“Heyyyy this is dad, with one word of advice. If you explore Kauai, uh, in the forest and all that…. I’m sure you know that uh... they grow a lot of pot there and uh, pot growers carry guns. Soooo beware. And uhhh…that’s all. Ok. Bye.”
When I was listening to my dad’s voicemail on the plane, it seemed pretty funny. I even had Tim listen to it, saying, “only MY dad!” as he chuckled. It didn’t seem so funny now. It was day one of our spontaneous Kauai trip, and we were lost. And I don’t mean on a side street trying to find the Safeway lost. I mean mudding through the jungle at night, stars jolting above our heads as we lurched up the muddy pothole-filled terrain calling itself a road. “I think maybe this isn’t right” I said for the millionth time, Tim’s furrowed brow an unspoken sign that he agreed. No way was this the road to the campsite where I had reserved a spot for the night. We passed what looked like a goat path, the entrance strung with old caution tape that fluttered at us like a snake about to strike. In four-wheel drive, we slid around the corner where an eerie green glow washed over us. It seemed to be emanating from a large metal object with a chain link and barbed wire fence surrounding it. Yeah, time to go. We slowly lurched away down the road, hoping my dad’s gun-toting pot growers weren’t about to come investigate. As the green glow faded and the jungle began to seem very, very dark, we lurched to a stop. In front of us was a fork in the road, and a sign. An actual sign! This was a first sighting for us in Kauai, and we approached it slowly as not to spook it. Luckily for us, neither arrows on the sign actually pointed at a road. In fact, they pointed at everything except a road. We wanted adventure, and this sign was determined to give it to us. Yaaaay. We recognized neither road name (or maybe it was the name of the rock it was pointed at…) and it was past our bedtime. “Screw it, let’s go park at the lot and sleep in the jeep”, Tim trudged back to the car, shaking his head. Back up the road we went, our brains properly rattled by the time we finally hit pavement. We drove to the Koke’e State Park campground, at which we did not have a reservation (or at this point, a care in the world), to find it empty. Surprised but relieved, we pulled up to a spot far from the three other cars, flipped the back seats down, wiggled into our sleeping bags, and were out in seconds. Little did I know, the rough and bumpy road had not only awakened my spirit of adventure. It had awakened something else inside me. Food poisoning. I had had an uneasy feeling that morning at I swallowed the last bite of my ham and swiss breakfast sandwich. The last bite was cold. Which was weird, as the rest of the sandwich was not. The uneasiness had turned to nausea and had stayed with me the rest of the day. Now, an hour into a deep sleep, I woke abruptly. At first I thought my appendix had burst. The pain was unreal, unlike anything I had experienced in my lower abdomen. I didn’t know what was happening or what I needed, but I had the good sense to crawl out of the jeep before it began. The purge. During a brief respite, I crawled to the jeep and shook Tim awake, asking if he had any stomach meds on him. “I don’t have your markers”, he muttered, sleep drenching his voice. I didn’t have the chance to ask what he was on about as I crawled back to my dew-covered grass patch of horrors. An hour or two (or three?) later, relieved and pain-free, I crawled back into my sleeping bag with chilly toes and tired abs and slept like…. well, a baby. For three hours after shitting my brains out.
