Kage Baker planned most of her life to eventually retire to Catalina Island. I’m not even sure why – when her fascination with that nearest of the Channel Islands began, she knew almost nothing about it. Just the name, and the songs about it, and that it had buffalo. She didn’t even care very much about the buffalo, not being a big furry animal fan; although she approved of things saved from extinction, even as a child.
But we were always aware of the Island. You could see the place from the Hollywood Hills, on clear days – a big blue shadow out on the ocean. We caught glimpses of it when cresting the top of Vine Street on the Hollywood Freeway, or when exploring the twisty streets above the reservoir. You could usually get a great view of it from Mulholland Drive, where we spent a lot of time staring out over the L.A. Basin.
Kage crafted a lot of Anvil of the World up there, eating roast beef sandwiches and noodle kugel from Greenblatt’s deli and watching hawks wheel in the middle air below us. How Catalina never ended up in that story, I’m not sure. Maybe she didn’t know enough about it then.
But in 1976, I got a job working for the tiny independent chain that owned, among other strangely located movie palaces, the gorgeous old theatre in the Casino in Avalon. Part of my job was arranging to have the cans of film shipped over there every week – so I became intimately familiar with the ferry schedule, and the itty bitty weekly newspaper where we placed our ads. I began to bring home tales of Avalon. And suddenly Kage was obsessed with the island.
I think it was the photos of the Casino, and the weird, delightful streets of Avalon. I mean, if you’ve never seen the place, you cannot comprehend what a pretty and highly weird little town it is. It was in a bit of a slump in 1976, too, and so the ambiance – which was frozen pretty thoroughly in the 1930’s to begin with – had developed a flower-in-amber glow to it as well. It looked like one of those very French illustrations of Sleeping Beauty, where the whole castle is asleep in a wilderness of roses. Except in Avalon, it was the sort of inaccurate Mission romance of the Ramona pageant. With fish. And buffalo.
One night in July, Kage had a dream. A Lady all in white, with a little weeping baby boy in Her arms, told Kage she had to go to Avalon and fetch a salve for Her child. The little boy had burns and blisters on his tiny, pleading hands. Kage woke up weeping and told me we had to go to Avalon … and as it happened, for the first time in either of our lives, I knew how to get us there. All the information I needed was at my fingertips.
Within a fortnight, we had found our way to the terminal in Long Beach and were on our way across the 26 miles of sea to Santa Catalina. We landed in the afternoon and wandered down the mile-long curve of Crescent Street, gaping at the beautiful old buildings, the coloured tile that covered walls and window frames and civic benches, the creamy plaster and red tiles. The air smelled of tropical flowers and frying fish and sun tan oil.
When you looked into the Bay from beside the Pier, fish that looked like giant goldfish were swimming in water like crystal – garibaldis, each one floating isolate and aloof, as artificial-looking as something on the submarine ride at Disneyland. But they were real.
It was all real – the faerie tale buildings, the ancient signs, the utter lack of cars (not allowed in the heart of Avalon), the sea-wall shaped like an enormous sea-serpent, literally blocks long. We wandered in the brick-paved streets as enchanted as if we had really stepped onto the Isle of Apples, and found a restaurant …
It was a strange beginning. We were to discover that we’d chosen perhaps the only bad restaurant in the town – Kage would shortly find broken pottery chips in her egg salad sandwich: upon the eldritch significance of which, more later. When she later wrote a restaurant guide for her own amusement, that place got 5 skulls … we had no luggage, no hotel reservations, no camping gear; and unknown to us, the ferry that had brought us was the last one that day … we watched it sail away and thought nothing of it. Yet.
But as we sat there with our cocktails, staring out at the Bay no more than 500 feet from our table, we were in bliss. We were beginning an Adventure, and a relationship with Avalon that would last for the rest of our lives and branch out into other dimensions.
Not bad for a summer impulse trip.