In Hawaii, a Mystical Island Speaks

By Thomas Curwen

Los Angeles Times

KOKEE STATE PARK, Hawaii ~ Of course we thought about turning back, but we knew we couldn’t. Never mind that the trail had gone from bad to worse and the afternoon was getting on. We were stubborn – and hopeful.

“What’s it like ahead?” we asked hikers returning to the trail head.

No one could give us the complete picture. Most had given up, discouraged by the slippery clay and the ankle-deep mud that had been with us from the start.

So we continued, burning our way up the eroded ridgeline, lifting ourselves through a maze of exposed roots, limbo-dancing beneath fallen trees and snaking up the sharply etched gullies that crisscrossed the trail.

One misstep would have led to a twisted ankle, a wrenched knee or worse: To our left was sheer freefall, an elevator chute into open space. Yet as much as our feet hurt and our legs ached, Pihea Overlook – at 4,284 feet, the highest peak overlooking Kauai’s Na Pali Coast – lured us on.

Let others settle for more scripted entertainments – running a zip line, cruising the coast, sipping mai tais at some seaside resort — we had a different idea. My wife, Margie, and I wanted to escape the tourist-industrial complex and get some red dirt in the tread of our shoes, to find a place where the ancient goddess of fire, Pele herself, was more than a twittering joke for mainlanders – and to hear what the mountains had to say.

By the time we reached the summit, a denuded crown no larger than a pitcher’s mound, we were spent. To the north lay the expansive Kalalau Valley, a complex watershed of steep fluted ridges, red cliffs, waterfalls and jungle extending 4,000 feet below us and running less than a mile and a half away to where the blue Pacific rose and fell upon the sand. To the south, as far as we could see, stretched the Alakai wilderness, the source of Kauai’s seven rivers, a forested plateau riven by deep, eroded and unseen gorges, punctuated by the summits of Kawaikini and Waialeale hidden in their eternal rainstorms.

Clouds swirled around us. We had two more hours of daylight. We needed to start back, but first we paused and listened: In the midst of it all – the gusting wind, the muted surf – we heard a deepening silence.

It sounds crazy, I know – the idea that these mountains might have something to say – and when someone first mentioned it to us, we dismissed it as too New Age-y for our sensibilities.

But as we looked out from Pihea and watched the wisps of ragged clouds spiral in the valley below, rise up toward the sun, reveal rainbows inside their misty cores, turn silver and spectral and cyclone over the ridge into the interior, we found ourselves suddenly listening more carefully.

*     *     *     *     *

Two days earlier, we had left the genteel comforts of Waimea for five days in the mountains, a long time to be away from the more popular destinations on the island, but we were intrigued by the prospect of exploring a corner of the state that still contained glimpses of a time some 1,500 years ago, before man stepped upon these shores.

We picked up groceries, two shaved ices at Jo-Jo’s and headed north on Hawaii 550. As we started to rise above the beaches and coastal headlands, a sheet of fog descended. Waimea Canyon Lookout, whose vistas are often compared to the Grand Canyon, was so socked in that we felt sorry for the Japanese visitors who posed gamely for photographs, their backs to the monotone of gray.

We continued on the winding two-lane road as it cut through patches of bamboo, stands of eucalyptus and a scattering of native koa trees. Kokee State Park sits at the top of Waimea Canyon and extends north on a narrow plateau to a ridgeline above the Na Pali Coast.

At 4,000 feet, Kokee is something of an anomaly for the Garden Isle. Here, temperatures in the winter can drop into the 40s, cabins rent for a song, trails go begging for hikers and its vistas reach out beyond the horizon.

We had made our reservations at the Lodge at Kokee, a state-owned, concession-operated collection of housekeeping cabins near the lovely Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow in the center of the park. We had been told that the cabins were rustic, but that didn’t explain the broken window, a crudely patched hole in the floor, a tapestry of peeling paint, a cracked lid on the toilet and stains in the shower.

We asked to see another, which was slightly better than the first, if you ignored a hotplate instead of a working stove and a mattress that sagged like a broken-down horse. Perhaps we should have taken our lead from the Japanese visitors at the lookout and pretended nothing was wrong, but it was more than we could take, even at US$75 a night. We canceled our reservations and thought about cutting our trip short.

We wandered over to the offices of the Kokee Natural History Museum. I had spoken with Marsha Erickson, the director, the week before, and she had offered us a sweet little cottage (never mind the resident rat and the fruit flies that swarmed the kitchen), just up from the meadow, in case the cabins didn’t work out.

Closed to the public, it usually is bustling with researchers and volunteers, but this week it was vacant.

