This is Chapter 15 from my book of travel stories, "Following My Thumb":
"Sweating It Out"
As things turned out, I ended up living for five weeks in the lush rainforests of the Na Pali Coast. I didn’t hike in with my friend Natty, however. Somehow we managed to miss meeting up that day at the convenience store. Instead I hitched to the trailhead and started the hike on my own; only to meet up way with another acquaintance from the meditation ceremony along the way.
It started raining not long after I’d headed up the narrow, muddy trail. The scattered showers steadily accelerated into a constant, unrelenting downpour, which persisted for seemingly unending hours. But at least it was a warm rain. I was hiking along in shorts, rain jacket over a tank top and a pair of sport sandals, and stayed warm enough. After trudging along the muddy trail through the timeless rainstorm, I stopped to rest at a run-down structure alongside the trail, near a small stream that rushed down one of the many green valleys.
I’d completely lost track of time due to the stormy skies. All I knew was that I’d been hiking for hours and was getting weary. The ramshackle wooden structure was missing two walls and most of its floorboards—an abandoned ranger shed, I later found out. But it kept out the worst of the rain, and was much better than sitting in the mud by the trail while I took a break. I set my pack against one of the inside walls and sat down where a few of the remaining floorboards were joined together. While I was munching on some cheese and crackers, someone came hiking up the trail through the deluge, and then walked decisively over to the little shack to join me.
“Hey man, what’s up? Gabriel, right? Remember me? Caleb, from the little gathering yesterday.”
“Oh, yeah—how’s it going?” I said, recognizing him once he pulled down the hood of his rain jacket.
“I’m doing great,” he said. “Lovin’ this storm, keeps you cool while hiking. I hope it clears up tomorrow though, and dries things out. Gets old camping in the rain…So are you sleeping here tonight, too? We could make a fire together. I’ve got a big pot for cooking up some grub.”
“Well, I was hoping to make it all the way out to the Kalapani Valley today,” I said, as he threw down his pack and sat down beside me. “You’re going to sleep here? I was just taking a quick snack break.”
“This is only about the halfway point. We’ve come six miles from the trailhead. It’s another five out to the Kalapani Valley, and it doesn‘t get any easier. It’s already evening, it‘ll be dark in another hour. There’s only one another place to camp along the way, and it’s tough to find unless you know where it‘s at. So I’d say plan to sleep here, unless you feel like hiking in the dark and the rain.”
“Not really…Damn, I didn’t realize it was that late. Oh well, no big hurry of course. I’m just excited to see what it‘s like out there. Thought it would be pretty spectacular to wake up in the morning to the sight of the valley. But I guess I’ll go ahead and crash here with you then, if you don’t mind.”
“Hey, not at all—love the company.”
There was barely enough room for the both of us to lay out our sleeping bags on the few dry planks of wood that were left of the structure’s floor. We made a small fire on the ground nearby from some dry timber lying around inside the shack, and cooked up rice and soup for dinner. We stayed awake for a while, listening to the constant drumming of the rain, staring into the fire and sharing our various wanderings. Eventually we crawled into our warm sleeping bags on the hard wooden planks, as the rain continued pouring down and dripping all around us.
The following day, the rain had given way to clear blue skies. The two of us ate a quick granola breakfast, stuffed our backpacks and continued on our hike through the rainforest. The trail went up and down a series of valleys as it meandered along the Na Pali coastline. Most of these valleys were narrow, steep, crowded thick with jungle and lacking anything resembling a beach. But at the end of the eleven-mile trail, at which point the rugged cliffs became too steep even for the hiking trail to continue, there was a wide, sandy beach and a campground nestled between the ocean and the steep cliffs. Just past the camping area was a pristine waterfall, which made a perfect natural shower. It fell down a sheer rock face that dropped right onto the beach, the official end of the road for us bipeds. Only a few goats (most of them set free from domesticity by the hurricane that hit Kauai in 1992) were brave and agile enough to make it past that point.
Another trail also led inland, away from the beach and the main trail, two miles up into the wide, lush Kalapani Valley. Scattered throughout the valley grew papaya, mango, orange, guava, passion fruit, ginger and a variety of other exotic fruits and vegetables. Apparently there had also been coconut palm trees growing out there at one time. But the rangers had cut them all down to try and keep the likes of us from living in the jungle, since they were a reliable food source. Not that it had worked—as I was soon to find out.
