Kalalau

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I came into Kauai knowing very little. I knew it was the most rural of the islands, and that it was beautiful. And I knew that Ben had taken up residence in the Kalalau Valley, which is very remote. That’s pretty much it.

But over the past week, every time I was asked where I was going, every time I said the word Kalalau, I got the same response. People’s demeanors changed immediately as if I had spoken a secret passphrase that charged them with a duty to aid me on a noble quest. I might as well have told them I was going to Shangri-La, or Atlantis. The way people talked about this place with such consistent wonder, reverence, and awe, began to create an air of mythos around the valley, so by the time I got to the trailhead, Kalalau was a legend.

The valley is situated smack dab in the middle of the Na Pali coast, rendered inaccessible by miles of sheer 5000ft cliffs on either side. It opens up onto the northern shore of the island and culminates at Kalalau beach where the valley hits the water. The strong, clear, cold, and pure Kalalau river runs through the valley into the sea, rendering the base of the already lush valley so fertile that an errant seed dropped carelessly will grow wildly. I had heard tales of naked hippie colonies, wild fruit trees in abundance, strange shrines and natural altars. Many adventurers like myself had wandered in for a few days, only to stay for months and sometimes years. It was so remote that a long history of Hawaiian fugitives had fled there, some successfully evading capture and living to the end of their natural lives. The only way for the authorities to visit in any capacity of power was by helicopter, which was so cost prohibitive that it rarely happened, and when it did, everyone could easily see and hear them coming.

Aside from the destination, the hike was no joke, either. Apparently it was widely considered among the top backpacking trails in the world, but also one of the most dangerous. I was warned time and time again that people die on it every year, and some locals even had anecdotes about personal friends they had lost on the trail. The one thing everyone agreed on, was: whatever you do, don’t go in the rain.

All of this lent Kalalau a mythical quality that shrouded it in mystery and allure, and made the warnings of danger ring hollow against the promise of greatness ahead.

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The more I found out about this place, the more I liked the sound of it. I was excited to get to what was apparently a hidden eden of wild fruit, clear water, black sheep, and naturalists. We woke up early to evade the permit-checking rangers that harass unregistered hooligans like JP and me, and found it to be a sunny and generally clear morning, just like the weather forecast said it would be. So we set off down the trail to the promised land.

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The first thing we saw was a rainbow, a brilliant omen that put us in high spirits for the treacherous 11 mile trek along the mountainside.

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After a short climb I got a great view high above the beach we slept on, Ke’e.

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The trail started out simple but strenuous, and lulled me into a false sense of security as I trudged up the wide, steep path. Soon it leveled out and gave us our first view of the epic Na Pali coast.

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The trail was lush and beautiful, teeming with life and water the whole way.

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Bright colored birds flitted back and forth between tropical trees bearing all sorts of exotic fruit. The ground was covered in dark purple berries that stained everything they touched, and were sweet but so sour they made your mouth feel like chalk afterwards. The sheer diversity of wildlife was astounding, and most of it was species of plants and animals I had never seen before. Gigantic slugs the size of carrots, big flightless kiwi-like birds, and a whole rainbow of brilliantly colored bugs made their appearances and contributed to a growing sense of being a stranger in a strange land.

After a couple of steep but relatively easy miles, we came to the first stop on the trail, Hanaka Beach, marked by an ominous sign.
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Here’s a closeup of the important part:

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That’s 83 people. The ocean’s really not fucking around here. Some research after the fact has revealed that Hawaii is the drowning capital of the United States.

At the beach we were greeted by another rainbow at the mouth of the river where it flowed into the ocean.

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We took a look at the beach, but decided that we would heed the advice of the highly effective sign.

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We took a short break in a jackfruit tree grove, but decided to keep the momentum going and move forward.

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The 2-mile mark was a popular day hike for the less intrepid tourists, and I think the state had pit extra effort into widening and maintaining the first segment to encourage this, but all bets were off once we got past the beach. The trail soon narrowed, and before I knew it we were basically walking on a tiny ledge along terrifying sheer cliffs. The increased difficulty was rewarded, though, by incredible scenery. The Na Pali coast was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Imagine hiking through the kind of jungle you see in movies and National Geographic, spraypainted precariously onto 200-300 foot cliff sides overlooking the raging pacific ocean. Massive monolithic rock structures bathed in green towered over tropical gorges, so beautiful that I nearly fell off the trail staring up at them. I was beginning to see why people get hurt here. The distracting scenery looked increasingly like a movie set, gorgeous in such an extreme that my mind was having a hard time accepting it as real. I found myself humming the Jurassic Park theme more than once, and laughed to myself. As I found out later, it looked like Jurassic Park, because it IS Jurassic Park. The movie was filmed almost entirely on location in Kauai, and the verdant and mountainous coast shown when they initially fly in on a helicopter in the movie was the exact coast I was hiking.

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After a few miles, the skies changed suddenly from mostly clear to mostly cloudy, as often happens in Kauai.

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A light drizzle fell as I trudged on, but minutes later it evolved into a torrential downpour. I hoped it would be a short blast like all the other showers I had experienced on Kauai, but it only got worse. The rain was falling so hard that I could barely see, and my shoes’ grip began to falter in the mud. Soon the trail was more water than dirt, and I stopped to try and shelter myself, but the rain was so bad that I was still getting pounded under the trees. After a couple minutes of futile squatting in the downpour, I decided to just keep going. I was well past the halfway point, so turning back only meant a longer hike, and stopping was just wasted daylight. It was either hike in the storm, or sit in the storm and hike at night. Neither was safe, but pushing forward seemed the only real choice. The rain continued to escalate, and soon was blown nearly sideways by unbelievably strong winds. The gusts were so powerful that they constantly threw me off balance. Walking along a 2ft wide muddy cliff trail carrying 40lbs on my back in a rainstorm was hard enough, but the wind made it a serious survival situation. I was actually blown over a couple of times and nearly fell off the cliffs. The many warnings I had received began to play continuously in my head, providing a morbid narrative for each careful step. Still I kept the faith in our quest, until the rain finally let up. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, but it was cut short as I came to this sign:

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Standing at it was a Filipino couple who were turning back, daunted by the infamous stretch of trail ahead. Miles 7-8 were widely considered the most dangerous, and contained the most feared segment, “Crawler’s Ledge.” I hadn’t filled up enough water from the stream, and after 6 miles of labored and careful steps in the wet tempest, exhaustion was starting to set in. But I was long past stopping, so we continued on without much hesitation.

