Volume 15
An Online Literary Magazine
April 30, 2021

 

A Flight from Winter

Nonfiction

Mary B. Kurtz

 


The next morning, we were drawn to the razor-backed Napali Coast where the light is, so often diffused, a scene the making of myth: red iron ridges, cascading vines, Norfolk pine, ocean mist and aquatic blue.

 

 

M
y husband, Pete, and I have a tight hold on the roots of our daily living. Or is it they have a tight hold on us? The nature of our ranch life in northwestern Colorado requires the regular tending of animals, water, roads and machinery. And in the winter, caretaking is more important and often more difficult. Mid-January temperatures can hover around zero; overnight storms can bring snow measured in feet; and when the wind blows and drifts, access to the barns, animals and water requires additional plowing and snow removal. Committed to this caretaking, Pete and I are self-confessed failures at leaving our place, until recently.

 

This past winter with the encouragement of our son, who now lives on the ranch with his wife, the possibility of getting away with their help, softened our grip. So, in late February, Pete, in a matter of two weeks, booked flights and a house on Kauai.

 

Beneath a late February sun, with the ranch settled into a deep winter three-thousand miles away, we eagerly drove north from the Lihue Airport as Kauai, the Garden Isle, the oldest island in the archipelago, reeled out before us, wet with palm and woodland fern. We looked forward to our unencumbered exploring, and when needed, finding suitable shade and rest.

 

Kauai is home to the second wettest spot on earth, Mt. Wai’ale’ale at 5,148 feet. The plentiful rainfall over time created deep emerald valleys, canyons, waterfalls and lush tropical rainforests on the volcanic island. During the winter months, sea access can be difficult as the waters roil and sometimes rage against the coast.

 

Along the way to our rental home in Hanalei, we stopped to visit the Queen’s Bath south of Kailua. At the trailhead, we were surprised to see cardboard signs shouting warnings: “Danger. Extreme high surf. Entire area is unsafe due to winter waves. Are you the next fatality?” Now in winter’s high surf, they say twenty-eight have died here, one just yesterday.

 

Although we don’t think of ourselves as risk takers, we tucked away the cautions as tidy sidebars and headed down the dark, wet trail. The 120-foot descent to the ocean was treacherous. The muddy, red clay made the walk slippery. Small boulders, too, required careful negotiating. Once there, we hugged the crook where the hillside met the lava rock shore. Long ago, only Ali’i, Hawaiian royalty, were allowed to enter the sacred waters of the Queen’s Bath. During summer, the bath, tide pools the size of two large swimming pools, filled with urchins and angelfish. On the first day of our exploring, I was captured by the transformation that occurs seasonally, from the deadly rogue waves we walked near to a quiet summer bath fit for an Ali’i queen.

 

I continued to weigh the warning signs about the winter waves and the unsuspecting victims who were swept away into the rugged surf. Were we being smart in a new environment? Pete ventured a bit farther down the lava ledge, but he was unusually cautious. We didn’t linger long.

 

After we returned to our car safely, with only muddy shoes—I Googled the Queen’s Bath and learned that a young father had been taken by a rogue wave just a day before as his wife, who was holding their two-year-old daughter stood-by, helpless to turn back the sweep of the ocean. How could that happen, I wondered. Couldn’t he see it coming?

 

Questions arose about the existence of fate or the cost of one decision or omission. Does chaos in the universe simply occur without our choosing? I often come down on the side of chaos, concluding in my simple understanding that it exists as an opposing energy to order. I’ve borne witness to and experienced events in my life that occurred for no earthly reason. Perhaps that’s why we as humans have constructed beliefs in “bad luck” and “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Some things in this world truly appear senseless.

 

After meeting death’s sharp and unexpected reality, we were grateful to be immersed in the visual retreat of sweet pink and white Angel Trumpet hedges, deep palm and Banyan tree forests and cerise bougainvillea avenues. We followed the coastal road north. Our thoughts slowed. A moist nectar-filled breeze passed through our car windows.

 

As we rounded a sharp corner near our destination, we looked out onto the fertile Hanalei Valley. Rich in native waterbirds including the Hawaiian coot, duck and stilt, it is designated as the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. The bisecting of tidy taro farms and the wide Hanalei River weave a tapestry of Hawaiian landscape. A few more winding turns and we crossed the iconic one-lane steel-trussed bridge and arrived in Hanalei, a town lining the crescent bay seafarers had discovered thousands of years ago.

