I’m lost. Again. Without a cell signal or a GPS device, my only guides are a green plastic compass (a leftover from my Girl Scout days) and a photocopied map of the island. The map is wearing thin in a rectangular pattern where it’s been folded over and over. In this place, all points are relative to “the compound.” That’s where the commissary, mechanic shop, administrative office, clinic, wood shop and my house are. The compass confirms that I’m on the south part of the island, which is to say, south of the compound. Since the landscape is nearly uniform in its vegetation - pine, oak, and saw palmetto - I’ve had to get creative with landmarks. At the next fork in the road, I pause to carve a symbol into the dirt with my walking stick. It’s the letters D and E underlined with an arrow pointing in the direction I just came from. To me, it means, “that way is a dead end.” To anyone else it probably means, “that crazy girl was here.”
Part of the problem with my navigation is that the map is outdated. So many of the roads that used to wind their way through this part of the island were rendered impassable last October, when Hurricane Matthew came to visit. The storm was a category five when it hit Haiti. Then, it worked its way up through Cuba and the Bahamas before it hit the east coast of the U.S. I’ve never seen the aftermath of a hurricane before. Large pines have been twisted, shredded, as if a giant had spun their tops around. Their massive, lichen-covered trunks lay in piles across the road I’m trying to follow. As I stubbornly climb over, under, and through fallen branches, I notice a tiny bird’s nest, abandoned in what used to be a lofty bough. I pick it up and bring it with me. After another several yards, I run into the marsh and have to turn back around.
An hour of retracing my steps goes by and I notice that the sun has started to go down. I promise myself that if I don’t find a reliable road before dark that I’ll radio for help. Not that it will do me much good. The storm knocked down a radio tower when it demolished the windmill up north and we’re down to one channel. Even if I could describe where I am, there is no equipment on the island that can move the debris and let a truck pass. Equally impractical is a rescue by boat as south dock is a twisted mess. In my morbid imagination, I’m trying to relay my dying wishes to my roommate, but they’re garbled by radio static.
I’d be the island’s first casualty as a result of hurricane Matthew. Tragically, hundreds lost their lives before the storm hit our coastline. St. Catherines was evacuated and all of the animals secured in windowless buildings. Remarkably, no lemurs or enclosures were harmed by the storm, although there were some near misses. I can’t say the same for the beach. The erosion is dramatic there, even to eyes that have no “before” picture to compare. Finally, I’m sure that the main road is underfoot and I head north. An hour goes by with little more than starlight to guide me, before I see the lights at the compound. As I march up the steps, I imagine a dramatic anthem - maybe something by Queen - playing while I make my heroic entrance, still cradling the delicate nest in my left arm. But, nobody is home and my five-hour struggle goes un-heralded.