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Becoming Mossback


By: Victoria Smith


A couple of months ago, still plagued by jet lag from an extended trip to the Philippines, I was channel surfing late night TV programs when I came across a show about the history of the Pacific Northwest and learned the meaning of a new word, “mossback.” And it hit me: Oh, no—I am becoming that!

Now, if you consult most dictionaries (Merriam-Webster; Collins; The Free Dictionary; Vocabulary.com), you will get the traditional definitions of the term, all amply covered by the following: “a turtle or an old fish that, because of its age, has a growth of algae on its back” or “a very conservative or reactionary person, especially one with old-fashioned views” (Wiktionary). Or, “a person living in the backwoods; rustic” (Dictionary.com). Given these definitions and their unflattering connotations, you might wonder why I admitted recognizing myself in that label. True, I am getting old, and my husband and I now live in rustic woodlands, but no one who knows me would agree I’m conservative or old-fashioned. Indeed, the story of my life is the story of how I’d mostly shocked people due to my non-conformist mindset. Anyone who knew me in high school, college, or even now might also add I’m really quite a bit of a misfit because I’ve never really fit neatly in any group or box, donning an unconventional worldview and rebellious personality that forced some of my peers, perhaps even my own parents, to disown me a few times, I’m sure. Why, I seem to even shock my own children sometimes! I was amused when my daughter recently described me to her new friend as a “flaming liberal”, and I’m always taken aback when my son asks me to cease talk about a subject in a restaurant, concerned I might be overheard by and thus offend some lurking conservatives. It’s amazing to me to see how millennials can sometimes prove to be more fogy than the British queen!

Well now, that show I mentioned—Crosscut’s Mossback Northwest, through its columnist, Knute Berger, explained that against the backdrop of the usual dictionary definitions of “mossback”, the term had come to have a very special meaning among the early and later settlers of the Pacific Northwest. It evolved to refer to any person who’s allowed the land and its climate in this special part of the world to mold and shape him. Now, this meaning—I liked! For more than anything, it gave me an understanding and insight, and therefore peace, about what’s been happening to me in the twelve months since my husband and I moved to an island off the coast of Washington State.

First came the dream—the dream of living closer to the ocean with more romantic views of sea and land bending to, and curving around each other. We had lived in a beautiful California home prior to this that boasted of panoramic, albeit distant ocean and valley views, until, as human nature would have it, these were no longer enough. A visit to the San Juan Islands turned out to be a revelation of what kingdom could be had in both acreage and water views, plus stunning vistas of layered islands and mountain ranges without having to pay a king’s ransom, in contrast to what California offered. Readers of this column might recall how I’d gushed poetic about the paradisiacal new home environment we’d found in the Puget Sound in the summer of 2017.

But after the exhilaration of idyllic summer came the cold, sobering winds and rain of fall and winter. Living in California had spoiled us. Too many sunny days in a climate that was at least ten degrees higher all-year round than where we now resided became a sweet potion of forgetting that elsewhere in the world, nature and the weather did change with the seasons.

Then there was the shocking realization that Costco shopping was a day trip! Yes, one has to take a 50-minute ferry ride followed by an hour and a half’s drive to the closest Costco. That made for a round-trip of five hours, exclusive of the hours it took to shop at Costco and Target (for goods one can’t consume in bulk). I turned nostalgic for the years when I could just send off my husband for a thirty-minute to an hour’s grocery errand. But man oh man—the views! Be careful of what you wish for—and the unintended consequences of getting it. I’d posted pictures of our ferry ride on such a day while complaining of how long such an errand took, and some of my friends were kind to console me by commenting that their Costco run consisted mostly of views of other cars’ behinds. Still, being the night owl I am, I did not appreciate having to be up at four-thirty or five in the morning to be on time for the six-thirty ferry (for one had to be in line at least forty-five minutes before loading)! Then there was our unpleasant discovery that when you live on an island and need home services (such as house cleaning, plumbing, electrical, and home building contractors), it’s a challenge getting the requisite services on time and within budget. Here, we see how the law of supply and demand wields its unmoving hand to exacting standard. Since housing is scarcer and therefore costlier than on the mainland, there are fewer workers who could afford to live here yearround, which equates with less labor supply. Combine low labor supply with high labor demand—you get the mathematics of the economics here. Getting in a handyman’s work schedule calls for dogged persistence and dramatic actor’s skill in pleading one’s need is more urgent than those of your fellow islanders. Oscar-worthy performances notwithstanding, our small band of house service providers march only to the beat of their drums—which of course are set to island time. For an ex-mainlander like me, this could be excruciatingly snaillike.

