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Less is more, except when it comes to kindness, sleep, and toilet paper.
I read these words my first day in Kauai. And they proved themselves true three days later while hiking the island’s Kalalau Trail.
It is the legend of Crawler’s Ledge – the famed cliff-side section of the Kalalau trail where the waves crash below hikers hugging the hillside above and that earned the Trail its place on Outside Magazine’s most dangerous treks list – that lured us into camping on Kauai. It’s where tour helicopters hover above the lush landscapes of the north shore while passengers most certainly question the sanity of those who have traded in bikinis for backpacks to explore the rugged Napali Coast.
Checking the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) website fanatically for three days, it is a roller coaster of Trail Closed and Trail Open notices at the mercy of the winter weather on Kauai. (Kauai: the Rainy Island, and literally host to the wettest place on earth). The notice posted two days prior to our trail permit departure date did not fill me with confidence: THE KALALAU TRAIL ON KAUAI HAS BEEN CLOSED SATURDAY DEC 28, 2019 DUE TO FLASH FLOODING OF STREAMS. TURN AROUND, DON’T DROWN.
Um, pretty sure you had me at closed. Granted, I am a rule follower. But if I had had permits that day, pretty sure the Don’t Drown part would have really sealed the deal.
And then, just as it seemed we may have to forego our journey, the sun gods smiled. More of a little crooked grin, really. Not so much eliminating the danger altogether, but reducing it enough to remove the ominous warning. (Which is of no surprise to Nekky who strongly believes, and I quote, that “sh!t works out.”). We hit the trail in the dark at 6 am, partly so we could get an early start and partly so we could be legitimately off-grid and blissfully unaware in the chance that a potential change to the trail status was posted.
The real danger it seemed in the first two miles was frogs. That’s right, despite the laundry list of warning signs about rogue waves, falling rocks, hazardous cliffs, flash floods, dangerous shorebreaks, high surf, rip currents, slippery rocks, strong currents, sudden drop-offs, and waves breaking on ledges, it seemed I was in danger of death by giant toad. Apparently paralyzed by the light of the headlamp, these slippery guys were nearly underfoot with each step. Despite a dozen disturbing stick-figure warning signs we had been asked to study pre-departure, I did not recall a single yellow diamond boasting fist-sized amphibians. I made a mental note to write a letter.
Aside from Crawler’s Ledge which, if we’re being honest, I found to be somewhat of a non-event and Nekky found to be somewhat teeth-clenchingly harrowing (do with these reviews as you will), the next nine miles is a bit of a beautiful blur of coastal hiking – up and down, following the folds of the bluffs, in and out of the jungle entanglements, in and out of the sunshine, in and out of streams and river crossings, in and out of the mud, and in and out of overgrown trail sections that reminded us that relatively few have traveled this path since the trail’s 14-month closure after the tropical rainstorm event that hit the north shore with 54″ of rain in 2018 – a natural disaster that resulted in massive flash flooding, landsliding, and devastating destruction.
Despite legs that were feeling each of the 950 metres of elevation gain, the crooked grin of the sun gods that had gone to a full-on ear-to-ear smile, and a quickly diminishing ration of water, we slowed, but rarely stopped (for fear of either being carried away by mosquitoes or giving the ants an opportunity to find our exposed ankles). Combined with the views we were afforded from each outside bend in the trail, we were motivated to keep on keepin’ on until we reached the promised magic of the Kalalau Valley and the shores of Kalalau Beach.
Nestled below the iconic Kalalau bluffs, this enchanted place held not only the anticipated charms of a secluded santuary, but also exuded all kinds of unexpected character. It had a beautiful waterfall for washing red-clay-stained legs, an outhouse emblazoned with bright green fingerpaint: Unisex Poop Room (byoTP, obvs.), trees whose branches came alive with rats after dark, low-hanging oranges and guava, and a Kalalau guru visiting this remote place for the one hundred and eighth time who was kind enough to suggest we move our tent to slightly higher ground having once endured a rogue wave that had swallowed up the entire shelf.
Yes, it had character. But also characters.
On one hand, there was the shirtless, sarong-wearing, long-haired, barefooted, smiling man who called himself River who jovially welcomed us to Kalalau Beach with a big ol’ orange extended in our direction, with an invitation to pop in to his camp later for some taro stew, and with a half-joking declaration that Kalalau was the best place to visit to see naked people picking fruit. And he was indeed half-right. That is to say that I did not, a little later that day, see River picking fruit.
On the other hand there was the couple orchestrating quite an elaborate tighty boxer beachside photo shoot. With one gentleman in his Calvin Kleins – let’s call him Captain Underpants – and the other wielding a zoom lens, a drone, and a flare for artistic direction, they were taking advantage of the remote location in their own way.
I’d say we fell somewhere in the middle. Sure, there was photo-taking. I do like to capture the magic (but not in my underpants and certainly not by drone – they are not allowed (see previous bit about rule-following)). And we did channel our inner hippy taking in the sunset and communing with the remoteness of it all in our own way (perhaps not quite as passionately as our new surfer-friend who splashed through the surf with pounding fists and the arms of an orchestra conductor, choreographing (or so it seemed) the show the waves were so powerfully performing while at once also commanding (or so it seemed) the respect of the ocean gods and soaking in the energy of the earth through hands buried deep in the sand when the water receded.
Me, I soaked it all in at a safe seated distance. Sweaty, dirty, happy. Just my style.
At night, I could not summon sleep. Perhaps it was the adrenaline from completing the trek and corroborating the accounts of the crashing waters at crawler’s ledge. Perhaps it was for fear of being swallowed up by the ocean’s swell in the middle of the night. Perhaps because when I closed my eyes I could see only the image of River (even more jovial now), stumbling and singing and sloshing whatever he had fermented from the bounty of the valley in a bottle in one hand while attempting (and failing quite unfortunately) to hold his sarong in place with the other, burned into my eyeballs.
Lack of sleep notwithstanding, we hit the trail by headlamp to begin the return trip in the morning. Back in and out of the bluffs, back in and out of the sunshine, back in and out of streams, and carrying with us the abundance that only a special kind of simplicity can fulfill.
Kalalau Trail – its bounty, its beauty, its cliffs and its characters – had shown us much kindness. (But if we’re being honest, I could have used a little more sleep and a little more toilet paper). It seems that, these three things notwithstanding, kickin’ it in Kalalau is proof that indeed, often times, All you need is less. (Oh, and also, that Sh!t works out).
Can I get an Amen.