The Trail

My feet land swiftly and excitedly upon the trail.

The feel of uneven ground beneath my veteran hiking boots and the smell of roots and dirt fill my head.

The energy of the woods around me whisper in my ear like faint voices of spirits passed.

Thin streams of sun pour through the canopy and caress my face from time to time.

Something unseen charges through underbrush off in the distance, keeping to the shadows.

A bird calls out letting me and its winged brethren know we’re not alone out here.

And I pause and take in a deep cleansing breath, absorbing the energy of everything around me.

I feel alive here; I miss it every day I am away

And my soul yearns and my heart longs for every step and surprise that awaits me on my next adventure.

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Cool, October Fog

I crawled out from the small tent, my partner still fast asleep. It was already after 8am and I loved sleeping in among the deciduous forest, the fresh air, the smells, the sounds at night of the insects singing, and small woodland critters dashing through the tall prairie grass under gently whooshing trees in the moonlight. But it was time to rise and greet the morning.

As I stood tall and stretched, the cool October air surrounded me, so I pulled on my fleece and looked around. The sun was still below the tree line and barely visible through the thick morning fog that covered the bluffs high above the Mississippi River. I needed to gather water for breakfast and wood for a fire, so I walked the path out from the trees and over hills among the bluff top prairie. Just beyond the fog at the edge of the forest were Birch trees, Maple and Oak, the knee high grass was wet, the dark maroon Sumac leaves dripped, laden with condensation.

There is a place for spiritual awakening in moments like these; I stand there on the dirt path, still, listening to my surroundings. Something moves inside the tree line, possibly a deer, one from the family whom visited our camp during dinner the night before. I can hear droplets of water out in the mist perhaps hitting a rock or a broad leaf. I close my eyes and breathe in deeply, filling my lungs with rich, river valley air and when I exhale my breath almost instantly falls to the ground.

When I return to camp my partner has awaken and has waiting for me a hot, steaming, mug of coffee, I drop the wood and begin building a fire to the hissing sound of our camp stove as it begins to boil water for oatmeal. I look over at her with her long, dark hair, sipping from her mug of cocoa, her eyes still a little sleepy, she is so beautiful, raw, and real and seems to belong here among nature’s finest gifts. We share a love of Mother Nature, exploring the hills, forests, the bluffs and river bottoms, mountains and valleys. It is here we find our spirituality at its purest, it’s here we find the love we share for each other, in its truest, most honest form.

A Morning in Jasper

The tall, scrawny pines sheltered me from the cool morning breeze as I fired up my small camp stove and made some coffee, the smell of the instant grounds aroused my sleepy senses.

The tops of the snow covered mountains were hidden, obscured by clouds and as I scanned above the tree line across the rocky, glacier carved crags the mist turned into a light, fine rain.

It was seven thirty in the morning and already the sun was up somewhere outside of the valley where we’d camped. I love the early mornings afield, the smell of the fresh grasses and pine needles covered in dew, crispness in the air that awakens the mind and a humbling feeling that explorers who’d come this way long before me must have felt as though they had stumbled into a strange, wonderful sort of paradise.

As I try and sip from my favorite camp mug without burning my lips I notice the rain fading, and suddenly a female and a juvenile elk step out from the trees and into the clearing whose edge I am standing at. They are gorgeous, their coats wet and tawny. They both graze for a bit and finally lay down among the grass just fifty yards from where I stand.

At that moment, as the clouds began to lift exposing the snow capped mountain tops I am stunned by the arrival of a bull elk, his shoulders black, his antlers fat with velvet, he steps out onto the plain and bugles as he postures himself. He is regal, majestic and he is bold and I am in awe of his beauty.

There are no pictures that can relay the splendor of this land, no words that by themselves illuminate the imagery that paints one’s soul by experiencing it, but simply being here, standing among the spiritual essence of this place is purely magnificent.

The Kalaulau Trail

The trail was perilous and wonderful, dangerous and exciting; the stay on the remote beach was deliciously hot and sweet. The sunrises were only second to the sunsets, with the oceans waves shimmering in the late days astounding bright hues of drenched tangerines and warm golden light that almost seemed to drip into the bright blue water and wash up on shore.

There were wild cherry tomatoes lining the path to a thousand foot waterfall that fell to a cool, clear, fresh water pool in a small lush oasis where the beautifully tanned locals bathed nude, above the moss and the fragrant penny flowers, cliffs seemed to thrust forever skyward above the shoreline. Black rocks the size of softballs falling from crags overhead periodically to the hot sand below, landing with a soft thud, kicked from above by mountain goats.

