So the idea was this: Six days with my wife on an uninhabited, mostly unpowered Bahamian island.
My first thought? Alcatraz is an island too.
For reasons I can’t fully explain, I experience free time as a kind of a provocation, and a week by the ocean, with all of the lying on beach chairs and staring at turquoise waters, has always struck me as less an escape than a kind of feckless surrender. Add to that a chronic need to both feed and be fed by the so-called digital grid—the e-mail, the Twitter, the RSS feeds—and it becomes clear that distraction is my distraction. The last time I got on an airplane without a laptop, there were no laptops.
No more than a small rise of volcanic rock, shells, and sand lying all by its lonesome off Long Island in the Bahamas, Little Deadman’s Cay would seem well cast either as a paradise or prison with palm trees. It’s not easy to get to—you fly to Nassau and then take a prop plane for 165 more miles to Long Island, at which point you take a five-minute boat ride to this nine-and-a-half-acre private island that rents by the week.
Once there, there would be no daily list of activities, sightseeing trips to knock out, television, or business centers I might use to “check in” at work. Instead, just a solar-powered house, two small beaches, and a few walking paths measured in feet, not miles. There was only one thing on the island that might interrupt the séance of serenity and relaxation. Me.
When we arrived on Long Island, Noel, one of the nicest people on an island that has its share, pulled up in a salt-encrusted truck to pick Jill and me up. We had been told that we could buy provisions there, and we ended up in a grocery store that felt somewhat bereft. Seeing the limited choices, I went feral, grabbing dented cans of unknown provenance—surely this hominy will come in handy!—and pulling a steak black with freezer burn from a cooler. My wife gave me a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look and grabbed some frozen shrimp instead. We piled the groceries into the bottom of the boat and took a ride that was just a mile—but might as well have been 30—across water that never got more than 3 feet deep, out to the little island in the distance.
Walking up a path past a welcome sign painted on old buoys, I surveyed the available diversionary assets: a modest house with three bedrooms, a dock, an iffy boat, a few beach chairs, a deck, and very little indication that there were any other people on the planet. After Noel and the boat pulled away, the fading of the sound of its motor left behind a suddenly loud silence. I busied myself putting away food, inspecting the systems that would provide us with light and water, and doing an inventory on the available technology. There were puzzles, ancient board games, and some old swimming fins.
But it had been a long commute—a day and a half, four flights, and a boat ride—so I grabbed a book and headed for a canopy just off a beach that belonged to only us. Jill came down, too, and between marveling at the beach and our good fortune, we took lazy swims in the Atlantic. Once the sun started to set, we headed up to the house to watch it from there, and it was a doozy.
Dinner presented the first challenge. The barbecue was an apparatus I had never seen—imagine a small flying saucer sitting atop a pole—and I’d planned to make pork chops glazed with herbs, local lemons, and a bit of honey. The charcoal started incredibly slowly and put off a very indifferent heat. As I watched the cooking time expanding into hours, not minutes, I became frantic. But the alternatives—starting over or taking a creaky boat to God knows where—brought me back to the present moment. Then it occurred to me: I am waiting for a slow fire to slowly cook these pork chops. I have no place to be, and the boat anchored offshore sits low because its bottom is filled with water. What’s the hurry, really?
As I sat on the deck nursing a book while the fire cooked our dinner, the photovoltaic lights on the plastic tables on the patio winked on with meager yet thrillingly unexpected rays of light. For the next week, this would be one of the major events of each day.
Our second day was powered by vestigial mainland antic-ness that would fade with each day. I walked from one end of the island to the other, which took about, um, seven minutes, and that long only because of the thicket of mangrove that hemmed in the paths. The shells and sharp rocks that hosted tenacious, weird little flowering plants gave way to sand at the northern tip, which framed a view of the next island over; it looked (almost) shallow enough to commute on foot.
But all paths and common sense led back to our little beach, a short walk from the house on the western side of the island. It was a peach, shallow and sandy until 50 yards out in the water, and then the bottom dropped down a bit. There may be better beaches for body surfing, but this was on the very high end of swimming and wading spots. We alternated between the cabana and the water, sometimes plopping on the beach a bit until we got too hot.
