, so we’ll be looking for a different dinner spot.

The main thing to do here at West Beach resort is to spend the morning on the front porch of your cabin, then move to the fire ring in front of each cabin right on the beach by late afternoon after a little wandering about the island. You light a fire at sunset and keep it lit until well after dark. There’s a young woman three cabins down who is here grieving the recent and sudden death of her fiancée, so everyone is trying to help her through it.

Some people come here every year for weeks at a time. I understand that, though Kathleen and I probably prefer seeking out new experiences to repeating old ones. The San Juans remind me oddly of Maine, with the steep, rocky shorelines, tree-covered hillsides and delightfully quaint villages. The beer is hoppier and there are no lobster rolls (too bad), but otherwise there’s a similar sense here.

Tonight is our last night here and we’re starting off the day quietly, breakfasting on the gigantic chocolate chip cookies we brought home from Allium instead of picking something up from a bakery in town. We might try Constitution Mountain again later, but who knows. It’s hard to imagine a better sunset than last night’s, so we’re not getting our hopes up. We already have plenty of memories of this place.

On the first night, after dinner at Allium and a walk along the beach, we retreated to the cabin at dark and I lit a fire in the woodstove. Kathleen and Charlie snuggled up on the futon and I sipped some single malt as the fire did its magic. Before long, both Kathleen and Charlie were snoring and I caught the most delightful scent of caramel in the air. I figured it was coming from the stove and enjoyed the aroma, until the single beam of light from the mostly closed door to the second bedroom revealed smoke. Hmmm. The stove shouldn’t be smoking.

It turns out the local phone book was sitting on the heated stove, moments away from bursting into flames. On top of the phonebook was the ironic plastic sign, “Thank You For Not Smoking.” I grabbed the smoldering book and carried it onto the front porch, stupidly placing the sign gently on the hot stove. I got back to it before it completely melted. Crisis averted, lives saved, Kathleen and Charlie were still snoring away. Back to the Scotch while the room airs out. The next day Kathleen found a stack of local phone books outside an office in town, so we brought one home and used the damaged one to light last night’s fire.

I would submit my name for some sort of award for heroism (I slightly burned two fingers in the act), but I don’t reckon you’re eligible if your own stupidity leads to the crisis.

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