Don’t look down, don’t look down: the repeated mantra in my head. My hips are worn raw and bruised from rubbing against my pack. The blisters on my toes are pulsing with every step. At the moment, none of these issues matter. Right now, I just need to not. look. down. My left foot slips on a loose pebble. I lean away from the ledge as I land on my butt. My oversized backpack bounces on impact, my eyes wide with fear. This is the closest I’ve come to falling in a place where falling means dying. I crouch to lower my center of gravity and grab on to loose vines as I creep along the downhill section of this terrifying mile. It’s crazy how grasping on to loose branches can somehow make me feel more stable. Next up: Crawler’s Ledge. Why did I EVER think this hike was a good idea to attempt alone?
The Napali Coast on the north shore of Kauai has a reputation for being exceptionally beautiful. If you’ve ever seen King Kong, Jurassic Park or any movie with sweeping landscapes of lush mountains and dramatic waterfalls, you’re likely familiar with Kauai. Anybody can hire a helicopter to see the majestic landscape of the Napali Coast, but only a select few will attempt to conquer it by foot; rated one of the top ten most dangerous hikes in the country, this comes as no surprise. The night before I set out for the hike, I sat at a local Kava bar and listened to an “uncle” named Lio school me on the history of the valley; his stories were far more compelling than any Hollywood drama.
Once an agricultural hub, this enchanted valley was home to nearly 2,000 Hawaiians up until the 1820s when missionaries and whalers began arriving. They brought influenza along with their trade goods and religion, effectively changing the face of Hawaii forever. Later, when a leprosy epidemic swept the islands, all infected people were to be exiled to Molokai. The Kalalau valley became a sanctuary for lepers on Kauai to hide. Because of its isolated location, this voluntary sequester seemed to appease the enforcers. They kept to themselves, grateful to be able to live with their families while the government turned a blind eye.
I stop to take in my surroundings while catching my breath. The ocean is a dark, cavernous blue with a white skirt hugging the shoreline. The waves are so far below that they cannot be individually identified; the sound of their collective crash rolls in rhythmically. It’s a calmingly familiar sound. The earth beneath me is the color of rust, bright red in some places and just as thirsty as I feel. This trampled path is about four feet wide – plenty of space for a girl used to working on boats; but here, with a cliff wall to my left and a 300ft drop to my right – it feels a little tight.
Lio’s stories continue to come alive in my head as I walk the trail. On the ledge, I’m thinking about the cows. According to Lio, farmers used to bring cattle in and out of the valley. Occasionally, if two farmers met on the ledge with cows facing opposing directions, they would be trapped. They had a terribly hard time convincing a cow to walk backwards on the ledge and would sometimes have to push one over to escape. I break my only rule: I look down, half expecting to see the bones of dead cows. The earth has swallowed them up long ago.
When the American government overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii, the new officials took a harsh stance against the lepers. All those living in Kalalau were to be removed and sent to Molokai, as the law dictated. When the men arrived to capture the lepers, they were met with force. A man named Koolau organized the colony in order to fight back; they would not be taken away so easily. On the first raid the lepers were victorious. Koolau shot the lead officer and the remainder of his team fled.
Three days later, they returned with additional troops and successfully captured all the lepers except for Koolau. He and his family managed to escape, finding shelter in a cave. When the officers finally sniffed them out, Koolau protected his family by killing three soldiers. When a team of 30 soldiers returned, Koolau and his family had vanished into the dense jungle. They lived together peacefully in the valley for the rest of his life. After his death, his wife emerged to tell the tale.
Although I started this hike alone, there’s no chance I would’ve made it this far without the help of my two new friends: Alex and John. I met them about 2.5 miles into the hike when I was seriously contemplating turning around. They have been so patient, kind and generous. Both have done this trail multiple times and here, at the ledge, is the first time I have seen either of them flinch.
Alex is terrified of heights and today is a particularly windy today. He is walking with a heavy backpack and a guitar in his right hand. He is going to live in the valley for at least a month, so he’s brought all of his possessions. Not only is he down one hand for balance, the guitar is acting like a sail, threatening to pull him over the cliff at any second. He is walking in front of me and I am more nervous for him than myself.
Just a few more steps and then Alex climbs over a large rock. I follow and that’s it – we survived crawler’s ledge! Before I break out my party dance, I realize that we still have more than 3 miles to go and this next section has a slight incline with loose pebbles and another steep drop off. There’s nothing to celebrate just yet.
