What I remember first is driving through a rocky, flooded river in an open jeep. I remember a long period of waiting through a long discussion before we started across, and then a profoundly adventurous drive across where we were battered by waves and rapids, almost swept away several times, and then watching the jeep go back across to bring the women over. But I was six at the time, so likely it was much less dramatic.
It sounds strange that only the men went across first, but I think that's how it was. Or maybe the older kids went across first. I distinctly remember standing on the cobbled rocks and watching with concern as my mother Anne and my sister V came across, and being glad they made it. I can construct a narrative where my father Hans (I called my parents by their first name), in order to allieve Anne's concerns about the crossing, went first, and brought me with him. But maybe that's a mis-memory too - if there was concern about safety, why bring a six year-old along?
This was in the early 80s, in Jamaica. My first real country. The one I felt I belonged to. I sang the national anthem every day at school, loved the flag, the national symbols, the national heroes. My sister and I spoke the local Patois so well that sometimes our parents couldn't understand us. But it always charmed the other Jamaicans. I felt that I was welcome anywhere, which was only natural, since I too was Jamaican. Out of many one people, and that included a little white boy, who was a citizen of two other countries, and born in a third. "Out of many, one people" was the National Motto, and I lived it.
Climbing Blue Mountain was an overnight affair. After driving up steep gravel roads through lush forest into the hills, you stayed at Whitfield Manor, a dark-timbered plantation house with bunkbeds, and rooms to explore, and dusty open rafters you could balance across, over the grownups playing cards by kerosene lantern at the table below. Until they noticed, and ordered us to stop.
The grownups were going to wake up early in the morning to climb the mountain, but kids couldn't go, because you had to get up in the dark at 4am and walk for miles and it was very cold. But I was determined, and campaigned hard, winning the grudging concession that if I was ready to go in the morning, I might be allowed to go.
I went to sleep surged with excitement, desperately hoping I'd be able to climb, and convinced that the odds were strongly against me. I was just a child, after all. The next morning, I believe I did wake up myself, as my dad dressed in the lantern-light. I slipped into my clothes and out of the bunk bed, overcame Hans' bleary resistance, and was off on the biggest adventure of my life.
We walked interminably, always up, in the dark. The air was moist and cool, the stars brilliant in the cut of the path through the black forest canopy. We cut back and forth on switchbacks, long past my will to prove I could do it, into a slow-lightening sky, an eerie grey world that I'd never seen before, mist coiling thickly around us. "Maybe it's around the next curve" became a cruel joke after the tenth or twentieth time, as the others left us behind, as our rests grew more frequent. And when I was too tired to go further, Hans picked me up and carried me on his shoulders.
My dad was amazingly strong, had an always-tan body with dark hairs and strong muscles under his checkered red-white shirt and white undershirt and nothing could stop him. His sweat smelled like iron. The sky turned faint pink and then orange and then we were at the top, a pile of rocks inside the clouds, and I could see my breath. There was an old cement hut with broken windows, and after a long cold time the clouds thinned and wisp-streamed away and we could see blue sky above us, and then the sea and Kingston and miles and miles of forest.
That was the first mountain I climbed, and it was an amazing experience. When we got back down to Whitfield Manor, I felt changed, like I'd just come back down from the heavens, and my younger sister's profound jealousy and insistence that she could have done it too, confirmed that feeling. She and the other younger children had explored the area and played with kittens and chickens, and honestly I was pretty jealous of that, but I didn't say anything. It would have diminished the accomplishment.
About twenty years later, I climbed it again with my dad. We'd put together an ambitious plan to rediscover an old abandoned trail across the mountain range to the other side of the country. The Vinegar Hill Trail, across the Grand Ridge. I'd found historical references to it after googling obsessively, and as far as I could tell, no-one had walked this trail in 30 or 40 years. It was exactly the right kind of adventure-expedition I wanted at that point in my life, and although I couldn't find anywhere near enough information to make a real plan, that was what I wanted to do.
We visited the Jamaican Geographical Institute to buy 1:12,500 black and white contour line maps created in 1969 (the best there was), met with a Department of Parks person who told us that the trail was impossible, and I bought a machete. That sounds kind of hokey, but a machete is one of the pure tools that testify to the genius of humanity - it's right up there with the shovel.
