Travel Tales: St. John, 2009

Good morning boys and girls, and welcome to the newly relaunched Hope you like the new format – more visually based and mobile ready to boot. I’m also launching a new series of posts with this one: Travel Tales. Hope you enjoy them.

It’s story-time, and today’s travel adventure comes from the US Virgin Islands, more specifically St. John, home to the worst driving conditions known to man. There’s virtually no straight, flat roads on the entire island except in Cruz Bay, the port town on the west side of the island. Set out inland, and you’ll find windy, mountainy roads – so much so that virtually the only available rental cars on the island are 4×4 Jeep Wranglers.

But it gets worse. There’s no street lights outside of Cruz Bay, and after dark the island has virtually no ambient light of any kind. The only light for navigating is your headlights and and the moon. Sounds kind of romantic – until you have to swerve to avoid hitting that 2 foot iguana with a mohawk chilling in the middle of the road.

Then it starts to rain. The roads of St. John seem to be unique in western civilization in that not even Jeeps can scale them when they’re wet. Indeed, to climb any hill requires a 70-80 mph run-up to make sure you’ve got enough power and momentum to get to the peak, because you sure as hell aren’t getting any help from that 4×4 on the hillside.

It doesn’t stop there – no. On St. John, you’re driving on the left side of the road, like you would in parts of the former British Empire (forgetting that the US bought the island in 1817 so that makes no real sense). But – your 4×4 jeep also is left hand drive – meaning you’re driving an American car on British roads.

Think I’m done yet? Hell no – here’s the best part. Drinking and driving is essentially legal on St. John. So on the dark, windy, slick roads, driving on the wrong side and in a 4×4 are hundreds of tourists who are slurping bottles of beer just for the novelty (for the sake of clarity, none in our party ever attempted this, but we saw it enough).

It was in these conditions that my father and I found ourselves in June of 2009. We are heading back from a pre-wedding party – my cousin Mike was getting married that weekend. He and his fiancee Cindy had taken a cribs-style house towards the east end of the island, while my father and I shared a cliff-side house on the west. It had just rained (and we know what the rain does to the roads), so you could literally see the humidity oozing off the street as you drove.

Mike was driving behind us and somehow we managed to avoid disaster when my father served to avoid the aforementioned iguana. But the swerve cost us to lose precious momentum, and we found ourselves at a foot of a hill with an angle of accent of what seemed to be 90 degrees – straight up. Thinking our 4×4 would take on the trip, we traveled up the road, completely lost traction and slid right back down (Mike had turned off earlier to drop his friends at a hotel). It took probably 10 minutes and a total of four or five more attempts to get the jeep to the top of the hill.

What happened next, we were told is a common problem with Jeeps. We drove about 5 more feet, getting ready for another mountain accent, when the transmission completely broke down. Without the ability to get out of first gear, there was no way we were getting up the hill to our house. Walking isn’t a legitimate option either, given the slickness of the roads – if there was a place to leave the Jeep, which there wasn’t (did I mention the roads are surrounded by vegetation and only just barely wide enough for two cars?).

Apparently, there’s a single transmission belt on the Jeep that runs the entire operation down there, but no one was there to tell us this at 1am on the top of the St. John mountainside we found ourselves on at 1am. We had three road options: down a hill, down another hill, and up a third hill. No room to park, no AAA to call. Iguanas on all sides.

At this point, we watched another car at the bottom of the other side of the hill attempt to make travel up to us. The car was in luck – it ascended on its third try. Our luck had changed – it turned out to be Mike.

Mike and my father were driving (and perfectly fine to), so I had had a few more drinks than them. So it was only natural that I came up with the plan, and I can only assume it was the scotch talking at this point. From where Mike had come, there was a small gas station, barely visible down at the bottom of the hill. With no transmission, you couldn’t count on the car to go UP a hill, but it could certainly go DOWN. One of us would steer, the other two would push the car set in neutral, sending the car slaloming down the hillside and travel safely into the gas station parking lot below. Call the rental company in the morning, let them sort it out.

What could go wrong?

My father got into the drivers seat, clicking his seat buckle into place and checking it multiple times before he even closed the door. I always like to picture him making the sign of the cross while Mike and I pushed the car into position on the crest of the hill, though I have no reason to think this is true.

I swear this part actually happened though: Mike and I gave the Jeep its bobsled push-start and as it started to roll away from us, I let go, turned to Mike and said: “I’m not sure this is a very good idea”.

Mike stopped, turned and stared at me, but it was too late. The metal separated from our fingertips and the Jeep took off down the hill like a shot – the slickness of the road only adding to the angle of descent to turn the car into a giant metal box of death on four wheels – none of which had any power from the now useless engine running to them to help arrest this motion – the brakes long since been rendered useless without any traction.

The car angled slightly to the left upon its descent and for what seemed like an eternity, the Jeep steamed like a freight train at the gas pumps. An explosion imminent, the car swerved at the last second, somehow managing to turn left down a dark road…

…and then nothing.

Five minutes passed, then five more. Mike and I continued to sit at the top of the hill, awaiting any kind of news. Finally, my cell phone rings. My father at the other end, irate, yelling about waiting for us to pick him up.

Pick him up? You mean go back DOWN the hill which had caused our Jeep to lose its transmission in the first place? Try to get back up this hill yet again, which was getting worse by the second (it had started raining again).

Ultimately, this was the decided course of action, of course – though it had never even occurred to Mike and I that my father wouldn’t be able to walk back up this death-trap of a hill. So Mike and I piled back into his car, took our descent slowly and started looking for the Jeep. After a few hundred yards, both of us were wondering out loud where this thing could possibly be.

Turned out my father had made it a good half-mile before he was able to arrest enough motion to pull the car off the road – planting the Jeep directly in the single driveway of the local grocery store. Figuring this meant quick service in the morning (and not really having much of a choice anyway), we once again began our trek back to the rental house. Which, of course, meant scaling Mt. Slippery once last time.

After the fourth failed attempt to get back up the hill, we were all pretty annoyed and punchy with the entire enterprise. That’s when we hatched our second brilliant plan of the evening.

Cruz Bay is the starting point of the road on the west side of the island. It’s a sleepy town of a little under 3,000 and though it has some decent nightlife, there’s virtually no one out after the bars close.

Which was good, because on Friday, June 19 around 2am a rented 4×4 carrying three screaming men came whipping through the straight and flat roads of the town, roaring up to around 80 as we hit the edges of town and made our way back to Mt. Slippery. If you don’t understand how steep and how slick this hill was by now, maybe you will when I tell you the car barely made the crest of the hill. Yes – this 4,000+ pound box of metal and glass holding something like 700 pounds of men flying down the road at speeds too fast for most freeways barely had enough momentum to climb a single hill on a faraway Caribbean Island.

It took another 20 minutes to go the last half-mile up the hill to our rental house, where Mike stayed the night rather than brave the hills back to his house. In the morning, shortly after the (literal) crow of the rooster (which happened about every 3-5 minutes during the day), the rental agency found the Jeep and brought us another one (“Oh, that happens all the time – here, have another of the EXACT SAME MODEL…”). Mike and Cindy married less than 36 hours later without any further vehicular incidents.

At this point, I guess I should provide you a moral of the story, but I really don’t have one. But that doesn’t stop me from telling this story at parties.

Travel safe.