Missing the Turn: Debut novelist Ashley Sweeney on the hike that led her to ELIZA WAITE

Ashley Sweeney

We missed the turn.

Bracken fern and wild salal must have covered a weathered sign marking the trail route along the seldom-used path to Eagle Cliff. My husband, Michael, and I were hiking the three-mile loop to the top of the cliff on remote Cypress Island in the Washington San Juan Islands on one of those rare and beautiful October days that we get here in the Pacific Northwest—with peppered sun, light breeze, and balmy fall temperatures.

We had anchored the night before in secluded Eagle Cove on the eastern side of the island with a half-dozen other late fall boaters and sailors. The morning chill disappeared after scrambled eggs and coffee—and when the sun finally peeked over the Cascade Mountains. Sometime in the late morning we rowed the dinghy to shore to explore the island.

Without a map, we ventured into the deep woods of the largely uninhabited island and relied on trail markers to guide us to our destination: Eagle Cliff, a 700-foot basalt outcropping overlooking the whole of the San Juan archipelago and Vancouver Island beyond. Eagle Cliff is a recognizable landmark for boaters and sailors for miles away, located at the northernmost tip of Cypress Island in Washington State’s Northern Puget Sound. From that vantage point, we would see for nearly 100 miles in almost every direction.

About halfway through the loop, we came upon a marsh buzzing with activity—frogs, dragonflies, and armies of insects skirting the pond’s surface of scum and debris.

“I think we might have missed the turnoff,” Michael said.

We sat by the pond’s edge for a half-hour as Michael offered his biologist’s observations about the marsh flora: its pond grasses, lily pads, and duckweed. The birds. The frogs. The constant hum of activity.

We swatted mosquitoes. Swigged bottled water. Sat for as long as our conversation meandered.

“Shall we go back and try to find the trailhead?” I asked. “Or should we follow this path and see where it takes us?”

We decided to follow the trail to see where it would lead, knowing we could easily retrace our steps back to Eagle Cove. Where the trail eventually led was to Smuggler’s Cove, a sheltered cove on the island’s north side at the foot of the massive cliff face we had aimed to climb. Picking our way down to the beach through brambles and errant twigs, we looked up to the top of Eagle Cliff, our missed endpoint.

Before us lay Rosario Strait, the major north-south waterway running through the center of the San Juan Islands. Several powerboats motored into view, with popular Orcas Island in the backdrop beyond.

As our eyes adjusted to the filtered light at the edge of the forest, we spied a structure almost completely hidden perched just above the cove.

Curious, and never one to shy away from intrigue, Michael tromped up to the dilapidated cabin and disappeared inside.

“Come and see this!” he hollered down to the beach.

I picked my way to up through the dense underbrush to the cabin and peered inside.

Barely 15 x 15, the cabin’s single room housed stood completely empty except for the memories of any former occupants and copious wildlife droppings.

Who had lived here? When? And why?

A small plaque near the cabin recounts the story of a Mrs. Zoe Hardy who lived as a hermit at the cabin in the 1930s. She farmed the area, eschewed strangers, and lived self sufficiently. Her story ends abruptly and mysteriously a decade later. After a terminal medical diagnosis she refused all supplies and visitors and eventually died, although her body was never found.

The find fascinated us.

“I can just envision it, a woman, alone on Cypress Island. What led her here, and why?”

That night, the seed for Eliza Waite was born. We stayed awake deep into the night discussing the plot arc and character development. Although completely fictitious, Eliza inhabits the same cabin that Mrs. Hardy once occupied. On the island, both Mrs. Hardy and the fictional Eliza scramble to feed themselves, stay warm, and remain sane in a remote and lonely place.

Thus began an eight-year journey to bring Eliza Waite into the world. Eliza Waite follows the story of a disenfranchised woman who faces tragedy and loss, first as the daughter of Victorian parents and later as the young bride of an arrogant minister. When her son dies in a smallpox epidemic, her grief knows no bounds. Although all but a few misfits leave the island after the tragedy, Eliza cannot abandon the only child she thought she would ever have, even though he was dead. She remains on the island for three years. As her grief wanes, she glimpses a brighter future and joins the throng of humanity traveling north to the Klondike in the spring of 1898 in search of gold.

When she arrives in Skagway, Alaska, Eliza has less than fifty dollars to her name and not a friend in the world. With a backdrop of historical events and historical characters, including the infamous Soapy Smith, who died in a gunfight on Skagway’s lawless streets, Eliza borrows money and opens a successful bakery on Broadway and grows into a confident and enterprising businesswoman.

Her story is full of surprises and yes, what could be perceived as wrong turns. Where Eliza ends up is a far cry from where she started.

And, just like our missed turn on a day hike on Cypress Island, it goes to show that making a wrong turn, missing the signs, or taking the road less traveled—whether by choice or by chance—can lead to another story, and even a fascinating life-changing adventure.



  1. It’s interesting that the writer said she could easily picture the life of the woman who lived in the cabin and died without a trace, because I couldn’t imagine that sort of life at all! 🙂


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