For Randy Wichman and Sabra Kauka, this valley also inspires a powerful sense of peace and serenity. The two native Hawaiians are members of Nā Pali Coast 'Ohana, a local nonprofit group formed to protect the cultural sites along the coast. "I have a board member who can't take Novocain," Kauka says. "So when he recently had a root canal, he just visualized himself here. I think his dentist was more nervous than he was."
Carpenter and Wichman take me to one of the platforms beneath the amphitheater of the cliff, and together we try to imagine the celebrations that occurred here centuries earlier. During 'awa ceremonies—'awa, or kava, being the favorite ritual drink of Polynesia—high priests performed ritual sacrifices, hula dancers swayed to the beat of drums, and from the highest cliff, called Kamaile, young men hurled burning javelins like comets into the sea. These fireworks were so spectacular even King Kamehameha II made a special trip to view them.
Yet fireworks and celebrations were not enough to sustain these native Hawaiians. Perhaps they were cut down by Western diseases that ravaged the islands during the 1800s. Or maybe their traditional trading system no longer worked in the new money-based economy. No one knows for sure. But after more than 600 years of continuous habitation, the last permanent residents left the valley in the early 1900s for more populated parts of the island.
According to Carpenter, the parks archaeologist, Nu'alolo Kai is one of the more important archaeological sites on the islands. A decade of budget cuts, however, has created a maintenance backlog of 125 million dollars in the state's parks, making it tough to maintain even a picnic shelter and composting toilet at the site. Care of the area falls largely to volunteers and local watermen, with Carpenter and other archaeologists providing expertise and sharing in the sweat. It's tough work, clearing brush, rebuilding stone structures, and hauling trash. But for Sabra Kauka, it provides a personal connection to the landscape, one she hopes isn't lost on the many local students she brings here to help with the work.
"In Hawaiian there is a saying, 'Ma ka hana ka 'ike—In the work is the knowledge,'" she says. "If you want to learn about this place, you have to take care of this place, and then it will reveal itself to you."
Her words echo in my ears a few days later as I slowly work my way across a crumbling pali (nā pali means "the cliffs" in Hawaiian) on the trail to the Kalalau Valley. Sweat falls in steady drops from my hat to the narrow trail, which wends a very fine line between a rock wall and a sheer 800-foot drop to the sparkling sea. Early Western visitors reported seeing Hawaiians running along these trails, sometimes two abreast. Today a parade of "flightseeing" helicopters buzz by like giant gnats.
Despite the difficulty of the trail, I pass several people coming and going, some of the half million visitors from all over the world who flock here each year. The ones I meet include some serious hikers, a few college kids in bathing suits and sandals, and one or two obvious "Kalalau outlaws"—bearded men in their 40s or 50s with ragged clothes and furtive looks. These modern-day hermits live in the remote valley, eluding occasional roundups to evict them.