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Catalina is Not California

About 26 miles off the coast of Southern California, you can feel as if you are a thousand miles away from the United States, and you do not need a passport. (In fact, this island is still part of Los Angeles County and has a 323 area code or is it 213?). As I write this, there is a large horde of young men that have descended upon this magical mystery tour of an island for an annual trip we affectionately call, Catalina.

(Authors Note: Catalina makes you do funny things. Things you would never do elsewhere. To that end, I will be using fake names to protect the alternate identities that may be featured in this tale.)

The founding father of this annual trip is named Naveen. I am pretty sure he lives and dies for this trip and although on the island right now, is probably thinking about next years trip. He has chosen a profession that ensures he has the time of late June to mid July available so he can be on this trip. His tales on the island are numerous and infamous at the same time. I recently received a letter from the Catalina island tribunal asking for my vote to have his image plastered to the side of the bar wall. I diligently put my vote of “That crazy son of a bitch deserves his own campsite.” in a bottle, corked it, and set it off in the Chilean Pacific. This blog is dedicated to Naveen who has given so many of our friends and myself, an island in their hectic lives.

The Island

Catalina is shaped like a kidney bean and has the color of a kidney bean. There are only a few significant points of interest on this relatively small island.
  • First and foremost, there is Two Harbors. Situated in the middle of the kidney where the two sides are closest together. Although the name implies there are two harbors, which there technically are, only one is really utilized, the side protected from the fierce pacific ocean. The town of two harbors has only the essentials. A mini market to buy really expensive beer or two bits of charcoal or already melted ice cream. A restaurant which is always being worked by the same people you harassed the night before so it feels kind of good to have the final say. A bar with inside and outside drinking and dancing. Two houses and maybe 20 cabins used by the rotating workforce that keeps the island running. A palladium to hand out regatta prizes to your boat club. A volleyball court and a rocky and quickly slanting beach that always makes your volleyball wet and sandy so as to hurt your wrists. Finally, the campgrounds, which they have smartly placed about a kilometer away from town.
  • Second is Avalon. Avalon is where most people go to spend just a day or spend a night with your girlfriend making sure to spend all your money and making sure to feel like you are just a few blocks away from your favorite bar in Newport Beach. I vehemently disagree with anyone who wants to go there, unless they have a bicycle with them, and plan on riding the 20 miles to two harbors.
  • An airport, that has expensive food, and maybe one flight a month.
And thats it. So why do we keep going back?

The Preparation

We always reserve anywhere from one to three campsites. You are supposed to have no more than four people

Arriving into Town

per campsite. We arrive with 30 or more people always. This makes for an interesting arrival on the island when you are talking to the ranger who remembers you from last year. The trip is always supposed to cost less than $100 and that includes the boat ride there and back. This $100 gets you a campsite, boat, food, drink, and random supplies. It is never enough for four days. I like to pack light and here is what I (or someone) will bring:

  • A sleeping bag. Preferably one that can cover my head since I will have bread placed on top of me while sleeping which encourages a swath of seagulls to peck at me.
  • A knife. Rarely used and mostly just to wittle on a piece of wood while I zone out trying to figure out how the fuck I got back to the campsite last night.
  • One pair of “going out” jeans to be used in the evening.
  • A hooded sweater that will permanently smell like campfire and vomit and hot dogs.
  • Rainbow sandals. Probably the worst sandal for Catalina since they will collect water and dirt, making them treacherously slippery which is not what you want when you are trying to demonstrate your balance on a cliff edge.
  • A very very large kite. Mainly sail boats arrive here for a reason, its windy. A large traction kite that pulls you 50 meters with your feet firmly dug into the ground is a really cool thing.
  • Three pairs of underwear, but you will only use one pair.
  • One bottle of heavy booze. Yea Naveen buys booze, but you want to make sure you are prepared.
  • Snorkel gear. Can also be stolen from the rental shack, but you must return them.
  • A diving spear. Not to be used to capture Garabaldi, the state fish, and then lift it out of the water to show your buddy Creddo for all to see and reeve your $10,000 fine. Better to be used to launch into a wooden post in your campsite from about 10 centimeters. This will make your day a fantastic one as you dig it out with before mentioned knife while Creddo is freaking out.
  • A towel. Often forgotten by the novice Catalina-er. I recommend reading A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
  • Bocce balls. Heavy, but worth it. This game will waste many an hour and encourage many a sun burn on the beach.
  • Toiletries which are also rarely used.
  • The last few drops of underpowered sunscreen.
Notice I did not mention a tent, a must for any camping trip. No, I do not use a tent, and never will in Catalina. When there are 40 guys scattered around a 100 meter square area in sleeping bags, it can be quite comical. It is also an effective way to NOT appear like you are 40 guys squatting on two campsites for eight people. It has never rained in Catalina, never. It has a forcefield of magnetism that turns off cell phones, repels woman between the ages of 17 – 30, and stops rain.

