Catalina – Avalon In Winter

The season on Santa Catalina Island is from June to September. Then the hotels, the rooming houses, the tents on the camp grounds and the private cottages are overflowing with pleasure-seeking humanity, who sometimes crowd the capacity of the island’s one little town to such a degree that the evening boat from San Pedro is held over-night to give shelter to people unable to secure a roof over their heads on shore. So we made our first visit to Santa Catalina in winter.

To speak of winter on Santa Catalina, however, is a concession to the nomenclature of the almanac, for in and about Avalon, which to the transient visitor is the whole island, one rarely sees the thermometer below forty, and only so low as that on sunless stormy mornings, or in the chill hours between midnight and dawn. To the hilltops of the inland, Jack Frost comes occasionally during January and February, but he is shy of descending to the beach, sheltered as it is on three sides by the lofty hills. In fact the weather recorders have worked it out that the mean winter temperature of Avalon averages but eleven. degrees Fahrenheit be-low that of summer. The winter, in short, is merely summer over again with a few cool rains and fogs, and rarely a high wind thrown in. When New York is icebound and the Middle West lies under five feet of snow, here in Avalon the sweet alyssum blooms wild on the hillsides; down in “Uncle Johnnie’s” park and over by the golf links, the malva-rosa sets its pretty buds and spreads its bright petals; in cottage gardens, geraniums, mignonette, yellow oxalis and many-hued nasturtiums, regardless of the calendar, flower untiringly; and old residents show with pride tomato vines many years old, as high as the roof, untouched by frost.

A feature of the Santa Catalina climate that al-ways surprises the winter visitor, who naturally expects to find an atmosphere of greater moisture on an island than upon the mainland, is the comparative absence of dampness. The marked chill that comes into the evening air of the California coast region as soon as the sun approaches its setting, making one hurry into one’s wraps, is noticeably lacking at Avalon. The temperature does fall, of course, but the winter night has all the balminess of those occasional cool, summer nights of the East that follow upon a west wind devoid of humidity. For outdoor sleeping, such nights are among the pleasantest in the world.

There being no crowd in winter, except during the few midday hours when the steamer from the mainland is in with her load of day excursionists, the visitor with leisure has the pick of the island’s accommodations. Even the haughty hotel proprietors condescend now to notice you and are your faithful and obliged servants to command at a substantial discount from summer rates. Mrs. Brown, the baker’s wife, has furnished cottages to rent, “very reasonable,” as her modest sign written in violet ink on a sheet of note paper tacked up in the post office, informs the public. So has Abalone Jack’s widow, in whose matronly care several of the summer cottagers have left their keys and instructions to let no respectable inquirer for lodgings escape. Mrs. Robinson, too–her husband conducts a rival bake-shop to Mr. Brown, and she her-self is a motherly body with the warm heart and racy speech that mark the daughters of Erin—Mrs. Robinson, too, has usually a darlin’ little furnished flat to let in her house, with the privilege of using her own piano and ‘parlor of an evening, if you should be a bit lonely.

Indeed if one wants to be quite independent and at the same time live in the most economical way, there is no better plan than to rent a small, furnished cottage or a room or two in one of the many houses fitted up for light housekeeping. The latter are usually arranged in suites of two or three rooms, each suite with its little porch and bit of view, one of the rooms being fitted up for a combined kitchen and dining-room, with a gasoline stove for cooking, and running water at the door.

We spent half a day walking up one hilly street and down another, finding “To Let” signs on all sorts of little camps and bungalows with queer names that must have taxed the inventive humor of their owners to the snapping point—”Rest-a-bit,”

“Munnysunk,” “Peek Inn,” “Never Inn,” and the like. Finally we decided upon a two-storied cottage perched upon a hill back of Avalon so steep of approach that we felt sure that none but the soundest in heart and the most determined in will would ever visit us. We began climbing steps as soon as we were within hailing distance of the place. The firsts, two flights brought us to the level of the gar-den path; two more flights delivered us, well winded, on the little porch at the front door. To the southward, over the tops of the eucalyptus grove in which many of the summer camps of Avalon are embowered, rose the oak-dotted hills, green that January day as ever an emerald was; to the east-ward, at our feet, the roofs of the little town with tree-tops and aspiring vines pushing up masses of verdure and flowers between the buildings, and farther out, the crescent bay of Avalon, sparkling in the sun and dotted with little craft of varied sorts; and as our delighted gaze wandered still farther eastward across the white-capped waters, lo, above the fogline of the mainland shore, the heavenly, snow-capped crest of the Sierra Madre and its out-lying peaks from sixty to a hundred miles away—”Old Baldy,” “Grayback,” San Jacinto—a view which in many of its aspects brought to mind the Bay of Naples.

Within the cottage was a living-room, half windows, as befitted so lovely an outlook, with a snug little fire-place in one corner, for fires of eucalyptus-bark on snappy mornings and evenings; and there were two bedrooms, a little kitchen with a sink, a dining-room and a bathroom; upstairs were two more bedrooms and a roofed porch open on three sides to the winds of heaven, where we vowed, if the place became ours, we should spread our mat-tress and sleep, steeped in that softest of night airs in which the tender warmth of the winter sun’s last beams seemed to linger until he rose again. Them was a little, neglected, precipitous garden, plunging down to the neighboring houses whose roofs were far below us; a swarm of flaming geraniums were in riotous bloom there, and the first modest wild flowers of the year were peeping out from the green grass.