“I said I didn’t have your markers?” It was the next day at nine a.m. and we were sliding down the muddy Awa’awapuhi trail trying not to wipe out on our first full day in Kauai. “Yeah I dunno what you were dreaming about. Anyways I’m feeling a lot better now, thanks”. “Why would I be dreaming about markers?” My eye-rolling was interrupted by a disturbingly loud rustle in the bushes, and I froze. The tension was only somewhat lessened as two large men in camo and bright orange burst through the jungle yipping and guffawing about “gittin’ a hawg”. They nodded to us as we passed by, shotguns slung across their backs. As polite and cheery as these guys were, it wasn’t exactly comforting knowing that a bunch of pig-crazed men were sneaking around the trail, shotguns loaded and safety off. I wished I had worn my bright pink board shorts. And maybe a sign saying “not a wild boar, please don’t shoot”. As we hiked along, I felt something brush my leg, and looked down to see an older black dog looking up at me, panting and pleased. Meanwhile, Tim was receiving friendly licks from a smaller, also black, dog. Apparently the hunter’s dogs had decided that sniffing for wild boars was actually pretty boring, and instead they were going to follow us humans to wherever the heck we were going. One was big and one was small, so being the creative geniuses we are, we called them Big Dog and Little Dog. They wagged their big and little butts right to the end of the trail with us, completely ignoring their sniffing obligations and basically just very excited to be dogs and to be doing dog things. The end of the Awa’awapuhi trail opens up onto a thin ridge with a huge drop on either side. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but it is not for those afraid of heights, and it most definitely is not for dogs. Unfortunately, the dog things that Little Dog and Big Dog insisted on doing included zipping around our legs on this section of the trail, making sure the rocks on the cliff edge were in their proper places, and sniffing things that weren’t there on ground that very nearly wasn’t there. This was very stressful for us humans, as we felt somewhat responsible for these dogs who had followed us here. We also wouldn’t have minded not being jostled and bumped off the cliff edge into the crevasse below ourselves. Plummeting to our death via dog wasn’t exactly on the itinerary. Luckily neither of these things happened, and with much coaxing and empty promises of treats, we were able to guide Big Dog and Little Dog back to their jolly-faced owners waiting at the trailhead.
The hunters weren’t the only interesting folk we met on the trails. In the nine days we were in Kauai, we hiked twelve gorgeous, unique trails, encountering on each trail some very unique people. We met shirtless men in fedoras who made their girlfriends carry the packs, beer chugging groups who insisted that being drunk made the hike back up easier, petite Asian women who tried to hike in stilettos and white mini skirts, elderly couples who marched past whining teenagers, hippies hiking naked and barefoot waving incense sticks, locals who glared at all the tourists before disappearing ominously into the bushes, dreadlocked nomadic couples who hiked with all their belongings in tattered fanny packs, sorority girls who managed to clear out entire view points by shrieking about a mouse, and many many others. There isn’t a huge amount of exotic wildlife in Kauai, not even any snakes, but the ample people-watching makes up for it. On the less crowded trails however, when it came to the wildlife we found that the best tip we could offer was to carry a stick. This wasn’t a walking stick or a whack-people-on-the-head stick, it was a crab spider stick. There wasn’t a single trail we hiked when this didn’t come in handy. It’s one thing to appreciate and love nature, it’s another thing entirely when nature is a fat crab spider and his web wrapped around your face. There are also giant orbweaver spiders, which luckily tend to build their web off to the side of a trail. Other wildlife we encountered in Kauai included frogs, a rainbow of fish, many gentle sea turtles, small green lizards, inquisitive goats, a rare Hawaiian monk seal, and many, many, many birds.
By the way, the bird of Kauai is no svelte delicate island bird. It does not trill captivatingly, nor are it’s fallen feathers a prized find. The bird of Kauai is the chicken. Of the twelve trails that we hiked on the island, all of them contained chickens. Mostly roosters. Roosters are majestic in their own way, with greenish-black curling tail feathers and fiery necks that gleamed in the sunlight. But these were no farm roosters. These roosters were feral, and they were territorial. This means that they would not only cock-a-doodle-do in the morning. They would cock-a-doodle-do all the livelong day. They would cock-a-doodle-do until their fiery little throats were hoarse and cracked, and it was clear that whoever thought they sounded anything like “cock-a-doodle-do” was just a hopeless romantic. When you went to the beach, chickens. When you hiked a trail, chickens. When you snuck behind a bush to pee, chickens. And I’m pretty sure that when you climb Mt. Kawaikini, the highest point in Kauai, a chicken will be there to greet you and brag about how it got there first.
