What comes now? Another outsider, another potential threat. * This time, I’m the outsider. David Loyd’s 22-foot aluminum work skiff carries us through blue-gray waters dotted with the thickly wooded hilltops of a submerged mountain range. Together they make up the San Juan archipelago. We are in the far northwest corner of the country, 30 miles east of Victoria, B.C., crossing swift, deep President Channel, where the winds and current can be treacherous. Wrapped in mist, Waldron Island looms before us, a 4.5-square-mile, 2,900-acre fortress. * We swing around the sheer sandstone bluffs of Point Disney, then turn toward Cowlitz Bay, a broad, open cove on the west shore. Here is the island’s only public dock, one of just two docks on all of Waldron. You can load and unload, but nothing else without the risk of having your lines untied while you’re gone. A few small, weathered boats bob at lonely mooring buoys. There’s no protected anchorage on Waldron, a problem elsewhere, a godsend here. It keeps people away. No anchorage means no marina, no boaters, no tourists.
Waldron lacks far more than a marina. There are no grocery stores, no shops, no cafes, no commercial establishments of any sort. There are no power lines, no phone lines, no water lines, no sewers and no public ferry service. There’s no public land other than four miles of primitive county road. Waldronites (about 80 in the winter, 200 in the summer) could have such things, but decline. In fact, they’ve adopted a land-use master plan that forbids them. It’s not so much that Waldron abhors modern conveniences. It abhors what comes with them.
Here is the island’s masterstroke: Realizing it can’t directly ban unwanted people or the mainstream world, Waldron instead bans what draws them. To maintain the kind of community they value, Waldronites endure a deliberately hard life. A willingness to do without is their one true protection from all they long to avoid.
Stories abound about those who try to violate Waldron’s barriers. Patrons of a tour boat that regularly cruised too close to shore found themselves watching the Waldron postmaster urinate at the water’s edge. A photographer for National Geographic once managed to land on the island, but then couldn’t get anyone to open their doors. Guidebooks for boaters warn that Waldronites “value their privacy . . . . Some do not respond cordially to uninvited visitors. . . . Visitors on public roads are likely to be questioned.”
Let us have one place where things can be our way, Waldronites have long implored. Revel in your pop culture and mass-market comforts if you want. Just give us this one hilltop at the continent’s edge.
With constant struggle over the years, they usually got their wish. Then came the invasion.
Waldronites awoke early one morning in August 1997 to find a 35-person landing force armed with rifles, dressed in flak jackets and camouflage, creeping across their island, pounding on doors, slapping on handcuffs. Federal and county agents had arrived by barge under cover of night to round up a handful of marijuana growers. That they did--along with 850 mature plants seized from six parcels.
Waldronites responded with dismay, both at the invaders and those on the island who attracted them. The drug raid was more than a startling intrusion; it provided fuel to those in San Juan County who already regarded Waldron as an island of primitive eccentrics. Dope-growing hippies were easier to dismiss than committed advocates of responsible land use. No matter that Waldron shelters a fair share of professionals and PhDs, poets and mechanics, plumbers and farmers. Some headlines warned ominously of “fear and intimidation” on Waldron. Other accounts painted the island in warm and fuzzy hues, a bucolic throwback to simpler times.
Neither version--paradise or menace--made sense. You don’t hold off the world and carve your own domain with a squad of stoned or snarly dreamers. The work of Waldron surely was more complex than that. For years while visiting the San Juans, I’d stared across President Channel at this island, full of wonder.
I won’t take anyone who is going to harm the island.
Beside me, David Loyd is talking into the wind. A tall man who doles out words as if each costs him a dollar, Loyd runs a private ferry to Waldron, the only transport other than a small airline that lands Cessnas on a dirt runway. He’s standing at his boat’s helm in a yellow full-body rain slicker, eyes to the water. He’d thought of settling his family in Alaska, but instead came to Waldron a dozen years ago. He has trouble believing anyone would voluntarily live on the mainland.
“I do screen people,” Loyd is saying now. “For crime. For those who are just crazy. For those who want to get at someone on the island.” He turns from the water, looks at me, repeats himself. “I just won’t take anyone who is going to harm the island.”
Then we’re at the Waldron dock. Three men watch me climb off the boat. One steps forward, a knit cap covering half his face, a thick gray beard the other half. Twenty minutes before, I’d spotted him studying me at Deer Harbor on Orcas Island, where Loyd picked me up. His name is Tony Scruton. He has run the mail boat for 25 years, bringing bulging canvas sacks to the Waldron Post Office. He used to be the one to carry passengers as well, but he gave that up a dozen years ago.
Loyd told me this much on the ride over. Later I will learn more. I will learn how Tony Scruton for years played his flute and sang at the Waldron Island School’s Christmas programs. I will learn how he and his wife-to-be Josie, one long-ago October, paddled a canoe from Bellingham to Waldron, a four-hour journey across an inland sea. I will learn how the newlyweds raised a wolf cub named Lupi, who grew to six feet tall on his hind feet and loved to play with island children.
I will learn also, in stark fashion, that Scruton and his wife Josie vehemently oppose my presence on Waldron. They and other islanders will come to regard me as an invasion equal to the 35-man drug squad. So will I at times. Not this first morning, however. Today Scruton, unbidden, begins to talk.
“It’s like a tide coming in,” he says of Waldron’s struggle. “Night falls, lights go on all around us. It’s like trying to hold off the tide. It’s like tilting at windmills.” His face flushes, his eyes fill, his voice rises and quakes. “It’s worth it,” he insists. “It’s worth it even if we’re going down.”
there was a time when waldron did not feel constantly under siege.
Skye Burn, who grew up on the island in the 1950s, recalls it being much more isolated then. The mail boat’s arrival was always the day’s central event, bringing not only letters but groceries, supplies and the occasion for lively community greetings. On Skye’s sixth birthday, everyone looked to the heavens, waiting for the rare gallon of ice cream that Skye’s grandmother--June Burn, celebrated author of “Living High,” which describes Waldron life--had ordered by the morning plane.
“The children,” June reported in a column one summer, “are growing up like natural free, healthy little animals, learning to do a thousand things at two and four and six which most children wait till they are in their teens to do and then whine at having to do because they learned too late for it to be an adventure.”
More than half a century later, Skye sits on the shore at Fishery Point, where June and her husband, Farrar, had dwelt. Over her shoulder, her grandparents’ ramshackle cabin still perches on a knoll. Before her, across water that shimmers at dusk, rises a cluster of Canadian islands--Saturna, Pender, Salt Spring. You just lived, Skye says. There was an openness, a trust in life.