I thought the worst was over after the rainstorm, but I was a fool. The rain had soaked into the dirt and turned the red clay hillside ahead into a slippery deathtrap. My feet would slide down the cliff no matter how carefully I chose my footing, so it was a matter of taking another step before my other foot slid off the trail. This resulted in a frantic sort of diagonal running uphill in order to attain a horizontal trajectory across the cliffside. It was a lot like doing the moonwalk, but instead of trying to look like Michael Jackson, you’re trying to not die. I tried to grasp at roots with my hands, buy they broke under any pressure, and any decrease in forward speed resulted in downward sliding. It was a real Catch-22, though, because sprinting at a weird angle along a muddy cliff with a 40 pound backpack is also extremely dangerous, but at least provided some chance of survival. The whole situation was a complete clusterfuck, and as you can tell its hard to even describe what the hell was going on.

I felt a very real closeness with death at this point, but by the time I reached an oasis of stable ground, it would be more dangerous to try and moonwalk back uphill through the death clay. This infernal segment of trail continued through an agonizing half mile of precarious life-pondering steps, and with each one I felt my bones break on the rocks below, saw the looks of despair on everyone’s face as the watched me go down, felt the waves below crush me against the sharp cliffs, and tasted the seawater filling my lungs. By the time I made it through, I had died a thousand deaths, and fully accepted it with peace and resignation. This process is a familiar one for me, and one I go through every time I face a new threat to my life (of which there have been many, between my ignorant and delinquent adolescence, and my wildly adventurous 20s). I do a lot of things that most people are afraid of, but I don’t think I’m any less scared of them. I feel immense amounts of fear when I do this kind of stuff, but for some reason I do it anyway. The result is that I come out on the other side with the realization that fear can’t actually stop me from doing anything, which is the most empowering revelation ever.

It also proves worrisome and maybe not the strongest evolutionary trait, because I feel at risk of doing stupid things that violate basic survival instinct. For example, when I’m on a skyscraper balcony or a super high ledge or railing and I look out over it, I feel in danger of jumping off for no reason. I feel like I have to babysit myself or I will spontaneously just do it. This extends out to much more severe situations like police encounters and being robbed at gunpoint, to the point that when I’m confronted with death I feel strangely in touch with it. I definitely don’t want to die yet, though, so don’t worry [mom]. I love life way too much.

After my improbable survival of the red clay death hill, we came to the infamous “Crawler’s Ledge,” named for the countless hikers who get down on all fours to cross it. Honestly, I gotta say – those people are idiots. It was a narrow rock ledge made a bit scarier by the 90 degree cliff you had to shimmy against, but it really wasn’t bad, and crawling would actually make it much harder. In any case, it was an absolute cakewalk compared to what we just did, and I crossed it without even noticing it. I didn’t even realize it was “Crawler’s Ledge” until JP stopped after and asked me what I thought about it. “That was it?”

I was increasingly tired, but energized after surviving mile 7 & 8, so we powered on, knowing we had to be close. We came across some goats heroically navigating the cliffs, and I got some shots of them, the misty aftermath of the storm, and the raging sea below.

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I'm standing on the trail in this picture. Can you find it?

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The boost wore off quickly, and things were quickly reaching a flashpoint of exhaustion and low morale. We had hiked over 10 miles in terrible conditions and I was out of water. Every corner we rounded “had to be the last one,” and it began to feel like we were chasing an imaginary mirage.

This went on for an hour so, and just when I was beginning to forget where I was going and what I was doing, we stumbled up to this sign with dogged steps:

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This time, the valley was literally around the corner, and when I finally saw it, I felt like a pilgrim reaching Mecca. Its a place of truly indescribable beauty, so just look at these pictures.

[Note that you can click on these and any pictures in the blog for a full resolution version]

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Even after all the hype, nothing could have prepared me for something so utterly spectacular. How had I lived for 26 years without knowing this existed?! I broke into a near sprint down to the beach, another mile down.

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The land flattened out once I reached the water, and there were people camped all along the trail in various capacities ranging from ultralight backpacker tents to janky tarp colonies. At the end of the trail was a waterfall fed by a spring above that served as a shower and infinite fresh water supply.

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I rinsed off and sat on this super cool surfboard bench to dry out.

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I soon met a 62 year old man named Ronnie, who had lived out here for over 30 years. He welcomed us to the valley with kind words and hot food from over the fire. We ate to our hearts content and trundled tiredly back to our campsite. The folks next to us had a fire pit going, so we walked over and made some new friends.

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The temperature varies less than 5 degrees from night to day, so fires in Hawaii are not really for warmth or any true necessity, but more of a social thing. It gives everyone something to gather around and sometimes cook on. And lo and behold, who should stroll up to the fire, but Nathan from a week earlier at Lydgate. Against all odds we had camped right next to him again! We reconnected over the fire, made some new acquaintances, then slept like babies.

The next day, I set off to hike up the river and explore the legendary valley floor myself. I casually invited the folks at surrounding campsites, and to my surprise, by the time I got to the river mouth, we had a sizable and enthusiastic crew. We set off down the honeycomb network of trails aimlessly, which turned out to be the best approach without a doubt. I learned from a wizened old man that Kalalau means “to wander” in Hawaiian, and so our formless journey was rewarded tenfold. The river was rife with deep swimming holes and waterfalls at every turn. We all jumped in if for no reason than to soothe the mosquito bites.

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After a mile or so we came to a cool lookout up on a hill where we could look down over the beach where we camped.

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The next discovery was a meditation labyrinth painstakingly worn into the ground by repeated walking along its winding trail. It was outlined by moss covered rocks and had a totem in the center proclaiming eternal love and gratitude for mother earth.

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We wandered further and I was stopped dead in my tracks by a heavenly glow coming from across the river. I jumped over and discovered the most idyllic grove of roseapple trees spiraled up in formation around a single squat banana tree. The trees broke the dense canopy of the jungle and let the ethereal light come down in a circle on the area, giving it an enchanted and almost holy vibe. I half expected to find some sort of relic at the center.

