The crowd has cleared out—most people are already onboard—but a few stragglers rush to the boat. The ferry idles for a few more minutes before pulling away.
It’s sunny and warm, the kind of unseasonable weather that sparks conversations between strangers. Most of the ferry’s passengers congregate on the top deck, their faces merging into an indistinct blur as the ferry starts its journey back to San Francisco.
Back on the dock, Casey Dexter-Lee and two of her colleagues, all dressed in the ranger uniform of maintenance pants, a button-up shirt with a California State Parks patch, and a broad-brimmed hat, take a moment to relax. Dexter-Lee shares a video of her niece riding a bike for the first time. “I didn’t learn until I was 9,” she says. A park interpreter, Lee is one of about 20 people who call the park home. The juxtaposition between this quiet and the chaos that came before is one of her favorite parts of the job.
To live on Angel Island is to exist between worlds. Tiburon, a picturesque, wealthy town in Marin County, replete with boutiques, speciality grocery stores, and glassy mansions, is 1.6 miles away. San Francisco, the world’s tech center, home to billionaire startup founders and venture capitalists in fleece vests, is six miles away. And in the bay between them is Angel Island, 1.2 forested square miles populated by deer, raccoons, and birds. There are no tech workers or retired venture capitalists with second homes here, just a collection of dorms and standalone homes that rent for less than the price of a parking spot in San Francisco. There are no shops or restaurants. There isn’t even a grocery store or street lights. At night, it’s dark enough to see the stars, dimmed somewhat by the blazing lights of San Francisco in the distance.
The park is at once close to civilization and removed from it. All it takes to get there is a 15-minute ferry ride—except when the boats stop running for the day, which for park residents is 5:30 p.m. A series of boat operators have come and gone over the years, including a few for whom the departure time was non-negotiable. “We’re in an era now where it’s more open,” says Lee. (If she’s running two minutes late, she can call ahead and the ferry will wait.) It takes a little of the pressure off, but it doesn’t change the fact that she essentially has a nightly curfew.
Having lived on the island for 20 years, Dexter-Lee, 43, is used to these peculiarities. Grocery shopping, which requires two cars, because vehicles aren’t allowed on the ferry (most residents keep a car on the mainland), is typically reserved for her days off. If she’s desperate, the last boat stops at Tiburon for 23 minutes before heading back to Angel Island for the night. It’s enough time to rush to the nearest grocery store, an eight-minute walk if you hurry; grab the essentials; and get on the boat before it leaves.
Back on the island, deer sightings are routine. Squirrels, on the other hand, are a rare treat. “I’ll be somewhere else and I’ll see a squirrel, and I’ll be like, ‘It’s a squirrel!’ because we don’t have squirrels here,” she says. “I get excited about the silliest things here, and other people are just like, ‘Yeah, it’s a squirrel.’” (There are pigeons on the island, in addition to a single coyote, which the park staff believes swam over sometime during the summer of 2017.)
The ebb and flow of visitors is normal now, too. In addition to housing for residents, the island has 12 campsites, including two group sites. The vast majority of visitors, however, are day-trippers who rely on the ferries to get on and off the island. People miss the last boat so frequently, especially in the summer, that the staff has posted a detailed “what to do if you missed your ferry” guide by the dock. The first step: See if anyone with their own boat will take you to the mainland. If that doesn’t work, either because there are no boaters or because they’re not into hitchhikers, there are a number of water taxi companies that operate in the area. A ride isn’t guaranteed—one company asked the park to stop giving out its number because it was getting too many calls from stranded tourists—and it certainly isn’t cheap. (Rates vary widely, but typically start north of $100. A roundtrip ticket on the ferry costs $15.)
Stragglers notwithstanding, the last ferry’s departure marks the abrupt transition from activity to its absence, a demarcation between Dexter-Lee’s professional and personal life. “There are times when it’s very busy, especially down in the dock area, where you could have a couple thousand people, but they leave,” says Dexter-Lee. “And then at night it’s very quiet.”
Originally home to the Miwok people, Angel Island was acquired by a cattle rancher in the 1800s. During the American Civil War, it was used as a military fort and camp by the U.S. Army to ward off potential Confederate naval raids.
