This is sort of a follow-up to my last post, even though it’s actually a precursor to it as well. Our dear friends Evan & Jordan were married on Kauai, and they asked if I would photograph it… and prior to their wedding if I would also go on a hike with them to Kalalau Valley via the Na Pali Coast Trail. I said, yeah duh! After all it also fell on the week of my birthday! And then when I told Michael about it, and he did some research & discovered that it’s been named one of the Top 20 most dangerous hikes in the world & Top 10 most dangerous hikes in North America, he said that he would also come along. (for the record, I would have been fine, but obviously I’m glad he came!)
So these photos are a few of the photos from our hike, as well as the few days leading up to the hike. We arrived on Kauai, and were immediately swept up in its warmth & beauty. As I’ve said before, Michael & I both spent our first childhood years in Hawaii, so visiting the islands is like coming home for us… we feel these islands in our blood. I had been to Kauai already, but this was Michael’s first visit, and we both love how simple it feels there; and we also loved that we met so many people who were living off the land, and making the most of Kauai’s natural abundance. We camped every night leading up to our hike, on public beaches (at an amazing $3/night, or for free if you’re local!)… actually, it’s worth noting that all beaches are public in the state of Hawaii, but some are just easier to camp at. Every night we would set up camp, have a small meal, talk in the dark for awhile before saying goodnight & crawling into our tents. And then of course each morning we would wake up, crawl out of our respective tents, have a small meal with coffee, and greet the sun coming over the ocean. I’m not afraid to say that I could absolutely live like that for the rest of my days; in fact, we did meet people who were doing exactly that, even up to twelve years. Fantastic.
As you can see, I took only a few photos. I’ll give you a heartfelt reason first: because I felt really in the moment, and photos weren’t totally my priority. And I’ll give you a more logistical reason second: because my bag was so heavy and I was so dang exhausted all of the time, that stopping every time I saw something beautiful was just not an option… it was all so beautiful, but still! And you’ll also see that I took lots of photos of Jordan, and I’m sure you can see why. She is radiant & so much fun, and even more so when she is on this garden isle celebrating love. We even took some wedding-type photos of her in a little dress that she hiked into the valley, and true to the spirit of the Kalalau, she left the dress there for someone else to enjoy.
And now I will tell you a little bit about the hike. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, I’d dare say even equivalent to giving birth. There are the highs & lows of it all, literally, and the moment when you reach the destination you’ve fought so hard for… I honestly can’t think of any better way to describe that feeling than seeing your firstborn’s face for the very first time. When I told my friend Matt that we were going to be hiking the Kalalau, he told me about his experience with it, and then told me that he couldn’t wait to find out what I’d learned. I didn’t quite know what he meant by that, and I don’t quite know that I’ll be able to put into words exactly what I’d learned; however, I do know that I found myself on that trail. I felt like I saw myself for the first time, and I felt so blessed to be seeing myself with Michael by my side.
I’ll tell you just one or two technical things that we learned on the trail, in case you are hoping to do it yourself… I hope you do, because I highly recommend it!!! The main thing I will say is that we did the full hike in in one day, spent one day/two nights at Kalalau Beach, and then did the full hike back out in one day. And I would highly NOT recommend doing it that way, if your schedule allows. There are small camp spots at Hanakoa Falls at the 6 mile mark, which is the designated halfway point; many hikers stop there so that they are equally breaking up the hike into two days each way. Because of our schedule, we decided not to do this & instead hiked all the way in in one day. Doing the full hike in one day is incredibly empowering if anything, but the level of difficulty of the trail makes makes you feel pretty defeated if you decide to do it this way. When we arrived at the valley at dusk, we didn’t even feel human… and even though we had a wonderful day enjoying the valley & the beach the next day, we were almost too tired to truly enjoy our time there & I also think a lot of our mental energy was spent dreading our 11-mile hike back the next day. So my main advice really would be to allow two days of both hiking in & out, and spend as much time in the valley as humanly possible. Next time we go, we’re hoping to stay a month at least.
My other advice will never work, because nobody takes this advice… but that is to pack light. Seems pretty reasonable, I know, but it’s much easier said than done… I am quite positive that I would have done much better without 35 pounds on my back, going up & down those insanely steep trails. And when I say insanely steep, if an 11-mile trail with a 5000 foot elevation gain doesn’t sound like much, let me shed a little bit of perspective on the Kalalau Trail for you: it starts at sea level & it ends at sea level. That means that it’s just UP and DOWN, Up and DOWN, and so on, for what seems like forever. It’s harsh. It’s harsh on your entire body, and it wears on your soul. Anyway, pack a little lighter, and I know you’ll enjoy it more. And if you ever want to know what lightweight gear I swear by, feel free to drop me a line.
