Twenty-Six Miles Across the Sea
by Jim Washburn
I first went to Catalina Island when I was 11. What I learned then is that you need water to screw.
I was a bookish kid, and rather than ride around the island with my family on a jeep tour, I elected to sit on a bus bench in Avalon, reading a James Bond paperback I’d bought at the drugstore there. It was The Man With the Golden Gun. While my folks were looking at bison or something, I reached the part in the book where Bond is undercover, working for a gangster in a hotel, when Mary Goodnight arrives to tell him his cover has been blown. Fearing his room is bugged, which it is, Bond runs the shower to mask their voices. Before long, the villain, Scaramanga, bursts in, accusing them of running the water so they can talk spy talk; that’s the only reason he could see, he says, “unless’n you was screwing her.”
Given 45 years to mull that over, I think he meant to imply they were running the shower to mask the sounds of their lovemaking. But at age 11, I was just beginning to piece together my understanding of the sex—from schoolyard rumor, furtive glances at Playboy, and a medical encyclopedia—and every bit of information seemed only to deepen the mystery of it. I knew the whosis went in the whatsis, but where, when and how? Now, thanks to Ian Fleming spilling the beans, I knew it took place in a running shower, like humans were spawning toads.
I like to think I’ve learned a few things since then—you don’t need water, kids, but tequila helps—so when wife Leslie and I went to Catalina last week, I was able to focus on other subjects.
Like water. Did you know that Catalina gets most of its liquid from the groundwater slurped from the island’s interior, augmented with retired seawater from a desalination plant? Now you do.
With its water sources being far more finite than the mainland’s, you see more concerted conservation on the island: water-saving toilets; more scrubbing than hosing; people drinking their own urine.
They don’t actually take that last step, as far as I know, but I saw something far worse. At the Descanso Beach Club, between the barbeque pits and the bar, a teenaged acoustic duo was set up, singing teenaged acoustic songs, and damned if they weren’t using “auto-tune” pitch correction technology. If you like pitch-perfect, tight harmony, as sung by inhuman Cylon warriors, pitch correction is for you.
Originally available only in top recording studios, the technology can be cheaply had on your laptop or in a standalone unit. So many country stars use it, both in the studio and live, that it is practically the “authentic” sound of country today. The expensive systems do a smoother job of it, making it harder to pinpoint why the music you’re hearing seems like the aural equivalent of Joan Rivers’ face. Cheaper, beach-ready systems make vocals sound so clipped and glitchy that it’s obvious what’s up.
Here these guys were, in shorts, surfer hair in their eyes, mere yards from the waterline in a Baja-style, laid-back outdoor bar, and the human voice somehow wasn’t good enough for that. When I was in bands at that age, drunk old people—as old as me now—used to come up and give me advice. “That sounds like shit! Real musicians don’t need all that volume and these distorted gimmicks!” Now I feel like doing that same. I’m sure they’d really appreciate it.
One cove over from where the beach club is situated, there is Hamilton Cove. When you’re pulling into Avalon, you see a wasp hive of identical white condos that make you gasp and exclaim, “How could people with eyes ever build such a thing?” That’s Hamilton Cove. Maybe the houses look better up close.
It’s sort of like using auto-tune on the beach. When a place is known for its rustic charm and nostalgic appeal, it’s at cross-purposes to cover one of your most prominent hills with a soulless condo development that looks like it was scooped out of south Orange County and grouted into the landscape.
One good thing resulted: the desalination plant. Because the island has such a limited amount of water, the deal allowing the developers to build out Hamilton Cove required them to pay to create a new water supply. As a result, in 1991, Catalina had California’s first desalination plant.
Some might think that’s an example of overreaching government interfering with free enterprise. Others would think it is simply facing reality. You can’t have unfettered growth when you have finite resources.
That becomes more obvious on a semi-closed system such as an island. Growth is pretty tightly controlled. The number of automobiles allowed on the island is so limited that there’s a ten year waiting list to bring one in. Most people get around on electric golf carts or bicycles.
