My straw hat is flapping around my head like an entangled seagull, the gusting wind yanking the string it’s tied with right into the lump in my throat. My knees are weak, partly because of the long uphill climb behind me, and partly due to the gaping precipice in front of me. Four inches from my right foot, the crumbly terra-cotta trail opens to the wind, sun and gravity. Hundreds of feet below, the waves shred themselves against the sharp rocks, their booms taking several seconds to reach my throbbing eardrums.
I let a whimper escape into the wind, think “focus” and squint at the narrow trail ahead. It slopes audaciously toward the ocean. I sway involuntarily toward the edge. I’m on Kaua’i’s Na Pali coast, which means, appropriately enough, “The Cliffs.” Its steep, green spires, fluted and sharpened by millions of years of erosion, march off around the curve of the island, which is more or less round. The place is like the Hall of the Mountain King crossed with a botanical garden.
I am hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which climbs up and down the coastal ridges, in and out of the tree-choked valleys, and spills out onto beaches fronting the turquoise Pacific. Even away from the beaches there is water everywhere; streams and waterfalls pour over the trail, over my sweating body and yawning pores, which I plunge into the flow, each time with less ceremony than the time before. The only bothersome thing about this is the constant whopping noise of the interminable stream of helicopters bringing sightseers into the valleys. The racket keeps planting images of “M*A*S*H” episodes in my reverie; it ceases only at dusk.