Arriving in Avalon, the only city on Catalina Island, feels like that recurring childhood dream where you suddenly find a room in your house that you hadn't realized existed. You have that sensation, that disbelief that this has been here the whole time as your boat finishes its 26-mile chug through the Pacific at Avalon Bay, with its cliffs covered in big bright beach houses and its elegant ambassador, the Catalina Casino, poised at the east side of the shore. The water is always crisp blue in Catalina. There are always a smattering of kayakers making their way away from the clock tower on the green fun pier.
Thanks to a successful "free ride on your birthday promotion," the island is now uncannily full of birthday boys and girls of all different ages on any given day. They wear happy birthday ribbons and greet each other joyfully. Fun is in the foreground everywhere. Whenever I'm in Avalon, I fantasize about hiding out there forever. I wonder what it is actually like to live on the island where it is always the second Saturday in someone else's favorite July.
I headed to Avalon alone on a Monday, with a tent on my back, to meet some of the people who call this sunny snow globe home. Hermit Gulch, the campground where I was staying, is a mile's walk uphill from downtown (it's the only one of the island's seven campgrounds that is easily accessible from Avalon). I didn't get far before a friendly older man in a golf cart noticed me wearing two backpacks and asked if I wanted a ride. Golf carts are virtually the only mode of transportation in Catalina. There is a 35-year wait to bring a car onto the island, and some Avalonians have been rumored to put their unborn children on the list. The proliferation of golf carts, though, makes hitchhiking a refreshing and common possibility. I threw my pack on his cart and hopped in.
The driver was the former owner of the liquor store in town. After 30 years, he had retired and taken up "golf cart patrol" instead. He was a native; his family had been in Catalina back to his grandmother, who was here in the 1890s, before William Wrigley, of Wrigley chewing gum fame, bought and glamorized the place. When I asked if he ever went to the mainland, he shuddered, told me not if he could avoid it, and to have a nice stay.
After setting up camp, I walked back into town to find trouble and dinner in no particular order. I landed on Maggie's Blue Rose Mexican on Crescent and took a seat at the bar. I was flattered when the bar-back noticed me easily putting away heaping mounds of salsa and asked if I wanted to try the real spicy kind, "Pedro's salsa." He nodded to Pedro, who was bartending. I accepted, of course. It had that nice delayed heat at the end of the bite—the kind you trick yourself into thinking you can end by eating more.
The young bar-back told me he'd just been to the mainland a few days before, to Santa Barbara, where his brother is in college. He liked it and could see himself living there someday. It reminded him of home. "Everyone leaves," he told me. "You get to a place on this island where there is nowhere else to go," he gestured claustrophobically with his arms. "You can't drive a car. You can't go to college. You can't own a home." What you can do here, though, is spear fish. He emphasized that when he spears fish, he only uses a slingshot (never a gun.) Like most people who grew up in these clear craggy coves, he knows every tucked-away place to grab them along the more remote parts of the island.
The weedy wild of Catalina, which is most of the island, is primarily accessed by water or rigorous hike. Its jagged hills and rarely driven fire roads are home to 150 buffalo. The animals are descendants of a pack of bison that were allegedly brought to the island in 1927 for the filming of a western called The Vanishing American.
"You can't buy a home here?" I asked the bar-back, signing out my tab.
He shrugged off the suggestion. "I'm trying to start something real. With my girlfriend. We've been together four years." Everyone leaves, he told me, but then, he'd also said, "Everyone always comes back."
After dinner I wandered over to The Locker Room, a sports bar that is part of my own vacation routine when I'm here with my boyfriend for his annual birthday trip. Every year, after snorkeling or hiking, we come here to watch the Phillies game and put country on the jukebox. It's the one time of year that I root for the Phillies. The bartender working when I got there was a tall blonde named Sarah who was friendly and efficient. Not a glass was left empty for too long at her bar. She appeared effortlessly interested in whether we, the lone stragglers staring vacantly at the game, were okay.
The man hunched over the bar next to me, also alone, told me that he was a diver and a fisherman. He had been here for more than 20 years, after having drifted over from Orange County, where he left a wife and a 90-minute commute. "Everyone here has three jobs," he explained. "It's good, in a way. It keeps you out of the bars." He ordered us both shots. Captaining ships and running diving expeditions had given him the flexibility to focus on what he really wanted to do: deep-sea fish for yellowfin tuna. "This year, they've been incredible. Huge." Then he added, unnecessarily, "I'm very divorced."
