As I was driving back down Pic Paradis mountain that I wrote about yesterday, I saw a platform in a tree with a monkey bridge connecting it to another tree. Of course I had to stop and check it out. Turns out I have stumbled onto the Loterie Farm Fly Zone, which is a rain forest canopy tour. They are quite clear that while there are zip lines involved (along with monkey bridges, ladders, and platforms) the highlight is the forest canopy.
I was intrigued, so stopped by the office and what I found was a tropical paradise around a pool. I mean this was a pool worthy of a resort. Unfortunately, I did not have a lot of time to hang out…..plus I was by myself and who wants to hangout in a place like this without someone next to them? I was interested enough that I looked up their website and found the following history that is pretty cool:
William Jordan Welch, AKA, BJ, landed in St. Maarten 36 years ago in 1981 with his wife and 6-week-old son. His only vision at the time, was to provide his son with an unconstrained and natural beginning of his life’s journey surrounded by simplicity and purity. The theory being that it would be a good building block for a future back in “civilization”. The “civilization” that William had chosen to take a “hiatus” from was Los Angeles, California where he was in the dog eat dog world of being a struggling actor.
“I would walk into a casting, and there would be 40 other guys who looked exactly like me, giving each other “stink eye”, only to have a 10 second read of a McDonald’s commercial, followed by, “thank you…NEXT!!!!!” You learn very quickly how to handle rejection.” William Welch
Nevertheless, he stuck it out, and went on to become a “working actor”, which, as he points out, means that you can quit your job waiting tables to focus on acting, and of course, surfing. Surfing became his zone of Zen, a place where he could escape the madness of L.A. It’s where he found his peace and the entrepreneurial gears started churning.
“Surfing was virtually nonexistent in SXM back in the early eighties. I remember being the only guy out at Mullet Bay when there were giant westerly swells produced by distant cold fronts, and people would stand at the shoreline watching me in a sort of awe. It got me thinking.” William Welch
And so, the seed was planted for the very first “Beach Stuff Surf Shop” which opened at the Old Street Mall in 1987. By the spring of 1995, William had opened 12 stores scattered around the Caribbean and South Beach Miami. Business was booming, but William was getting complacent, bored, and frustrated. The business that he created from his lifestyle, had stolen his lifestyle. It was just a business filled with all of the pressures of a large, multi-national organization, leaving little time to enjoy the lifestyle that brought him there. The bane of most entrepreneurs. So, he decided to sell, and pursue other visions which included the construction of a “retreat” in the elevations of Pic Paradis on a piece of land that he had purchased from Nellie Fleming Engle. Here, he would build a compound from sustainable materials, using wind and solar power, and developing an organic gardening endeavor for demonstrative purposes. In the late summer of 1995, an offer was made on the retail business, and negotiations began. It looked like William’s vision was to become a reality. For him, it seemed almost too good to be true. He was living the dream. Little did he know, that the dream was about to become a nightmare of astronomical proportions on September 5, 1995.
Enter, Hurricane Luis. We all know the extent of the destruction, devastation, despair, and even the death of the passing of hurricane Luis. We needn’t beleaguer it. It happened. It’s now an important part of the natural, social, and economic history of the island. For some, it signaled the end; time to abandon the island; pack the bags and leave. For others, it was an eye opener, an awakening, a rebirth. And so, it was for William. His dream had crumbled around him. The stores were all destroyed. The sale of the business fell through. He was facing certain bankruptcy following the discovery that his insurance company was criminally fraudulent. Life as he knew it was over. Or was it? William eventually made his way to Pic Paradis, where his project was in the beginning phase before the hurricane, and where he had constructed a wooden shack that housed all his tools. To his utter surprise, the shack was still there, and all his tools still in place. As he describes it, he had an epiphany. The shack and the tools where a symbol, a crystal-clear sign that he could rebuild, rebuild a new, and entirely different life, but what would that life be? And how would it happen? He was halfway down the arduous on foot journey from Pic Paradis when the “lights came on again”. Glancing to his left while descending the debris covered road, he spotted an old house in the distant valley below. He had never seen this house before. And for good reason, decades of growth had obscured the view of the valley from Route de Pic Paradis. Luis had annihilated all of the vegetation. The hillsides and valley had been ripped bare. And there was this forlorn and sad house sitting there alone and lonely surrounded by fallen trees and haphazardly strewn rocks. But as William describes, “I could see, I could sense, that the property had a magnificent history, a certain kind of grandeur, a life that was yearning to be revived.”
And so it began. Much to William’s surprise, he discovered that this property, Loterie Farm, was owned by Nellie Fleming Engle, the very same woman who had sold him his dreamland on Pic Paradis. She had inherited it from her brother, Mayor of St. Martin, Ellie Fleming in the early 1980’s. Yet, already living her entire adult life in Miami, she had no possibility to move back to Loterie Farm and take over her brother’s thriving dairy farm business. So, she sold the cows, and locked the gate, and thus began two and a half decades of neglect, decay, overgrowth and vandalism. But because she and William had developed a trusting relationship over the years, when William proposed her the idea of bringing the property back to life, respecting the family heritage, she agreed.
The proposition was to say the least, daunting, even for a team of experts with enormous resources. Now, here was this sole individual, with no expertise, and certainly, no resource. But, with a vision in his head, and a machete in his hand, so began the Loterie Farm. As William describes, that journey is worthy of a novel, and at some points seemed impossible to continue. Floods, fires, more hurricanes, threats, voodoo, haunting, loneliness and a general skepticism almost took its toll on William’s psychology. Yet, there were moments of discovery, enlightenment, and spiritual rebirth punctuated by ancient wisdom spoken to him without words that kept him going. And THAT would be his mantra. One which would pay homage to every single human being whose existence on Loterie Farm has made a definitive impact on the state of being of Loterie Farm today.
“People look at Loterie Farm today with admiration which is rewarding for me, but when they’re looking, they don’t see the struggles, and sacrifices that thousands and thousands of human spirits went through to get here, including myself. And, why should they? That’s my private journey, one that gave me a totally unique perspective of life than the one I had before hurricane Luis. When I look back now, Luis was a gift. I would not be half the man I am today without him. And as WE, the Loterie Farm Family, continue to move forward in our goal of pursuing sustainable tourism, in the face of the challenges brought our way by even more natural disasters and dramatic social change, we never forget where we as individuals came from, and where we as a team, as a family, are going. It’s a large family, and if you have ever set foot on Loterie Farm, if you have seen what we see, if you have felt what we feel, then, YOU are in our family. Our goal, is to employ to the greatest possible advantage, the natural, historical, and sociological elements of Loterie Farm for the greatest possible benefit of ALL participants. For ALL of our family.” William Welch