By Billy Campbell
The Captain has always said the only thing better than going to Pitcairn once is going again. I wasn’t sure how that could be. Not that I suspected he was lying (Captains are above that sort of thing). It simply seemed impossible that reality should match the memories. It’d been 5 years since my first time. What memories I had, had reached mythic proportion.
It’s a place I find tiny and mighty, all at once. Where the sweetest breezes come soughing down-valley through banyan, pine, banana and breadfruit trees, carrying the scent of grapefruit and guava. Where I may stand at the edge of dizzying heights listening to the bleat of wild goat, the distant cry of a white tern circling fathoms beneath my feet, and look down to comprehend what seems a larger portion of the planet than I have ever seen from a plane.
Behemoth shadows of cloud move on the face of the blue Pacific, stretching away into time, almost, lending a perspective unlikely from greater or lesser heights, a feeling particular to this island. It makes both sky and earth seem immense as well as trifling, and things close-by (like a tern) seem distant, while it makes others so faraway I can’t even see them feel close, as if I might spy the highest minaret of the Kremlin from Pitcairn, could I but leap a few feet further into the air.
The island also feels as if it’s the sole devotion of the world’s mightiest ocean, which — unruly though she may be — marches all 7000 miles of her longest fetch to humble herself in its lap, helpless to do anything but seethe and boil against the jag of its volcanic girth, surge and pump through its hollows and crevices, cracks and fissures, its blowholes, as if she would suffocate the place, only to be dashed into spume again and again, endlessly submitting to Pitcairn’s will in geysers of white.
I could watch the sea come against this shore for hours, years, listen to its thunder, taste its salt-spray on my lips, my skin, feel it in my hair. The sun on my face and sea at my feet, here of all places, feels different. I feel stretched a thousand different directions, as wide and open as the sea herself.
Yet the island is tiny. There are fifty people on Pitcairn, fourteen miles of road (less than one of it paved), two dogs, one tortoise (her name is miss T, and she’ll block the track to Tedside until bribed with fresh-split coconut, or banana, which she accepts with what seems a good deal of ingratitude), and zero things poisonous, unless you count the bees of summer. As of this writing, though, Pitcairn’s winter, one could bushwhack naked through its darkest tangle (I’m prone to such, given tequila) without fear of worse than a mosquito-bite.
The most treacherous and thrilling aspect of the island is also its next-most beautiful: its precipitous drops. And there are plenty of place-names — Break’im Hip, Freddy Fall, Down Isaac — to attest so. We may have added a name this visit but that’s Jimmy’s story to tell, as Cap says, and we are grateful he’ll be able to. I hope they call it Jimmy Bus’ Ass, if they do re-name part of Downrope. It would be like them.
And that brings me to Pitcairn’s most beautiful aspect, by far. Its people. Descended of the mutineers of HMS Bounty and their Polynesian counterparts, they are as salty and rough and warm and jocular as you’d imagine it’d require, having clung 220 years to a windblown rock in the middle of the sea. You know them mere minutes before they’re taking the piss out of you, giving you a new nickname, ribbing you for shyness or some imaginary ineptitude on your part. Even their kids do this. I suppose it’s the only way for a people for whom the few vessels stopping by yearly provide such fleeting contact with the outside world.
In the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen the Captain as moved as he is on raising Pitcairn, except, that is, on letting it slip below the horizon. He wasn’t overstating things when he said it’d be even better. He’s been proving it to himself for years.
It took a tearful farewell on the landing yesterday, a batch of hugs, and one heartbreakingly brief nose-rub with Mavis Warren, to be reminded how deeply truthful the Captain can be.