The Arrival

The boat ride is usually really rough. There is not much to look at except the smog dome of Los Angeles slowly fading away in the distance and the occasional whale or dolphin siting. Drinks are unusually expensive and I enjoy this time to prepare mentally for the weekend to come with deep breathing and deep meditation. When you hear the motors drop in tempo, you know you have arrived. You can run to the front of the boat and see a

That peak was the start of extreme cacti jumping

magnificent white cliff. In reality, it is not magnificent because it is a giant rock that has been covered in bird shit. There has always been talk to swim to the rock, and know its majestic properties, but no one has ever done it. We have been told if you jump off the boat, you will be arrested. By who? No one really knows what jurisdiction Catalina falls under. The boat arrives and the people disembark. Our pile of things will be about four meters high and 10 meters wide and require five sherpas to help us load the truck. When a boat arrives in Catalina, it is greeted by the analyzing stares of the people who have already arrived. Catalina is very contained and isolated, like a Bio Dome. You know what comes in, and you know what goes out. Although we would like to think so, we do not go unnoticed. The casual traveller to Catalina can sit down at the bar and easily converse with the locals. It wont be too long before they start hearing stories of us. I have heard these stories first hand when I was detached from the group. Stories of a whirlwind landing in Catalina, consuming everything, taking over benches, terrorizing the small boat dogs, harassing every female that doesn’t have huggies, infiltrating the camp fire chats, challenging everyone to a tug-of-war, sinking ships, burning the landscape, etc, etc. Like any myth, there is some foundation to be found in these tales, but rest assured that we all care deeply about this island and would never do anything to hurt her.

Alternatively you can arrive through Avalon and ride a bicycle across the island. I have been doing this for the last few years I have gone and it adds a whole new element to the trip. You need to wake up real early to get to the Newport Harbor to catch your boat to Avalon. The ride itself begins with a 10 kilometer climb. The day is always hot and the sun is brutal and the road is rough. I have almost watched my friend Hen, get off his bike, sit down, and start to whimper for fear he would never make it to civilization. But the effort is worth it and seeing some of the last remaining Bison in North America while you scream down a mountain is pretty cool. Arriving into an already prepared campsite with your stuff already laid out since someone brought your backpack, is also a great experience.

The Campgrounds

The campgrounds are connected to Two Harbors by a long and perilous dirt path that goes up and down and winds around. I always feel like I am putting in the code to Contra. There are no lights on this trail and it is rumored to have claimed the lives of three boy scouts. It has also been used as an inspirational masturbating

Just asking for the sea gulls to attack

point for a few of my friends. Although I have not partaken in the inspiration that Catalina provides for this activity, I do sympathize. Please read Laughter Across the Lake. Personally I like walking real fast to the point that the people I am with cannot keep up, then I hide in a bush, and I leap out at them as they walk by. My inspirational moment came one year after a frustrating night with a girl named Jessica. After she returned to her boat, I walked back to the campgrounds but on my way I stopped at the highest point overlooking all of the harbor. From here I bellowed at the top of my lungs “JESSICA!! JESSICAAA!!” and then continued back to camp. What she or her parents were thinking I do not know.