Our stay on the beach was delightful, mourning doves cooed and pecked at the sandy ground in the grass around our campsite each afternoon, we ate by campfire and fell asleep to the sound of rushing waves upon the coastline. And our march back, our precarious and tremendous hike home came too soon. Our eleven and half mile trip to the beach was hot and dry, but our trip back would be anything but that.

It began under a blue sky peppered with a few clouds; the air was cooler than a few days before. We hoisted our packs and tightened the laces on our boots and stepped onto the trail once again, it was a bittersweet farewell but we had just under a dozen miles to leave behind us before we would rest the souls of our feet. The majority of our trip was fine enough though it had rained extensively on parts of the trail we had not reached yet. The ground was wet and slippery, the path barely wide enough to lay a school ruler across it and never flat and always sloping towards the edge looming thousands of feet above the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean.

We passed over the area where my partner, only days before had lost her footing on ground that crumbled and slipped away, she fell to the path hugging the cliff to the inside, her left cheek crashing onto her heel as her right foot dangled weirdly off the ground and over the edge as rocks and dirt plunged into the sea far below. My heart stopped as I am certain hers did as well. It was scary and exhilarating all at once.

Then we made our way around the infamous “Crawler’s Ledge”, a section of the path that really isn’t any sort of path as it is described in Webster’s, but rather an almost vertical slope holding small rocks that one clings to, and steps across for about 200 meters around the face of a portion of a ridge, that frames the East side of the Hanakoa Valley. This section serves to eliminate many hikers from going further along the Kalaulau Trail, simply the site which seems to turn them around without any consideration at all.

We spent the second half of our nine and a half hour hike navigating wet, sloppy trails, boulder chasms and soggy rain forest valleys before coming to our final creek crossing. We had traversed many til now but this one had become a raging torrent of rushing water dropping thousands of feet from the mountains far above us. The sound of the rushing, ice-cold water was deafening, the site of it frightful. We assessed the crossing and considered staying put for a while but it seemed the rain wasn’t stopping and so neither would the creek for some time, could even be days.

Then to our delight we found there were a few men helping others across as they awaited their friends they’d been separated from what now looked now more like a swollen river. It wasn’t slowing but appeared to stay consistent for now. With much trepidation but a stronger desire to get off of the trail we made a decision to cross with help from the locals. One made his way to us and demanded we hand him our packs, he was of slighter frame, but tall and marvelously cut, he grabbed our huge packs and delivered them to the opposite shore with a honed skill. Then came back and threw his wet, pickled hand at Shira, she glanced back at me with fear and determination in her eyes, then stepped into the stream and grasped at his hand, her other firmly held in mine.

As we made our way, fighting the tremendous strength of the furious water beating against our chests, threatening to take our feet out from under us, we kept our eyes on the other muddy side. Half way across I mis-stepped, slipped and banged my knee on a rock under the surface, both of my numb legs flew back behind me, Shira looked back as I struggled to hold on and saw my legs floating straight behind me. She had to let go and leapt for the next man in the human chain, I found a crevice in the same boulder that drew blood from my knee and held on tight until the other guy was able to get to me, he pulled and I fought against the current and we made it eventually safely to shore. I would be lying if I were to say I wasn’t scared.

Soaked to the bone, our hiking boots now heavy and waterlogged, we grabbed our packs thanked those that helped us across and began our climb to complete the final two and a half miles of our incredible journey. A little over two hours later we stood at the trail head, tired, cold, wet and hungry. We did it though; together we survived the Kalaulau Trail along the Napali Coast of Kauai. Number four on National Geographic’s top eleven best hikes around the world and Backpacker Magazine’s Top Ten Most Dangerous. There is a spiritual power that exists deep within the valleys along the Kalaulau, it is palpable and the locals call it mana. It seemed that each time we rounded a corner and looked out over the breathtaking scenes like that of Nu alolo Kai, one of the western most valleys, we got, again as the locals call it, chicken skin. I think that spirit will never leave us, it has made us stronger and it has left a mark on our souls.

Hills

The long day slides downward over empty rooms
where I rest, finally, feeling my bones
shake looser inside my flesh,
feeling my heart,
small and tight as you left it.

I’ve traveled the long trail
out from the interior
to these sunburned hills,
brown below an unforgiving blue.

These hills,
where once our boots crushed the wild sage
to scent the air,
where once our white dreams flew,
pale cities, pale menageries
vaporous and gleaming in aurora.

Copyright Kay Winter