Day 2: I move mountains

Last night, I arrived back to my guest suite at 7:30pm.  I took a shower.  I really needed it.  My legs were caked with mud in spots.  My hair hadn’t been washed for four days and was stiff from the salt water.  I was exhausted but it was the best kind of tired—the physical tired that comes from doing the things I love. 

This morning I woke to a dream of me riding around a shopping mall on a Jazzy scooter.  I was getting around okay but I kept getting out of the scooter to do things, which I worried was making me look like I didn’t need the scooter to those around me.  I met my dad at a restaurant which was all lifted up one step. So I parked the Jazzy and walked the few steps into the restaurant where we sat on the floor.  Dreams are so weird.  Maybe it was a reflection about my perception of my own struggle. My legs work but I need the Jazzy scooter for a little while….

When I planned this trip, I had a vision of loping on horseback across the grassy hillside of an extinct volcano, which leads me to yesterday so let me transport you back there. 

I drive to the top of Kohala, the first volcano of the Big Island, and meet my party of fellow horse enthusiasts.  I learn that one must be quite interested in horses to sign up for a 2.5 hour range ride on a bright, sunny day in Hawaii, because they all have more riding experience than I.  There is a couple from Chicago who had relocated to western Washington near the San Juan Islands and bought a 900 slip marina when he tired of his mechanical engineering business.  There is a couple from Texas, the man is in the Air Force and he and his wife have left their two-year-old daughter home for the first time.  And there are a couple of teenage girls from Brisbane, Australia who have little to say but what they do say is packaged in their lovely accent.  Both of our guides relocated here from Montana.  One of them lived in Colorado, not far from where I grew up.  

Then I meet Palū.  Palū is a medium-sized brown horse (I’m not one to know horse breeds, so brown will have to do).  His name is the Hawaiian word for blue, which was given because of his striking blue eyes.  Palū has a mild enthusiasm for the trail. He understands his gig, takes a little pleasure in messing with the other horses and moves gracefully across the plush terrain.  Palū and I walked and cantered around lush cattle pastures in the bright morning sunlight.  From the top of the mountain, all the earth falls away in a gentle slope until it meets sea, which looks like a blanket of blue stretched to the horizon from this height.  Small cones mound up on the hillside, reminders of the genesis of this place.  Haleakala is visible across the channel from beach to peak on this incredibly clear day.  The rich green grass is dotted with clover and tiny, yellow wildflowers.  

This land is a working ranch so we make our way through the pastures, pausing to open gates of electric fence.  We pass the calves born last fall, their coast still slightly curly.  We canter for a stretch through the cow pasture, the sedate cows watching us with mild enjoyment as they shoo flies with their tails.  We pass through the bull pen and I conclude that all the livestock up here are relaxed and well-fed with a killer view.

I think the reason I’m so fond of the Big Island is that it is the Wyoming of the Hawaiian islands.  There are big expanses of open land, cattle ranches, a looming volcano over on one side and lots of small towns on two-lane highways with a 25mph speed limit.  Driving along the Kona side gives me the same feeling of crossing the plains of Wyoming with the sky and land stretched out infinitely.

I head down the mountain to Kapaau for a quick bite and then to Pololu Valley.  This valley is six valleys over from Waipio, where I’m staying, but it takes 90 minutes to drive here.  The trail down into the valley is busy.  I consider that this is the closest North Shore verdant valley experience for people staying on the Kona side.  There are a surprising number of people on the rough and steep trail with canes, not tracking poles, but actual canes.  The hike is short, which I guess entices people, but it is also rugged.  The valley, at its rear, has a small lake that contains muddy, brackish water.  The stillness of the lake is juxtaposed against the north shore surf, which is ripping today.  I get to the beach and strip down to my swimsuit.  I’m anxious to cool off in the water and like the look of the waves enough to wade in a little bit.  I get out to my waist and feel the current pushing and the pulling so intensely that it’s rolling softball sized lava rock around my feet.  As the water is sucked out it pulls all of the sand from beneath me so that I have to step to keep my footing.  I stand in the water for about ten minutes letting it push and pull me.  A surge comes in that is deep enough for me drop in over my head.  

