A Perilous and Incredible Hike Indeed

The days are beginning to drag on; the tick of the clock echoes over the walls of my cubicle and reverberates in my ear. I can hardly stand it, it’s Thursday and God willing, Sunday night I will be on an airplane headed over the Pacific Ocean to Kauai. My girlfriend and I are scheduled to hike the infamous Kalaulau Trail along the Napali Coast of Kauai.

We are both very excited, and nervous, there are stories of illegal squatters in the valleys along the way. There are 300 foot drops off the razor thin edge of parts of the track that consist of crumbling rock and slippery mud caused by months of rain. Then there are the two major streams that divide the 11 mile path, passable with caution until any amount of rain falling deep within the valley turns it into a torrent of death causing hikers to be stranded or worse…washed thousands of feet to the tumultuous ocean below, and if they survive the fall they’ll be dragged into the depths off shore by raging rip tides.

These aren’t statements made by goofy people looking to get their names in various hiking blogs mind you; these are the content of stories published by Gear Magazine; America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes, BackPacker.com and Travel + Leisure Magazine; World’s Scariest Hike, as well as the Discovery Channel; One of America’s Most Dangerous Trails.  All of these articles of course serving to make the trip that much more enticing and therefore fun.

But those are indeed isolated events, to be cautious and take great care in navigating these paths is essential for certain, however in spite of the handful of serious accidents published, the scenery has been made famous in the opening scenes of the Jurassic Park movie and according to anyone who’s been there it is an absolutely magical place that no-one with a serious pair of Keen’s should miss. So naturally, my girlfriend and I both being writers, are keyed up to record our travel and experiences along the way. Pen in hand (not really, not yet as I am still sitting in my office chair at my desk daydreaming and typing this on my keyboard) I could not refrain from beginning my journal for this trip, and so it is, the entry of my travel journal, three days before we ship out.

 

Hiking the Infamous Kalaulau Trail along the Napali Coast of Kauai

With granola in my pocket and grit in my stomach, I set out to conquer the trail deemed by the Discovery Channel as One of America’s Most Dangerous Hikes. One may not expect me at 47, an engineering change coordinator and Mechanical Engineering Designer, father of four and boyfriend to a young and beautiful Director of Nursing to jump into such a journey, one with such names attached to particular areas of its path titled “Crawler’s Ledge” by those who’ve traversed it, but here I m anxiously awaiting the night we fly out.

I think of myself as a lucky guy, I suppose I could look back at the physical and emotional abuse I suffered as a kid, the drug abuse I barely survived, the ravages of war that has and continues to affect my psyche, depression and the clinical emotional breakdowns and a divorce after 22 years I experienced and rephrase my opening statement to this paragraph. But that would do disservice to all of the hard work I have put in to becoming a successful adult, father and partner to this point.  Not to mention all of those people that helped me through it all.

When I was in high school I was a very poor test taker, I failed nearly every test or exam I was given. Then one day my English teacher offered to let me write a report in lieu of taking an exam, I was to address each item included in the exam in my report and he would decide whether or not the content of my paper successfully addressed each point, therefore quantifying the knowledge I was suppose to have gained at that point. I took that challenge and it paid off in spades.

Since that point I have continued to write. I wrote through school and on into my days living on the streets as a young man addicted to drugs. I wrote as I slept in a refrigerator box, in the rain, under a billboard near Minnehaha Creek in the late eighties. I wrote on into my twenties, even after I met the girl who’d later become my wife. I wrote about life, I wrote poetry, I wrote with no official training or education beyond high school. Oh I took a few classes at the St Paul Technical College when it first opened. I even took some college classes at Normandale Community College but I always ended up on the street again. But there was something about this girl that captivated me, she grew up in West Bloomington, I grew up in different houses in different neighborhoods amidst multiple divorces between my mom and her husbands’.

She and I would start out in sort of an on and off again teenage relationship but eventually after my asking her to marry me, foolishly I might add and her turning me down because, in her words…”you don’t even have a job”. Who could blame her right? She did marry me, once I had straightened up, done a few nights in jail and a couple of trips through alcohol and drug treatment programs. I enlisted in the United States Army, as much out of desperation as a desire to solidify some sort of tradition in my name; my adopted father was in the Army, my biological father was in the Army and my mother’s dad was in the Army, maybe it was meant to be.

We moved to Hawaii in the nineties, after basic training and AIT (additional individual training), I got posted to Schofield Barracks on Oahu. It was the furthest my bride had been away from home; Angela found herself 3000 miles away from mom and dad and soon, was pregnant, sitting in the living room of a military housing project in the middle of a pineapple field on an island in the Pacific. This was before cellular phones, laptop computers, car phones and face to face messaging. I’d venture to say that it was a trying time for her.

