by Don Stefanovich
We unloaded at an old pig farm turned tourist trap overlooking Ocho Rios and the bay. Women peddled trinkets from ramshackle tables outside an aging building. Inside, an old man in a cowboy hat set two clear, plastic Dixie cups on a faded bar and poured shots out of a dusty bottle of Appleton Estate VX. Tourists or not, we were about to shred some prime, tropical singletrack—on top of an island in the Caribbean. Throughout the week, I found that reminding myself of the simple fact that we were riding mountain bikes in Jamaica quickly laid to rest any number of would-be grumbles. Connor and I lifted our plastic cups. “Cheers, mon!”
Fueled by ferment, we pedaled furiously into a lush, green tunnel, walls of ferns rising to meet us. I put a foot down in a hard left, my rear tire sliding across a thick carpet of wet leaves. Counter-steering, I regained traction and was upright again, narrowly missing a fallen tree. The smile was involuntary.
We spilled out into a clearing, near the top of an old, raised, stone conveyor platform, likely once used to transport ore down the mountain. A stretch of cracked asphalt all but reclaimed by the jungle, raised and buckled by roots, descended alongside the industrial relic. Sanchez hurled himself down it, riding a high-speed nose-manual around a corner and out of sight. The rest of us followed at speed, but with much less style.
Soon our group reached the first technical section of the ride: an extended limestone rock garden, pocked and eroded by running water, blanketed in moss and lichens. Grinning and out of breath, several of us hiked to ride it again before emptying into a clearing where children splashed and laughed in a secluded spring. It was the sort of surreal setting that would become commonplace in the coming days.
Much of the singletrack on the island has been stamped into the earth by cows, goats and slaves for centuries. Some trails still comprise vital arteries of everyday life in the mountains, unlike North American trails that tend to be escapist artifacts in the midst of the ever-encroaching urban sprawl. It also means that they tend to follow the most natural contours of the land—the paths of least resistance. In simpler mountain-bike terms, they flow.
Later that day, with jerk and beer in our bellies, we shuttled to Hamilton Mountain. We rolled on red strips of dirt punctuated by strange, white rock gardens that felt—that sounded—different than anything I have ever ridden on. It soon occurred to me that the rock gardens were actually coral reefs—on top of a mountain. Their craggy, ivory surfaces, worn smooth in the center of these ancient footpaths, were stained crimson with a thin layer of red bauxite dust, not unlike dried blood on skeletal remains—reminders of the island’s volatile, geological history and ghosts of industry.
Being born of necessity also meant the trail occasionally lead us out of the jungle and through populated pockets during our descents, enmeshing us in rather than removing us from local culture. We found ourselves in several back-alley rallies, a herd of white people on two wheels stampeding through peaceful mountain villages. Ripping fence-line singletrack through shantytowns, we wove between shacks, dodging goats, boosting off drainpipes, water bars and eroded stairways. We charged down steep, crumbling roads more worthy of rear-squish than portions of the trail had been. The first time a group of locals stood, watching us near a tight corner, I approached cautiously. The reaction was not what I expected. “Riiiiiidah,” came the baritone bellow. “Respect!” We were cheered on from backyards. Children chased us, begging us to jump and wheelie. We were, for all intents and purposes, trespassing. Yet we were welcomed. Encouraged. Praised. If only American hikers on public-use trails were so enthused, I thought.
That night, head swimming, I stared out past the silhouettes of riders, bikes and beached fishing boats into the fading twilight of the Caribbean. Our final descent ended in a beach party at Norval’s Conscious Corner bar. Reggae exploded from the speakers. Locals played cards on a rickety table in a dimly lit, smoky room. From behind a wooden counter, a large smiling man ladled up plates of lobster curry from pots smoldering over a stone fire-pit.
There was no noise ordinance. There were no restaurant ratings. The music was loud. The kitchen was dark and dirty. Things were not pristine—far from it—but they were perfect. The food was succulent. The bass was deep. The beer was cold. My mind was free. This was the real Jamaica. This was not an approximation. It had not been broken down, small bits salvaged and polished and reassembled to make them safe and friendly to foreigners. The rastaman twisting to the beat in the corner, dreadlocks swinging, was not paid to dance to make it feel authentic. This corrugated shack on the sand was not a bar designed to have a ‘beachy’ vibe. This place was not something any tourist would stumble upon outside the festival. Thanks to Andy and Jon and the time and energy they had put in working with and earning the trust of locals to put this together, we were experiencing as authentic a culture as still exists in this country.
“What we have is a direct result of years of Andy and I riding through communities and developing personal relationships with people,” Jon explained. “And there is an economic benefit. While small, every dollar counts and whether it is riders who stop at a local bar or people we employ to cook, we try to spread the wealth as much as we can.”
Sure, there was compensation, but not only did Norval Henry open his bar and his beach to us, he—along with Martin Allison, a heavy-equipment operator and cook—helped out with the logistics of the week. And they have been doing it for years. They were always quick to offer a smile, fist-bump or even a joke that made us laugh whether we understood it or not. They made sure our bikes and gear got safely from one trail to the next.
Right now I would be lucky if I could make it back to the bus.