Then came the first distant rumblings from the outer world--population projections, cries of “save our islands,” talk of land-use issues. By March 1971, there was a Seattle newspaper article on “Waldron--A World Apart; Threatened Island.” First facing subdivision were 256 pristine acres on Cowlitz Bay. The Nature Conservancy managed to buy the parcel, aided by a $25,000 contribution from Waldronites. Yet times had changed. Trust and openness, Skye believes, contracted when residents had to start fighting for existence. In the early 1970s, the island’s mixed population included Quakers, Mennonites and young back-to-the-land settlers. They cherished independence and self-reliance; they avoided authority and government regulation. Now, though, they needed to organize. “The work that is Waldron,” Skye Burn says, “became more intentional.”
In March 1972, in a San Juan newspaper column devoted to Waldron news, came the ominous call to arms: “It is time for islanders to prepare themselves. There is said to be a super airport and frontage lots going in near the present airstrip.” Waldronaire--that’s what Bill Carlson called the 120-acre subdivision he had in mind. Carlson, a logger who’d bought 550 acres on Waldron, wanted to carve out five-acre “fly-in” lots and sell them to pilots who could taxi right to their front doors. As a first step, he’d already replaced the island’s primitive landing field--a sloping dirt path that ran across his property--with a 2,800-foot airstrip.
Waldronites as always argued among themselves, but a sizable majority signed a petition opposing Carlson’s project. Next came a second petition, requesting that a rural “holding zone” be established on Waldron--a virtual moratorium on development.
It didn’t appear possible that Waldron could prevail, since San Juan County then had no land-use plan at all. Yet prevail Waldron did: In quick succession, the county Board of Commissioners turned Carlson down, authorized the holding zone and declared Waldron a “limited rural use area”--the first land-use control legislation adopted by San Juan County.
Furious, Carlson dragged logs across his airstrip, shutting down Waldron’s connection by air to the outer world. Waldron had come to depend on small planes for supplies and medical emergencies, especially during winter storms when boats couldn’t cross President Channel. Roy Franklin, operator of Island Sky Ferries, was as valued a figure as anyone on the island.
When a Waldron boy was swept to sea after his kayak overturned, it was Franklin in his seaplane who spotted and rescued him. When a baby was born to Tony and Josie Scruton on the mainland, it was Franklin who brought the news, buzzing Waldron with pink toilet paper unfurled to signal a girl. One day, islanders watched with wonder as Franklin, coming in alone, turned off his ignition, circled, lost attitude and glided to a perfect landing. They would have to do without Roy Franklin, Waldronites decided. Better that than Waldronaire. Tony Scruton volunteered to fill the gap. In 1976, he began a mail and freight boat run on his 27-foot wooden double-ender, the Puffin--the run he still maintains today.
The defeat of Waldronaire is a story told and retold now almost as biblical lore, but not just as a triumph. The seeds of Waldron’s enduring conflicts were sown in those days. In fact, some believe the seeds of the 1997 drug raid itself were sown back then. Resentments over land use did not evaporate. Everyone still lived on the same small, isolated island--including Bill Carlson. Geography, not personal preferences, defined their community.
Waldronites are stuck with each other. If there’s something hard between them, they’re going to see each other all the time anyway. They still pass each other on the roads. They still stand beside each other at the post office.
leaving tony scruton on the dock, i walk up an incline to the Waldron post office, a vintage log cabin with a wide porch. Beside me is Bob Gamble, an Orcas port commissioner and part-time Waldron resident, who has agreed to introduce me to the island. When I’d first tried to reach Gamble months before, his wife Winnie Adams had called back, aghast at my interest. No, no, she’d said. Absolutely not. We don’t want any attention. That can only cause harm.
I’d been at a loss for a response. Intruding is never easy, no matter how many times you’ve done it. You must steel yourself to call strangers, to invade their lives, to ask questions that shouldn’t be asked, to see things that shouldn’t be seen. Seeking access to Waldron was even tougher. They’d been invaded once already; why shouldn’t they shudder at my approach?
I can’t argue with you, I told Winnie Adams. I understand. I’d feel the same way. Still--I’m a writer. There’s such a story to tell.
Just as I couldn’t argue with her, Winnie couldn’t with me. Yes, she allowed. There is a story.
Later, Bob Gamble said maybe I could come up and meet them. But he “didn’t want to be involved in anything that brings up the raid again,” because “people are finally getting past it.”
That was fine. My interest was not the bust but the community where it occured. I wanted to know what it took for Waldron to hold off the world.
Bob Gamble and I squint now as we step inside the post office, for there’s no illumination. In the room’s center is a free-standing wood stove, the primary source of heat. There’s also a piano, a wood-burning fireplace, a bulletin board, a small library of books and, in the far corner, a kind of teller’s window where stands Richard Brummett, the postmaster of Waldron.
I’ve already heard about Brummett from Gamble. He trained as a monk for a year after high school. Later, he manned a tank in Vietnam, then returned there as a freelance combat photographer. Later still, he drove a cab in Manhattan by night for eight years while pursuing a commercial photography career. One day, he walked into a library and pulled out all the U.S. Department of Interior Geological Survey maps. He wanted to move to an island; he wanted a community with a distinct boundary.
He scanned the maps with the eye of an amateur cartographer. He spotted Waldron. It was far from the ferry routes, he saw, with no power lines, no paved roads. He noticed a symbol for a school, which he liked because it meant community. He found no symbol for a church, which he also liked.
The first time, he came to Waldron by chartered plane and stayed only a day, during which he was lectured by one resident about his cameras and invited home for tea by another who mistakenly thought him a relative. The next year he came by canoe, rowing 11 miles over two days from San Juan Island, even though his only experience with a paddle was practice sessions in Central Park. After that, he returned on Tony Scruton’s Puffin. On the Puffin one day, he met Skye Burn. They were married in July 1985; he moved to Waldron the next year.
Brummett is busy right now. It’s mail day on Waldron, one of three each week. Soon the island’s residents are streaming into the post office to check their boxes. As Gamble makes a few introductions, I hear names of people I recognize from mainland research. There’s John Stoops, the mechanic. There’s Laurel Rust, a poet. There’s Helen Hill, who this morning invites me to drop by her home, an invitation she will later rescind.
Everyone is polite, if a bit curious and pensive. Laurel Rust even tells me to “stay with us and bring your family” on my next visit. Betsy Sharp, this year’s chair of the Waldron Community Meeting, introduces herself. She has a warm smile and a mane of graying hair. “They’re a thoughtful bunch here,” she says. “We’re all obsessed with the island. It’s almost religious. Above all looms the island.”
Minutes later, I’m bouncing along in Sharp’s pickup, heading toward Pizza and Poetry Day at the Waldron school. The island’s four miles of county dirt road are classified as “primitive”; the network of private paths that snake off them is considerably less sophisticated. Most homes, none very large, are set well back on lots of 5 to 20 acres, so all that’s visible is a forest of cedar and Douglas fir.
The island’s “limited opportunities for earning money,” advises Waldron’s Sub-Area Plan, “are to a great extent offset by the limited opportunities for spending it.” Some people commute to off-island jobs, some live on fixed incomes. Others write, farm, forge tools, craft objects, build and repair.
