Two. Only two Jamaicans I knew had climbed the Blue Mountain Peak. It towered more than 7,000 feet over Kingston. That meant six miles of hiking to the top. Eight hours in all, because making it to the Peak is only part of the story — you have to come back down. I would need to pack water and food. Oh, and extra clothes; because if I sweated (which I undoubtedly would) and kept on the wet clothes, the cold would kill me.
With this encouraging brief, I wound my body clock up for 5 a.m. one Saturday morning. A Jamaican dawn was half-hour away as I groggily pulled on tights, tracks and two sweaters, and hauled a knapsack onto my shoulders.
The group of 14 was ready to go at 5.45. We drove through Gordon Town and on to Mavis Bank which produces some of the best Blue Mountain coffee.
Only a four-wheel drive can take you up the narrow, stony, rutted dirt track to Whitfield Hall, a mini-cabin resort with fireplaces, cosy bedrooms and cows in the yard. We parked the vehicles there, ate crackers and fruit, and set off.
The mountains rose up on all sides, gloriously green with the sunlight gently caressing the trees and bushes along the cool, flat path leading to the trail.
“Cheese berries!” Tessa squealed, pouncing on a bush. She was greedily picking tiny orange clumps and stuffing them in her mouth. I picked one gingerly (there were pickers all along the stems). It was delicious. “Cheese berries”, as the Jamaicans call them, are related to raspberries and grow only in cool climates.
By this time, the “hot and sweaties”, as we called the fit folks, had already disappeared at a brisk pace. The unfit lagged behind, slowly munching our way along, trying to ignore the increasing steepness of the path.
Then we hit Jacob’s Ladder. He had a devilish sense of humour, the man who named those curves. They wound around the side of the mountain at a 60-degree angle, punishing my calves relentlessly. Every cigarette I ever smoked came back to haunt me.
And then the sun came out. The trek had just begun. The path was now along the side of the mountain, and we looked down to the valley, thousands of feet below us. I didn’t catch my breath in awe; a dizzy spell would have sent me plummeting down the side.
Eventually, not even the shade of trees and bushes relieved the painful bite of muscles straining to put one foot in front the next. Conversation dwindled to grunts and monosyllables. Claire would stop after every 10 or 15 minutes, begging John to turn around and go back. Bonnie had found a sturdy branch and was using it as a walking stick.
After the first hour we had to stop and eat. There was no sign of the eager beaver posse (one of whom was over 50). By this time there were other hikers on their way back down. God knows what time they must have started out.
“Likkle more, mon,” they tried to encourage us. “Jus’ around the corner and past the tree.”
I smiled weakly.
Wayne asked them how far again we had to go.
“About another hour. You soon reach, mon.”
My heart hit my boots.
Another hour passed before the half-way mark, Portland Gap, popped up.
“Jus’ around the corner,” Wayne said, cheerfully. He was beginning to annoy me, this former army man. He was as fit as Schwarzenegger and was only trailing behind to make sure one of us didn’t chicken out and high-tail it back down the mountain.
Two and a half hours later, I was still climbing. The beauty and stillness of the mossy, green, damp forests had kept me going — up, way way up, to the dead, dusty-brown, windy region in the clouds. Here and there the strangest fungi and flowers grew in the cracks of boulders, in pale purples and psychedelic hues.
I kept climbing. You see, I had no idea just how far I had to go. All I knew was, I had to make it to the Peak.
Afterwards, when I lay in bed, too exhausted to sleep, every muscle screaming, the symbolism of the hike hit me.
When I had finally made it to the top, there was nothing. Just cold wind. And a desolate burnt-out hovel, its walls dirty with graffiti, and garbage other hikers had left on the floor.
Outside, though, was a patch of beautiful flowers that grew only in higher altitudes. They were striking in that desolate place. I could see absolutely nothing below. We were in the clouds. It was so cold my teeth began to chatter. And there it was, a tall mound a few feet away —The Peak. The highest point in Jamaica.
I had climbed the Blue Mountain Peak. Wow.
I had set out for Jamaica the same way, leaving my home in Trinidad to seek my fortune. Why Jamaica? I don’t know. It would be hard, that I did know. But it was just the first step. I don’t know how far I have to go in life, but I imagine my dreams, high up in the clouds, will take a long, painful time to fulfil. Along the way, there’ll be cheese berries, no doubt. And strange flowers and still forests to fascinate and urge me along.
And perhaps, when I reach the top, there will be nothing. Perhaps unhappiness will cloud my vision, and I won’t see the awesome beauty around me. Or perhaps I will see the whole world laid out before me, as one can on a clear day at the Peak, the coast of Cuba many miles away.
You never know how far you have to go. Even if someone had told me about the distance and pain to get to the Peak, I would still have done it. Just to find out if I could make it. If I had the spirit.
Now I know.