As promised late last week, here's the lengthy conclusion to my article about attending a friend's wedding in Hawaii. I began writing this article in the summer of 2005 after returning from the trip, but did not finish it until this weekend. I hope you enjoy it.
We strolled past dozens of weddings during our few days in Lahaina, each of which took place just feet from the main footpath that linked the numerous resort pools, bars, and luaus. I may be a bit cynical, but there is a right way to get married in Maui and a wrong way. Sure, these couples were technically living out the romantic notion of getting hitched on a tropical beach, but you can’t help but wonder if their dream included thousands of passersby talking over their minister? Or people in too little swimwear for their girth frolicking in the background of their wedding photos? Or, my personal favorite, stray water-fire from children’s squirt guns! Like most everything else in Lahaina -- don’t get me started on the luaus -- these weddings were done with an eye towards maximizing the hotel’s profits and not towards creating any sense of romance. Rush them to their ten-by-ten spot on the beach, say a few quick words, snap a photo for mom and dad, and kiss the bride. Next!
Fortunately, our friends knew better than to leave their life’s most memorable day in the hands of some faceless multi-national. Instead, for no small fee, they contracted the services of a wedding specialist who not only recommended several secluded beaches to have the wedding, but also allowed them to choose from a number of traditional Hawaiian ministers to perform the ceremony. They also provided a selection of photographers and musicians. Indeed, they did it right. And although the minister was a little late in making the cross-island trip to the sandy cove near the edge of the basalt fields that Lou and Kathleen selected, the wedding ceremony was as perfect as it was beautiful. Standing there as one of the two witnesses and listening to the soft guitar music and the blowing of the conch and watching the exchanging of leis in front of the setting sun, it really made me wonder how on earth I agreed to get married in a church back in Jersey. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I probably would have joined the onlookers in shedding a tear had I not have kept myself laughing on the inside about the fact that the minister had the same name as my dog Kimo. He said it means “James” in Hawaiian, but it’s more fun to think it means “dog” in English.
With the ceremonies concluded, the photos taken, and a king’s ransom delivered to the players, we dropped a cooler on the beach and enjoyed the remainder of the sunset through the light brown glass bottles of a Silver Bullet six pack. We spent a lot of time together in the previous few days, but before we went our separate ways and allowed the newlyweds to get on with the getting it on, we drove back to Lahaina and dined at one of the island’s best restaurants, Pacific’O. This scrumptious feast of sashimi and ahi was the generous gift from man and wife, as a thank you to the four of us for making the journey to Hawaii. As if we needed to be thanked.
Now this is where attending a destination wedding can get a little tricky for the guests: The honeymoon. We’ve come all this way and aren’t ready to leave, yet surely the bride and groom need their privacy, right? We thought so, so on the morning after the wedding my wife, Kristin, and I hopped a plane over to Kauai and drove up to Hanalei on the north side of the island. We rented a small studio apartment a mile from where civilization ends and the Na Pali Coast begins. After sightseeing on the south side of the island near Poipu and Lihue, we followed the lone highway counterclockwise to its northern terminus. The drive was anything but uneventful as nightfall coincided with the heaviest downpour I had ever witnessed – and I’ve experienced several hurricanes living in North Carolina, mind you. The last several miles of highway were extremely sinuous, had no streetlights, and frequent one-lane bridge crossings. With visibility down to the front bumper of the car, it was no surprise to us that someone slipped off one of the bridges and literally impaled their van on a 2x4 wooden guardrail. But alas we found our little rental unit and set to preparing for the next phase of our trip while sipping some Kona coffee and listening to an Israel Kamakawiwo’ole disc a previous guest left behind. Indeed, Maui’s crowds and in-your-face brand of tourism had exhausted our spirits and we were in dire need of a vacation from our vacation.
The rain came all night and came hard and both Kristin and I laid awake throughout the wee hours of the morning worrying about the soggy mess the next 48 hours promised to become. We had one of the precious backcountry permits needed to hike the world famous Kalalau Trail, and we had our backpacking gear with us, but we were quickly losing our motivation. As luck would have it – or so we thought – the rain gave way to sunshine and at six o’clock the next morning, we left our wedding attire and rental car behind and started hiking down the street to the trailhead.
The Kalalau Trail is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest hikes. Its 11 miles stretch from Ke’e Lagoon through the rugged Na Pali Coast (home of Blue Lagoon and Jurassic Park) to the remote Kalalau Beach. The trail rises and falls for a cumulative elevation gain of roughly 5,000 feet and leads hikers on a harrowing journey under the equatorial sun across narrow ledges and through raging streams. All of this taking place just several miles from the rainiest spot on Earth. The typical itinerary for hikers is to hike the first 6 miles of the trail, camp for the night, and finish the remaining 5 miles the next day. They then relax at Kalalau Beach for one or two days and hike back out the day their permit expires.
