Back of Beyond in the Bahamas

Mrs. Lola Moss, a player in the Italian aperitif industry, walked barefoot across the coral rock road from her house to a stand of cascarilla trees on Crooked Island, in the southern Bahamas. Wearing a crisp patterned sundress and a backward baseball cap, Mrs. Moss, lean and wiry and 70 if she was a day, took me down a path to a frowsy little tree eight or ten feet tall, with a cluster of spindly stems. It looked like one of the main ingredients of the dense scrub forest that covered most of the island. Actu-ally, it was a main ingredient of the bitter red aperitivo called Campari.

"My mommy plant this tree," Mrs. Moss told me, "and all the other trees around this place, they spring from it."

Mrs. Moss is one of just a very few Crooked Islanders who still harvest the bark of the cascarilla tree for shipment to Italy. She tore away a branch and, using a rock, scratched loose a patch of bark (usually the branches soak for a couple of weeks before being stripped) and handed it to me to taste. It was like eating from a Campari tree.

"Whenever I lose my appetite, I take some bark and mix it with boiling water," Mrs. Moss told me. "I drink that, I can eat all day." I don't know how Gaspare Campari heard of Crooked Island and its bitter-barked trees while he was devising his own appetite-enhancer more than a hundred years ago. I might not have heard of the island myself, if, during the late 1980s, I hadn't been working on a book about Christopher Columbus.

I had followed the route of Columbus's first voyage through the Bahamas and as far as the southern tip of Long Island before running out of time and money. I looked across Crooked Island Passage, determined to someday pick up where I had left off. I knew that, according to the two major competing theories about the route, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria had next stopped at Crooked Island on their way to Cuba. And so, the thinly populated, seldom-visited "Out Islands" of the far southern and eastern Bahamas became, quite apart from the Columbus saga, entries in my own file of places to discover.

I landed on Crooked Island in a truck. Of course there was a Bahamas-air f light involved, but the truck ride was the memorable part of the trip. I climbed onto the back of the flatbed sent by the little bonefishing resort at Pittstown Point, nearly 20 miles from the airport, and for the next half hour sat on a bench in the open air as if I were riding to the front. In a way, I was. I was riding to the bonefishing front, with that week's complement of combatants.

I started to get to know the bonefish warriors, who would be my dining and drinking companions for the duration of my stay. By the third day the breezy little bar and restaurant seemed like some back-of-beyond officers' club that I had belonged to for years. The talk was mostly of fishing, but from time to time it turned to airplanes, because the resort had its own landing strip. One morning I walked out with a mug of coffee and was met by a woman telling me, "My husband just heard on the radio - there's a Bonanza coming in!" I joined the group in the gazebo at the edge of the runway and watched the trim little Beechcraft slide in above the surf. There is, of course, another Crooked Island, which is better seen by bicycle than by Bonanza. One day I pedaled lazily down the road that forms the narrow island's spine, slicing through scrub and along an occasional swath of rocky ocean strand.

A lonely place, Crooked Island. There are about 600 inhabitants, all scattered, except for those who live in a couple of drowsy communities near the airport. I rolled along for miles and saw no one. Passing the stone gateposts of an 18th-century plantation called the Seaview Settlement, I realized that the view of the sea was all that was left of someone's colonial dream.

It was during that ride that I looked up Lola Moss and her cascarilla trees. I had learned about her from a man named John Scavella, whose roadside sign read "Grocery Store." Hot and thirsty, I pushed the bicycle up John's drive and found him, a man nearing 80, with his wife, leisurely hanging laundry.

"Glad you are here," he said as I approached.

"How are you?" I said.

"Thank the Lord for life," he answered.

The store was a little featureless building behind his house. Scavella went in and brought me a can of cold apple juice. We sat at a big round wooden table under a sapodilla tree while John pointed out his citrus orchard, and the place where he had been born.

He knew, he said, just about everyone on Crooked Island. He had been away only during World War II, when he picked fruit in the United States.