But chickens, at least, don’t try to rob you. Hawaii is pretty notorious for sketchy locals, and Kauai takes the cake. The cops there actually tell you not to lock your doors so that thieves can rummage through your things without bashing your car windows in. Comforting. On day six of our trip we had the pleasure of experiencing just how sketchy the locals can be. “Lyse shhhhh.” I woke up at one a.m. to Tim gently keeping my head down, finger to his lips. “Whaaaa?” I groggily muttered. “Two SUVs just pulled up with a couple of locals in them. One guy got out and went to talk to the other guys and now they’re just sitting there watching us. We’re leaving.” In Kauai, you can pretty much car camp wherever and no one cares. Usually we found a nice secluded spot on the beach under a tree and just slept in the back of the jeep. We don’t usually encounter other people since we’re not just on the side of the road. Something was off here. “Just keep your head down. I’m gonna crawl up to the driver’s seat and start the car. Lock your door”. I nodded and slowly locked my door, wincing at the audible click. Tim crept up to the drivers seat, the tinted windows of the jeep buying us some time as he quickly twisted the key, threw the jeep into drive, and peeled out towards the road. Once we were on the road, I peeked out the rear window. We rounded a corner, and I saw headlights against the mossy dirt cliff. Suddenly the headlights went dark. But we were still being followed. Tim kept a steady speed so it wouldn’t be obvious that we knew we were being followed and eventually made it to a road lined with houses, cars, and a few people walking around. Tires squealed behind us. They were gone. I fell back onto my inflatable pillow and sighed in relief, thankful for once that Tim is such a light sleeper. “Man we just can’t win tonight can we?” I chuckled nervously. Earlier that evening while searching for a place to camp for the night, we had driven through what what supposed to be a beachside campground. These were all over Kauai and usually were the go-to for quick and easy camping. But this one was different. The first clue probably should have been the ancient, crumbling bridge covered in graffiti that we passed under at the entrance. Immediately to our left after the bridge was a destroyed rusty car and a few hobo tents made out of sheets, palm leaves, and old clothes. Empty liquor bottles littered the ground like sad Christmas ornaments. “Um,” I said. “Hmm”, said Tim. As we drove around the campground, tough looking locals and scowling meth heads with sunken in cheeks glared at us threateningly from disintegrating cars held together with duct tape and bungee cords. We passed a gate splattered with blood stains, creaking on one hinge. Even the roosters here were eyeing us menacingly. “Well”, I said. “Yeah”, said Tim. As we drove back through the campground to the exit, I pulled my towel over my blond hair and kept my head down. While Tim is mostly Portuguese and could pass as at least part Hawaiian, with his dark hair and perpetually tanned skin, I was all too obviously a Howlie, a mainlander. And the locals here don’t exactly embrace us mainlanders. After our midnight escape, we ended up driving back to our favorite spot, a small sandy ledge right on the beach. This spot was always available and nicely secluded. It was framed with trees and had a perfect spot to pee. And better yet, the locals in this area waved and smiled at us as they passed by, even when they noticed my white Howlie glow.