Each campsite is no more than a flat piece of dirt with a bench, fire pit, stove, and a plastic canopy. Each campsite amongst the 50 or so has its benefits and drawbacks. Naveen has an ordered list of the top 15 sites with a break down of their pros and cons. (Maybe he could provide this list?) Personally, I never gave a shit,

Right before we descended the mountain for extreme cacti jumping

and was happy as long as we did not have young children within visible range of our debauchery. The campsites were arranged on the side of a hill and at the bottom was the communal beach. To walk to the beach meant walking in the middle of other campsites. It was usually really easy to know if you were welcome in a campsite or not. Apparently if you scream and cuss bad words all night, sometimes you are not well received the next day by random families trying to enjoy their vacation.

The Snorkeling

The water, all be it cold, is very clear and great for snooping around. Catalina is famous for its underwater shark habitat used by the University of Southern California. These sharks can regularly be seen to make sure you are pumped to the gills with adrenaline. Its quite an awesome thing to be clambering around in the water and then see this two meter long creature stealthily and easily maneuvering itself in the water. The water is rife with kelp that towers from the bottom to the surface. Once you forget about the fact that they feel like hands grabbing you and trying to pull you down, they are quite fun to investigate.
I always make sure to do one long excursion of snorkeling when I go to Catalina. Mostly for exercise and dropping my blood alcohol. I have had two experiences that I will never forget. One was to encounter what appeared to be a two meter crab. Telephone and I began diving down to see it up close but it was very deep so we had to constantly be coming to the surface. We purchased a net which was much to small to capture this beast. When we tried to capture it, we could only snare a few of its legs which was enough to start bringing it to the surface. At about three meters depth the crab exploded into two crabs which were obviously mating and not approving of me nor Telephone interrupting their experience. They started to slowly fall through the water and we both were frantically trying to recompose ourselves to capture at least one of them. The whole time I was laughing out of control and so was Telephone who was making me laugh more out of control. Ultimately we lost both of them as they scampered into the deep. I only just made it to the surface never feeling more exhausted. What a sound to be on the surface and hear someone below you laughing all the air out of their lungs.
The other experience came after a long and slow meandering snorkel. I was floating on the top of the water staring down, as you do while snorkeling, and approached the shallows to sit down and take a break. I swam right up to a large flat rock, still looking down in the water the whole time. I raised myself up on the rock and laid down basking in the sun taking in a deep breath. I sat up, and took in my surroundings. When I looked to my right, there was a giant sea lion sitting right next to me. I could have put my arm around it. It too was laying down and basking in the sun. And when I sat up, he sat up. We looked at each other for a good five seconds, no reactions, just looking. He really looked like a dog and had the facial features and movements of a labrador. He eventually concluded that I was simply enjoying life as much as he was and put his head back down. I thought to touch his silky smooth looking fur but I decided I should maintain the status quo. I stayed for a few minutes, said my goodbye, and then paddled back to the beach to try and tell my story which was not appreciated by anyone. I found it quite spectacular and a moment of connection for me and the island and it’s inhabitants.

Extreme Downhill Cacti Jumping

There are some fantastic hiking trails around Catalina and the mountains ascend rather high giving you a great opportunity to catch some magical sunsets/sunrises or sit on top of a cloud. One memorable hike, a small group of us walked for a very long time. We finally made it to the point that we supposed was where we were trying to go.When we wanted to go back, the idea of taking the same trail back seemed very laborious and unexciting. Fortunately there was, what appeared to be, a trail down the rather steep mountain side descending directly into the town. So we all began to go down but our judgement and selection of trail was poor and we all found ourselves in the middle of a too steep to stop yourself, hill side completely covered in cactus. Without words, we all decided the best option was to simply go as fast as you can and jump as much as you can. I employed a downhill ski style that lurched me from side to side. I remember thinking about halfway down, “this is incredibly stupid, why am I doing this.” and I was later told by my fellow cacti athletes they were thinking the same thing. We got to the bottom, and only one of us had received significant injuries. We called him a pussy. That small group of people will forever be linked in a way that can only be created when you do something as a group, that should have never been done, and will likely never be done again. And isn’t gay.

