Sunday, September 2, 2001
No guardrails impede the view of Boushay Canyon, 1,800 feet straight down from the edge of a narrow dirt road. As the Hummer hits a hairpin curve, my foot reflexively shoots to the brakes, or where brakes would be if I weren't in the back seat.
"Don't worry," says biologist Misty Gay, who's actually driving. The Hummer or the civilian version of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle was built for tough terrain under battlefield conditions, she tells me. "It can even tilt up to 45 degrees without turning over," she adds.
Gay seems as highly able as the vehicle. So I stop my back-seat driving and start taking in a view of Santa Catalina Island that hasn't changed since Hollywood directors flocked here in the 1930s and pretended they were in the Black Hills of South Dakota, on the shores of Tahiti or in the Arizona desert.
Back then, the 76-square-mile island just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California was primarily the private playground of the Wrigley chewing gum family, moviemakers and stars like John Wayne, who played their parts on location and then returned again and again for pleasure.
Today, about a million people a year visit the island, including many from cruise ships that briefly dock at the port town of Avalon. The vast majority of tourists spend their time in the little town, seemingly unaware that just beyond lies 52 more miles of coastline and more than 42,000 acres of unspoiled land.
Nearly 90 percent of Catalina Island is part of a land conservancy created by the Wrigley family. William Wrigley Jr. acquired the island in 1919, and in 1975, his family donated most of it to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. The nonprofit's mission: to preserve a piece of California as it used to be, before the white men arrived to build their missions, and their condos.
The land and water beyond Avalon are known mostly to experienced yachtsmen who moor along the isthmus, to hikers and campers and to herds of wild bison. The Hummer trips, started by the Santa Catalina Island Co. last year, are intended to introduce more visitors to the island's rustic beauty. The High Adventure Tour leaves twice a day from the only other town on the island: Two Harbors, population 150. People, only half-jokingly, say it's where residents of Avalon population 3,200 go to unwind.
While only 23 miles separate Avalon from Two Harbors, the bus trip between them takes two hours. The first 10 miles are paved. Once you pass a small airport, you hit a winding dirt road built for stagecoach traffic. On the way we pass a total of three people, all hikers, but have to stop a half-dozen times to wait for bison to get off the road. All are the progeny of a few animals that escaped the roundups after cowboy movies were shot here generations ago. Between 300 and 400 bison are allowed to roam. The herds are culled to keep their numbers in check; at the airport restaurant you can buy buffalo burgers that presumably are quite fresh.
You can see all of downtown Two Harbors in a minute or two. The outdoor bar serves "buffalo milk," a powerful signature drink made of creme de cacao, creme de banana, vodka, whipped cream and a dribble of Kahlua. On weekends, the bar features live music on its broad deck along the sea. The deck attaches to two restaurants. A general store is next door. Across the road is a dive shop that also rents snorkeling gear and ocean kayaks. That's pretty much it. Suddenly, you can understand how Avalon residents could indeed consider Two Harbors a relaxing getaway. People stroll the single downtown street a dirt road eating ice-cream cones and chatting. Half the people on the yachts anchored offshore, it seems, have dogs that like to be walked as much as any landlubber dog.
The only lodging in town is about a 10-minute amble along a path that cuts past the Two Harbors school. About nine children attend the one-room schoolhouse. It used to be K-5, but this fall it will be K-4 because the only incoming fifth-grader decided to commute to Avalon. Stone steps twist up a hill to the Banning House Lodge, an 11-room inn built in 1910 by Judge Joseph Brent Banning, brother of Phineas T. Banning, a major early developer of Los Angeles. Luckily, the Bannings did little to Two Harbors. Initially, the lodge was for family and friends; later it hosted Hollywood stars and other celebrities who were either filming there or using the lodge and surrounding landscape as an escape from the adoring masses.
The lodge was restored in 1987. The rooms are simple, but each has a water view. A shared living room with a massive fireplace has comfy overstuffed chairs. From the windows and patio, you can look over the mountains or down to the bright blue waters of the Isthmus Cove to the left and Catalina Harbor to the right. A second patio area outside our door is sheltered with a trellis trailing flowers and ivy. It's the simple-yet-beautiful type of summer home rich people built back when they had confidence and class. It's surprising that you can still buy this kind of serenity and privacy for as little as $104 a night.
A family had rented all 11 rooms for the weekend but canceled at the last minute, leaving my daughter and me as the only lodge guests. Just as we finish breakfast in the dining room, with its old oak furniture, Gay arrives to pick us up for our tour. Several other passengers are already on board.