Lio sipped his mysterious root drink and became increasingly animated as he discussed the “hermit” of Kalalau. Once a respected doctor on the island, the hermit gave up his practice and moved into the valley to live alone. “He just said fuck it, brah,” he tells me with a sparkle of admiration in his eyes. The story of the hermit resonates with me. I know the feeling of shocking your family and friends to pursue something that they don’t necessarily understand. Sure, I don’t choose to be a hermit voluntarily, but my life’s choices have led me to spend most of my time alone: giving up relationships and money while pursuing a deep connection with the ocean and nature.
We stop at a waterfall to drink and refill our camelbacks. I take off my socks and shoes, dipping my feet into the cool river. I feel a few seconds of relief before reminding myself how much farther I must walk. An attractive woman appears on the path walking out, away from the valley. She’s not wearing a shirt or bra – her large breasts bouncing with each step.
She approaches John, ignoring me. I can tell they’re old friends, but she looks concerned, “you know about the goat hunt, right?” He nods his head unfazed and begins foraging for food. She turns to address me, “do you have a permit?” “Nope.” I reply, venturing a guess that she is not a park ranger based on her nudity. She looses her edge with me – I am now on her level. I was unable to procure a reservation for permit in my timeframe, so I just decided to risk it. “Well,” she says, “there’s going to be a raid sometime in the next 2 days – all of us who live here are clearing out to avoid the $500 fines.” I look at John. He’s casually eating a piece of fruit I don’t recognize. With that, the girl keeps walking.
“Well, what should we do?” I ask John, already knowing the answer. There’s no way we can turn back now, we’ve walked 9 miles and only have 2 to go. “Worst comes to worst, we’ll get up early and hike out,” he offers. “FUCK THAT!” I blurt, accidentally out loud. Judging by how I feel now, it’s going to take me at least a day to recover. I can’t imagine doing this again tomorrow. I have food for a week in my heavy backpack as I was planning to stay and relax at the beach. I squeeze my swollen ankle, throw my shoes on, and we’re back on our way.
In the height of the 70’s movement, a group of about 50 hippies lived sustainably and communally in Kalalau; they even had a 300-book library that they kept in a cave. They grew fruits, vegetables and, of course, plenty of weed. Those were the “real hippies” according to Lio. Today, the national park comes in to enforce the permit-only policy a few times per year. Right before the goat hunters descend on the valley they do a full cleanout: all hippies must go. The permanent (illegal) resident population is now estimated to be closer to 10 people, with many more transients like Alex and John who come for months at a time.
When we finally arrive at the first campgrounds at Hanalei, I’m ready to collapse. Alex won’t let me stop just yet. He guides me all the way down the beach to see the view. It’s unlike any beach I’ve ever been to: a completely untouched paradise. We’ve finally made it! I don’t know if it’s exhaustion or reality, but this is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. The jagged mountains cut into the clouds, casting shadows that look like faces. The soft, white sand feels amazing on my bare feet and the massive, cascading waterfall completes the panorama.
We pass some hippies who clearly live here, based on their familiarity with Alex (and their full nudity). I find myself a perfect site between two trees and hang my hammock and tarp. All I want is to crawl into this cocoon, sweaty clothes and all, but I somehow muster the energy to change clothes and cook some mac ’n cheese. I scarf down my first “real” meal of the day and crawl into bed. The next thing I know I wake up as the sun is setting, peeking below the tarp and shining on my face.
I pull myself out of the hammock and walk down the beach. I feel obliged to watch the glowing sun sink into the ocean on my first night in paradise, but I’m not quite ready to participate in the ceremonies being held on the beach. I head right back to my hammock and lay here reflecting on all of the strange but wonderful events that guided me to this moment. I close my eyes, and after what feels like minutes, it’s morning. I wake up and force my aching body out of the hammock. I find John, already packing up, getting ready to head out. I simply cannot join him. Alex has plans to pull a “Koolau” and escape into the jungle despite the risk of goat hunters accidentally shooting at him. As for me, I look to the water.
I see a man with a jet ski on the beach, engine compartment open, clearly in need of help. I saunter over, offering my assistance in exchange for a ride out of the valley in case of a raid. He sizes me up, completely distrusting my ability to help him with a mechanical issue, but he agrees just the same. There’s a lot of oil in the bilge, and I run my fingers over the tank and lines, not finding any cracks. I quit looking for the leak when I realize he doesn’t even have more oil. The bottom line is, without oil, this thing isn’t going anywhere – that plan’s out.
