Feeling bored out of my brain, I journaled alone in my tent on that Kalalau campsite on the island of Kauai, attempting to problem-solve my survival:
“Woof that rain is coming down even harder now. The clothes hanging on that tree out there are completely drenched. How can I turn this day around? It’s not like I can call a helicopter to airlift me home or an Uber on this whole island that can get me out of this mess…”
This was a journal entry from 9:34 am on Wednesday, October 19, 2022. Needless to say, no solutions were found. The longer I was alone in that tent, the more fear crept into my head with ferocious thoughts of doom and despair. Those droplets that summoned me from my slumber were just the beginning.
Nobody is out there to save me. I have to be my own hero. Thankfully, I wasn’t out there alone. I was with four other schmucks who ventured out onto this rain-ridden trail the day prior. We were all noobs to this trail. We were all in this together.
The pain that my panicked mind created is not how the previous day went.
Day One Pleasure
The previous day, it took the gang 10 hours to hike the full trail of 11 miles. Along the way, we saw gallivanting mountain goats playing with each other. My eyes could not believe the vibrant colors of the minerals in the rainbow rocks or the green leaves coming out of the most ginormous yucca plants.
At the scariest part of mile 7 with Crawler’s Ledge, I cruised through it without ever looking down. A fear of heights cannot be present if I never allow it to creep in, so I never allowed my imagination to go wild and picture the “what if’s”. We took breaks to eat the fresh guava. It exploded with juice and I was grateful for the crunchy seeds. We went around expressing what we were grateful for. For me, it was for my boots, the clouds that provided sun coverage, and the constant sound of the waves crashing into the cliff walls.
We got to the campsite with 15 minutes of daylight to spare to set up tents and get a sunset swim in to rinse the mud and sweat and bug spray and sunscreen off. It made me forget about any pain I was in at that moment in time. It was blissful. We closed the night off with tea over a bonfire and stargazing of some of the most dazzling stars that my eyes have ever witnessed.
The end of day one was a stark contrasct to day two.
Day Two Pain
I found myself on the cycle going from thriving back to survival mode. I was in the middle of nowhere with no fully dry clothes on a foreign island. I didn’t know at the time, but the camp was shut down due to flooding warnings of the river.
My tent mate Emily braved the rain with a purple poncho and headed down to the nearest waterfall a mile away to fill up the water filter. We were dehydrated and needed water to make the oatmeal for breakfast.
Every inch of my body felt like it was shouting at me. “You promised me a day to rest?!” My feet hurt to stand vertically up. I was scared of what the next 30 hours of my life would look like and whether I would catch my flight back home to Oahu. It was pure pain. The question of “Why did I induce this in myself?” kept coming up. A year ago, I had never backpacked in my life. I would've never thought this was where I’d find myself.
Team huddle 1
Once the rain slowed down we the whole crew emerged out of our little homes. We huddled and discussed this conundrum we were in and what the safest option was.
There wasn’t much wavering of what needed to be done if we were to catch out flights home. We strapped on our packs, laced up our sobbing wet boots, purified several liters of water at the falls, and plunged ahead onto the trail all well knowing that the rain would make it sleek.
Luckily my 400mg of ibuprofen kicked in in the knick of time and I started the day leading the group. After just doing the trail the previous day I had no excuse for fear of getting lost.
I had a breakthrough as I was tiptoeing across the fast-paced river on the different rocks at the surface. My balance could actually be trusted. Such a huge success in my book! There was a moment after leading the group up a huge cliff that I looked down on and felt so powerful. Everything that I need to survive is strapped onto my back, and I am doing this thing!
Team Huddle 2
After making it three miles to mile eight, we huddled again to recalibrate of going further or staying with where we were currently.
We all brought up the benefits and costs of either decision. The Crawler’s Ledge at miles 7 and 8 is known for being deadly. High floods make the most difficult part of the trail even more dangerous.
