Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fear and philosophizing on the Kalalau Trail

So there I was, standing on a foot-wide section of gravelly trail etched into the side of crumbling cliffside that fell several hundred feet below my muddy shoes to the pounding Pacific surf. To fall would be to die. And I couldn't help but question if this was such a good idea after all.

It wasn't me -- it was the kids I was wondering about. My wife and I were there with our own two teens, and two of our friends and their two kids. We were headed out for five days on the Kalalau Trail, along the Na Pali Coast, on the north shore of Kauai. The 11-mile hike is rated by Backpacker Magazine as one of the best hikes in the world – and one of the ten most dangerous in the U.S. The Sierra Club rates it a 10 on it's 1-10 hiking difficulty scale.

And now I understood why.

The Kalalau Trail is every bit as amazing as advertised. The ancient footpath runs along the verdant and sheer curtain-like north coast of the island of Kauai – now protected as Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. It climbs (well, you climb) up and down around sharp-edged ridgelines, and down into and out of narrow stream-carved and waterfall-fed gorges – where the frequent rains can make the stream crossings sometimes an adventure, and sometimes downright dangerous. Even though the trail begins and ends, of course, at sea level, you gain (and lose) more than 5,000 feet over the trail's length.

The views and landscape, though, are truly staggering : Long looks along the vertical and wave-battered coastline; broad backdrops of waterfall-draped cliff faces; cave-like passages through rainforest interspersed with those butt-puckering exposures over the bouldery surf.

Carve through all that an often narrow, sometimes fragile trail across steep, wet clay soils and along stretches of active mass-wasting – where the loose volcanic soils are working hard to return home to the sea – and you have a trail every bit as nerve-wracking as warned.

So why put our kids – never mind ourselves – into such situations?

Well, one main reason: The trail ends at the Kalalau Valley, where millennia-old terraced landscapes are still employed by secretive, interesting (and sometimes creepy) back-to-the-landers (think: these could well be the folks who inspired "The Others" on the TV show Lost), and the valley opening is lined by a beautiful, broad swath of idyllic beach. (See the slideshow below for more.) And all that was there just for those willing to do the work, and take the risks, required to walk there – less than a dozen others when we were there.

So there's a lesson here we want to pass on to our kids, one I might steal from the backcountry skiers' mantra: Earn your turns. Because places (and things) that are hard to get to (or do) can offer great rewards – and those great rewards are greatly magnified by the labor and risk involved in getting there. And, importantly, that the getting there itself, the doing itself, the challenges and risks themselves, are also great rewards.

And, really, isn't that one of the reasons – or the reason -- we live where we do, here in the San Juan Country? Think: Avalanches just this winter, even at ski areas, that have caught and killed people. Think: Rafting. Backpacking. Biking. Hunting. Even just driving a car around here. Hell, my son was on this trip with a full arm cast, the product of his skateboarding addiction. (Which, in all fairness – or karma -- he has passed on to me. Read about that here.)

Risk. Danger. Hard work. Earn your turns. That, in my mind, is why we live the way we do. Why we live where we do.

And in my mind is perhaps the best lesson we can pass on to our kids. One that's worth the risk.



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