I grab a Nalgene to refill at the waterfall, and wander down the trail. In the center of the beach, there is a beautiful permanent structure with buoys hanging elegantly, like something out of a coastal living magazine. Driftwood adorns the entrance with lounge chairs in the front. It is set up like a palace with 4 young men walking around it. Just a bit further down, there is another semi-permanent looking structure with a tarp roof. These must be some of the dwellings for those who live here.
I fill my water bottle up using a piece of pvc pipe that makes the chore easy. Walking back, I see one of the composting toilets – but I don’t have my toilet paper with me. Someone sees me eyeing the throne, and points out the plants next to the structure. “Toilet paper plants,” he says as he picks a few leaves for me. They are softer than Charmin, and growing like wild next to the toilets. These people really have it all figured out.
I spot two people sitting in the structure near the beach and I introduce myself. Despite the impressive quality of their accommodation, these guys look like backpackers, not residents. After a while, I ask them how long they’ve lived here and they laugh. They don’t actually live here, they were just granted permission to stay in this dwelling while the owner runs up the trail and back for some oil to fix a jet ski. I laugh.
Throughout the day, the rumors of the raid continue to build. It is clear that if you are here without a permit, the best thing to do is leave early the next morning. My blisters still haven’t popped and I am incredibly sore. I find the head honcho of the valley, a Hawaiian (whom I will not name), and ask him what I should do. He tells me that he is sending a boat in the morning to pick up some of his friends and to help bring things out in case the rangers decide to destroy their stuff again. He recommends that I take the ride. Not only do I run the risk of incurring a $500 fine for myself, the more people caught without a permit in the valley, the more headache for people who actually live there.
Having at least one day free, I go to explore Koolau’s cave with Alex. It is the site of the old library, which the National Park Officers annoyingly destroyed; the cave is spectacular. We crawl under small crevices, able to stand on the other side. The whole thing vaguely reminds me of a bad episode of Baywatch where the people got trapped in a cave, but I try to push that thought out of my mind, remembering the tide is still low for a few more hours. I return to my backpacker friends in the borrowed dwelling and we decide to cook a feast with all the extra food I’ve brought. We eat and eat until we are so full we can hardly speak. Alex entertaining us with his guitar.
Early the next morning, a Hawaiian comes and knocks on my tarp. I spring up. “Time to pack, the boat will be here soon,” he says, in a whisper. I hop out of the hammock and disassemble my abode. I pack a bag with all my extra food, some note paper, clothespins and anything I don’t need and deliver it to Alex’s tent. He gives me a beautiful necklace made from tiny shells he found on the beach. We embrace. After having shared such an experience together, it’s hard to imagine that our paths may never cross again.
I get down to the beach, and there are about 12 people there, also waiting for the boat with their luggage. The inflatable boat pulls up, and I know we have a problem. There’s no way we can take everyone. Having made quite the impression as the girl who knows about engines, the boat driver has me sit in the captain’s seat while he straddles a pontoon. We load everyone onboard and he guns it to get past the breaking waves. This is bad.
I keep glancing aft, noticing that we are taking on water. We aren’t likely to sink in the inflatable boat, but it’s choppy and we’re not going to make it there like this. I tap the driver on his shoulder and point to the bilge. He stops the boat and turns around. “Two or three of you have to get off NOW and swim in!” As tempting as that sounds, nobody volunteers. He starts flipping out. “Who’s a good swimmer? We need 3 good swimmers to get off NOW!”
There are really strong rip currents in this area – people die all the time. Being that this is the north-facing coast on the northernmost Hawaiian island, if you get swept out here – good luck! He cannot pull the boat in past the breaking waves with all this weight. The boat will either swamp or flip. One guy finally volunteers and jumps in. Followed by another. We watch them make it in to shore and then continue. The boat is definitely still being strained, but we aren’t taking on water. The driver looks at me, “better, right?” I nod.
We bounce in the chop for about an hour, hugging the coast and admiring the trail we all walked in on. Although I wanted the experience of hiking the trail both ways, the opportunity to see it from the ocean was incredible! I smile and think of all the heroic and impressive stories of the people who have come before me in this valley. I think it’s such a shame that the people who wish to live sustainably in seclusion and off the grid in this valley have to deal with such constant struggles. These people tend to the land, clean up after the tourists and produce no garbage. You would think the National Park would see value in their existence, but once again, people don’t like things they don’t understand. From lepers to hippies, to backpackers who couldn’t get a permit in time, the Kalalau valley remains a healthy mix of mystery, magic and running from the law.