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Starting Point

Hopeful peddler on a dead-end road


There’s a tree outside the window of my room here on Salt Spring Island. A tall, craggy pine at the lip of an embankment, tilting at a slight angle toward the shore, like an old man who’s hard of hearing.

Crooked limbs jut out at different levels. Some are wrapped around each other and the trunk -- a sinewy tangle that makes this fellow look like his arms are folded in front of him. Strips of pine needles fan out from the thinner branches, lifting gently in the wind. They seem almost ornamental, like a hat band on a gray fedora or a Sunday bow tie. Yet the old guy stands tall and proud with a dignity and power that comes from weathering decades of salt air and winter storms and the sometimes searing rays of a hot August sun.

I came to British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island fully expecting this rugged beauty and character. For years I’ve heard stories of the island from Jackie, my friend and fellow San Diegan, who along with her husband own this cabin to which I’ve retreated. I joined her here for a week’s spring vacation from life in California. Instead of being copywriter, wife and mother of two, I am, for a short time, friend, hiker, daydreamer, observer of squirrels and expert on the role of kindling in building a good fire in a wood-burning stove.

I was drawn here by Jackie’s tales of rocky coves and evergreen hills; towering arbutus and moss-covered trails; brazen, black-tailed deer who’ll probe your pockets for carrots; and long-necked geese that honk as insistently as big-rig drivers caught in the freeway’s slow lane. I remember her descriptions of ferries and sailboats weaving through the chain of the Gulf Islands, of orcas leaping and the mainland disappearing in a veil of distant mist. Coming here I carried visions of pink and purple starfish the size of dinner plates and of views as big as forever. I was prepared for the grandeur of this place, prepared for “beauty” spelled out in big, bold letters.

But I wasn’t ready for the tiny roadside flower stand and its four-and-a-half-foot proprietor I encountered the other afternoon.

We were driving back from a trip into town where we’d stocked up on essentials like pistachio nuts and Diet Pepsi. That afternoon, instead of turning directly into the driveway and heading for the carport, we decided to continue on a quarter-mile more to the point, for a look at Ganges Harbor.

We took in the view at the point, turned around in a cul-de-sac and noticed a little girl about 10 years old standing alone at the side of the road. In the yard in the back of her, an old wide-tired bike leaned against a long, low car in need of paint. A white trailer squatted under a TV antenna. Next to her, on a flat-topped rock, was a jelly jar filled with bright-yellow daffodils, a fistful of springtime fireworks. Her eyes followed us. She was selling fresh-cut flowers, and we were potential customers.

Her end-of-the-road location did not lend itself to high-volume business. It was as if Neil Armstrong had set up a card table on the lunar surface in an effort to peddle moon rocks. The chance of customers was zero to none. It didn’t help matters that every yard in the area had its own share of daffodils. And the ones that grew wild, poking up here and there among brambles and fence posts, made the girl’s entrepreneurial endeavor even more impossible.

Yet there she was, open for business, waiting and ready if, against all odds, someone should chance down that dead-end road in sudden need of daffodils.

If there was a bumper sticker that read “I brake for kids selling stuff by the side of the curb,” I’d slap it on my fender. I think all children with roadside stands deserve our patronage, whether they’re selling original artwork, baby alligator lizards, daffodils or lemonade. It encourages initiative. Teaches the value of a dollar. And experience has shown that lukewarm lemonade served in 3-oz. Dixie cups can, if the day is hot enough, actually quench a thirst.

We stopped, rolled down the window, and asked, “Say, how much are your flowers?”

“Two for 50 cents,” she said in a voice soft as an inlet breeze. She dipped her head shyly. Straight brown hair framed her round face.

“OK. How ’bout four for a dollar?”

She seemed reluctant, as if we were trying to talk her down on the price. But she agreed to our offer. Her words were, “All right,” but her manner said, “Just this once I’ll settle for four for a dollar.” Maybe she hoped we’d tell our friends.

She handed us our bouquet, then returned to her post next to the rock with the jelly jar. We continued down the road, rounded a turn and she slipped from the side mirror into my island memories.

On a hike to the point early the next morning, I passed the place where she sold her flowers. There, taped to the flat rock, was a piece of typing paper, damp from dew and ocean air. On it, written in capital letters with a crayon, were the wriggly words: “Closed, Please Come Again.”

Against a timeless background of rocks and tides and tall pine forests, I came to see that little girl, waiting to sell her daffodils, as the embodiment of every small, human hope for tomorrow. Optimism in scuffed sneakers. Golden dreams in jelly jars.

I know the island is famous for its breathtaking vistas, but that small scene at the tip of Scott Point had a heart-stopping quality all its own.

Sue Diaz writes from San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999