One of my retirement projects is digitizing my handwritten travel journals from the 1980s. In one respect it’s been a disappointment; re-reading the work of my youth, it shocks me what an ass I was. I’m surprised — and grateful — The Fabulous Girlfriend stuck around to become The Fabulous Wife. (Probably a lot of you are, too.)
We loved camping, and occasionally spent nights in the backcountry. In April 1986 we flew to the Big Island of Hawaii, figuring if it was dark and remote enough for the Mauna Kea telescopes, it was dark and remote enough to see Halley’s Comet in full glory. The forecast called for warm temperatures and no rain, so we decided to lighten our load by not packing our tent.
Our first night out, despite being spent at a National Park Service backcountry cabin with 14 adolescents and a teacher from the Hawaiian Academy Middle School of Waimea, went decently enough. Our second night out, not so much. What follows is my journal entry for that experience, lightly edited. If you hate camping, it will justify your opinion. If you love camping, it will bring to mind your own misadventures. Either way, please forgive the length and enjoy!
We woke up to rain Sunday morning. The kids woke up around 7, making much noise and sickening The Fabulous Girlfriend with the fumes from their gas stoves. We left the shelter at 8, buoyed by reassurances from the two oldest boys, one of whom was an experienced hiker, that as we went downhill the chance of rain would decrease. He was right; we got but one spiteful spit on the way down. But the descent from the pali [cliff] was treacherous, cairns serving as guides for direction rather than trail markers. We followed the pahoehoe [smooth lava] flows to the beach and turned left at a hilly sand dune.
Now the fun began. Exposed to the hazy sun, the heat coming off the brown/black rocks, and a wind so loud it overwhelmed our thoughts, we started to wilt. We took a long rest behind a windbreak and finished most of our water; The Fabulous Girlfriend had flavored hers with mint tea, which did a great job of hiding the taste of chlorine (added by the National Park Service) and iodine (added by us). There were, unbeknownst to us, two miles of rough trail, if occasional cairns can be so called, to go. The Fabulous Girlfriend remarked later that she got more and more depressed each time we hit a crest and spotted not a shelter but another string of cairns. She almost pooped out, and I got alarmed that our exposure might become serious if we didn’t get out of the wind and heat soon. I urged her to press on. She trudged as best she could. We hit fields of a’a [rocky lava], treacherous crossing even with fresh legs. Eventually we reached the base of a pali that slopes northward. There we sighted the shelter.
It wasn’t much. The first three feet were constructed of a’a boulders, the rest of wood. The roof sloped, and the catchment drain led to a tank set into the middle of the back wall. The one faucet was on the inside, meaning spillage wet the floor. And the open side of the shelter faced the wind, making it not much shelter at all. We were better protected sitting behind the northwest wall, which is what we did most of the afternoon. We ate, changed socks and shoes, and did our best to recover from the exhausting, joyless six-mile hike.
Nearby was a shallow little lagoon surrounded by beach morning glory, a pink-flowered vine that criss-crosses the lava. The lagoon is famous for opihi, a clam of some sort that visitors are eating into local extinction. Shells litter the shelter, and the log book is full of warnings from rangers that opihi must be 1¼ inches before they can be taken. On both our visits to the lagoon we got rained on. I took a few photos. The Fabulous Girlfriend, ever the shell-lover (comes from an inland childhood), wandered by the shore.
The trouble began when a closer read of the log book revealed the shelter was host to hordes of cockroaches, not just the German variety but two-inch-long heavyweights who don’t back down from no trouble and shake the ground with their every step. Several horror stories of roaches everywhere prompted us to look for alternate shelter. We tried covering a relatively flat spread of lava with our ground cloth, but the winds were too strong for it to stay down. So we found a another somewhat flat spot halfway between the lagoon and shelter. We brought down the ground cloth and night things and settled in, abandoning our packs to whatever predators might be about. (Earlier, a rodent or mongoose got into The Fabulous Girlfriend’s pack and ripped open the cookie bag — thankfully not the bag of chocolate cookies which, fearing we’d lose, we gorged on for dinner.) But by 6:15 there were German roaches on the ground cloth. The Fabulous Girlfriend freaked; she’s always hated roaches, at one point didn’t sleep at night in her New York apartment for two weeks out of revulsion for the critters. I freaked too, so we rashly decided to pack out.
As the sun rapidly set, we hiked as far as we could along the trail back to the pali. The wind roiled as furiously as our thoughts. When it got too dark, we found a spot next to the trail behind a mound of lava, spread the ground cloth, put out the sleeping bags, and hunkered down in the open country. Fortunately, the sky cleared and we didn’t get rained on. The winds, however, absolutely oppressed us. We passed the time reading each other short stories from the book I’d brought, and more by talking. Around midnight we both dozed off.
The wind stopped at 1:30 a.m., causing both of us to wake. Sleeping on the ground cloth, vapor can’t escape the sleeping bag. We were periodically opening our bags to the wind to stay dry. Also, the high winds protected us from insects. In the still of the night we started to sweat, and creepy-crawlies started landing on our faces. The Fabulous Girlfriend turned on a flashlight and discovered that some of the creepy-crawlies were cockroaches.
So now we were up again. The Fabulous Girlfriend switched on the light every few minutes, smashing whatever she found with the butt end of her flashlight or the book of short stories. I turned on my light and found one of the aforementioned heavyweight roaches rooting around in my hat. At sight of this The Fabulous Girlfriend began to cry. We were both miserable, but she especially so; exhausted, sore, and surrounded by acres of the most disgusting insects she could imagine, the centerpiece of our visit to Hawaii was turning into one of the worst experiences of her adult life. We talked until about 3, mostly about our families, before exhaustion overwhelmed us. No big deal; the comet, if visible, had eluded our eyes, and there was nothing else worth staying awake for.
At about 5:25 the sun’s first rays got strong enough for us to see what we were doing, so we packed up and started moving. Again, that wind. We crossed the plain, then started scaling the pali. We’d left in such a hurry last evening that we started out with less than full canteens. The rapid ascent and early sunshine now required us to drink most of our remaining water. But there was good news: the trail, often up loose a’a, was at least defined and not just a series of cairns. The Fabulous Wife, in the lead because morning is her time of day, tired as we climbed switchback after switchback; toward the top, I took the lead and The Fabulous Girlfriend bulldogged her way along, putting out that extra push one needs to accomplish difficult physical feats. I was so proud of her.
Yet we had one more obstacle. Toward the very top of the pali we got hit by winds so powerful they nearly knocked me over three times. At one point I had to sit down; other times I walked in a hunch to lower my center of gravity. This was Pele’s retribution, I suppose, for all the fun I’ve been making of the Hawaiians’ 40,000 gods. Now I understand why the natives invented gods who demanded human sacrifice: although these islands are warm, they’re no paradise to a human without technological protection. We’ll probably try again later in the week, but we’ll go prepared: Raid, Roach Motels, etc. Minimum impact camping is for Buddhists and wimps!
We didn’t try again. It rained hard for days — so hard the civil defense authorities closed the Hilo airport and issued hourly updates on road and sea conditions. Knowing we were beaten, as soon as the airport re-opened we caught a flight to Honolulu, where it wasn’t raining. We spent three days on the beach doing absolutely nothing.