Waldronites by no means share the same values or outlooks, I’ve been told. What binds them is something else: They have all selected Waldron.
That’s as good a screen as any, Sharp figures. It’s a filter, and a lot fairer than judging a person. If you choose Waldron, you choose a hard way of life. It’s plain work to live on this island. When new people arrive, Sharp, 45, often says, let’s see if they last through winter.
One key to survival is to reduce consumption. Since they must haul fuel and supplies on their backs, people here tend to conserve out of necessity more than principle. They also tend to plan well ahead. Many cross to Orcas on David Loyd’s boat to shop, or continue from there to the mainland on the state ferry. When they return, some have battered pickups to get them home, brought over by barge. Others use ATVs or walk bent over with bulging backpacks.
If you fall sick, sometimes you end up waving a flashlight in the middle of the night, waiting for an emergency helicopter. In a powerful enough storm, even the helicopter isn’t an option. Then you take matters into your own hands.
Betsy’s daughter Rowan once was stung by a hornet and started to swell up badly, going into anaphylactic shock. Betsy feared Rowan’s throat might close, suffocating her. There were no cell phones then, and no time anyway. Betsy eyed a knife and prepared to cut a hole in her daughter’s throat so she could breathe. She didn’t have to--Rowan slowly improved.
When we get there, the K-8 Waldron Island School turns out to be literally a one-room school, but a cavernous one, lit by sunshine pouring through a bank of skylights. There are just seven students this year and two part-time teachers. Today they and island parents pull chairs into a circle. Everyone has brought a poem to read.
The youngest kids start. There is a poem to mom, a poem to dad, a poem to a baby brother, and much applause. Soon the adults chime in with Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Gary Snyder. A big samoyed-rottweiler mix named Chuck Berry wanders through, licking the younger kids, who giggle behind raised hands.
A gentle scene--but there are subtexts. One young boy’s “I love my mom” ode is directed to a woman battling an aggressive form of cancer. A man’s poem about “making it through December” refers to his wife’s chemotherapy. Another man’s has to do with care given to Betsy Sharp’s husband Cerek as he lay dying of cancer in a one-room house with no running water or electric light.
Betsy stiffens as it’s read. She feels angry at the person reading it, wishing he’d warned her. She glances across at her daughter Rowan, 14 now, worrying whether the words have upset her. Rowan looks fine. Betsy exhales. “We are all so known here,” she says. Then: “This event is a perfect microcosm for Waldron. Compassion, lightness . . . . Plus hard edges.”
I’d been warned by a local reporter that Waldron had “clammed up” since the raid, that Waldron was a “strange island,” that Waldron harbored “cult-like behavior.” That’s not what I find in these first hours. After the poetry reading and a lunch of pizza baked in a clay bread oven, Betsy invites me to her home for tea.
She lives in a compact 600-square-foot cabin set on 20 acres thick with maple, cedar and fir. There’s a wildly overgrown fruit orchard and a half dozen hens scooting about. Her home is arranged like many here. The one sink is in the kitchen; the outhouse is down a winding wooded path. Water comes from a well, pumped into an elevated tank, delivered by gravity feed. Her stove and hot water heater are fueled by propane, which Sharp hauls in 10-gallon tanks. Her refrigerator runs on DC power, which comes from batteries charged by photovoltaic solar panels. An inverter converts some of the DC to AC power for appliances. A backup gasoline generator charges the batteries in mid-winter when there’s no sun. Sharp came to Waldron 10 years ago after mainland jobs that included childbirth education and perinatal social work. Although she can construct a chicken coop on her own, she enlisted “the guys on the island” to build her house. Interdependence is inescapable on Waldron. After a storm, Sharp carries a chain saw in her pickup to clear fallen trees from the narrow roads, but the biggest logs force her to drive home in reverse and wait for a more experienced hand. When the gas connector to her hot water heater breaks on a wet, blustery night, she can only leave a note for a neighbor tacked up on the road, written in indelible ink.
Life on Waldron is too all-consumingly physical for most. Yet Sharp tells me, “You need more social skills if you come live here than physical. The human landscape is even more intense and demanding than the natural landscape.”
There’s no time to explore what she means. I must meet up with Bob Gamble and get to the county dock, where David Loyd waits to return me to Orcas Island. As we rise, Sharp happens to mention that she’s “in a partnership” with a man on the island--Bob Schmoker. That stops me. Schmoker is someone I particularly want to meet. He’s led a number of land-use battles against Bill Carlson. He also was a central target of the drug raid.
I say nothing to Sharp, though. People are finally getting past the raid. I want to remain a welcomed guest.
It’s not to be. A half hour later, as Bob Gamble walks me down to the dock, we see two men before us, coiling rope. Both are wearing gloves and knit caps against a chill winter wind. Gamble makes the introductions. This one is Michael Johnson. The other, Bob Schmoker.
Schmoker’s eyes darken when he hears my name. “Didn’t you make a documents request to Randy Gaylord?” he inquires. It’s more an accusation than a question.
Randy Gaylord is the San Juan County prosecuting attorney. Many weeks before, when Gaylord told me on the phone that he’d released his file on the Waldron drug raid, I’d asked for a copy. I hadn’t thought of it as a formal documents request. You take in everything when you’re reporting a story, whatever’s available, whether or not it’s central, whether or not it will even be used.
This I try to explain to Schmoker, but the wind is howling and David Loyd is eyeing his watch. I don’t know if Schmoker even hears me.
I step toward Loyd’s boat. Michael Johnson comes to my side, his mouth near my ear. “You’re a writer?” he asks. “Well, don’t hurt the island.”
How can I not? I wonder. I’m here.
from the public record, local news stories and a handful of conversations, I knew much about the drug raid even before stepping foot on Waldron Island. What I knew, above all: The drug raid and Waldron’s perennial land-use struggles were intimately linked. One couldn’t be considered without the other.
It’s been more than a quarter century now since the battle over Waldronaire, and its echoes never end. Not all land-use skirmishes have involved Bill Carlson, but the wily old logger’s presence looms over the island.
The latest, most consequential confrontation began in 1992, when San Juan County informed Waldron that its 1970s era land-use plan was no longer a viable legal document. Islanders swung into motion, determined once again to define who they were.
They began with a “steering” committee chaired by Bob Gamble, but in classic Waldron fashion, whoever attended a meeting could help write the new plan--even those who waved their arms and talked too loudly or lived out what Winnie Adams calls “their history of family crap.” Some fumed at Gamble’s “autocratic” ways; others fumed at individual words; a few thought any land-use plan was evil. A single passage would be drafted, circulated, critiqued and redrafted for weeks.
When they finished after two years, they had a host of restrictive rules, the two most disputed being a 3,400-square-foot limit on house size and a ban on all organized retreats, workshops and seminars. They also had a ringing declaration--Waldron offers its inhabitants the opportunity to live in close harmony with their environment, with self-sufficiency and self-reliance --that stands as one island’s latter-day Port Huron statement.
