Today's Reading

He got the golf cart back in gear and we sped down the road, past the ferry docks, through a tiny roundabout and onto a beachside tourist strip of souvenir shops and breakfast places and busy bars open to the night, then swung onto the town streets, lined with pretty little vacation homes and locals places. At a Ralph's Grocery, we turned left to parallel the beach road for a few blocks, then descended to the beach again, fronted now by a seawall. Another cute roundabout got us onto a steeply pitched driveway walled in with whitewashed rustic plaster.

The golf cart struggled up the hill and creaked into the hotel's entrance court, where another employee in matching livery hopped to and helped us out of the cart and unloaded our bags. Scott interrupted him, got his bag back, and unzipped it, producing a grease-spotted In-N-Out sack, which he solemnly presented to a wide-eyed and grinning Antonio. Antonio took the sack and pumped Scott's arm in energetic thanks, while the bellman took custody of Scott's bag again, looking jealously at the sack.

No need to stop at the check-in desk; we were expected. The bellman and one of his colleagues humped our bags up the stairs to the penthouse while we followed. They showed us around the three bedrooms, the four patios, the kitchen, the dining/living room, switched on lights, and accepted a twenty each from Scott. I got the distinct impression that either of them would have preferred a burger.

Once we were seated on the patio with beers from the ice bucket that had been waiting for us on the kitchen counter, Scott clinked with me and we both drank and watched the little shore boats run people around the moored yachts in the twinkling harbor below us.

"About those burgers," I said.

He laughed quietly. "No fast-food chains on the island. Local council's orders. Preserves the character of the place. I happen to think they're right, but a weird side effect is that the locals fetishize In-N-Out and McDonald's. Forbidden fruit. Did you see how that guy's face lit up? Absolutely worth having everything in my suitcase stink of hamburger for the weekend."

There's no In-N-Out in Avalon.

We stayed up late chatting and watching the moon paint a milky river on the ocean, and slept in the next morning. Scott woke me to let me know that room service had just arrived with breakfast, and I joined him on the patio for muesli, sourdough toast, unpasteurized honey, cold German breakfast sausage, and fresh-squeezed orange juice and a press-pot of Kona coffee. We ate it while the high sun baked the patio tiles and made our flesh sting, and then we put up the big shade umbrella.

"You brought a sun hat, right?"

I had, my uncle Ed's old air force mechanic's hat.

"You'll need it," he said. "Lots of open space on the bison tour."

Antonio was our tour guide. He had a permit from the island trust, which the Wrigley family had created and then donated 98 percent of Catalina Island to. That let him drive us—this time in a four-wheel-drive jeep, not a golf cart—up to high ground, past the country club and the zip lines, and through the gates into the wildlife reserve.

"The bison were brought over in the twenties, for a Zane Grey movie shoot," he said, as we climbed a winding country road. "The director wanted big suckers, so he brought males. Now, your male bison doesn't much like other males, won't stay in their company for long, so they busted out and took off.

"Old Man Wrigley liked how they looked, so he brought over thirteen females, so they could have Christian relations." He smiled to let us know he also thought this was foolishness. "But bisons are more pagan than Christian, they get together in harems, a bunch of lady bison and just one big old bull."

He downshifted the jeep as the road got steeper. "Now, this was once the stagecoach road," he said. "Visitors headed for Two Harbors would take a horse-drawn coach across the island, about a day's journey. Can you imagine how those horses had to work on this hill? You see those trees there?" He gestured at the evenly spaced, mature, straight trees running along the outside edge of the road. "Either of you gentlemen recognize them?"

Scott smiled. "I've had this tour, so I'm not going to answer. What about you, Marty?"

I've been a Californian ever since I dropped out of MIT, got my accounting certificate, and lit out for the West Coast, where all the computer companies were. I have a pretty good grasp of California plant life, though mostly focused on the Northern California varieties. These ones had strange, streaky bark, like they'd been partially peeled.

Unmistakable. Still, I could tell Antonio was busting to show off, so I said, "Sorry, I can't place them."

"That's because they're Australian," he said, looking over his shoulder to grin at me, then looking back in time to keep the car from crashing into one of those trees. "Eucalyptuses.

They were Ada Wrigley's idea. We call 'em the guardrail trees. See, they're spaced close enough that a car can't squeeze between them. A few cars have crashed into them, but they never went over the edge." He downshifted and cranked the wheel around a hairpin, then put his foot down again. The engine revved. "Ada liked them because they're also called 'gum trees,' and she was a Wrigley. Beautiful, aren't they?"

They were. Australia has a lot of beautiful plants and animals and most of them are, frankly, monsters. The eucalypt is no exception. Its reproductive strategy is to drop those heavy, oily leaves around its base until the trapped heat and the highly flammable oil consummate their tragic love affair and burst into flame. The ensuing forest fires reduce the eucalypts to ashes, but the same goes for all the plants that might compete with them. The difference is that eucalypt seedpods need fire to open up and release their seeds, and the fires that coax them open also eliminate all the canopy cover that might compete with them for sunlight, while the ashes of the fallen competing trees enrich the soil with nutrients.

That life cycle played out in Australia for millennia, but it's been playing out in Southern California since the 1850s, when nitwit settlers imported them and planted them in an act of slow-motion arson that gives PG&E a run for its money in the competition to see who can burn down the state first.

This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.

Monday, June 24th, we begin the book Convergence Problems by Wole Talabi.

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