Our itinerary on the other hand, as unanimously described by all we spoke to, was one of pure madness. We would hike the full 11 miles in, camp for the night, and hike back out the next day. In hindsight, our rush to cram everything in during a limited amount of time was a mistake. The trail and conditions proved to be far more difficult than anything I had ever experienced and although the legions of butterflies and views of the fluted emerald cliffs and crashing waves of the Pacific coaxed us ever-onward, the day devolved into a death march. We each drank over 180 ounces of water, waded through waist-high streams, and yet still dreamed of a deluge that never came. Our feet blistered, our skin burnt, and our minds grew ever-more twisted and conflicted by the beauty around us and the feelings of despair within. And just as we were reaching our most weary state, the trail turns lethal and a single misstep could cost you your life. Watching helplessly as Kristin stepped across gaps in the trail, clinging to the side of a ledge hundreds of feet above the ocean, was almost too much for me to handle.
But I did. And we did make it to the wondrous Kalalau Beach after 8 hours of nonstop hiking. And I literally shed a tear that it was over. I’ve run 50 kilometers in a snowstorm; I’ve raced a marathon in Death Valley; and I’ve ridden my mountain bike over 80 miles in the Carolina summer, and none of it was as grueling as these 11 miles of trail. And yes, we did make it to the end of the trail in a single day. And we did enjoy the magnificent view and the sensation of bathing under a towering tropical waterfall. And knowing that nobody could pay their way to this moment and place was a large part of the reward. But now we had to get back and the only option was to dress our blistered feet, shoulder our loads, and hike out come morning. Or so we thought.
Word spread amongst our fellow trail-battered brethren that the hippies living on the beach were willing to shuttle you back to Hanalei in their zodiac, provided you kept it under wraps and didn’t report them to the rangers (for-profit activities in the Na Pali Coast is strictly forbidden). This was our out. So, when morning came, I approached the small hippie encampment and casually broached the topic to the one guy who was awake (unfortunately not the sexy brunette doing tai chi in the nude the previous night). He lowered his voice and told me that he charged $150 per person. Clearly he knows he has a captive, desperate audience and that he is their only hope for a safe and pain-free return to comfort. Nevertheless, I wasn’t about to shell out that kind of money for something I knew I’d regret anyway. I whittled him down to $175 for the two of us and he told us that he had one couple already waiting for him and for us to wait in the trees and be ready in 2 hours. Deal.
On the way back to the tent my relief turned to anger with each step. Was I really going to quit that easily? Sure, our feet were blistered, and we were exhausted, and yes we were a bit scared of the trail’s precipitous edges, but we could make it. Kristin felt the same change of emotions wash over her and before we were even done packing up our tent, our minds were made up that we were going to hike out. And aside from some briefly-horrifying gusts of winds that blew in while we were negotiating the trail’s most dangerous section, it wasn’t as bad as we feared. It was cloudier on the second day and it rained a couple of times on us, but I attribute much of our quickened pace to the promise of unlimited sake and sashimi that awaited us. That was the carrot on our stick and we raced our hearts out for it.
We bid goodbye to Hanalei the next day and returned to Lihue to spend the final night on the islands with our honeymooning friends. I was hesitant to intrude on their special time but had cleared one last meal out together with them months in advance. The four of us spent much of the day relaxing poolside and reflecting on the previous week and the good fortune that befell us in order to share this experience with one another. At night we headed south to Poipu for one final incredible meal at Plantation House where we somehow managed to spend enough money to have had the entire Brady Bunch family take the hippie-cruise off of Kalalau. Or so it seemed at the time.
Come morning the two couples boarded separate planes and Lou and I returned to our opposite coasts. There is no telling when we would get to surf together again, or when our wives would ever go for a manicure together, or do whatever it is they did that day of the wedding while we surfed, but I know that for one reason or another I alone in our group of friends got to be there to witness his special day. And while my good-fortune came with an odd sense of not deserving the honor that I felt given his closer ties to the guys who remain back east, I was indeed proud to have been there and to have my name on the wedding certificate. I’m also glad to know that a friend getting married in an exotic location isn’t necessarily an un-invite to join them. The prohibitive cost of attending such an event may preclude them from asking you to come along, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go. Sometimes inviting yourself isn’t rude or imposing, but rather an opportunity to expand the memories. Just make sure your wallet is ready in case they say yes.