Wednesday, September 27, 2017

This Week: St. John, USVI

Hurricanes and Rum Punches
All Photos by Carrie Dow. No reuse without permission.

This hurts.

I keep watching the news and searching the internet for video footage of the hurricane damage on St. John, US Virgin Islands. AKA my happy place. We have visited this Caribbean island seven times in the last 12 years and each visit is better than the last. We have reservations scheduled for March 2018, but with each passing day the chances of that happening look slim.

While many people might misconstrue this post as me complaining about missing a relaxing rum-fueled vacation while my fellow citizens have lost everything, there is so much more to my hurt than that. We’ve been visiting the island for so long, we know people. We have friends there. We have met other friends, like Sandal and Barry of Ohio, while visiting there.

Elaine's art studio was open to the bay in the front of her house.
My first magazine story for pay was about a local artist, Elaine Estern of Coconut Coast Studios who has lived on St. John for decades. We visit her gallery, and her dogs, every time we go there. Elaine and I have both written children’s books and we traded our books on a visit several years ago. Mine is about a cat while hers is about a duck. It’s on my bookshelf in my office.
The only place you can get these beers is on St. John.

My husband and I have watched businesses grow, like the first Virgin Islands brewery, St. John Brewers, which was run out of a shipping container in the back parking lot. The owners had just reopened after a fire damaged their tap room and they had just expanded into a larger space for events before the hurricane struck.
Chickens roamed the tables at Skinny Legs.
And we’ve watched businesses become legend. Skinny Legs was already a St. John institution, but had gone through some changes since we had our first burger there in 2005. Originally opened by two buddies from New England in the late 1980s/early 1990s, it was the kind of place that both locals and travelers could visit and be comfortable. The restaurant’s slogan was “Same Day Service” and they delivered along with the best burgers and sandwiches on the island. It wasn’t the fanciest place to dine, which is why we loved it so much. On one visit I overheard a diner say to a tablemate, “You know, the sloppier they dress the richer they are.” Everyone was equal at Skinny Legs. You didn’t know if the guy next to you at the bar was a hedge fund manager or a bus driver and it didn’t matter. Sometimes you’d see a young girl with her hair tucked up in a baseball cap, torn hoodie and no makeup and think she must work on one of the island’s sail boat crews. Then when she left the server would tell you she was a Sports Illustrated supermodel. One of the owners succumbed to a sudden illness in 2006 and in 2012 the other owner decided it was time to retire, but not before grooming two of his employees, the restaurant’s manager and his wife, to take over. When we met him in 2014, the new owner and his wife had just had a baby.

The Smoothie Stand.
We’ve met entrepreneurs on this island. Thomas ran the smoothie shack near the ferry dock, as well as a car rental agency and owns an apartment building on the island. I’m sure all three are gone now. In 2012 his youngest son, a Navyman about to embark on his first deployment, was killed by a drunk driver in California. We cried and hugged when we saw each other for the first time that week. He still hasn’t gotten over it.

Angel's Rest is gone.
Another enterprising gentleman was Captain Pete. With his own two hands he built a 40-ft. floating paradise of a pontoon boat called Angel’s Rest to live in. He also motors it around East End bays inviting people to visit because the boat is also the island’s only floating bar. People swim out to his boat and drink his rum punches and pain killers or sip cold Presidentes and Caribs. After a few drinks people jump off the front of the boat to cool off or climb the ladder to the sun deck to chill. Pete was born in Chicago and went to college in Colorado before “bumming,” his words, around Hawaii in the 1970s. He partied in LA in the 80s, but he also helped a friend build houses and was so good at it he opened his own construction company and eventually made his way to Puerto Rico were his business boomed. He sold the business and bought a sail boat to sail around the Caribbean. He happened to be moored in St. John when the money ran out. He started building houses again and instead of building his own house on land, he built a houseboat. He had no plans drawn up, just did what was in his head. According to Facebook, the boat is gone and he was on the mainland during the storm, but there’s a You Caring fund set up by his many fans to help rebuild it. At first he wasn’t going to rebuild, but the many kind comments and words of encouragement on Facebook have persuaded him to try. 

I’ve run the annual 8 Tuff Miles road race twice, the first time in 2008 and again in 2013. It’s a rite of passage for anyone who lives on the island or has spent a lot of time there. Runners from all over the world travel to St. John just say they’ve conquered it. Running an eight mile asphalt road race from sea level over a mountain that rises to almost 1000 feet and back down to sea level again is one of my proudest accomplishments.

Volunteers chatting after a dog walk at the Animal Care Center.
The Animal Care Center of St. John is one of my favorite organizations on the island. It’s a tiny animal shelter and the locals that work and volunteer there have some of the biggest hearts I have ever seen. According to the ACC Facebook page, the building survived and the animals that were housed there were evacuated to safer locals’ homes before the hurricane struck. The shelter's latest Facebook post is encouraging and say the International Fund for Animal Welfare is assisting in getting all the shelter animals off the island and on the mainland. However, ACC will still have a lot of work ahead because I'm sure people's pets were lost during the storm and the island has many stray cats and wildlife that had no shelter. There is a also a population of free roaming donkeys on the island and I have yet to hear how they fared during the storm.

We’ve run into the Ghost from Jost on several visits and each one is more mysterious than the last. Ghost is the island’s poet laureate whose given name is Courtney Chinnery. He floats in, says a few profound rhymes of sublime importance, and then disappears. Unless you buy him a beer, then he’ll sit with you and tell dirty jokes. Each time we see him, he has fewer teeth. Our visits to St. John are not complete if we don’t run into him.

My favorite photo of St. John. Shelter dog Brutus overlooking
Cruz Bay after we took him on a trail hike.
I’ve written about St. John numerous times both for pay and for free; it’s a source of inspiration. My next blog post, which I’ve been working these last few weeks, will be my sixth (ninth if I include the BVIs) about the island. This may sound a bit morbid, but my husband and I have agreed that whoever dies first, the surviving spouse will spread the other’s ashes around the island - mostly as an excuse for the survivor to have one last visit.

One of the reasons I love this island so much is because it’s not an easy place to get to. It’s too small and too mountainous to have an airport and there are only two shipping ports and a small marina. There are only two main roads and even under the best of conditions, driving them is not easy. While these things make the island more secluded, more all-to-myself, these things also make it difficult to get help to folks after a disaster like this.

There have been many natural disasters in the last few weeks and many people and animals are suffering. I know many of you have donated money, maybe supplies or even time to help those affected by these tragedies and for that I thank you. We all have our happy places, some near, some far, around the world. This post is not a plea to donate because you hopefully already have, to whichever cause touches your heart. Mine is a plea to not forget. The Virgin Islands, both British and US, are tiny islands, small populations and small economies, but they still deserve our love and support.

I hope my happy place recovers enough for us to make our visit next March. Not because I want to relax on a beach, but so I can give all my island friends a hug.

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