I stood alone on a remote beach, my back turned to the crashing surf, looking at the lush foliage that rose with volcanic rock into cathedral-like spires. The sun dipped gently into the horizon of Kauai, the northernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago, and bathed the entire valley in a golden hue.
The resplendence was made far sweeter by the fact that I had just lugged two heavy backpacks along a rugged stretch of Kauai coastline.
Earlier that day, my traveling companions - my sister Jennifer; her boyfriend, Chris; and my sister-in-law Cindy - had bestowed on me the nickname "Muleboy," in honor of my penchant for carrying everything from packs to humans on my back. The four of us were on a three-day hiking trip along the Kalalau trail.
The visual splendor that makes this one of the most beautiful areas in the world does not come without sacrifice, however. The Kalalau trail is 11 1/2 miles of wet, muddy, hot, humid, densely forested, mosquito-ridden adventure.
On this second day, our destination was the picturesque Hana-kapi'ai beach, two miles from the trailhead. The beach exists only in the summer months. In winter, harsh surf pummels the coast, leaving only boulders in its wake.
Chris and I had promised each other a serious session of moonlight body surfing once we got there. This was all the impetus I needed to put an extra hop in my step at the end of an arduous day.
With a mile and a half to go and the sun beginning its rapid descent, I came upon an idea that only "Muleboy" would conceive of. Cindy was beginning to feel the effects of two days with a heavy pack and had started to flag. Our group couldn't make Hanakapi'ai by sunset at this pace. I offered to take Cindy's pack along with my own, on the condition that I could go on ahead solo at my own pace.
She agreed, and I set off at a near jog. It felt good to pick up the speed. With Cindy now unencumbered, she, Chris, and Jenny could move at a faster pace as well.
The first half-mile was accomplished in a smooth and speedy fashion. I had figured out a system for counter-balancing the two packs. With a steady stream of sweat running down my face, I continued to quicken the pace. Hanakapi'ai beckoned.
It had been raining for the past hour. Even without a pack, it was quite easy to slip and fall with one misplaced step on the narrow clay path.
In the midst of congratulating myself for trekking nearly the entire trip without a fall, my right sandal slipped on the upturned embankment. With no free hand to break my fall, I landed full impact in the miry clay, hip and shoulder first. At this point, I could do nothing but laugh.
Muddied, a little bruised, and humbled, I finally reached the valley of Hanakapi'ai and its towering pali. The packs fell off my shoulders like bags of cement. Feeling incredibly light, I danced across the remaining hundred yards of diminutive boulders that separated me from the lagoon and waded waist-deep through its cool waters to the welcoming beach.
As I positioned the camera hanging from my neck, I discovered to my horror that I had one shot left in my very last roll of film. One shot for perhaps the most alluring scene I had ever encountered! The beach was deserted, and the nearest roll of film was with Jenny, Chris, and Cindy about 20 minutes away. The sun continued to slip below the horizon. As the shutter clicked, I prayed that my one shot would develop with just a fraction of the beauty I was witness to.
I sat on the warm sand cradling my camera and staring intensely into the verdant portrait before me. Could I commit every lush detail to memory? What if the picture didn't come out? As I resigned myself to these questions, I spied my three wearied companions lumbering down the final stretch of hill leading into Hana- kapi'ai.
As soon as they reached base camp, rain clouds rolled in and darkness descended. Tents were propped up as a gentle rain fell, and sleep seemed to be on everyone's mind. But first we shared a meal of fruit and dehydrated soup.
The rain hastened to a steady downpour as Chris and I handled dish duty. As the last pot was scrubbed, we wondered aloud where our guardian moon had wandered off to. Bodysurfing in a moonless sea was just not as appealing.
It was 10 p.m., and we had gathered our second wind for a session of nocturnal bodysurfing. Chris and I headed down the field of stones toward the beach with only a flashlight to light our path.
The rain had slowed to a faint sprinkle, and even the moon struggled to flash its shafts of luminescence through the stubborn clouds. We waded into an ocean as warm as bath water and as forceful as a storm.
Swimming in these mysterious waters, we rode wave after wave laughing, tumbling, and communing with the tide. There was music in this churning cauldron of surf.
"This is what it's all about isn't it, Chris?" I said joyfully exhausted, as we walked back in the warm evening drizzle toward our campsite.
"Yeah," he replied,. "I'll see you here next year."