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We hung out for a while before continuing up the river to discover a big clearing with some enormous mango trees that I climbed with another adventurous guy. We were told later that this is a local landmark named “Three Mangoes.”

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As I got to know some more of the long-time residents in the valley I learned that almost everything had a name. There were so many camps hidden in little alcoves all over that in order to give directions, they had to name various features along the way. “Flat Rock,” “Mango Stadium,” “the Hippie Highway,” and “Big Hole” were just a few of the endless and entertaining names that served to give even more color to an unbelievably lively place.

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There was wild fruit growing all over the place, and Tobias, a German born airline pilot living in the United Arab Emirates, took a keen interest in grabbing and eating every variety he could find.

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He’s got a guava in these shots.

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Everyone was having a blast and we got so absorbed in our explorations that the sun began to set on us. We had spent a full day in the valley and wandered back to the beach just in time for the sunset.

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The beauty all around was enrapturing; it was like being in a jungle and a beach and the grand canyon and a rainforest all at once.

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We all sat there in the sand and watched the sun fall with such contentment….it was remarkable really. Its hard enough to get people to gather up and keep their attention for longer than a second out there in the ‘real world’ (or ‘the outside’ as valley dwellers called it), but here were 7 people from all over the globe just sitting peacefully, staring at the sunset.

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It was truly an awesome feeling to share such a simple satisfaction and not have to sell anyone on the idea for once… nobody was on their phone, nobody was complaining, nobody was distracted by the material world, everyone was simply…..present. I’ve achieved this state personally in fleeting ways through extensive self searching and outward exploration, but to share it with a group so naturally and effortlessly was simply ecstatic. The quality of adventurous backpacker that Kauai, and moreso Kalalau, seems to attract, is exactly the kind of person I look for and pick out in a crowd. They are the few, the intrepid, the weird, the resourceful, the fearless, the determined. To have so many rare birds flocked together in such an intimate place was like coming home, into the rugged black sheep society I’ve always dreamed of.

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We watched the sunset to completion, and kept laying until the stars came out. We stared up at the brilliant twinkling sky and picked out constellations and recalled dreams that had stuck with us. Everyone was getting along so well that by the end of the day it was a cohesive group of buds, and a tongue-in-cheek-name had emerged; the Chokecherry Crew, after the local name for the super tart berries found all over the trails. This nightly ritual of sunset-watching and stargazing would continue like a tradition for over a week, until we all had to part ways.

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Everyone had different backgrounds, but a common goal: to enjoy the hell out of the present moment. This wasn’t hard to accomplish here either. The closest of the friends I made in the valley were Zack and Nathan. Zack was a vagabond like myself from Minnesota, island hopping for the winter. Before Hawaii he had been in Puerto Rico. He seemed to always carry drumsticks, and would often retreat with headphones and could be found air drumming for hours at a time. One time I caught him eating peanut butter off them, in a shot that pretty well sums him up.

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Nathan was a humble ultra-outdoorsman from Vegas, having backpacked what seemed like every national park in the US, worked several summers in Alaska, and he talked about hiking for 25 miles at a time in an offhand way as if it were something everyone does. He was fountain of practical knowledge on pretty much every issue that came up, and had DIY rigged much of his camping gear in ways that were both cheaper and more effective that the best store bought stuff. He showed me how a simple cat food can with the right sized holes drilled in it makes a flawless and ultralight alcohol stove, and served as resident fire-master, striking up a blaze at a moment’s notice when no one else could.

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He also loved to eat raw ramen.

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We all slept soundly in exhaustion after the long day of hiking. The next day I woke to urgent hunger, and realized that my food supply was dwindling and probably wouldn’t even last through the day. I had made a critical error by putting the vast majority of my food in the rations bag being sent in with Brando. I had failed to consider that it might take a few days to get there, and packed very little food in my bag. I was starting to feel lightheaded and cranky from hunger, and knew I wouldn’t last long. My body was starving for protein to rebuild my legs after the pulverizing hike, and I had nothing to offer it. I was beginning to wonder if this Brando deal was even real, but to his credit the conditions were really rough. The surf had been huge the past couple of days; even if Brando was crazy enough to try coming in, the waves were so big that it was physically impossible to get a jet ski through without flipping. On top of that, its highly illegal to land a watercraft of any kind on Kalalau beach, and the only boats authorized to do so – the coast guard and park rangers – refuse to come anywhere near it in the winter, when the waves are biggest (now). My morale began to sink as my hunger rose, and I still no sight of Ben, who was the whole reason I came.

I had heard whispers of Ben’s whereabouts, but he was always just out of reach. People gave me generalized directions to an area he was commonly sighted in, but it was like tracking a wild animal. However, motivated by hunger, I spent a solid day connecting the dots, and after a tip from a naked girl in the forest, found him at last. He welcomed me with open arms, and fed me a bounty of quinoa, soup, and pancakes cooked over an open fire. The food lifted my spirits briefly, but my body still screamed for protein, in a way that hippie-food simply couldn’t provide. I needed to make a decision fast, because I didn’t even have enough food to sustain me for the brutal 11 mike trek back, and I would only get weaker from here. I had bet all my chips on this Brando guy, and I wasn’t even sure he existed. Things were beginning to look grim.

Ben suggested that I petition the island directly as a spiritual force, and ask for what I need. “You have to be specific,” his girlfriend Angelei told me. With a hollow stomach and nothing to lose, I wandered down to the Haeau, a collection of stacked stones by the river mouth that served as a temple and altar for the ancient Hawaiians, and offered up my request for sustenance.

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After this I trudged back to the waterfall to wash the sweat off. I sat on the surfboard bench drying in the customary way, squinting at the bright sea. I had left my glasses at camp to keep from losing them in the water, so I could barely see anything, but I was making out a faint black blob in the distance. Nah, couldn’t be him. Surf’s too rough, I’m just seeing things. Maybe its dolphins? Or a shark? It was so far out, and my eyesight so bad, that I really couldn’t make out anything. Finally I asked someone else to look out and tell me what they saw. Corey, a gleeful hippie who was planting garden beds that spelled out the word “LOVE,” peered out into the waves and hesitated.

“I think I see something, I think…..yeah there’s something dark out there, a shark maybe? I think……wait no its maybe a bunch of dolphins…….wait…..no……….I think its uhhh………I think its…..uhhhhhhh……………….hmmmmmmm, I…………oh wait………..wait, yeah……………….ok uhhhhhhh………….yeah man, its a jet ski, man! What the fuck is he thinking?! Is that Brando? I think that’s Brando!”