The people you meet in the valley are some of the most interesting & wonderful folks you’ll ever hope to. Our favorite was the man named Grizz, who has lived there off & on since 1997. He was welcoming & full of good stories, and he brought us a an armful of foraged goods to go along with our camp meal… and he’s the fabled pizza man, who can cook up a campfire pizza for you straight from mother nature’s abundance, and all you have to do is bring meat & cheese from the outside world. Are you serious? Amazing. There’s enough food to be found & go around, from your tropical fruits to your wild boar, to wine that can be made from the java plums lying everywhere on the ground. Paradise, I tell you.
I’m going to just share a few of the things I had to say along with my instagram posts, because I feel like IG is like my daily journal & it best illustrates how I was feeling at that time, in real time.
“#kalalautrail was named one the twenty most dangerous hikes in the world by @outsidemagazine… dangerous because of the steep cliffs that you are sometimes hanging on to with your life, but dangerous also because of the amount of rain that can happen at any given time without any warning. even when it’s not raining (which thank the gods, it didn’t rain the whole entire time we were on the trail!), it’s still extremely muddy in places & can be quite treacherous. but the upside to the danger is where the beauty often lies… sweeping views that will change your life after you’ve risked your life, and abundant water sources all along the 11-mile hike that are a wonderful & welcome reprieve every single time. i found just so many parallels to life when i was hiking this trail; sometimes because i felt so defeated that i was having to actively search for the lessons that i was learning. and this is one of many… the beauty that lies within the struggle.”
“…the things that we saw are beyond anything i could ever explain with words, and the feeling of accomplishing something so intense & so special on this tiniest tiniest piece of earth on this giant giant planet… well, it’s enough to make me feel so big & so small & so full & yearning for so much more all at the same time. if you have a chance to experience this feeling, be it climbing mt. everest or just sitting on a rock & staring up at the sky, i hope you take as many moments as possible to breathe it all in & exhale with full gratitude. this last week was not without hardship & doubt & fear, but it was one of those times that every breath felt precious & every step forward felt like a victory.”
“this is not just any beach. this beach you can only honorably get to by hiking eleven miles in & eleven miles out, on what is deemed one of the ten most dangerous hikes in america. the day before we went in, we met a man who told us that it would be the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our life, to which i thought, “you don’t know me!” but he was right. oh my god, was he right. but you get to this beach that can only truly be described as paradise, and you’re immediately welcomed by a small community of people who live on this beach, under the waterfall, beneath the most majestic green peaks… and while you’re there, you seem to completely forget what it took to get you there. and for as long as you wish, you are more free than you’ve possibly ever been before.”
“ancient beauty as far as the eye can see… even though we talk about how dangerous the #kalalautrail hike is, you wouldn’t believe how freeing it is to feel so deep in the jungle & not have to worry about snakes, poisonous plants or spiders, or any predators! even doing simple hikes here in washington, you often have to worry about rubbing up against the wrong thing or even being prey to wild cats… i highly recommend this hike to anyone who wants to experience a good jungle hike, but may not want to fully commit to the perils that are so often associated with the jungle. it’s so exhilarating!”
“22 miles roundtrip / 10 hours in & about 8 hours out / also with about 30-40 lbs of gear on our backs // i’m not sure if anyone noticed, that so many photos that i’ve shared are of michael, and more specifically of michael from behind. well, i have a confession to make… on the way in, jordan & i were the bad ass lady trailblazers, but on the way back I was bitchy & dragging butt big time. at one point, i literally stopped on the trail & just stood there, crying. i had about 6 miles to go & for a moment i felt like i’d rather die right there than continue. for realz. anyway, the whole group blazed ahead & michael stayed with me the whole way, saying encouraging things to me even while i was saying nothing but mean things to him. when he reached the very end of the trail where our friends were waiting for us, i found out later that instead of saying what a bitch i had been, he said sympathetically, “her heart just wasn’t in it today.” that trail was such a huge ego check for me, and then to have someone understand me that much & still love me in spite of myself… well, i just can’t even. my heart is full.”
Only a few weeks ago, we were talking about our time on the trail with Michael’s aunt, and she said, “Do you think this trail is why you guys got pregnant?!” And of course I told her that that wasn’t possible because we didn’t get pregnant until about five months later… but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a possibility. I found myself on that trail, and for the first time in seven years I could see how much Michael loved me & I could fully appreciate why. Under the millions of stars, to the sound of the millions of waves, our millions of atoms came crashing towards each other and we fell in love like never before.
That’s our small story, and it only makes sense that on the morning of my 36th birthday, on Kauai, I posted to my instagram:
“last night i fell asleep drunk & in love. this morning i woke up happy.”
Forever & always, the Kalalau Trail. Aloha.