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In Islands Apart, writer Ken McAlpine retreats offshore for a Thoreauvian (and thorough) examination of man and nature.


“NO MAN IS AN ISLAND,” PENNED THE BRITISH POET JOHN DONNE. With respect to Mr. Donne, being intrinsically linked to all humanity is all well and good, but in these lightning-fast times, when our technological links leave us with no degree of separation, everyone needs a break from the digital din -- and each other -- every once in a while.

Award-winning travel writer Ken McAlpine (a frequent contributor to American Way) wasn’t trying to completely escape humanity for his poignant new book, Islands Apart: A Year on the Edge of Civilization (Trumpeter, $15). If he had been, he would have pitched his tent somewhere far more remote than Channel Islands National Park; its five islands are popular day-trip destinations for the four million residents of Los Angeles, which lies a mere 70 miles away. As McAlpine explains in the book, he spent a week camping solo on each island, using the solitude of the islands “for reflection and for examining our busy world and our place in it.”

In his resulting work, McAlpine takes a page from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a book that he carried a copy of, tucked into his overstuffed backpack, for company during his time on the islands. Now, he takes us with him on his journey, as well, using his unerring attention to detail to eloquently convey the islands’ sounds -- the “honking hordes” of pinnipeds off San Miguel Island, the “distasteful self-congratulatory howl” of the wind on Anacapa Island, and the occasional “vacuum silence that causes the skin to prickle, as if something might be sneaking up behind you.”

McAlpine proves a humorous and humble guide whose initial anxiety about being totally alone transforms into unfettered delight about his unscheduled days. “There is this illicit joy, like you’re getting away with something,” he tells us. “To do nothing is to accomplish much. It is a skill that is disappearing.”

McAlpine is regretfully aware that no island is an island anymore, either, as man’s reach has extended to them and has even pushed the Channel Islands’ endangered species, like the Torrey pine and the island fox, closer and closer to the edge of extinction. Yet he finds inspiration out there on the edge. “Islands are tough,” McAlpine says. “They persevere. They’re patient. They make the best of what they have. And they do bounce back. If that’s not a hopeful example for us, I don’t know what is.”

While most narratives may stop at the water’s edge, McAlpine takes his contemplation of our busy world further, to some unexpected places back on the mainland. He eats lunch with the homeless in Beverly Hills and shadows a panhandler pirate on Hollywood Boulevard. He reasons that they’re clinging precariously to their place in this world too. And their experiences -- poverty, despair, hope -- are wonders that are as timeless, telling, and inspiring as the natural ones McAlpine encountered offshore.