Our relationship til now had seen times of long separation from each other, while I was in basic training and AIT, then while I was away serving in Panama for a while and then as I did my stretch overseas in Southwest Asia. Remember the only form of communication was primarily by hand written letter, and there were times that no mail got to anyone until they were on their way home back then. By the time Angela was 22 she was pregnant, living in the middle of the Pacific and had she and I had experienced war together. That’s a lot for a young couple to endure. Lord knows there is a lot more below the surface that comes with all of it.

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Kalaulau Trail

The trail was perilous and wonderful, dangerous and exciting; the stay on the remote beach was deliciously hot and sweet. The sunrises were only second to the sunsets, with the oceans waves shimmering in the late days astounding bright hues of drenched tangerines and warm golden light that almost seemed to drip into the bright blue water and wash up on shore.

There were wild cherry tomatoes lining the path to a thousand foot waterfall that fell to a cool, clear, fresh water pool in a small lush oasis where the beautifully tanned locals bathed nude, above the moss and the fragrant penny flowers, cliffs seemed to thrust forever skyward above the shoreline. Black rocks the size of softballs falling from crags overhead periodically to the hot sand below, landing with a soft thud, kicked from above by mountain goats.

Our stay on the beach was delightful, mourning doves cooed and pecked at the sandy ground in the grass around our campsite each afternoon, we ate by campfire and fell asleep to the sound of rushing waves upon the coastline. And our march back, our precarious and tremendous hike home came too soon. Our eleven and half mile trip to the beach was hot and dry, but our trip back would be anything but that.

It began under a blue sky peppered with a few clouds; the air was cooler than a few days before. We hoisted our packs and tightened the laces on our boots and stepped onto the trail once again, it was a bittersweet farewell but we had just under a dozen miles to leave behind us before we would rest the souls of our feet. The majority of our trip was fine enough though it had rained extensively on parts of the trail we had not reached yet. The ground was wet and slippery, the path barely wide enough to lay a school ruler across it and never flat and always sloping towards the edge looming thousands of feet above the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean.

We passed over the area where my partner, only days before had lost her footing on ground that crumbled and slipped away, she fell to the path hugging the cliff to the inside, her left cheek crashing onto her heel as her right foot dangled weirdly off the ground and over the edge as rocks and dirt plunged into the sea far below. My heart stopped as I am certain hers did as well. It was scary and exhilarating all at once.

Then we made our way around the infamous “Crawler’s Ledge”, a section of the path that really isn’t any sort of path as it is described in Webster’s, but rather an almost vertical slope holding small rocks that one clings to, and steps across for about 200 meters around the face of a portion of a ridge, that frames the East side of the Hanakoa Valley. This section serves to eliminate many hikers from going further along the Kalaulau Trail, simply the site which seems to turn them around without any consideration at all.

We spent the second half of our nine and a half hour hike navigating wet, sloppy trails, boulder chasms and soggy rain forest valleys before coming to our final creek crossing. We had traversed many til now but this one had become a raging torrent of rushing water dropping thousands of feet from the mountains far above us. The sound of the rushing, ice-cold water was deafening, the site of it frightful. We assessed the crossing and considered staying put for a while but it seemed the rain wasn’t stopping and so neither would the creek for some time, could even be days.

Then to our delight we found there were a few men helping others across as they awaited their friends they’d been separated from what now looked now more like a swollen river. It wasn’t slowing but appeared to stay consistent for now. With much trepidation but a stronger desire to get off of the trail we made a decision to cross with help from the locals. One made his way to us and demanded we hand him our packs, he was of slighter frame, but tall and marvelously cut, he grabbed our huge packs and delivered them to the opposite shore with a honed skill. Then came back and threw his wet, pickled hand at Shira, she glanced back at me with fear and determination in her eyes, then stepped into the stream and grasped at his hand, her other firmly held in mine.

As we made our way, fighting the tremendous strength of the furious water beating against our chests, threatening to take our feet out from under us, we kept our eyes on the other muddy side. Half way across I mis-stepped, slipped and banged my knee on a rock under the surface, both of my numb legs flew back behind me, Shira looked back as I struggled to hold on and saw my legs floating straight behind me. She had to let go and leapt for the next man in the human chain, I found a crevice in the same boulder that drew blood from my knee and held on tight until the other guy was able to get to me, he pulled and I fought against the current and we made it eventually safely to shore. I would be lying if I were to say I wasn’t scared.

Soaked to the bone, our hiking boots now heavy and waterlogged, we grabbed our packs thanked those that helped us across and began our climb to complete the final two and a half miles of our incredible journey. A little over two hours later we stood at the trail head, tired, cold, wet and hungry. We did it though; together we survived the Kalaulau Trail along the Napali Coast of Kauai. Number four on National Geographic’s top eleven best hikes around the world and Backpacker Magazine’s Top Ten Most Dangerous. There is a spiritual power that exists deep within the valleys along the Kalaulau, it is palpable and the locals call it mana. It seemed that each time we rounded a corner and looked out over the breathtaking scenes like that of Nu alolo Kai, one of the western most valleys, we got, again as the locals call it, chicken skin. I think that spirit will never leave us, it has made us stronger and it has left a mark on our souls.