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To Wander: A Kalalau Story

Editor's Note: Kalen Thorien is not merely a seasoned adventurer or talented athlete-she is a truly exceptional writer. She taps into the emotional experience that all twenty somethings can relate to, all in the backdrop of one of the most beautiful landscapes possible, the Kalalau Valley. This story is absolutely worth the read!

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This is not a trip report, I’ll warn you now. This might feel more like a diary entry, an existential rambling of an adventurous soul, and indeed it is. It’s a 24 hour story of reality, acceptance, forgiveness, and joy. There is plenty of beta out there about the Na Pali Coast and in the future I’ll put up some nuggets of advice, but for now I’m shedding some weight and bringing you guys a mental recap of a life changing experience I had in the Kalalau Valley of Kauai...

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  I stared around at our less than ideal campsite. My tent, a mere 15 ft from our neighbor, looked sad tucked under some scraggly trees. Before our food was even out, the cockroaches were preparing for battle, lining up for our crumbs and scraps. The ocean, a hundred yards away, could be heard but not seen, the stars blocked out from the thick jungle we were “required” to sleep in. I was exhausted. A last minute decision to hike the entire Na Pali coast with less than five hours of daylight made for a tiring hustle. My injured knee was grumpy, throwing a swelling fit as I massaged it, waiting for water to boil. Dinner went down fast, barely tasting anything, my mind too distracted from the chaos around me. Swatting off bugs and roaches left my motivation to explore completely deflated. I just wanted to get into my tent and go to sleep. This is suppose to be one of the premiere backpacking destinations in the world. It’s reputation for bliss and beauty, untouchable. So why the HELL am I completely void of stoke? I looked around at the dozen or so groups encroaching on my attempted jungle solitude. With a heavy heart of guilt, I crawled into my tent. The time had barely passed 9 o’clock but I didn’t care. I closed my eyes hoping that when I woke up all would be better, that my headspace and this whole evening was just a fluke…

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IMG_1624.jpgPhoto by Shane Treat

  The next morning, with my tail tucked between my legs sipping on coffee, I confessed my feelings to my friend Shane. It felt like I was chewing on tar as I mumbled my disgruntled thoughts. Part of me wanted to pack up everything and get the hell out of there, away from all these people, this Gilligan’s Island of hippies, nudists, burnouts, and squatters, but even that I couldn’t say because the shame would completely overwhelm me. I took another sip of coffee, staring out at the ocean ready to accept my bullshit fate. If it wasn’t for Shane, I’m not sure where I would have ended up that day….

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  Shane is one of those people you don’t meet very often. At 16 he purposely missed his flight home to climb the Grand Teton with nothing but a pair of Nikes and a rope. He was the reason the man we saved on Rainier this last winter is still alive. He’s willing to put himself in even the worst of situations, if anything I swear he prefers suffering over ease. Tough as nails, savvy, and smart, he’s the best partner a person could want on any adventure. Beyond his physical prowess, his mind is truly what makes him a beautiful human. He transcends the physical spectrum without effort, painting a world webbed in energies that he weaves in and out of. An observer of character, he knows more about me than I do about myself and he’s not afraid to call me out on it. I can’t get away with anything when I’m around him...and today was no exception.

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   “We’re fortunate to be here at this very moment, Kalen. This cluster fuck of vagabonds represents the freedom of this place. This is like Camp 4 of Yosemite before it got destroyed by the parks service..." 

  -- naked girl walks by giving us a “Good Morning” with a huge smile on her face --

“...see? This won’t last forever. We are the few remaining people able to enjoy this place before the government gets wind of the situation and comes in to regulate the hell out of it. Before we know it the last remaining locals could be driven out, pavement put in, showers and individual camping spots lining the beach. Rangers will be out in droves, telling people to cover up, put out their fires, stop playing music… Tourists by the boatloads will be dropped off on this secluded beach, carried in by local Hawaiians so their Tommy Bahama shorts don’t get dirty, not tipping them as they complain about the heat. The waterfall will be off limits due to ‘dangerous rockfall’ potential, merely for show instead of an essential vein of life for those who dwell here. Yes Kalen, we are so lucky to experience the magic of the Kalalau valley before the last few glowing embers are smothered.”

