Lost People and Forgotten Places
For as long as I can remember I’ve felt at home in the forgotten places of St. John: crumbling ruins strangled by vines, centuries of abandonment leaving them shadows of what they once were. My father has also spent his lifetime exploring and studying these “secret” places, so that’s why it isn’t everyday that the two of us mount an expedition to a site lost even to us. We almost hesitate to do it sometimes. The number of locations that humans haven’t touched in hundreds of years is growing slimmer by the day. Perhaps its better to leave some places undisturbed and still mysterious. But on the other hand, the sad fact is that we’re losing these sites rapidly. If someone doesn’t document them soon they will slip unnoticed into the past forever. If there are ruins out there that are unknown and historically significant, the pros of finding them seem to outweigh the cons.
Keeping this in mind we set out to find one such site above Water Bay. With so many huge plantations like Annaberg and Brown’s Bay in the area, the remnants of a small struggling early colonial period homestead could easily go unnoticed. The Oxholm map shows a small house site on the knoll east of the Leinster Bay estate house ruins. Why is it on this map but no other? Was it a mistake, since the Leinster Bay ruins don’t appear on the map? Had Oxholm just mixed up the two knolls? For years this was thought to be the case, until further research revealed that the map predates the Leinster Bay house. Oxholm’s map shows a different site.
But how exactly could we get to this forgotten place. Pausing for a moment on the Johnny Horn trail my father points to an old shady tree in the valley. “Let’s make for that” he says, “From there we’ll head up the hill and check the flat by that rock outcropping.” His hand wanders further up to a group of boulders perched on the steep slope. We duck off the trail into the thick dry bush.
The first thing noticeable about this area is that we are certainly not the first people since colonial times to follow the overgrown roads here. Bags, boots, and jeans litter the area in a way that would make you think a nearby department store had been blown apart. Cubans, Chinese, Haitians, and other immigrants often use this part of the island as an entry point in their quest to become US citizens. After boats drop them near the coast they swim to the rocky north shore beaches and tear off through the bush soaking wet, with little-to-no knowledge of the island. When they change they leave their clothes strewn about the landscape.
Maneuvering through the dense catch and keep we finally reach our tree. It isn’t quite as big as it looked from up above but this is definitely the spot. Straight up is our next destination. The following hill is steep, almost vertical, while loose rocks and rotten branches lie waiting for our missteps all the way up. Needless to say we made it.
From the rock outcropping you can look across and see all around the surrounding hills. A cool blast of wind hits us, a welcome change from the thorny humid valley. In the more dense vegetation to the left I hear my father’s excitement at our first clue. There lying on the ground is a complete bronze horse bridle. “Why would that be on this steep slope?” we both wonder aloud. Clearly no one was riding a horse here, it must have been tossed from higher up. We press on.
At the peak the vegetation changes drastically. Tall cactus start to spring up along with those horrible little monsters, the Suckers. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, suckers, or thimble cactus, are the tiny prickly things that are the most evil plants on the face of the earth. As you walk they seem to leap maniacally onto your clothes slowly inching there way up until they are repetitively stabbing you somehow in your face. If you’ve ever had a piece of tape stuck to your hands that sticks to the other hand when you try to remove it and then sticks to your leg as you try to wipe it off and so forth, you know the feeling of frustration.
After stopping every few minutes to remove the suckers from our legs with the machete, we find ourselves in the exact spot our mystery site should be, but there is nothing. Nothing that would indicate early habitation except for a tiny shard of old black glass. However, everything else on the flat is surprisingly modern. There are modern plates, modern utensils, modern sheets of galvanized roofing. There is a scorched patch of ground where a large tent was burned. There are nine fifty-five gallon drums, rusted and on their sides. There is a pair of binoculars left on a stone as if the place had been abandoned suddenly a decade or so ago. In fact, there is stuff all over the place, just not what we were looking for.
This was strange. Who had been camping there? Whoever it was had been there for a while. There was even a folding bed laying on the slope of the hill about ready to tumble down the side. You don’t get that kind of stuff to such an out of the way spot on foot. The plot thickens.
If there had been anything old on the site we were in agreement that it was now long gone. With that conclusion we set off down the hill to the north, noticing more and more modern debris, as well as more immigrant clothes. At the shore we sit for a while and rest, examining our surroundings. This remote beach seems to be the main landing point for countless Cubans, Haitians, Chinese, and others. The most abandoned clothing we had seen yet made a path all the way down the long rocky bay. This “human smuggling” is obviously a more common phenomenon then I had ever imagined. Unfortunately we had not set out to find dirty jeans and sneakers. If we had, I’m sure we would have stood there in amazement of our newfound fortune.
Upon reaching the beach at Leinster Bay we once again set off into the bush to visit the ruins of a slave village we knew was there. Looking down my father points out a conch shell on the ground which had obviously been made into a horn. The top was cracked, but it was clear no animal had been taken out that way. This was definitely an artifact. Raising it to his lips my father lets out a mighty call on the conch horn. I tried as well but I had less luck, making a noise I’m sure tourists on the beach were convinced was a donkey in severe pain.
I guess that hike closed another chapter in our book of “lost sites”. Perhaps a house had at one time stood at the top of that hill, but any evidence of it is now long gone. Not as much discouraged by not finding anything new as happy to have this mystery solved, we returned home. Our hike opened new questions though. What is the story of the burned encampment we found on the exact spot where we had imagined the old site to be? On what scale is illegal immigration occurring in the territory? The answers I’ll leave to someone else, my job there is done, the area of unexplored St. John shrinking in size forever. And, as I sit here reflecting on the day, pulling stubborn thorns out of my hands I think, “It was worth it”.