[SWP:Behind the Book] The Road Less Traveled
Written by
Ashley Sweeney
September 2016
Written by
Ashley Sweeney
September 2016

Lesson learned.

It was one of those rare and beautiful October days that we get here in the Pacific Northwest. My husband Michael and I had anchored the night before in a secluded cove on our trawler with a half-dozen other late fall boaters and sailors. After breakfast on the boat we rowed our small dinghy to the shore for a day hike.

Without a map, we ventured into the deep woods of the largely uninhabited Cypress Island and relied on trail markers to guide us to our destination: Eagle Cliff, a 700-foot basalt face overlooking the whole of the San Juan archipelago and Vancouver Island beyond.

About halfway through the loop, we came upon a marsh and realized at that point that we must have missed the turnoff to the cliff. Instead of doubling back to try to find the trailhead, we continued on the trail. It eventually led to a sheltered cove on the island’s north side just below the massive cliff face we had intended to climb. Picking our way down to the beach through brambles and salal, we looked straight up to the top of Eagle Cliff.

As our eyes adjusted to the filtered light at the edge of the forest, we spied a dilapidated cabin perched just above the cove.

We tromped up an unused pathway and peered inside the cabin. Barely 15 x 15 feet square, the cabin’s single room stood completely empty except for the memories of any former occupants. The small rustic building sat in sad disrepair, missing its door and windows, and sporting a sagging roof and mouse droppings throughout. It was evident that no one had lived there for a very long time.

Who had lived here? When? And why?

Research confirmed that a Mrs. Zoe Hardy lived as a hermit at the cabin in the 1930s. As a self-sufficient homesteader, Hardy farmed the area, and rarely left the island. When she became terminally ill a decade later, she ordered that no more supplies be delivered to her outpost on Cypress. Her story ends abruptly and mysteriously, and her body was never found.

The find fascinated us.

And so that night, the seed for Eliza Waite was born.

I imagined a story of a wounded, reclusive woman living at the cabin and the story that would have positioned her there at that time, and also—perhaps more importantly—the story that would have lured her away.

Eliza Waite recounts the story of a disenfranchised woman who finds her way in the world, first as an itinerant preacher’s widow in Washington State, and then as a successful business owner and enlightened woman in Skagway, Alaska during the rough and raucous Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

Because I was still working full time as a GED instructor for the Nooksack Indian Tribe near Bellingham, Washington and had limited time to write, I mulled the idea for two years. In the fall of 2010, I took a week off from work to attend a master class with author Jane Hamilton at Hedgebrook, and there the kernel of the novel really popped. I spent seven amazing days at Hedgebrook, reading, mapping a character collage, listening to haunting music, eating sparsely (except at the incredible Hedgebrook Farmhouse table for supper!), and writing until the wee, wee hours.

I tended a wood fire, drank tea, and concentrated on my thoughts. Just like Eliza! There, in the deep cedar woods of Whidbey Island, Washington, Eliza Waite became real to me. Although completely fictitious, my main character, Eliza, inhabits the same cabin that Mrs. Hardy once occupied on Cypress Island. The parallels between their lives run deep. Both Hardy and Eliza lived at the edge of their own known worlds, alone, scrambling to feed themselves, to keep warm, and to remain sane.

Not long after dawn, Eliza stoked the woodstove from a ragged stack of kindling piled to the left of the stove, near the cabin door. She threw on Jacob’s coat and collected three eggs from the chicken coop. As the fire roared to life, Eliza set the table for one, measured coffee in a scant cupful, and scrambled eggs with salt and pepper.

I must have a routine here, she had thought. Or else I am never going to survive this.

-- from Eliza Waite


Circling back to the beginning of this piece, I have since reflected that by making a wrong turn, or missing a sign, or taking the road less traveled—whether by choice or by chance—can lead to unexpected and extraordinary outcomes. A valuable lesson learned.

I am now working on my second novel, In Pursuit of a Name, set in early 19th-century Oregon Territory. I look forward to both the research and writing processes, and will leave room for the odd walk on the windswept shores of the Pacific Ocean. Who knows? Perhaps a new thought, a new line, a new perspective will meet me there as I stand open to the ocean, the wind, the waves.

-- Ashley Sweeney



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  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    “by making a wrong turn, or missing a sign, or taking the road less traveled—whether by choice or by chance—can lead to unexpected and extraordinary outcomes.” So true! Thanks for the reminder—and good luck with your novel! I can't wait to read it!

  • Michelle Cox

    Love this, Ashley!