Frequently books can be a passport to escape from our daily routine. They can transport us to new shores, new adventures. We meet people that don’t live next door or around the corner. I’m drawn to books that describe “escapes” made by their authors. Journeys, travel logs, memoirs. Brought “On Whale Island : notes from a place I never meant to leave,” by Daniel Hays to Cape Cod this week. Finished reading it this rainy, overcast day.
Hays and his father built a twenty-five sail boat and sailed it around Cape Horn. That’s the bottom of South America; not an easy sail if I recall correctly. He shared their sail in “My Old Man and the Sea (1995). Hays grew up in New York CIty, went to a Vermont boarding school, with money inherited from a grandmother he bought a 50 acre island off the coast of Nova Scotia, you guessed, Whale Island. A place to escape in the summer; he and his father built a small house there. After the Cape Horn sail and book, he returns to graduate school and an internship in Idaho as a guide to troubled kids. There he meets Wendy, and her son Stephan (about 10). Marriage.
Hays yearned to “get away,” “pack it up,” “escape civilization,” “get off the grid.” He dreamed of following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau. With the book royalties in hand, he convinced Wendy and Stephan, to move to Whale Island. It’s remote, cold, isolated, basic, primitive. They last one year.
“On Whale Island” is the story of that year. It’s written as a diary, Day 1, Day 25, Day 200; most entries are in Daniel’s voice but Wendy and Stephan contribute some. It’s not an easy life; cutting wood for heat and cooking (how much is needed); fixing or enduring house leaks (some won’t go away); creating, repairing, a water and sewage system (can be disgusting). They seem to buy most of their food, with a boat trip into town. Daniel has a gun (part of being a man in the culture and for him) shoots a few ducks; helps Lobster men and gets a few of the catch. But no mention of gardening.
Wendy longs for a more civilized life. While Dan is satisfied with a whalebone sink, plywood and foam rubber bed, Wendy wants a house that doesn’t leak and store bought furniture. She ocassionally gets a package from mail order. Daniel records their frequent outbursts, arguments, blow ups; usually followed with some humor and promises. I found this very real, how couples can manage or work through different perspectives, dreams?
Daniel worries about a lot of things. Survival, being an accepted man with the local boys, his relationship with Wendy, and relationship with Stephan. He writes frequently about his ability to be a good father. He also admits to medications he takes for depression, mood control. And he likes his rum.
The environmental “escape” part of the story are the glimpses into life in Nova Scotia, on a remote island; the weather; daily chores; contacts with locals (some interesting characters). Chapters are introduced by quotes, many from “Walden.” “I should not talk so much about myself if there was anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
Hays’ own writing contains quite a few quotable lines. I liked, “I want to stay forever. I want to become a professional scrounger, find a way to make seaweed taste good, trade labor for outboard-engine gas — better yet, trade the boat in for an old sailboat . . . Grow potatoes, set out fish traps, hunt, grow a beard, forget my social security number.” No TV or internet on Whale Island.
For the past few days, I traveled with Daniel to the wilderness, to an island in Nova Scotia. In fact, we both escaped. But after a year Daniel and family returned to Idaho and I’m back in Cape Cod, in ten days, Yardley. I’ll read another book; take another trip. Explore, experience, enjoy. There are different ways of “getting away.” I need to keep searching.