Before he could finish I was running down to the beach. Brando sat on an all black jet ski bobbing in the swells like a desperado several hundred yards offshore. He motored back and forth parallel to shore, carefully observing the break patterns and calculating his entry path. It didn’t seem possible at all, the waves were so tall they would block our view of Brando every few seconds. He continued scoping the situation for a solid half hour, trying a couple of agonizing times but having to dodge and retreat back skillfully from under a monster break.

At this point I have one of those third person experiences where you press pause, step out of your body, and take an outside look at your life for an honest evaluation. So here I am, on a remote and dangerous beach, on an island in the middle of the pacific, waving down a jet ski pirate as he dodges deadly surf in order to deliver me a bag of tuna, bread, hot sauce, peanut butter, and chocolate. What the fuck is going on? I wonder in a malnutrition delirium. If I could make up these ridiculous situations I would, but I’ve somehow developed a talent for unconsciously creating them. I couldn’t help but laugh as I inevitability do at all my ludicrous plights.

After a half hour of suspense, Brando sees his chance and barges thru the massive waves, carving sharply left and right with the throttle floored. As he gets closer we can hear the jet ski roar and more people gather on the beach as he heroically outruns a massive wave breaking behind him and basically surfs to shore. As he gets closer i can see he’s a man of about 40 with wild salty hair, a rugged sea-wrecked sailor’s face, sunburnt red skinrendesvous wearing a wetsuit. He runs the jet ski aground and gestures to me frantically to take the bag.

“Dad yo food man, take it. Fast man, take it, untie.” he barked in a heavy island accent. It was like an order. He was in a big hurry, apparently. I struggled to undo the crazy knots that fastened the garbage bag to the back of the jet ski. “fahka RIPPIT man, I don giva fok just GET it man, I gotta boat out der man, fahka idiot gonna DROWN man! Fahka idiot, fok man.” He pointed back out to sea where I could barely make out a tiny inflatable boat bobbing wildly in the swell. I ripped the garbage bag off the back of the jet ski where it was tied.

“Help me push.” he said, and started straining against the weight of the machine, pushing it down the sand back into the water. A couple of bystanders ran up to help and we shoved him off successfully, and he gunned it straight back, jumping over 8 foot waves on his way out.

After his rendezvous with the endangered boat, he went through the same laborious process to get through the waves again, but this time appeared with a passenger. A toothless brown-skinned man with wild curly black hair dismounted and ran immediately up to another jet ski sitting covered on the beach. He began pushing, huffing, and puffing so I ran up to help him. We eventually got the jet ski into a tidepool, where he thanked me for my help and introduced himself as Aliki.

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The name struck a chord immediately. Almost everyone I had met had mentioned Aliki at some point. Opinions were polarized, ranging from ‘tyrant of the beach’ to ‘lord protector of the valley.’ One thing that was sure, was that he more or less ran the place, by way of his pirate operations in and out of the dangerous beach. I say ‘pirate’ with deliberate intent, because that simply is the most accurate way to describe what he does. He dealt primarily in the smuggling of goods and people, in and out of the valley, and I surmised later that Brando was an associate of his. Through intimidation, corrupt relations with the cops, and classic strongarm tactics he had monopolized all traffic and trade in and out of the valley, and so you were either with him, or silently against him. Many of the old timers comprised the latter group, but would never openly resist him, because they depended on him to bring in their food. One guy, ‘Uncle T,’ had lived in the valley for 16 years and hadn’t even come out for almost 3. He brought in 2000 pounds of food at once, and without Aliki, he would have to carry 20-25 lbs in by foot every 2 weeks. Aliki also hauled out the relatively small but inevitable buildup of trash bags that accumulated, which gave the state another reason to look the other way on his smuggling racket. The only safe means the rangers had to haul out trash was by helicopter, which was so cost prohibitive that it rarely happened. All this added up to a very profitable reign for Aliki, charging hapless tourists who had hiked in way over their heads $150 for a 30min illegal boat ride, and afforded him an unofficial but universally understood czar role.

All of this to say, that my act of kindness to a stranger had just garnered the favor of the effective king of the valley. He invited me back to his large and luxurious (by Kalalau standards) camp for dinner. When I arrived, he said, “Grab a Noni leaf, to use for da plate,” and pointed at the big tree that was supporting his massive 400sqft tarp. It bore the curious Noni fruit, which I had never heard of before. It turned out that was because it tasted like shit.

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But the big, broad, and thick leaves certainly served as good plates. I jumped up and ripped one off, and was served a piping hot steak! Steak! I really was hobnobbing with royalty now, I knew. I looked around the camp and saw all the trappings that come with it. Lawn chairs, ice chests, even chainsaws were sitting strewn around a large brick stove. When you’re 11 rocky, dangerous miles from civilization, heavy and bulky items like these were worth their weight in gold. I chowed the steak gratefully and shot the shit with Aliki and Brando until darkness fell.

Aliki came often, but never stayed for long, and when he was gone, his camp nicknamed ‘A-camp,’ served as a communal gathering point for the many faces flowing in and out of the valley constantly.

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One night, some rowdy Filipinos joined us for a cookout, and we had a great cultural exchange.

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Another unforgettable night, the legendary Grizzly came out of his lair to treat us to a culinary delight unique to the valley. Grizz was the most charming and entertaining of all the long-timers, and had justly earned a legendary reputation throughout the land. At the designated hour we gathered around the fire at A-camp, and Grizz worked his wondrous black magic to produce Kalalau pizza. Everyone chipped in on ingredients, and the crust was made from scratch. Grizz tenderly kneaded it to perfection, while Hawaiian taro boiled in a big pot. Vegetables, preserved meats, cheeses, and other garnish were contributed from all angles and combined into a lovely pie. There still remained the question of the oven, though. Everything on Kalalau was cooked over an open fire; baking simply wasn’t in the cards. This is where the real magic happened. Grizz took two massive cast iron skillets, put the pizza inside one, and the other one upside down on top as a lid, forming a makeshift dutch oven. Then he took embers from the fire underneath, and piled them to the perfect amount and dispersion on top of the apparatus, providing heat from both sides. He attended to the precarious contraption with precision and skill, and danced around it ceremonially.