"And how is it," I asked him, "that you have an Italian name?"

"Well," Scavella said, "in the old time, people move from place to place, and they scatter their seed, like the tree seeds in the wind."

Crooked Island seemed a particular favorite of people who'd moved from place to place. Back at the officers' club I met a fellow who was neither a fisherman nor a pilot but was consumed with the secular religion of lighthouses. Christopher Owens was a gangly, cheerfully intense American in his 30s, a survivor of the restaurant business, who had already restored a lighthouse on Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island, when he heard of Bird Rock, which lies a mile off Pittstown Point. He soon lit out for Crooked Island. The lighthouse there needed his attention.

Bird Rock's eponymous lighthouse is a sentinel of the reef that skirts Crooked Island Passage. The white limestone structure was built in 1870 and manned by the British Imperial Lighthouse Service until Bahamian independence - and automation - a hundred years later.

Owens arrived three years ago to find the lighthouse derelict, its beacon long extinguished. ("Artful decay" is the term he prefers.) It was love at first sight. He got a local to take him out to Bird Rock with a sleeping bag and a few days' supply of provisions, figuring he'd size up the restoration project before banging on any official doors.

Five days later Owens was wondering what had happened to the man who was supposed to pick him up. "I realized I had been forgotten," he said, "and started doing what I could to attract attention on shore. During the day I hung my orange sleeping bag on a line. Then I reconnected the solar panels and batteries and got the light working again. I flashed an SOS, but nobody took notice. I guess they figured, 'Oh, that's nice, the light's back on.'

"Finally, after eight days on the island - the last three without food - sunlight reflecting off a boat's windshield gave me an idea. I found a big piece of broken glass, and held it so it flashed at the shore. Finally two men working on the roof of a house saw the signal. 'That's right,' they probably said. 'Ain't that guy been out there a long time?'"

Back on Crooked Island, Owens discovered that the bonefishing resort owner, one D. K. Ulrich, had also gotten interested in the lighthouse. Ulrich took a long-term lease on the structure from the Bahamian government, with an eye toward making it a four-unit luxury adjunct to his operation. He and Owens pooled their resources and expertise, and Owens, by the time I met him, had begun to prepare the place for renovation: living out there for days on end ("When I start talking to the hermit crabs," he said, "I know it's time to come in"), stacking salvageable doors and shutters, and cataloging brass hardware castings that would have to be duplicated.

"I've got to go up to Nassau for a few days," Owens told me when I asked about visiting Bird Rock. "But any of the guys who work at Pittstown will take you out to see what we're doing."

"Sounds good," I said, making a mental note to have my boatman wait for me, in plain view, while I explored the lighthouse.

As I waded ashore on Bird Rock's scant apron of sand, I could see that Owens had his work cut out for him. The lighthouse was actually two buildings, a donut-shaped outer structure separated from the tower itself by a narrow circular courtyard. If all goes according to plan, the donut will house wedge-shaped guest rooms, while the tower will contain a stack of museum galleries. Getting the complex from artful decay to splendid isolation will be no mean feat, but until then there are plenty of hermit crabs to talk to.

On my last full day at Pittstown Point, one of my new pals from the club lent me a fly rod, and I went bonefishing with a guide named Elton McKinney, a slender Crooked Island man with a bushy goatee. In an open powerboat we slapped south along the island's low, featureless western coast, rounded the southernmost point, and swung east to enter the Bight of Acklins.

The bight is a glassy lens of water lying between the pincers of Crooked and Acklins Islands. Although a few meandering channels here run eight or ten feet deep, for much of its 25-mile breadth the water is shallow enough to wade in. Strolling knee-deep in the bight is the closest thing imaginable to walking on water, water that seems to have no beginning or end, water that washes hazily off the edge of the earth at every point of the compass. Its color changes constantly, from turquoise to tawny to a tessellated green-gold when ripples on the surface cast reflections on the bottom. Here are the bonefish flats.

