I first heard of Vashon when I met David one night at Seattle’s famous Century Ballroom. He was wearing one of his signature wool sweaters that looked straight out of a Montana craft show. Endearingly awkward on the dance floor, his loopy blond curls fell repeatedly over his eyes as we made our way through a tango song.
Whatever he lacked in tango prowess, he made up for in storytelling, offering a glimpse into his unconventional life on Vashon Island. The way he talked about this magical place where he crafted wooden bowls, I envisioned it as a faraway land. It would take me another three and a half years to visit him here (and subsequently realize it’s only a twenty-minute ferry ride from Seattle).
If Seattle is famous for its freeze, Vashon should be known for its ability to defrost those chilly bubbles us city folk have sheathed ourselves in. And the thawing begins as the ferry process commences. It’s necessary to line up in your car at least one hour (often more) before departure at the Fauntleroy Terminal in West Seattle. This means a bunch of parked cars in a small space with a lot of time to wait. People often get out of their cars and wander around, possibly exchanging pleasantries with other ferry-goers. Once boarding begins, cars are directed into lanes on the ferry, with two floors of vehicles. Stairs lead up to a big space filled with booths, benches, and even a small food court. Grab a booth seat near a window, or make your way up to the front of the ferry and let the wind whip your hair around as you get the best view in the house. My friend Donia and I grabbed some snacks and slipped into a booth. While the ferry made its way to Vashon, we met a cute Chihuahua and smiled at a toddler learning to walk.
It’s a little under five miles to get to downtown Vashon from the ferry terminal, which means you really need some sort of wheels. If you don’t take your own car on the ferry, it’s best to have a friend on the other side to pick you up. There is a bus, but it’s quite infrequent, and you could get stranded at the terminal for over an hour if you time it wrong. The other option is to befriend locals on the ferry and hope they ask if you need a ride!
The Saturday farmers’ market was our first destination, and we were able to snag a spot in a nearby shopping center parking lot. I looked over at the car beside us, and two furry faces greeted me: a pair of ginger kittens jumped and tumbled over and in between the seats as I watched in delight. The kittens’ owner came over with a bag of produce from the market and accidentally let one of the fur balls out. We all crouched around, pursing our lips and making kissy noises to coax the kitten out from beneath the car. She took a few curious steps toward me, and I scooped her up, delivering her back into the safe hands of her owner. Ten minutes on the island and I was already making friends with animals and people. Vashon, what voodoo powers do you hold?
The farmers’ market is fairly compact, but there is delicious food and fresh produce to be had, and even some handmade soaps in the shape of pie slices. Forest Garden Farm’s bundles of fresh greens and edible flowers had us wishing we’d brought a cooler with us, as did Burton Hill Farm, which fed us samples of feta goat cheese. We did grab a bag of Sun Island Farm’s snap peas to munch on as we explored the island. And David bought us a carton of strawberries from the same stand. Oh, yes, curly-haired David. You didn’t think I forgot, did you? It turns out David sells his wooden bowls and spinning tops at the farmers’ market. He invited us to swing by his property later that afternoon after we’d explored the island.
With our snap peas and strawberries to tide us over until lunch, we drove to KVI Beach on the recommendation of a friend. True to Vashon’s seemingly dissolved barriers, a friendly dog owner struck up a conversation with us as
we knelt down to pet his two rescue dogs. He was a cellist from Los Angeles who had moved to Vashon to retire. As we chatted, the two dogs suddenly took off chasing a squirrel, and, in a matter of seconds, three other dogs from elsewhere joined them on the hunt, like an impromptu dog Avengers summit. We left the pups to their mission and strolled toward the water, plunking down on some driftwood and noting how empty the stretch of pebbly beach was.