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Hawaiian taro

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The result was incredible, and absolutely the best pizza I have ever eaten.

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Before indulging, Grizz gathered everyone around the hot pan and obliged us to ‘Yummmmmmmm’ the pizza in the style of the classic meditational ‘Ohm,’ which was hilarious. As we ate in joy and fellowship he gave us an impressive double-hula performance.

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I can only hope I'm this awesome when I'm 60.

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Angelei enjoying her slice off of the customary noni leaf plate

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Soon an intriguing man came fresh off of Aliki’s boat, named Tyrone. He was a millionaire who had come to Kalalau “on the advice of a mystic, a clairvoyant, and a healer.”

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He gave off an interesting cosmopolitan vibe amongst the dirty scallywags of the valley, and didn’t seem to mind a bit. He had lots of cool stories too, from his time in the military, and his illustrious globetrotting thereafter. He claimed to have helped overthrow the government of Peru (or some south american country, I don’t remember), and had the shrapnel wounds to prove it. He ate the pungent Noni with abandon, for its purported health benefits. He became known as “that safari dude,” for his all white shirt, pants, hat, and scarf-tie-thingy.

One day, he hiked up the valley with us to Steve’s camp on the ridge above the river for an informal afternoon party.

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That's Steve on the right with a handmade bamboo bong. He's awesome.

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It turned into a rainbow-watching party after a bright and beautiful double rainbow formed over the cliffs. Definitely the most amazing rainbow I’ve ever seen. Its hard to write about Hawaii without sounding like an idiot because pretty much every description is in a superlative sense. I was constantly seeing the best, most amazing, and most beautiful everything that I had ever seen.

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After Brando’s timely food drop answered my plea to the island gods, I spent my days in well-fed leisure. I got to know the lay of the land and the various valley folks, and alternately swam, hiked, and layed around in the sun. One day Nathan and I bushwhacked far off the trail to climb up a goat path on a razor thin ridge up to the valley wall.
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At night a bunch of creatures would come out and chill in the middle of the foot trails, for some reason. The most common were massive slugs, and massive toads. One time I found some mating (I think?) with one latched on and the other hopping around frantically. It was pretty funny.

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I found lots of cool stuff in my wanderings. There were many abandoned campsites around, and it was fun to imagine what the occupants were like based on the stuff they left.

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This guy had a shrine if sorts centering on an Indian guru with lots of cultish literature to match.

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Really cool tree carving:

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I even found a makeshift library!

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Don’t know what this is.

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One of my favorite places was ‘the bluffs,” a flat and grassy section on cliffs overlooking the water. It was a great place for solitude and to watch the wild goats graze in the sunset.

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There was also word of a ‘wet cave’ around the corner of the cliffs to the left of the beach. Ben had been to it earlier in the year, and invited me to go one day. To reach it would require us to swim out into the ocean and around a rocky outcropping to an unseen inlet into the cliffs where the water flowed into a cave and shallowed out into an underground beach. The surf was low that day, so we jumped in, paddled out with abandon, and though the waves were rough, we reached the cave with no issues.

The cave was peaceful and fascinating, totally raw and isolated by the raging ocean, hollowed out by years of relentless pounding. We wandered down the dark corridor and began chanting freeform syllables in harmony. The water deepened and the light faded as our long tones echoed and sustained through the cave. Eventually we were in chest deep water and complete darkness, and every step forward was a triumph over fear. After many deliberate steps we reached the end of the cavern and turned around to see the light from whence we came, and meditated at the end. All in all we spent over an hour in a spiritual nether zone without a word spoken. Finally we broke our silence and set off back into the ocean.

The serene and surreal cave experience was the calm before the storm, however, as shortly afterwards was the island’s third attempt to take my life in less than 2 weeks. When we swam out, nothing seemed out of line until it was too late. One second Ben was right next to me, and in an instant the massive waves swept in out of nowhere and he disappeared. I continued my trajectory toward the shore but I was genuinely worried for Ben’s life. My concern didn’t last long , because I soon realized that I was in as much or more danger than him. I was being pushed closer and closer to a jagged rock outcropping no matter how hard I swam. I paddled furiously but wasn’t making any progress, and worse, I wasn’t getting any closer to shore. My breaths became labored and increasingly difficult to take in the 1 second intervals between the waves converging from different directions. I soon realized that I wasn’t actually getting anywhere, and in fact I was being pushed back and forth in a circular pattern dangerously close to this rock. By this time, Ben had made it to shore, and seeing that I was basically drowning, started frantically waving down a boat off the shore. He was naked, so he got their attention pretty quick, and some other folks on the beach ran up to help, 2 of which were naked as well. A crowd eventually formed on the shore, including another naked guy. Two brave dudes decided to chance a rescue, one with a lifeguard style flotation bouy and the other with a surfboard. The guy with the bouy put it around my neck which just tangled it up and started to choke me, then immediately started drowning himself. The other guy got smashed against the rocks all most instantly, but managed to avoid serious injury using the surfboard. Another massive wave crashed on us with such extreme force that it ripped his pants off. And I don’t mean it pulled his pants down around his ankles. The force of the wave actually ripped the fabric off of his body. This brought the total naked guy count to 5. In some sort of miracle that remains unclear, we all were able to grab the rock face and basically climb sideways underwater to shore, and all collapsed from exhaustion. Ben hugged me earnestly and I could see in his eyes that he really thought I might have been a dead man for a second. After we all caught our breath, I sincerely thanked my nude rescue crew and gave hugs all around.

Kauai was beginning to feel like a toxic romance with the most beautiful woman in the world. The sharp alternation between seducing me and trying to kill me was growing tiresome, and had totally worn me out, but was abusive relationship that was hard to leave. A few days later, after recuperating from my latest brush with death, I said goodbye to my Kalalau friend and set off on the long hike out. I blasted thru the 11 miles in only 5 hours or so, and hitchhiked immediately over to the opposite side of the island, the west side. The west side had a reputation as a haven for native Hawaiians, and a laid back place far removed from the touristic vibe that had overtaken the rest of the island. I strung up my hammock on the beach in Kekaha, where I met Justin and Karl, who invited me to camp in their backyard. They took me in as one of their own, and the hospitality and amenities of their home were a welcome repose from the the weeks of fast and rugged living. Justin showed me around the tiny town, and my last week was spent in relaxation, eating fresh poke’ from the shop down the street, bodyboarding the small south shore waves, and watching the sunsets in serenity.

