We were sitting at a fairly well known spot called Papillon’s French Bistro and Bar on East 54th street in Midtown Manhattan. We had tickets to a Broadway show that evening but still had time for a quick bite and a drink before heading down. It was around five so the streets were streaming with suits. We even thought we had seen a Kardashian flanked by two huge bodyguards but couldn’t be sure. It was a hot summer afternoon so we sat outside. I was sipping on a beer and Leigh Anne had ordered an oversized, overpriced cocktail. We snacked on lightly fried calamari. This was not the usual surroundings in which we usually met. I had hardly recognized Leigh Anne when we met earlier that day without her signature board shorts and sand flecked legs. No, in a bustling upscale bistro, we felt outside of our natural habitat.
The evening went on and we talked of adventures past and those to come. As we bustled out the doors of the NYC theater commenting on favorite songs from our glamorous night out, we realized that the last train to Connecticut was leaving in 20 minutes. We ran through the busy streets of New York to get Leigh Anne on her train home. During our day together we had hardly had a chance to solidify our next trip together. Once we had reached the gate at Grand Central Terminal, there was a pause.
“Leigh…when are we going to see each other again?” I was now used to months, even years passing between our travels.
“Hiking all we can in Kaua’i, a full-on three week adventure…lets say January or February?” She grinned.
“I’m there” I said. We hugged and she ran off down the tunnel to catch her train.
CHAPTER 1: CANYON
I woke to Leigh Anne nudging me gently at 4:30am in her apartment in Ala Moana on O’ahu. I rolled out of bed and met her in the still dark living room. We grinned at each other and embraced in a sleepy hug without a word. Six months after we had said goodbye in New York, we were now embarking on our three week trip to Kaua’i. I thought back to our farewell and brief correspondence that followed when Kauai had just been a fledgling idea. And now, the time was upon us and our backpacks were full and leaning against the wall.
Leigh Anne’s roommate woke and drove us to the airport through the dark streets of downtown Honolulu. At the airport we gravitated to Starbucks to wake ourselves up before boarding our flight. The inter-island flights only take about half an hour – an ascent and descent really, a precursor to all the climbing and scrabbling back down trails that was to come. The sky was still dark grey as we landed in Lihue, but the horizon held a faint light indicating morning was on its way. We collected our bags, filled with all that anticipation and uncertainty that comes at the start of every trip.
Once outside, I noticed an older local guy in his beat up truck getting ready to pull out onto the road, but before he did I ran up to ask him where he was going and he ended up offering us a ride to the supermarket. It was to be the first ride of many and we were happy to have gotten the ball rolling so easily. We climbed up into the tray of the truck and we drove on down the road as the sky began to turn light blue as morning approached. We gave each other a sly high-five as the cool morning air rushed around us. We took in our surroundings as old uncle drove through the streets of Lihue which were already noticeably and quite markedly quieter and less populated than the O’ahu roads that we had become used to. Our friend dropped us right at the supermarket, grinning and wishing us luck before driving off. It was our first shop and it would have to last us the next 4 days up in the canyon. We discussed in depth the pros and cons of each item, not knowing then that the issue of rations was to become one of the most discussed and intricately planned topics of the trip. We ended up walking out with water, bananas, noodles, jerky, peanuts, chocolate covered raisins, trail mix and a whole heap of Clif® Bars, all of which would become our staples in the coming weeks.
After cramming the food in every remaining crevice of our packs, we walked across the parking lot to the main road to begin the hitch to Waimea Canyon. The fantastic thing about hitching in Kaua’i is that there is generally one highway wrapping around the island, meaning if someone stops to pick you up, you already know they are going in your direction because there are only two directions to go. It’s simply a matter of distance. Once we reached the main road we found a suitable spot to hitch. After three weeks hitch hiking you generally get a good idea of proper places to stick out the thumb and in what manner to do it. By the end we had perfected our hitching strategy:
1. You must be standing in a spot where people can pull over without stopping traffic like a lip or a turn out.
2. You must give drivers enough time to see you, contemplate picking you up, and discuss with their girlfriend before pulling over, so you can’t stand close to a bend in the road. You must give them time to see the thumb.
3. Don’t hitch by stoplights. People are either rushing to make the green or have been waiting so long for the green they can’t be bothered stopping again to pick you up.
4. It always helps to be laughing and joking around with your co-hitcher to show your good nature.
5. I always prop up my backpack or surfboard to show that I’m not some homeless guy but need to get a ride to the next trail or a wave.
