I decided that this was wrong, inaccurate, an exaggeration. It is well known that the stultifying weather conditions predominant in Washington, D.C., in August are the result of unique topographical and climatic conditions having to do with the jet stream and the gulf stream and the pollen situation and that it is unique to the MidAtlantic region and could not possibly be worse anywhere else on Earth.

I packed a sweater. “And I’m taking my jeans too,” I said, defiantly.

The last few days were spent saying goodbye to friends and family. Do try to visit , we told everyone. Yes, we’ll try, they said, but when they envisioned the trip we could sense the skepticism. Finally, there was only one thing left to do. I proposed to Sylvia. The proposition was accepted. And then we left, in the darkness of night, beginning the long, long journey—as such journeys should be—to Paradise.


In which the Author and his aforementioned Beguiling Girlfriend depart the Continental World, alight briefly upon Fabled Hawaii, escape from the Dreaded Johnston Atoll, and fall into Despair upon arriving in the Marshall Islands.

Like many air travelers, I am aware that airplanes fly aided by capricious fairies and invisible strings. Typically, this causes me some concern. And so, typically, I am not shy about accepting those little bottles of wine kindly proffered by flight attendants, gratis, on international flights. However, I no longer drink when flying, having learned that being both jet-lagged and alcohol-bloated makes you feel like crap and basically establishes a poor beginning to any trip. Despite the lack of alcohol, I had been doing just fine since leaving Washington, occasionally repeating like a mantra that no one dies from a little turbulence, and if a bump combined with a mechanical groan warranted it, Sylvia would take my hand and calmly coo about the rigors of the FAA airplane certification process. Indeed, after three days of flying, I was beginning to feel abnormally at ease on an airplane. The sky was blue. The water also. I was bored senseless. Clearly, we had traveled far.

The thing about flying from a place like Washington, D.C., to an island like Tarawa is that, despite the interminable tedium of the journey, there really isn’t sufficient time to make a smooth transition. And I am a transition person. I need those interludes of adjustment. I need coffee, a transition mechanism, to help me adjust from the comatose to, if nothing more, consciousness. I need Pennsylvania, a transition state, to adjust from the Mid-Atlantic to New England. But flying from the heart of the free world to the end of the world offers no satisfying transitional process. There is no spring or fall in long-distance air travel. It’s straight winter to summer. One predawn moment we were inside a terminal seething with ambitious people, business travelers tramping up to New York and Boston for very important meetings, where we stood at a counter under the curious gaze of a counter person, who noted that our tickets read Washington–Newark–San Francisco–Honolulu–Johnston Atoll–Majuro– Tarawa and that they were one-way tickets, causing the counter person to exclaim “Gosh,” and then after many long hours spent in a magic tube, punctuated by semilucid gate-to-gate wanderings, we found ourselves in Waikiki Beach, where we strolled among shops offering the latest from Givenchy, Chanel, and the Japanese porn industry, until we reached the actual strand—surfers bobbing, Diamond Head looming, a sun descending in crimson grandeur—and we began to laugh because life can be funny sometimes.

Soon, too soon, it was time to leave Nippon… er, Hawaii, and we returned to the airport, where we strolled past the gates where flights to Osaka and Los Angeles drew their passengers, and walked on to the gate where Air Micronesia awaited. Again we were flying, not to the continents straddling the Pacific Ocean, but to another, more distant island. The trip was beginning to feel like an act of willful disappearance. No one who claims this to be a small world has ever flown across the Pacific. Tick-tock, tick-tock, the hours, the days, passed with excruciating monotony. It was very blue. Celestial blue merged with aquatic blue, and it just went on and on and on, the blue did, and also the time, and then a descent began and it was still blue, and quickly now we were very near the Pacific Ocean. I felt as if I could touch the water. I saw ripples carving ocean swells. I sensed sharks lurking. There were ominous shadows, twenty-footers at least. And then fingers of coral whooshed by and we landed with a hard whomp, and then we stopped. We were on Johnston Atoll and here, very briefly, we shall pause.

