Sunday, May 9, 2010

I Survived the Road to Negril

Keep your mind quiet, save energy, avoid drama... Good advice, all, for a runner on a trip to race a marathon. Good or not, the vicissitude of travel often leaves one vulnerable to intrigue. Where will you find shelter?

For purposes of my column the
Running Journal required more "running" than this story contains. But that's okay. I can put it here. From the Herald-Citizen, March 6, 2005.


The three old men are drunk, and getting drunker by the mile. It appears they had a few drinks on their plane, and now they’ve brought a few beers on the bus with them, in a cloth cooler managed by one of their wives. She occupies a jump seat in the aisle beside me, stowing the cooler underneath.

Eighteen of us are packed tight into a Toyota bus not much larger than a soccer mom’s van. The last row of seats is piled high with luggage. We wind up a mountain overlooking Montego Bay heading toward Negril some 56 miles away.

The Caribbean is on our right, blue, sun-dappled and white-capped. The mountain, lush and green, is on our left; the road clings to the side of it. I have a window seat just behind the shotgun position, which is on the left in Jamaica, where cars travel the left side of the road. From my angle, every truck coming down the mountain seems on a collision course with us.

The inebriated old men aren’t worried; they raise a din of raucous banter, uproariously funny to them. They are from Michigan, something they remind us of frequently. They discuss people back home as if we on the bus want to hear about them. One complains about some woman there.

“Tell her to get a glass belly button so she can see where she’s going when her head is up her ass,” the head geezer says.

“Hee-hee-hee….” They have a laugh on the absent woman.

Head Geezer has a stiff white beard, and wears his baseball hat cocked high. He sits just behind the driver. The T-shirt stretched across his enormous belly asserts, “I survived the road to Negril!” That’s the road we’re on now.

I know next to nothing about Negril, except that the town advertises a beach and a marathon. Either one is a good enough excuse to come here on this December day. It is, however, the 26.2-mile race known as the Reggae Marathon that has drawn me to this tropical island.

Our driver wears a pinched look of perpetual worry. He shifts to third, and the Toyota crawls up the hill growling. While he loaded luggage prior to leaving the airport, Head Geezer was leaning across the seat, impatiently honking the bus horn, claiming it didn’t work. He continues badgering the man for operating a bus equipped with a horn that won’t blow. He won’t let it go. Finally the driver tries the horn button.

“It works,” he says earnestly. Geezer can’t hear it for the ringing in his own ears.

“Know what David Crockett said at the Alamo?” Geezer asks.

“Where’d all them damn roofers come from?”


Our driver is a patient man. Put dreadlocks on him and he would be the stereotype of Jamaican Man—slightly built, small bones, small head. His cap puckers in the back like a fifth-grade little leaguer. He looks hungry.

His lean frame is the same as that of the great African marathoners. I expect you’d find strong roadrunners in Jamaica, if young men—women, too—had the requisite opportunity. The driver’s endurance today is of a different kind—abiding beer-drinking tourists from North America, geezers gone wild.

The young woman in front of me has fuzzy blond hair, bare shoulders and a diamond planted on the side of her nose. She seems to be helping our driver with his cell phone duties. One problem is to find it among the pile of litter on the console between them. I lean forward and ask her if she works for the bus company.

“No, I’m on holiday. I’ve been traveling around. This is the place I decided to hang out.”

She’s from Scotland, she says; her accent confirms it. I take it she is a part-time resident of Jamaica.

“It looks like the place if you like water and you like warm,” I say. She does.

I drop it. I don’t need to waste any energy socializing before the race. I especially don’t want to get caught up in the men’s circus across the aisle. The silent matron sitting between them and me provides insulation. I keep my marathon plans and my easy-to-remember name to myself.

This marathon hangs over me like doom. This will be my twenty-fourth race this year—a few too many. My body is worn out, and I feel myself sinking. I need a break from it.

So I can’t expect much in this race, especially in view of the heat here. My main hope is to get through it without a crippling overuse injury. Afterwards, if I can walk away, it will be like ducking a bullet.