Growing up in Jamaica, I'd followed our gardener around, an old black man whose main tool was a dark-iron machete with a dark-brown wooden handle and a sharp edge. He could dig up roots and cut branches and split open coconuts with it, and carried it like it was part of his body. He was mostly quiet, but spoke true, worked with a surety that profoundly impressed me, and treated me as a child who would one day be a man. My dad had a machete too that he kept in the trunk of the car, but he never used it with anything like the inevitable grace, the strong heft of lightning meeting a strong old tree, our gardener did.
I wanted to grow up and be him, spent as much time in the sun as I could so I could tan myself black, fetishized the machete, and knew that my destiny was to work with earth and plants. As an adult, I have had the unearned privilege of spending vacations in tropical places around the world, and have found that the machete is a cross-cultural constant. Different shapes and uses in different places, but still always carrying that menacing power of a sword.
In Jamaica, before an election, the local paper, the Daily Gleaner, would have stories ever day of machete fights between JLP and PNP supporters where people died or lost limbs. At the time I believed that my destiny when I became a grown-up would inevitably include joining the JLP or PNP and fighting my opponents with a machete. For that reason I did my best to learn about the differences between the two political groups, but never found certainty.
For the last decade, if I'm in a place where the locals are carrying machetes, I carry one too. I buy it at a hardware store, or from a local, make a rough sheath with a taped roll of newspaper, and keep it quick to hand. The catalyzing moment for me was being chased across the Sigatoka Dunes of Fiji by two large local men with machetes, and developing a strategic plan of dying on those blades in order to give my girlfriend a chance to escape (that encounter ended surprisingly friendlyly, but that's another story).
I was disappointed with the machete I bought at a Kingston hardware store, because even though it was the same British alligator brand that I remembered, the blade was embarrassingly new-shiny, the edge a factory-polished 45 degrees, the handle bright and unworn like freshly-cut balsa wood. I looked like an obvious tourist carrying it, and coupled with unaware lapses into a half-forgotten Patois, I came across as a standard foreign dumbass who was into Bob Marley.
When what I wanted to be was Jamaican. Because that was what I was, or at least, had been. I could climb coconut trees and twist the green and orange nuts off, and drop them down on the beach, cut a few scrapers off the soft outside husk, and then whittle carefully down to the inner core, wedge two holes into the soft white jelly and then drink out the juice, cool as it trickled down my chest in the sun, and then split the nut open and scrape the thick sweet translucent jelly from the inside core.
I traded machetes with Tiger, our host at Whitfield Manor, a soft-spoken Rastafari who cooked Ital for us over the charcoal stoves on the porch of what had probably been the slave/servant quarters - I don't know how long back the place goes, but there was definitely a strong British Empire influence. We both got the best of that trade - Tiger a new blade, that he immediately started sharpening on a stone, and I a well-worn machete, wood handle dark with sweat and dirt and work, and a fine sharp edge on an age-patinaed blade half-eroded by years of use.
Whitfield was smaller than I remembered, and far less epic. But more real now, framed by a high grove of eucalyptus trees, nestled into a steep forested slope overlooking the South Coast. Hans and I had it to ourselves. The next morning, we left too early, anticipating a harder hike than it actually was. We walked up rain-scoured gullies and curving paths, wide as a road lane, stopped to snack and warm ourselves in the dark at a half-way hut, a rough wooden shelter. We waited at the peak in darkness for over an hour, me huddling shivering for shelter from the breeze in a shallow pit, and then stood on the rocks of the outlook as the clouds skeined thin and the sun burned through, and slowly warmed us, Jamaica and the ocean asplay below.
We got about 1/2 a mile down the Vinegar Hill trail, through a tangled cloud forest ecosystem dripping with epiphytes that I had neither the will nor the strength to slash through, clambering instead over wet-slick, thick-curved limbs, and sharp limestone rocks lush with lichen and moss and orchids. The trail when cleared was a 5- to 10-day walk, our GPS didn't align with the coordinates on the maps we had, and, given how overgrown this - one of the easiest parts- was, it was obviously impossible, given our limited resources and preparation.
We walked back down to Whitfield Manor, where Tiger hand-roasted, ground, and brewed real Blue Mountain coffee for us (best in the world!) as I flipped through a moist and mildewing pile of old guest-books, until I found the entry I'd written after my first climb, a modest-proud "I glad I could make it" in child's cursive.
Probably the best coffee I've ever had. I'll be meeting up soon again with my family in Jamaica, and my sister's set on climbing the mountain this time. She always held it against both Hans and I that we didn't try to wake her that day, and she's correct, it was a betrayal. After writing this, remembering how special an experience it was for me, I'm looking forward to climbing it with her, standing in the clouds and looking out over Jamaica, the land we love.