After seven days of nonstop hiking, snorkeling, and exploring, we drove north to the Kalalau trail head. After eating a snowcone, exploring some caves, laughing at a rooster enthusiastically eating a coconut, and watching the locals surf, we woke up at six a.m. the next morning to get a head start on the trail. We soon discovered that if you start hiking the Kalalau before the sun is up, there will be frogs. And I don’t mean that every so often you’ll see a cute little froggy on a leaf. These massive frogs plopped themselves in the middle of the trail every five feet, and were not at all skittish. Even after dawn began to replace the shadows with blues and greys, we kept our headlamps on to avoid squishing a frog under our boots. Unlike most animals, these frogs didn’t budge when we came near. When the beams of our headlamps swept over them, they sat there and blinked at us like fat grumpy stubborn uncles. Even when we nudged their froggy butts with our boots, they would simply lean away and look at us disdainfully. Once the sun was up, the frogs disappeared into the jungle. Two miles in, we split from the main trail to make a quick detour to the Hanakapi’ai falls. The trail to the falls was unbelievably luscious, twisting through the Hawaiian jungle as small falls and pools flowed tranquilly beside it. Giant stalks of bamboo shot up in clusters, and sadly, many initials and names were carved into the beautiful delicate wood. I felt a fire in me, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut if I came across someone adding to the carvings. I already knew for sure that Tim would speak up. Yesterday as we were walking around the trailhead campground, we checked out some caves that had formed along the cliff face. We thought the caves were pretty cool. What we didn’t think was cool was the twelve or so year old girl vigorously scratching her name in huge letters on the cave wall while her parents looked on and chuckled. They weren’t as amused when Tim strode up to them and, in a deep, throaty Tennessee accent said “HEY”. The sound reverberated off the cave walls and disappeared into the darkness. The parents whipped their heads around with huge eyes, opening and closing their mouths like a pair of goldfish. The little girl glanced at us snootily. “Don’t carve your name on the walls! That’s disrespectful!” Tim boomed, and the little girl froze. As we turned to explore deeper into the cave we heard a scratching sound cut off by “stop it, it’s not allowed! Shh!”. While I was glad that the parents received the message, I was annoyed that they seemed to have missed the point. I mean, technically yeah, no one is about to come down here and arrest you for carving your name into a cave wall. But it’s not about being allowed. It’s about having a simple respect for nature. As the saying goes, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. It was disheartening to see this kind of behavior continued on the bamboo on such a beautiful trail. And not just by naïve youngsters. “A.J.K.” felt the need to commemorate his senior trip, while Mike and Kimi wanted their engagement to be set in…well, bamboo. Why must we insist on leaving our mark on everything? The bamboo carvings were a bit of a downer, but our spirits were restored at the sight of the waterfall. Silky rivulets of water cascaded three hundred feet into an icy pool, mossy cliff faces soaring up to create a protective bowl. It was stunning. We scampered down to the base of the falls gleefully. “Tim”, I announced, “I’m going in!” The sun wasn’t quite up yet and it was the middle of January, and that mountain water was cold. Since we were alone, I stripped to my shorts and did my best to run in quickly, but the cold didn’t exactly inspire quick movements. I desperately swam to the waterfall, astounded by how the icy water took my breath away. I reached a hand out to the cascading water like a relay racer, and quickly turned and swam back, gasping. Shivering and half naked, I pranced out of the water in delight. “I LIIIIIIVE!” I yelled, lifting my arms. Tim, watching me bemusedly, rolled his eyes and grinned. As we resumed hiking, I began to regret leaving my shorts on. They were the kind with built-in underwear, and I was wearing nothing beneath them. This rather displeased my butt, and I soon realized that I had developed diaper rash. Later I would become all too aware that not only did this make hiking uncomfortable, it also made snorkeling in the salty ocean exquisitely painful.
