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Keeping Vashon Neighborly

Keeping Vashon Neighborly
Last year's farm motto: Walk softly and carry a big zucchini
A friendly dockside welcome, circa 1910.

After a recent trip to Seattle, I sat on the ferry feeling as though I had visited the moons of Jupiter, or at least been witness to the Northwest equivalent of the bar scene in Star Wars. I didn’t recognize Seattle and she didn’t recognize me. My favorite city had become an alien place, one where my beloved personal landmarks were disappearing, where my old neighborhood was unrecognizable and where folks on the street and in their cars found me too slow and in the way. And for the first time while in downtown Seattle, I felt underdressed. Island attire had no place in Pacific Place.

I made the mistake of trying to chat with someone in line for coffee, and based on her response, I feared horns had sprouted from my head, or perhaps I had forgotten to remove my fright wig and fangs. No, Dorothy, I was not in Kansas anymore.

Have I mentioned I live on an island? Make no mistake, this little marker in the middle of Puget Sound is very special to me, and I feel the journey to make it here has been half the gift. Sometimes I gush enthusiastically about Vashon; other times I quietly reflect upon island moments with a reverence usually reserved for love letters.

Sure, not everyone swoons over living on “The Rock.” This place can be a prison for some and a sanctuary for others. Peering over the fence as a will-be geezer, I embrace the latter perspective. Seattle was a fine fling in my 20s, 30s and even 40s; the city lavished me with the indulgences of youth, but now I can’t keep up (and I tend to get lost). And besides, Seattle’s just not that into me anymore. The city’s moved on, and I wish her well.

Vashon is truly home, and while “Keep Vashon Weird” is a funny bumper sticker, the island is much more than that. Rest assured, our well for the weird will never go dry, so my bumper sticker choice would be “Keep Vashon Neighborly.” I’d add “and Welcoming,” but that (like me) would be too verbose.

We live in a place where the natural beauty is blinding, and you’d think that would be enough. But what makes “the heart of Puget Sound” special is the heart of its people. I live on an island where a local business took their entire staff to Europe because they could, where you can’t toss a harmonica without hitting a musician, where a nod on the street gets a friendly, “hello,” where farmers share their bounty roadside, where generous donors support island needs, where orca sightings turn us all into giddy children and where the potluck is a time-honored tradition and high art form.

I like where I live. I like the folks I call my friends and neighbors. I enjoy the kindness of strangers, the tellers of old stories, the smiles on familiar faces and the willingness of Vashon folks to welcome those who come to our shores.

May Vashon never become a place of “us” and “them,” but remain a destination where the question of, “Where are you from?” elicits a conversation, not a distance.

For each day we all face challenges, quietly carrying the burdens of worry, sadness, loss or letdown with us like spare change in our pockets. While some pockets are more laden than others, rattling and jingling with each step, I venture to say we all share empathy and kinship in wanting to make things better, not only for ourselves, but for others. That is what I love about Vashon Island and that to me is what makes it a special. We are an island family. Some of us may have more seniority and bragging rights, but we all have a place around the table.

I penned the following piece for The Vashon Beachcomber, as my Op-Ed regarding keeping Vashon Island neighborly and welcoming even in the midst of growth and change. No place is perfect, but we all seek a measure of where we can feel whole, loved and at home. May we each find such a place in our hearts and minds, and if fortunate enough, also down the block, around the corner, and in the everyday. Thanks for visiting my friends.

Homeward bound courtesy of a Washington State Ferry
Homeward bound via Washington State Ferry
North Ferry Dock Vashon
Southern exposure from the north end ferry dock
Letting the light shine from within
When a little light shines from within on a foggy morning.
Last year's farm motto: Walk softly and carry a big zucchini
Island ways: Speak softly and carry a big zucchini.
The friendly and beguling witches of Burton
The friendly and beguiling witches of Burton on Halloween.
Pop-up picnic, Vashon style!
Pop-up picnic, Vashon style!
bulldog buddy
Buddy and I wish you warmth wherever you call home.


  1. Home is where our heart has settled and yours is Vashon. Your stories fill many hearts with comfort. I wish your radio show could be heard from my home in CA, I loved the ones you posted. Thank you for giving your comfort to all in need. 💜

  2. On my last visit to Seattle, (from Port Orchard) I felt much the same way! I felt like I was caught in a nightmare rat maze with far too many companions. Dazed & bewildered, I breathed a sigh of relief when the ferry pulled away from the dock at Fauntleroy!

