MIDWAY ISLANDS, Hawaii — As my plane touched down in the darkness, I chuckled to myself. I have a friend who is always teasing me: "You're going where? But why, when you could go to easy places, like London or Paris or, for that matter, New Orleans or New York?" Once again I was headed in a contrary direction: to Midway, a smattering of tiny islands and atolls at the farthest western tip of the northern Hawaiian Islands chain, a full three hours by plane from the considerable charms of Maui.
My friend once remarked that I engage in traveler's one-upmanship, trying to go to ever more unvisited places. Midway is America's Galapagos, an isolated ecosystem that has been open to paying visitors for only one year.
My husband, who favors scaling remote mountains in China or Borneo over shopping the boutiques and emporiums of Waikiki, had a say in our vacation plans this April. He had been steadily at my side during a relaxing week of self-indulgence in Honolulu, and now his turn had come. He was ready to rough it in a more exotic location, where birds outnumber humans by about 10,000 to 1.
A U.S. naval base for more than 50 years, Midway now is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the benefit of a million wild creatures, the most distinctive of which is the Laysan albatross. If the island were abandoned, nonnative plants imported over the years would overwhelm the natural habitat and wildlife.
Sand Island, Midway's main landform and only inhabited island, is just two miles long and one mile wide. For most of the year, it is dominated by the 430,000 pairs of albatrosses that call Midway home. Every fall they return in monogamous pairs to the exact spots where they nested the year before. It is as though there is some invisible grid laid over the island, enabling the birds--commonly called gooneys--to position their nests exactly a yard apart.
I soon learned to step carefully around the gooneys. They are calm around people but they won't budge, and they are likely to respond to a human's misstep with a lashing cut with their big beaks. I also became adept at guiding my bicycle around them on the roads, where they form an obstacle course of considerable challenge.
Although my bicycle was a big, clunky coaster type, it was speedy enough and efficient. Motorized vehicles such as golf carts make even slower progress on Midway because someone has to hop out continually and "sweep" the birds--that is, pick them up and move them off the road.
No one was in a hurry anyway. Life on Midway is slow and easy. Guests stay in one of two former Navy barracks, still named "Bravo" and "Charlie." The quarters are tidy and comfortable, with televisions (reception courtesy of enormous satellite dishes still functional from Navy days) and, down the hall, washers and dryers, rusting but also still functional.
The residents of Midway number only 140 or so, and the guests never total more than 100. After a few days, everyone looks familiar. It is small-town life at its storybook best: A big crime on Midway is borrowing someone else's bike.
Most people on Midway--residents and visitors alike--take their meals at the old Navy galley, where cooks from Sri Lanka whip up a wide array of dishes, ranging from hamburgers and lasagna to very pungent curries. A hydroponics garden supplies excellent salad fixings, but for me this healthful eating was counterbalanced--outweighed, I'm afraid--by plate-size freshly baked cookies.
Besides the galley, there is a pricey new restaurant. There also is a little store selling snack foods, beer and sundries.
One day, I saw a hand-scrawled note on the store's cooler: "Strong Texan is coming." I figured it was a brand of beer. No, the Strong Texan is the island's most eagerly awaited visitor--the ship that brings nonperishables and durable goods twice a year.
Deep-sea sportfishing can be arranged through a private outfitter, and a variety of the usual resort sports was available, as well as guided tours conducted by Fish and Wildlife. But our main daily activity was simply bicycling around the island, checking on the gooney families.
Gooneys are gorgeous birds with shiny black and white feathers. Prodigious fliers with wingspans of 6 feet, they are at home in the sky but awkward on land. (The Laysans' albatross cousins in the South Pacific, immortalized in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," have wingspans up to twice as wide.) They earned the gooney nickname because of the comical way they land, tumbling over on legs unfamiliar with terra firma. Their most spirited activity is a three-part social ritual that involves clacking their bills vigorously, tucking their heads under their wings, then throwing back their heads to cast an Oh-ooooo call to the sky.