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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