Hiking Through The Past In Kauai
Day two of our mini-adventure was not off to a good start. Megan’s hiking boots were soaked and covered in the pasty red sludge that had become the Kalalau Trail. My declarations to “look at the view” were met with, “just stop talking to me for 30 minutes and I will try to pull myself together and have fun. In the meantime, it’s driving me fucking crazy when you tell me I should be having a good time.” We were lugging up yet another incline, 30 pounds of filth strapped to our back, drinking iodized water and cursing our fortune for having picked to do the hike in the midst of a record week of rainfall. We spent a wet night in a wet tent, and I had a wet girlfriend telling me to leave her alone. We had 11 miles to go.
Megan and I decided on Kauai after a late night of drinking convinced us we needed an active vacation. A vacation is the wrong word. We decided on a “travel experience” — something that resembled an adventure, but close enough to luxury that we could get excited about the food we would eat, the tan that our friends would envy and the sleep we would catch up on during the days between the action. After pouring a third — or fifth — glass of wine, Kauai seemed to make sense.
Hawaii had been on my mind. I had just read The Descendants, a book made famous by George Clooney’s portrayal of a Hawaiian dad struggling with the death of his wife and the secrets that surface when a life ends. The book’s authentic description of the islands brought back memories of my time traveling in Hawaii with my brother while I was in college.
As a college junior, I spent 10 days on Kauai with my brother Mark who had bought me a ticket to travel with him after his buddy’s wedding was cancelled last minute because of cold feet and infidelity. At the time, Mark and I had spent the last four years living apart from one another. He was in upstate New York at Cornell, and I was stuck in Chicago in a big empty house with a mother struggling, and drinking, to recover from a nasty divorce that led her husband, my dad, to marry her best friend.
Our last four years had been a study in contrasts. Mark, removed from the gritty reality of seeing your parents worst flaws vomited before you, had cast my mom as the virtuous victim, in need of protection and pity. My dad, on the other hand, was the lying villain — the mere mention of his name left my brother spewing fits of words, all referencing the male anatomy. Usually his barks focused on just how big the phallus had revealed itself to be. My take was different. Forced to live with a mother who was justifiably lost, her faults became the focus of my hurt. My Dad’s failings were the outlet for my well-practiced, and even more self-indulgent, defense of the nature of man.
Our beer-fueled conversations often ended in loud stares of disappointment. My moral flexibility left my brother wondering if I had any morals at all. My brother’s rigid adherence to good and bad leaving me judgmental of his depth and understanding of nuance. There was no conclusion. The hurt was too deep and we were too young to know that our wounds needed time to scar.
Mark and I managed to backpack our way around the island, spending our money on beer, the occasional hotel room and snorkel gear. We also managed to hike the Kalalau Trail, the well-known and well-respected hike along the northern Na Pali coast of Kauai. The trail — with its gnarled mud path, desolate beach of white sand and green cathedral-like cliffs — was one of the most romantic memories of my youthful travels.
I remembered my brother leading the way up the trail, struggling to sleep on the rough ground because I was too cheap to pop for a sleep pad, and waking up early to see the daybreak on the ocean. I remembered drinking Mai Tais at the uber-extravagant Princeville Resort while wearing our dirty clothes, dirty shoes and proud grins when we finished the hike. A picture of my brother and I on the trail was one of the few framed in my apartment.
I wanted to go back. This time with Megan, my partner of two years, and a considerably more attractive tent partner than my brother. I had met Megan during the worst time in my life. I was on the heels of involuntarily ending my marriage with the only woman I had been with since I was 20 years old.
Anna and I had met in high school at a time when it was fair to fall in love with a person’s potential. We spent ten years living up to that potential and one painful year of watching the world we created slowly drip away. At first the loss was in quiet, respectful conversations about feeling like roommates instead of lovers. Then, as the reality of our situation took hold, in the loud emptiness that comes with parting from the only patterns you know.
My relationship with Megan was improbable. The wounds from my divorce were bleeding when we decided that our friendship was turning into an attraction. As someone who herself divorced when she was only 26 years old, she was one of the few people that did not make me feel stained. Knowing the long odds of starting a relationship with someone in the midst of recovery, Megan took a hopeful realism to the likelihood of our relationship lasting. Despite a rocky road, we had seemingly beat the odds and, though we were not sure we would ever marry, viewed our travel to Kauai as our version of a honeymoon.
Megan and I descended on Kauai with purpose. As two practicing attorneys used to spending our days protected from Chicago winters by computer screens and legal briefs, we welcomed the freedom of Kauai’s humid smell. After arriving late at night and making an embarrassing stop at a McDonald’s drive-thru for two cheeseburgers and a large fries, we trekked up to then northern part of the island where we had rented a one bedroom condo close to Hanalei.
Our first three days were spent questioning the wisdom of our plan to hike the Kalalau Trail. A fierce rain had descended on the island, leaving the trail susceptible to flash floods and mud slides. On the day we were supposed to start hiking, the heavy rain turned to a drizzle, giving us hope that we would not have to cancel the hike. After talking with the local outfitter, we pushed back the start date of the hike by a day to let the trail dry out. Instead of using our extra day to rent the equipment and buy food, we watched the rain and drank too many local beers. The night before our two-day 23-mile hike, we went to bed drunk and unpacked.
