MY SHORT HAPPY LIFE AS AN ISLAND DESPOT BEGAN with two runaway thoughts just before dawn. How about I don’t go to the office? How about I take over an island instead?
Usually, like all those resignation speeches and salary demands rehearsed beneath the shower nozzles of America every morning, these thoughts pass. But not this time.
This was a Thursday. And the truth is, if you know where to look, your odds of staging an island coup on a Southern California winter weekday are not bad. Take Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park. Through the first 10 months of this year, it drew just 13,369 overnight visitors. Most home games, the Clippers do better than that.
7 a.m.: Never mind the shower. I hop from bed to Internet and reserve a campsite. Forty sites on Santa Cruz Island, it says. Most are unclaimed, maybe all. Explain to wife: Outdoor duty calls. Then I call Island Packers in Ventura the moment they open, grab a spot on the 11 a.m. boat from Ventura Harbor to Santa Cruz. Which, they tell me, is nearly empty. Excellent.
9 a.m.: Heave day pack, inflatable mattress and three boxes of camping gear into car and blast north. This is a two-person car-camping setup, but there’s no time to rejigger. Must sail to Santa Cruz, assume control, rename island, encourage wife to follow as first legal immigrant to Santa Chris.
11 a.m.: Boat sails with half a dozen passengers. No other sleeping bags visible. My gear, on the other hand, appears sufficient to provision Lewis, Clark, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Shackleton. I ask a deckhand about campers.
“I think there are three people out there. Now through Christmas, it gets slow,” he says.
11:30 a.m.: Pause to check out a pod of dolphins. At the office about now, Oscar the coffee guy is coming around with the snack cart. This is better.
Noon: Landfall and good news. The three campers are on the boat out. And thanks to recent rains, Santa Cruz looks like a 60,000-acre slice of Ireland: rolling hills and green fuzz everywhere.
Most of the fuzz is nonnative grass that arrived in the 19th century, and the eucalyptus grove at the campground must be about the same vintage, but hey, we’re all immigrants here.
The sun is bright; the wind is lively. Up on the high ground, above the cliffs and sea caves, spooky stone cairns stand like lookouts, left over from field-clearing efforts a century ago. The campground is empty. Mainland California, that tired old territory, is just a blur on the horizon. The next boat isn’t due for 24 hours. This fuzzy slab of heaven is all mine.
Except that it isn’t. A rugged-looking guy, 35ish, gets off the boat just ahead of me, biceps rippling, with not only a kayak but a couple of suspiciously bulging bags. I’d taken him for a day-tripper, but no, he’s just a spartan camper, planning a couple of nights on the island.
Sayonara, sovereignty. We nod, smile and stake out sites 30 yards apart, the spigot between us in the DMZ. I start moving my mountain of gear in installments across the 500 yards from landing to campsite.
This means three trips past Other Guy’s site, so I spy. His stuff is cooler than mine. And he brought a flag, a red flag, to dangle from his clothesline. Why didn’t I think of a flag?
He asks if I want help with my stuff. I’m not falling for it.
As he heads west to take the kayak for a spin, I head east to try a trail. So he gets dominion over the sea, and I get the land, or most of it, anyway. It turns out there are a few park service workers fixing up an old ranch building, and a few day hikers, and there’s probably somebody somewhere on the Nature Conservancy’s camping-forbidden portion of the island.
But on the trails to Cavern Point, Potato Harbor and Smugglers Cove, I am the master of all I survey.
I hear a swooping raven’s individual wing beats. I see a black feral pig snuffling in brush, watch a half-moon rise in a darkening sky over Scorpion Bluffs. All the next day, there would be more of that, and a midday nap atop a cairn with 180 degrees of ocean view.
But the best possible thing happens that first night. Back from early explorations, I’m huddled among my many possessions warming some soup when I sense an approaching presence. It’s the Other Guy. He’s passed the spigot now, unmistakably headed my way. But it seems he comes in peace.
His lighter is busted. He forgot the spare. He wonders ...
Bow to me, I am thinking. I am the island firemaster. I smile and politely decline to lend him matches. These people have to learn.
Maybe, readers, this seems to you an awkward moment. But it’s all part of the uncrowded glory that is Southern California in the raw, in winter. If the weather lines up and you can slip free midweek, the tab for this adventure is just $54 for the round-trip boat ride and $10 a night to camp.
I know thousands of California campers are home today, scheming six months ahead to land prime summer spots, their eyes on other prizes. Yosemite Valley, Big Sur. My hat is off to them.
But let me speak for instant gratification. A few keystrokes, a phone call, a boat ride, and here you are, island royalty under a grove of nonnative but nevertheless handsome eucalyptus, rebuffing a pretender to your throne.
OK, I didn’t really withhold fire. I gave him a box of 300 matches. I could do this, of course, because I had two such boxes, tucked away next to the mugs, pots, flashlights, toothbrushes and ecologically correct soaps.
Other Guy thanked me profusely and detailed his kayaking plans, which were so ambitious, frankly, that they hinted at deep psychological flaws. Over the next two days, I silently calculated, he’d be paddling farther than I’d be hiking. I wish I were that fit. But I saw no need to say so. A guy like that needs somebody to look up to.
To e-mail Christopher Reynolds, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.