These are the things I carried: an iPad jammed with various kinds of media, enough batteries to stock a Wal-Mart, a BlackBerry, a bunch of DVDs, 7,000 songs on my iPod, and a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil.
These are the things I needed: my wife.
Had I been on Little Deadman’s Cay by myself, I would have gone mad fairly quickly and begun speaking to coconuts, or at least banging them together to hear some noise beyond my own breathing. On this trip, Jill was the necessary luxury.
Four weeks after first meeting, we impulsively took a road trip from Minneapolis to Taos, N.M., for some skiing. You learn a lot about a person on a long trip: how game they are, whether they get hung up on misdemeanors, whether they are content to see what is around the next bend. On the way back, probably somewhere in Iowa, I decided I would marry her if she would have me.
We are remarkably different. She is well turned out, while I have been known to use a kitchen sponge to gussy up my pants for work. She made sure that she brought a case of the local beer and a bottle of Patrón tequila. I tend to end up in handcuffs when I drink, so I never touch the stuff. She sees a hot day on the beach as a glory; I see it as a kind of open-air microwave. She works to live. I live to work.
Jill was content with simply becoming part of the island’s landscape, while I spent far more time in the kitchen than was necessary and busied myself examining every aspect of the house and island. In reading the thick manual on the house that had accrued over the years, I read about Billy Boy, a Bahamian bananaquit bird that visited the house. I spent an hour calling his name un-self-consciously—who was there to hear me cooing?—and spreading sugar around that mostly summoned ants. Just about the time I began to lose interest, he became brave enough to land right in front of me. We became friends, or at least I felt the love. Billy Boy was both a diversion and a fellow traveler. I beckoned him daily with a variety of comestibles, although sugar worked best.
The lack of larger concerns meant I took an extreme interest in the quotidian aspects of life. Making a decent cup of Cuban coffee with the French roast we brought, some Parmalat, and a paper towel that served as a filter didn’t make me crafty or superior; it made me glad for the cup of coffee and made me taste all its corners.
It was sad that we had only a desultory array of groceries to work with, but each night I would spend hours conjuring magic from a limited universe of ingredients. Doritos are not an intrinsically handsome food, but when paired with a local avocado that took days to ripen, they became transcendent.
There were trials. As my friend John always says, “If you want to live in paradise, you’re going to have to learn to share it with a few critters.” A busy group of sand wasps decided to build a nest in our cabana, and I watched with mild interest until they started defending their new home. The gas-powered refrigerator never really worked (though the freezer did).
I did read a few books—something that has been lost in the fabric of my other life—but only at night. During the day they just felt too heavy to haul around. So what if I finished only two.
I’d walk the flats, noting the blue depressions in the sand where the bonefish had been feeding on crab, but never managing to see the flash of the fish themselves. On one of my walks through the scrub that crawled across most of the island, I locked eyes with one of the tiny lizards that were everywhere. We had a big old stare-down contest. He won, but I gave it my all.
After four days, I had to take the boat to Long Island to buy more supplies, but although the people there were hilariously friendly and all seemed to share the same last name (Cartwright), I could not wait to get back to a place where there were no cars.
As someone who shares New York City with a lot of other humans during the day, I didn’t really anticipate how luxurious it would feel to see no one. The beach at Cancún is great and all, but not having to spend your vacation asking for permission, directions, or help is a freedom that cannot be underestimated. One of the great joys of Little Deadman’s Cay was that there were no local rituals or folkways to observe, no minders to look after.
With just the two of us, the house and the island became characters, engaging us with their own rituals. When the photovoltaic lights on the deck came on, we knew the last bits of sun were about to disappear, which would be followed by a huge black moth that dropped in on the patio every night for a look. The direction of the breeze told us which room to sleep in, and the expanse of the sky would convey whether the rain was just passing over or would be hanging around for a bit.
When we were packing to leave, I looked at the plastic bag of gadgets and gewgaws that I had brought, still sealed by a twist tie. When we got back to the world, they would all jump to life with their whirring and downloading, reconstructing and reiterating all I had missed. As we took the boat back to the mainland, I thought about what life would be like if I chucked them overboard.
I resisted the urge, but when the time came and they roared to life, I boycotted for an hour or two. I knew without looking that the world had gotten along just fine without me.
©2010 by The New York Times Co.
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