afoot_in_st_croixIt happens on every research trip. By now, you’d think I would have learned.

A seemingly innocuous piece of advice slips into a casual conversation between a departing tourist and a new arrival. After the hi, how are you’s and the obligatory so where are you from’s comes the inevitable transition to the veteran’s activities of the previous week. This is a discussion topic of which every traveler should be wary.

I’m talking about the “can’t miss” recommendation.

I fall for it every time.

What kind of a writer would I be if I didn’t check out this “must see” location? After all, the whole point of my visit is to search out fictional inspiration. This treacherous line of reasoning frequently gets me into trouble.

And so it went on my most recent trip to the Caribbean island of Tortola. The recommendation was for Smuggler’s Cove, an isolated out-of-the way beach with stunning views of neighboring Jost van Dyke. Could this be the site of a critical scene in a future novel? There was only one way to find out.

The next morning I asked for directions from the owner of the inn where I was staying. In typical Caribbean fashion, she provided me with the following route:

“Go past the Bomba Shack…” (In the Caribbean, a rum shack is almost always a navigational compass point) “…turn left at the bottom of the hill across from the public parking lot. There’s a little sign, next to a big boulder. You can’t miss it.” (This is generally an indication that I will, indeed, miss it.) “After that, just follow the road.”

I set off in my put-put rental jeep, which was running on about 1.8 of its 4 cylinders. I would soon realize I needed the brakes as much as the missing horsepower.

I found my way past the rum shack, but predictably got stymied looking for the signed turnoff. After parking in a private parking lot for a large resort, I pulled out a map that had come with the rental. I rotated the sheet several times, trying to reconcile the innkeeper’s instructions with the cartographer’s cartooned island depiction. The only mapped road I could find appeared to run through the resort.

A West Indian man strolled past, apparently on his way to Bomba’s.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m looking for the road to Smuggler’s Cove?”

“Yeah, sure,” he replied. He looked at me as if this was one of the silliest questions he’d ever heard. “It’s right there.” He pointed at a concrete-covered hill I’d wrongly assumed to be someone’s driveway.

“That’s the road?” I asked.

Nodding his head, he made a dramatic gesturing motion with his arms and then continued his trek to the rum shack.

With encouraging words to the gerbils powering the jeep’s engine, I switched to the lowest gear, mashed the accelerator to the floor, and began to slowly inch up the concrete’s near vertical pitch.

The “road” quickly narrowed to the width of the jeep, and the concrete petered out to a dirt path littered with sharp volcanic rocks. After a couple of tight turns, the jungle closed in on either side. I couldn’t see more than ten feet past the front bumper.

God forbid I meet someone coming from the opposite direction, I thought grimly. There was no room to turn around and no way I was backing the jeep down the hill. I felt certain I was about to pop a tire, and, of course, I’d lost all cell phone reception. It was easily the worst incline I’d ever driven – and mind you, I’m from Colorado.

Plodding forward, because there was no other choice, I eventually reached the summit. From there, it became clear that the makeshift road had been designed to skirt around the resort boundaries, presumably due to complaints about people driving through their private grounds. Once I completed the cut-around portion, the going was far easier.

I soon reached my destination, a pristine beach with a jaw-dropping view –packed with about fifty other people who’d all been given the same “must see” advice.

I spent a wonderful afternoon at Smuggler’s Cove. I even met a potential future fictional character in an enterprising Tortolan who ran a full mini-bar out of an ice chest and a fold up table.

When it was time to leave, I took the flat, paved road through the resort, confidently waving at its employees as if I was a paying guest.

At dinner later that night, I struck up a conversation with a lovely couple that had just arrived on the island.

“What do you recommend we do while we’re here?” they asked politely.

“Oh, there’s this beach that you have to visit.” I replied. “Smuggler’s Cove. Take the road down past the Bomba Shack, then turn left at the big boulder…”

afoot_in_st_croixThere’s just something about an island.

A brazen hunk of cured lava or sand-dusted coral emerges from the depths of the sea. Despite the constant threats of weather, wave, quake, and volcanic eruption, the spot is soon inhabited by a colorful cast of independents – brazen souls who dare to tempt the cruel whims of fate.

It makes the perfect setting for a book.

Add to this the vast number and variety of islands spread across the globe and you’ve got enough source material to keep a writer busy for the rest of her life.

Yes, I am intrigued by islands.

Through the ages, islands have stood at the crossroads of history, as essential transportation hubs in the oceans’ liquid deserts, as flashpoints in territorial disputes, and as arenas for epic showdowns between dueling global superpowers.

The geographic construct has posed challenges to both invading pirates and besieged peasants. Depending on the sharpness of its boundaries and the temperament of the surrounding sea, an island can be an open drawbridge, impossible to defend against outside intrusion – or a confining barrier that is impossible to escape.

Practically every race, religion, language, and culture has a representative island. People emanating from the most landlocked countries often have a waterlocked counterpart that reflects their specific nationality.

And while these tiny bits of landmass have borne a disproportionate share of human slavery and trafficking, that dark suffering has spawned some of the world’s most creative folklore. The imaginations of the oppressed have flowered vivid monsters, tragic martyrs, and mythical tales of triumph and defeat.

No matter how narrow its isolating band of water, every island is unique.

An island can be the hub of a massive transportation web, a buzzing transfer station, or the last sleepy stop at the end of nowhere. It can be an elite retreat, a cosmopolitan city, or a near empty preserve.

Islands possess a rare beauty, an unavoidable closeness with nature. Resources are inevitably scarce, creating a heightened environmental awareness. As such, islands have provided refuge for delicate species that never could have existed on our crowded continents, a treasure of wondrous proportions.

Standing at an island’s edge, water lapping at my feet, I’ve puzzled over the mysterious firmness of sand, solid despite its myriad separate members, yet constantly changing shape and shade. I’ve laughed at the comical routine of a hermit crab, struggling to carry an oversized shell up onto a beach, and I’ve marveled at the spectacle of insects, humming, chirping, biting…performing.

For this writer, islandography has become a near obsession, a call to search out and investigate, to learn, experience, and be influenced.

There are thousands of islands waiting to be explored.

And so many stories left to tell.