I woke up at dawn and for the first time in two days, it wasn’t raining. I pushed aside my water-logged sleeping bag, crawled through two inches of water and stood up outside my sagging tent. I was naked, shivering and hungry.
“Welcome to the Garden of Eden,” my friend in the next tent greeted me cheerily.
The funny thing is she wasn’t joking.
I was camped in the Kalalau Valley on the island of Kaua’i in the Hawaiian Islands. It was the closest I have ever come to living in paradise. I still wonder why I ever left the place nicknamed the Garden Isle.
• • •
A few days ago I read the travel article on Kaua’i that Richard Atkins wrote for the Jan. 2 issue of The Independent. He obviously liked Kaua’i and had a good time there, and I have no quarrel with his perspective. But I have another perspective on a different Kaua’i, an island that after 43 years still haunts my memory. I want to tell you about the other Kaua’i, my Kaua’i.
In the mid-1970s I went through a kind of change of life. You could call it a midlife crisis, except that I was only in my 30s, too young for either midlife or crisis. I left my wife, my two step-children, my home in suburban Bethesda, Md., and my job in the Washington Bureau of the Baltimore Sun. I composed several hundred poems that I read in local coffeehouses, created a novel that a major company promised to publish before it changed its collective mind, freelanced for Rolling Stone and wrote a political column for the New Leader magazine.
Then I got what was undoubtedly the craziest idea I’ve ever had in a long life of crazy ideas. I decided I would island hop across the Pacific Ocean earning my way as a writer or editor for local newspapers on tiny islands surrounded by the world’s largest ocean. My first stop, on the way to Tahiti, Samoa and the Cook Islands, was Kaua’i. My trek across the Pacific almost ended there; I sometimes wish it had.
After flying from Washington to Honolulu to Lihu’i, Kaua’i’s tiny county seat, I quickly found a job, writing features for an alternative newspaper. I hooked up with a girlfriend, a divorced blonde waif who lived out of the curtained back of her huge old-fashioned station wagon. My home, when I wan’t sleeping in my pup tent, was her station wagon.
We spent our days driving the 100-mile-long circumferential road along the beaches, forests, gardens and mountains of this preposterously diverse island. A few others we met were doing the same.
“What are you up to?” we would ask each other, which was followed invariably by the reply, “Just trucking.”
There came a time when the intimacy of her station wagon started to resemble claustrophobia, and that was when I headed out for the Kalalau Valley.
You see, the road around the island, which was the only real road anywhere on the island, only went three-quarters of the way. The remaining fourth, where the Na Pali Cliffs dropped a thousand feet straight into the ocean, had no road at all, despite a developer’s abortive plan to build one.The only two ways to see this coast were to take a boat off the coast, as Atkins described, or to hike for two days on a narrow, slippery and steep footpath along the edge of the cliffs, which I chose to do.
The trail has awesome views but could be dangerous. I heard of more than one hiker who plunged to his death off the cliff. A sign above the trail warned that this was the high water mark of a recent tidal wave.
When my companions and I finally caught sight of the Valley, we let out loud whoops of joy and raced down the final steep hill to the water’s edge. The valley is triangular, with a two-mile-long beach along the ocean. The beach was bracketed by a small clear stream at one end and a waterfall at the other. Behind the beach was a forest that in Kalalau cluded dense groves of coconut palms and a variety of fruit trees—papaya, mango, passion fruit. The forest ran to the the base of steep mountains whose gravelly rocks were impossible to climb, as one hiker fatally discovered while I was there.
What made the valley seem to us like the Garden of Eden? First, no one wore any clothes. Once hikers got past the first tourist stop on the cliffside trail, everyone stripped down. It was the strangest site seeing hikers wearing strong boots and huge 60-pound packs—and nothing else.
Second, it had almost everything you needed to survive: beautiful camping spots, clean water for drinking and bathing, an ocean full of fish, mountains with wild goats and pigs. There was a lot of food, not only the coconuts and fruit, but cherry tomatoes and watercress along the stream beds, wild herbs and the root plants called taro and tarura. Previous occupants had even planted gardens, and onions, carrots and herbs and could be harvested by the industrious.
And then there is the famous Hawaiian climate, cool enough to sleep comfortably at night, warm enough to swim and laze in the sun during the day. It rained almost every afternoon, but the kind of rain that Hawaiians call liquid sunshine, with rays of sun beaming through the light-glistening drops of rain. Occasionally, in the winter months, a serious storm would set in, as I found to my discomfort, but when it passed, Eden returned.
One other factor made us call this Eden. A few dozen people lived in the valley, some for days or weeks, a few for months, and we all found that life without clothes created a different kind of society, with different kinds of human interrelationships. It wasn’t really a matter of sex, for after a few minutes nudity lost its sensuality, so much as of honesty: there was nothing to hide behind. We were what we were, warts and all.
• • •
I don’t want to make it seem like Kaua’i was only about the Kalalau Valley, because it wasn’t. The island had a fascinating mixture of peoples. Small groups of Native Hawaiians hovered around the fringes. Prosperous Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Korean farmers harvested unbelievable amounts of produce from immaculate garden plots. A few more ambitious folks owned coconut plantations and fields of sugar cane. And some less savory folks had marijuana plantations camouflaged in the sugar cane fields. Once when a state police helicopter got to close to one of the fields, armed guards shot it down.
Geographically, the island was the most diverse place I’ve ever seen. Mount Wai’ale’ale seems to snare every bit of moisture from the trade winds, creating legendarily the wettest spot on earth (460 inches of rain annually). On top of the mountain is a trail constructed of boards that traverse a swamp with trees, flowers and birds that exist nowhere else on the planet.
In the rain shadow beneath the mountain is a desert, where a long wide beach stretches seemingly forever. The island has almost every kind of beach you can imagine, from tiny coves to huge bays, and you can pick your waves depending on your mood and ability: surfing, body surfing, swimming, safe play for children, it’s all there.
The mountains rise high and steep in the interior, and this is where there is a vast 3,000-foot-deep gash in the earth in Waimei Canyon State Park, sometimes known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Hiking the canyon is like being in the Southwest. Elsewhere, there are pine-clad hills where you can stay in a log cabin and imagine you are in New England.
Around the ring of the island are scattered villages, each with its own personality, many dating from the 19th century. The variety seems infinite.
Inland, waterfalls are always at hand, including a legendary seven-step falls each with its own swimming hole. I heard access to these falls was closed after people kept killing themselves while diving into the pools. Kaua’i can be a dangerous place.
Finally, I left. I had an itinerary, a plan for my trip and another plan for the rest of my life. I had places to see and things to do. I was a fool.