Justin and I celebrated our 5-year anniversary this past Friday. I wanted to post an ooey-gooey love-themed diatribe about how perfect he is and how happy I am and so on... Well, those things are all true but, let's be honest, make for some lame bloggage.
Instead, I thought it would be appropriate to regale you with the story of how we nearly died on our honeymoon. It's not a short post. It's not an exaggerated post. It's a story of survival and idiocy and, five years after the fact, a funny story. So if you have time and a cup of coffee and a sense of adventure, this post is for you. Enjoy!
Justin and I picked Kauai, Hawaii as our honeymoon destination shortly after our engagement. In fact, we had the details of our trip hashed out before we had a cake or flowers or a dress. He had gone with his family when he was much younger and I couldn't resist the desire to go - it had everything I dreamed of in a vacation: beautiful scenery, outdoor activities, little-to-no touristy garbage, serene beaches and the promise of delicious food. Kauai, for those of you who would like some reference, is where the opening scenes of Jurassic Park are shot - with the stunning waterfalls. (It's also the island featured in Disney's Lilo and Stitch.) We were fortunate enough to stay in a remarkably beautiful resort. We packed into our trip kayak trips and hikes to secret waterfalls, Zodiac boat rides to see areas of the island only accessible by boat or foot, helicopter rides, luaus, snorkeling and trips to guava and coffee plantations. Each night we retired to our room aglow from exhilaration but exhausted and we slept hard with the sea breeze coming in our open balcony door.
It was a dream. It was perfect.
For our last day, Justin and I had planned (and here's where the story begins: I use the term "planned" very loosely.) a hike through the forests and ridges of the northern part of the island. As I mentioned before, there are areas only accessible by boat or hiking because the cliffs of the Na'Pali coast are very fragile, steep and far too intricate for roads. Justin's family had gone on a hike when they were there before, and all he remembered of the trail was it's incredible, nearly 360-degree views of the Pacific ocean and the lush, verdant forest. Armed with those memories, we decided to take our rental car to the visitor center at the entrance to the state park, describe the trail and get pointed to the trail-head. Dressed in athletic shorts and t-shirts with our gym sneakers, we packed in a small sack two water bottles, two NutriGrain bars, a camera and our cell phones and set off.
The drive there was supposed to be part of the experience. As you leave the flat part of the island behind, you drive up a winding mountain road riddled with scenic overlooks of red cliffs that rival views of the Grand Canyon. It's called the Wiamea Canyon. There are drop-offs that steal your breath and glimpses of silvery, ribbon-like rivers carving their way through valleys. Getting further from civilization takes you deeper into the island and the forest starts to close around you until you're driving on a curvy road through a tunnel of green.
On this particular day, though, we were only afforded peeks at the magnificent views as there was a heavy cloud that had settled on the mountain, filling the canyons with haze and a swirly soft mist. Since it was fairly early in the morning (and because we were optimistic newlyweds) we figured that as the day warmed up the cloud would lift and reveal the landscape beneath it's billowy softness.
Once we reached the visitor's center (called the Koke'e Lodge and Museum), we grabbed a paper pamphlet that had the name of a familiar-sounding trail on it: Nu'alolo Loop. It was marked as "Difficult" in the pamphlet and had a vague dotted line as guidance. The Loop was made of the Awa'awapuhi Trail and the Nu'alolo Trail, connected by the Nu'alolo Cliff Trail. The feature Justin had recalled with it's crazy views of the ocean was the Lolo Vista. The hike was 9 miles long, but there is a mile walk on the road between the end of the trail and where the car would be parked, so we were facing a 10-mile hike. To my cocky, 22-year-old, Colorado-native self, "difficult" sounded a bit absurd to me and I recall actually laughing and thinking, "If it's not 14,000 feet above sea-level, how difficult could it be?" So, armed with our folded blue pamphlet, sack of "provisions" and our brazen attitudes, we set off for the trail head, excitedly jabbering about how awesome this was going to be and how badass we felt.
