St. John: Wrong way, right time
“You’re driving on the left side of the road,” my wife said.
We were headed toward Cinnamon Bay in a rented white Jeep Wrangler with no windows.
I looked through the windshield and noticed, by God, I was driving on the left side of the road. Worse, I was about to go over a blind hill.
I jerked the steering wheel to the right, a spastic shudder that set in motion a series of events that no one involved would forget anytime soon. My wife screamed, I screamed, and the people in the oncoming lane–my right, but not correct side of the road–screamed.
The people of St. John drive on the left side of the road. I knew this. I’d studied it. I lived it. I forgot it…for half a second.
My wife had not been, as I first assumed, correcting my driving. She was making a mere observation, almost in the voice of Mike Judge’s Butthead.
“You’re driving on the left side of the road…huh-huh.”
There are theories about why the U.S. territory still holds to the old British way of driving. Some folks suggest its to help drivers keep an eye on St. John’s steep cliffs. Such theories are irrelevant when you are about to have a head-on collision in a Jeep you’ve been driving for a total of five minutes.
“I was joking,” my wife said. I don’t know if she wet herself.
After you get used to it, there is something sort of comforting about driving on the left side of the road. You can see the edge of the pavement. You have a better view of the scenic overlooks while you’re driving. When you throw up after a near-death experience, you can do it without fear that a passing car will take your head off.
There aren’t a ton of passable roads on St. John. This is good for a number of reasons. It forces more walking. It means folks have to make extra effort to get to many of the pristine beaches (and, thus, the beaches don’t get too crowded). Also, St. John law allows the driver to sit with a cold beer while he navigates the tricky roads of the North Shore. While driving under the influence is still illegal, there is clearly a fairly blurry line on intoxication. Moreover, enforcement is, by my best estimation, scattered.
If none of those reasons are enough, the access to donkeys will have to suffice. Wildlife on St. John is both curious and eclectic. Giant lizards, the occasional suicidal mongoose, the rare white-tailed deer, and wild donkeys. We saw them all. The lizards take some getting used to. The mongoose look like brown squirrels with straight tails. The deer look at you like, “What? I swam here. Get over it.” The donkeys, though…well, they are donkeys. They roam the middle of the roads. They are considered wildlife. For every ten of the 4,000 people who live on St. John, there is one donkey. There are a million jokes, but none of them are as funny as a donkey on its own.
Suffice it all to say, driving is tricky on St. John. It requires concentration, comfort in bearing white knuckles, or two or three Dominican Presidente beers. I, despite my dubious reputation, always chose concentration.
With all of that understood, I wouldn’t have visited the island without renting a jeep. There is a certain freedom of being able to go wherever you want whenever you want. Moreover, there is a distinct joy with ending up in places that look like the photos below.
Now, the only problem is learning how to drive now that I’m back on the mainland. Things just don’t look right without a few donkeys in the way.