Caleb and I stumbled wearily into the beachside campground later that afternoon, exhausted from two days of hiking one of the most difficult trails in the U.S. We soon found ourselves reenergized however, upon finding others from the meditation ceremony already gathering together for our full moon celebration. They had set up camp at the base of a cliff near the campground, where a large rock overhang provided natural shelter from the rain and wind. There was enough room there for a dozen or so folks to hang out during the day, or else stretch out for the night. And there was a large stone fire pit for cooking meals, complete with a bench made from a broken surfboard and driftwood.
We both gave a hearty “Aloha!” as we strolled up to the camp—and received a round of welcoming hellos and alohas back from the familiar people sitting around the sandy clearing. We quickly unbuckled our heavy backpacks, and with groans of relief and gratitude tossed them into the reddish dirt.
We sprawled out on our packs to relax from our hike and catch up with everyone as to their own adventures getting out to the valley, as well as take in the remarkable beauty of our surroundings. Swaying palm trees were scattered throughout the nearby camping area, and we could easily see and hear the ocean waves crashing nearby. Given our grimy state, the sounds of those waves were soon calling us seductively. Once Caleb and I were feeling rested enough to momentarily get off our asses, we mustered up the gumption to take a swim, both to wash off the dirt and sweat from our disgruntled bodies as well as shift our minds into an entirely different frame of being. We grabbed our towels from the bowels of our backpacks, and limped towards the beckoning water.
We immersed ourselves in the waves with yelps of splendid delight, and then lay placidly on our backs as the gentle waves massaged our aching bodies. The view from the ocean, looking back at the coastline, was staggering. Craggy cliffs towered hundreds of feet above the beachside camping area. We could see our group of friends through the palm trees, hanging out at the base of the cliff overhang. Up the coast a little ways from where we’d just hiked, the gently sloping Kalapani Valley itself rose steadily away from the ocean. And the stunningly rugged, burnt red and deep green cliffs of the Na Pali Coast stretched away from us in both directions, with no signs of roads, houses, antennas, beach umbrellas or other necessities of the modern world. It was as if the rest of civilization were an ocean away. And for all we cared at that point, it could have been and we wouldn’t have minded in the slightest.
I hadn’t planned on spending so long camping in the Kalapani Valley. My flight back to San Francisco left in mid-March, leaving me six more weeks on the Hawaiian Islands. I’d figured I would probably spend a week or so there on the Na Pali Coast, a few days at other spots on Kauai, and then hop over and explore some of the other islands. But out at Kalapani, one day flowed so effortlessly into the next that it was hard just to pack up and leave, without a heck of a good reason for doing so. I figured that if I were enjoying myself right where I was, I might as well just stay there.
And besides, I seemed to have lucked out with the weather. Winter was the rainy season on the Hawaiian Islands, and it generally rained a little every day, often for days or weeks without end. But during my first three weeks in the Kalapani Valley, it was clear, sunny and warm almost every day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. And yet, because it was winter and this wasn’t such an easy place to get to, there were few other people out there other than our rag-tag group of assorted wandering travelers.
In the course of the next few days more people showed up for the full moon get-together—including my friend Natty, who had been delayed by some personal business. Soon there was a group of about fifteen of us all camped out at the base of the cliff. A few more also set up their tents in the official campsites nearby. We cooked up dinner together at the fire pit each night and made music with a few drums, guitars and even a mandolin that someone had hiked in. We spent the days hanging out on the beach in the sun and swimming in the ocean, or else hiking up into the valley to search for fruit or swim in the creek that flowed down through the valley.
As we explored the surrounding area, we all kept our eyes open for a good place to hold our ceremony. Eventually someone found the perfect spot—near where the creek entered the ocean, and a little ways off the main hiking path. Amidst a ring of boulders was a flat, grassy area, which seemed almost to have been designed for such sacred ceremonies. There was plenty of room to build the sweat lodge and a fire pit, and still have room for us to gather around. The creek was close enough to bathe in after sweating and the area was clear of trees or branches overhead, so that we could see the whole of the night sky and the full moon, once it came out.
Some of us had built sweat lodges before and knew the basics of how to do it. We’d come across some green bamboo once while hiking up in the valley, which we figured would work well for building the basic structure. On the day of the full moon we harvested about twenty thin, flexible bamboo branches and took them down to the ceremony site.
It took a handful of us about half a day to construct the sweat lodge. It only needed to be strong enough to hold up a few blankets draped over it, so didn’t have to be a work of engineering perfection. The flexible branches were simply impaled into the ground and then bent over to connect with a stick from the opposite side. These were then tied together in the center, about five feet off the ground. A series of eight pairs of bamboo sticks were each bent over in a circle and tied together in such a fashion. More sticks were then bent and tied around the sides to provide further support.
