Exclusive: Riding the Rhythms of Jamaica’s High Country
Part 4: Rocks, Roots, Rum and Redemption
by Don Stefanovich
Snot and saliva dripping, nostrils flaring, the pigs screamed—not squealed, but screamed. Wrinkled snouts and beady eyes appeared and disappeared between wooden slats. Were they angry? Or just hungry? Given that I like bacon, karma is known to be a bitch and one black-and-brown spotted sow was roughly the size of a Smart Car, I didn’t care to find out.
Day two had begun with a shuttle to a small farming village in Robin’s Bay. That morning we left the comfort of our surfside resort not to return for the remainder of the week.
“Roll out!” cried Andy with vestiges of a British accent, before correcting himself. “I mean, um, drop in!” And with his blessing, we stomped pedals away from the pigpen, disappearing into yet another chlorophyll corridor. John Crow trail is a ripping rollercoaster down a gully of rocks and roots forming natural doubles and cambered transitions gapping into banked corners with seemingly no penalty for landing sideways. I grinned, greeting momentum like an old friend with an overzealous handshake. All too soon the trail emptied into a clearing near several cottages. Norval and Martin waited with the box truck near a small bridge that afforded an overhead view of a woman washing clothes in the clear, rippling water of a stream below. Richie—our shuttle driver—sat in the Coaster bus, ready to shuttle us for a second lap.
Natty Grant, another friend of Jon and Andy’s, was far ahead of us preparing lunch, but had laid out a spread of fresh fruits and sugarcane at his place as a snack. After round two on John Crow, we filed into the dusty yard of a small cottage. Helmets and gloves came off hastily. A woman with a small child sat humbly in a wicker armchair with bottle caps nailed to the bamboo armrests while we feasted from the rusty lid of an old drum atop a hand-built, wooden table. A frail, old man squatted silently in the dirt, watching us with glistening eyes. The sweet juices of Jamaican red apples—shaped like pears, colored like apples with a taste reminiscent of both—and mangoes ran down our chins. We learned where Tinkin’ Toe got its name when we cracked the hard, brown pods open with stones from the yard. Chamois Seeds seemed like a suitable alternative, but the odor was quickly forgiven once I bit into the innards, which had the taste and texture of what can only be described as nature’s powdered donut. Gnawing on a hunk of sugarcane, I attempted to fathom the equivalent of such hospitality back in Southern California.
Sated, we ignored the incessant protest of the local swine and ascended a cragged root-and-rock staircase that quickly became a hike-a-bike. The descent on the other side redeemed us, ending in an emerald field that fell away where the ocean seemingly met the sky in some sort of celestial congress. We spent a few moments remembering to breathe while processing a view that no number of clichés could accurately convey. Then things got fun.
I was staring into the first hairpin of Pressure Drop. The trail disappeared mere feet beneath us before reemerging as a sliver of dirt on a distant hill far below. One by one we dropped in, pinning it to the next ridge and beyond, dropping back below the tree line. Somewhere in the shade of the canopy, as the trail coiled through thick stands of trees and over gnarled webs of roots, Pressure Drop became the famed Carlton Pass. Andy and Jon’s crew had done some work here, and it showed. In addition to the root carpets and rock gardens, there were some proper berms and built-up drops. Gaining speed here was easy, scrubbing it wasn’t always, and several riders failed to keep things rubber-side down. The first pass claimed several. Sanchez practiced his dismount. The weight of his camera bag compounding his momentum, Connor lost it in a corner. I would have my turn the next morning during a second lap, perhaps overly confident after emerging unscathed once.
We sank our toes into black sand, just out of reach of the advancing tide of yet another secluded beach. By the time the trail spit us into the sand, Grant’s crew had a feast cooking. We swam. We gorged ourselves on curried chicken, salt-fish stew, yams, rice, vegetables and Red Stripe. Young boys hacked open coconuts with machetes so we could sip the sweet milk. We soon discovered that a good deal of climbing up the coast stood between us and the evening’s accommodations, but not before discovering that Appleton Estate mixes well with the freshly squeezed juice of beets and carrots.
As we pedaled up and away from the black-sand beach, it occurred to me that we were now repaying the island for all the advances on vert we’d taken out on the shuttle-card. The crashing waves below provided the cadence to our atonement. It was actually one of the first moments during the trip without a soundtrack. The rhythms of reggae chinked out of even the most decrepit of mountain homes. Even our bus had subwoofers. But now there was only the echo of the ocean. Maybe it was the rum, but spinning up the steep, stone-strewn doubletrack, my legs found their rhythm and I couldn’t help but laugh. Our Redemption Song was composed of an entirely different kind of upstroke.
Eventually, we rolled through the gates of River Lodge, a 17th century Spanish fort, which over the centuries had housed foreign dignitaries and sheltered pirates, or so the story goes. Looking much like a miniature stone castle in the midst of a lush, tropical garden, it wasn’t hard to imagine. Ivy vines and the webs of hundreds of banana spiders had taken over the courtyard, creating a creepy canopy. A stone staircase encircled a turret, leading to the ‘tower’ room, where the most modern fixture—a porcelain throne—sat out on the balcony: an office with a view. I would spend the night in a pink cottage on a hillside overlooking the fort with pro riders Rowan Sorrel and Katie Holden. Giant anoles scurried about on the short walls of an otherwise outdoor patio housing the toilet and shower. On the other side of the cottage, we relaxed on the balcony. In the blackness beyond the railing where riding gear was hung to dry, fireflies flashed. “Bloody unreal,” Rowan said, with the sort of verbosity that the island seemed to impart. The crash of waves and echoes of Bob Marley floated up from somewhere far below. “…’cause every little thing, gonna be all right.” I couldn’t have agreed more with both of them.
That night at a bonfire down by the beach, I clinked bottles with a local fisherman. His eyes and a cherry glowed red behind a blue haze. He told me he was 41, but looked 25 at most. “Are we trespassing?” I asked. “Do people resent us riding on their trails? Through their villages?” He took a deep drag, paused and exhaled slowly. “No, mon. We got nuttin’ but love and respect for ya.” He opened his arms wide and smiled. “Ya see, mon, in Jamaica, our ‘earts be big.” He asked what time we would ride in the morning and promised to watch for us.
On the third day, we awoke to the distant echoes of reggae, and I wondered if it had been playing all night. After a second lap on Pressure Drop and Carlton Pass and the freshest lobster I had ever eaten—no more than 200 yards from water to grill to table—we loaded the bus with beer and bodies and headed toward a ‘secret’ compound in the Blue Mountains. “You’ll see,” Wayne Lee, a Fat Tyre veteran, told me when I asked what was so special about our mysterious destination.
At a dusty intersection, Sanchez and Rudy jumped out of the box truck in front of us. Norval and Martin passed their bikes down to them. Richie gave a farewell honk as they pedaled in one direction and we rolled the other. Flashing a smile, Sanchez stood and sprinted. It was the last we would see of them.
TO BE CONTINUED…