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From here, eternity

Hiking Kokee State Park may be the best way to hear Kauai's mountains.

March 18, 2007|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

Kokee State Park, Hawaii — OF course we thought about turning back, but we knew we couldn't. Never mind that the trail had gone from bad to worse and the afternoon was getting on. We were stubborn -- and hopeful.

"What's it like ahead?" we asked hikers returning to the trail head.

No one could give us the complete picture. Most had given up, discouraged by the slippery clay and the ankle-deep mud that had been with us from the start.

So we continued, burning our way up the eroded ridgeline, lifting ourselves through a maze of exposed roots, limbo-dancing beneath fallen trees and snaking up the sharply etched gullies that crisscrossed the trail.

One misstep would have led to a twisted ankle, a wrenched knee or worse: To our left was sheer free fall, an elevator chute into open space. Yet as much as our feet hurt, our legs ached, Pihea Overlook -- at 4,284 feet, the highest peak overlooking Kauai's Na Pali Coast -- lured us on.

Let others settle for more scripted entertainments -- running a zip line, cruising the coast, sipping mai tais at some seaside resort -- we had a different idea. My wife, Margie, and I wanted to escape the tourist-industrial complex. We wanted to get some red dirt in the tread of our shoes, to find a place where the ancient goddess of fire, Pele herself, was more than a twittering joke for mainlanders -- and to hear what the mountains had to say.

By the time we reached the summit, a denuded crown no larger than a pitcher's mound, we were spent. To the north lay the expansive Kalalau Valley, a complex watershed of steep fluted ridges, red cliffs, waterfalls and jungle extending 4,000 feet below us and running less than a mile and a half away to the ocean where the blue Pacific rose and fell upon the sand. To the south, as far as we could see, stretched the Alakai wilderness, the source of Kauai's seven rivers, a forested plateau riven by deep, eroded and unseen gorges, punctuated by the summits of Kawaikini and Waialeale hidden in their eternal rainstorms.

Clouds swirled around us. We had two more hours of daylight. We needed to start back, but first we paused and listened: In the midst of it all -- the gusting wind, the muted surf -- we heard a deepening silence.

It sounds crazy, I know -- the idea that these mountains might have something to say -- and when someone first mentioned it to us, we dismissed it as too New Age-y for our sensibilities.

But as we looked out from Pihea and watched the wisps of ragged clouds -- like white wraiths -- spiral in the valley below, rise up toward the sun, reveal rainbows inside their misty cores, turn silver and spectral and cyclone over the ridge into the interior, we found ourselves suddenly listening more carefully.

Two days earlier, we had left the genteel comforts of Waimea for five days in the mountains, a long time for sure to be away from the more popular destinations on the island, but we were intrigued by the prospect of exploring a corner of the state that still contained glimpses of a time some 1,500 years ago, before man stepped upon these shores.

We picked up groceries, two shave ices at Jo-Jo's and headed north on Hawaii 550. As we started to rise above the beaches and coastal headlands, a sheet of fog descended. Waimea Canyon Lookout, whose vistas are often compared to the Grand Canyon, was so socked in that we felt sorry for the Japanese visitors who posed gamely for photographs, their backs to the monotone of gray.

We continued on the winding two-lane road as it cut through patches of bamboo, stands of eucalyptus and a scattering of native koa trees. Kokee State Park sits at the top of Waimea Canyon and extends north on a narrow plateau to a ridgeline above the Na Pali Coast.

At 4,000 feet, Kokee is something of an anomaly for the Garden Isle. Here, temperatures in the winter can drop into the 40s, cabins rent for a song, trails go begging for hikers, and its vistas reach out beyond the horizon.

We had made our reservations at the Lodge at Kokee, a state-owned, concession-operated collection of housekeeping cabins near the lovely Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow in the center of the park. We had been told that the cabins were rustic, but that didn't explain the broken window, a crudely patched hole in the floor, a tapestry of peeling paint, a cracked lid on the toilet and stains in the shower. .

We asked to see another, which was slightly better than the first if you ignored a hot plate instead of a working stove and a mattress that sagged like a broken-down horse. Perhaps we should have taken our lead from the Japanese visitors at the lookout and pretended nothing was wrong, but it was more than we could take, even at $75 a night. We canceled our reservations and thought about cutting our trip short.

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