A few weeks ago I went on a camping trip with a friend (for this story I'll just call her Julia), on the spectacular Na Pali coast of Kauai, Hawaii. It was a trip we'd planned for a month or so. Julia had invited me to fly out to Hawaii from where I was in California at the time, for a work opportunity, to spend some time together and also to do the intense hike out to the Kalalau Valley on the west side of the island, where the cliffs (“pali” in native Hawaiian) are so rugged they couldn't build a road along that section of the coast. I'd already done the 11-mile hike several times before and knew how tough it was.
So after ten days or so of working together on a construction project that Julia was involved in, we had the time off to do the hike, with plans to camp out there for about a week. We packed up our backpacks with our tent, mattresses, thin blankets, skimpy clothes (you didn't need much), food and everything else required for a multi-day backpacking trip, and hit the trail.
The Na Pali Coast is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the world. Intense, jagged cliffs hued in shades of green and red line the coastline in a series of ridges, one after the other. Thus the hike isn't a pleasant stroll along the beach, by any means, but is actually one of the most difficult hiking trails in the United States. There are only two beaches in the course of the 11-mile hike: one after two miles of hiking at Hanakapeii Beach, and then at the end of the trail at the Kalalau Valley, where there's a campground, a waterfall that you can shower in, a creek with nice pools for swimming and a spectacular, long beach with amazing views looking back at the cliffs. The one bit of the civilized world that pierces the otherwise perfect paradise, is the sound and sight of helicopters buzzing overhead: tourists getting helicopter tours of the island.
I was looking forward to the time apart from civilization, getting away from email and facebook and from working on my computer in general. Julia and I were just good friends, but got along well and had fun together. It would be great to spend a week just hanging out together, exploring the beach and the lush valley of tropical Hawaiian rainforest, making good meals together and sitting around a crackling campfire.
We got a bit of a late start on the day we left. We were dropped off by a friend and hit the trail at around three in the afternoon. We wouldn't be hiking the full 11-mile trail all in one day however, but would be stopping halfway at a campground along the way. I had started hiking the trail around that same time of day on previous trips (this was my 9th or 10th time doing the hike), and I knew we would probably be chasing daylight as we were nearing the campground.
I was a bit impatient to get moving after a long morning getting ready, and then the drive out to the start of the trail. Also, I just needed a little time to myself. I told Julia that I would wait for her at the creek at the 2-mile mark. And then I got into the zone, putting one foot in front of the other, stepping over the boulders that scattered the trail at that point, avoiding the mud pits, and the tourists. This first part of the trail was a popular day hike.
I took a break at Hanakapeii Creek, where I chucked my pack on the ground and then jumped in the creek to cool off. Julia arrived 30 minutes or so later. After giving her time to rest, we continued hiking together. As expected, we ended up arriving at the Hanakoa campground just as the sun was going down. It was a gorgeous sight watching the sun sink into the Pacific Ocean, from our vantage point on the trail hundreds of feet above the water crashing on the rocks below.
By the time we arrived I was pretty sore from the hike, but in addition to that, I also have a problem with tendinitis that oftentimes acts up on difficult hikes when I'm wearing a loaded backpack. It usually starts rearing its ugly head after hiking five miles or so. It causes a pain in the lower leg (both legs can act up, but usually it's just one or the other). It isn't a terrible pain by itself. But the problem is that it gets worse as I continue walking on it, and can get to the point where it's actually difficult to walk, with shooting pains going up my leg. If I stop walking and then give it a rest, then usually after sleeping it's fine the next day.
The hike for that day was six miles to the Hanakoa campground. Sure enough, somewhere towards the end of the day it started acting up, with some slight pains that got worse as I continued hiking. But at least it didn't get bad enough that I felt as if I couldn't continue the hike. I was relieved to finally get to the campground and get off my legs and relax. We set up our tent, took a swim in the creek to wash off the dirt and sweat from a long and rigorous day, cooked up some grub on Julia's camp stove and then got some sleep.
The next morning we slept in late, lazed around for part of the day, then packed up and got back out on the trail. It was another intense five miles to the campground at Kalalau Beach. The views along the way were extraordinary. We took our time, enjoying the incredible scenery and trying to be as easy on our bodies as we could, since we were still sore from the previous day. Julia's knee started to hurt towards the end of the hike, and I was feeling my tendinitis acting up again.
We finally arrived at the viewpoint at the top of a long hill overlooking the stunning scene of the Kalalau Valley that goes two miles inland from the coast. Once again, the sun was setting into the ocean as we were nearing our destination. From there we could see the beach and campground, about a mile further down the coast. We marveled at the view, while resting our weary legs, and then started hiking down the long red dirt hill. Julia's knee was really slowing her down at this point. So I volunteered to carry her pack down the hill for her so she could do it with a lighter load. Then I hiked back up the hill to grab my own pack. We trudged the last half-mile into camp, and found a spot to set up our tent just as it was getting dark.