This race has been on my calendar for months. There is nothing I can do now—except get the rest I know I must have. That means avoiding the orbit of the partying men. The emotional uproar sucks out energy worse than shoveling coal.

I want to look at the countryside. I gaze quietly out the window. The scene is a bit disheartening. The slopes are rocky and steep. Little frame houses propped on blocks tell a story of poverty. Most of the land is uncleared. There’s an occasional pasture—I spot a few cattle and some goats. A dozen horses stand listless in a pasture grazed to the bare ground. Elsewhere, vegetation is rampant, lush.

At one lush place, a naked man stands in a pool of ankle-deep creek water taking a bath. Head bowed, arms upraised, he pours water over his dreadlocks. His virile black body glistens under a burning sun. He rises from the water like a primeval god reigning over Eden. The image is at once innocent and sensual.

The striking scene slips past my window. I wonder if I am the only one who saw it. Bushes concealed the man until the bus was near him. You had to be paying attention at the right time. I listen, but no one says a thing about it. Certainly the Michigan beer drinkers didn’t see him; it would have touched off a barrage of salacious one-liners.

I wonder if any woman on the bus saw it. Will she remember tonight? And tomorrow on the beach when gentle waves whisper and a hot breeze lifts her hair, will she lay aside her book and gaze into the distance? Will she hold the secret in her heart, never telling anyone?

I don’t know. I’m just a man, not qualified to speak for any woman. All I saw was a man taking a bath in a creek. When I was a small boy my maternal grandfather and I did the same thing.

The men from Michigan, apparently ignorant of the bathing man, carry on with the same kind of rowdy comments as before. Harmless fun mostly. They’re just a little drunk, is all.

“How can you tell when David is lying?” Geezer wants to know.

“When his lips are moving,” the friend answers.

Our road winds through three towns. The streets are narrow, sometimes lacking even a sidewalk. The buildings come right up to my window. I look through the open doors into the stores and bars.

At one place a round woman in a cotton print dress wobbles heavily along a walk. At the precise moment we pass she angrily slashes a shrub with her machete. What does the gesture mean?
Geezer figures it out.

“Damn! You wouldn’t want to jump her!” he observes, reasonably enough. That touches off a round of predictable comments.


The Michigan wife next to me endures her husband’s road show without a word. Twice, in passing, I make a friendly comment to her. Each time she meets me with stony silence. She hardened like concrete years ago.

Negril turns out to be seven miles of two-lane blacktop next to a beach—further south is Towne Centre, I will learn. From the road you can’t actually see the beach most of the time for the intervening trees, resorts, villas and restaurants. To the east is the Great Morass, a canopied swampland stretching to the horizon. The mountains have drifted away.

It has taken us two hours to cover the 56 miles. It seems longer. The driver makes the rounds of the resorts, dropping people off.

“Of all the things I’ve ever lost, my mind bothers me the most,” Geezer says.

I have successfully kept quiet and not spoken with the Michigan men. Despite that, at least one has learned what I am up to. The bus pulls up to Negril Tree House, where I plan to stay. As I get out of my seat, the man’s eyes meet mine.

“Good luck, Dallas,” he says.

How I blew my cover, is another story.


  1. At the end of your story, I'm still thinking about the guy taking a bath in the creek, lol. I vaguely remember a follow-up story from the Reggae Marathon involving a local boy and a running watch. Did my old-timer's mind guess right?

  2. I visited Jamaica when I was just 6 years old. About the only thing I remember from that trip is standing on the balcony of our hotel room in Montego Bay watching a man take a bath in a big metal bucket. My Dad joined me on the balcony a few moments later, appalled at what I was witnessing. He scooped me up and quickly brought me back inside. Didn't keep me from remembering it though...

  3. What you call your "old-timer's mind" guessed right, although I'm the only old-timer here. The boy was called Jason. He made a lasting impression on me, and he will eventually turn up in one of my stories.