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Getting To Kalalau: What Really Happened, and The Mechanics of Writing

In 1988, I published an aticle in the Washington Post about a hike my husband and I undertook in the spring of 1988 on the famous Kalalau Trail.  It is posted in the travel section of my web site, www.goonan.com, and many tourist sites in Hawaii have linked to it.  I therefore still get about one letter a month asking my advice about Captain Zodiac, etc.  It was also picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle, a nice surprise, which I only found out about when I got a check in the mail for it.  A friend of ours read it, but since I never changed my name, and she only knew my husband’s last name, and because the photo of me was from behind, she never knew it was about us until we visited her ten years later.

The Kalalau Trail is almost twelve miles long, up and down.  The up traverses, sometimes, those clear, high, oceanside cliffs that are bare of vegetation.  Wild goats?  High winds?  I don’t know.  But this is also within a mile or two of the rainiest place on earth, which is not very accessible.  When we lived in Honolulu in the early sixties, a friend of my father’s had the job of parachuting into that place, once a month, to read the rain meter, and then hiked out, to be picked up by a boat. 

These cliffs don’t have much of an angle to them.  They are almost straight up and down, and weave in and out along the coast.  There are no roads to Kalalau.  After the trail ends, there is another long stretch of coastline before a road, which, I think, ends at Barking Sands, where there was, in the eighties at least, a military installation.  Yes, when you ran across the hot sands, they barked beneath your feet, something about the size of the grains. 

The down part of the trail often crosses one of the infinite number of creeks or waterfalls that drop to the sea, hundreds of feet below.  Verdant, lush, rainforest, big-leaved plants, tropical flowers a-g0-go, the whole nine yards.  Wilderness. 

I broke my legs on one of those little incurves.  We were about five miles from the end.  Pre-cell-phone.

We’d walked the trail the previous fall, and this time, we had made reservations to be zodiaced in.  You have to get a permit to camp on the beach, and just to be there, but there were and probably are plenty of squatters back in the Kalalau Valley, home of ghost groves of breadfruit, fruit trees, and other food sources planted by previous long-time squatters, some of them famous. 

I had an agreement with the editor of the Aloha Airlines In-Flight magazine to hike up into the valley, take some photos, and do a piece about it–about the famously prosecuted leper back when all Hawaiians with Hanson’s Disease were rounded up and quarantined for life on Molokai.  He refused to leave his wife and family, and hid out there.  He shot–and killed–a sheriff who was after him, and after that, he was left alone.  Of course, Hawaiians had lived there at one time, and the valley was probably terraced taro fields and the narrow coastal area laced with fish-farming pools.  But tsunamis are not uncommon there, and even a normal winter storm can whip up sixty-foot waves.  When they rush up a narrow valley bounded by sheer cliffs thousands of feet high, there’s nowhere to go. 

On that morning, Captain Zodiac cancelled because of high surf.  One of his services was dropping off packs at the beach so that hikers could get there unencumbered, but we became aware that there were people there with no food, etc., because they were without their packs.  I wanted to hike in anyway; I had a story to write.  but we got a late start and decided to camp near the trail when night fell.  It really does fall, at that latitude, suddenly.  No problem.  The next morning, about ten minutes after we set off, my foot rolled on a twig or rock on the trail and I fell.  I heard the bone snap as I went down.  I was in pretty good shape; I’d been running four miles a day for well over a year, but I had pronated a few months earlier, spraining my ankle.  The runners among you will understand that being unable to run filled me with great anxiety, but actually, healing is faster if one continues to use the ankle, which I did, aided by an air-splint.  So I knew my left ankle was weak, and I think that my left leg is shorter than my right anyway. 

I dusted myself off.  There wasn’t much we could do.  I could wait there to be carried out on a litter or something equally extravagant, but it was just the fibula, I learned later, and it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as the sprained ankle had.  My husband fashioned me a strong hiking stick, shouldered both our packs, and I hobbled along behind him.  There is something about looking out at the vast, blue  Pacific from hundreds of feet above that takes one’s mind off anything minor.  It was a pleasant hike, and it’s all in the article. 

Once we got there, we found a group of rangers who had helicoptered in cases of beer.  They had spent the night partying with a crowd of nurses from a Honolulu hospital and–oh, yes, checking permits.  Their pickup was due in a few minutes, and they told me that they could fly me out, and if my leg really was broken, the state would pay for it.  If it wasn’t, it would cost $500.00.  The nurses all said, oh, you couldn’t walk if it was broken, and so on, but I knew it was; I’d heard it snap. 

I decided to stay anyway.  I didn’t know when I’d be back, and I haven’t been back since.  I was unable to hike back into the valley, which was disappointing, but it was stunningly beautiful there anyway.  I had some motrin. 

The next morning, the surf was still plenty high, but the zodiac boat showed up.  I think they sent in a small boat with the packs, which got upset, and we who were leaving had to swim out to the boat, which I did.  A lovely swim; a tremendous ride back along the cliffs, during which the pilot took us through a few caves.  In the article, I wrote about the legend of the woman who had lived at Kalalau but then swam back to Honalei, twelve miles, through shark-infested waters, towing her two kids on a surfboard.  I got an email a few months ago from someone who said that was true; he used to date the woman.  I told him I’d post it here, and I will, when I get around to it.

I didn’t mention the broken leg in the Post article.

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September 28, 2009   2 Comments