About two years ago, Tim and I backpacked the Lost Coast trail in California. During our first day of hiking, we met Dennis. Dennis was a skinny man in his late thirties, all wiry muscle and a mess of light brown hair. He looked a bit like a broom. Our hiking pace was similar, and we ended up hiking together for over half the trail. He was a scrawny dude, but he had the endurance of a wolf. That guy could hike. Tim and I are both competitive, and we weren’t about to let this beanpole of a guy hike farther than us. After hiking fifteen miles in five hours, he finally stopped and began to set up camp. Relieved and exhausted, but trying not to show it, we sat down heavily on the sand. We watched in disbelief as Dennis began unloading a ridiculous assortment of things from his massive pack, including a giant bear locker full of every ingredient and tool necessary for immaculate fish tacos, which we eyeballed jealously between spoonfuls of Mountain House. The next morning we woke at six a.m. and checked for his tent, but he was already gone. We predicted that we would meet a Dennis every time we backpacked, and on day one of the Kalalau trail, we met our Dennis. This Dennis was huge and Russian, with a thick accent and a small black samurai bun. We couldn’t pronounce his Russian name, so we called him Russian Dennis, or R.D. for short. He had only a day pack and a small video camera, which he was using to take photos. “Oh, scuze me,” he said in a deep Russian voice, “would you please take picture for me? I give you camera, you stand zere”. As he hiked behind us, he told us about how he was trying to make it a day hike to the end and back. “I wake up at eight o’clock, I start hike. Hopefully I see beach at noon”. He explained that the batteries in his flashlight had died, and he needed to get back before dark. Unlike our first Dennis, R.D. seemed very underprepared. He was constantly stopping to take photos, then running up the trail to ask us what time it was. He seemed to be under the impression that we were guides of some sort due to our hiking pace, and was constantly asking us what and where things were. “What do you call zis place?”, he asked, as we passed a few impressive mossy rock arches. Tim glanced at me. “I dunno man, they’re cool though huh?” “Yes but what do you call them?” “Uh, I dunno dude.” His gung-ho spirit made up for his constant questions however, and he raced up and down the trail between viewpoints like a puppy chasing its first squirrel. At noon, we were still about two miles from the beach. “Maybe next corner we see beach”, he said hopefully. A few corners later, when we did not see beach, his shoulders slumped. “Sorry man,” Tim said. R.D. looked at us with a glint in his Russian eyes and said “iz ok. I come back Monday, maybe Tuesday. Start trail at six. Maybe seven”. Tim smiled, “I like your spirit dude”. R.D. smiled and started walking back down the trail. “Good luck!” he shouted in his thick Russian accent as he disappeared around the bend. We smiled and waved. Tim turned to me, brow furrowed. In a thick Russian accent he said, “in Soviet Russia, if you do not do trail, you do again. Monday, maybe Tuesday”. We started hiking again as I adopted a Russian accent as well, “and if you do trail but you can do faster, you do again. Until you are best”. “And if you cannot be best, you kill who is best, then you are best.” I laughed, and we were Russian for the rest of the trail. We had also been German, redneck, and Batman to people we had passed (“hello!” “I’M BATMAN” “um.”). But we had no idea that this array of characters was nothing compared to the cornucopia of eccentrics we were about to encounter.
After hiking fifteen miles in six hours, gaining and losing thousands of feet in elevation, battling the edges of cliffs and diaper rash, we arrived at the most spectacular dead end I've ever seen. A majestic jumble of foliage-covered spires soared out of the jungle, mist and sunlight caressing the highest summits like whipped cream on a dramatic ice cream sundae. With this as our backdrop, we scurried through the forest to the beach. Along the way we noticed the camps of squatters living there without permits, taking up most of the designated camp sites. We crossed a shimmering river just before the beach, and a huge man with a belly to rival any champion sumo wrestler sat on a rock in a pair of tattered shorts. He was accompanied by a nervous looking dark-haired girl, eyes dripping with old cakey mascara fixed on us wearily. It was an odd sight, and an uncomfortable one once Tim informed me that he had “looked at you like you were a taco”.
