The Hikers’ Credo: Six hours in the Honolulu highlands

The Manoa Falls hike started at Ala Moana Mall. We boarded the number 5 bus and were transported through one of Honolulu’s swankiest subdivisions. Behind the cubic “Hawaii 5-O” era homes, grey clouds hung low, creeping across deep green hills, shrouding them in heavy mist, the air humid and stagnant, but perfumed with tropical flowers. When we reached the edge of suburbia, the bus driver instructed us to keep walking up the road and we would see the trailhead. After battling crowds at Diamond Head and Hunauma Bay, my wife, Julia, and I were really in the mood for solitude, and we found it, five minutes into the hike, where the remnants of Honolulu faded and we were immersed in dense, moist rainforest; the vegetation was unfamiliar and the birds called uniquely foreign tunes.

We hiked along the path and greeted several others walking back towards civilization. We were told the hikers’ credo was to acknowledge everyone you meet because, should you get into trouble, you may need their help. Of course, this was Honolulu, Hawaii, so surely no help would be needed. We continued along the path, through ferns, thick vines and broad-leafed tropical foliage then arrived at a bamboo forest of thick hard stalks, crested by grassy leaves. Bamboo grows so close together that it blocks most of the sunlight, and the hollow stalks “clack” harshly in the faintest breeze, giving a feeling of awe and terror.

“This is totally Blair Witch!” I kept telling Julia.

We trudged through the bamboo then back into a rock valley where we finally saw Manoa Falls. About a dozen people were at the falls, with several in the pool at the base of the falls despite the obvious warning signs about a deadly parasite that haunts most of Hawaii’s freshwater streams. Two young girls inched into the ice-cold water, prompted by their parents:

“Go in the falls so Daddy can take a picture of you,” said their platinum-haired Mom.

To one side, a group of college students were building a dam with rocks they found at the base of the falls. One girl asked critically what they were doing and one answered, “We’re trying to make it deeper.” I was incensed at what I saw; I could not help but think this spectacle was so typical of our attitude towards nature. We cannot simply enjoy the beauty of nature as it is, we must alter, destroy, or use it for personal pleasure.  Most waterfalls are still considered sacred to native Hawaiians and here we were witnessing more colonial defilement, another insult to proud Hawaiian culture. We quickly took a picture of the falls then I turned around and told Julia about another trail mentioned in Lonely Planet.  It was supposed to offer a breathtaking panorama of the Manoa Valley and was only 15 minutes away. We found the trail a few meters from the falls and headed up. It was rocky and steep but I was determined to find nature, without human contact, and this trail seemed lush and uninhabited, but barely two minutes into the hike we passed another couple heading back towards the falls. We asked them what they had seen.

“We heard there was a lookout or something,” the man said, “but we have been hiking for 45 minutes and we haven’t seen a thing. We finally turned around and came back.”

I reasoned this flip flop-clad couple was in over their heads. Maybe they walked right past the lookout or were just slow walkers. I opened Lonely Planet again and read it out loud to Julia:

“About 75 feet before Manoa Falls, an inconspicuous trail starts to the left of the chain‑link fence. This is the Aihualama Trail, well worth a little side trip. Just a short way up and you will get a broad view of Manoa Valley.”

“See,” I assured Julia. “I don’t know what they’re talking about. It says a 15-minute side trip.”

We hiked on.

After 45 minutes, we were out in the middle of nowhere, still hiking, and still searching for some kind of lookout. We hadn’t seen anybody in over half an hour, noon was encroaching and we pondered whether to turn back.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “This trail was supposed to be 15 minutes and it seems to just keep going. Let’s give it another 15 minutes and see what happens. I hate to have gone this far for nothing.”

Julia grudgingly agreed and we kept going, negotiating arduous switchbacks up the side of a mountain until, finally, an hour and a half into our hike, we approached three guys at a junction and asked them where we were.

The older man pulled out a hiking book and we compared maps.

