For obvious reasons, I didn't take this picture. It was taken by a person who was living on a space station at the time. I took the rest of the pictures in this post.
In the Hawaiian creation mythos, Haumea, the goddess of fertility and childbirth, plays a prominent role. The gods and goddesses who regulate the wild and rugged nature of Polynesia’s geology, plants, and sea life all hail from her, and according to legend she renewed herself several times, taking the form of a new young woman to bear the next generation of gods and demigods. Though the mythmakers of Hawaii couldn’t have known it, the story of Haumea echoes the creation story of the islands themselves. As the Pacific Plate slides west by northwest, a hot spot just south of the Tropic of Cancer weeps liquid rock upward, building a vast mountain chain one runny eruption at a time. Many of the old volcanoes, built long ago and carried far into the distance toward Japan and Russia, have been worn until only seamounts and atolls remain. Only the eight major islands of the Hawaiian chain still stand tall over the surf line.
Kauai is clearly the eldest of the major apparitions of Haumea. Only Niihau is further west, and Kauai dominates over the eroded lowlands of her smallish neighbor. The character of the island is very different from the virgin volcanic forms of Hawaii and Maui. Below the human scale, erosion polishes rocks smooth into pebbles, but above the human scale it cuts jagged canyons into the landscape. It’s been about six million years since the peak of Kauai first rose above the long waves of the open Pacific. That’s not much, compared to the age of the old rocks of the continents, but it makes Kauai the spinster to Hawaii’s maiden.
Kauai is a place where water is in perpetual motion. Clouds shroud the inland peaks and plateaus, transfiguring the calderas into swamplands. Parts of Kauai take in over 40 feet of rain in an average year, and this harvest from the sky plows downward through deep V-shaped valleys characteristic of fast, water-driven erosion. All the prominent features of the island, from Waimea Canyon in the west to the Kalalau Valley in the north, to the Wailua River basin in the east, are furrows sliced by this relentless liquid plow into the frozen lava of long-dead volcanoes.
Walk along the northern beaches of Kauai, and another voice of moving water becomes clear, that of the surf. Winter is high surf season in this part of the Pacific, and the waves breaking on the shoals at Kalalau and Ke’e are breathtaking in scale. Watching the waves reveals the breath of a sleeping giant. Water goes out, rises. Crest forms, white curl across the top. The crest crashes back toward the beach to the rustling roar of energy pounding through humid air. This all takes about 20 seconds, then the next pipeline monster emerges from the teal-blue water.
Moving through the Kalalau Valley, every time scale is apparent. The shortest is that of the insects and leaves. Butterflies twitter and leaves pirouette through gusts of winds lasting a second or two. Next there’s the thrice-a-minute rhythm of the waves. Beyond that, the longer cycle of Earth’s rotation is shown in the shifting sunlight, the most accessible scale to people. Accelerate a few orders of magnitude, and the island and valley themselves bear witness to millions of years of volcanism, rain, wind, and waves, and the Earth beneath is the product of billions of years of planetary evolution. The scale and wonder of the universe is written plainly in Kauai for all who pause long enough to see the writing in the walls of the canyons and mountains.
Moving along the highway toward the east and civilization (such as it is on Kauai) does not disappoint. The land is less rugged than the off-scale-high unfriendliness to roads that the Na Pali coast maintains, but it’s no less stunning to behold. Look south, and you’ll see sharp mountains and cliffs rendered in every shade of green the electromagnetic spectrum offers. There are lime greens, forest greens, neon greens, olivine greens, fern greens, emeralds, jades, teals, and aquas coating every visible face of the interior in impressionist swirls of color. Blossoms, red and magenta and royal blue, scream their presence toward the retina, saturating the eyes with color. There’s a bridge just east of Princeville that curves three-dimensionally through a thicket of every imaginable variety of tree. A bridge through the jungles of Pandora would look no less exotic.
As the road curves to the south, the mountains and valleys of the north shore give way to lowlands in the east shore. There are fish ponds and taro fields in the plains, and cliffs in the interior. There are no steady flat horizons on Kauai, even in the plains, due to the presence of the inland mountains, so the sphere of view isn’t so much divided between ground and sky as it is between green and white. Below the altitude where the air temperature drops below the dew point, there’s terrain and outcrops in a patchwork quilt of greens, and above that altitude there’s the shifting white and gray undersurface of clouds. On the rare occasions when a cloudless sky faces the northeast corner of Kauai, Mount Waiale’ale is visible from here, the wellspring of the rivers of Kauai.
Travel inland from the coastal towns of Kapa’a and Wailua and it’s easy to forget that you’re on an island. Erosion hasn’t been so savage that there are no hills left in Kauai even after six million relentless years of rain and wind, and after climbing a few ridges the ocean seems distant as the mainland. The Wailua River is the tamest of the Hawaiian islands’ watery veins, and from overlooks it winds through lush valleys upstream and downstream of the great eastern waterfalls of Kauai. I picked the wrong day to try to rent a kayak, Sunday, and all the rental shops were closed. With better timing there are many options to choose from touring up and down the river.
The road winds south, then west, through Lihue and Omao and Kalaheo. Kauai is unique among the Hawaiian chain in the level of agriculture it’s retained, and the route travels through plantations growing sugarcane, taro, coffee, cocoa, and vanilla. The soil is red like that of Sedona and Alabama. The ground is rich with iron and the water rich with rain and sunshine. Only elsewhere in Hawaii, between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, can such a bounty be harvested from US ground. Over the week I spent on the island I sampled coffee and rum produced from the fruits of Pacific lava and showers, and was not disappointed.
