We blew out of the Days Inn in Ellensburg, Washington, with its inedible breakfast (nothing but carbs and a few sad, bruised apples clearly a week past their expiration date) and got on the road for Anacortes. We were somewhere in the middle of Washington, and though the mighty Columbia river appeared and disappeared alongside us, it was pretty much desert—rolling hills peppered with rocks, golden stubbly dried grasses, and the minty-green accent of sagebrush. Vultures whirled by overhead and many, many giant big rigs rattled alongside, making me so nervous and jumpy I had to listen to the self-hypnosis recording of affirmations I made, much to Mike’s relief. (Putting my therapy practice into personal practice,I should have listened to it when I was freaking out on the ferry to Alaska–but I forgot I had it on my phone.)

After that, I was sleepy, and when we stopped for gas at an Am/Pm station and minimart, I bought a Monster energy drink—the healthiest one I could find in the limited selection, with “vitamins and Taurine, and 20% real fruit juice.” I’ve resorted to buying these hideous concoctions as a last resort caffeine boost since becoming a tea drinker.

A word about being a tea drinker: first of all, I never wanted to be one. I love coffee. I mean, really love it, and have my entire adult life. I like the smell of it, the preparation ritual in the morning, little green trees with their glossy leaves that grow it so well in Hawaii, the red of the berries, the brown crunchy beans you can eat. And somehow, in the way of the weird body chemistry problems I’ve developed in midlife, it’s one of my main allergy foods.

I’ve been “off” coffee for a year now, and I miss it. Mike tries to make his morning pot super early so I don’t smell it perking and moan and groan with longing. Occasionally I’ll indulge in a cup to see if I’m still allergic—and within hours I develop the rash around my lips that’s the main histamine reaction I get from eating (or drinking) the wrong things.

I am learning to like tea, but it simply doesn’t have the caffeine kick coffee does. On the trip, the situation was better in Canada because they are set up for tea drinkers there. Every restaurant had little metal pots at least, and some had delightful “brown betty” china pots, which is one of the things I’m coming to enjoy about tea. They had selections of tea, so I got to indulge in Earl Grey, English Breakfast, or chai, my favorites. They even served it like coffee in some places, the waiter coming around with a thermos pot of tea in one hand (orange pekoe Red Rose, the Canadian default tea to our U.S. Lipton) and a pot of coffee in the other hand. I was never made to feel a second-class citizen when I ordered tea in Canada.

That immediately changed when we entered the coffee-drinking U.S.A. As an example, I sat beside an English couple the morning I began breakfast alone in the Two Dog Flats café in Glacier National Park. Servers came by repeatedly with coffeepots, prompt and courteous, but when the three of us said, “We’re waiting for hot water for tea,” they passed on.  Our overwhelmed waitress very eventually rolled back with a single mug of hot water and a Lipton tea bag on a saucer for each of us.

We exchanged sympathetic looks with each other, but the English couple, clearly in the know, took out their own high-grade packets of Earl Gray while I squished the Lipton bag in the mug with a spoon, hoping to get more juice out of it.

This almost never works to get me the high-octane caffeine hit I crave in the morning. Water has to be SUPER hot, a degree or two off boiling, for tea to release properly in water. Then, it steeps for four minutes, according to my tea-drinking friend Holly Robinson, who introduced me to the plug-in electric teapot I use at home. In general, I steep my tea longer and make it stronger, a throwback to my coffee addiction.

Developing these allergy conditions has opened my eyes to the whole segment of the population (and it seems to be growing) who have sensitivities and can’t just eat whatever traditional food we’ve decided as a culture is what a meal (or beverage) should be. I’m always so happy when I see healthy alternatives on a menu, and I hope this trend picks up nationwide and beyond.

All this aside brought me to the moment when I bought a Monster drink, having been unable to get the lukewarm water and tiny Styrofoam cup at the Days Inn to steep the Lipton tea bag to anything like effective morning strength.

We eventually got into more what I’d expected Washington State to be as we rolled toward Seattle: green mountains and wooded hills. We caught the morning commute traffic to Seattle, confirming we never want to be part of that “rat race” again, and skirted the city, ending up in Marysville, a pleasant small town an hour from Anacortes, where Mike washed the van while I did a major shop at Safeway, stocking up for the week we have at one location, a cabin on the ocean on Lopez Island in the San Juans.

I’d made a meal plan because our two young adult children are joining us there, and it was a joy to wander the aisles with a shopping cart for the first time in three weeks, buying enough food for an army (or the Neal family, on vacation.) As much as I’ve come to love being an empty nester and Mike and my adventures together, I love it even more when we’re together as a family and I get to be a mom again, even if it’s only for four days.

We tried to get on the twelve o’clock ferry to Lopez, but didn’t make the standby cut so had four hours to kill in Anacortes. It’s an adorable town, a great mix of cute cafes and shops, and hard-boiled local boat/fisherman culture. Mike LOVED the Marine Supply and Hardware store on the main street, a fabulous combination of real-man spools of rope, chain, anchors, tools, antiques, and funky recycled parts for every possible boat and fixit need. There were several art galleries that showed a strong art community as well. By the time we’d walked around a good-sized forest park in the middle of town, Mike and I felt that excitement: we hadn’t even made it to Lopez yet, but we sensed we were close to somewhere that’s going to be very special to us.

The ferry ride, when it happened, was wonderful. We drove the van smoothly onto the monster boat, squeezed out between the cars to trek up onto the deck, and parked ourselves on the foremost point of the ferry to scan for orcas and other wildlife as we traversed the smooth green water between numerous forested islands. It was a delightful forty-five minutes to Lopez as I felt everything that was the best of British Columbia and Alaska coming to a head for me: the open water and sky, the smooth rich green water, the cool air, the sense of wilderness but with connectivity at all times: we had three bars of phone reception!

I admit I was predisposed to fall in love with the San Juans before we even got there: I’m an island person, through and through. I had also heard stories of how great the islands were from my parents, who visited a lot in the 1990s after Kauai’s hurricane and fell in love with it. Lopez Island is the perfect combination of quiet, open space and rolling farmland (even saw a field of large pigs, along with sheep and cattle) thick, wild forest, and cute but not pretentious tiny town. It has lots of boats, making Mike happy, a great fine dining restaurant called the Bay Café that we happened upon right after debarking the ferry. Driving along the flowered mellow roads where people wave to you and you can’t get lost (end to end it’s fifteen miles) I pronounced myself in heaven before we even got to our cottage.

Buying the cottage for a week was a real act of faith. It was the only one Mike could find at high season in the San Juans for under a thousand a week, not being particular at all which island we were on. It looked okay but not stellar in the photos. On the trip we’d learned that the secret  have low expectations, and that’s what we had when we finally turned down the graveled drive to find the cottage was…well, just amazing. Looking right at the nearby water in a view framed in trees off a large deck, it had a modern kitchen, was clean and updated, had a romantic gas stove and its own deck and yard. Two bedrooms and bathrooms would give us and the kids plenty of space and privacy, and it had satellite TV and speedy wi-fi.

“You’re never going to want to leave,” Mike said, and he’s right.

I think we’ve found the place for our second home.

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