A place for beachcombers

Walking the beaches of Vashon-Maury Island is more complicated than my Don the Beachcomber daydreams.

When I moved to Vashon from my hometown of Seattle at the end of 2020, I was delighted by many things, not least of which was the newspaper you are reading now.

In an era when newspapers are dying off, it remains a vital resource for the island.

I also liked the name. The Beachcomber. The word rings a bell, a little chime of pleasure. It conjures up the beguiling image of walking along the shoreline, and specifically of a larger-than-life character I daydreamed about in my youth.

Remember Don the Beachcomber? He wasn’t just a person, but an industry. The name “Don the Beachcomber” was slapped on a string of Polynesian-influenced tiki bars, as well as products like cocktail mixes and rum. The real Don, born Ernest Gantt, legally changed his name to Donn Beach—a man becoming a brand.

He opened the first Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood in 1933, where he allegedly, maybe, invented the Zombie and the Mai Tai. In childhood, I saw his logo and heard about the tiki restaurants—I don’t think he had an outlet in Seattle, but we had a Trader Vic’s, which fulfilled a similar role.

I liked his name: Don the Beachcomber. It implied much. That was his job? Beachcombing? Walking around all day looking for Japanese glass floats and seashells? How could I get a job like that—you know, when I grew up? Because I could really dig being a beachcomber for a living. (I suspect my inclination for this comes from my mother carrying me, in pregnancy, to Hawaii after my parents won a trip to the islands.)

Eventually I learned that beachcombing was not a full-time gig, so I had to settle for other things. I did keep my interest in tiki culture alive, and I still liked walking on beaches.

Coming to Vashon, it sounded as though the opportunities for strolling around beaches would be abundant. It’s an island. My wife and I found a rental place where we could see a little bit of the beach, and sometimes hear the killer whales breathing.

But walking the beaches of Vashon-Maury Island is more complicated than my Don the Beachcomber daydreams. The exact rules in the state of Washington are murky, but I can tell you that your wish to ramble on the shoreline can be punctured the first time you see a No Trespassing sign that refers to property rights extending to the waterline at lowest tide. Which means that even if you wade along waist-deep in kelp you might be violating somebody’s property.

There are public access points, of course. Some of them refer to a small patch of seaside with “No Trespassing” signs on either side. KVI Beach, at least, appears to offer a spot for a nice sustained bit of combing, and yet — when I would comb my way north, past the immediate vicinity of the radio tower, was I on private sand that belonged to somebody up there on the bluffs above?

Even in my neighborhood, there’s a kind of a disguised beach access site, with a sternly-worded sign about the “members only” status of this spot. I would go walking on the beach there, but always anxiously. I’m the kind of person who breaks into a clammy sweat if I see a security guard inside a grocery store — the assumption that I have done something wrong is deeply ingrained—so being uncertain about the regulations is not a happy recipe for lighthearted beachwalking.

No homeowner has ever rushed out with a tape measure and informed me of exactly where the low tideline is, demanding I retreat into the surf. But still, I’m anxious.

I get the other side, too; you pay a lot of money for your beachside home, you’d like to have a minimum of folks littering and playing loud music and pitching tents. (On the other hand, would some of you beachfronters trade your exclusive shoreline for the opportunity to roam free around the island? You’re shut out of that, too.)

This subject leads to thorny arguments about property rights and public access and other issues that trouble Vashon and the rest of the world. It also makes me think of the ever-increasing distance between ideas (and sometimes ideals) and reality, a gap played out globally all the time.

You might come to an island thinking about the freedom to do your own thing, a regular Don the Beachcomber, a footloose mustachioed figure lounging against a palm tree. But the reality is different, and freedom is limited — not so much by the “big government” we’re all supposed to fear, but by a system that divides and excludes.

Still, grow a mustache if you like, and grab the rum, and try the beach at Pago Pago; in the imagination, at least, there’s always a place beachcombers can wish for.

Robert Horton has been a film critic in Seattle for many years. Robert is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the host of the radio show “The Music and the Movies, on Voice of Vashon.” He was the longtime film critic of the Seattle Weekly and the Daily Herald (Everett, Washington) and a regular contributor to Film Comment and other magazines. He has appeared on The Today Show, taught at Seattle University and at Seattle Film Institute, and for many years was a weekly guest on KUOW radio.