Adopted in 1995 by a vote of 152 to 34, the new Sub-Area Plan has been hailed, reviled and challenged ever since, but it abides, a law like none other. “It’s what binds us,” says Bob Schmoker, “as far as any rules of living.”
Binds most of them, that is. Old wounds reopened with passage of the plan, and new ones formed. Now dashed was retired educator Nate Smothers’ heartfelt dream of holding workshops at his home on Waldron’s east shore. Now thwarted was Bill Carlson’s continuing struggle to get permits for his logging and barging operations. Smothers and Carlson were always friends and neighbors. After the Sub-Area plan, they were also allies.
Mail Bay is Carlson’s domain. Through a screen of madrona and lodgepole pine, it sparkles in the morning sun, a small blue-green gem. There’s a pasture for Carlson’s 12 cows, an apple orchard and vegetable garden, a three-bedroom A-frame, the island’s only private dock, and--up a slope from the house--a logging compound full of bulldozers and scrap timber.
Carlson lives mostly on Orcas now but comes here every weekend from April through October. “Kind of like my plantation,” he says, a satisfied cast to his broad, florid face. In the winter, I met Carlson not on Mail Bay but at his Palm Springs condominium, and found him much as he’d been described: A stocky, unvarnished throwback who talked plainly, cut trees by day, drank in bars by night, and held no doubts about himself or his unalienable rights. Betsy Sharp thinks he glorifies in being the island villain, a notion Carlson confirmed by telling me proudly how he “made Paul Harvey and page one of the Seattle Times” when he closed the runway 25 years ago.
As he flipped through scrapbook photos of his boats and heavy logging equipment, he also said, “Yeah, the islanders are pissed off because I cut trees. Yeah, they don’t want me to take any trees.”
Disgust tugged at his lips. He shook his head. “There’s never any peace. Never will be. They want to recognize Waldron as another planet, not part of the rest of the universe. I’m never in their homes, I never invite them to mine. It’s like East and West Germany. In the early days here, we had the Golden Rule--help your neighbor. Now it’s stop your neighbor.”
Carlson grinned. “That’s good, use that.”
Bob Schmoker grins too, thinking of Carlson. The logger unites the island, after all. Without him, they’d squabble even more. Schmoker can’t conjure much anger over him, despite what’s happened. Carlson is who he is, a lumberman with suspenders and a red face, a known quantity, the last of a breed. If Schmoker were in trouble, Carlson might say, “I could stand here, let you bleed to death,” but then he’d bend over and get to work. One day when the vessel broke down that was to take Schmoker’s crowd to a major land-use hearing in Friday Harbor, they had no choice but to call Carlson. Sure, he said, without hesitation. Come along in my boat. We’re all going to the same place.
The truth is, Waldronites can identify with Carlson. His resistance to rules, his scorn for bureaucracies, his cry of the individualist. Some even allow that he’s held to regulations others aren’t. Yet, finally, preserving the island comes first. So a battle like no other on Waldron began with passage of the Sub-Area plan.
That summer of 1995, Carlson got a county officer to declare his barge operation “grandfathered,” making it exempt from the new plan’s regulation. Waldron responded with a pile of letters, many solicited by Schmoker, which persuaded a hearing examiner to repeal the exemption. Next Carlson vainly sued to invalidate the Sub-Area Plan, an action Schmoker also opposed. Soon after, Schmoker convinced San Juan County that Carlson’s floating breakwater was illegal.
In March 1997, Carlson won a permit to log 200 acres, only to see Schmoker again successfully appeal. That same month, Schmoker provided videotapes when neighbors Miki and Ken Brostrom challenged Carlson’s logging practices. Then Schmoker blocked Carlson’s plan to subdivide two 10-acre lots.
By the spring of 1997, irritated county officials were openly muttering about Schmoker, and Carlson was fuming so badly that his ulcers started bleeding. He gave the ulcers names--Bob Schmoker, Miki Brostrom, Ken Brostrom. They and high blood pressure finally put him in a Bellingham hospital, forcing the postponement of a critical hearing. Schmoker came to visit one day, wanting to confirm he really was sick. Carlson looked up from his bed, saw his constant adversary through bleary eyes. “I’m not dead yet,” he said.
That summer, Carlson apparently said something else as well. According to islander Ivan Moorhouse’s notarized statement, Carlson told him he was “going to turn in all the marijuana growers on Waldron if they didn’t stop giving him such a hard time.”
as he drops me off on orcas island after my first day’s visit, David Loyd echoes Bob Schmoker: “Word is, you contacted Randy Gaylord, that you’re out to do something on the drug bust. Just thought you should know.”
Not so, I explain once again. Events such as the bust simply provide a window--a means to examine a way of life.
True enough, but why should these folks want such exposure? As my Waldron file and sense of intrusion both grew, I couldn’t help wonder when the island might rise to object. At the start of March, after some hesitancy, Betsy Sharp agreed to let me return for that month’s Waldron Community Meeting. The matters they’d be discussing, she allowed, would be “a good example of Waldron’s ongoing struggle to define itself and set boundaries.” I could, as I’d asked, stay a couple of nights. Maybe even with Bob Schmoker, who--to my surprise-- would be “happy to host you if he’s on the island.”
In a message that reached me by way of Waldron’s primitive e-mail system, Betsy wrote, “I’m a little bemused by our readiness to open the island to you, and while I don’t feel inclined to backtrack, I do want to take some time to talk with you about the nature of this interchange. There’s something definitely inviting in the prospect of putting before new eyes this consuming lifestyle we’ve chosen, but the handing over of ourselves and our stories at least calls for conscious consideration.”
We never quite get around to that talk when I first return. It’s mail day again, and now those streaming into the post office aren’t all strangers. Conversations begin easily; the notes in my reporter’s pad multiply. Then I’m at Bob Schmoker’s house, which sits on five mountain acres that offer a glimpse of water through a stand of madronas.
He rises to greet me with a handshake and what turns out to be a perpetually rueful expression. He is 55, with plenty of gray in his shaggy hair. Trained as a plumber and electrician, he’s kept busy on the island, often installing and fixing solar systems. Recently divorced, he also spends time in Seattle visiting his 11-year-old daughter. Years before, he taught at a small mainland school for the learning disabled. Summers, he’d go to Orcas with his family and stare across President Channel at Waldron. He crossed those waters in 1988, drawn by a community so clearly defined, and drawn also by the notion of a simple life.
Thought of that simple life now produces a roll of the eyes. Standing on his deck minutes after we meet, Schmoker says, “You find out no matter where you go, there you are.” Soon we’re in his pickup, bouncing along pitted trails, touring the island, meeting more people. On the isolated northeast shore I cross paths with Bob Wood, who with his dog, Dogma, lives in a slightly tilted and perilously overpacked toolshed. On a forest road I pass Rolf Thorson, a lifelong Waldron resident celebrated for his remarkable flower garden and the bouquets he sells in Friday Harbor. At the post office I meet Barry Martin, sprung from a Seattle jail by a wealthy conservationist who wanted Martin to be the caretaker of his 165 unspoiled Point Hammond acres.
