With abundant water, rich soils, and plenty of papaya, coconut, and java plum trees, Kalalau has provided refuge for many outcasts over the years. In 1893 several Hawaiians with leprosy moved their families to the valley to keep from being banished to the dreaded leper colony on Moloka'i. When the deputy sheriff of Waimea came to round up the sick ones, a well-known cowboy and crack shot named Ko'olau refused to go without his wife and son. The standoff lasted into the night, until shots rang out and the deputy fell dead. Hawaii's new provisional government, fresh from deposing Queen Lili'uokalani, feared an open revolt and sent the army after the cowboy. But Ko'olau evaded his pursuers in the cracks and crags of the valley, eventually dying there of his disease. "Ko'olau the Leper" became a modern folk hero of Hawaii.
Decades later another group of social outcasts sought peace in the valley—young hippies who spent years living off the land and communing with nature until eventually they were rousted out by the law. At a bend in the trail I meet one hiker of that generation and ask him if he'd been to Kalalau. "I was there in the 1960s," he said with a warm smile. "It was pristine. Everybody ran around naked. But hey, it was the '60s!"
When I finally reach the magical valley with its folded cliffs and sinuous beach, the vibe is more frat party than nudist retreat. Dozens of campers, some apparently long-term, are scattered among the trees behind the beach. A group of college kids have a boombox blaring, and a woman with bright red hair is shaving her legs in the valley's famous waterfall. Bags of garbage, old coolers, and discarded tents are strewed about the campsites and sea caves, waiting for work crews to haul them out by helicopter—the greatest expense for the cash-strapped park.
"The challenge of managing Kalalau is its isolation, which is also its attraction," state parks administrator Dan Quinn told me later. "If we'd get more people carrying out what they carry in, it would be a better experience for everyone."
As I watch the sun melt into the sea, a passing shower uncorks a magnificent rainbow. How could humans trash such an earthly paradise? The fictional Shangri-la, as portrayed in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon, was inspired by the Buddhist concept of Shambhala, a mythical place of peace and tranquillity reached by enlightened beings. Maybe we aren't there yet.
On my last day in Kalalau, however, I meet someone who seems well along the way. A young outlaw with a massive backpack bounds down the last stretch of trail as I'm starting the long climb out. He drops his burden at my feet, sprawls on the grass, and tells me his name is Eric. He's planning to stay for two months in a cave up the valley, foraging, meditating, and "getting centered" with the universe. "You go back up that valley and there are rock platforms, taro fields, sacred altars all the way up," he says. "It was a metropolis in there! It's the land of the menehune, the ancient ones. It's primal!"
Eric is bright, articulate, and seems utterly at peace with himself and the world. We chat for a while, and then he picks up his 75-pound pack as if it were full of feathers and lopes down the trail, singing a joyful tune. "Enjoy your journey on planet Earth!" he shouts in parting. And for the rest of the day, I do.