In 1910, part of Angel Island was converted into an immigration station. While people from a variety of countries were processed there, the island was used primarily as a way to control the flow of Asian immigrants, most of them Chinese, into the country. Immigrants who were denied entry on arrival—either because they failed to pass a health inspection or, as was often the case, because of their race or ethnicity—were detained for weeks, months, sometimes years at a time. Entry policies were unevenly enforced, particularly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first significant law restricting immigration into the country. First-class passengers were rarely held on the island, Dexter-Lee says. Meanwhile, “If you weren’t Chinese, you were less likely to come to Angel Island. If you were Asian, you were more likely to come here.”
Dexter-Lee was a history major in college, but struggled to connect with the subject in school—too many of her courses relied on memorization and dates. It was somewhat ironic, then, that she became one of the few graduates from her program to use her degree: Her first job on the island was to play Major George Andrews, the first commanding officer at Camp Reynolds during the Civil War. As Major Andrews, Dexter-Lee oversaw school groups of fourth and fifth graders who visited the island on 24-hour, immersive field trips in which they are inducted into the Union Army, perform militia drills, learn flag signaling, and look out for Confederate soldiers during night watch. (Captain Andrews “was a middle-aged man, but the last three program leads have been women,” says Dexter-Lee. “We’re all pretending. The kids get over it.”)
On Thursdays, Dexter-Lee worked at the Immigration Station with Dale Ching, a volunteer docent who had been detained on Angel Island as a 16-year-old. Initially hesitant to return to the island, he started leading group tours when he realized his experience—the crowded conditions, the lack of privacy and autonomy, the uncertainty—wasn’t being taught on school trips.
“He wanted to show kids this wasn’t some long ago thing, that it was something that happened to him,” says Dexter-Lee.
It was here, surrounded by staged remnants of Angel Island’s past, that history became visceral. “It finally occurred to me that history is the story of people,” she says as we walk through the building. It’s after the last ferry pulls away; outside, the late-afternoon sun gives a golden tint to the grass and bay, but inside, it’s dark.
As we move from room to room, Dexter-Lee turns on specially designed lights that emphasize the poems carved into the walls by making the indentions easier for visitors to see. There are more than 100 of them, all written by Chinese immigrants who were detained here. Originally carved and inked in, most of the characters were puttied in and painted over by maintenance workers.
“The poems express a range of emotion,” she says. “Some are angry and sad. There are poems that are more hopeful, there are poems that talk about the bad food in the dining hall and the crowded conditions and the long journey on the ship, about the thief that stole their money out of their pants, a medical exam, being uncomfortable. There are poems about the poems.”
Dexter-Lee often thinks about the cliche, “If these walls could talk.” Usually, it’s meant wistfully, a recognition of all that has happened, and been lost. The detention center, however, is a veritable record produced by marginalized people who experienced a piece of our country’s past.
“I learned to love history here,” she says.
One inescapable element of living on the island: People are nosy. Dexter-Lee fields a stream of inquiries from visitors on a daily basis. Popular lines of questioning include: where she lives, if she hangs out with her coworkers all the time, and what she does at night. (Answers: in a house, “No, I’m with them all day,” and cook dinner and maybe watch a mail-in movie from Netflix.)
Women used to regularly ask about her dating life. “They would be like, ‘How do you date?’” And I’m like, ‘I don’t know you!’” She doesn’t get asked about romantic prospects much anymore, likely because of her wedding band. Dexter-Lee met her husband in 2008 when he came to work on the island as a park aid; she was recovering from an epic bout of food poisoning, but was coherent enough to notice his attractiveness. He found her cute despite her condition, which she figured boded well for the future of their relationship.
They married on the island in 2010. The location was personally convenient—“I basically got married in my backyard”—but the logistics were tricky. The day of her dress fitting, for example, all ferries to and from Angel Island were canceled due to inclement weather, forcing Dexter-Lee to reschedule for a time dangerously close to their nuptials.
It was worth it, though. The ceremony took place on a hillside on the southwest side of the island, with sweeping views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. The 100-person reception, which included everyone who lived and worked at the park, was held down by the water at Camp Reynolds, the former Civil War military fort. Dexter-Lee fit as many people as she could in her house, as did her neighbors. Most of the younger guests set up camp near the wedding venue.
Visitors often tell Dexter-Lee, unprompted, that they could never live on the island. The inconvenience! The remoteness! They ask about the animals, and the dark.
Dexter-Lee grew up in a small town near Twain Harte, California, so she’s comfortable with quiet and a lack of street lights. But more than that, she’s grown to love Angel Island’s unique characteristics.
