Thirteen years ago, Andrew Quintana and wife Caitlin decided to make Catalina Island their home. They boarded the Catalina Express, the ferry that connects the island with the mainland, and as the boat approached Avalon Harbor, Quintana looked up and saw a robust fire crackling in the hills north and west above the town of 4,000.
“We are on the Express with all our suitcases,” Quintana recalls. “The boat slowed and someone said, ‘Look at the ridgetop!’ We saw a wall of flame above the town, which has lots of old wooden buildings. The fire had been coming towards the city slowly for about half a day.”
Just when it looked as though Avalon was about to be consumed by fire, “the wind shifted and pushed the fire back up the hill.”
Even though it changed direction, the fire continued to burn for 5½ days. It didn’t, however, change the resolve of the Quintanas to stay on the island.
“I just fell in love with Catalina,” says Andrew, a 32-year-old native Southern Californian and our guide on the Rumble and Trek tour (https://www.visitcatalinaisland.com/things-to-do/land-tours/rumble-and-trek/). The 2½-hour adventure takes visitors up to the second-highest spot on the island via a Hummer powered by recycled vegetable oil from local restaurants.
The ride is followed by a 2.2-mile hike on the Airport Loop Trail, which yields panoramic views of Avalon, its homes creeping up the steep hillside, and the picture-postcard harbor. The hike also visits the old Soapstone Quarry, and if you’re lucky, you’ll encounter one or more of the 100 bison that inhabit the hills.
We also get gentle thrills standing just below the end of the runway of the Airport in the Sky and watching the planes land a few feet above our heads.
“When you are here, it’s hard to believe that that there are 25 million people just 30 miles away,” Quintana says as we stand taking in the Pacific from 1,600 feet. “We are so close to everything and so far from everything.”
Catalina Island was on “total lockdown” for about 10 weeks early in the pandemic — no one could come in or out except for emergencies — and this resulted in a 90% unemployment rate. Now that the island has reopened, it’s an attractive destination for Southern Californians now because it’s nearby but feels far away, offers many outdoor attractions, maintains a strict mask policy, and focuses on outdoor dining.
“Now people are looking for things to do,” Quintana says. “It’s October but it feels like July here. The cruise ships are not coming this year, so we’re really grateful to the people who come to visit.”
The Rumble and Trek tour was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and began operating mid-September. The open-air Hummer is designed to carry 13 passengers, but this tour takes no more than eight (12 if related or traveling together). All passengers and guides must wear masks, hand sanitizer hangs on the Hummer, and participants hike at least 6 feet apart.
Quintana has worked at many jobs since arriving in Avalon, but he’s found his niche with the Catalina Island Company, which owns many of the businesses and attractions. He began working for the company about three years ago and currently leads the Hummer/hike tours.
He narrates throughout the twisty-turny drive from Avalon to the airport and continues during the hike. He tells stories about the weather, topography, geology, environment, the 60 plant, animal and insect species found nowhere else, and what it’s like to live in a town with an area of less than 3 square miles (The entire island is 76 square miles; 88% belongs to the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy, which works to preserve the island and its natural resources).
“As I was being trained for the tour and the more I went out into the hills, the more I fell in love with the island,” Quintana tells us. “I love sharing the island with other people. (Catalina is a place) where you can get out and step away from the craziness during this pandemic.”