Morale was low. The whole group was leaning towards staying there to camp until me and the other leader Eric said we could hike at least one mile further to see how the trickiest mile of the trip would be. There were two hours of daylight left, so we could equally plunge ahead to camp at mile six or go back to camp at eight.
I sided with a bias for action because usually my fear only gets worth with time. We agreed to ‘sus’ out the ledge and see how it was. We all agreed that it would be okay to chicken out and go to camp at mile 8 if that meant that the terrain would be more dry the next day.
We plunged ahead knowing that if we waited longer we’d only get more anxious overnight dreading the sound of any more rain coming.
The ledge was certainly muddy and traction was hard to come by. I had constant flashbacks to where I’ve wiped out while skiing on the poorly groomed “mountains” of Michigan where it is pure ice and your ski losing control gliding down the ledge. After practically hanging off a cliff hanging on by a tree root and support from my walking stick, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why the heck did I choose to do this for fun? Is it really worth risking my life to go on this hike?”
Some tricks I learned:
- Never look down. Similar to surfing waves, you go where your eyes look. I looked up and saw the roots that I could grab onto while looking up. I saw my friend moving ahead of me.
- Slow down. Survival is not a race.
- Breath more intentionally and deeper instead of allowing for shallow panicky breaths.
- Place your walking stick in a place of leverage by spearing it down on the inside of the closer arm to the mountain.
- Have a mantra so fear doesn’t mesmerize your: “I am nimble like a mountain goat”
After getting through these technical parts, out of nowhere a stream of sunlight came through the opened clouds after the whole group made it to safer terrain. The world was smiling and rewarding us for making it through the hardest part.
We made it to the campsite at mile 6 beyond grateful. We feasted to celebrate. The invention of camping charcuterie with ritz crackers, jerky, and spreadable cheese. The textures were decadent. I’d never been more grateful for some instant mashed potatoes.
The first foreign person we saw all day, Adam stopped by our campsite that night and shared, “You know despite its beauty, this place isn’t like Disneyland. Hawaii is the state with the highest rate of missing people.” Oh yes Adam, you don’t need to tell me this twice.
Sleep was hard to come by knowing that there was more pain to come.
Day Three: Pain and Pleasure
When I woke, the complaints could go on forever from bug-bitten swollen ankles, sore feet, tight calves, tense shoulders, and exhausted arms. But then there was the wondrous experience of the bird with the blue tail and yellow chest that kept following me around and greeting with its beautiful song.
When we started onto the trail, we were so ready for the destination. We kept a fast pace with limited. The breathtaking views never let me snooze. Jawdropping each time. When we made it to the trailhead where it all began, I took the most glorious shower outside for the first time in four days. The cold water was immaculate. The Universe was in the group's favor when we all found rides while hitchhiking to the airport since the bus was running behind.
Three lessons on the pendulum of pain and pleasure
- Don’t let expectations get in the way of your reality. It was supposed to be a beautiful trip throughout and it still was in ways that I couldn’t see in the present moment until after.
- Mental resilience starts with the beginning you can overcome what you set out to do.
- Make decisions together and hear the voice of everyone. When in doubt, talk it out and share your fears and what you are afraid of. When you pull fears out from under the rug, they become less empowered.
On this trip, I felt the perennial polarity of bopping back and forth from being pleased I chose to go on this adventure to immense regret wishing I was back in society with shelter and plumbing among other conveniences. A year ago I had never backpacked in my life, and my past self would be in disbelief at these mischievous choices and siding with the group that wanted to plunge forward.
I am sore but I feel stronger. I feel restless and raw but I am more resilient. I was scared but I trusted the group that we would survive. In the abundant beauty, there was much boredom.
In the grand scheme of it all, I’d say this trip caused more pain than pleasure. And yet now that the trip is over, I would still love to hike the Kalalau trail again. The little glimpses of pleasure were worth the cost of suffering and feeling what life was like with pain in survival mode.
I had fun and felt pain, but most of all, I feel empowered.