As we started walking, there was only a slight drizzle to bother us, but it was warm so we didn't mind. It was like walking in a rain forest - a canopy of trees above us and along the side of the trail. We saw hints of wildlife and delighted in the strange and beautiful plants and flowers we encountered. In fact, because I was intently focused on the scenery, I lost my footing and fell a few times, each tumble eliciting laughter and the comment that, "wow, it's getting a bit slippery from the rain". Mindless, we pressed on, heading steadily and gently down-hill until we were about 3 miles in, at which point we reached what should have been our first scenic overlook of the sea. We saw nothing. It was just an eerie blank wall of vaguely shifting shades of white and gray with the hollow sound of waves crashing on unseen rocks below us. We watched some mountain goats on a cliff across from us. We supposed that we'd reached the bottom point of some valley and would need to head up from there to reach the Lolo Point. I lazily unwrapped one of the NutriGrain bars and nibbled it as we debated whether we should press on and hope the rain cleared or if we should turn back. As we spoke, I absently fed about half of my snack to the chickens clucking around us and put the wrapper back in my sack. We decided to continue hiking. It was our last chance to see it and we were pleasantly surprised by how few people we encountered and decided that it would be much more crowded and less intimate if we one day returned with hordes of people accompanying us on the trail.
At this point, Justin kept remarking that nothing seemed familiar. (Later we realized it's because his family started on the OTHER end of the trail and turned back after reaching the over-look at the halfway point.) Oh well, we figured, it was beautiful anyway, and peaceful. We were already soggy, so why not keep going? We were not too tired and it was a long way up hill back to the car if we turned around and retraced our steps so when we reached a sign that said, "Caution! Washed out area ahead! Proceed at your own risk!" we shrugged and, though we could admit that maybe this hike was on the "moderate" side, we didn't think it was too challenging. Unbeknownst to us, we had reached the Nu'alolo Cliff Trail and were about to embark upon a death-defying and treacherous 2 mile section of the Loop. Maybe 50 yards past that ominous sign we found ourselves clinging to crumbly rock on a shear cliff face as our feet shuffled along a 6-inch wide ledge, slick with mud from the rain. To our right was fog. Just fog. Surely that fog disguised a plunging descent to the ocean far below. We knew the landscape well enough to know that we had no room for mistakes. We had no idea how long it would take to hit the rocks or water below, only that we would if we fell. We did know that the red volcanic rock easily disintegrated in our hands as we clung to it. At this point we started to think maybe the trail was a little harder than we had given it credit for. But it wasn't time to discuss our options; we had to move forward because we could neither turn around nor risk backing up on this ledge. Justin had gone first because I didn't want to be tempted to look behind me at him. Looking to the right was terrifying. So I looked down at the ground. As we shuffled gingerly along, I watched Justin's feet and willed my body to do what his did.
Then, it happened: his foot slipped.
Not far. It made that rough sound of something stopping quickly in gravel. It was a harsh, ominous noise in the muted forest. His shoe made a 2-inch skid in the mud. He stopped as our hearts did also and our breath froze in our lungs. We watched the pebbles he'd displaced trickle and bounce into nothingness below. I hesitantly touched his arm - almost to make sure he really was still standing in front of me - and he told me he was alright. Only then did I exhale. With no more words, we kept going, both (I suspect; I know it was true of myself) trying to calm our hearts which were beating wildly in response to the instant shot of adrenaline. An endless 45 feet later we were on solid ground again, both grateful to be alive.
I realized in a moment of panic when I saw his foot slide that I'd have jumped off the cliff after him if he'd fallen. At least, I'm convinced that I would have. The thought of losing him and being alone on that trail in the fog and rain with no strength or ability to think rationally or even to hike five miles in either direction to get help was crushing.
We vowed then that no matter what lay ahead on the trail, we'd go forward. No way would we try that path again, as the rain was making that section more perilous by the minute and it would surely be impassable after another 30 minutes.
So we went on.
On and on, and nothing seemed familiar to Justin. Indeed, at one point, reedy grass had overgrown the trail on a plateau we had reached and we were forced to wander through neck-high growth until we could find the path. We could dimly hear the surf so we knew we weren't far from the coast. Thinking we could search for the trail better if we split up, Justin and I went different directions in the sea of reeds. After a few minutes apart I heard a muted rumble and clunking followed eventually by a far-away splash. I yelled for Justin, thinking he was stupidly at the edge of the cliff throwing rocks off the side. He shouted back at me, "Was that the rocks?!" and I realized that he wasn't chucking stuff over the cliff... that what we were hearing was the fragile coast eroding under the now-constant downpour. It was obvious that we might encounter yet more dangerous parts of the trail so we resumed our hike with more urgency in our step and a healthy dose of fear to dampen our earlier cockiness.