We made our way to the trail early. Our morning hike was smooth. The trail had dried to a damp dirt and the first couple river crossings were easy. We hiked at a good pace, cheered on by the loud calls of Kauai’s humpback whales bouncing off the sharp coastal cliffs.
The picture changed at lunch when the rain clouds grabbed the trail. Megan’s backpack was the first casualty. Her focus squarely on shielding her camera in a water-proof stuff bag, her packing left her clothes unprotected. Soon we surrendered to the elements and resigned ourselves to our wet fate. By the end of the first day, we were walking straight through three-foot rivers, giving little thought to the soaked boots that we would have to wear on the next day’s hike.
Hoping to be protected from the rain, we pitched our rented tent under a fairly dense set of trees only a few feet from Kalalau Beach. Kalalau Beach was an impressive white sand beach cradled beneath a coastal mountain amphitheater. It had long been an international destination to both the weekend tourist and those looking to escape the realities of modern life. Except for the small outhouses that the Hawaii park service recently built, it looked the same as when I hiked the trail with my brother in December 2001. It was stunning.
After setting up camp under a steady rain, Megan and I made the half-mile trek to the best water source on the beach — a 30-foot fresh waterfall cascading into the ocean. While posing for pictures, we both took showers under the fall’s cold mountain water, pleading with one another to “take the fucking picture.” We refilled our bottles with the fresh water and changed into our only fresh clothes, which were decidedly wet.
The light rain and gathering cloud of hungry mosquitoes forced us to retire early to our tent. Thankfully, and despite my objections, Megan had brought a small music player programmed to play our favorite songs. It was a godsend. We listened to our favorite bands — The National, Arcade Fire, Patty Griffin — and read our books with the help of a small flashlight we hung from the tent’s roof. We ate our pre-packed peanut butter and honey sandwiches and split a King Size Hershey’s bar.
We were wet and happy — really happy — for the first time in hours. We nestled under our shared sleeping bag, thankful for the last minute decision to rent two dirty sleep pads early that morning. Before going to sleep, we mocked the ambitiousness of our drunken promise to have sex on the beach come hell or high water. There would most certainly be no christening of tent. We turned out the dimming light holding hands and touching feet. We fell asleep in minutes.
The promise of the next day’s sun was short lived. Our soaked boots matched the muddy trail and our backpacks were weighted down by wet clothes. It was like putting on a dripping life vest on a cool afternoon at the lake — the cold vest was only a reminder that you had yet to jump in the water. Megan and I traded looks; her pursed lips slightly raised in a smile, a small head shake; my wide-mouth grin acknowledging the self-imposed absurdity. Megan put on her pack and I helped her retie her boots. She lifted my pack and helped me put it on one arm at a time. Two quick kisses (the second longer than the first), a small butt squeeze and we set off.
I hiked to a familiar beat. I had counted my footsteps since I was a young boy listening to my father call out our hikes in the cadence of his college ROTC drills: “left, left, left, right, left.” I grew up thinking all vacations centered around a national park and a day hike. Every summer, just as my mom began her fall semester as a psychology professor, my dad took his two boy’s out west. It was on these trips that I learned the twin pleasures of tough hiking and fine eating. Even today, my dad, now suffering from advancing Parkinson’s Disease, helps me plan my trips with trail suggestions and eating “must-dos.”
On day two, it was now Megan who led the march up the trail. Her strides were marked by the low gushing sound of water being pushed from the sole of her boot. Alternating evenly between steep ascents and winding downhill twists, we rarely stopped pushing forward. We didn’t talk much.
About six miles in a small dog who had seemingly been living on the trail for several weeks joined us. He was a medium-sized gray mutt, resourceful enough to have survived for weeks on the wild Na Pali coast. Having both been raised with dogs, Megan and I fell in love with him fast. Over the next three miles we stopped often, making sure our new trail dog was holding up and wetting his mouth with our water.
We briefly planned to lead him all the way the trailhead and take him into town, but that plan stalled when a big river crossing gave him pause. He clearly was not ready to return. He licked Megan’s arm, sniffed my face and turned back up the trail. We watched him as he trotted away, wagging his tail as he reclaimed his new home.
We limped through the last three miles. We made a pact to be “encouraging” over the last stretch and our conversation began to focus on the liquor we were about to drink and the food we would eat. There was small stand that sold cold beers a few miles from the trailhead. There was the bar at the Princeville resort, where I promised my brother I would send him a photo of me drinking a Mai Tai. There was a great local sushi spot where we planned to sit at the counter. We had to make good on the tent sex that didn’t happen.
* * *
A week after we walked off the trail, we returned to Chicago. My mother, as always, picked us up at the airport and took us back to our place. She brought Meg’s favorite wine, my favorite beer and a spread of roasted pork loin and homemade bread pudding. She insisted on setting the table. She brought candles.
I have a new photo framed in my apartment. It sits next to the one of my brother on my night stand. It’s a picture of Megan, her calves covered in mud, looking out with pride at Kalalau Beach. I look at it every day when I wake up to walk our new dog, Na Pali.
By Kevin Agnew
[Na Pali coast by Garden State Hiker/Flickr; Remaining photo by the author]
About the Author
Kevin Agnew is an attorney and a freelance writer who currently lives in Chicago. He writes about travel, politics, relationships and culture.