“You are right here,” he said, pointing to what looked to be a random spot on the map. “The lookout is up that way or you can take one of three ways down. Either you go down the way you came, head off that way to Puu Ohia Trail, or go down to the highway over there on Nuuanu Trail. We are going up to the lookout; it’s only five minutes, so you may as well follow us.”

We thought for second, weighed our options, and decided we had come this far so we should at least get to the lookout. These guys also seemed to know their way around.

We formally introduced ourselves; their names were Paul (the guy with the map), Steve and Alex. Paul moved to Hawaii about 7 years earlier to work for the army, testing soldiers for drug use. Alex, Paul’s assistant, was a native Hawaiian, and had lived in Hawaii his whole life. He was starting a program in athletic therapy at the University of Hawaii. Steve, Alex’s cousin, was a former Marine and a vigorous amateur botanist. All had hiked these hills before and we were confident they could get us down safely, but not one minute into the hike, Paul lost his footing on a short ledge and fell on his back, covering his knapsack and ass in thick, pasty, reddish‑brown clay.

Alex and Steve broke out in laughter.

“That’s gonna stain!” Alex said.

Julia and I glanced at each other with mild concern, but Paul picked himself up and with a loud “SHIT!” we carried on.

We hiked the short distance up to a clearing and were greeted by the splendor of jagged mountain peaks and lush valley below. Off in the distance stood monoliths of skyscrapers in downtown Honolulu, and beyond them, the turquoise ocean receded into infinity. We stood in silence. Steve pulled a vile from his pocket, uncapped it, poured a few black seeds into his hand then tossed them as far as he could.

“These are seeds of native Hawaiian plants,” he said, pulling out another vile and spreading them like the first.

“When the English came to Hawaii, they brought plants from around the world. Most of the plants you see in the valleys below are from Asia, Africa, or South America. These plants have flourished while the indigenous flora of Hawaii is almost extinct. The only place you will see these native plants is in botanical gardens or out on a hike like this.”

After spreading the final seeds, he said humbly: “Everywhere I go, I try to re‑introduce these plants; it’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.”

There was a brief pause as we pondered Steve’s impromptu lecture.

“Who wants chips?” Paul blurted. “Or how about granola bars; I brought granola bars.”

“Mmmmff, harrrumff, munch, (burp).”

We sat atop the peak for twenty minutes, taking in the surroundings, eating, and running through our life histories. Paul told us how he was from Chicago and jumped at the opportunity to move to Hawaii, never looking back.

“Why don’t you settle here?” he told us. “It’s nothing like the mainland. There is very little crime and poverty; life moves nice and slow, and we are very protective of the environment as well as the economy.  Prunes anyone?”

He continued: “The economy has been flat for a decade; the Asian economic crisis has severely hampered investment and tourism from the west while the Mexican paradises like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have really hurt tourism from the mainland. Our cash crops like pineapple, coffee, and papaya are being produced in Asia for much cheaper. The military keeps things afloat here and, luckily for me, that won’t change any time soon.”

Alex told us about his dream to be an athletic therapist, working for a major league football team.

“I have a major entrance exam coming up,” he said. “I should be home studying, but I wanted to come to the mountains today, relax, and get away from the books for a while. When I was younger, I used to climb these hills all the time, but this is my first time back in a long time.”

“Yeah,” said Steve, “me too, I haven’t hiked here for a year or more.”

Steve was a few credits shy of being accepted into the graduate botany department at U of H, but felt school was unnecessary.

“I have been collecting specimens of plants in these hills ever since I was a little kid,” he said. “I know everything about this environment; I don’t need to go to school and learn what I already know.”

“Yeah,” offered Paul. “I would pit Steve’s knowledge of these hills against anyone at U of H, student or professor.”

