One Step at a Time
by Elsie Doherty
On an early Saturday morning in 1964, six Peace Corps volunteers; Betty, Fay, Dave, Dick, Jim and I, stationed in various parishes of Jamaica gathered at a meeting point in Kingston to join Don, a Canadian with the Bank of Canada and Bruno, a French artist who lived in Port Antonio. The eight of us were going on a hike!
We squeezed into two tiny cars, a British Hillman Minx with a convertible top driven by Bruno, and a German Volkswagen bug driven by Don, along with our supplies, mainly food, to sustain us during this two-day adventure. The Hillman led the two-car caravan to begin the journey which would test our physical and mental stamina and will power.
Our destination was Blue Mountain Peak, majestic, deep blue in color on a clear day and the highest point at 7,402 feet on the eastern end of the island of Jamaica. On hazy days it changed to a pale blue. Often, the mountain was hidden by clouds. After seeing it for nearly two years, each of us had a deep desire to climb and conquer it before leaving Jamaica and going home.
First we had to get to Whitfield Hall before dark. Our group had reservations at the hostel, originally built in 1746, for the first and second of February when the moon would be full on the night of our trek. Traditionally, this was the best time of the month and year to climb the mountain.
After leaving Kingston and driving on winding, dusty, unpaved roads, we reached Gordon Town. You could feel the cooler mountain air even with the sun beating down on us. At the next town, Mavis Bank, we all climbed out of the cars to stretch our legs and refresh ourselves with cold drinks. The men had their Red Stripe, the beer of Jamaica, while we all stood around and chatted. Bruno, with his sketch pad found a place to sit and draw while perched on a flat rock. When he stood, he noticed some writing on the rock. It was a gravestone belonging to Mrs. Thompson, who died in 1845, at age 120 years old!
Bruno sitting on her rock must have angered Mrs. Thompson. A few minutes after getting back in the Hillman and driving a short distance, the car had a flat tire. The trunk had to be unloaded to reach the tools to change the tire and reloaded. When we were ready to move again, the car wouldn’t move. In our eagerness to move on and gain some lost time, someone forgot to remove the blocks from under the front tires.
The cars were to be left overnight in the hamlet of Hagley Gap, a small rural community. To get there we had to cross the Yallahs River ford, actually a shortcut through very shallow water to avoid three extra miles of walking. To cross the river, the driver was the only one in the car to lessen the chance of getting stuck amongst the rocks with a lighter load. The rest of us stepped carefully from rock to rock to get across or took the nearby footbridge. Again, the Hillman ran into a problem. It stalled as it approached the far side, so everyone had to help push the car out of the water. The Volkswagen made it though without a hitch. Once we got to Hagley Gap, it was time for another Red Stripe break before beginning the four-mile hike to Whitfield Hall.
Everyone had something to carry for the uphill climb in the hot sun. Along the way, we met donkeys, boys carrying water in buckets, and women balancing bananas in baskets on their heads. The path was well-worn by the villagers and hikers who went up and down the trail. We saw lots of smiling faces.
Hungry, tired, and cold, the sun had already disappeared when we marched into Whitfield Hall, elevation 4,000 feet and the closest lodging to Blue Mountain Peak. The caretaker immediately got a fire going in the stove fireplace and we heated some food to dine on a hearty meal of sandwiches, crackers, canned soup, baked beans, potato chips, cookies, and more Red Stripe. By eight o’clock we turned in to sleep for a few hours in our clothes and wrapped in sheets, blankets, and burlap covers. We had to be up before two in the morning to start hiking the difficult six miles to the top.
Alarm clocks went off before one o’clock and we all got up to the smell of coffee brewing to accompany bread and buns for breakfast. It was very cold when we took our first step outside and began our trek. The moon was bright and cast enough light on the steep and uneven path. Everyone walked at their own pace. Some walked ahead, others lagged behind. I walked with Jim.
The six miles never seemed to end. While each step took us closer to the peak it got colder and colder and the wind kept blowing harder and harder. With many bends in the trail we were enticed to see what was around the next bend. There was no end as far as I could see.
“I can’t make it,” I kept telling Jim.
“Sure you can, we’re almost there,” he assured me.
More steps, more bends, and still no end.
“I can’t Jim, my feet are too sore, I’m tired, and I don’t want to go on. Let’s go back.”
“No, we can’t quit now. We’ve come so far. Forget your sore feet and just take one step at a time. The top is just around the bend ahead of us.”
As I took another step, I wondered if he was tired and his feet were sore. He was determined that we were getting to the top of Blue Mountain together. He wasn’t going to quit and he wasn’t going to let me quit.
Finally, we were at the open space of the summit. We made it! We looked around and saw the lights of Kingston in the distance, but it was too cold to stand and look around for too long. Suddenly Dick appeared. The three of us took cover in the one-room hut where other climbers had built a fire with wood that was there. Once inside the hut we felt warm, but the smoke nearly suffocated us. We couldn’t stay there. Dick had carried some Red Stripe to celebrate, so we walked outside to toast our accomplishment and see the sun rise over Jamaica. It was a moment of beauty and exhilaration. Dave appeared out of nowhere, joined our little celebration, and stayed long enough to take a picture of us with the sun in our faces. Then he quickly turned around and headed down the hill. The four of us had done it!
After that, it was downhill all the way. The descent was faster than our climb up; gravity seemed to slide us down. My hiking footwear, socks and sneakers, didn’t protect my toes from the pressure of each step going down. Along the way, Jim picked grapefruits and peeled and ate them. They were sour, but that was not an issue. By ten o’clock the four of us who reached the peak were back at Whitfield Hall. It was Sunday. The sun was bright and warm and the villagers we met along the way were in their Sunday best to attend church. Totally exhausted we had some soup and slept for an hour before walking back to Hagley Gap where the Hillman and Volkswagen were waiting to take us back to Kingston.
Back in Kingston, I still had fifty miles to travel by bus to Claremont where I lived and worked. Every single bone in my body ached and I couldn’t move for days. My large toenails were loose and bleeding, and finally fell off. In time, I recovered.
In the few months I had left in Jamaica, I always looked at Blue Mountain whenever I was in Kingston and whispered to myself, I’ve been there, I climbed to the top of your peak, thanks to all the coaxing from Jim. We’ve been married for forty-eight years now and to this day, he is my biggest booster. He continues to encourage me. These days its about my writing, “You can do it, just do one story at a time!”
© Elsie Doherty – November 2015