Friday, February 11, 2011

Molokai boardwalk

       It really is just a board, a wood rail wide enough for a shoe. Hikers pony walk single file like runway models on a railroad track. The narrow board trail wanders through a dense rainforest on top of Kamalou Mountain. Photographs of the place didn’t make me want to go. Generic comments like “it’s awesome” didn’t easily convince. I mean what’s another patch of forest in the tropics? Jungle right? How unusual.   
     At the trail head there is a sign with a few understated rules about keeping your feet on the board at all times. Where the road ends and the boardwalk starts the forest is pretty, but still average. Tall grass, big ferns, trees. It could be any slightly cooler place that gets a lot of rain. One of the women I was with hadn’t been there before. The long hike to the trail head is harder without knowing the surprises that lay ahead. Words and pictures don’t cut it. We’d all heard how amazing it was for years, seen photos and still thought, “Okay whatever, let’s go to the beach.” But eventually most of us had made it.
      The area is small as far as unique ecosystems go. It’s on top of a mountain so by definition a scant amount of real estate. The ground is constantly saturated, soggy enough to permanently swallow a shoe when stepping off the board or with a little imagination dire wolves and wooly mammoths from eons past formed deep pits of bones under the bog. The place feels prehistoric. Pools of water in peat, like black coffee, do not betray the depth. There are no hand rails. When balance takes a walk on the moon the only thing available to grab are handfuls of endangered plants. The trail and surrounding area are owned by the Nature Conservancy, which could have been a clue the area was special. Up to the trail head the road is compacted dirt with deep puddles in the ruts, but in the bog everything suddenly changes. Competition for space equals only Manhattan. Clouds form over the mountain nearly every day making it rare to get there for that reason. People are often rained out before reaching the bog trail. Hiking becomes risky; the steep road a morass of red dirt paste, adopting an early hominid walk is the best way to stay erect.
    The boardwalk is the only way into the bog. I went first and it was not long before my shirt looked like cotton candy from the spider webs. Ferns and orchids shot out of the moss. Weird little plants with cartoon flowers found nowhere else on earth grew out, up and on everything. Further down the trail sunlight faded, shaded by uncountable layers of growth. Spiral fern shoots in green, red and purple uncoiled toward the distant light. We plunged ahead through vegetation crisscrossing over the trail above and below. Moss, vines, parasitic ferns, weirdly knurled trees and then suddenly, they were all gone. The trail meandered through a highland meadow. The plants, still weird and unnamable, were dwarfed and silvery, the trees gone completely. The oxygen at that point was practically flammable and highly exhilarating. And then the fun began. The trail followed the terrain through ravines, down, up and across burbling puddles of indigo peat water. The creek beds appeared soupy, smelling so fertile that accelerated evolution might actually be witnessed. The trees grew broader and higher overhead covered with moss thicker than arctic fur. Losing footing along this stretch meant a more uncertain plunge, possibly over the edge and into a sink hole never to be seen again. Through more ravines, ducking under huge horizontal trunks, baby stepping down steep sections of the slippery elevated trail, until the last of the ferns parted.
     We all waited to see Heather’s face, she didn’t’ know that the balancing act we’d performed for the last mile actually ended at a view point that words or pictures cannot capture. One step further and the next stop, several thousand feet below, lay the mysterious, uninhabited Pelekunu Valley. Small flocks of flaming red Apapane shot up the cliff face disappearing overhead. Behind us the rainforest was so thick friends were easily swallowed from view. In front of us lay the infinite garden of backside Molokai, the spine of the island weaving a pattern of eccentric folds extending to the sea, so far up it felt like flying. Scale is better experienced. I hope you’ll get there one day. It really is awesome.     

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