    Oh, and I ordered three Nanaimo peach trees yesterday!

  3. A truly wonderful piece, Tom. It is echoed in many of our hearts. I have my own little haven and piece of heaven, with neighbours I’ve known for years and where a helping hand is just a shout away. I absolutely love your fireplace, and is that Mount Baker I see in the background? I grew up in Langley, B.C. with Baker a familiar sight out the window.

    • Sandra, you’re very close; that is Mount Rainier, which rests south of the island. Mount Baker would be a snow cap cone (though north and farther away) if I had been on the starboard side of the ferry.

  4. i believe that if cities eliminated the use of personal vehicles in, out and about and instead of living in places built to support the awful overuse of automobiles we would all be friendlier and rather harmonious
    Here on Saltspring Island,we now have 10,000 cars on the main road everyday
    We worked for years to get a bus system but most people drive and refuse to try alternatives to getting about. The noise and attitude is worse than the pollution.

    • Wow Myna, I was on Salt Spring Island about 15 years ago, and as a bicyclist on country roads appreciated fewer cars. That’s a tough one, growing pains, loss of solitude and waning civility are symptoms most communities need to address in this day and age. I hope your beautiful island retains its friendliness and charm as I remember it.

  5. Tom, if I were your editor I’d be suggesting you write a series of interconnected stories about life on & the characters inhabiting Vashon (and if I were living that life I’d write it myself, though this post has given me an idea for a project of my own, so thank you for that!) And here, to get you started, Margaret Wise Brown has the perfect epigraph for your collection:
    “nights and days came and passed
    and summer and winter
    and the sun and the wind
    and the rain.
    and it was good to be a little island
    a part of the world
    and a world of its own
    all surrounded by the bright blue sea.”

    • Anne, Margaret Wise Brown was my favorite author, that is when I was a little boy, okay and maybe even now as an adult. 😉 Thank you for sharing that piece. And thank you for the idea…hmmm, now where to start?

  6. Promise, if you’re ever queuing at a cafe in Ballard, you’ll get into a conversation that lasts a minimum of a half hour (or maybe that’s just what happens to me).
    Don’t give up on us mainlanders–we’re trying to do what we can to keep it civil here, but I know what you mean.

    • Good point Nico, you are absolutely right. I did cast a wide net, didn’t I. Of course there are still pockets of Seattle love for me, so next time I’ll take my coffee at Ballard’s Cafe Besalu or granola at Tall Grass Bakery or an Americano at Fremont’s ETG. And keep up the old Seattle spirit, you kind words and in-line conversations are no doubt tonic for the soul. Well wishes!

  7. Once again, it is too early for me to be writing on your blog Tom…only half a cup of hot coffee mobilizing my morning thoughts…not enough to be coherent yet. But your post moved me to try.
    Being in my 50’s, I know exactly what you are saying about Seattle. I live on Bainbridge Island, and can see Vashon Island when I walk my dogs on South Beach. A few weeks ago , I had to go to U district for an appointment (I hardly ever go to Seattle anymore), I spent 30 minutes looking for parking, then ducking hipster crowds, with their small children, while multitasking on their I-phones in the outdoor mall, then 50 minutes in traffic to go 2 miles on I-5 to get back to the ferry…and was utterly exhausted. I too, did not dress for the occasion – in my big-city cool black clothes with my simple but couture-d $800 black canvas-leather bag slung diagonally across my torso – but went in my island wear (no make-up, flannel shirt and flipflops and more gray hair than blonde), and felt quite the rube and was promptly ignored by all.
    I was so kaput when I got back, that I had to try to figure out why and what’s going on. Now, some background… I am a person of the, ahem…the “world”. I lived in a big European city for 25 years, worked in a very hoity toity industry and rubbed elbows with the rich and famous. I do still have my apartment there and go over now and then for my big Euro-city dose.
    Fast forward to now…I work from home, I live on acreage, fight blackberry brambles all day, learned how to use a weed wacker, chain saw and axe, and live with my dogs very contently (even thinking about getting chickens – knowing it is the start of the slippery slope into more animals like goats – to eat the blackberry brambles) For business, still I have to go occasionally to mega huge Chinese cities that are mind-blowing in their modernity. So I am still “plugged in” to the real world out there.
    My conclusion? It is not only Seattle that has changed. It is the whole world. The world has suddenly become very young. Or, we have suddenly become the old. The day before yesterday I was still 30, yesterday I was still 40… 50? when did that happen?
    The young today have a different world than the one we became adults in. Totally different, 180 degrees, we grew up in an “I” world. Social media is their whole world and they have a sense of collective “we”, (that we have not had in the US since the young anti-Vietnam movements of the late 60’s early 70’s), that we are not privy to. It’s time to pass the torch, and it is kinda hard to let go (but not really).
    Geez, so sorry Tom, for using up your real estate on my rambling. Maybe the blackberry brambles are slowly invading my brain. But you hit a nerve, and something I have been thinking about a lot lately.

