The first time I had ever heard of ultralight backpacking was in 2010. I was living in Hawaii and made the decision to spend a couple of weeks backpacking on the Napali coast. It was an exciting time, my last month of the seven I had spent living on the islands. I had been working on a few farms on the Big Island and Kauai’i, with a short stint at a Mexican restaurant where I once got to serve tacos to Chuck Norris and his family. When I was done working, I wanted to wrap up my magical time on the islands in a magical way. I’d heard stories of people my age going to Hawaii to live on the beaches; eating fruit from trees and fish from the sea. I’d heard it was easy to do, and it sounded like the dreamiest dream. This dream was what brought me to Hawaii in the first place, a vision not unlike ‘Lord of the Flies,’ dancing through my head.
I had purchased all new camping gear in Boston before my trip without knowing the first thing about how to choose the right gear. I didn’t do any research and no one had helped me with my purchases (because I never asked for help). I bought things because the price tags seemed reasonable, and they said “The North Face” on them. That’s about all I knew about gear at the time; the brand names. I bought a men’s backpack that didn’t fit me at all, not to mention my complete ignorance of how to properly adjust the straps to carry the weight efficiently. As I embarked on this particular hike, I had that pack loaded to somewhere around 60-70 lbs. I could barely get it on my back, and I staggered under the weight. If you asked me to inventory that backpack today, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what I had deemed so necessary to lug it out onto a remote Hawaiian beach for a whole month. There was a whole lot of unnecessary weight and bulk on that trip that I thought very important at the time. Looking back, it amazes me how little I knew and how brave (and somewhat naive) I was to learn through trial and error the way I did. In some ways, I think I learned a lot more about gear by making the wrong choices.
My pack weighted down with all kinds of who knows what, I started on the 11 mile journey to Kalalau beach. I had not been on a real backpacking trip for many years, and this was the first time I had ever set out alone into the unknown as a hiker. I asked around but wasn’t able to conjure up a hiking buddy in time, and since my time on the island was coming to an end I had to go on my own or not go at all. It was my defining moment in many ways; the one where I was the naive young girl headed out into the unknown under the physical and metaphorical weight of an over sized men’s backpack. The one where I return having shed many physical and metaphorical layers; a metamorphosis having occurred.
On that first day out, I trudged under the weight of my pack while overlooking some of the most stunning scenery I had ever encountered. The lush tropical forests spilled out of deep, sharply carved valleys, over cliffs and into the turquoise waters of the Pacific far below the trail.
The trail wound so far above the ocean that it has been said you may never be found if you fall off. The number one piece of advice I received from people before embarking on the journey to Kalalau was to “watch your feet.” It is strongly discouraged to look at the scenery while you are walking because one bad step wouldn’t mark just the end of the hike, it was your life. I heeded this advice diligently, happy to take moments to sit down and take in the surreal beauty that was surrounding me; relieving my shoulders of the increasing pain brought on by my poor choice of a pack and its contents. Everything grew more dense and primal the farther I hiked; I felt like I was on another planet where no one else existed but me in this prehistoric land. Waterfalls cascaded over steep cliffs, splashing their way down to the sea; the water was fed by the Alakai Swamp: the highest swamp in the world fed by one of the wettest places in the world: Mount Waiʻaleʻale.
Walking back into one of the canyons, a flock of pheasant like birds ran out into the forest ahead of me. They ran in silly lines that had no real direction, much like a Family Circus cartoon. I was later to learn that these birds are called Erckel’s, and we tried to catch them for dinner one night, but that’s a different story. At the time, they were a new thing to me, and quite different from the chickens which overran the rest of the island. Back in 1992 Hurricane Iniki blew through the island setting free a housing of chickens, which are now a significant and wild population that roam around the island freely. They are mostly sweet and endearing creatures, though the male population has no concept of only crowing at sunrise; they pretty much wander around “cocka-doddle-dooing” any old time of day, everywhere on the island. I had grown rather fond of the birds as my wild neighbors, but was told they couldn’t make it out to Kalalau. The terrain is so rugged to reach this place that there is only one way in by land, and it is listed as one of America’s 10 most dangerous hikes. Even the wild boar hadn’t made it all of the way to Kalalau, and here I was under a 70 pound backpack marching solo into one of the most isolated places in America.