Detour south toward Poipu and the road winds through a thicket of eucalyptus trees known as the tree tunnel. It’s a good place name, simple and descriptive. The tree tunnel is a microcosm of the overall atmosphere of Kauai, at once wild with living energy and cultivated for the tourists speeding down the road, hemmed in on both sides by the tangling branches and trunks. The south coast is leeward of the trade winds, and its beaches are less complete than those of the north. Much of the southern coast of Hawaii is jagged piles of lava right up to edge of the water. In some places, hard rock was laid down on soft rock, and the lower, older lava flows were eroded into the Pacific long ago while the young hard flows atop them remain. At Spouting Horn, waves rush into the tunnels etched through this alternating process of laying up and tearing down, and water surges upward through gaps in the rock like a geyser with each crest of energy.
People had lived on Kauai for a millennium by the time Captain James Cook arrived at the Waimea River estuary, but his crew were the first Europeans to lay eyes and feet on the island. There are high-voltage pylons and electric lights in Waimea town now, but other than that it seems little changed since the Discovery and Resolution sheltered in the bay. Today the roads are paved with asphalt and there’s now a post office, a Subway, and a statue commemorating the arrival of Cook in 1778, but there are no high-rises and most buildings seem as worn as the island itself. Charitably, Waimea is a place that looks quaintly aged. Less charitably it seems almost as worn as the ruins of Fort Elisabeth across the river.
The traveler is offered a choice driving through Waimea. Proceed north on 550 and the road climbs the western rim of Waimea Canyon. Go west on 50 and it curves north along the coast to the end of the line. Waimea Canyon is the centerpiece of the western geology of the island, and I elected to scale its rim to the southern edge of the Na Pali coast.
The road rises quickly up the old igneous flank of Kawaikini, weaving back and forth through switchbacks as the climate shifts from coastal to alpine. Blue skies are rare in the highland interior of Kauai, and the cumulus shimmers quickly between partly cloudy, brokenly cloudy, overcast, drizzling, and pouring rain. Every once and a while the road veers off into a parking lot and an overlook, and the views of the canyon merit contemplation.
Mark Twain described Waimea Canyon as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and unlike most quotes attributed to Mr. Twain, it seems he actually said this as he tagged along with the western whaling fleets shortly after the end of the Civil War. The simple canyon of Kauai evokes memories of the compound canyon of Arizona, and it’s almost as deep though it’s much shorter and narrower than the true Grand Canyon. The faces and bluffs are painted in shades of rust and brown, like the walls of the canyons of the North American southwest, and the river winding far below is muddy and turbulent like the Colorado. Something is missing from the analogy, though.
“Verdant” is not an adjective that comes to mind thinking of the Colorado River basin. In the land of Waimea, it seems truly appropriate. The green of the east coast is nearly as ubiquitous here where the rains don’t have time and altitude to turn to virga. There are trees and bushes everywhere the slopes are shallow enough to allow root structures to latch onto the soil. Green shades of life compliment the red shades of rock. Though the scale of Waimea Canyon is an order of magnitude less than that of the great canyons of Arizona and Utah, it’s still well beyond the human scale, and its epicness is in no way diminished by the size of things ashore.
The road continues through the high plateau of Koke’e State Park and terminates at a pair of overlooks of the Kalalau Valley. Whether viewed from above or below, the scale of the valley is clear, but the view from cliff’s edge allows a better understanding of the island’s context. At the beach, waves as well as walls tower over the visitor, but up here the waves are diminished to noise on an otherwise peaceful expanse of ocean. The ocean yawns onward to the horizon, where blue water merges with gray sky. Climbing to nearly a mile above the water renders the unimaginable distance to America a little clearer, and the island’s place among the ocean is put in its proper perspective. Either way, its beauty is obvious.
By car there’s nowhere to go besides turning back, but on foot the traveler has the option of hiking through the Alaka’i Swamp. I’m not sure what I expected to find based on the name of this place, but the experience was exactly as advertised – swampy. The trail was all mud and rock, the mud thick, slurpy, and filthy, the rocks slick and smooth. Even in the interior plateau of the island the trail rarely stayed two-dimensional. Where it’s flat, potholes the size of bowling balls threaten to swallow your feet in mucky opaque water, and where it’s steep the only option is to reach out to the overhanging branches to stabilize yourself as your feet slip and slide across the rocks. Properly equipped with boots and a few fellow hikers I could’ve easily pressed on, but I wanted to save my shoes from the worst of the wear, and elected to turn back after a mile of rough going through the great mudhouse of the Pacific.
Back on the perimeter highway, there’s only one more town counterclockwise of Waimea. Kekaha is passed quickly, yielding to Barking Sands beach, one of the longest in the archipelago. Even here on the leeward side of the Kauai, the waves have broken down long expanses of the lava into powder mixed with broken coral. Only Kauai is aged enough to have lush strips of sand that go on for miles and miles. Barking Sands is a particularly long beach, and is particularly well-suited for sunsets. It’s an ideal place to feel fine sand between your toes and crisp foaming seawater around your ankles on a long walk. Gazing over the surf, the plateaus of Niihau are a ghostly silhouette in the mist.
Once the road reaches the Pacific Missile Range there are few options to press on. Continuing on the highway requires getting past the guards at the range, the road to Polihale Beach requires four-wheel drive, and the narrow road inland quickly ends among the sugarcane plots in the shadow of the Koke’e plateau. From the end of the line it hits home how little of Kauai can be reached by car. The steep gradients of the eroded valleys are hostile to road building, and nearly the entire interior of the island is off limits to vehicle traffic. Hiking trails provide some access to the places where cars don’t go, but that’s a difficult and muddy option that strips the close-up perspective of the island from any meaningful context. The only way to truly understand Kauai is from the air.