We fantasized about the unpurchased fresh greens and goat cheese from the market, vowing to come back one day and have a proper picnic on the beach—and bring our books. (Introvert habits die hard.) As we walked back to our car, we were greeted by a lumbering hound dog named Berlin, whose owner was trying unsuccessfully to herd the sassy old dog into the car. I began formulating an Instagram hashtag in my mind— #rebeldogsofvashon.
The snap peas and strawberries were polished off, so we headed back into town to forage for more substantial offerings. You can’t go to Vashon Island and not eat at the Hardware Store. It’s something of an institution, and for good reason. Owner Melinda Powers transformed an old hardware store into a thriving restaurant that focuses on locally sourced, organic ingredients. It’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it has retained its charm with a pressed-tin ceiling and salvaged wood, both remnants of the original store. There’s even a neat art gallery on the way to the bathroom. I had a hard time deciding between the fish and chips and the Baja tacos, but the Pacific cod tacos—and their spicy cilantro-jalapeño flavor—eventually won me over.
With full bellies, it was wooden bowl time, and we headed to my friend David’s property. We made the left turn at his handmade sign that proclaimed, “David Earle. Woodturner. Bowls, spinning tops, and other goodies” and found ourselves parked in front of a field with a series of wooden structures to the right of us. And not just any wooden structures. One stretches twenty-eight feet by twenty-eight feet by sixteen feet, with a giant sliding glass door that covers half the building. At that moment, I realized my curly-haired friend is a bona fide carpenter with a skill set that allowed him to envision and follow through on this rustically stunning wood workshop. A much smaller structure features a wall of windows and a completely hand-built kitchen outfitted with cast-iron cookware, a mortar and pestle, wooden utensils, a food scale, and vases filled with wildflowers. A mauve-hued velvet couch hugs one wall, with a wood-hewn footstool in the middle of the room for tired legs. It is like stumbling on a children’s book illustration come to life.
David explained, “I built the giant sliding glass barn door mostly out of curiosity. I’d never seen such a large door. I put it on the north side so the light would be even and I could use the natural light whenever it was available.” In one corner of the wood shop is the wood lathe, made in Australia by a company called Vicmarc. The best-of-the-best machinery, this 400 to 500 pounds of cast iron is equivalent to the price of a well-cared-for used car. David also has a much smaller lathe he uses to give spinning-top demonstrations at the farmers’ market. All around the workshop are vignettes indicative of the artist that creates here—a giant cat-head mask quilted with sheep’s wool, sketches made by a robot that David and his mathematics wizard friend programmed to draw, flat files stuffed full of art supplies, and bins of screws and nuts and washers. There is a chalkboard on one wall of the shop with a to-do list. Number 4 reads, “Go to one new place a week.”
David is no stranger to trying out new things. After a high-school art teacher urged him to head across the country for art school, he decided on the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and took classes in jewelry-making, sculpture, and ceramics, among others. After graduation, while working as a bike mechanic and an estate gardener, he purchased a one-hundred-dollar lathe off Craigslist, bought a book by famous woodturner Richard Raffan, and went through the entire publication trying different projects. After having success selling his work at an art walk in Seattle, he set up a business plan with the help of his stepfather. “I was really fortunate to have parents who were supportive of me doing whatever felt right. Everyone needs people in their life to say, ‘Yeah, you can try that.’”
David has made wood turning bowls and spinning tops his full-time gig ever since, selling at farmers’ markets and craft shows, as well as shipping wooden bowls and spinning tops to customers around the country. In his spare time, he can be found harvesting snap peas, cilantro, and other fresh produce from his garden; sailing his boat around Washington State; and building a guest cottage. And, luckily for us, he also sees the value in taking time to host friends and strangers alike, to share his craft, to hand them sun-warmed raspberries, and to remind them of the simpler things in life.
This modern-day Renaissance man is part of the talented and quirky tapestry that ties together the people of Vashon, and, though the bumper stickers say, “Keep Vashon Weird,” more apt taglines might be, “Keep Vashon Warm,” “Keep Vashon Kind,” “Keep Vashon Magical.”