Midafternoon on the public dock, I watch as Bob Schmoker and David Loyd greet a stern-faced county bureaucrat named Tom Huse, who looks as if he has indigestion. The island wants changes made to the dock which Huse doesn’t seem inclined to pay for. That’s a major remodel, he barks at one point. No, Loyd ventures in return, I think it’s minor. Finally Huse bursts out: You people want this free way of life, but you’re not that free from the bureaucracy.
Minutes later at the Waldron Community Meeting, Huse still looks indisposed. Chuck Ludwig--a sleepy-eyed Quaker, World War II conscientious objector, violinist, research chemist and Waldron historian--gently says, “Tell us a little about yourself, Tom.” Huse squirms, forces a smile, then starts awkwardly talking about his background, his family, his three children. It is hard for a father to look stern while ticking off his daughters’ ages, and Huse fails. “Thank you,” Ludwig says when Huse finishes. By the time they feed the bureaucrat Betsy Sharp’s chili and Helen Hill’s cornbread, he’s asking islanders to “give me a list of what you need.”
Everywhere I go this day, people talk not about their pristine environment, their physical hardships, their land-use battles or their drug bust, but about each other. What fascinates them most are their internal squabbles and how they deal with them.
Waldron is riddled with divisions: Eastsiders versus Westsiders, haves versus have-nots, part-timers versus full-timers, those who can take care of themselves versus those who cannot. Gossip is ubiquitous--”we’re each other’s soap opera,” Betsy tells me, “each other’s football team.” Vandalism is not unheard of. People get shunned. Strongly worded letters occasionally appear in mailboxes.
Without cops or regulators, much is uncharted. Should the postmaster censor what goes on the post office bulletin board? If you ask someone for help, do you pay them or owe them a favor? How to deal with the obsessives, hellbent on one wild notion or another? What about the teenage boy who appears threatening, the woman who seems bipolar, the chronic drunks, the ones who may or may not be violent? Where to draw the line between eccentric and over the edge, between the truly ill and the neighbor besotted with anger or grief?
Like a family or tribe, Waldronites must live with the drunken uncle, with the crazy cousin, with everyone who’s acting out their tortured childhoods. Life is unavoidably intimate. Once, a family visited Waldron looking to buy land, but then wrote their realtor afterward, saying it wouldn’t work, they wanted more privacy.
Up in her loft, where she goes to record her thoughts, Betsy writes: Waldron tries the soul because there is no shelter. We choose this island as our home when we are willing to live without escape.
What makes it work, I’m told often, is the island’s vaunted dedication to tolerance: Everyone is allowed and accepted. Yet I’m also told that tolerance is Waldron’s greatest problem. People here have trouble intruding and imposing their will. Making judgments is hard, as is setting rules.
A while back, Waldronites found themselves dealing with their first homeless person. She made such a mess, no one would rent to her, so she ended up living in an old truck. Then she started stealing, and finally she got caught in someone’s pantry. The community held a meeting--Waldron’s favored way to face problems--intending to tell her she must leave. Instead, an islander offered her food, and she stayed another year.
If one person pushes, be he an obsessive or a bully--or marijuana grower--he can prevail. That’s a constant tension, an unending dance.
Yet there’s another, even fiercer kind of tension: No one is forgotten, no one abandoned. A new family whose temporary tent blows down watches a squad of Waldronities raise the tent and cut new stakes. An ex-husband who treats his former wife badly gets paid a visit for some classic Quaker “eldering.” A man rushing off the island to be at his wife’s hospital bed finds his half-built house finished when he returns.
People on Waldron tell these stories not to paint a bucolic picture--they cringe at the term “paradise”--but to show how an island of contrary souls protects itself. Only when they talk of what Waldron provides its children do they allow any hint of utopia. “A state of grace,” they call it.
Four is the age when parents begin allowing their kids to roam. The children leave notes on the ground at intersections between the narrow dirt trails, advising where they’ve gone, when they might be back. All of them can handle themselves in the wild. Once, with no adults or phones, all the island children ages 10 to 15 went off together on a two-day journey around the island, hiking and swimming and building a campfire at night. Betsy Sharp’s daughter Rowan fell off a cliff but didn’t mind, because it meant she got to use her first-aid kit.
“We roamed the island wild,” Rowan wrote in a story about the summer she turned 13, “swimming and fortbuilding, holding battles in the hard-packed dirt roads where cars were few and far between. We never got lost. The island was in our blood . . . . My bare feet knew the roads, the smooth slap-slap rhythm as I ran home in the dark, between the aisles of stooping fir and maple. There were no night-time terrors to greet me.”
This, Betsy says, is the reason why we pull propane tanks through the mud and freezing rain, a flashlight in our teeth. This is why.
if there is a particular moment that can be identified as the instant when Waldron’s entwined but chronically contentious community nearly ruptured, it would have to be the summer morning in 1997--Aug. 3, possibly--when Bill Carlson and his son Mike came to visit Nate Smothers.
The Carlsons were often at Smothers’ home that season, it being something of a gathering spot for those disenchanted about the island’s ways. No one was more disenchanted than Smothers.
Nate and his wife Sharon had taught on Indian reservations in Montana before moving to the Pacific Northwest, where Nate became a school administrator, often in charge of discipline. He was an authoritarian, and proud of it; one of his biggest triumphs was to catch 14 kids at once smoking, which cost each a three-day suspension.
After they bought land on Waldron in 1970 for a second home, it took them two years before they met anyone, for they rarely visited the post office. When they did, they often felt shunned. The believed the island full of dopers and Vietnam War draft dodgers. It seemed like a commune--people so positively orgasmic in their own little utopia--and the Smotherses hadn’t signed up to be members of a commune.
Nate supported Carlson during the Waldronaire controversy, which earned him many rebukes. Like Carlson, he had strong feelings about being able to do what he wanted with his land. What he wanted was to hold educational workshops. That was his dream, his late-at-night fantasy.
He’d not taken the Sub-Area plan meetings seriously at first. He couldn’t imagine they’d limit what people might do with their own land. He’d grown up in Montana in a community full of loggers and millers. You tried to tell those folks what to do, you wouldn’t last long.
Yet the Sub-Area Plan did end up telling folks what to do. By the time Nate started attending meetings, they’d already banned seminars and workshops. They’d smashed his dream, plain and simple.
I was in the woods, I saw a whole lot of marijuana plants. That’s what Nate recalls Bill Carlson saying as they sat in Smothers’ home that summer morning. Then we went down to Betty’s. Saw a lot of boxes, lot of plastic.
