by Erik McKinney
Taking a trip of a lifetime
“I think Catalina”: Jerry, Saturday, August 17th, 9:45 p.m. Funny? Yes. Drunk? Yes. Truthful? Incredibly. Contrary to popular and geographical belief, Catalina is not an island 26 miles off the coast of Southern California. Catalina is a state of mind, body and soul that very few places on this earth can touch.
Catalina is friends, laughter and fun. Catalina is perfect. I think Catalina. Catalina is a busy man’s goldmine, a lazy man’s heaven, and a fisherman’s dream. Catalina can set your world right without you having to leave a beach chair. Catalina is perfect. I think Catalina. Of course, a place is only as good as the people there with you and Catalina is no exception. If you want a good time, go with good company. However, this is not a historical description of this island and I am getting ahead of myself. It’s been a while, but the memories are still fresh.
Five years ago, my friend Brandon asked me if I wanted to go camping with him, his brother, and his mom to Catalina for a week with a group of people who go every year. Brandon and his family had never been before either but they had been invited this year and were now extending an invitation to me. I knew nothing about Catalina, knew absolutely none of the other people who would be going, and had no idea whatsoever what I would do when I got there, so naturally I accepted the invitation. Within a day I started to worry about the things I knew nothing about. What if I didn’t fit in with these people? What if I didn’t like being there? What if we ran out of food? (Okay, so the last one wasn’t one of my major concerns, but still). Eventually the time came to leave for the island.
When we first arrived at the dock to leave for Catalina, I took a look around at the people that I’d be going with, that had been going for years and years, and realized that I was the spring training rookie to their Cal Ripken Junior. I was Bank One Ballpark to their Yankee Stadium. These people had a bond, a trust, and an understanding that I couldn’t and wouldn’t possibly understand. I didn’t have any time to think anything of it at first because we had to load up the boat and depart.
A daunting task awaits
There were probably thirty-five to forty people in the group with somewhere over one hundred different things to carry to the boat. After some thinking time on the boat, I decided that I would deal with the people second and the island first. I had never even been on any type of island before so when Catalina came bounding in from under the fog, I imagine I felt somewhat like Dr. Grant when he first sees the brontosaurus. The only difference being that my experience was real and his was in a movie, and possibly the fact that his experience was a little more life-altering than mine, but there it stood and I was minutes away.
We arrived at the dock and the first thing that I wanted to do was explore. But those dreams were crushed when I saw everyone lining up to unload all of the bags, boxes, and coolers from the boat. I had no idea which way the campsite was or how far we would have to carry these mountains of bags that had piled up a short way from the dock. Much to my relief, a truck backed up to them and I saw that we were to load the bags into it. When that was all done, I finally had a moment to look around and take in the scenery. The first thing I saw was a giant hill with a path leading up it to my left. It was at that moment that it all clicked. The campsite was up this hill and we couldn’t carry the bags to the site because I’m sure there are some sort of child labor laws against it. I’m also quite sure that it is against the law to make people walk up such a tremendous hill without the aid of some sort of electronic device (i.e. escalator, ski lift, rocket cars), but being new to this, I decided to keep my mouth shut. I would learn later that this hill was called “Agony Hill” by the group that I was joining. Without the truck carrying the bags, I’m thinking the name would be changed to “Hernia Hill.”
After the long trek up the hill and a reminder to myself to bring an IV setup for fluids if I was invited back the next year, we reached the campsite and there I was introduced to my fellow campers. I figured that I could stay on the outside and just be there as Brandon’s friend, the Tonto to his Lone Ranger, and without a doubt, the paramedic to his Evil Knievel.
An eclectic bunch entices Erik to return
The people I was with seemed nice enough and I could see that they very much enjoyed the time spent on Catalina together.
The first person that I was introduced to was Joey. He doesn’t want me to use his full name but I think the best way to describe him would be “King Catalina.” He started this trip years back and keeps it going strong to this day. When Joey talks, people listen. When Joey fishes, people watch. And when Joey dances, people start throwing money around. People don’t come any more laid back, honest, and easy to like than “the King.” How and when I was introduced to all the others is not important, especially since I can’t remember exactly, but I could tell that this was shaping up to be the most eclectic group of people I had ever been associated with. I saw that each member brought a different dynamic and when it was all put together, they formed something that I knew I would like to be a part of. They had a mystique about them, so dysfunctional and yet so functional. That first year I was there, I’m not sure if it was fear or awe that kept me feeling somewhat set apart from the main group of people. I felt like it was their trip and I just wanted to do what I could to not get in the way. This feeling of separation not only applied to the people, but to the island as well. I had been introduced to Catalina, but I knew there was no possible way I could truly experience the depth and complexities of it in the few days I had there. I had to go back. The sweet siren song of the island had taken hold of me.