The Benches and Town

It is customary to make plans to meet at the benches early in the evening. Naveen will scream out times to meet there, but there is never really a set time. The point is to get into town early, claim one of the benches in the main square, and begin terrorizing. The benches are a perfect place to play beer die which is an amazing game that has the innate ability to make people throw up. Me, no. In fact I am tied for the island record.

The benches are placed on the beach, but we drag them onto the main walking area to ensure that we are in

When I had muscles and no hair

the middle of everyones way. For those too young to drink at the bar, it is a place to sit, pound a very expensive can of bad tasting beer, and people watch, people heckle, or cry, or be angry. For those people who can enter the bar, it is a resting point to evacuate to when the bar situation is getting too out of control because Bald Doctor is sleeping at someones table with his arms and legs in his shirt, Axe is hitting on the wife of a fat sailor, Naveen is trying to dance with moonshoes, and Roaring is making out with the help.

Eventually the night will wind down and each individual will have their own way back to camp. I can remember one evening walking back to camp and encountering Carmat, the best saxophonist in the world. He was unusually sober, and I chided him for being so. I decided I would make him feel stupid by challenging him to a game of chess and making sure we put money on the game. I was a mess and could barely stand up. He beat me senseless in the game and took my money. I am pretty sure I wasn’t even moving the pieces in the correct places. None the less he took my money. I was infuriated and demanded he honorably give me my money back since the game was not held under sanctioned conditions. He refused. The following night, I walked back to camp to find Carmat once again. Only this time, the tables were turned and I was the unusually sober one and he was stumbling drunk. He decided his best option was to pass out on the bench in a most undesirable way. He had his stomach on the seat with his forehead resting face down. His arms and legs were hanging over the sides very limply. He was not a well shaped human being and was rather hairy. His ass crack was a disgusting site to say the least. Time to get even. We had purchased a 10 liter jug of peanut butter to be used by the group which was hardly used. I decided to use the entire jug to cover every inch of Carmat. Using sticks and other objects, he was completely covered. His face was absolutely featureless except for three straws I had placed in his mouth and nostrils. His ears did not exist. His hair was missing, it was like a blueman group guy but with peanut butter. Down his ass crack, his arms, his legs, his shoes, his socks, anywhere and everywhere. I left him that way and went to bed. The next morning I encountered Carmat completely cleaned up. The effort involved in that cleaning process I cannot imagine. We looked at each other and we had nothing to say. I felt I had gotten

beer die

even and he knew exactly why he got what he got. You don’t FUCK with me when it comes to chess. I am 1500+ on Yahoo if you want to challenge me.

My Attempt at Organizing Catalina

One year Naveen gave me the responsibility to make sure Catalina continued on in it’s proud tradition. I decided to charge a little more for the trip to ensure that we had sufficient supplies. Every trip was notorious for running out of all beer by the second day and all of the food was half eaten or lounging in coolers of melted ice without their packaging. Do you know what a four kilo block of cheese slices looks like after sitting in water for a day? I purchased 18 thirty packs of beer and way too much food. We ate and drank like kings and even had enough to waste and even still, had booze to bring home with us. Too much really. I developed a strong adoration for this trip after being the organizer and consider myself one of its founding fathers as well.

But Alas…

The last two years I have missed Catalina due to being in South America and Europe. Each time I looked up flights and ultimately couldn’t convince myself that spending more than $1000 for a $100 trip was worth it even though there is no way to put a price tag on this trip. The stories mentioned here are brief and touch maybe half a percentage of the experiences I have claimed from this place and it would not be fair to my fellow Catalina goers to share them without them at my side, a beer in my hand, a missing sandal, someone screaming for help somewhere in the distance as we laugh at them, and a feeling of “we own this place.” To Catalina and everyone on it right now, I miss you and I WILL see you again. Catalina is my tradition and I am honoring you this weekend and plan to honor you for the rest of my years.
Published inLukeTravelingUCI