The beach was gorgeous, but not entirely pristine. Giant plastic lawn chairs, brightly colored tarps, air mattresses, and trash assaulted us from the tree line. Naked hippies got high in drum circles. We had hoped to camp on the beach, but were forced back into the trees by the debris and the hungry stare of a dreadlocked man with giant pupils. The forest was no better. A naked woman meandered about dreamily, shaking an egg shaker as Enya blared over a boom box. Empty cans in torn grocery bags, old battered shoes, and lifeless beach toys littered the ground like fallen leaves. Clotheslines were strung between trees, and tents were extended by old beach towels and mangy sheets. Annoyed and tired, we hiked back a ways and pitched our tent tucked away on a ledge away from it all and within sight of the spectacular view we had worked so hard for. As we were setting up our tent, a gaunt middle aged man walked up to us. He wore ripped up Peter Pan-looking pants, a flowery shirt with leaves stuffed into the pocket, and an odd but jaunty straw hat. "Ello!" he chirped in a strong French accent. "Would you please not camp 'ere?" As Tim and I exchanged incredulous glances, he went on to say that it was "not beautiful" that we were camped there in "such a pristine picturesque place". As Tim nodded at him with a clenched jaw, French Peter Pan revealed his true concern: that the Rangers would pass by in their helicopters and see us camped there, and would come down to check permits, which of course none of the squatters had. Once he left, Tim and I discussed for a full second whether or not we would move (“So are we gonna move?” “Hell no!”) and I slept restlessly. I was afraid the French guy would get some of his hippie friends together, and since there were at least thirty of them, even my Tennessee redneck boyfriend wouldn't have a chance. I was also pissed. The nerve of that guy to come down here and tell us that our tiny tent "wasn't beautiful" when the beach and forest looked like that.... as if we were the bad guys. We even had a permit! And we weren't hurting anything, we were camped on dirt. We had even packed out some of their trash. Besides, all the designated camping was taken up by people living there. It was strange, the next morning, to want to leave. We were in a beautiful place, one of the most beautiful I had ever seen, and yet, could not fully enjoy it. As we began hiking, we concocted an explanation as to what exactly was going on in that mystical dead end. We decided that the sumo man we had seen on the river was actually the Buddha, or at least his hippy tribe thought so. They worshipped him as a god, sending out convoys to hike the trails naked and trade the weed from their secret mountain garden for food for his great demanding belly. French Peter Pan was the gatekeeper, there to politely insist that any visitors to their Utopia camp out of view of the dreaded enemy rangers, who circled like sharks, waiting to strike. Egg-shaker girl was their shaman, wandering the camp to ward off the evil spirits. She had shaken her egg annoyingly hard at us wicked clothed ones.
But, as Tim put it, “a thousand naked hippies couldn’t take away from the beauty of this place”. And I full-heartedly agree. Usually I’m a pretty restless person. I hate sitting still, and I can’t be in one place for too long. But after French Peter Pan left, the sun began to set. Oranges and pinks washed over the sky like a careless watercolor, and the green-covered ridgelines glowed with an unearthly light. The conical spires kissed the clouds and their shadows deepened, giving the mountain range a depth that made you feel small in a peaceful way. The colors pulsed, intensely rich over the deep black and white of the stones that peppered the ledge we were camped on. As the sun slipped away, the pinks and oranges were replaced with purples and lilacs in a kaleidoscope exchange. Perched on a rock with my knees pulled up to my chest, sitting completely still for the longest time in a while, I stared. It was hard not to. It was ridiculously beautiful. And it was easy to feel that, in that moment, nothing in the world was better than sitting there, on that rock. Just staring. Just fully having this moment, absorbing it and drinking it in like a fine wine. Worth a thousand naked hippies indeed.
This trip was not planned. Well, it was planned, but only two days in advance. We saw an opportunity to have an experience, and we took it. People worry so much about having a certain experience in a certain way on a certain day at a certain time. But sometimes, the best adventures, the best experiences, are not the ones you search for. They’re the ones that find you. And adventure certainly found us in Kauai. While our brushes with threatening locals, unreasonable hippies, and the occasional aggressive rooster may have seemed negative at the time, these were important experiences. They were kind of like baking soda. While I would never eat baking soda by itself, it is an essential ingredient in a batch of delectable chocolate chip cookies. And Kauai, with its lush rainforests, astonishing ridges and peaks, and supreme white-gold and turquoise beaches, was one fantastically delicious and memorable cookie.