It wasn’t exactly a secret that there’d been marijuana growing on Waldron for at least 30 years. Only a handful were involved, but there’d been enough activity for Skye Burn to raise the matter at a community meeting in 1980. She’d gained nothing but a few hard comments and a spell of shunning. Telling growers to pull up their plants just wasn’t something that fit easily into Waldron’s world of enduring tolerance.
It was precisely Waldron’s tolerance that bothered Smothers. At least, that’s how he’d explain it later. People were stepping out of bounds, strange people. It felt like hypocrisy to keep turning his head. He and Carlson were held to rules, why not all the others?
What should we do? That’s what Bill Carlson was asking.
Nate had an answer. You should stay away, Bill. It’s too politically charged. Maybe your sons could do something. . . .
After that, Nate got on his bike, rode around. He saw marijuana plants up at Betty Ledbetter’s. Maybe, he thought, I should go talk to the sheriff.
In early August, he did just that. So, apparently, did Bill Carlson’s son Mike, who runs a construction firm out of Friday Harbor.
Mike won’t talk about this now, but his father will. At his Palm Springs condo, he told me, “Nate Smothers was an informant. So was my son Mike. Yes, they did tell. My son has four kids on Friday Harbor, three in the school. Why shouldn’t he report? Yes, Mike and Nate, they informed. Not me. Not me.”
All the same, Bill Carlson played his role.
Soon after that morning meeting at Nate’s, the same day possibly, he called out to a neighbor, Jemine Kile, as she passed by the deck of his A-frame. He asked her to come up and join him for a minute. In Palm Springs, Carlson froze when I brought up this encounter. He looked stunned, pinned to his chair. He began ranging over other topics. Finally, he said he couldn’t “recall” the meeting. Kile could, though--in sworn testimony before the San Juan County prosecuting attorney.
She said that Bill Carlson asked her, “Have you ever seen any marijuana growing on the mountain?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Have you ever seen any marijuana on Bob Schmoker’s property?”
“I would sure like to get him . . . . Could you help me on this?”
Kile had some considerations. Her husband had a heart condition, she explained to Carlson. His health wasn’t well. What would happen to her if he died?
“Well, I would take care of you. I take care of all the widow women here.” Three days later, a sheriff’s deputy arrived at Kile’s home to take her statement. She named a handful of growers, then offered an enticing addition: She’d been told by two growers that Schmoker was in fact one of the “main dealers” for the group--a group that was involved in a “cooperative agreement” to grow and ship marijuana “in large quantities for bulk sale.”
It’s not hard to see why Waldronites came to think of all this as a blatant political setup, a move by frustrated adversaries to “get Schmoker.” Yet San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord and Sheriff Bill Cumming offer another scenario. They’d been investigating Waldron since early that year, they say. Ever since a confidential informant on San Juan Island reported that marijuana was being supplied to school-age children in Friday Harbor by “juvenile agents” of a Waldron resident. That’s what started things. Once investigators began going after Waldron sources, they couldn’t limit what information they developed.
Certainly, Gaylord says, the long-running land-use battle on Waldron “was a factor” in the informants’ coming forward; “if you read Kile’s statement, it’s hard to doubt.” He also says he didn’t realize it at the time because he didn’t know who the informants or targets were. “We just get information,” Gaylord told me long after the raid. “We don’t know who it’s coming from, why it’s coming. We don’t know all the dynamics.”
Sheriff Cumming did know the sources--his chief Waldron investigator, Deputy Sheriff Jeff Asher, is a longtime acquaintance of Mike Carlson. Yet the sheriff also denies knowledge of the informants’ land-use agenda. “It little matters,” he adds, “as long as the information is accurate.”
It did matter in Asher’s affidavit for a search warrant. There, Asher declared under oath that his confidential informants “are not benefiting in any way from providing information to us . . . . [They] are attempting to assist us as good citizens of Waldron Island who wish to put a halt to the cultivation of marijuana on Waldron Island.”
Four days later, two men in camouflage and black paint startled a retired doctor on Waldron who was up on a ladder repairing his roof. Which way to Sandy Point? they inquired. Although no one on the island knew it then, here was the advance party, scouting and mapping roads.
The full invasion of Waldron began in the early hours of Aug. 19. The landing came not at the county dock but at Bill Carlson’s private compound on Mail Bay. Later, Carlson would insist he knew nothing of the raid, but Gaylord says that “yes, Carlson had to know, Carlson did know.”
The operation involved 35 officers from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office, the Skagit Drug Task Force, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and the U.S. Coast Guard. They arrived on a barge that also brought a dump truck, two pickups, an ATV, food, water, a medical team and supplies. The medics stayed on the barge while officers, armed with rifles and dressed in flak jackets and camouflage, spread out in teams of five.
Matters did not begin well. At 5 a.m., a quintet of officers mistakenly banged on John Remington’s door, thinking it belonged to Kim Gordon. Remington advised them to climb up the hill, take a left and go to the first driveway, which on Waldron is never more than a thickly wooded dirt path. The cops squabbled as they departed. How could you make this mistake, I thought you knew where you were going. . . .
Eventually the landing force located its intended prey: 570 plants on Kim Gordon and Katrina de Rafael’s land; 139 on Dennis Holmgren’s; 118 (and a rifle) on Timothy Quigley and Ivan Moorhouse’s; 100 (and six guns) on Betty Ledbetter’s.
The team assigned to Bob Schmoker reached his house at about 6:30 a.m. In their affidavit for a search warrant, they’d outlined what they expected to find at a main dealer’s base: trip wires tied to sounding devices and explosives, watchdogs, firearms, false walking paths, multi-frequency scanners and large amounts of cash. Crouching now behind a pickup, shouting through a bullhorn, they ordered Schmoker outside. Half awake, in his underwear, Schmoker looked out a window at a sea of DEA agents. Goddamn, he thought. Goddamn Carlson. He sat outside handcuffed for six hours as agents rifled through his house. They could find only three baggies and a pipe--Schmoker had decided to get stoned for a marimba concert on the public dock the night before--but they kept searching throughout the afternoon.
Finally, Sheriff Cumming showed up. He’d raised his hand to enforce the laws, and believed he didn’t have the luxury not to, particularly when informants handed him hard information about dope-selling to kids. Yet he wasn’t a cop’s cop. He’d studied at Berkeley in the late ‘60s, and worked as a prison counselor, probation officer and fisherman before running for sheriff as an “alternative.” He appreciated Waldron’s tolerance and commitment to a lifestyle most others couldn’t maintain. Waldron, in turn, appreciated him.
“Hey, Bob,” he asked Schmoker. “How’s it going?”
“I’ve had better days.”
Minutes later, at the sheriff’s order, Schmoker’s handcuffs came off.
By 5 p.m. all the invaders were gone, after 12 hours on the island. Behind them, they left a scattering of empty Gatorade bottles and Ding-Dong boxes. They had their bust, but no kingpin.