I reached a camp at the 6 mile marker which was fed by a large river. A couple was squatting there among the young and wild coffee trees (living illegally). I’d heard of the people I would encounter on this journey, whom some called “the outlaws.” These are people who choose to live off the grid on the Napali coast, somewhat illegally. You are supposed to carry a permit to be out there (and there was a 2 week maximum stay), but few people complied back then (I hear it’s enforced more strictly these days). They made me a cup of tea and I decided to camp nearby for the night, as my shoulders had been screaming under the weight of my pack and my knees and ankles felt like they’d been run through a trash compacter. After I set up my tent, I crawled inside feeling really alone and scared. The couple had gone to their camp which was hidden somewhere in the young forest. I was too frightened to cook my dinner, and I wasn’t all that hungry anyway. All I wanted to do was sleep because then I wouldn’t be scared anymore.
After what seemed like an eternity I eventually drifted off, but I was woken up in the middle of the night to some strange sounds. On top of heavy wind and rain, there was a lot of commotion outside of my tent; a grinding sound followed by heavy footfall and a lot of deep snorting. Boar! I could hear them rooting around for whatever it is they root for, snorting at the ground essentially right next to my head. My heart began beating so hard and fast that I could barely hear the pigs over my own heartbeat.
Thump-thump-thump went my heart.
Root-snort-root went the pigs.
I was terrified as I crouched into a ball in my sleeping bag, rocking back and forth. I was so uncertain of what to do. Would they tear into my tent smelling my food? Would they come after me? I sat that way for the rest of the night, long after the boar had moved their party elsewhere. In the morning I was fifty shades of worn out and I still hadn’t eaten anything. I managed a handful of trail mix as I packed away my overflowing pack before walking the next 5 miles to my destination.
One mile after camp is a notorious section of the trail known as “crawler’s ledge.” It is part of what makes the trail so dangerous, and it isn’t a joke. I considered turning around as it had been raining and the thick red mud of Kauai’i was caking onto my hiking shoes. The trail was less than a foot wide, it was slick and the wind was picking up at a fierce rate. The muddy slopes plummeted down into the stormy sea below, leaving no room for error. I had a light tarp over the back of my pack to keep it dry in the rain, and the wind whipped through and ripped one of the ties loose, creating a parachute effect. I felt myself suddenly pulled back by the force of the wind, my pack yanking me towards the ocean and away from the mountain.
Instinctively, I fell to my knees. I felt more secure on the ground, and there was not sufficient space for me to readjust the tarp until I had walked a bit farther up trail. It was flapping wildly in the wind, blowing over my head and face so I couldn’t see anything and there was little I could do to stop it. On my hands and knees my pack wanted to shift forward, up and over my head, pushing me into the wet ground. I was struggling under the weight, emulating an awkward turtle at best, wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. I was not experienced enough for this. Yet here I was, doing it.
Wrestling under the weight of my pack I grabbed the side of the mountain. Wet earth slid between my fingers as I clamped onto the sticky red mud and got back to my feet. I leaned heavily into the cliff side and took tiny steps around the bend into a small valley where the wind was temporarily at bay. I took a lot of deep breaths as I unmounted my pack and tied the tarp down tighter. As much as I wanted to turn around and admit defeat at this point, the last thing I wanted to do was face that section of trail again. I had to keep going.
The trail after this was pretty muddy and slick until the 10th mile where I faced a large river. Since it had been raining on the trail, it is well known that it was dumping buckets up on Wai’ale’ale, which was feeding the Alakai swamp, which was feeding this river. It was high water and I knew I had to cross, but with my compressed knees and ankles I had zero confidence in my ability to safely maneuver my way across the rocks. The water was moving too swiftly for me to simply walk through, and every bit of stamina I had simply vanished. I fell to my knees for the second time that day and this time I cried. I cried big, wet frightened tears. Where was I? Why was I here? What was I doing? Will I ever make it home?
