The Labyrinth: Discovering Kauai’s Waimea Canyon
by Katie Twaddle
We travel in a red jeep. The top is always off, and I hold onto the roof bar so tight my knuckles turn white. I’m heading up to Waimea Canyon with my friends, Ben and Connie. When I feel like exploring, they are the people I call because they always manage to find places I never even imagined existed. We drive up Highway 552 (the Kekaha side), where each turn is sharper than the last and nobody goes the legal 25 mph. Just before the first lookout, we stop dead center in the road, a tradition of ours. We exit the Jeep: about 5 feet over to the right there’s a short metal railing and then a 3,000 foot drop. Six months ago there was probably about 15 more feet of red ground past the railing before erosion took it down. In Waimea Canyon, it’s impossible to tell which cliffside will crumble next. I take a quick look down, and then out at the expanse, wondering which edge of the Kokee State Park we will be exploring today.
We continue on, and when we reach the Kokee State Park’s museum and café, we stop to grab a map. Even though Ben and his wife Connie have been to the Canyon probably a thousand times, we still aren’t sure exactly where we’re headed today. A place called Mohihi Falls is on the agenda, but finding it is going to be a challenge. Before I know it, we’re on some dirt road I’ve never seen before: Mohihi Road, of course. The road has potholes as deep as the tires on the jeep. We find this out the hard way. It’s recently rained; we can tell because the potholes are filled with red and brown muddy water that nearly splashes into my lap when we drive through them. We jump out and use a stick to measure the depth of the small craters before continuing. We drive until I’m not even sure we’re on a road. We cross a rocky riverbed, and as we’re crossing, I hold my breath and hope flash flooding doesn’t become an issue today. Once up the next muddy hill, we stop at a lush grassy knoll, somewhere in the middle of the canyon. I’m surprised to find out it’s the start to a very popular trail called Alakai Swamp. There is a bathroom and a picnic table, not to mention a breathtaking view, but this isn’t where we are going.
We continue down a road that seemed to show up out of nowhere. After a while, the grass is higher and the trees lower. The gray limbs of the trees fall over onto the road as we drive past. For a few brief moments, we all consider that we might be on a pig-hunting trail. It twists and turns until we finally reach a clearing, only to continue onto another small road hidden by the low-lying trees. We consider we might be lost until we see a big blue truck sitting in a clearing. We jump down from the jeep to find our boundaries. The cliff is close to our left, and through the thick thorny brush, we come to the edge. There is a ridge ahead, jutting out into the wide canyon. The ridge is thin, and short. It looks scary as hell, but we can’t pass this kind of thing up. We have to see what is at the end. We have the desire to know every trail, every twist and turn, every ridge, and every crumbly cliff edge.
The smell of ginger root fills the air as we start walking on the ridge. On either side of me the canyon is vast, and deep, farther than I am ready to see. I look ahead and tiptoe carefully, as not to disturb the fragile rock beneath my feet. Still, pieces crumble and break under our weight, slipping down into the depths of the canyon, and as a larger rock rolls down, I hear a goat bleating from somewhere within the crevasse. After what felt like a hundred more careful, gentle steps, the trail widens, and our path becomes a sort of mound, holding a few small trees. I stop and breathe a sigh of relief – or maybe even satisfaction – of going beyond what is considered ‘safe’. All around us waterfalls reach down to rocky riverbeds, birds fly beneath us – little dots darting from the lip of the canyon down and up again. There are valleys stretching out to the ocean; further on, the blue sea blends with the sky on the curving horizon. Feeling the cool air against my skin, I imagine the whole island, and its continuously changing features. The coastlines wither away before our eyes, cliff edges crumble into the sea, waterfalls dry up, and always, there is something new to discover: a sunrise shell washed up on a beach, a valley with thick green jungle, a cave filled with illuminated, fresh blue water. Each day in Kauai offers something different, and standing on this mount in the middle of the sky, I smile for the possibility of tomorrow’s discoveries.