If you were here, you couldn’t hear my grin and you probably couldn’t hear my soft chuckle. South Whidbey did it again. “We” made it to a finalist of a top ten list. This time, it’s Reader’s Digest’s Nicest Places in America. Shh. We’re not supposed to tell anyone. And yet, we do and will, just like any other community with a bit of pride. What’s that worth?
My chuckle was partly celebratory and partly watching a familiar event. It’s good to get on the lists, and worth celebrating. My chuckle comes from a few caveats that I’ll mention here to get them out of the way.
South Whidbey isn’t an island. Whidbey Island is an island, but being dozens of miles long (depending on whether you measure by top to bottom latitude or along the “highway”) means the north and the south are significantly different. Does that sound like a throwback? Playful debates draw a border line at either a few miles south of the Navy facilities, down by a farm that was turned into an art and tourism venue, or a solitary phone booth that offers free local phone calls and that looks like a border post. But, just like most areas, borders are more porous. There are Navy personnel, tourists, commuters, and retirees both north and south. The folks in the middle must have a blast laughing at the two fictional halves.
“We” didn’t make it to the list. That takes the effort of a proactive individual. This time I think it was Susan Knickerbocker who nominated us. “We” do define the culture by living it, but credit goes to the person who mentioned our name. Gotta show the love, all around. Of course, being appreciative is part of living here. It’s hard not to see beauty in such a natural setting.
Whidbey is in the same situation Seattle was when I moved there in 1980. The country made fun of the city and its rain, but the locals knew better. Some make fun of Whidbey because it is “out there” geographically and culturally, but that’s where our fun comes from.
I’ve lived in a few places in America, bicycled across the country in 2000/2001, and like talking to visitors. One common thread that comes through is that every place has someone that thinks it is the best. If they didn’t, there’d be a lot more ghost towns. From what I can tell, most ghost towns are ghosting from economics, not desire.
I like the entire island enough that I produced a five year photo essay of it. Five one-year essays, each year a different place, from top (Deception Pass) to the bottom (Cultus Bay, my neighborhood), with three places in between (Penn Cove, Admiralty Head, Double Bluff.) And that was just picking from the (mostly) public venues. Private estates have views worthy of national attention. (Want more? Check out Two Guys Walk Around Langley, and Two Guys Walk Around Coupeville.)
The beauty draws tourists here, but the culture draws residents. The beauty helps, but I’ve noticed that the people who move here do so intentionally. That could seem obvious, but islands have natural barriers that must be consciously crossed. A few weeks ago I was being interviewed for a rare and appealing island job. I didn’t get it (overqualified, evidently). The interview turned into a discussion about the island, particularly getting people to organize for a common non-profit purpose. There was that grin again. I’ve been a consultant for many creative and innovative people who’ve moved to the island. They came here because the culture was open enough to let people live the way they want to live. They didn’t come here to conform, but to fit in with a community of tolerance and a fair amount of freedom. They came here to be individuals, not to give up their individuality. It makes for an interesting culture that isn’t always organized, except when it excels at it.
The article does a good job of describing the various social ventures supporting food, housing, health, education, the arts, and generally living as a community. Pick your cause, and be careful you aren’t overwhelmed with opportunity. When I moved here I was semi-retired. (See My Triple Whammy for how that was upset.) Within a couple of years I was volunteering 32 hours a week. Eep! And enjoying it. Yay!
The island does have its problems. Affordability is becoming an issue in something I’m calling the Aspenization of the island. The economy has great potential, but is too dependent on tourism for the south and the military for the north. Seattle’s hyper-growth may begin to wash onto our shores, or burst, or redefine the region akin to the Bay Area or Vancouver, BC. We have limits to growth that some see as defenses and others see as defects. Water is from local aquifers, and therefore hard to plan around, but can be sweet. Power comes across cables that stretch across treacherous waters at the far north end of the island, handy but uncertain. There are few sewers and more of a reliance on septic systems, which means some lots can’t be built on which means more open space. And, getting on and off the island is either via one of two ferries or across an impressive and narrow two lane bridge. But, maybe that’s why we can tell folks about the place. They can visit, but it’s tough for them to stay – hence the tourist economy.
The power was out this morning. The first wind storm of autumn came through and knocked trees into lines, as usual. Some streets were so covered with branches that it was hard to find the pavement. Instead of hunkering down, people began posting information about roads, outages, forecasts, and offers of help. My power came back on early, but I decided to work from the tourist town of Langley just because it was a Tuesday. A common greeting was, “Good morning. Got power? Where do you live?” People helping people.
Several years ago a mainland friend wanted to see my place. I drove us from the ferry to my house. As we stepped onto the deck they stopped. There was a bunny in my yard! Grin. “Only one?” Then, I turned to step inside the house and simply opened the door. They stopped again, honestly surprised that I hadn’t locked it. They couldn’t imagine living such a life. They thought it was just stories. Their life in the city was completely different. Maybe we should tell people that there are alternatives and options. Thanks again, to Susan Knickerbocker for nominating South Whidbey.
As for other places, a friend just moved from a dense part of Seattle to the outskirts of another retirement community called Sequim. We talked the morning he moved in. It was about 9AM. He’d already seen five cars that morning. That was fewer than he’d see in one change of the red light at his old place, but he hadn’t expected to see so many. Then, he rationalized the traffic because it was a Sunday morning. I corrected him. It was Monday. That was the morning rush hour. I think he’ll adjust.
There are places out there. Maybe they won’t make a top ten list, but they may be worth a look, anyway. In the meantime, here’s a video from my morning rush hour the other day. One bunny? Nah. (Look for the miniature appaloosa.)