I meandered over to Luau Larry's, where even on a Monday night the place was bursting at the seams with middle-class drunkards. Luau Larry's is, in actuality, a very small bar. It has a few booths up front, a handful of tables in a cramped back room, and a tiny private cave-themed nook. Five people make the place a crowd, and the crowd mostly comes for two things: "Wicky Hats," the free straw hat you receive when you get your "Wicky Whacked," (buy a stiff, sugary, nine-dollar cocktail) and cover musician Gill Torres, who plays five or six nights a week with his synthesized band.
On any given night, Gill whips a pack of lushes into a sweaty, red-faced fury. The lushes, generally in Wicky Hats, are eclectic and homogenous at the same time: all fun-loving and over-indulgent. On this evening, the dance floor held a young giddy lesbian couple; a middle-aged man and a woman who looked like if Anthropologie made people; a lone happy woman in a romper; and a man in a canvas visor with sunglasses resting on it. This was clearly not the first time he had been out past 10 pm in a visor and shades. The motley crew danced to Gill Torres's Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance." I took a seat at the bar.
A young man sat next to me. I asked what he did. He smiled mischievously, "I control here."
"What does that mean?" I asked, legitimately curious about who he was controlling and how. "It's something you should never ask about," he baited me, "I'm from Tijuana. We have a saying that Americans see Mexicans like clowns. Now I come here, and I'm the one laughing."
A few feet away on the dance floor, Anthropologie had taken off her vest and lent it to the lesbian couple. Romper floated back and forth between both couples and seemed content wherever she landed. "Have fun with me," Visor and Shades begged of no one in particular.
"I can't tell you about it here, because we're in a bar," added Tijuana. This was the first time I questioned whether he was talking about selling drugs—what drugs can't you talk about in a bar full of inebriated people? Then he walked up to Gill Torres, and I watched the man who controlled this town have his song request denied. Instead, Gill played "Margaritaville" by request of Visor and Shades. I would later learn that this lone drunk dancer, dressed for a weekend afternoon on a Monday night, had been boating and begging strangers to have fun with him in Avalon for the past two decades.
The shores of Avalon, like Lover's Cove, the glassy little nook on the town's west side, seem designed to trap the passage of time in their folds. The water laps against the shore in small gurgles and bright orange Garibaldi fish glide through the water, but Lover's Cove always seems frozen. A small yellow submarine perpetually drifts around. The horizon in the background is reliably broken by parasailers floating back and forth. It is fitting that this spot, the perfect place to watch the sunset, is reminiscent of Mermaids' Lagoon in Neverland. Here, preserved in salty fog, is the real illusion that you never actually have to grow up.
"I've been here for 17 years," Gill told me after his set. "I came here on accident." When he'd first landed the job at Luau Larry's, after coming to Avalon on vacation, Gill had enlisted the help of a sound engineer on the mainland, who taught him how to orchestrate on a synthesizer. "In the future, no one will need bands," the man had told Gill. Gill mastered the use of the synthesizer and realized he could use it to manipulate songs to make them the perfect tempo for dancing.
He has, in the past, performed with a band, but Luau Larry's curtailed that after they noticed that people were coming to watch the band, but not buying as many drinks. "When it's just me, they buy twice as many drinks," he explained. Gill knows what the people want and when they want it. "No one liked 'Uptown Funk' until it was on the radio. Now they lose their minds over it. No one likes anything until they know it first." Gill shook his head, "I never get to play the stuff I want to play. No one wants to hear that. People just want to be reminded of last year."
The next morning, I woke up facing downhill and snuggled up to a can of Red Bull. I put on a pair of cut-offs and brushed my teeth in the campground sink. As I stumbled out to make my trek back down into town, the old-timey trolley bus that runs once an hour clicked by. I flagged down the driver, a warm middle-aged woman. I was the only one on her bus, but she told me that she would be busy this afternoon when the people from the cruise ship came ashore. We passed the preschool—her young grandson had just started there, "Gracias a Dios!" All three of her children had been raised here, and two were away now at college. "It is good to go. You have to leave. What do you do?"