After the food was gone, Julia and I got up and told our new friends we decided to just go back down the way we came. It seemed the most logical because we knew where to catch the bus and we knew the general lay of the land. We thanked them for their guidance and for their company, then as we stood up to leave, Paul said, “Look, I have to drive Alex and Steve back to their cars at the Manoa trailhead anyway, so why don’t you come down the Nuuanu Trail with us, stop at my place for a beer, then I will give you guys a ride back to your hotel.”

Hmm, we thought briefly: go with them, get free beer, a ride back to the hotel, or lurch back down, wait for the bus, no beer until the hotel… “Okay, I guess we could go with you guys.”

We started back down at a vigorous pace, turning towards the Nuuanu trail with Steve and Paul in front, Julia, Alex, and I bringing up the rear. As we walked, Paul relayed a story about the time he got lost on the Nuuanu trail:

“I was out here for hours; it was my first time. It started getting dark and I was literally walking on all fours when I found my way out.”

“Oh, this is a good sign.” Julia said sarcastically.

“Oh don’t worry, I have been here a couple times since, but it is not uncommon for people to disappear out here on these trails.”

“Yeah,” interrupted Alex. “A couple hikers went missing just recently; there are several deaths every year.”

“Well, that’s because they’re stupid,” interrupted Steve. “They come out here by themselves and don’t give themselves enough daylight to get back. They go off the trail to take a better picture and fall of a cliff. Look, we’re walking along a ridge right now, take three steps in either direction and it’s a thousand feet straight down. That’s the problem, with all the foliage, you cannot see the cliff edge.”

I looked at Julia and we instantly realized we were walking across a thin sliver of rock, a razor’s edge in geological magnitude.

“Well,” I said, my voice suddenly quivering, “maybe we should talk about what happens in the event of fall?”

Steve laughed, “You will disappear too, then be reclaimed by the forest. If not, do what you can, slide instead of roll, put your arms and legs out and take a tree in the crotch. It won’t be pretty, but it may save your life.”

We walked in silence for a few minutes, everyone being careful to step firmly, gingerly trotting down the switchbacks like ants along a stem, each watching where the other placed a foot, stepping where they stepped, grabbing where they grabbed.

After 45 minutes of purposeful descent, we emerged into a grove of fir trees and instantly felt transported back to Canada. They were massive, several hundred feet tall, stretching as far as we could see: fir trees, in Hawaii?

“They were planted in the early 20th century by the landowner,” Steve said. “His name was Judd. I don’t know much about him, but these trees reminded him of northern California. It’s another example of foreign, invasive species.”

We walked through the grove, completely surrounded by fir trees and a damp, cool, woodland smell reminiscent of the Canadian Shield. The trail disappeared under a thick mat of brown needles and we became disoriented.

“Now I remember this place,” Paul said. “This is where I get lost.”

“Well, this is just great,” I replied. “Now we’re lost.”

Alex, who was in the lead, started walking randomly in a direction, “I am going this way; I think this is right.”

“Guys,” Julia said quietly.

“No,” Paul urged. “I think you’re going the wrong way, Alex, it’s over here.”

“Ah, guys.” Julia again tried to interject.

Steve headed off in another direction, looking intensely at the ground, then called back: “If you look closely at the needles, you will see they are not as dense on the path area, this should be an indicator as to where…”

“Guys,” Julia said forcefully. “Maybe we should follow this arrow on the tree.”

“Arrow? Oh, hey, trail’s this way.” Paul said.

After two more hours, we arrived at a road, exhausted, then paused for photographs with our hiking friends. From there, it was a short walk to Paul’s one bedroom flat. We kicked off our boots, and welcomed a lovely cold beer. Forty-five minutes later, we dropped Alex and Steve back at their cars, which were the two of the vehicles parked at the trailhead that we saw about six hours earlier. We bid them a fond farewell, knowing we would never see each other again.  Yet we all shared, ever so briefly, the same holiday. They too, will tell similar stories about the Manoa Valley hike with that Canadian couple.  We now understood the hikers’ credo, because you never know when you’ll need a cold beer and ride back to your hotel.

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