Wednesday, February 18, 2009

ha'iku steps

green jungle beauty
a steep heavenward ascent
no mistakes here please

according to the signs at the trailhead, the stairway to heaven is 3,922 steps rising over 2,000 feet.

huh. it seemed farther.

the ha'iku steps were built in the early 1940s by the u.s. navy. they accessed a mountaintop radio array built to communicate with warships in the pacific during WWII.

these days, though, the array is dismantled, the steps are rusting, and the trail is closed. that must be why we arrived at the trailhead at oh-dark-thirty, before the guard arrived.

to reach the steps, you park in a residential neighborhood beneath the h-3 highway on oahu. the locals don't appreciate interlopers, so you close the car doors quietly, then walk quickly to a gate chained and secured with half a dozen padlocks. both sides of the gate are topped with barbed wire, and it looks like there's no way past. except that the fence is down on the right side of the gate, and you can just step over it. go figure.

up the road a short distance you veer off onto a path through a dense bamboo jungle. in the dark, it's easy to imagine all kinds of mischief just beyond the range of the camera flash, but of course we were the only ones up to any trouble.

the path opens onto another road leading to the trailhead. from there it's up. and up. and up some more. the scenery is spectacular, but it's hard to appreciate it when you're intently focused on the hand rail and the step right in front of your face. and the reason they're right in front of your face is because they're so ridiculously vertical.

other times, the steps narrow to a couple feet across, falling off several hundred feet on both sides. it's not unlike climbing up the back of a very large, sleeping dragon, hoping it won't wake and stretch and yawn and never even know it sent you flying like so many dragon fleas.

we climbed from sunshine and warm down low, to clouds, cold and mist at the top. from stunning views to white-out conditions. and still we climbed. past one, two, then three platforms, peering over the edge each time hoping to see something other than the inside of a cloud.

pearl harbor to the west, perhaps. chinaman's hat to the north. the mokes to the south. our hands in front of our face. anything.

we made the top in an hour and 10 minutes, milled around in the gray long enough to drink some water and catch our breath, then headed back down. nothing to see here, move along.

here's the thing: as challenging as it was getting up, getting down was moreso. on a dry, sunny day, you slide down the rails on your hands and touch every fourth or fifth step with your feet. it's a hoot, not to mention fast, supposedly. on a clammy, misty day, the rails are slick and the steps are slimy. gravity, usually constant, increases. just for fun.

it all seemed like such a good idea, back before we actually started.

toward the base, the guard was now on duty. he blew his whistle at us, in case we were thinking about turning around to make another ascent. thanks, we're heading down, see?

until a few weeks ago, allegedly, they were writing $400 tickets for trespassing on this trail. today, instead, we got a smile and applause from the 68-year old guard, who was sporting purple, blond and black striped hair. you've got to love the hawaiian aesthetic. or maybe it was just his aesthetic.

at the end it felt like we had accomplished something, maybe even survived something (e.g., our own foolishness). you know what, though? we'd do it all again tomorrow, if we weren't leaving tomorrow...

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