The only new housing developments built in recent years are two tracts—named Triana at Avalon—of relatively affordable homes, made available exclusively to persons who already live and work on the island, to help redress the housing shortage for locals. The tracts were built by the same company that developed Hamilton Cove: Hamilton Pacific LLC. I’ve only seen photos, but the Spanish-style homes look like a lot of house for $330,000, with wooden floors and other classy appointments. One thing keeping the cost down was the modular construction of the homes, where 60% of the work done on them was completed on the mainland.
Catalina is officially part of Los Angeles County. Avalon has its local government and functionaries, but otherwise some 88 percent of the island is owned and administered by a non-profit organization, the Catalina Island Conservancy, formed in 1972 by the island’s late owner Phillip Wrigley, who also deeded the 120-year old Santa Catalina Island Company to the conservancy. That company runs the majority of the island’s tourist attractions and activities, as well as several hotels, which leaves the conservancy in better monetary shape than many such outfits elsewhere.
Catalina has some unique flora and fauna. One of the latter, the Island Fox, was nearly driven to extinction in the late 1990s by an incursion of feline distemper (which they think was brought over by a critter from the mainland; being isolated on an island, the fox never developed an immunity to many common diseases). Fewer than 100 of the foxes survived then, but the conservancy has guided the population back to around 900. The foxes all wear GPS monitors now, so they can better drive around town.
The island’s bison, on the other hand, are on birth control. They are non-natives, being the descendents of 14 bison brought over in 1924 to appear in a silent movie. Left to their own devices, they’d probably be using auto-tune, plus they’d over-graze, so the population is kept under control.
Catalina is not without its problems, the chief of them being that Avalon Harbor Beach is one of the ten most chronically polluted beaches in the nation. That’s not so much due to boats discharging their waste into the harbor as from an ancient city sewage system, with cracked clay pipes. That didn’t seem to deter swimmers when we were there, and none of them showed immediate signs of mutation.
I snatched a lot of this info off the Internet, since Leslie and I weren’t entirely there on a fact-finding trip. We were there to experience and photograph the island’s zip line to do a story on it for MSN. (It should be on their site sometime in the next couple of weeks.) It’s a popular attraction, and they could only book us at a time too late to catch the boat back, so we stayed the night, which was also kind of handy because it was our tenth wedding anniversary.
Something learned on the ground is that the best place for cheap, good Mexican food and drinks is the Sandtrap, a short hike up Avalon Canyon Road by the golf course. The best food in general might be the Avalon Grill, where I had the finest spice-rubbed roast chicken ever. It’s right on the main beach frontage.
That’s also where our hotel was, the Pavilion, a lush and friendly place that is surprisingly serene given that its grounds are mere feet from the beach bustle.
Between our anniversary festivities—we didn’t run the shower—we watched the news footage of Hurricane Irene’s buildup. At this writing, it still hasn’t hit the major population centers, but it is sure to add to 2011’s reputation as one long disaster movie.
I dug being on Catalina, because it reminded me of the bungalowy California of my youth, and because people seemed to understand that we need each other, and how sensible, problem-anticipating governance is a crucial part of a functioning society.
Ron Paul, the thinking man’s crazy person, this week used Irene as an occasion to reiterate his opposition to FEMA, “We should be like 1900,” he said, noting that then, as well as 1940 and other troubled olden times, there had been no FEMA, yet the nation had survived.
Sure, the human race didn’t exactly die off, but the death, damage and displacement those historic hurricanes caused was certainly made worse by the lack of planning and coordinated response.
Back then we had a population of 76 million, spread all over because we were still largely an agrarian nation. Now there’s over 311 million of us, with most of us living closer to each other, so the likelihood of getting hit with the nature stick is much greater. Compounding that is the fact that the stick is swinging more often and mightily these days, with record droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc., becoming commonplace now. And that’s not to mention the increasing chance of epidemics, food poisonings and such resulting from global trade, or the fact that motivated, well-financed vowelheads would like to wipe us off the earth.
We formed this nice nation and government of ours to represent our will, promote the general welfare, secure tranquility and protect us. Now, why on earth would we want to worry its pretty head over protecting us from hurricanes? When the big one hits, Uncle Floyd will just come by in his dinghy with one of Aunt Bee’s rhubarb pies, and we’ll get along just fine.