And don’t even get me started about the trash and mail! We live in an area that is indeed splendid for the solitude it offers—which also means we’re outside the usual garbage pick-up and postal delivery service areas. Thus, we have to bring our garbage to the trash and recycling center, and pick up our mail from the post office. That we live in the boondocks was confirmed by our need to sign up for both helicopter and airplane ambulance services when came time to enroll in a new health insurance program. Long-timers assured us it’s all just part of island living, and not to worry for emergency transport services were reliable. But I was haunted by visions of Black Hawk Down.

And heels! The non-human kind, that is. Have I mentioned I own a fine collection of highheeled shoes, albeit no contest with that of the infamous Imelda Marcos? My husband teases me it must be a Filipino thing. I tell him, no—it’s a fashionista lady thing. Outside our tourist-trodden, charming little town, the landscape turns wild and rugged, with graveled roads and rocky trails to farms and forests—in other words, this is no country for high heels! When I open my closet, my lovely sets of dress shoes sadly stare back at me like forgotten ladies- in-waiting.

And the house! It usually doesn’t take me long to figure how to decorate a new house because I’m mostly attracted to French, English, or Old World architecture and therefore chose homes that lent themselves well to be furnished in the same design styles. But our island home is an enigma wrapped in the riddle of its mixed Asian, American, and European elements. It’s a mutt—like me. And like me, it’s hard to peg. I suppose this is because it’s the first house in which I’ve allowed myself to stray away from my usual style preferences, and I’m confused. Houses usually speak to me—they tell me what they want, and I do as they bid. But this one is a stranger challenging me to know it deeper than its skin of timber, tile, and paint. It’s mostly mute, dangling a carrot of a clue now and then as if to tease me, but not yet letting me in on all its secrets. Strange that I’d never been inclined towards Asian style, although I come from that heritage. It’s as if this house is forcing me to see myself in the mirror of itself it’s held up to my face, asking me who I really am. And for the first time in a long time, I’m rattled, and it’s very disconcerting.

Fazed by the challenges of our new island life and home, I’d begun to question the wisdom of our move here. We came for paradise and discovered that paradise had impish dimensions. I was overwhelmed by a sinking feeling we may have made a mistake—something I’d not experienced before in a house purchase. I usually know what I want, and when I see it, I go for it, and supported by my husband, I never second-guess my decision. And so why this nagging doubt now—on the most important real estate investment in our lives? What added to my confusion was that such seeming signals of error were promptly opposed by signs of predestination assuring me that despite my fears and doubts, this was all meant to be. I felt in limbo, and it’s been very unsettling.

In recent weeks, however, I’ve noticed a pattern where I’d chance upon someone or something (usually something I’ve read or a show I’ve watched) that would seem to throw back at me the same advice I used to offer family and friends dealing with life challenges—trite, old adages that now feel too real and personal for comfort, such as “change is the only constant in life” or “you are being forced out of your comfort zone in order to compel you to change and evolve into your higher self”. It feels ironic I’m now at the receiving end of my own therapy, and resisting it. Before long, I’d get another spoonful of my own medicine: “Do not resist. Accept everything happening now without reservation. Accept and see what happens, how the world will open anew to you. Peace comes only with acceptance.”

Watching that late night show about the Northwest mossbacks told me what a bore and brat I’d become, complaining of the superficial inconveniences of our otherwise wonderful new island life. Something in the way it described the mossbacks of the Northwest as people who surrendered themselves to being molded by the land and climate where they lived struck close to my experience. Perhaps this was what I needed to become. It occurred to me that my discomfort arose mainly from being forced to shape up to the new environment I’m in and that any inconvenience I’m experiencing came from my own refusal to accept I now lived in a different territory that called for a different way of doing things. I realized that in order to make this work, I had to make some lifestyle changes—changes that were in fact good not only for myself but also for the environment. For instance, I was forced to be aware of how much garbage we produced, because the more of it we generated as a by-product of our lifestyle, the more trips to the trash and recycling center we had to make and the more we paid in terms of dumping fees. This also compelled us to remember to bring our reusable grocery bags when we went shopping so as to cut down on our consumption of brown paper and plastic bags. If I didn’t have a reusable shopping bag with me, I refused the merchant’s offer of a disposable shopping bag if I could just put the product in my handbag or even just held it in my arms until I reached our car. (To be continued on January 2019 edition) (All rights reserved. Copyright ©2018 by Victoria G. Smith. For updates on her author events & publications, go to VictoriaGSmith. com. “Like” her on Facebook at Author Victoria G. Smith. “Follow” her on Twitter @AuthorVGSmith)

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