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  I fidgeted around with my mug. Like a little kid who just got caught by his parents, I kicked the sand, shuffled my feet and avoided eye contact. He was absolutely right. Shane’s wisdom quickly sunk in and a new glow came over the valley. It may not be pure seclusion like my typical backpacking escapades, but holy hell it was a lot better than what it could be. Sure, there were a few dozen people running around, some marginal late night drumming I would care to never hear again, but at least it wasn’t the chaos of Yosemite or Zion. I could strip down to my birthday suit right now and no one would even make a peep. We can sleep out on the beach under the stars without hassle. Bathe naked in the waterfall while others laugh and wait their turn. Smoke a joint in complete relaxation, shit, even have a giant orgy right in the middle of the campground in full view if we felt like it! This was the Burning Man for the adventurous, the outdoor folks, the seekers, the explorers...the lost boys and girls. It was as tribe and I soon felt very fortunate to be a part of it.

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  With a newfound bounce in my step, I grabbed my camera and roamed the beach. Meeting people from all walks of life. Everyone had a smile on their face and were eager to learn about each others history. Early morning clouds faded in and out of the classic spines that make up the valley ridgeline. I grabbed one of my new friends, using them as a reference to capture the sheer size of this place. “Little person, big landscape”, I thought to myself, a term we coined in wintery Alberta a few months earlier, but now my toes weren’t numb and I was wearing a bikini.

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  I skipped back to our campsite which we quickly packed up to snag an upgraded version with a better view and closer to the waterfall. Our new home felt like holy ground, and I was proud of it. People wandered in and out, each one passing by with greetings and amusing anecdotes. There was Diane and Nicole, the nudists from Tennessee and Washington who had been vagabonding around since last fall. Uncle Tom who calls this valley home and greets all who come to enjoy it. He even has a library which you’re free to use. Mat and Sarah from Vancouver. A couple so in love it's palpable. Paul, the Kiwi whose ocean blue eyes exude pure calm, contradictory to his rigid body, sculpted by years of surfing waves. Freddy Mango, the local Hawaiian recently released from prison, searching for his new beginning in the Kalalau Valley, and Alakai, the quick lipped fearless leader of the locals whose been here for almost 18 years. A steward of this valley, he lives a minimalist lifestyle much like the natives before him. Taking only what he needs and giving back without hesitation.

  I gathered some snacks and my camera and ventured out for a day of wandering. As I passed by Alakai’s little shanty, he abruptly asked me if I knew what Kalalau meant. Shane had told me earlier, so with a bit of gusto I proudly proclaimed,

“To Wander!”

“No! It means to get in my bed!”

An eruption of laughter from the other locals filled the air, I giggled as I shook my head…

“That’s right, my bad.”

  Alakai gave me his blessing and I ventured on. As I weaved up the Kalalau Valley trail, deep pools of fresh water were plentiful, each one beckoning you in for a swim. The canopy of lush trees provide ample shade, allowing only enough light in to create a dreamy, ethereal glow. Between naked dips into the water, studying the local flora and fauna, and stumbling upon ancient rock terraces, the day felt like a psychedelic experience minus the actual psychedelics. The energy in this valley is powerful. Knowing its history, it’s hard to explore without picturing the community that inhabited this place, calling it home. To step off-trail as an outsider felt almost sacrilegious. The valley is warm, welcoming, but as a blonde Norwegian from the 21st century, there was a bit of sanctity that I respected, so I continued to tread lightly. Little did I know, my counterpart Shane was taking full advantage. Bushwhacking his way through the jungle, bouldering around cliff faces, monkeying in the narrows, climbing trees, exploring hidden dwellings...basically the exact opposite of my program. This place draws something out of you. For me it was a calm, reflective walk, inspiring my inner earth baby. For Shane, he harnessed his mischievous childlike self, pin-balling his way through the jungle without a care in the world. A good wander is not determined by your surroundings alone, but how you choose to approach the trip and submerging yourself wholeheartedly into the journey itself.