When finished after just a few hours, it was a small dome about seven or eight feet across—just large enough for a small group to sit huddled inside. The framework was then covered with all of our available blankets, sleeping bags and tarps, to make it as insulated as possible and thus as hot and humid as possible. Like a makeshift sauna, the main purpose of the sweat lodge was simply to get inside, get overheated and sweat. The marked difference between a sauna and a sweat lodge however, is that more than just getting inside and sweating, there is a ceremonial and spiritual aspect to the experience.
While a group of us were busy building the structure, others were collecting armfuls of firewood as well as large lava rocks, which would serve to bring the heat inside the lodge. Later that afternoon, we started a roaring fire in a fire pit, five or six feet away from the entrance to the lodge. Thirty or so of the volcanic rocks were then placed into the raging fire and more wood was laid on top of them. We heated the rocks steadily over the next two hours, as people gathered around the flames both to be warmed and mesmerized by it, as well as watch the sun begin its descent into the ocean.
Once the rocks were good and hot, glowing as red as the setting sun, we began moving them one at a time inside the sweat lodge using a sturdy forked stick. They were placed down in a small hole that was dug into the center of the structure, to keep them away from the bare skin of those inside the lodge. After six or seven hot rocks had been brought inside the sweat lodge, all who wished to participate in the first round proceeded to strip naked, get down on their hands and knees and crawl through the small entrance hole into the darkened lodge. A few people stayed outside to watch the fire, attend to the blankets covering the structure and await the next round.
Once all were huddled inside, the blankets were pulled down to cover the entrance, leaving us in stuffy yet blessed darkness. We could feel the heat emanating from the glowing rocks as we sat blindly in the center of our little circle of friends. Once everyone was sitting cross-legged, facing the hot rocks, a handful of water was poured onto the pile of rocks—and a cloud of hot steam rose upwards to greet our faces and naked bodies. This was when things really started to heat up, and the actual sweating began.
As water was poured, handful by handful onto the rocks, the small lodge became hotter and hotter. It took a good while, perhaps twenty or more minutes, for the heated rocks to lose their heat, even when pouring cold water over them. The small space seemed to get smaller and smaller as the steam enveloped us, and some huddled towards the coolness of the ground. The point of the sweat lodge wasn’t just to warm up and sweat a little, but to be challenged beyond one’s comfort level, and even beyond what a person might think they could endure. Anyone could leave at any time if they felt they needed to. But we all wanted to go deep within ourselves and find the strength to endure and to learn from the challenging environment.
We went around the circle and made prayers, or else gave thanks for whatever we felt grateful for in our lives. A bottle of water was passed around, for those who needed to cool their throats or faces. If it got to the point where it seemed too hot to bear any longer, there was always the option of putting one’s face down in the cool grass, and perhaps finding a little air leaking through from the outside. Or else one could simply pray to Great Spirit or whatever higher power a person might recognize, for additional strength to endure the intense heat through to the very end. Sometimes humility and surrender to the moment at hand can give the necessary endurance to make it through what may seem an unbearable situation. This was one of the important aspects of the sweat lodge ceremony—to be reminded of both our potential inner strength and power, as well as how small we really are in the face of the natural elements.
We all made it through the first round, though not without plenty of moaning and praying. As the rocks eventually began to cool, the last of the water was poured onto them for a final burst of steam on our hot, dripping bodies. At last, we yelled to the people outside that we were done, and someone came to lift the blankets away from the entrance. A flood of cool air blew in on us as the blankets were lifted, and at the same time we were all dazzled by the sparkling light of the campfire. We proceeded to crawl out of the lodge one at a time, grateful for the refreshing night air and light of the fire. Stumbling a little with lightheadedness, we filed down to the nearby creek to dunk our bodies in the cool water, and rinse off the sweat and dirt.
Meanwhile, the lodge was being prepared for the second round, as more hot rocks were brought inside by those who had been attending the fire. Anyone who hadn’t participated in the first round then crawled into the lodge. Then someone yelled down to those of us at the creek that there was still some room left inside. A few went back for another round, while others warmed up beside the fire. This process was repeated throughout the evening as the full moon crested the cliffs to rise above us; and finally the last of the hot, glowing rocks was taken from the dark red coals of the fire, hours later.
"Following My Thumb: A Decade of Unabashed Wanderlust" tells of my travels throughout the 1990s to Europe, the western U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and India. Click the subject line at the top of this page for more info.