The next day was when my expectations of spending a week in paradise together with my good friend were unexpectedly dashed. We woke up the next day to the late morning sunlight coming over the cliffs behind the beach and beaming onto our tent, heating us up. We decided to move the tent into the shade. There was an area with a number of different campsites near each other under some large, sprawling trees. After moving all of our stuff and getting fully unpacked, I decided to lay down and get a little more rest.
When I got up a couple of hours later, Julia had befriended some of the neighbors and was cooking some lunch at their campfire. I wandered over and said hello. I wanted to do a video with both of us showering in the waterfall for the end of a short movie I was making about the hike out there. Julia said we could go do it in a few minutes. So I popped up to my tent, grabbed my camera and then came back. When I got back, Julia was talking excitedly with a strapping silver-haired fellow our same age, deep in a conversation all of a sudden. I waited around for a few minutes, then decided to go get the video set up on my own.
In short, Julia totally fell for the guy on the spot. Suddenly she was all about wanting to hang out with him. They ended up talking for a long while there, until eventually she asked him if he wanted to join us to shoot the video at the waterfall. Then she suggested we could all go to the beach together.
So, things changed. That's life. I couldn't hold it against her. When loves comes along sometimes you just have to drop everything and go for it. He was in fact a pretty awesome guy. But our trip had changed in such a way that now I was going to be sharing a tent and food with someone who was focused on being with someone else. They wanted to do mushrooms together that night on the beach under the full moon. It wasn't exactly sounding fun to spend the next five days or so hanging out on the sidelines of their new-found love affair.
So the next morning, after waking up early in the morning alone in the tent, I left. I knew she would be okay: she already planned to catch a boat back as we'd looked into that the previous day. The guy she was falling for, Alex, seemed like a perfectly capable fellow, who also planned to stay out there for a while. I suspected they would have a great time out there, and would end up coming back together either way. She had the tent, all the food and the stove. I wrote her a note of explanation and left it in the tent, packed up my things and started hiking back out. My legs seemed to have fully healed from the tendinitis problem, and plus I had a much lighter pack since I wasn't carrying the tent or any food. So I planned to hike the full 11 miles back in a day. I pretty much had to, because I didn't have a tent.
The hike started off great. I made good mileage, covering the stretch to the Hanakoa campground, almost halfway back, in just a couple of hours. I enjoyed being able to hike at my own fast pace (I have long legs), rather than waiting for someone else. At the same time, of course, I'd left with a lot of mixed feelings about the change of circumstances and leaving so abruptly. And unfortunately, it was shortly after passing Hanakoa that the twinges of my tendinitis returned. At first it was barely noticeable, as it always is at the start. I continued flying along as fast as I could. But the pain started to increase.
About two miles after Hanakoa, with four miles still left to go, it had come back as bad as it's ever been. I was now feeling shooting pain with every step. I was in a bad situation. Four miles of hiking turns into eternity when each step feels like a struggle. And it wasn't easy hiking along a flat path, but intense uphill and downhill with boulders to step around and muddy spots to get through. I started to get seriously freaked out. I stopped for a little while to give my leg a rest. But the way it works, it really needs a long rest, like overnight, for it to fully heal.
I kept trudging along one laborious step at a time. At points I became overwhelmed with panic as the pain increased. I felt like I should probably stop hiking at all to avoid some sort of permanent damage, and my mind raced with worry about how I was going to get out of this situation. I'd seen only a few other hikers all day, and the area was steep cliffs covered in jungle, with nowhere for a helicopter to land even if somehow I were able to get a message out that I needed help. I really had no choice other than to continue carrying on and hope for the best.
I eventually figured out how to take steps in such a way that it resulted in the least amount of shooting pain. At times the pain would subside for a while, and I would make good progress for a while before it came back again.
Finally I made it to Hanakapeii Creek, with two miles left to go. At that point there was a moment of relief on my part, because of the crowds of tourists that were there. At least I could get help if I needed it. I stopped and soaked my legs in the cold creek water for a long while, before continuing on.
The last two miles seemed to take forever. I had tried to find a good walking stick earlier, but hadn't found one that would work. As I was hiking up the hill leaving Hanakapeii Creek, a man going the other way with a walking stick saw me limping, and handed it to me. That made things a lot better. Slowly but surely, I covered those last two long miles.
So, things ultimately worked out in the end. Julia and I were roommates in a small house on the island, and so I headed back home and had the place to myself for the next few days before she and David returned. They'd had an amazing time out there together, as expected. And the three of us all ended up hanging out for a day, before Julia flew off the island for a trip she already had planned. David was a fellow traveler, and we got along great. So it was all okay....just not what I had planned or expected. But that is certainly one of the major lessons of life: things very often don't go as planned. So just try your best to roll with it, and see what other opportunities might present themselves due to the new circumstances. What else can you do?