"I'm a writer."
"Good for you! Good for you!" she exclaimed convincingly, then dropped me off at Crescent Avenue.
I had heard rumor of a house that was selling for more than $8 million here in Avalon, and I was hoping to take a look at it, so I headed, with my hiker's pack, into Catalina Realtors to see broker Earl Schrader.
In addition to running Catalina Realtors, Earl is also the high school football coach. He started the team, back in 1995. "For 30 years now, I've been selling million-dollar houses in jeans that are dirty from football practice," he told me. His eight-man team plays other small schools, and football season is when Earl most frequently has to "go over town," as Islanders call going to the mainland.
Earl's office was cozy and held three desks, all of which were occupied by men who also appeared to be football coaches. They slouched in their chairs and wore gym clothes, and told me not to worry about my big intrusive backpack: "It's Catalina." Propped in the corner of the office was Earl's Les Paul. "If you buy the house, he'll throw that in," one of the other men joked.
"Sure," said Earl, and then immediately reconsidered, "Not really."
Earl is from the Bay Area and was a real-life rocker in his younger years, playing with Janis Joplin's old band. Seeking refuge from the excessive freedom that is a working musician's life, Earl came to Catalina, where he was able to kick his drinking habit. "Most of the crime here is bar fights and stuff like that," he told me, as we were riding his golf cart up to the mansion at 223 Beacon. "I tell people who complain, if you don't like that stuff, stay away from the bars." Earl still plays his Les Paul, but now it's just for fun.
The house at 223 Beacon was actually listed by Earl's colleague Kelly, a blonde stylish woman who met us in the driveway in her own golf cart. "How come your golf cart is nicer than mine?" Earl ribbed Kelly.
"It's called being in debt!" she retorted playfully.
The three of us walked into the mansion, which had been decorated and furnished with sturdy pieces from Asia and Africa. There were two elevators: a service one and a regular one, which was sparkly and reflective. You could see the ocean from every floor, and in the master bedroom, heavy curtains rolled back when you flipped a switch. They revealed the water like it was the set of an opera. In the entertaining room, there was a polished grand player piano. "You know how to play, don't you Earl?" Kelly suggested. Earl sat at the bench and tentatively played a chord.
On the top floor of the house, there was a bar that opened out to an infinity pool, which opened out to the ocean, which opened out to the sky. "These windows slide open," Kelly gestured to the windows behind the bar. "I can show you if you want."
"That's okay," I told her.
"Open them," Earl said, smiling, and she did. The weather was perfect, as Earl and Kelly said it always is in Avalon—not too hot, not too cold, and for a few minutes the three of us stood there and enjoyed the breeze and the fleeting sensation that this place was ours.
While Catalina is rife with luxury hotels and restaurants serving good wine, the extravagance of 233 Beacon is exceptional, said Earl, because of how cumbersome it is to bring anything to the island. Every mid-century trunk, every slab of fossil—(Oh yeah. There was a gargantuan square of granite on the wall inlaid with the beautiful skeletons of prehistoric creatures)—has to come special order by boat. The people on the island must consider the practical logistics of being isolated out in the open, too: in addition to health insurance, many Islanders carry helicopter insurance in case of a medical emergency that would require a lift to town.
Most people don't buy in Catalina because they're looking for opulence beyond their wildest dreams. They buy because they want a piece of their own past, said Kelly: "My clients are usually people who came here to visit their grandparents as kids, or maybe they met their spouse here."
Once again, I walked down that sugary stretch of Crescent Avenue. It was time to catch my boat. The same chain of scents has played out on this street, amid the t-shirt shops and tacky restaurants, since I was a barefoot, sun-blistered kid There was Big Olaf's ice cream, with its piped out waffle cones; there was Lloyd's Candy with its hypnotically spinning taffy and warm vanilla breeze; there was the sweet greasy waft of Picnic Fry; and then there was my port to back home.
There was a man behind me in line for the boat ride to Los Angeles who had been in Avalon for his birthday trip. A stranger asked him whether he'd had a good time. "Oh, yeah. I've been dying for a buffalo burger since the last time I was here, 25 years ago. This place is exactly the same." The hour struck on the clock at the fun pier. Different people paddled by on the same rented boards. —Tess Barker, @tesstifybarker