Column: Remembering a decade of Rockin’ a Hard Place

Here’s a reminder of some of the elements of Rock life I have written about.

As I sat down to write this latest edition of my column, it dawned on me that I have been rockin’ this hard place in this format for the last ten years. The first column appeared in August 2013 in the now gone but never forgotten Whidbey Examiner and then transferred to the News-Times and The Record in March 2017.

As I reflected on that, I realized how much I have always enjoyed writing big and small stuff about the places I live. When I was 8 years old, I hand-wrote a neighborhood newsletter and got five cents a copy. From there, I went on to almost 20 years writing about life in California for the Los Angeles Times. After I retired to our Rock 14 years ago and started studying the life and customs here on Whidbey, I decided there was a lot to write about — far more than the big-headline news you find elsewhere in this paper.

Last week, I looked through the more than 100 columns, and here’s a reminder of some of the elements of Rock life I have written about.

1. Rock dwellers are stiff-necked and have very strong opinions. But we speak quietly in what I call muted Rock-speak. Unlike in America, where there is a lot of yelling, we argue in much lower volume. One rarely hears elevated arguing except maybe about the weather and jet noise. There was some screaming at school board and town council meetings a while back but that seems thankfully to have become muted.

2. I really enjoy poking fun at Oak Harbor, the “big city” on the Rock. I have called it “Burger ’n Friesville,” for reasons obvious to everyone. I have called it a town in search of a personality and a place you drive through on the way to some place else. It makes odd decisions such as not really wanting a modern giant sculpture by a famous artist even when it’s given for free. And it authorized yet another car wash and fast food joint on the busiest, most visible street corner in town. Go figure.

3. Tribalism on the Rock has been a favorite subject for me. I’ve said we have at least six “tribes” that are fiercely loyal to the spot where they live: Clinton, Langley, Freeland, Greenbank, Coupeville and Oak Harbor. And each tribe doesn’t much care for the spots where the other tribes live, and they go out of their way to avoid them. A Langley friend would rather take the ferry and shop at Lowe’s in Lynnwood that drive “up island” to Home Depot in cluttered, noisy, MAGA-red Oak Harbor. And an Oak Harbor friend rarely sets foot in Langley because he isn’t sure the tribe there supports the Constitution.

4. I was amazed when I learned about Ah Soot, an immigrant from China, whose remains are buried at Coupeville’s Sunnyside Cemetery in a corner of the LeSourd family plot, for whom he worked for 30 years. It’s a story of warm welcome for an immigrant at a time when others on Ebey’s Prairie were involved in an ugly, racist, very public drive to expel all Chinese workers. For decades, Ah Soot was the only non-caucasian buried at Sunnyside, whose policy was adamantly whites-only. He’s there because the LeSourds demanded that he be placed with them.

5. In March 2021, I wrote about taking Island Transit buses from Oak Harbor to the Clinton ferry dock, getting off for brief visits in Coupeville, the Greenbank Farm, South Whidbey State Park, Freeland (which I dubbed Whidbey’s Wall Street because there’s a bank on every corner), Bayview and Langley. It was a treat to see the Rock so close up with someone else driving. It costs nothing and I highly recommend it.

6. The Rock is a foodie destination. It seems everyone here has a garden; I never had one until I retired here but I do now, and I have even learned how to can vegetables. The hordes of tourists who descend upon us are increasingly attracted by great restaurants, farmers markets and farm stands. I wrote how farmer Georgie Smith promoted the grown-on-Whidbey concept by delivering her Ebey’s Prairie vegetables to dozens of Seattle-area restaurants. I wrote how Beth Kuchynka found great success at the bayleaf in tiny Coupeville by offering fine wines and gourmet food items that attracted both locals and visitors. I wrote how busy chef and bread maker Tyler Hansen somehow found time to lease an acre of farmland so he could grow all the vegetables he served at the Oystercatcher restaurant. And I wrote about Rockwells, those tasty red-and-white beans that seem to grow only on Central Whidbey and are named for a 19th century prairie pioneer, Elijah Rockwell.

7. In winter months, I wrote that Rock dwellers use a lot of words that start with “d” to describe the gloomy weather: dark, dank, dreary, dour, drizzly and depressing. And I said that we have found ways to rescue ourselves from the “d’s” with fleece, flannel, a mountain of reading material and lots of soup.

8. I wrote that romance on the Rock can be charming and quiet. A long-married couple is eating lunch; she has Penn Cove mussels and he has broiled salmon. They say almost nothing until he leans over and looks at her plate. “Mussels any good? May want to try one.” She lifts a mussel with her fork and places it on his plate. “Salmon’s good, too.” He takes a piece and places it on her plate. They leave together, clutching a box with leftover mussels and salmon, with his arm gently on her back.

9. I have enjoyed getting to know and write about some wonderful people who live on the Rock, both arrivals from America and natives. Sarah Richards is a former telephone line installer in Denver who became an entrepreneur with the Lavender Wind farm and retail store. Bruce Eckholm is a tech executive from California who gave it up to become a beekeeper and gentleman farmer on Central Whidbey. Doug Kroon is a native Rock dweller who grew up in the antique military quarters at Camp Casey and then developed the tastiest cinnamon roll on the island while operating the Knead & Feed restaurant in Coupeville. Marty Robinett is a Navy brat who’s been here since childhood and became Coupeville’s much-loved downtown auto mechanic in a shop built in 1930 as the island’s first Pontiac dealership. Jan and Marshall Bronson spent most their lives all over the world before settling in Coupeville to run a bed-and-breakfast. And Ken Hofkamp is a native who took over the Prairie Center Market in Coupeville in 1972 and owned it for 50 years.

I could go on and on. But now I need to think about subjects for future columns for, hopefully, another ten years.

Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and lives on Central Whidbey.