There’s its beauty, for one. Threaded with thickets of native trees (oak, bay, sagebrush, and elderberry, among others) as well as those that were planted by the military, including pines, firs, cypresses, and eucalyptus, the island is wild and changeable. During the rainy season, it’s moody and green; in the springtime, wildflowers bloom. And from virtually every point, there is a view: of San Francisco to the south, the Golden Gate Bridge to the southwest, Sausalito to the west, Tiburon to the northwest, and the Oakland Bay Bridge to the southeast.
The isolation has its upsides, too. “There is nothing here that can hurt you,” she says. “The most dangerous things are ticks and poison oak, and you have to go in the bushes to find those.”
In her 20 years on the island, there have been a handful of emergencies, like visitors who experienced serious medical events or who injured themselves, but virtually no violence or crime, aside from occasional vandalism. “We had one bicycle stolen, but it belonged to a kid who lived here and left his bike out for a month.”
And then there’s the cost of living. When Dexter-Lee moved into the island’s dorms in 2000, her rent was $41.96 a month. (At $45 a month, it cost more to park her car in Tiburon.) Back then, she earned roughly $80 a day, which meant after a single day of work she was able to cover her rent and parking spot. Work another day, and she could pay for food; one more, car insurance. “You have enough money to pay your expenses; you have disposable income,” she says. “As a seasonal [worker] I was able to go on trips and things with my friends who had more traditional jobs but were paying more traditional rents.”
Since Dexter-Lee moved to the island, the cost of living in the surrounding area has skyrocketed. From 2012 to 2018, the rental platform Trulia estimated that San Francisco rents on its site climbed nearly 40 percent; In October, the median market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city was a staggering $3,550.
On the island, rents have also gone up—but not by much. Seasonal workers, who make the state minimum wage of $13 an hour, are housed in shared dorms and pay $70 a month, which includes heat and electricity. Dexter-Lee lives in a private house with her husband. They pay less than $300 a month, an unheard-of price in the Bay Area.
“Our power bill is higher than our rent,” she says.
The cost of living, the community, and the beauty all might be enough to keep Dexter-Lee on the island. That she loves her job seals the deal.
It’s morning, and Dexter-Lee is driving from the docks to the hospital. Opened in 1910 near the detention barracks—with two entrances, one for Asians and one for Europeans—it had fallen into a state of disrepair. Following a multiyear renovation, it will open to the public later this year as an immigration museum.
The finished museum will include information about Angel Island’s role in the country’s immigration history. But the exhibits will extend beyond this, pulling in more contemporary facets of the U.S. immigration system. As a state park employee, Dexter-Lee is not at liberty to discuss her personal feelings about specific government policies, “but it’s perfectly acceptable to draw parallels between current immigration and historic immigration,” she says. “We were a detention facility. Migrants are being detained today,” including children who have been separated from their parents.
The aim is to create a space that facilitates conversation, in part by placing past and present approaches to immigration in the context of one another. “Immigration is a controversial issue,” Dexter-Lee says. “I’ve yet to meet the person [who] when asked how they feel about immigration, they go ‘meh.’ That person doesn’t really exist. But we want everyone to have a chance to think about and talk about this.”
As a park interpreter, a central part of Dexter-Lee’s job is translating history and nature into something visitors can understand and, whenever possible, relate to personally. The museum should be an easy sell in this regard. “At this site, we just really don’t have to work too hard on relevance,” she says. “[Immigration] is not a thing of the past.”
When Dexter-Lee moved to Angel Island in 2000 as a 24-year-old with nothing but a sleeping bag and some canned food, she had no idea what to expect. Twenty years later, the island has become her home. Like any way of life, there are trade-offs: it’s hard to see friends with regular 9-to-5 jobs; grocery shopping is a pain; going out to a restaurant is a near impossibility.
Despite Angel Island’s remoteness, however, Dexter-Lee isn’t lonely or isolated. She has her husband as well as a close-knit group of coworkers. But just as importantly, her days are spent interacting with people who are experiencing the park for the first time, an experience that keeps the island fresh, despite the familiarity. The job also provides built-in balance. She likes giving tours and helping people understand Angel Island’s past and present. But she also derives immense satisfaction from watching the last ferry depart.
“You don’t appreciate the quiet without the chaos,” she says. “I really love living here.”