Elton McKinney's friends called him "Shaky," a name that could not have anything to do with his demeanor on the flats. He was incredibly adept at spotting bonefish, eyeing a gray back or tail cutting the surface or a distant riffle in the water that contradicted the breeze. McKinney stalked a fish as a patient heron would, his legs barely stirring the surface as he laid out 60 or 70 feet of line in a series of flawless false casts before making his final presentation of the fly.

The trick with bonefish is to lay the fly down right in front of them. Bonefish flies are made to look like shrimp or tiny crabs, attractive to the fish grazing the bottom with their suckerlike mouths.

When you feel a strike, you tug the line to set the hook, then stand ready as the fish peels off. Play him right, and eventually he will tire.

"There he is, there he is," Elton would tell me when he saw a fish he thought I could take, and I would squint toward the phantom with maybe half a chance of seeing it. If and when I did, my cast usually failed me, ruined by my awkwardness at handling so much more line than I ever need on a dainty Vermont trout stream.

Some say no one eats bonefish; others say they are delicious. But no one ever says that "the ghost of the flats" is easy to catch - especially when you have no hope of casting like Elton McKinney. My stories that night were more bonehead than bonefish, but they were fun to tell anyway... over a Campari and soda.

I hired a ride in a Piper Aztec to get to great Inagua, 130 miles to the southeast, where the staff of life is salt. Inagua - the natives drop the "Great," since there's no sense in lording it over uninhabited Little Inagua - is a company town, a place where the money in everyone's wallet smells like salt. Gathering sea salt is one of the oldest businesses in the Bahamas, vital in the days before refrigeration, when codfish traveled the globe stacked like salted clapboards in ships' holds, and sailors' rations of pork and beef were casked in brine. Today there is still an enormous demand for the salt harvested here - from health food stores and highway departments alike.

As the little plane banked toward Matthew Town, the main island center, the land below looked like an immense patio, laid with neat rectangles of rose, gray, and lavender slate. Those were the Morton Company's salt pans, more than 60 of them, 16 inches deep when they are full of sea water and crusted with three inches of salt when they are ready for harvest. The patio tones, I later learned, were the colors of the algae that live in the pans, each species preferring its own level of salinity.

I had smiled when I read in a guidebook that Matthew Town was "one of the largest, wealthiest, and most sophisticated" communities in the Out Islands. After all, there wasn't a lot of competition. But I discovered that scraping up and selling a million tons or more of salt each year had, in fact, underwritten a fair-size town. Home to all of Inagua's 1,200 inhabitants, Matthew Town resembled a grid of suburban streets wrapped around a waterfront business district. I found steepled churches, cafés where the cracked conch was superb (and the recorded music could rattle your fillings), an amply stocked company store, and a downtown hotel where the chicken-wing souse, redolent of allspice, made a bracing breakfast.

It was the kind of place where I felt like a short-term resident instead of a visitor. On a single Sunday I was welcomed by a deaconness from the pulpit of the Episcopal church; enjoyed lunch at the home of the church's minister, Rev. Bob Sellars, and his wife, Marilyn; and was invited to the graduation ceremony of the Royal Bahamian Police Reserves Defensive Driving Course, easily as big a production as my high school commencement.

Matthew Town took its celebrations seriously. During my stay a sizable portion of the populace, as well as all six or seven outsiders on the island, turned out for Jimmy Nixon's 80th birthday party. Nixon is more than an Inagua patriarch; he's a man who, with his late brother Sam, played a crucial role in preserving a spectacular wildlife resource, Inagua's flamingos.

In 1952 Jimmy and Sam Nixon guided the first National Audubon Society expedition into the island's interior and discovered what was believed to be the last Bahamian breeding colony of the West Indian flamingo. A park was established to protect the birds, and beginning that year, the brothers served as wardens. Today there are perhaps 60,000 flamingos here in breeding season - late winter and early spring. And they are so far from being rare that they sometimes land on the Matthew Town baseball diamond during a game.

Not surprisingly, flamingos figured in the toast offered by John Nixon, one of several of Jimmy's sons who returned home for the party.