We were soaked through and realizing that perhaps we were a bit stupid. Finally, a half mile later, we reached the end of Nu'alolo Cliff Trail/Awa'awapuhi Trail side of the Loop and Justin declared, "This is where I went out on the point! I remember now! My mom and dad and brother stopped here because they were afraid to walk out there but I went ahead and it was awesome!" I looked where he was pointing and realized he expected me to walk along a spine of rock that was all of 2 feet wide with nothing on either side but fog. I turned to him in disbelief and said, "Wait, your family stayed because they were afraid?! Gosh, babe, go figure!" It looked like a gust of wind could come up and pick you up and deposit your body hundreds of feet below in a ball of unidentifiable mush.
But, I wasn't going to have hiked all this way to not say I went all the way. Besides, we were in this together and since he was dead set on going, I was too. Out we went. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, I suppose, as it widened a bit at the end of the point. We could hear the surf below and I know it would have been stunning were it not for the fog.
After snapping our one exhausted photo, we turned back and reacquired the trail - now the Nu'alolo Trail - with which Justin claimed to be at least marginally familiar. At the beginning of this new leg of the hike, there was a very steep, fairly short hill. Standing at the bottom of it, you could easily see the top. You could also see that there was a low crop of rocks that ran up each side of the hill on the outer edges, with a muddy gutter in between. From the outside of the right side to the outside of the left side was about 3 feet, and like the spine leading out to the overlook, there was nothing on either side. You could tell though, that one side was obviously fog atop a forest and the other side was fog cloaking the roiling sea. Awesome. From my hiking in Colorado, I knew the best way to tackle something like this was to build up some speed and truck your way up without stopping.
I backed up a few paces, charged the hill and got about a third of the way up before I started to slide back down. The mud was so slippery that I had no hope of getting traction. It wouldn't have been too bad but I didn't slide straight down... I began to slide toward the right side which was lower than the left. No matter what I did, I couldn't gain traction. As I grabbed at the rocks, they crumbled in my hands like the rock of the cliff face earlier. I tumbled and skidded back to the bottom and looked at Justin, terrified. That hill was impossible. He told me to try again. I did. No go. I had several inches of mud caked on the bottom of my once-white sneakers and I was convinced it was hopeless. He tried it next, and instead of charging up as I had done, he used both his hands and feet to wedge himself into the crevice along the middle, pressing his right side against rock as he moved his left hand and foot up and then the other side. Painstakingly, up he went. He reached the top and stood, encouraging me. Again, my shoes weighed me down and made it worse, so I plopped down in the mud at the bottom, removed my shoes, tied the laces together and held the laces in one hand so I could use my toes to help grasp. Up I started. I got halfway there and felt better about my progress when, all of a sudden, the rock my right hand was pressing against gave way and I started to fall. My shoes went over the edge as I desperately tried to regain stability. I kept inching toward Justin, shaking, crying and gasping out half-spoken, half-sobbed prayers to please just let me make it up the hill. I made it, covered in red mud, but alive. Justin held me and I cried in his arms for a full five minutes before I felt like the adrenaline had dropped enough to keep hiking.
I asked, “Well, I have no shoes… so how much farther do we need to go, since you remember this part of it?” His response was, “Oh, we’re close. Maybe two miles.” I think I knew he was lying but I chose to believe him anyway. This part of the hike was almost entirely uphill. And it was now not just raining but downright POURING. In fact, it was raining so hard and had been raining for so long that the trail was, in fact, no longer a trail. It was a gully with buckets and buckets of water rushing down. I was actually a little glad as it had washed the majority of the mud off the harder rock underneath so it was something smooth and firm to step on. Justin offered me his shoes a couple of times, but really, his feet are so much bigger than mine that they’d have slowed me down more than anything.
After going about two miles (and not, incidentally reaching the end of the trail... liar), Justin turned to me and disclosed that he was a bit worried that we had lost the trail entirely. Thus far we had been following the flowing water and neither of us could be sure we hadn't passed some branch of the trail that wasn't flooded. We checked the waterlogged phones and realized they were useless.
