Road Trip XI, Days 17-21: We Interrupt This Travel Blog…

…for a special promo for a special person, and a special book. My friend and writing buddy Iris Graville is about to launch her book of essays, Writer in a Life Vest, and when you’re done reading this, I think you’ll want to order a copy or two.

Coming soon to a (hopefully independent) bookstore near you, IF YOU ORDER IT!

Just in case you’re wondering, “But Gretchen, aren’t you still on the road? Has nothing happened during the past week?” the answer is, Yes, and No. We’re happily ensconced at Tierreich Farm (“Kingdom of the Animals”), a.k.a. the home of my Amazing Parents.

And Stevie, World’s Cutest Donkey

We’ve seen a ton of ACC basketball, eaten a ton of Mama Dip’s fried chicken and Allen & Son BBQ, walked and ridden our bikes through what’s left of the country woods of my youth (this place sure has grown in 30 years), and caught up with many of our Far & Dear.

We suspect the new owners of tweaking the recipe–easy on the vinegar, guys!

But since that’s always been the purpose of these road trips, I don’t feel the need to re-describe the above. Check out any of my old blog posts from the second week of March and you’ll find it there.

Instead, let me introduce you to Iris. As her Author Page on Homebound Publications puts it,

Iris Graville has lived in Washington State for four decades, after childhood and early adulthood in Chicago and small towns in Southern Illinois and Indiana. A long-time Quaker, an environmental and anti-racism activist, and a retired nurse, Iris believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s the author of two collections of profiles—Hands at Work and BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community. Her memoir, Hiking Naked, was a 2019 recipient of a Nautilus Award. 

…but as I put it, Iris is also a remarkable example of a writer at her most humble, hard-working, and creative. To start with, she created the post of “Writer in Residence” for the Washington State Ferries–just came up with the idea, got in touch with the Ferry Powers That Be, and made it happen! Then she rode the ferry at least once a week for the year, writing–you can read about that fascinating “job” here while you wait to read about it in her book.

And humble? As a member of her writing critique group, I was privileged not only to read many of this book’s essays in their early form, but also to listen to Iris grappling with the challenge of learning as much about the Salish Sea and its inhabitants as she possibly could, in order to interact with the experts she was meeting and interviewing…in order to tell the story of the Salish Sea’s glories and vulnerabilities without setting herself up as an “expert” herself. She was a public health nurse, for goodness’ sake–but thanks to all her work, Iris can now write like Rachel Carson! (Fun fact: Ms. Carson actually makes an imaginative appearance in one of Iris’s essays.)

So that was also the “hard-working” part. But back to “creative” for a moment: in case you’re turned off by the word “essay” (apologies on the part of English teachers everywhere for possibly ruining that word for everyone), Iris’s pieces are all over the place! This book “contains multitudes,” as Whitman said: narratives, interviews, poetry, letters, even a playful messing-around with keyboard symbols (one of my faves). It features whales (and whale poop!), gorgeous marine descriptions, vessels, statistics, and challenging questions. Its pieces are dire, funny, heart-wrenching, hopeful, and above all, inspiring.

When you read Writer in a Life Vest, you will want to do more to protect whatever fragile environment you feel connected to. And who knows? You may feel inspired to invent your own Writer-in-Residence program at a place of your choosing–Farmers’ Market? Train Station? Dunkin’ Donuts? (j/k–that might kill you)

Hey Iris–you go, girl!

The book will be launched on March 24 at 5:30 pm, and will feature Iris in conversation with Lorna Reese, Lopez writer and founder of SHARK REEF Literary Magazine. They’ll discuss Writer in a Life Vest and Iris’s desire for the essays to promote resilience, inspiration, and hope. Register here to join the program in-person at the Lopez Library. There is a limit of 20 seats. Register here for online the program.

So, my friends…order two copies, one for yourself and one for a whale-loving friend. Then take a moment to marvel at the hard work behind such writing. Then maybe go do some yourself! (Or just get outside for a good, long, grateful walk.)

Paddling With Orcas: Why This Post Isn’t What You Think

If it sounds like bragging, I’m sorry; this is not my intention. But I’ve just checked something off my life list of hoped-for experiences: kayaking with orcas. 

If you’re expecting a polemic about whale-watching or the Marine Mammals Act, this is not that post either. I have strong feelings about whale harassment, but as someone who has, in the past, paid to follow whales in a motorized boat, I’m no one to cast stones.

What else is this post not? A travel brochure for the San Juan Islands. A reverie on the joys of career-switching. A love poem.

Actually, that last one? It kind of is.

Here’s what happened. The Mate and I just spent the night camping on San Juan Island, the “Big Island” of the San Juans (compared to our little Lopez, which is more potluck than sushi restaurant in culture). Being Wings, we got up early to go paddling.

Our boys will tell you that the family mantra is, “If we get up early, we might see a moose!” (They will also tell you that said moose, if seen at all, was just as likely to be seen, after our return from our early-morning hike, in the parking lot hanging out with those tourists who had slept in.)

But my point is, we were out on the water before 7:30. So we had the Salish Sea all to ourselves. Heading toward Lime Kiln Point on San Juan’s western shore, we knew we were in the home waters of the resident pods, but we tried not to get our hopes up. After all, it was a gorgeous morning. The sun made the flat water sparkle. Giant madronas leaned over the dark rocks high above us. As if cued by a Nat Geo director, an eagle dived for a fish. All this arrayed before a backdrop of white-draped Olympic mountains, in the company of each other. As the Passover service says, “Dayenu”–it would have been sufficient.

And then the orcas came. Or rather, we came to them, or we came together, just as I’ve always dreamed about.

(Orig. image courtesy Wikimedia)

(Orig. image courtesy Wikimedia)

OK, not exactly. In those dreams, the orcas surface next to my kayak and look me in the eye. But, seriously? Those critters are HUGE!!! I was just as happy to view them from a safe distance of 75 yards. Plus I could feel smug about following the rules and trying to stay out of their way, or, ahem, at least not paddling toward them.

We paddled in slow circles for a while, resisting the attempts of the current to sweep us past the pod, whose vigorous leaps and splashes spoke of breakfast, or happiness, or both.  Three? Five? Four! Oh my, the SIZE of that dorsal fin!! And when the pod–oh look, a BABY!!–headed north, we turned around and kept pace with them for the next twenty minutes, marveling over every shining curve of black and white, every blast of breath.


(Orig. image courtesy Wikimedia)

(Orig. image courtesy Wikimedia)

(Of course as soon as we got home, we called up our kids and reminded them that, if you get up early, you can see a moose. Or the marine equivalent.)

So what is this post about? Blessings. Gifts. From Nature, God, the gods–pick your word. It’s about feeling overwhelmed by beauty and power and plain old good fortune. It’s about being completely humbled by what happens when one of your dreams comes true.

Have you had a moment like this? Can you express it? Please, please share!