Keeping it Irie: Roark Revival Heads to Jamaica
If there’s one thing to take away from a Roark photo trip, it’s the authenticity. There are no staged shoots, green rooms or five-star accommodations. When they go somewhere, they really go there, meet the people, eat the food, drink the drinks, smoke the herb and have a real adventure. From Russia and India to Jamaica for the most recent spring collection, Roark knows how to travel in style. Spend any time with the crew and the stories they have will leave you wanting to hear more.
We met Roark Revivalist, LJ O’Leary, last fall in our Seattle store and had a chance to learn a bit about their trip to Jamaica. Based on LJ’s account of the trip, we knew we needed to help tell some of the stories. After hearing from LJ, we figured the best person to introduce the trip and set the stage is the guy behind a lot of it, Roark Creative Director and Founder, Ryan Hitzel. So crack open a Red Stripe, spark up a spliff, throw on some Irie tunes and read on.
As with most Roark trips, my expectations of Jamaica we’re built on a romantic view of the destination, fashioned by the past. I grew up listening to a lot of old reggae and had always imagined the sights, smells and sounds of Kingston through the eyes of Sister Nancy, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear. Recently, I’d learned to temper my hopes after being let down a bit in places like India and Russia.
But as I walked off the plane and jumped into our Defender with Luke “Stone bar” Williams and Ryan Sirianni, it was clear we had begun a journey through Bob’s essential album “Catch a Fire.” Literally, Kingston was exactly how I had dreamed it would be—partially stuck in the 1970’s with Rastafari reverberating in the streets, ganja in the air and roots music blaring through antiquated sound systems. There’s a glint of danger depending on the neighborhood, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I always felt safe, but alert. Alive.
I thought it would be rad to spend a lot of time in Kingston, and stay as far away from the tourist trough resorts as possible. So it made sense for us to bring Jamie Thomas to explore the streets and skate among the chaos of downtown Kingston and Papine Square. Jamie loves to share skateboarding with other cultures and there is a bit of a skate scene blossoming, so it was cool to see him work with some of the kids. Ivah Wilmot is an ambassador of ours and a super stylish surfer from Bull Bay, so we wanted to spend time with him and see his world. He’s an amazing human, and quite profound in and out of the water.
As for Parker Coffin, Jamaica was his first real surf oriented trip with Roark, so we really tried to break him in. We spent so much time out of the water and doing our best to see what others have not, it was awesome to see him let go of the typical surf travel rhetoric. Nate Zoller just blends into trips like this. He’s a full surf gypsy that finds his way like a chameleon.
Last but not least, LJ O’Leary joined us again. The best way to describe that cat is that he’s the spiritual glue. He vibes with anyone and has an uncanny ability to bolster the mood. The crew in Jamaica was amazing and perfectly suited for what we had planned. It was documented by Dylan Gordon, Jerry Ricciotti and Karina Petroni.
– Roark Creative Director and Founder Ryan Hitzel
Who are you, where are you from and how did you get involved in this Roark trip to Jamaica?
In truth, my friend, I am zillions of particles made from infinite love, just like you and everyone reading this. Less spiritually speaking however, I was born in The Bronx, New York. Mom and dad called me Joseph O’Leary. Everyone else calls me “LJ.” As I am the third in my family and mom wasn’t all that into me being calling “Joey” – because of the stereotypical Bronx, New York, accent yelling out down the street, “Hey Joey!” <Insert thick Bronx accent> She was cool with “Little Joe” though and later, as I became not so little, the nickname transformed into “LJ.”
Currently I find myself living in Costa Mesa, California, in the very unique position of being involved in Roark’s “Revivalist’s” program. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel with them on their global explorations riding motorcycles, waves, skateboards and good vibrations all around the world for the last two years now.
What were your expectations of Jamaica and how did they compare to the reality?
I had an old Jamaican neighbor who lived next door, named Mr Palmer. He and his grandchildren were my first introductions to Jamaican culture. So in my heart I had this underlying love for the sweetness that Jamaica would bring, because I had already experienced its touch through the Palmers, immigrating into the U.S..
Jamaica is wild. More wild west than the Wild West ever was, because it’s modern and we were actually there living it, not just watching it on the silver screen. I was super excited to get right into the culture of Kingston and feel it all around me. While there, we often saw hard looks and a deep pride worn on the faces of most of the people passing by in the streets.