"They said that when my Uncle Sam died, the flamingos didn't mate for three years," he told the gathering. "Well, when Daddy leaves us and goes home, they're going to fly away for good."

But that bittersweet note soon faded, as a crowd big enough to spill out of the house and into the backyard tucked into conch fritters, ribs, crab salad, and guava duff. Little girls danced in circles; adults enjoyed their rum. I knew then why the Out Islands are often called the Family Islands.

Jimmy Nixon has retired, but his nephew Henry Nixon has carried on the family tradition by working as a national park warden. On the morning after the party, I climbed into his pickup truck, and we drove out of town, past the salt pans and the great dazzling dockside piles of salt. A maze of roads straddled the narrow dikes, crisscrossing Lake Windsor, which sprawled across the center of the 50-mile-long island. We headed out past the vast shallow lake that served as a reservoir for the salt pans, into the fringes of Inagua National Park. We were looking for flamingos.

Stocky, cheerful in a wry sort of way, Nixon told me about the days when the big pink birds were threatened by culinary habits on an Inagua not yet raised to salty prosperity. "A lot of people liked flamingo steak," he said. "And when the birds are young - before they start to fly at five or six months old - they're plump and heavy."

"Does flamingo taste good?" I asked.

"It must, because of the risk people take. It's an expensive dish - a thousand dollars fine, three months in jail," Nixon said with a wink. "And that's if you survive the beating we lay on you. But, really, there isn't much poaching anymore."

As we bounced along the dike roads, we saw enough species of other birds - ruddy turnstones, roseate spoonbills, white-cheeked pintails, great blue herons - to rank Inagua as a major sanctuary even if there were no flamingos. When we came to dry land, there were burrowing owls. (Oddly enough, one of Inagua's most distinctive birds, the Bahamian parrot, was not a park regular. The parrots were far more likely to be found in town, squawking among the ganupe and tamarind trees.)

On the stretches of dry land, Nixon pointed out wild donkeys, which roamed freely in the Inagua backcountry. A few years back, he said, a donkey that turned up close to civilization was tamed, more or less, by an American winter resident.

"She put Christmas lights and a battery pack on him," Nixon told me, "and he walked around that winter, in and out of Matthew Town, all lit up."

No one would have lit up a wild hog. The cranky feral swine were hunted by islanders, even in the park.

"We encourage the hunting," Nixon said. "The hogs eat eggs. If they had their way, there wouldn't be a flamingo left here."

I was glad to hear I had done my part for the flamingos, when a couple of days earlier, I had enjoyed a delicious takeout lunch of wild hog.

As Nixon and I drove deeper into the park, the flamingos repaid my favor by finally making an appearance. First in pairs, then in flocks of 50 birds, they stood out pink and bright on the still, blue surface of the lake. They strutted gracefully but took flight with a little less panache, having to launch themselves clumsily into the wind to get airborne. At times, we were close enough to hear their goose-like honk, which was difficult to associate with such extravagantly pretty birds. It was not a pink sound.

A sign at the airport on the outskirts of Matthew Town read "Welcome to Inagua. The Best Kept Secret in the Bahamas." As I got off the weekly f light from Inagua to my final destination, Mayaguana, I discounted Inagua's boast as an idle one. Mayaguana is the real end of the line, an island that no one is keeping secret because almost no one else is looking for it.

The first thing that struck me about this easternmost Bahamian isle was that the airstrip was out of all proportion to an island having just three settlements and 400 people. It was so big, in fact, that after the plane left, people drove onto it and used it as a 6,000-foot highway that connected with the main road to Abraham's Bay and the other island villages.

"The strip used to be almost twice as long," Reggie Charlton told me. "It was built by the Americans for their NASA tracking station."

Charlton ran Reggie's Satellite Lounge, one of the few places to stay on Mayaguana, and he had picked me up at the airport. He showed me the old NASA installation, a couple of crumbling buildings on a hilltop overlooking the runway. Like the plantation era, the Space Age now had its ruins, too.