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One of my last days on the island was one of the best, when Justin’s brother took me up to Koke’e park, the highest part of the island, home of Waimea Canyon, “the grand canyon of the pacific,” and Aliki Swamp the highest elevation swamp in the world, at nearly 5000ft.

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The whole trail thru the swamp was a super cool janky boardwalk for miles and miles.

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I came to the top of a hill and ate lunch with some awesome Hawaiians hunting boar with a bunch of dogs.

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The last part of the trail led,me along a river that was lush with crazy plants and exotic fruit.

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Finally able to stop and catch my breath for a second, I reflected on the whirlwind of beauty and madness that had swept me up the last 3 weeks. It was an unparalleled experience, but an utterly draining one. I loved the island but I was ready to go. Both my ego and my body had been thoroughly pulverized, and between Hawaii and my previous month in Oregon, I had been roughing it for something close to 3 months straight. I craved the city like I never have before, and Hong Kong on the horizon promised to deliver in ways I couldn’t imagine. As I walked into the airport in a daze, I heard my name called for a distance and turned around to see Zack, flying out the same day!

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We ate breakfast together and laughed about the good times in the valley. He told me a couple of good stories that transpired in my absence, including taking acid, burying a girl up to her neck in the sand for fun, and then forgetting where she was in the dark, only to find her at the last moment with the tide coming closer and closer to her face, frying balls. Apparently when he finally left, there were missing flyers of the same girl all over town…she must’ve not told her parents that she was going into the valley. We had a good laugh and parted ways, and I began my journey over the great blue Pacific to a continent unknown: Asia.

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Fatal Wonderland

I had wrapped up the squash harvest in Oregon only 2 days before my flight was departing out of San Francisco, leaving me only 48 hours to drive south, buy last minute necessities, pack my bag, say goodbye to friends, and wrap up financial loose ends before leaving the mainland for months. It was a real head-trip to come straight into the big city after sleeping between trees for 45 days straight. I hadn’t seen a streetlight or a flushing toilet in almost 2 months.

After enduring the customary Bay Area traffic nightmare, I was welcomed to Oakland by the sight of an SUV flipped upside down in the neighborhood. It was surrounded by laughing Mexicans, and laughing cops. I stopped for a second to ponder how it was physically possible to flip a car of that size on a street less than 50 yards long. My thoughts were quickly interrupted by my city instincts cropping back up in the nick of time. I remember that I’m in Oakland and that’s simply what happens here, and that standing around in the dark with a bike and a backpack in a neighborhood where cars get flipped over at 7pm is a bad idea. Time to get moving.

I must’ve forgotten how San Francisco works too, because I somehow expected it to be more peaceful once I crossed the bay from “The Town” to “The City”. I walked out of the 24th & Mission St BART station expecting a laid back stroll to my favorite burrito joint, and instead was greeted by thousands of protesters with skeleton makeup. Jesus Christ, it just doesn’t stop here. How quickly I forget. After a few minutes bewilderment, I ascertained from a pedestrian that it was Dia de Los Muertos (which explained why there were thousands of skeletons in the street on a Monday night), and in classic San Francisco fashion, it had merged with a protest march against gentrification in the Mission district. Marching drums, megaphones, mariachi music, angry chants, Spanish street preachers and crackheads all blended together in a beautiful cacophony that reminded me why I love this place so much. I can’t believe I’m leaving. As mind-bending as it was to come straight from the woods into this madness, I loved it. The confusion I feel in moments like this takes on a spiritual quality, and quickly transmutes to ecstasy. There’s something extremely liberating about not knowing what the hell is going on. The Divine Confusion, I call it. It’s the polar opposite to the Fear, and between the two, lies my full spectrum of emotion.

After a grueling 2 days, I made my flight, but barely, and at the expense of several nights sleep. By the time I got off the plane, I was running on fumes. I walked out of the airport at 9:45pm, completely exhausted, and the humidity hit me like a brick wall. I was sweating in minutes. I had come here to visit my old friend Ben, who was supposed to meet me at the airport. He was nowhere in sight. Ben is the single least reliable person I know, so there were no surprises here. I had prepared for, and almost expected this, so without hesitation I began my trek to the nearest beach, where I could sleep for the night and hopefully regroup with Ben in the morning.

This definitely wasn’t my first time wandering an unfamiliar place in the dark with a heavy pack, looking for a spot to crash. But my delirious state made my bag feel twice as heavy, and each mile twice as long. My steps grew dogged quickly, and after several miles and a few liters of sweat, the familiar blue glow of Walmart beckoned. It was the only place open, and probably my only chance at hitching anywhere this time of night. I went inside to grab some nonperishable road food, and happened upon the first of many Hawaiian baked treats that changed my life. A few pieces of Kauai Kookie’s Pao Doce Cinnamon Toast lifted my spirits (and my metabolism) up, and put a smile on my face as I stood out at the road with my thumb out.

After an hour and no rides, I remembered that I needed a camera. I went back in, and during my second round in Walmart, I met a couple of local ladies who not only pointed me to the nearest safe beach, but gave me a ride! I hopped in the back of their pickup at midnight, grateful and optimistic. They dropped me at Lydgate beach on the east shore, and assured me I wouldn’t get any hassle from the cops or rangers there. I snapped a farewell picture of them to test out my brand new Walmart camera:

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The second I saw the water my heart leapt. Each wave glowed silver and flashed brightly before crashing. The lightshow was dazzling and I looked up to see a perfect full moon illuminating the empty beach. My clothes came off immediately and before I knew it I was naked in the waves. Stress and fatigue melted into relaxation and peace as I floated on my back, bobbing in the surf, staring at the moon. I strung up my hammock and fell asleep in the warm night air without even so much as a blanket.

I woke to the ocean sunrise, and was so content that I moved my hammock to some better trees and spent the whole day just sitting at the beach. It felt amazing to just soak up the sun and jump in warm water.

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I found some wild coconuts laying around, but they were sea-rotted pretty well.