Johnston Atoll is the vilest place on Earth. In the 1960s the United States used the island for atmospheric nuclear tests, which is a definite no-no in most neighborhoods. Not content to merely nuke the atoll, the U.S. then decided to poison it. This is where America stores and disposes of such wonders from the laboratory as the nerve gas Sarin and other clever agents for delivering disease and death. There are two bleak processing plants and they sit at either end of the runway, steadily burning canister after canister of poison. Between the plants are military barracks with satellite dishes protruding from their roofs, receiving signals from a world that seems very far away. There is nothing else on Johnston Atoll. Now and then, there are little accidents, leakages, small oopsies, and the hapless soldiers assigned here don their gas masks.

It is tempting to dash off a page or two and expound upon the philosophical implications of Johnston Atoll. The physical manifestations of humanity’s capacity for great evil reside here, and for writers more ambitious than I this would be like catnip. However, sitting in an airplane watching one passenger, a civilian who had made a peculiar career choice, disembark, I was not struck by any profound ruminations. My thoughts were more along the lines of Could someone please close the fucking door before we all turn into mutants? Armed soldiers guarded the airplane and I just knew that they were sporting fish gills, and while I felt deeply sorry for them and their offspring, I just wished that someone would close the door and let us breathe airplane air again, which is only slightly less toxic, but still. And then someone did just that, and we were back in the air, scanning the water closely, searching for signs of Godzilla.

So maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps Johnston Atoll is the transitory island in the Pacific. The illusion-buster. The island that announces to travelers that they should cast aside their naivete, their glossy presumptions, and realize that the Pacific is a big place, a big empty place, and that some may find the emptiness useful. True, Johnston Atoll is just a rock, barren and about as distant from settlement as one can be, and so if one must nuke an island, and gas it too, Johnston Atoll does all right, never mind the fishies. Not so the Marshall Islands. Here, after ever more hours spent hurtling across the Pacific, we arrived, exhausted and crabby, accustomed to movement, and not at all prepared, after all that flying, to find ourselves in a spookily familiar place, as though we were inside a forgotten episode of The Twilight Zone, the one where Dr. Strangelove descends upon the set of South Pacific. We were on Majuro, the capital atoll of the Marshall Islands, a grim island group deemed useful by the United States. It is, frankly, not so good to be found useful by a superpower, particularly one interested in exploring the nuances of the hydrogen bomb.

It was in the Marshall Islands where scientists finally discovered what, in fact, constitutes a coral atoll. A coral atoll is the crest of a dying volcano. Like many explanations this one derives from Charles Darwin, building upon the work of previous naturalists. Coral only thrives until about 150 feet below the surface, but rather than assume that the coral is steadily rising atop an expanding underwater volcano, which was the belief at the time, Darwin theorized that coral replenishes itself by matching the rate of a sea volcano’s dissolution. As the land far below the water surface steadily recedes into the depths, coral polyps grow from its slopes, seeking the sun, rising first to become a barrier reef, and then, as the volcano continues to disintegrate, slowly inching toward its base, an atoll is formed, the living crest balanced atop layers of dead coral and far below, the volcano itself.

Of course, it took some time to prove this theory, since one had to dig awfully deep to find the volcano below. Attempts were made, but it was not until 1952, more than a hundred years after Darwin first proposed his theory, when a drill bit was pushed 4,610 feet into Eneewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands and struck volcanic rock, that Darwin’s theory was proved correct. It was incidental, however, to the purpose of the drilling. Enwetak was being canvassed as a sight for testing the hydrogen bomb and the drilling indicated that the atoll was suitable for obliteration. Shortly after dawn on November 1, 1952, a bomb called Mike was detonated, and an island, a home, an ecosystem was blown up, irradiated, and poisoned, leading many to wonder what is the point of having Nevada.

This was hardly the only apocalyptic event in the Marshalls. I just happen to enjoy the weird symbiosis between discovering the nature of an atoll and blowing it up. Dozens of tests occurred in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s and one would think that nuking the Marshall Islands over and over again would be enough punishment to inflict on the country for one epoch, but the U.S. Department of Defense thinks otherwise. Every year, the United States targets the Marshall Islands with its intercontinental ballistic missiles. These weapons are fired from

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