It’s been five years since then and the call of Catalina still echoes in my brain. Each year since that first trip I feel as if I can make a stronger case for it being our trip, instead of their trip with a side of Erik. The summer was dragging on and July mercifully rolled into August, which meant that Catalina was approaching. I only hoped that this year’s trip could continue that trend.
Planning and sacrifice precedes the departure
My eyes slowly open and I find myself looking across the plane of the floor at a clock on the VCR. As the blurry numbers come into focus I can make out 3:30. I hope that’s just evidence of when the power went out the night before but as I reach for my glasses I realize the truth. It’s better than I hoped for. Donna and Todd, Brandon’s mom and brother, are already awake and in the kitchen taking food items out of the refrigerator and packing up one of the two coolers we are taking with us this year. The questions that would be normally swimming through my head had this been any other day—Why am I sleeping in a living room? Does 3:30 a.m. really exist? and, Why is food being discussed and handled without me being involved?—are replaced by the same excitement a child has on Christmas morning.
I slowly push myself up from the floor to get ready for the only thing that could possibly arouse me from a deep sleep at this god-awful time in the morning: the trip to Catalina. I retire to the bathroom to make myself as pretty as possible, with as much effort as I’m ready to exert at 3:30 in the morning. Thirty seconds later, I’m out of the bathroom and helping with the food. We have two coolers filled with food and drinks, and along with the two tents, we have bags of clothes for all of us, fishing poles for Todd and me, and, of course, my beach chair; the car is practically exploding. We may as well just take off all the mirrors for all the good they are going to do on the drive. The three of us stand and contemplate how there had been an extra person and much less space the first four years. Brandon is not coming with us today and will meet us in Catalina tomorrow. As much as we’d like him to be with us for the first day, nobody wants to have to jog alongside the car while carrying their bags, so we are thankful that he’s going to be a day late.
As of 4:00 Wednesday morning, we are off to San Pedro to board the boat that will take us to Catalina. Donna is driving and I’m riding shotgun with the excitement still flowing through my veins. If this was a heavyweight fight, through the first couple rounds Tired has been waiting back as Excitement has snuck a couple jabs in to stun him. I put in a VH-1 greatest hits CD that I made and “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” comes on first. Donna is not a Stones fan. Next song: Aretha Franklin. I make it all the way through and after a brief pause I can hear the beginning of “Stairway to Heaven.” Are you kidding? This is Tired’s entry music. How can they play this during the fight? Excitement is crying like a baby and Tired is just pounding away. I’m asleep less than twenty seconds into the song. Worst fight since Tyson-Lewis.
Hunger: a worthy adversary
I wake up for the last five minutes of the drive. We pull up to the curb and start unloading the bags. It’s only 6:30, so we still have an hour until the boat leaves for Catalina. I carry my bag, tent, and chair over to the terminal and go back to the curb looking for other bags. I am incredibly confused to find no other bags waiting for me there. It’s still early in the morning so it takes me a while to realize that we don’t have the mountain of bags this year because it’s only the three of us.
The actual boat ride over to Catalina is a blur as I’m awake for ten out of the ninety minutes. However, I’m awake long enough to make a wager with Donna over who and what will be waiting for us at the dock. We both go with the who being Joey; while she guesses that he’ll be there with a lei, I take a risk and venture a guess at a breakfast burrito. I don’t know what’s making the bet, my stomach or my brain, but right now I’m ready to take suggestions from both of them. I’ve been awake for over four hours. Normally, the sun would be starting to set, but instead, I haven’t even had breakfast yet.
We step off the boat and directly into the sight of the welcoming committee. Sure enough, it consists of a single solitary member: Joey.
He’s dragging a baggage cart behind him for us to load up with our stuff. It’s not a breakfast burrito, or even a lei for that matter, but I’m in my summer home, about to be reunited with my summer family. At this point, only a breakfast burrito could make life any better. Todd and I get the truck loaded up and do a quick energy check to see if we have enough to get us up “Agony Hill” this early in the morning. We agree that it has to be done at some point and that now’s as good a time as any, so we make a run at it. It’s a lot steeper than I remember. I mutter something about never doing this again but who am I kidding? This is a small price to pay. We come down the back of the hill and quicken our pace, knowing the campsite is just around the next bend. I’m over the last ditch in the road and out from behind some trees, plunging into the campsite. I’m Shoeless Joe Jackson stepping into my own Field of Dreams. Everything is how I remember it: the smell of the dirt, the feel of the breeze, the sound of the ocean.
The labor is great, but the rewards are priceless
I set down my beach chair and am instantly reunited with people I haven’t seen in a year, sometimes two. During that time, nothing has been lost. My Catalina family shares a bond. We are not of the same blood, we don’t all go to church, we don’t even live in the same city, but we all think Catalina. And that is perfect.
Erik McKinney is a Creative Writing major in his Junior year at USC. His favorite animal is the okapi. He wants his writing to be your anti-drug.