Their eyes tell a different story. I see the twinkle hidden in them. As soon as they know you aren’t one of the many who would be coming to take from Jamaica, but rather to give, learn and to feel it all as it truly is, they open up and show the true meaning of good vibrations. A little tip to experiencing this: you first must bring with you good vibrations, in order to feel them in exchange.
“As soon as they know you aren’t one of the many who would be coming to take from Jamaica, they open up and show the true meaning of good vibrations.”
You’ve probably been on a lot of brand trips and photoshoots by now. How is the structure of a Roark trip different? Is it super planned and regimented or do they kind of let just things happen naturally?
The Roark trips are no bullshit!
For instance, most people go to Jamaica and lock themselves in all-inclusive resorts and just see the fenced-in beaches and buffet lines with the stench of overproduced Bob Marley cover bands generically playing somewhere in the background.
We never even saw one resort. Real roots you know? We went straight to Kingston and were looked at as if we were crazy tourists who had managed to escape from the high walled boundaries of resort life. Having already been accustomed to Roark’s style of traveling and taking in the real culture these adventures have to offer, with a bit more openness and true explorational spirit, I smiled when they looked at us that way. It automatically puts everyone at ease, because we were certain we were going to be welcomed. Even if we had gossiped, pessimistic views that Kingston may be somewhat unwelcoming, we would smile and say, “ok sure” and continue to seek that for ourselves. Everyone on this trip brought that kind of travel etiquette and it made for the most open experiences.
We were there looking for waves, so depending on a swell that was lingering somewhere off in the Caribbean, we would run around Jamaica with an eye on the coast. No plan could be kept, even if we wanted one, because the waves come only as often as the storms love to send them, not according to our plan, you know? There always will be a few destinations in mind, however we had no agenda on how Jamaica was “supposed to be” adventured.
We stayed on a deserted island that we sailed six hours from Port Royale to get out to. We camped in log cabins up in the Blue Mountains after riding dirt bikes through Kingston and climbing 5,000 feet above sea level through green jungles of tumultuous, winding, rutted roads just to see the view. We conversed and harvested coffee beans with the local farmers. Nothing is planned too tightly on those trips because we would miss the whole thing unfolding right before us if we wasted our time looking at a schedule. We just got to feel it all as it came.
On this trip, you traveled with both surfers and skateboarders. How does that dynamic work when some of the crew wants to head into the city to find something to skate and the others are searching for waves?
Being one who does both, I was indeed searching for both. In fact almost all of us do both and the ones who don’t have a sincere respect and love for the other. If there was a spot to skate, one that couldn’t be passed up no matter what the waves were doing, we would all hang and skate or support anyone who was, while drinking Red Stripes in the shade, filming insty stories and throwing high fives from the sidelines.
When we went on surf missions, everyone came and swam in the ocean, shot photographs, mind-surfed, drank rum on the shore and took naps underneath hammocks drawn up between palm trees. In truth, each of us were traveling together with a sincere appreciation of what we were all looking for and we all helped make sure everyone found their fun, and that we each shared in all of it throughout the whole trip.
There’s a shot of you guys somewhere hanging on the beach with a bunch of dudes with AK47’s, what is that all about?
Like I said, “Jamaica is more wild west, than the Wild West ever was.” I say this because dudes are strapped. In every bar, in every car, in every store and on every beach, the Jamaicans are carrying in case of a “gunfight.” A gunfight!! Guns are likely and common, and are a part of their reality at this moment, only they have automatic weapons and not just a little six-shooter. That shit is real. It’s normal for them and it took a minute for us to feel normal about it too. However by the time we left, seeing a dude with an AK was about as casual as it would be to see an overdressed woman with a chihuahua on her lap in any restaurant in LA.
Can you share a memorable experience or story from the trip that really stood out to you?
So many man, but here is one…
We took our old Defender we leased for the trip up into the Bobo Rastafarian camps, out in the mountains by Bull Bay, Kingston. We arrived to hear the Bobos beating large drums, chanting hymns yelling “death to babylon!” We looked at each other with the realization that we were the closest thing to “babylon” these guys had likely seen, while feeling a little uncomfortable and somewhat out of place.
