In our travels, my wife and I have always tried to seek out wild places, exploring Mayan ruins in Guatemala or camping out in a fishing village in a Caribbean backwater. But now that we have three children, we decided to stay at a family-friendly resort in the British West Indies replete with poolside cabanas, acres of fresh towels, and possibly the most insipid food imaginable, beautifully presented but bland and domesticated.
Striking out on our own, we dined exclusively at local eateries, some at the end of potholed dirt roads, others nestled in town by an old wharf littered with rusting lorries and backhoes. We cleaned our plates of parrot fish stewed in sweet curry sauce, freshly grilled mahimahi, mounds of rice and peas, roasted plantains, toasted coconut slices served with rum punch made with fresh-squeezed lime juice, soursop ice cream ("soursop" is the local name for chayote, a white-fleshed fruit), and a sandwich of flying fish served on thick slabs of homemade bread with fresh whisked mayonnaise and a large bowl of icy chocolate ice cream for dessert.
Although these eateries were visually unappealing-- cinder block construction painted white, sagging rows of brightly colored Christmas tree lights lining the front walkway, Formica tabletops, and the blare of CNN-- they were alive with good home cooking, the soft gurgle of Carib beer being poured into glasses, the wild clatter of pans in the kitchen, and the cheerful presence of the proprietors.
Back at the resort one evening, our family walked the perfectly groomed, well-lit walkways with an islander who recounted the legend of the jumbees. It was believed that these evil spirits crouched beside footpaths, waiting to kidnap unsuspecting children. But amidst this transient paradise, the spirits were no more than legend, having left long ago in search of wilder places. Also gone were the serendipity of adventure, the great meal found in a local haunt, the chance meeting with strangers who change your life.
On our last full day, we struck out in search of a local church service and found ourselves in a district called Fig Tree, high up on the side of a dormant volcano, in a small Anglican church called St. George's. It was Palm Sunday, the fronds noisily whipped about by the white and blue electric fans set high on the columns. The church had no windows, just arched openings facing out onto an unkempt graveyard, overgrown slabs of stone set flat on the ground. Thin, long, fluorescent lights lit the nave, and the sound of the glassed-in organ pipes and the ripe scent of incense swirled about the pews, mixing with a faint sea breeze and the sweet perfume of unfamiliar blossoms.
The minister served three churches on the island and was blessed with a booming voice that carried a tune-- and the sermon-- far out through the arches, where it spread over the parched valley and then floated down onto the small, whitewashed houses. After a few minutes, our family set out with the rest of the congregation, singing hymns in a procession along a mountain road with the altar boys in front and the minister in back, the notes from the organ fading as we descended. Here was a place truly wild with anticipation, I thought, as I marched along with strangers, lungs filled with unfamiliar hymns, traffic stopped. A place perhaps still haunted by jumbees, late at night, after the lights of the town had been swallowed by darkness.
Back in Vermont, it was mud season, in between the crisp, biting days of winter and the budding pale greens of springtime. I set out on a short walk through a recently cleared field, water bubbling through the drainage ditches, weaving in and out of crisscrossed piles of recently cut locust, black birch, ash, and pine, the breeze alternately warm with a hint of wood smoke and boiling sap, and then chilling, as if I had just stepped into a dark, frozen hollow. And then bits of Anglican hymns came to me, the faded notes from the old organ still hanging in the air, and I was walking once again in a sacred place. I headed back, the tops of the ridges bathed in a fading rusted orange glow, to our small farmhouse and a simple dinner in a place wild with the shadowy hoots of bear, the barking of coyotes, and long-buried old-timers who snatched at our memories like jumbees along a deserted forest path.