I am drawn to the uninhabited places of the world, a kind of strange pull on my person which is likely what led me to Antarctica, to the middle of the Atlantic, and way out Woop Woop. In Hawaii, my search for wilderness took me to Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island, a place so steep and so green, the color seems to soak right down the roots that cling to the red dirt.
I only came to Kauai for three days, which is unforgivable, really. Nobody should ever travel all the way to Hawaii and then hop over to a heavenly lump of stone in the ocean, with all the shallow intentions that accompany a return ticket. But which is worse? I reasoned: to never go at all, or to go for a brief-yet-rich taste of an island that not even the majority of Hawaiians have ever visited.
With a boastful tone, so many the islanders on Kauai offered me varying figures: “Well, you know, our island is 80% uninhabited!” they averaged, and I did not question them. A map of Kauai shows a lovely splotch of green in the middle, void of all roads or towns or anything. Even the topographic lines are not so noticeable since most of them are scrunched up so tightly: not only is Kauai extremely green, much of it is extremely steep.
I knew all this map-wise before I got there. I learned it foot-wise when trying to hike inside the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. I spent half a day making my way along the coastal path, which runs up and down over the volcanic ridges, graduating to steeper and steeper climbs with breathtaking drop-offs. Permits are necessary for longer hikes in Na Pali and with good reason. This is not easy terrain . . . but it’s beautiful.
I made my home on the north shore of Kauai (at the St. Regis near Hanalei) — luxurious, yes, but also wonderfully separate from everything else on the rest of the island and with a constant view of the coastline that I had come to explore. After a day of fighting the rain forest on foot, I succumbed to the tourist temptation of a helicopter ride, which hands down is the greatest way to see all of the island of Kauai.
We took off in the regular drizzle of this wet island, the chopper doors removed so that the wet breeze kissed my face, and bringing the vertical landscape so close, I felt like I could graze the green cliffs with the back of my hand.
Higher up, the drizzle turned to a wet mist, brightened by sunbursts, so that time after time, arched and intensely-colored rainbows appeared and then disappeared. Buzzing over a rain-soaked volcano, chasing red and indigo prisms — this was the Hawaii that I had always imagined.
I was especially thrilled to pass over Mount Wai’ale’ale, considered to the wettest spot on earth with the highest rainfall (over 450 inches per year). I remembered this small fact from childhood, back when I was studying for the National Geographic Bee. Soaring like a dragonfly over the rippled landscape of Kauai, I suddenly missed the NG Kids who I’d been traveling with back in Oahu. I thought how much they would have loved this island and most of all, this unbelievable ride on a helicopter that brought me to places most humans will never reach by motor or foot.
For us mainlanders out there, I think the great shock of Hawaii is the need for a regular reminder that everything one encounters — the gargantuan cliffs and prehistoric-looking landscapes, the impossible mountains that seem to be the imagination of a malicious child — this whole wild and tropical castle; all of it falls within the realm of the United States of America.
I must keep remembering this important fact, because ever since I was the age of the NG Kids, I have been singing America the Beautiful. Up until now, whenever I get to that final strain, “from sea to shining sea,” I have imagined the mid-Atlantic beaches of home and the crashing white surf of coastal California.
“This is the span of my country,” I used to think as I sang out the slow line, but after my helicopter ride in Kauai, my vision for this one American anthem has changed forever. The Na Pali coast is wild and unruly, rocky and beautifully forbidding. Now that I have been there, I will never forget the dramatic, chest-gripping heights of this wall of rock and moss, and I will never forget the truly shining sea of the blue Pacific — the mostly-uninhabited place on the other side of America, the beautiful.