Instead of taking that energy and just getting out of there as soon as possible, we decided to listen to the whole ceremony, dispelling oppressive devils and cursing the enemy of the Rastafarian way. As their ceremony completed, I decided to then go and speak face to face with the high priest of the Bobo Rasta’s himself.
He looked happy to see I would openly engage him. He saw I wasn’t coming in fear or to detest, but yet to understand and learn more from him. The words he and I exchanged and the quality of the shared perspectives that rang through our conversation were something special I will never forget.
Afterwards, our Jamaican guide, Jamaican Pro Surfer Luke “Stonebar” Williams, told me, “Yo!! You must say sometin very powerful to that Rasta Priest, because that mon never complimented no white man him whole life and him was really feeling your vibrations and told me you taught him so much from that conversation! He felt you mon!! Him never say dat about too many white boys never.” Sharing that with the Rastas made my whole trip a little more magical.
You also went up into the hills to visit some coffee plantations. Do you have any good stories from that experience?
The motorcycle ride up was amazing!! The dudes who own Roark also rip at everything we are doing on these trips and they tore up the mountain with Dylan, Jamie and I. Through switch backs and doing burnouts around every corner up the long winding hill into the clouds where the Blue Mountain Coffee plantations were. As we got higher, at one point Jamie and stopped to take in a view of the road we had just covered and to take a breath. We both looked at each other and said, “man!! How lucky are we to get to be here right now, doing this with Roark!” We felt so grateful.
Then we jumped back on the bikes, caught up to the pack and continued on to the old coffee farm. We picked and ate the fruit that covers the coffee beans, which is actually quite delicious itself. We learned all about the whole process and the care that went into how they ran the place. It was way up above the clouds in the cold. The t-shirts and shorts we were wearing back in Kingston had to be swapped for hoodies and jeans as the climate in the cloud-covered jungle was at least twenty degrees cooler.
How to Take on Jamaica
Don’t stay in a resort.
Bring your highest deepest vibrations.
Tell our boys in Kingston, you “come with Roark.”
Eat jerk everything, curried goat, rice and peas.
Drink real Jamaican Red Stripe everyday.
Smile and take it all in because the Jamaican people will show you what their country is all about if you know how to ask. Call Dr. Luke, Luke Stonebar at 876 842-6116. He is one of the best surfers on the island, a dearly beloved son of Jamaica and man who knows how to make sure all flows well. Go with an open heart and witness how much Jamaica has to fill it with.
How were the waves in Jamaica and would you go back for a surf-specific trip?
Epic and empty! We actually just came back from another Roark surf strike mission down to Jamaica about three weeks ago and completely scored.
The first trip we had fun waves, but the dudes at Roark saw a swell lining up, had just signed Parker Coffin, and knew we were kind of all excited to actually surf Jamaica when it was fully on!! They decided to send us back with a smaller group just to surf and to have the flexibility to roam the whole island looking for waves. It was Dylan Gordon, Kyle Mac, Parker Coffin, myself and they actually also just signed one of Jamaica’s most bright young son’s – Ivah Wilmot. Ryan Hitzel, Creative Director and Founder, later flew down to join us and ride waves from the swell that was coming.
And boy did it come! We surfed so many secluded reef breaks and cobblestone points with just us, in board shorts and blue water, with not a soul around for miles. All smiles. We surfed a few bays and waves that even Ivah had never surfed. We explored uncharted territory and were warmly rewarded! Go surf Jamaica, just bring your highest vibrations with you and watch how well the Jamaicans treat you too.
When we met you at the Roark Runaway Club event in Seattle, you had a pretty good Russian accent. How did your Jamaican accent work out and did you get to try it on any of the locals?
Ha ha ha ha ! Da mon! Oh I mean, yeah mon! We spoke deep Patwah the whole time, getting irie and feel’n dem vibrations. Our Jamaican bredren loved that I could understand them and kind of speak with them in their native tongue. It’s so fun! They knew I knew wah gwan.
Want to learn more about Roark’s trip to Jamaica or see the new product inspired by their adventures? Stop by Wayward Seattle on Saturday April 21st to meet the crew in person, hear some more stories and eat some tasty jerk chicken wings. RSVP to the Facebook event for details.