Kalaupapa view

I realize I’ve only been doing book posts for a while, which may make it seem like I’ve been slacking on my other goals for the year. That’s not totally true (though also not totally untrue). But I have done some cool stuff that I haven’t written about. I think I’ve been procrastinating this particular post, because I still haven’t totally processed the experience. So this will be pretty descriptive rather than meditative.

Kalaupapa is on the island of Moloka`i. It was a Hawaiian settlement, then a “leper colony” — a place where people were ripped away from their families and forced to live because they had contracted what is now properly called Hansen’s disease. It is now a US National Park.

Modern medicine has a cure for Hansen’s disease, and the forced isolation ended in 1969, before I was even born. A (very) few patients remain in residence there; they are quite old and were brought to Kalaupapa as children. Though some of them travel a fair bit now, many of them remain based in the tiny and remote valley because they never really knew any other home.

Warning Sign

Out of respect for the privacy of the remaining patients (who have had their privacy invaded enough for several lifetimes, really), tourists are not allowed into the valley without special permission. There are day tours (through a business owned by one of the patients). We were allowed to hike down because we were sponsored by one of the National Parks Service employees for a weekend stay. We were there to work and to learn.

The hike down is a bit more than three miles on a trail designed for mules. Yes, mules. They have four legs and are much more sure-footed than the average human. They can also, apparently, take pretty big steps (vertically speaking), prefer a weird concrete latticework to either gravel or dirt, and don’t mind walking through large piles of mule poop.

Mule Trail

Luckily, the mules were ending their day trip right as we were starting our hike down. So we just waited for them to come out, and we didn’t have to worry about passing them on the narrow, steep, swtichback-y, and slippery trail. It took me an embarrassingly long time to get down the trail (though I was not, quite, the last person down). I started having weird dizzy spells, which made me go slow and take frequent rests. I’ve always had more trouble hiking downhill compared to up. I thought it was because usually you go up then down on a hike, so you’re going down when you’re already tired. But I wonder if I have a touch of vertigo or something that just makes the downhill more difficult even if you don’t go up first? It’s also possible I was having low blood sugar. When I’m working out, I get very un-hungry, like I don’t want food at all and think I might puke if I eat some. Maybe I need to carry little energy drinks or something to keep the blood sugar up without eating? Anyway, I did (finally!) make it down.

I wish I had taken pictures of the black sand beach at the bottom of the trail, but I was so happy to finally be there that I just ripped my clothes off and jumped in the water for as long as I was allowed to stay. (We had to hike a bit farther to the “road,” where our sponsor piled us into a couple of trucks for the ride to town.) But imagine: the most beautiful, pristine black sand beach in Hawaii, and no one there except you a few of your closest friends. It was like that.

Friday night was meeting our hosts, eating our dinner, and stargazing until we couldn’t stay awake any longer, which was much later for some folks than it was for me. I’ve never seen stars as clearly and beautifully as on Molokai. The Milky Way was just right there, you know?

Cleared Field

Saturday was our work day. We donned sun protection and work gloves, and cleared off the field you see above. Except it’s not a field, of course, because this is Kalaupapa. It’s a mass grave. That whole side of the valley, pretty much, is mass graves. There were times when they were burying five people a day. It’s really just too much to think about… Anyway, we cleared the place out as well as we could in the morning, had a tour in the afternoon, and then a swim off the pier before dinner.


It had rained on and off all day Saturday, but Saturday night it poured. Torrential downpours. The picture above was taken from the porch of our house during the stay; that waterfall had not been there the night before. And there were several others like it on the cliff walls, all brand new from the rains. I wasn’t sure where they sat in relation to where our hike out was, but I was feeling less than confident.

Everyone had told me the hike up was easier than the hike down and would be quicker, but I really didn’t see how that was possible. I’ve never been on any hike where you go up faster than down. But sure enough, I felt pretty good through most of the hike up, much much better than down. I finished it maybe an hour faster as well. It rained on and off on the hike out, but the trail wasn’t bad at all. In fact, the rain seemed to have washed away a lot of the slippery mule poop, yet didn’t leave things too muddy. And since it was overcast, it wasn’t as brutally hot as it might have been.

Towards the end of the hike up, I was plagued by some pain in the big toe on my right foot. It had been hurt a little on the way down, but nothing too bad. I put some moleskin on it to protect it, but that was probably actually the wrong thing to do because it made the boot fit too tight. By the time I got to the top, my toenail was in pretty bad shape, and a few days later it did finally fall off.

No toenail!

Sorry. That’s gross, I know. But I’ve got to look at it every day, so you can deal with it just this once, right? I did feel a little better knowing that my mantra of “Oh! My toe! Oh! My toe!” on every downslope was not too much of an exaggeration. (My friend Laura was infinitely patient and funny while hiking with me, especially there towards the end.)

I wish I had trained harder for this hike. I’m glad I did it, but I wish I had done it better, faster, and without the dizziness and toe pain. I’ll definitely need to take the training a bit more seriously if I’m going to hike the Na Pali Coast next summer!

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