Although authorities publicly valued their haul at more than $1 million, other local estimates put its net worth at less than $100,000. Only Kim Gordon and Katrina de Rafael, with their 570 plants, landed in federal jurisdiction; Gordon was sentenced to 18 months in prison, de Rafael to three years of supervision. Dennis Holmgren drew 90 days in county jail, Betty Ledbetter 15 days of house arrest, Timothy Quigley and Ivan Moorhouse probation and a fine.
Bob Schmoker was never charged with anything.
The individual growing operations, Sheriff Cumming told reporters the day after the raid, “did not appear to be part of an organized pot-growing ring . . . . At this point we haven’t been able to establish they have conducted these growing operations in concert with each other.”
during my second visit to waldron, i still felt welcome even when talk turned finally to the drug raid. Islanders, it emerged, were not that hesitant to bring it up. Sometimes they did so with sighs and shakes of the head. More often there was humor attached--”Ah, the drug kingpin,” someone at the post office joked when I said I was visiting Bob Schmoker.
Even in the immediate wake of the bust, Waldronities tried to laugh. Postmaster Richard Brummett pointed out that the invading force had barged the seized marijuana over Mail Bay eel grass beds in clear violation of the San Juan County Shoreline Master Plan. A few worried about the officers’ consumption of Ding-Dongs and Gatorade, noting that refined sugars not only jeopardized the agents’ health, but also influenced their moods while they were carrying weapons. Someone suggested that future landing forces include a nutritionist.
None of this, however, could mask the fact that the drug raid had deeply traumatized the community. Waldronites felt violated. They were furious at the DEA for what seemed an outrageous overreaction. They were unsettled by the notion of informers operating from within a community that relied heavily on trusting relationships, even among adversaries. Most of all, they felt betrayed by the handful of marijuana growers whose actions had left the island vulnerable to invasion.
“This,” Betsy Sharp told a reporter at the time, “is the story of family members who made bad choices.”
Kim Gordon, by far the biggest grower with 570 plants, drew the most ire. He was an outsider who’d moved to the island just a year before, counting on the island’s tolerance for his cover.
Self-reproach enveloped Waldron. Certain residents had known of the large-scale growing operations but taken no action. Schmoker had tried--he’d gone to Gordon, warning that his conduct would harm the community--but Gordon had only expanded his planting. “I wish I had pulled up Kim’s plants back then,” Schmoker told me. Here is the drug bust’s greatest impact: Tolerance, islanders now see, comes with a price. Tolerance is their bedrock, but so too is community, and what more defines community than the setting of boundaries?
As I moved through the island, the refrain built: Maybe we should have done more. Maybe we shouldn’t be so accepting. Maybe now we’ll have to be more intrusive with each other’s affairs.
Beyond that came another regret--that the drug raid had further damaged the island’s image. Bob Schmoker, particularly, feared a loss of political credibility. It didn’t help that besides the drug bust itself, there’d been a messy, extended aftermath.
Talking about it now felt like driving a knife into a festering wound. Yet we had to talk about it.
Within hours of the raid, someone posted a copy of the sheriff’s affidavit for a search warrant on the post office bulletin board. It didn’t take long for people to figure out who the informants were. Nate Smothers readily admitted his role to at least two neighbors, according to notarized statements they later signed. For a good while, Jemine Kile didn’t, but she was targeted anyway, and in a familiar Waldron manner. Certain islanders ostracized and shunned her. One resorted to vandalism, draining Kile’s water tank, switching wires on her pump, tampering with her ATV’s engine. Others tried to repair the damage, but nothing could shake the island’s notion that Bob Schmoker had been set up.
The outrage wouldn’t die. For more than a year after the raid, Waldron urged prosecuting attorney Randy Gaylord to investigate possible perjury and “deliberate falsehood” by the confidential informant who’d named Schmoker a “main dealer.”
Gaylord steadfastly refused, most notably at a September 1998 meeting at the Waldron post office, where he pointed out that Schmoker had never been charged. “If that’s a mistake, let me know,” Gaylord said, peering at faces half-hidden in the log cabin’s dark shadows. “I can still charge him. The statute of limitations hasn’t run out.”
Then at Christmas time that year, 18 months after the raid, Schmoker came home one evening to find Jemine Kile sitting on his porch, crying. He invited her inside, sat her by the fire, gave her warm tea. According to Schmoker, she talked of her fear and anxieties, of how she couldn’t sleep. She revealed that she was the critical informant who’d fingered him in the affidavit. Bill Carlson had fed her the script; Bill Carlson had wanted to get Bob.
Days later, on Jan. 6, Kile said much the same at an exceptionally intense community meeting in the schoolhouse. Everyone sat in a circle and passed a stone around; whoever held it could talk. According to written minutes, Schmoker began by saying, “Two weeks ago Jemine came to me . . . . She came to apologize, to heal the hurt . . . . She explained what she had done and why and some of the forces involved. I have accepted her apology. She has been very forthcoming and honest with me.”
In turn, Kile said, “I got really swept up in the emotion of it . . . . I had to think that I had to be important, and that is not all right. I want to live my life with more integrity and less anger . . . . I feel I was manipulated and used . . . . I feel very threatened . . . mostly by my own fantasies . . . . My hope would be to ask for your forgiveness and that we could start trusting each other again.”
It was not to be. From there, Kile went to talk to Randy Gaylord, and she emerged with a decidedly altered attitude. When Schmoker, bent on getting everything known, drafted a “corrective affidavit” for Kile to sign, they ended up tussling over wording. One version got handed to the sheriff, another publicized locally. In response, the prosecuting attorney took a sworn deposition from Kile--one that substantively contradicted what she’d said at the Waldron Community Meeting. She’d been threatened and intimidated on Waldron, she told Gaylord. She’d been pressured by Schmoker into signing the corrective affidavit.
There’s no way to tease out the definitive truth. I have heard assorted interpretations, all dependent on personal perspective and subjective judgment.
What is known: Kile never heard two growers say that Bob Schmoker was a “major dealer,” as she’d sworn in her initial statement. It wasn’t two growers, she admitted to Gaylord during her deposition. It was in fact her late husband, Cecil--a friend of Bill Carlson. To Waldron, that looked like the perjury they’d been claiming all along. Not to Randy Gaylord, though.
Last September, the prosecuting attorney issued a 26-page memorandum that cleared Kile and Carlson of perjury and “any crimes in connection with obtaining a search warrant.” Schmoker, on the other hand, had “gone too far” in pressuring Kile. “We cannot condone the conduct of Schmoker . . . . But we are declining to file charges against Schmoker for witness tampering or intimidation of a witness.”
His memo, Gaylord believed, “should bring finality to all involved.”
That was a fanciful wish.