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  My day started to wind down and tired, hungry, and missing my tribe, I worked my way back to the beach. A crumbly red hill to my left toyed with my tired muscles, begging me to take one last peek at the valley before nightfall. I couldn’t ignore it, so reluctantly I hoofed it up to the top. Out of the jungle, I felt almost naked, exposed...I looked around in almost a defensive mechanism, like an animal avoiding being seen. With nobody in sight besides the occasional helicopter of tourists flying overhead, I sat down to take a few minutes and give gratitude to the valley I just experienced.

P5040172.jpgPhoto by Shane Treat

  Today was my 27th birthday, 27 laps around the sun. This last year was incredible, filled with the highest highs and lowest lows. I had the most amazing summer of my life complete with adventures, new experiences, and the greatest trips I could ever imagine. But it had its bumps. From my relationship ending, my dear friend Jim barely escaping full paralysis and currently re-learning how to walk to my car accident that ended my winter season, the highs were scarcely fueling the depression I was dipping in and out of. I felt as if the last few months before coming to Kauai I was starting to pull myself out of this hole, regaining my glow, but the Kalalau Valley exposed some falsities that I had convinced myself were irrelevant and ineffective in my overall well-being. Perched on my little red rock overlook, I began to cry.

  I didn’t even know why at first. It just felt damn good. I don’t really ever cry unless it’s Leonardo DiCaprio sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic. I hate feeling sorry for myself. I don’t want to be vulnerable. There’s a masculine strength that I’ve always considered vital in my life and to expose anything less would be a sign of failure. My injured months held a lot of anger, stress, but never sorrow, at least that I wasn’t willing to face. I would repeat a snippet from Robert Frost, “A bird will fall frozen dead from a bow, never having felt sorry for itself.” whenever I felt a moment of weakness. I suppressed so much from those months and beyond, that here, now, after a joyous romp, it was all coming full circle.

  These weren’t tears of sorrow though. It was much more a cleansing; a liberation of pent up 26 year old angst, uncovered by paradise, and dispelled into the afternoon rainstorms. I was overwhelmed with gratitude while sitting on a perch overlooking one of the most gorgeous coastlines in the world, bringing in my 27th birthday, and freeing my heart and soul from the baggage of my former self. I let out a belly bursting scream, hands in the air, almost falling off my rock chair. I set my hands down quick only to grab on to something that wasn’t rock. I looked down to find a pendant left by a former traveler. A bright red stone centered in a piece of brass carved very much in the design of my hand tattoo. It was alluring and powerful. Looking at my piece of black kyanite that had been around my neck for a good portion of my 26th year, I felt the need to rid myself of it and the memories it held and graciously accept this new gift from the Kalalau. Setting the stone down, I looped the new pendant through my chain. Holding it close to my heart, I thanked whatever strange universal power delivered this gift, bowed my head to the valley above, and continued on back to camp, leaving my former self on the perch and opening my eyes to new opportunities and lessons that lay before me.

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  A quick detour to an ancient temple ruin allowed for another fun moment of coincidence. As I took in the strong historic energy of this old ruin, who else but Shane came trampling up the trail, twigs still sticking out of his hair, a huge grin across his face. We quickly embraced, knowing without words the experience we both just had. A calm confidence shone in our eyes and I knew that we both had stepped foot on to a new path toward the future ahead.