Erickson was also the one who said the mountains had voices. Late that night, rainfall woke me from a sound sleep, and as I pulled the blankets around me, I started to get a sense of what they might be trying to say.

*     *     *     *     *

“Here, try this.” David Kuhn handed me the set of headphones. He then pointed the microphone, surrounded by a parabolic reflector the size of a trash-can lid, into the forest, and the symphony began.

Leaves in the wind were violins; creaking branches, horns; a bird in close flight, drums. This is what it’s like to be a dog, I thought, and then I tilted my head: a shama, a white-rumped shama, singing in the distance. And then, an apapane, as clear as a bell, its descending inflected trill followed by what sounded like a little burp.

Kuhn smiled. “A very self-satisfied bird,” he said.

We had hiked with Kuhn just beyond the eastern boundary of the park, above the Kawaikoi River, one of the many streams that begins in these mountains and cuts down into Waimea Canyon. It was an easy trail, aided by a shoulder-wide boardwalk, long wooden planks covered with steel mesh for better traction. Anything less would have meant slipping or traipsing through mud.

When we arrived in the middle of the forest, on the edge of a ridge carpeted by a maze of ululhe ferns and latticed by a skyscape of ohia trees, we sat down on the boardwalk, legs dangling off the side, and waited.

“Humans are here on the planet to appreciate nature,” Kuhn told us. “No other being has the means – intellectually or physiologically – to see and discern the meaning of nature around us. Native Hawaiians knew this; this is one reason so many of their names for places are animistic.”

As he talked, a small yellow bird with a black mask hopped through the ohia branches in front of us. It was an amakihi.

“A gift,” Kuhn whispered.

Then an iiwi, a puffball of pure scarlet, darted across the gorge. Kuhn kissed the back of his hand as a way of drawing it in.

*     *     *     *     *

We had met Aunty Aletha, as she is known, at the West Kauai Visitor Center. She has lived on the west side of the island for most of her 77 years.

“It is hard to say how to be in the forest,” she had said. “You have to let go of all your rubbish. You must be an empty vessel. You go up to the mountains with an empty mind.”

Her words were on our minds the morning we walked from the Kalalau Lookout to Puu o Kila overlook, a stretch of road closed to traffic and perfect for birding. High in the crooked snags of the red-tipped ohia trees, we watched the flittering antics of the ever-present apapane and caught the faraway tones of shama.

Kuhn had taught us well, and although these were the only birds we could identify, we knew we were hearing others – the elepaio, the iiwi, the amakihi – in the exotic tangle of ululhe ferns, ohias and fluttering lapa lapa trees. Such was the spell of this wilderness where each new species of plant and bird became an onomatopoetic puzzle, suggesting a certain delicate intimacy with the world.

“We know this,” Aletha had said, “and mainlanders have to learn it.”

*     *     *     *     *

On our last day at Kokee, we wanted to hike to Kilohana. Perched at 4,022 feet, this vista point peers down into the Wainiha River Valley and looks out toward Hanalei Bay and Princeville.

To get to Kilohana, you have to cross the Alakai Swamp, one of the island’s unique ecosystems, a lush landscape of dwarf forests and bogs that lies on the western drainage for the island’s tallest mountain, Kawaikini, and the world’s rainiest, Waialeale.

Travelers once had to lay down a path of fern logs to cross the sodden ground. Today there is a boardwalk, like the one we hiked with Kuhn, and as we followed it, the bending and bowing planks kept cadence with our steps.

The trail took us from a bowered rainforest, thick and impenetrable, into an open glade. We passed fields of ginger, broad-leafed ferns and toppled ohia trees shrouded by moss and lichen, its aerial roots dropping down from the fallen trunk. In the middle of the swamp, shallow water reflected a cloudy sky. Wireless and forgotten telephones poles – remnants of an attempt in the 1940s to link up the island – rose at oblique angles above this moorish landscape. To the south, clouds engulfed Waialeale.

Kilohana is a small wooden platform no longer than a diving board but, mercifully, twice as wide, set on a precarious edge of Wainiha Pali. We were fortunate. The skies had stayed clear, and seven miles away, Hanalei Bay was a white-and-blue crescent. The surf at Black Pot Beach looked as if it was breaking right, and seven miles beyond, past the clutter of Princeville, we saw the Kilauea Point lighthouse.

On the trail back, we were bone-tired but sustained. Sunlight shot through narrow openings in the forest. The green ferns seemed to fluoresce in the understory. The plants shimmered like medallions of chrome.

I dropped back and watched Margie disappear ahead into the dappled light and shadows near the grove of sugi pines planted near the trail head. I was overcome by a sense of eternity and fragility, the feeling that our time here – in Kokee, on the planet – is limited and lucky.

This is what the mountains said to me.

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