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  • Islands Apart
  • Written by Ken McAlpine
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9781590305300
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Islands Apart

A Year on the Edge of Civilization

Written by Ken McAlpineAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ken McAlpine

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Author Ken McAlpine stands in his front yard one night in Ventura, California, trying to see the stars. His view is diminished by light pollution, making it hard to see much of anything in the sky. Our fast-paced, technologically advanced society, he concludes, is not conducive to stargazing or soul-searching. Taking a page from Thoreau's Walden, he decides to get away from the clamor of everyday life, journeying alone through California's Channel Islands National Park. There, he imagines, he might be able to "breathe slowly and think clearly, to examine how we live and what we live for."

In between his week-long solo trips through these pristine islands, McAlpine reaches out to try to better understand his fellow man: he eats lunch with the homeless in Beverly Hills, sits in the desert with a 98-year-old Benedictine monk, and befriends a sidewalk celebrity impersonator in Hollywood. What he discovers about himself and the world we live in will inspire anyone who wishes they had the time to slow down and notice the wonders of nature and humanity.


I visited the Channel Islands in no particular order, for they all offer solitude and so, in these chaotic times, a chance to see things more clearly. It’s true, some of the islands offer more opportunity for quiet reflection than others. Mostly, this is a matter of distance. Anacapa Island, only eleven miles off the southern California mainland, is the most visited. (Americans like efficiency: Anacapa can be wrapped up in half a day; boat out, traipse about the island, and be home in time for Oprah.)
But as the Channel Islands edge farther into the Pacific, the degree of convenience falls off and, not surprisingly, so does the number of visitors. Fog-bound, wind-swept, and weather-scoured, Santa Rosa’s remote attitude whispered alluringly. It seemed as good a place as any to start reflecting.
And so, on a sunny April morning, Dwight Willey, captain of the National Park Service’s hundred-foot Ocean Ranger, stood inside the cabin, giving a safety talk before the vessel left Ventura Harbor.
“Big swell today,” said Dwight. He had the easy smile of an accomplished seaman, or someone quite comfortable with the prospect of a long swim. “Make sure you hang on to something when you’re moving around the boat. If you’re feeling a little under the weather, grab a trash can, don’t go to the rail.” Dwight held up a life vest. “Everybody seen these before?” Just as quickly, he stashed it away. “Hope you never have to see them again.”
Finished with his briefing, Dwight announced, “Just talked to Earl out there. He said it’s bikini weather.”
Mark Senning, Santa Rosa’s head ranger, nodded to Dwight, but he smiled at me. “The weather’s good now, but things change fast out there,” Mark said. “If you’d gone out last week it would have been, well I won’t say miserable, but it would have been challenging for you. It was the way Santa Rosa is typically in the springtime. It blows like hell.”
I had neglected to pack a bikini, but other than that I felt reasonably prepared. I had garnered much of my information from Channel Island National Park’s very own website.
From across the table, Mark smiled again.
“People can visit the website, they can read all the materials, but they still don’t understand what they’re getting into,” he said.


“McAlpine celebrates and struggles with the gifts of silence and solitude.  The results are careful, poetic, and often funny observations.”—Virtuoso Life

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