    • Chris, oh my gosh, please, no need to apologize for writing such an engaging, fun, reflective comment. I loved it! I kept reading and smiling ear to ear. I applaud you my fellow islander and world traveler. Sounds like you know how to live!

  8. Sad, true, familiar — thoughts, words, feelings. Though I do not and have never lived in a ‘big’ city, I feel the changed vibe whenever I travel to the local version (mostly Portland). Suddenly (last few years?) traffic is HORRIBLE. There are way, way, way too many people, and they are all in a hurry. I have to say I nodded my head as I read Chris’ reply. Yes, indeed, statistically in the last few years (since 2012?) the ‘younger generations’ (Millennials and Gen X’ers) have surpassed ‘older generations’ (Boomers and ‘other’) in sheer numbers. They now outnumber Boomers in the work force. It’s odd to feel oneself in the seeming position of slipping off the stage of history/reality. So much of my childhood experiences — camping, playing in the spare lot and the surrounding countryside and all the other non-city activities are foreign to the young ones coming up. And to me they feel good, and I know were grounding. Yes, they seem to care only about social media and all that. But the thing I most notice is how blind they all are —– well, I can’t say it’s just them. Because what else do they have to compare it with? How blind everyone is to the biggest worldwide problem, that causes or exacerbates every world problem, which is overpopulation. In our small city/large town of 80,000, tourist visits this year were estimated to be 20,000 EVERY DAY. Our streets were full — the highway running through town was gridlocked during the months of July and August. Yes, you could say, well, tourism has just reached a certain point … but it’s more than that. I don’t know what the world is coming to, but part of me is glad I won’t be here to see it — and that is a shocking internal change to feel. Tom, keep us up on Vashon life — but be wary of spreading the word too far. It too could be buried under TMT (too many tourists). thanks for another great post.

  9. Hello Tom,
    I read about your adventure to the “Big City”. I thought, oh my gosh is he spying on me? This is my “life” travel. All this is what I am experiencing. I wondered if this is not the stage of life that many of us have arrived at. I have travelled and lived in many countries. I am not interested in material possessions, cars, crowds but I love my furry creatures, nature and gratitude for taking advantage of life.

    The world that we lived in is not the same but there are still a lot of wonderful people and adventures out there.

    I just watched how many people came together to help “Merlex’s Medical Fund” on Go Fund Me and their comments with in hours and how many wonderful caring people there are in this world. We just have to remember each of us has the responsibility to care for our world and each other.

    V and the Furry Gang

    • Well said V, so true. Like I heard my friend Leo once say, “You have to give good a chance.” Thank you for your insightful comments, and howdy to the Furry Gang!

  10. Beautifully written Tom. As your “neighbor” on Anderson Island, it also perfectly describes our little haven. I love this time of year, when the summer hordes have left and it’s so very peaceful, a time for long walks with a dog along the roads and trails thru the forests. We are indeed lucky to be island dwellers.

    • Thank you Sandi, Always nice to hear from my neighbor in the south Sound. Anderson Island is a gem of a place, glad the roads are little less traveled this time of year.

