The seeds for the Pitcairn story were planted two centuries ago, with the fabled mutiny on the British naval vessel Bounty. After setting Captain Bligh adrift in the Pacific, the mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, settled on tiny, remote Pitcairn Island, where they and their descendants lived on in near total isolation. One of the relatively few outsiders to visit the island in the ensuing decades was anthropologist Harry Shapiro, who in 1936 wrote a book, Heritage of the Bounty, about his two weeks among the Pitcairners.
Twenty years later Parkins Christian—Fletcher's great-great-grandson—visited Shapiro and his family in New York. "After dinner," recalls Harry's daughter, Harriet, "Parkins sang 'In the Sweet By-and-By.' That's the hymn the Pitcairners sing to bid farewell to departing ships. His voice was incredible."
Harriet Shapiro, now 38, grew up to be a senior writer for PEOPLE. Over the past 10 years she has written stories on everything from rubber bathing suits to the destruction of the world's rain forests. But she never forgot the haunting song she had heard on that long-ago night, and when she learned last year that the island's population was dwindling, she asked PEOPLE'S Managing Editor Jim Gaines if she could retrace her father's footsteps. His assent, says Gaines, was immediate—"once I recovered from hearing what it would cost."
The trip itself was grueling: a five-hour flight to L.A., a seven-hour flight to Tahiti, another flight to the island of Mangareva, and then, says Shapiro, "we got on a small boat and set sail for Pitcairn. It took 3½ days, and I was seasick most of the way." So was Peter Serling, 31, the veteran PEOPLE photographer who accompanied her.
"When you're that sick," Serling says, "first you're afraid you're going to die. Then you're afraid you won't."
Upon debarking, Serling met with a cool reception. A native New Yorker, he was nonplussed for only a moment. "Thanks for making me feel at home," he told the unenthusiastic Pitcairners. Soon, however, the islanders warmed to both visitors—and vice versa. A good thing, too, since the next boat wasn't due to call in for three weeks.
Shapiro and Serling found Pitcairn to be a land of anachronisms. Although there are no cars or stores, nearly every home has a VCR. "It was surreal," says Shapiro, "to watch a tape of Mutiny on the Bounty with the descendants of the mutineers—and to have them laugh about the inaccuracies." Serling says he realized it was time to leave "when I'd seen the same episode of Gilligan's Island for the 17th time."
After the two returned, Harriet's father, now 87, sat down with her for a lengthy debriefing. "He wanted to know if anyone remembered him," she says. "Happily, several did."
Several more, no doubt, will remember his daughter, who plans to return. "After hearing about Pitcairn all my life, it was thrilling to be there," she says. "The island is a part of me."
Most PEOPLE stories are as timely as today's headlines. But there are some, like this week's piece on Pitcairn Island, that are timeless.