My straw hat is flapping around my head like an entangled seagull, the gusting wind yanking the string it's tied with right into the lump in my throat. My knees are weak, partly because of the long uphill climb behind me, and partly due to the gaping precipice in front of me. Four inches from my right foot, the crumbly terra-cotta trail opens to the wind, sun and gravity. Hundreds of feet below, the waves shred themselves against the sharp rocks, their booms taking several seconds to reach my throbbing eardrums.
I let a whimper escape into the wind, think "focus" and squint at the narrow trail ahead. It slopes audaciously toward the ocean. I sway involuntarily toward the edge. I'm on Kaua'i's Na Pali coast, which means, appropriately enough, "The Cliffs." Its steep, green spires, fluted and sharpened by millions of years of erosion, march off around the curve of the island, which is more or less round. The place is like the Hall of the Mountain King crossed with a botanical garden.
I am hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which climbs up and down the coastal ridges, in and out of the tree-choked valleys, and spills out onto beaches fronting the turquoise Pacific. Even away from the beaches there is water everywhere; streams and waterfalls pour over the trail, over my sweating body and yawning pores, which I plunge into the flow, each time with less ceremony than the time before. The only bothersome thing about this is the constant whopping noise of the interminable stream of helicopters bringing sightseers into the valleys. The racket keeps planting images of "M*A*S*H" episodes in my reverie; it ceases only at dusk.
Kaua'i is the geological older sister to the rest of Hawai'i's inhabited islands and is the most isolated of the chain. While the Big Island is still burbling lava and growing like a baby, the lava I'm walking on is about 5 million years old, its ancient floes eroding into fantastic and skeletal formations. On the dry, leeward side of the mountain, the earth is bare, but on the rainy side, the vegetation makes the landscape almost a geological topiary. Kaua'i's mountains seem perpetually wrapped in clouds (Mount Wai'ale'ale, near the center of the island, gets more than 40 feet of rain annually. It is the wettest land on Earth).
The Kalalau Trail was built by the Hawaiian people, hundreds of whom once lived in the remote coastal valleys, fishing or raising crops on terraced plots, which are still in evidence today. Missionaries moved into the area in the 1820s, and the incursion of Western values drove the Hawaiians out by the turn of the century. After that, cattle and goats grazed in the area, accelerating erosion. In 1979, the coast was protected as a state park. The cattle have been removed; the goats are controlled by hunting.
During the latter half of this century, the Edenic remoteness of the place attracted new inhabitants: refugees from other Hawaiian islands, from the Vietnam era, from the vicissitudes of life on the mainland. The Na Pali Coast has a flock of the faithful that the Methodist Church would envy.
"This is the mother," said a woman I met in town who recently moved here from the island of Hawai'i."The Big Island is just a teenager." The woman's brother, "the hermit," lived at Kalalau ? the mythically beautiful beach that lay at the end of my hike.
I was on a quest for silence and solitude myself. I traveled alone; slowly, steadily and a bit too light ? my food consisted of peanut butter, bagels, iodine pills and a couple of cans ominously labeled "potted meat food." But with the frequent breaks, most of them spent in pools near the trail, I was content.
But then I got to the blustery edge of this Cliff, to my newfound acrophobia, and solitude thickened threateningly. I wasn't much comforted by the thought that I wouldn't be any safer if someone else were with me. Falling hundreds of feet onto jagged rocks has the same effect on your body whether someone is watching or not. But the thought of falling to my death unnoted was far worse than merely dying.
Then I walked down the trail, and several miles later saw the expansive sand flats of Kalalau Beach below me. I sat down on a tiny patch of grass off the trail, and the bliss of aloneness unfolded again. I watched the wrinkles in the blue water line up obediently to crash on the shore. I could see kids playing in the sand in front of a line of yellow sea kayaks. A white waterfall threaded down the cliff face. An unnaturally clean man in snow-white shorts rushed past me to snap a picture (you can get to Kalalau via Zodiac raft, as well as by kayak or foot, or you can fly over it in the obnoxious helicopters). The next day I would meet a group of people, hike up the valley to a series of cold, clear pools and have a naked man silently give me a mango in the middle of the forest.
But tonight was for solitude. I showered under the waterfall, drank half a gallon of water and put up my tent. Then I lay in the sand and watched the setting sun over the far edge of the ocean turn the lining of the clouds to the color of brass.
Permits are required for camping on the Na Pali Coast. They are free of charge, but you should plan months ahead to assure a space for your chosen time. You're limited to five nights in the area. Contact the Division of State Parks, 3060 Eiwa St., Lihu'e, HI 96766-1875, (808) 274-3444.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication