Though I live in Snohomish valley, I work on Whidbey Island, and let me tell you, things are different on the island. On multiple occasions—when I expressed surprise that the county assessor’s office didn’t have certain data, when I ran to catch a bus thinking it would leave on time without me, or pretty much whenever I walk down the street at my usual fast pace, for example—people have stopped and asked me, “How long have you been on the island?”
Whidbey is by no means small. Its population is nearly 60,000, and in many parts it’s easy to forget that you’re on an island at all. But the feeling of difference that I think comes naturally to islanders, even those connected to the mainland by a substantial bridge and regular ferry service, is compounded by a couple of things. First, a Navy airbase is the island’s largest employer and so Navy culture has a large influence on the culture of the island (not bad, just new to me). Second, Whidbey is part of the aptly named Island County, which includes two other sizable islands and 6 tiny, uninhabited islands. You get all those islanders together in one county government and you get a unique bureaucracy indeed.
A good example is Island Transit, the free—free!—public bus system. (Can you believe that I can take the bus from Everett all the way to Oak Harbor, a 60-mile trip, for only $2 for the bus from Everett to Mt. Vernon? And this within spitting distance of the King County system that charges up to $3 for a ride from one part of Seattle to another.) Everybody just hops on and the bus driver writes down on a clipboard how many riders there are. Somtimes riders will ask to be dropped off at places off the usual route, and the bus drivers cheerfully oblige. Many people have no idea where the buses go, but they get on and ask and get off a block or two later if it’s not where they want to go. The whole system is extremely personable, unintimidating, and casual. It’s almost like riding a dolmuş in Turkey with people flagging down the bus on the road where there aren’t formal stops. Needless to say, I love it.
The bus I ride seats maybe 20 people at most, and in such an intimate space, conversation is inevitable. A lot of the other riders are young people looking glum and necking in the back. Some are mothers and fathers. This is rural America; some things are true the nation over. My favorite fellow riders are a pair of guys who seem homeless and are out of work, who smell terrible but can talk more articulately (and cheerfully) about American politics and current events than plenty of the college students I know. I don’t think this is a paradox; they recognize the impact that government has on their lives, as it has on everyone’s. That this hasn’t made them cynical is something I find impressive.
About halfway through the ride, we cross the Deception Pass Bridge and conversation pauses. I’m never prepared for it, not for the sudden breath-taking view of the Puget Sound, not to be suspended 180 feet over the churning, aqua-colored water.
Many of the conversations have been about attempts to leave the island and how it always seems to pull people back. For one girl, on probation I learn, it is the place where all her troubles began; for others, it’s the place you can live the Island Life, man! I wonder how this sense of stability, be it enforced or desired, jives with the instability of all the tourism and of the lives of the military families. It makes me more aware of my own difference, of the fact that I commute in and not out and that I live in the valley.