Charlton's place - named for his TV hookup, not the NASA site - constitutes the entire business district of Abraham's Bay. The Satellite Lounge drew the town's commercial fishermen after a day on the water, and it also attracted an adventurous clientele of anglers. I met a German, a man in his 60s whose Hamburg accent shaped his words so that they drooped like his mustache. He was staying at Charlton's for six weeks, sometimes going out with local fishermen in the mornings, sometimes just hanging around the waterfront painting or reading James Michener.

There were a handful of yachties around - one French family motored to shore in their dinghy and walked a mile from the harbor just to ask Charlton's teenage son, Jeremy, if they could buy a tomato. But they, the German, and two American bonefishermen were the only other outsiders I met on Mayaguana.

But I did meet one of the island's most important residents - the most important, for anyone who wasn't feeling well. A morning's wandering around Abraham's Bay took me to the town clinic, where I made the acquaintance of nurse Vernitha Ellis, Mayaguana's entire medical establishment, except for a doctor who flies in once a month.

"Ellis," as she calls herself, was a native Mayaguanan in early middle age, with a tangle of shiny black corkscrew curls and a dry, practical way about her. She showed me the two-room clinic, then invited me to come along the next day on her weekly clinic rounds.

The following morning I helped Ellis load the back of a pickup truck with medical records, medicine, and a bundle of sugarcane for a friend. With Ellis's assistant, Winifred Brooks, at the wheel, we took off, Ellis and I each working on a piece of cane. ("You're doing it wrong," she told me as I chewed. "You need a knife.") Later, Brooks produced a bag of steamed land crabs, which rounded out the provisions for the day.

Patients were already lining up at the tiny clinic in Betsy Bay when we arrived.

"I got a pain in my hip so bad I can hardly walk," complained the woman at the front of the line.

Ellis hauled out her records and went to work.

As they waited on the small concrete veranda, the Betsy Bay people were treating the occasion like a weekly social, which it was. Two little boys played ring-around-the-rosie. An old woman - her favorite expression was "Oh, Master!" - fell into a conversation with a friend about a sailboat that had recently foundered on a reef near Abraham's Bay; everyone had been rescued. "God is always good," she said. "Oh, Master!" Brooks cracked open another land crab. "Next," Ellis called, and an old man shuffled into the clinic.

Along the road to Pirate Well, we passed a white-haired woman wearing a pretty blue dress and carrying a machete. Brooks stopped the pickup, and she and Ellis said hello to the woman, who smiled and paused to chat. She was nearly toothless, and entitled to be.

"That's Mayaguana's oldest resident," Ellis told me as we pulled away. "She's 93."

There were no patients waiting in Pirate Well, so we made a couple of house calls - blood-pressure checks, prescription refills - and headed back to Abraham's Bay. Along the way Ellis told me that most of her work had to do with hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis. She hasn't had to set a bone in five years, hasn't dealt with a heart attack in two.

The diet on Mayaguana may run a little heavily to meat and macaroni salad ("It's impossible to tell people what to eat," Ellis says), but all in all, it seemed like the sort of place where a reasonably sturdy sort would have a decent chance of walking down the road with a machete at 93.

Must be the stress level. In the morning I walked down to the harbor. A great somnolence lay over Mayaguana, over the tidal flats where herons picked at the mud, over the four sailboats anchored way out in the bay, over the bar at Charlton's where I had been helping Jeremy wind a spool of new monofilament onto his fishing reel.

I walked to where the concrete pier elbowed out into the coral-mottled turquoise water of the bay, and I slouched down onto a wooden bench under a tree. A fisherman had left his wheelbarrow and sandals next to the bench, the way you could probably leave anything anywhere on Mayaguana.

A couple of feet above me a bright yellow bananaquit landed on a branch. The tide had just started coming in, and the water made little lapping sounds. I looked out onto Caicos Passage and felt as if I had reached one of those places where the earth ends. This time I had run out of Out Islands.