In a local letter to the editor, Schmoker wrote, “Since Gaylord is not charging me with any of the crimes he publicly implies I’ve committed . . . . I am faced again with the demoralizing task of attempting to clear my name after being falsely accused.” In a second letter, 39 other Waldron residents called Gaylord’s memorandum “inexcusable and unethical.” It was their opinion that “maligning Bob Schmoker, and smearing our community by way of putting things to rest in his department, abuses the office of Prosecuting Attorney.”
the first visible sign of Waldron’s mounting wariness toward me came when I met a handful of islanders over dinner at Bob Schmoker’s house on the last evening of my March visit. We sat around candlelight until past midnight, bantering about Waldron culture, even trying out a few dope jokes--”That’s code for drugs,” Schmoker explained after an arcane reference to certain electrical supplies. Eventually, talk drifted to land-use battles and the raid. Here Schmoker took his cuts at the county and Nate Smothers, but surprised me with his acceptance, even then, of Bill Carlson.
“Bill saw himself as a victim,” Schmoker said. “He’s not evil . . . . He’s just not evil.”
Near the end of the evening, I said something about the sale of dope to school kids being a possible catalyst for the bust. Guards went up a little, voices took on an edge. “We’re in survival mode here,” declared Bill Appel, a part-time resident and mainland lawyer who sometimes represents the island.
Soon came a flood of questions, nervous and curious. What was I going to do with this article? Might it not draw strange people who wouldn’t fit in? Might it draw the super-rich, landing in helicopters to buy up vast acreages?
Appel’s voice rose, his hands clenched. He repeated: We’re in survival mode here. The next afternoon at the county dock, as I prepared to depart on David Loyd’s boat, I still heard an invitation to “bring my family” when I returned for the Easter weekend. Waldron’s mood was turning against me, though.
It didn’t help that I needed photographs. Occasionally, photojournalists have landed on the island, taken a few shots and left before too many people knew they were around. That wouldn’t work with my kind of extended inquiry, particularly since I wanted photos of the island-wide Easter Day picnic. No way, Bob Schmoker and Betsy Sharp told me, in messages sent from Waldron. Bringing an outsider with cameras that weekend would spook people who are already wary. There’d be a bad reaction. You can’t do it.
I didn’t want to, in truth. I had a better idea, one aimed at allaying the island’s concerns. The postmaster Richard Brummett had showed me his combat photos from Vietnam, which were striking. From his job and his dozen years on the island, he knew Waldron intimately. Would he possibly like a photo assignment? Brummett agreed only after days of long-distance persuasion.
There was no stopping the alarm, however--by then troubled conversations were spreading across the island, inspired by my own planned Easter weekend visit. It was as if Waldron’s ingrained immune system--so often its savior--had finally recognized the presence of a foreign body. White cells began to swarm. In the post office one day, Betsy Sharp was scolded by a pillar of the community for mailing me a package of written material relating to Waldron.
Some feared I was going to write an “unspoiled jewel of the San Juans” puff piece. Others feared a story depicting Waldron as an island full of dopers and eccentrics. No matter what I wrote, people feared the consequences: Tourists tying boats to the county dock; kayaking clubs putting Waldron on their itinerary; hikers overrunning private roads; wealthy investors building overpriced houses.
It must be said that not everyone was troubled. If they were going to be under attack from the county, a good number believed it better to be visible and heard. Hiding from the outside world--squinching our eyes shut, sticking our fingers in our ears, muttering “watermelon, watermelon”--seemed more dangerous than turning to the world with a rational face.
There were those who hoped that attention might draw suitable families with children, badly needed given the low school population. Some thought an outsider’s viewpoint might provide a useful vision for an island so ingrown, so self-referencing. A few felt that Waldron owed the world a window into one possibility of how community can work, what it means. Could not Waldron be an agent of change for people who have forgotten how to trust, how to live?
A week before Easter, while this debate waged, came an e-mail from Betsy: “I’m writing because I’m still chewing over the dynamic which underlies the interaction between journalist and subject . . . . When it comes down to it, we’re placing trust in your sensibility and sensitivity . . . . It’s a fragile ledge to be standing on . . . . Bob and I have spent some less than comfortable hours mulling over our instinctive reaction of trust and liking for you, as we reflect on what it is to be a journalist. You couldn’t do your job if you weren’t expert at establishing rapport with your subjects. You’re adept at perceiving what it is that people want to talk about, and what approach will make them feel that you are one of them. It seems that the highest form of journalistic practice would be to combine this ability--to, shall we say, get what you want out of people?--with a strong ethical framework, and that synthesis is far from simple.”
For the moment, my invitation to return for Easter stood: “Bob and I are still inclined to respond to you with simplicity and straightforwardness,” Betsy concluded. “If we’re naive, well, the hell with it; there are limits to how much one ought to second-guess the impulse toward friendship. So we look forward to seeing you over Easter weekend.”
I read her words with a rising sense of dread that bordered on despair. By then others on the island, including Bob Gamble, were also describing their support for me as an “act of faith.” What Joan Didion famously wrote in the introduction to her collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” filled my mind: “People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: Writers are always selling somebody out.”
The rapport I’d established with Betsy, Bob and others on Waldron was neither contrived nor inauthentic. Yet I’d also spent congenial hours in the homes of Bill Carlson, Nate Smothers and Randy Gaylord. I wasn’t working for any of them. My task was to write as true a story as I could.
This I tried to explain in an e-mail to Betsy: “People can’t know or control what I write . . . . I do have to establish rapport with my subjects, and this is tricky because they are subjects, however close we get . . . .”
Yet I also--beating down all doubts--tried to make the case for my continued presence: “I think it’s fair to say that my record over the years warrants a certain level of trust. I’m highly aware of the potential impact of my work, and of my consequent responsibilities . . . . There’s little else I can guarantee, other than to promise to be careful, and to write nothing that I will be ashamed of.”
Hours before I was to get on a plane, Betsy called, talking on a static-filled cell phone from the county dock, where she can get the best of the island’s bad reception. Her voice was shaky. She’d tacked our e-mail exchange to the post office bulletin board, she reported. Pressure against my project had grown worse since then. A significant number on the island “didn’t want this article to happen.” Some were among their good friends. Those who felt strongly really felt strongly. She and Bob had been thinking. It wasn’t a good time right now. It was best that I not come.
I flew up to Seattle anyway the next morning. There, that Thursday evening, my cell phone rang. Betsy. An island-wide community meeting had been called by David Loyd for Friday night. We should play things by ear.
By all accounts, that Friday night meeting, held at the schoolhouse, was another classic Waldron gathering. A range of people spoke with fervor, offering multiple viewpoints. In the end, they took no vote, wanting to avoid divisiveness.
While on Orcas late that night, I heard David Loyd’s voice on the phone. He’d pick me up at 8:30 Saturday morning, he advised, for our ride to Waldron Island.
we are our own drama, loyd tells me as we cross President Channel. It blows TV away. You can’t get TV as good as this.
He also says: There are moments that force Waldron to define itself, decide who we are. The drug raid was one. Your arrival is another.
At the county dock, Richard Brummett meets me in his battered pickup. He hands me a file of letters. Three are from islanders gently urging him not to cooperate with me; three are his courteous replies, ex
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