Somehow sanity took over for a moment and I remembered something. Wasn’t there supposed to be a rope crossing upstream somewhere? I thought I’d read that, and it being my only option I decided to investigate. I looked ahead and saw what I thought was a rope and I felt a little silly for all of the theatrics. Of course there was a rope.
I made my way upstream, though unable to find a trail I had to do some bushwhacking. The Hao bushes were grown in thick brambles on the banks of the river, so my pack and I were constantly struggling to get through the brush. This is a very fertile place and wild plants are opportunistic in this environment, taking over every bit of land they can cover. I struggled to get through the dense growth and when I came out on the other side there was only more rushing water. No rope. But, I saw a rope. Didn’t I?
I cried again. This time almost desperately. I felt so beaten, so broken, so lost, scared and exhausted (I still hadn’t eaten). I cried until I was empty. There was nothing left to feel after a cry like that, it was the first time in my life where my mortality came into question. I was in a situation that was truly life or death, and I had to face it. Alone.
So I did. I took my empty vessel of a self, compressed knees and all, and I stood up. I faced that river and realized that where I thought I’d seen the rope was actually shallow enough to walk across. So I took off my shoes and walked right through the water.
When I finally made it to Kalalau beach, I sat down under a lemon tree and stared at the ocean. The blue waves were crashing onto the rocks on the shore, the clouds from the storm were lifting and the sun was shining a tropical glow over everything. The mountains soared above the beach, tall monoliths overlooking everything, shielding us from the rest of the island.
Mountains so fiercely steep and unstable that no one has navigated over them; the only way to get here is to walk the cliffs and valleys along the coast (or take a boat). To sit there after a challenging walk like that, to look at the raw and primitive beauty that is Kauai’i – untouched by hotels, restaurants and shops; it is a feeling of pure freedom. It is a feeling of having found one of the planet’s hidden secrets, to know you’ve come somewhere that few ever venture and even fewer get to stay.
I stayed on that beach for 28 days having made friends with some of the folks living out there (some had lived there for over a decade). Together, we had many potlucks in a communal area of the forest, made wine from wild fruit, had amazing moonlit group meditations, sang songs around fires, learned how to weave baskets from the supple woods that grew by the river, had yoga sessions in sea caves; I did my first cartwheel in years on the beach, falling into the ocean in a fit of laughter. A couple of guys would occasionally catch wild goat and we ate them in stew; some of the guys used the skin to make heads for their drums.
We made pizza over campfires and shared it with everyone; we accepted everyone, we were a family. I developed a close friendship with a man named Biff: an ex rodeo cowboy who grew a secret seaside garden and baked cakes over the campfire.
Biff showed me the ropes of survival: how to collect dead wood from trees for fires, how different types of wood burned differently, which plants we could eat, the flowers we could add to the salads we made from foraging through his secret garden and the wild garden that was Hawaii; he taught me how to walk through the woods with bare feet, how to make wine from lilikoi, to hang a tarp, climb an orange tree, catch prawns in the river at night and how to cook them over the fire (they were delicious):
I learned a lot on this trip, including how little I really need to survive. I probably only used 20 lbs of the 60-70 I carried in there (most of it was food), and ended up shedding some weight in the process. At one point I traded my tent for 2 weeks worth of food to a guy named “Nasty Nate” because I didn’t need the tent in the end; I didn’t need any of it. All I ever needed were the skills I had learned, the skills that continue to show me how much potential I have, even 5 years later. That heavy tent was a great place to live when I needed the shelter but by the end, I was sleeping in a hammock on the beach and eating pancakes for breakfast with real maple syrup, a cup of steaming coffee always near; goat stew and red wine on the beach for dinner. None of those things are things I carried in there with me. I learned that ultralight isn’t just about the gear, it’s about accepting that you can do so much more with less, and things have a funny way of working themselves out if you let them. I never went without anything, and always ended up with more than I needed. In the end, everything I ever really needed was in me the whole time, and seeing that made everything possible. I suddenly felt ultralight.
There is a saying in Kalalau for when you are parting company with a friend or stranger: “I’ll see you in the flow,” they say. It’s meant to show surrender to the natural order of things, to not be chained to a schedule of events, to not know when you’ll see someone again but that you will when the time is right.
No one says goodbye.