I settle down onto a fallen tree and watch my fellow tourists take pictures and wade in.  I start to feel lonely—the main risk of solo travel.  Everyone seems to have someone except me.  I pick up my book and read for a while.  I’m tired, but I decide motion is better than stagnation in this moment.  So I put on my earbuds with Brandi Carlile and take off on the trail that leads up and over into the next canyon.  I’m wearing only my bikini.  I’ve hiked this way a few times, while there is some protection that a t-shirt and shorts offers, in this setting it feels superfluous.  The trail is almost immediately a thick mass of mud and leaves.  The climb and the slippery feeling of the mud, the music, it all brings me back to life.  I’m not sure how far I will go.  I don’t know how long the trail is.  I’m not sure if there is anyone in front of or behind me.  And all of that feels perfect in this moment.  The tangle of photosynthesis, decomposition and erosion is a metaphor for my emerging soul.

I reach the top of the neighboring canyon and I’m greeted with a view of another black sand beach, far below.  The sun is burning through some thin clouds on the mauka (mountain) side.  Two pharmacists sit on a bench—a bench?—yes, a bench.  There is a full-size, manufactured park bench at the top of this ridge.  They are the most delightful and conversational people I’ve met all day.  We chat for a minute about the need for mental health prescribers (conversation sparked when they ask what I do).  They are turning back for the parking lot.  I decide to do the same but I let them leave first.  I’m enjoying my solitude now.  The man says he will be glad to know I’m behind them incase they need medical attention on the trail.  “I only treat from the neck up!” I joke.  He likes my silly, rehearsed response. I feel seen for a minute.  That’s all I needed.  I snap some funny pics from this perch.  And then I turn around.  I put on a podcast, ready to use that part of my brain, and let it play as I navigate the thick mud, which seems even more slippery on the descent.  The podcast is about the use of hallucinogens in mental health.  It’s compelling.     

When I get back to the car I put the top down and play “Mountains” by LSD (Labrynth, Sia and Diplo)—seems fitting. I stop for a scoop of amazing passion fruit sorbet from a little roadside cafe before I make the 90 minute drive back up and over Kohala to Wapio.  Pololu and Waipio Valleys are only about 9 miles from each other as the crow flies.  I think about mountains, how the earth is constantly under renovation.  I am too. 

“If peace comes from seeing the whole, then misery stems from a loss of perspective.

We begin so aware and grateful. The sun somehow hangs there in the sky. The little bird sings. The miracle of life just happens. Then we stub our toe, and in that moment of pain, the whole world is reduced to our poor little toe. Now, for a day or two, it is difficult to walk. With every step, we are reminded of our poor little toe.

Our vigilance becomes: Which defines our day—the pinch we feel in walking on a bruised toe, or the miracle still happening?

It is the giving over to smallness that opens us to misery. In truth, we begin taking nothing for granted, grateful that we have enough to eat, that we are well enough to eat. But somehow, through the living of our days, our focus narrows like a camera that shutters down, cropping out the horizon, and one day we’re miffed at a diner because the eggs are runny or the hash isn’t seasoned just the way we like.

When we narrow our focus, the problem seems everything. We forget when we were lonely, dreaming of a partner. We forget first beholding the beauty of another. We forget the comfort of first being seen and held and heard. When our view shuts down, we’re up in the night annoyed by the way our lover pulls the covers or leaves the dishes in the sink without soaking them first.

In actuality, misery is a moment of suffering allowed to become everything. So, when feeling miserable, we must look wider than what hurts. When feeling a splinter, we must, while trying to remove it, remember there is a body that is not splinter, and a spirit that is not splinter, and a world that is not splinter.” 

Mark Nepo, Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to Live the Life You Have