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The waves were pretty strong, and a good deal bigger than anything I had encountered before. I frolicked obliviously and enjoyed the beating the ocean was giving me, until I got sucked out by a riptide and had the first of many brushes with death on the island. One second I was standing in waist deep water, the next I was 50 yards down the beach getting slammed against rocks by waves from 2 directions. I panicked and fought initially, but once I relaxed, the current released me and I was able to swim back in. I washed up on shore, lightheaded, out of breath, and with a new respect for the Hawaiian surf. I’ve swum in “Dangerous Shore Advisories” up and down the west coast from Mexico to Canada, the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season, and lots in between, but the North Shore of Hawaii is not to be trifled with. There’s a good reason they say not to swim alone here, and I almost found out the hard way. 

I decided to stick to the sand for a bit, and started exploring the area. I quickly stumbled upon a massive and intricate wooden playground:

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Just past the playground I found an old jeep frame on its side.

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I wondered how someone even drove it into these trees on the beach, much less flipped it. A few days later I came back and it had been flipped over again and the engine had been picked over by scrappers.

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After a while, a surfer showed up and paddled out to where the waves were breaking. He bobbed in the swell, waiting patiently for what seemed like forever. Just when I thought it was time for him to give up, he caught a perfect break and rode 3 waves in succession, carrying him 50 yards to shore. It was so awesome that I jumped up and cheered him on as he ripped. We were the only ones on the beach, and hung out for a while on the shore. He offered me a ride into Kapa’a, the next town up.

He dropped me at a cheap local health food store and I stocked up on supplies, and walked over to a little shack with “Whateva Thrift Shop” painted sloppily across the front. There I scored a perfect pair of board shorts that I’ve worn nonstop for the past 3 weeks. There is so much getting in and out of the ocean in Kauai, that wearing anything but a swimsuit is an inconvenience. In fact, I soon realized that between the sand, the heat, and the water, shoes and shirts were an equal inconvenience. The rest of the island seemed to agree with me, as people walked freely in and out of supermarkets, restaurants, and even banks barefoot and shirtless. It was a rarity to see a woman in any article of clothing besides a bikini.

I had everything I needed, but no word from Ben yet, so I put my thumb out at the road, and was quickly picked up by an eccentric Hawaiian transplant who took me north. I was headed to the legendary North Shore, allegedly the most beautiful part of the island, and a surfing mecca the world round. Kauai has only one main road, which circumnavigates the island 75% of the way around in a big horseshoe. On the north side it dead ends at my ultimate destination, the Kalalau trail. I set my sights on the tiny town of Hanalei, simply because it was the last town before “the end of the road” as they call it.

I got to Hanalei in the dark, completely unaware of the Eden I had just stepped into. I walked to the beach and threw my towel down to sleep in the sand. I walked onto a nearby pier over the water and got this shot, which is completely untouched. Look at how bright the moon is:

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On the walk back I ran into the first of many giant Hawaiian toads.
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Not far away I met Drin, a 37 year old french traveler who was loving life. “This is my dream. To live on the beach,” she said. “I think I am doing it now!”

When I woke it only took a second to see why Drin was so ecstatic:

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Hanalei was breathtaking. This was the North Shore that everyone told me about. I walked from the beach a few blocks into town, and found what might be the coolest, tiniest town I’ve ever seen. Not only was everyone shirtless and shoeless, but there were chickens running around everywhere. No one seemed to care, and they occupied not only the roads and sidewalks, but houses, stores, and even restaurants!

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There were also these awesome little birds they would fly in and out of buildings as they pleased. You can see them above with the chickens. Hanalei’s charm fully set in when I was approached to score weed in the grocery store by a woman no younger than 70 years old.

I spent the day lazing on the beach, jumping in and out of the water on a whim, riding waves, and staring slackjawed at the amazing scenery. After the sun set, I walked to the grocery store where I found an outlet to charge my tablet and sat down with a plate of Hawaiian barbecue. A highschool aged kid walked around awkwardly and eventually worked up the courage for a classic “hey mister” (asked me to buy him liquor) and I obliged, feeling an obligation to repay the many times I had asked strangers to do the same. He ran off gleefully when I brought him back the fruit-flavored crap he requested, and I felt like a good samaritan. That feeling wouldn’t last long.

As the night wound down I made my way over to the covered pier on the water, thinking it would be a nice spot to string up my hammock. Any other night, it would’ve been, but I guess fate was against me that night. In the calm before the storm, a fellow traveler wandered up with a backpack, hammock, and the exact same idea as me. His name was JP, from Portland, and this was his second time on the island. We noticed that things were getting rowdy on the shore, and discerned that there was some sort of Hawaiian family reunion going on. Soon a drove of cars showed up and started doing donuts on the beach and partying as well. At first we thought it was all one party, but after the car people started a sketchy trash fire we realized that they were a completely separate contingent of tweakers. Before we could get to know one another any better, lo and behold, the same damn highschool kid shows up with that vodka and 30 of his idiot friends. They ran onto the pier, took mushrooms, and blared generic house music until we couldn’t take it anymore. We tried to wait them out, but eventually some fishermen showed up and that was the last straw. Having your campsite crashed by 4 separate parties in an hour is a clear case of defeat. Luckily for me, JP had rented a van and took me with him to the northernmost beach on the island, Ke’e. We set up camp for the second time, exhausted, and passed out immediately.

When we woke I realized I had strung up my hammock in the most awesome trees. The trees had grown on the beach, but the water had eroded the sandbar to expose the roots, and over time, they just continued to grow into each other in intricate formations.

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Note my backpack at the bottom for scale. These were big enough to stand under.

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The beach was amazing, but JP had big plans to surf Hanalei bay, so we headed back to town. I bookmarked this spot in my head and vowed to return.

Back at the beach JP surfed it up, and when he tired out and took a break, he let me borrow his board and I caught a few myself. I also caught a wicked case of nipple rash, and I learned why surfers wear shirts and tops even in the warmest water.

Nearby was a coconut tree that was fruiting, and apparently the locals had shown JP how to get them down. He led me to a stashed bamboo pole, and we each got one down.
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Under JP’s advisement, we threw them in his ice chest for later, and deliberated over the night’s sleeping arrangements. Neither of us wanted to risk a repeat of last night’s catastrophe, so we cruised north again. As we drove, I noticed a discreet dirt turnout, and got JP to turn around and check it out. My inquisitive nature was rewarded, because what we found turned out to be one of my favorite beaches on the island, Lumaha’i.