We were terrified.
Faced with these realizations, we kept going - once again deciding what lay behind us was far worse than anything that could be ahead. Up and up we trekked. Each step exhausted us a bit more - we had to scramble and grab tree roots to pull ourselves along and up as we pushed off with our legs. Eventually the trail leveled off a bit and the vegetation began to look more like it had at the earlier part of the trip. Justin grabbed my hand at one point and pointed frantically to the ground beside the path and said, "Look! We're on track! A Chapsitck tube! People have passed this way before - we're okay!" We had hope again and a renewed spring in our steps. The rain began to slow to a drizzle and we took a brief break to share the remaining NutrGrain bar (darn those chickens) and make the final push.
I had long since stopped asking how much further we had to go. Luckily, there are no snakes in Kauai. The only thing I had to watch out for were the electric blue centipedes that our kayak guide had told us about. Apparently they're deadly. And they live under leaves in the forest. (Super.) In fact, about a mile before the end of the trail, as I was walking behind Justin, trying to put my feet in the tracks he was making to make sure I didn't step on something sharp or gross when I saw a leaf stick to the bottom of his sneaker as he lifted his foot. As I was about to step behind him, I saw one of the bugs. I shuddered, but didn't dwell on it. I pretended I saw nothing and kept walking. Earlier I had stepped on some kind of animal poop, but the next step was in a muddy puddle so it didn't matter... I was pretty oblivious to the discomfort of being barefoot in the jungle.
Soon, we made it back to the visitor center, which was, at this point, closed. It was nearly dark and very cold now and I was devastated by the idea of now walking more than a mile on asphalt on the road back to the car. Walking through the forest had left my feet bloody and raw, so Justin ran back to get the car while I waited huddled against the wall of the visitor center. While I waited, I read some articles that were posted on the wall about various aspects of the park and trails. One of them was about something called "leptospyrosis" and how it's a big problem in the area and that you should take care to avoid it. "Hm," I wondered, "what is that?" Well, it's an awful disease that is sometimes, though rarely, fatal. "How does one contract this?" I read on. The article informed me that it is a kind of bacteria that breeds in mud or standing water in contact with goat, deer, fowl or other wildlife urine and feces. It is transmitted through open wounds in the skin or contact with the mucous membranes. I looked warily at my weeping feet and saw, in my mind, the goat tracks I had disrupted with my toes and recalled thinking that the goats must have passed recently if their tracks were still fresh with all the rain. I remembered my left food squishing through poop pellets. Oh well... there was nothing I could do now.
Eventually Justin picked me up in the car and we drove back to our posh resort. He dropped me off in front of the entrance and parked the car, leaving me to wait for him. I stood there, soaked, muddy, shoeless, covered with little cuts and adorned with leaves and sticks that clung to my hair and clothes. I'm sure I looked like I had crawled out from under a rock after hibernating since the stone age. The looks I received were priceless. Ravenous, and exhausted, Justin and I stumbled into our room and spent 3 hours cleaning ourselves up and eating about 20,000 calories worth of our favorite hamburgers... We had discovered a place near the resort that served burgers topped with cheddar cheese, red onions, tomato slices, pineapple rings and smothered in teriyaki sauce.
We woke up the next morning from the deepest sleep of our lives. I don’t think my body had ever ached like that. I still recall how tender my feet were and how broken I felt. But I smiled and laughed the whole time I was limping through the woods and I still grin like a fool and laugh at us when I look back on it. We honestly were in real danger out there a couple of times, and it was kind of a neat experience for a honeymoon to get a real appreciation for how precious life is with one another and how important the other person is. We truly struggled though the hike, and we did it together. He helped me when I needed it, and I was there to reassure him when he started panicking about the fact that we could be lost.
After the fact, it's pretty absurdly comical. Occasionally we wonder about whether or not anyone found my sneakers, and if they did, what they must have wondered. We joke about how the normally-annoying constant sound of the roosters on the island was a musical sound to hear when we came closer to the end of the trail. We triumphantly recreate our "honeymoon burgers" each year for our wedding anniversary.
We'll go back, one day. We'll hike it again. We'll prepare. And if we run into trouble, we'll know that we can work together to get through it.
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