  11. You are just the best Tom Conway. I too love this island, love the people who make it weird and welcoming. The best part is feeling known or at least recognized by neighbors and acquaintances including all the people who work in the many island businesses. Barbara Jean from the old BOA, placing a note on the windshield of my car parked in the Thriftway lot telling me that our home loan had been approved. Nancy from the book shop, calling me on the phone to say someone (my favorite babysitter as a child in Indianapolis) had emailed, after reading a story of mine and seeing that I gave a reading of it at the book shop in 2014, and wanted help getting in touch with me. The stories go on and on – the sense of belonging and being valued is what makes our island so special. We are a welcoming community and you sir are one of our best ambassadors. Sweet Dreams.

    • Thank you Catherine, though I think I share that post with you, Dana and the majority of islanders. So glad our paths crossed and your wise words and warm hugs are in my life.

  12. Tom, you can be sure if I was in that line, I would have loved to chat with you. These are the precious times, communicating with others. Keep doing what you’re doing! All the best to you and Buddy!

  13. Great post Tom! I felt the culture shock after moving to San Diego from Kauai’s north shore two years ago, I know just what you mean. I imagine Mercer Island wouldn’t qualify as “island living” 😄😄 Something you might find amusing is that, since I’ll be moving to the Seattle area very soon (hit a few delays this year), I’ve contemplating where to settle. I was recently at a real estate office in Kirkland and asked the woman what she thought of Vashon. She replied “You don’t want to be on Vashon. Everyone’s 80 years old and nobody works.” Lol! I guess she might have a bit of a myopic view, I appreciate the different perspective you share with us, Tom.

    • Forrest that is so funny. I’ll be sharing that line with friends on the island for a good laugh. Vashon is whatever you want to make it, but if you’re looking into where to settle, and if it’s Seattle you’re thinking of, the eastside [cough, Kirkland/Bellevue] is a bit tightly pressed. Neighborhoods in Seattle to consider, Green Lake (my old hood), Queen Anne, Magnolia (Discovery Park), Ballard (Sunset Hill) and on the lake, Madison Park, Leschi, Mt. Baker, Madrona, Seward Park, and Lakewood. Let me know if you need any advice or have questions about Seattle or Vashon. Good luck and welcome to the Pacific Northwest. Oh and now that we’ve finally entered the modern age, you may seek a neighborhood with light rail access as driving here is usually a gridlock affair if you have a long commute.

    • Forrest, Will you be working in Seattle? If you don’t mind a bit of a drive or train ride or can work from home part or full time, might I humbly suggest looking a little north? We’re pretty chill up here in Snohomish County, and there’s nature and friendly neighbors aplenty.

  14. Wow, hey thanks Tom. Very nice of you to type that out for me, and offer your wisdom. I suppose you are just exemplifying those traits commonplace in those islanders you describe in your romantic narrative above… I have certainly not ruled out Vashon, it is such a good deal! You can get something really nice for more than a song, yes, but a fraction of what it would be on the mainland.
    It will be a great homecoming for me. I lived in Fall City as a kid, and moved elsewhere by junior high, bounced around a bunch of states looking for a place that felt like home, and then was listening to a performance by singer songwriter Dana Lyons in Princeville early in 2014 and at a break he began telling the audience he lived in Bellingham and how much he loved being in the Pacific Northwest. It was like the proverbial bolt of lightning hit me, “Oh! That’s where I should be, jeez.” It seemed so obvious.

    You’re the man, Tom! 😄

  15. Tom, you are such a great writer ! And your photos are wonderful ! I so much miss living on Vashon and bumping into you around town !

  16. You have truly painted one of the most beautiful pictures of your home, and Vashon Island has brought forth a loving & creative part of you. Keep writing, cooking/baking and sharing from the depths of your soul. Tom, you’ve got what it takes to show the world that Vashon has a special magic which draws people from all walks of life…. much like what we’ve heard in the tales of Camelot. Thank you, dear friend. You’ve put another smile in my heart!

  17. Nicely said, Tom! Looking around nowadays, it’s easy to think that the concept of community is being lost, but it’s good to remember that there are still lots of us out there who enjoy a good impromptu get-together and a neighborly chat. I assure you that if I was in that coffee line with you, I would have loved to chat your ear off. 🙂

    • Lorinda, I wish I had run into you in that coffee line. Snohomish County is a beautiful spot and I’ve always enjoyed my visits there. You are so right; community is up to us and not a physical place, so here’s to your friendly approach and keeping your town neighborly. Well wishes.


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