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The beach itself was beautiful and expansive running almost a mile down the coast.

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We walked along the trees and cliffs until our feet were raw from sand, and were rewarded.

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Near the cliff we found some chickens dining on a coconut.

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We took in the beauty for a while, and decided to set up camp before dark.

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We sat in the beach in the ocean breeze through the sunset and into the night, talking, laughing, and hanging out. JP was a really awesome guy and a one of the first travel companions I’ve met that shared my rugged sensibility completely. We were there for the same reason, and that felt good. Soon the incredibly bright and still full moon rose above and shone through the clouds suddenly, stopping us mid sentence.

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We retired, and with no tweakers and highschool kids for miles, I slept like a baby.

I woke up to the sun and stumbled onto the hot sand to find JP fiddling with our chilled prize.

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After some smashing, peeling, and precision knife work, we got the sucker open, and were able to drink the ice cold nectar inside.

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It was absolutely the best liquid to ever hit my tongue. Ice cold, clear, sweet, floral, refreshing! I couldn’t think of a better way to wake up. We shared it and before I was done, my face was covered in coconut water. After we drank it dry, we smashed it open on a rock, to get to the meat.

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Again it was worlds better than anything I had ever had at the store. The was thick, delicious, and the perfect texture. All in all, the finest breakfast I’ve ever had.
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Soon we realizes that the opposite end of the beach was a river mouth that poured into the ocean! We jumped in, and the cool water was a euphoric contrast after the warm ocean. Then, when I thought things couldn’t get any better, we found a rope swing. It was pretty low so we just climbed up the tree it was hanging from and jumped from the top! The perfect morning just kept improving.

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Soon some surfers showed up, and started ripping in the waves.
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These guys were pros, but even they got beaten a few times by the powerful waves.

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Seeing the guys thrashing made JP hungry to get back on his board, but the surf was way too gnarly and close to the rocks there so we headed back to Hanalei for another day of surfing. Here we met some Canadians who were doing pretty much the same thing as us.

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After surfing we headed to Lydgate to crash. I showed JP my spot and we had another peaceful night.

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We woke to find we were camped right next to a fellow wanderer and overall exemplary human, Nathan. This wouldn’t be the last I would see of him. More on this later.

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Behind the park, I got a beautiful shot of the countryside behind the beach:

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Kauai possesses a unique kind of beauty that mixes the rugged rock formations of the high desert with the lush, elcectic, and colorful greenery of the rainforest, with verdant pastures in between. Wet jungles teeming with life give way to perfect white-sand beaches, framed by jagged cliffs. They really have it all here: jungle, forest, rivers, ocean, beaches, waterfalls, mountains, swamps, plains, hills, farms…even a semi-arid desert on the west side. Having all of nature’s wonders condensed into a tiny island made for a breathtaking landscape, but also a deadly one. This’ll give you an idea:

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It had been almost a week, and still no word from Ben, so we decided it was time to head into the legendary Kalalau valley. The valley is extremely remote, opening directly into the ocean, and surrounded by impossibly steep mountainous and cliffs for miles on either side; the Na Pali Coast. The only way in or out was via an 11-mile hike along what I’ve learned (after the fact) is one of the most commonly fatal trails in the world.

All I knew was that Ben was there, it was beautiful, and in order to stay any satisfactory period of time, I would need much more food than could be safely carried down the trail. Ben had alluded to a local who could take in supplies on a jet ski (illegally) for a price, and had left me with the contact number of a friend on the island. However, my phone had bricked before I could retrieve it, leaving me with nothing but a vague recollection of a name….Cora? Kora? Cory? yeah, pretty sure that’s it. But how’s it spelled? my phone was done, but I still had a tablet, so I got to hunting on Facebook and after an hour or so of searching, I finally found the Corey in question. I messaged her about the food drop, and she gave me obtuse instructions that continued the wild goose chase. “Green building next to the “last chance” store, ask for Brando or Jet. Double bag your supplies in black garbage bags and duct tape it with your name.” The quest was quickly becoming ridiculous, and each further step in the process felt more like a spy movie, or a drug deal. But it was the only thing I had to go on, and nothing to lose, so why the hell not?

We went to the store, bought 15lbs of food, filled up a garbage bag and prepared it as instructed. On the way out, we met a joyous old soul named Malea that quickly struck up a conversation with us. She was easily one of the most youthful people I had ever met. JP had thrown his backpack and a bottle of wine into a shopping cart and lit up a cigarette outside. Between the cart, wine, and his beach-haggard appearance he made a pretty convincing hobo, and when I cracked a joke, Malea laughed harder, longer, and with more joy than anyone in recent memory. She was still laughing when I took this:

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JP’s rental car was due back, so we returned it and hitchhiked north, in search of “Brando and Jet.” As our luck would have it, the guy who picked us up knew the place, and within an hour we were in front of the Last Chance store. I looked to the left and saw the prophesied green building. I jumped out of the pickup bed, walked up, and knocked on the door, toting a heavy garbage bag of food, shirtless and looking like a wildman with windswept and half dreadlocked sea-hair. After a suspenseful few seconds, a grizzly old dude came out and kindly directed me to the second floor door. I walked up the stairs and knocked once again. A kind and soft spoken woman answered the door with some confusion. I asked to see Brando or Jet and she confirmed that they did live here, but were out surfing. There was a baby sleeping, so she asked me to whisper, which gave an already hilariously sketchy situation an even more illicit vibe. What the hell was I supposed to say, ” I’m here for the illegal jetski food delivery service”?! This was beginning to feel like a fool’s errand.

I chose my words carefully, and explained that I was referred here by friends to drop off some food. As soon as I dropped Corey’s name all was well, and I left her with 30 bucks and 15 pounds of camp food, with the assurance that it would be there ASAP, surf conditions allowing. I walked away and breathed a sigh of relief, eager to put this snipe hunt behind me.

JP and I quickly got another ride north, and set up on the beach of Ke’e once again. Despite our lengthy tangent, we had made it to the beach before dark with plenty of sunlight to set up camp. We sat in the sand and relaxed before what we knew would be a grueling day ahead. As the sun went down I grabbed some awesome pictures. None of these are processed in any way:

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I slept well and awoke with excitement for the perils and beauty to come . Kalalau was calling!

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