6. Smile. Sunglasses off. If you’re a girl, hair down.
The strange thing was, with all our theories on how to hitch, it was impossible to predict who would pick us up. By the end of the trip we had had locals and tourists of all ages, all with a story to tell. Our next ride, for instance, was Sandra, an elderly woman who was on her way to work at the botanical gardens in the flower arboretum. She said she was hard of hearing so we had to shout. We shouted to her all about Trails of Freedom and as we piled out of the car she turned around and smiling said “you are an inspiration.”
Kuku ’i Trail
Sandra had driven us half the way to Waimea, so we still had ten miles to cover. We waited in a turnout by a small shop and were picked up by Pe’a, a local guy who was driving a taxi van to Waimea town to pick some people up. He joked with us that we now owed him $25 for the ride. Pe’a drove us right to the foot of the great winding uphill Waimea Canyon Road. The sun was now out in full and we were in great spirits, congratulating ourselves on our luck with rides so far. We were eventually picked up by a couple from Washington State and as we wound our way up the Waimea Canyon, the guy told us how he was a professional poker player. Rain started to fall and as we got out of the car near the 9 mile marker where the trailhead of our first hike, the Kuku’i trail began, it came harder. This was not entirely helpful as we were about to embark on a 2,300 foot descent in 2 ½ miles, making it a tough scramble as it was and the rain only meant more time on our asses than we had planned. We could tell that those who had gone before us had suffered at the hands of the hard packed red clay that was scarred with the streaks of sliding hiking boots.
The trail took a little loop before we saw the actual trailhead leading down into the canyon. The rain hadn’t ceased so, unfortunately for my dignity, I had to adorn the giant hooded poncho that covered both the backpack and myself, giving me the appearance of a hunchbacked monk. In fact, the moment the rain let up, I took it off (later we learned to wrap up the bag alone, saving me the embarrassment). The first portion of the trail was a steep switchback track through the scrub which we trotted down while the sun would teasingly pop out for a brief moment before hiding once again behind the clouds.
After skirting our way around a little track that was cut into the cliff, we broke out onto the great vista of the canyon. We would see the canyon many times from many angles but it never ceased to take our breath away. This huge gaping wound in the earth was streaked with red cliffs and green scrub with waterfalls lacing the cliffs in the distance. The magnificent walls of the canyon stretched out into oblivion and everywhere you turned, massive rock structures jutted out like pinnacles. It took on the appearance of a painted backdrop, seeming impossible that it was right there in front of us.
From this point on, the trail seemed more like a descent down a semi-dried river bed. The track was just following the creases in the ground where water had run; just rocks, rubble and red sand causing a difficult climb down. As we reached the last half mile, the trail dove into a forest of skinny trees and boulders, markedly different from the red clay scramble of the first section. It got to the point where it seemed everything around us was dry but for the path ahead, which had turned into a muddy little stream with toads leaping away from our oncoming steps. We rounded the corner and saw the long-drop toilet and a ramshackle shelter, signifying the Wiliwili campsite alongside the raging river.
We set up camp among some of the most aggressive mosquitos I have ever encountered. There were swarms of the things, bombarding us from all directions like miniature cobra attack helicopters. Of course at this point we had no insect repellent and so the only way of deterring these determined buggers was to stand and act as a windmill with our arms swinging constantly. When it was time to throw our packs into the tent, one of us would assume the windmill position shouting “Go! Go! Go!” in a militant fashion, while the other would throw the packs inside and zip up the tent flap as fast as possible.
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring upriver. The sun had come out and all around us were the towering walls of the canyon. As the sun sunk, we constructed a fire which was a little confident and determined flame, but it kept exploding due to wet wood. In fact there was a disheartening moment when our small tin foil trays in which we were attempting to boil water (in lieu of a cooking pot which would come later) were upturned by the exploding wooden frame supporting them. We couldn’t help but laugh as we had to settle with our dinner of jerky and nuts.
That night, before turning off our headlamps, Leigh Anne turned over and said “Ya know what Avi? I think we are the only people in this whole canyon.” And what she was right. This was the only camping area and we hadn’t seen anybody else hike in. It was a scary thought… an exhilarating thought that we were alone in this endless valley cut into the earth. I lay awake, recalling a feeling I often had when standing on the edge of something like a huge ocean or looking out across endless mountains, or for that matter an endless canyon, always from a vantage point wishing I was in it, not just standing on the edge of it taking a photo with the hordes, but to fully immerse myself in the thick of it. And here we were, on the canyon floor and we couldn’t be deeper amongst it all.
CONTINUE THE JOURNEY “Beyond the End of the Road: CANYON – Part 2“