“It is just what we want and what we’ve dreamed of,” we confessed to each other sotto voce, “but of course we can never pay the price.”

The agent eyed us anxiously, as we screwed our faces into Gradgrind hardness and indifferently asked the rate. Then he faltered out—he was a shrinking kind of old man, as though used to being browbeaten —-

“I’ll have to charge you fifteen dollars a month for it. The owner instructed me not to take a cent less. You see, it has seven rooms and a bath, and in summer it would fetch sixty, easy. Do you think maybe you could pay fifteen?”

For an answer we paid down a month’s rent in advance, and the old man departed promising to bring us some clean linen, and a tea-kettle lid which was lacking. Then sitting down, in the pleasant winter sunshine, in the midst of all that glory of green cañon-side and blue sky and flashing sea and dreamy, distant mountains, we estimated ways and means.

That averaged somewhat less than $1.20 per day for each of us, with all the comforts of home and the most beautiful outlook on an island whose climate has no superior on the Lord’s lovely earth. One cramped little room at the hotel, with board, would have cost us even at the monthly rate more than twice as much. To be sure, our housekeeping plan was based on our doing our own cooking. But then, as we pharisaically remarked to each other, that meant better cooking; and we could always have the things we liked the way we liked. Besides we had room enough to give afternoon teas to all Avalon, and keep a friend overnight.

“We’ll stay three months!” we cried rapturously, and we did.

The steamer arrives from the mainland but once a day in winter, bringing the mail, the milk, the fresh vegetables, and the daily crowd of sightseers, and its coming is what the arrival of the daily stage is to a backwoods village. It is due a half-hour after noon, and as the hour draws near, a feeling of expectation and suspense begins to settle upon Avalon. The excursion launches from Moonstone Beach and Seal Rocks come puffing in, and the fishermen who went out at dawn return with their catches and stories of the big ones that got away—the gulls screaming and flapping along in the wake of the boats. The nurses with the babies and children straggle in with treasure from the beach and rocks—starfish and luckless, stranded jelly-fish, sometimes even a little octopus or a live abalone, and always strings of bladdery brown kelp and seaweeds and shells of divers sorts. The hotel runners and the men with boats to hire put a fresh stock of cards in their pockets, clear their throats and don natty little caps with the names of their establishments in gold lace lettering on the bands. The curio dealers add what jauntiness they may to their conglomerate stock of shells and pictures, kelp canes and bristling star-fish with a little dusting here and there; and knots of people gather along the side-walk and on the porches facing the bay, speculating on the extent of the passenger list as they watch with heightening interest the growth of the black speck far out at sea into the dark-hulled steamer with her white houses and glistening upper deck and the rail crowded with humanity. Then when she rounds Sugar Loaf and blows a hoarse salute, the big power-boats with glass bottoms push out to her, and men with megaphones stun the ear and dazzle the fancy with offers of their services to visit the submarine gardens, whose far-heralded glories probably bring more visitors to Avalon in winter than any other one thing, for the fishing is not then at its best. Here and there, little rowboats are darting close to the steamer as she reaches her pier, and boys in swimming attire are clamoring to the passengers to throw small coins into the sea, to be dived for and caught before they reach the bottom of the transparent water. Then as the gang plank is lowered, and the tide of passengers starts to flow to land, the band at the big hotel begins to play, the Japanese bell-boys stir about and button up their jackets, and every restaurant on the island front, from Delmonico’s to the Klondike wakes to ecstasy its gongs and triangles to attract the hungry.

From now on to three o’clock, when the steamer is to leave, is Avalon’s busy time of day. After that when the boat has taken on again her restless load and departed, the little town resumes its wonted placidity. There is just enough of human life on the beach promenade to engage your holiday mood comfortably—a few elderly ladies in golf caps with cameras or a botany book, a sprinkling of children, a portly old gentleman or two on the retired list, an occasional nervous-eyed man of business dropped here so recently by the steamer that his thoughts have obviously not yet arrived from the stock market. Then here are respectable citizens from the rural districts of the Middle West who have saved up for years for this the great trip of their lives, possible to them only in winter when things are quiet on the farm. Of course the ubiquitous British tourist is here, too, in tweeds and overgaiters and wonderful waistcoats. Gum-chewing California girls, bare-armed and bare-headed, swagger about, with their “fellows” smoking along-side; and at five o’clock the cholos straggle in from their labors on the roads, very foreign-looking in steeple-crowned straw hats pinched in at the top.

The sense of absolute removal from the storm and stress of the world’s mad race, enabling you to get your breath and renew your strength for your next sally into the world beyond the mountains, is what endears an Avalon winter to you. Hither as to that more famous Avalon whither King Arthur was borne to be healed of his wounds, comes many a business-buffeted pilgrim and is quite as effectually cured. Sitting on the beach as the evening shadows lengthen, the departing steamer long since swallowed up in the mainland mists; listening to the scolding of the gulls, and the barking of the seals ; watching the sun’s low beams light up to gold the sails of the ships bound up and down the coast and bathing in mysterious amethystine tints the far-off mountains, the visitor begins to feel the chains of care loosen their grip upon him, and to realize that some things about which he had been worrying himself sick are no affair of his at all. The knowledge that nothing can interfere with this novel sense of isolation from the world’s whirl until the steamer comes again tomorrow afternoon, sends a delicious thrill through his weary frame and he does not wonder that there are people who have come to Avalon to spend a day or two and have stayed six years—in fact, are there yet !