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  Camp was warm and welcoming. Chatter about the day drifted through the setting sun. High tide filled the beach with a kiddie pool of saltwater intermixed with the outflow from the waterfall. We romped around the shallow warmth, floating on our backs taking in the towering mountains above us. As the sun set, our souls felt content, rejuvenated as we made our way back to camp. A glass of birthday tequila was poured and we met Mat and Sarah for dinner and campfire tales. Surrounded by my new friends, love and wishes were abundant as I brought in my 27th year. I’ve never been one to celebrate my birthday. They come and go without much of a thought, usually a solo trip to the desert is the extent of my extravaganza, but sitting here surrounded by what felt like old kindred spirits, blasting me with birthday songs and hugs was a heart warming (and slightly embarrassing) moment. I felt incredibly blessed and grateful.

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  The night came to a close and Shane and I made our way back to camp. Massive toads guarded the route causing quite a scare anytime our flashlights would come in contact with their huge eyes. At least it made me jump…

  I crawled into my sleeping bag in a state of tranquil bliss. I felt a bit more like a pure soul today. It’s incredible the weight we carry with us. Whether it’s the burden of decisions we’ve made, cards we’ve been dealt, or people we’ve hurt, it picks away at us little by little until we’ve created a scar that potentially will never disappear. Why do we do this? Guilt, yes, is a powerful emotion that does lead us to make better decisions, but mistakes are inevitable. Our ability to feel beyond the general realm of basic survival is the greatest gift we, as living beings, are able to tap in to. It’s also the root of many struggles. My emotional baggage was secretly being dragged in the dirt behind me. Not a hinderance, but definitely an annoyance. Sitting on my perch overlooking the Kalalau Valley I held the substance of my burden, facing it, acknowledging the fact that yes, you exist and I’ve created you, but it’s time for us to part ways. You do not define who I am or where my path leads. I will not diverge from my course because of circumstance. I will not bow down to a lesser version of who I am, the pressure of remorse keeping my eyes locked to the past. I now choose to fill that negative space with a greater good, a higher mind, and a positive, beautiful self. I am my own journey, my own adventure, and I have conquered this affliction and now continue on, to the summit of my being.

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Dear Kalalau - Wander I will indeed, with the weightlessness you have given me. Thank you. 

You’ve created something so beautiful Kalen!

    Back at ya Cindy. That’s a massive compliment, especially coming from someone so beautiful! Much love lady and can’t wait to see your sexy self again! Xoxo

Hey Kalen, Thanks for doing this one — a piece of content after my own heart! It’s great to see someone exploring the humanistic, spiritual side of outdoor sports.

    Thank you so much for your kind words Sam! Warms my heart to know people enjoy the slightly more introspective approach to trip reporting..especially when I’m sharing some very personal information! Keep up the radness and hopefully our paths will cross!

Kalen,
I read something recently (I think either Skiing or Powder Mag) that you’re in Belize. I’ve been there three times. It’s one of my favorite places ever. Would love to share some ideas on the country. Write me back if you’re interested.
If not. No big deal. It’s a sick country. You’ll find plenty of places.
Make sure ceviche is on your menu.
Cheers,
CD

    Hey Chris! Thanks for offering some beta! I was kind of at the whim of my family on this trip, but definitely want to come back and for sure I’ll pick your brain the next time I do! A lot of adventures to be had down there! And don’t worry, plenty of ceviche was had! Cheers my friend!

Hey Kalen!

Awesome post! One thing I thought about while reading is that isn’t there some people who seeing a naked butt, or a soiled campground actually ruins the freedom that comes from being in such a beautiful place like Kalalau?  I get that for some people, that’s their thing.  But for others (like myself) it can often ruin the experience.  And I don’t think that it’s because I’m uptight or whatever else ya know?  I just think that peace, and finding oneself is different for everyone.  And for myself, it doesn’t always have to come through chaos and a vagabond lifestyle.  I’m all for everyone doing whatever helps them be happy, so long as it doesn’t encroach on others.  This is my one worry with Kalalau.  Am i just naive? 

Love to hear your thoughts :)

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