 

Our first stop was for groceries. We lingered in the aisles of a small neighborhood market searching for essentials, like tea, butter and milk, and the unusual, too, which we love to discover. Then we took our simple groceries home to a house built on stilts and roomy enough for more than two. “Mahalo,” a flowered ceramic sign greeted us. We left our shoes at the front door and entered.

 

Unlike unloading my week’s worth of groceries at home, I looked forward to stowing our light purchases. I lined them up on the kitchen counter like a child’s treasures: taro chips, sliced from a bland, purple root and dried to a crisp; macadamia coffee, (locally grown, rich and sweet); Bubba’s English Muffins (hearty and homemade); a small jar of Hawaiian Sun guava jam. In doing so, I was reminded of my mother and grandmother, who also took pleasure in and care of simple foods—remnants of the Depression, the hope and gratitude of just enough. Later, we sat near the diminutive Wainiha River and settled into our soft landing, toasting Kauai with another grocery store purchase, Wailua passion fruit beer.

 

 


Late in life, I now know that personal wisdom is not magical or mystical or possessed by others. It is hard-won and comes only from meeting life with persistent curiosity and courage.
We eased easily into island living, dressing in flip-flops, loose shirts and shorts. Books and magazines from our carry-on bags spilled onto a bamboo table. On the first night, with a light breeze through the screened-in porch, I lost myself in a lengthy article, “Life After Oil,” from Yes! magazine. I considered the challenge of a life free from oil’s carbon and I agreed unequivocally, as the article suggested, that it would lead to a better and simpler life, one more equitable to all who call the Earth home. And somehow in the house on stilts, with the earth so rich and the landscape so filled with life, the answer could be no other.

 

The next morning, we were drawn to the razor-backed Napali Coast where the light is, so often diffused, a scene the making of myth: red iron ridges, cascading vines, Norfolk pine, ocean mist and aquatic blue. The same seashore, rapped that day by brawny tides and scattered with bony, bleached coral, was once the landing site of twenty-four man canoes. Anthropologists believe ancient Polynesians from the Marquesas and Tahiti discovered Kauai and other Hawaiian Islands as early as 1,500 years ago, arriving in sailing canoes. Inside their wales, plants, pigs, poultry and rats. The seafarers traveled faithfully a hundred miles a day, guided by birds, current, weather, wind, and moon.

 

Along the coast, over palm-leaf-strewn paths, we hiked to the mouth of the steep Hanakapi Valley. Crossing the valley’s stream, we watched it roll out to the Pacific. On the other side, we tiptoed across a volcanic boulder beach. Dotting the scene, cairns sculpted by visitors, a testament to his or her visit. Sitting for a few moments beneath a midday sun, I watched the crush of the ocean; the heave and roll came with a physics I didn’t know. When the water could no longer rise, it curled with grace, and then imploded, the spray foamy fireworks, the heavy froth filling in the black lava rock shore. My simple witnessing of the surf felt intimate even without knowing or understanding it.

 

The next afternoon, at the Hanalei Farmer’s Market, we walked among white and blue-topped tents lined up on a rocky parking lot. The surrounding grounds were lush, the nearby hillsides, a wash of Eden. As we browsed near the Pavilion, a musician on a small chair played a ukulele, his large calves pumping the bass he heard in his head. Children’s voices punctuated the air as they tumbled down the pavilion’s small grassy knoll accompanying his happy tunes.

 

In another tent, a vendor offered Noni lotion, one of the most frequently used Hawaiian plant medicines. Her voice was sweet and sincere. Her eyes met mine like those of a healer. “Sure,” I said. She reminded me of a flower child, like the ones I knew in the seventies who wandered the University of Colorado campus spreading peace and understanding. I believed they knew of a personal wisdom I had yet to discover. I believed they were in touch with not only their own body and soul, but those of anyone they spoke to. Late in life, I now know that personal wisdom is not magical or mystical or possessed by others. It is hard-won and comes only from meeting life with persistent curiosity and courage.

 

With my Noni lotion in hand, we discover a lineup of the season’s treasures. One farmer halved her papayas and carved the flesh into lotus flowers. A slender and peaceful older man stood close to his Ziploc bags filled with nasturtiums dancing in fresh greens waiting for his creations to catch the eye of those passing by. A bonneted woman arranged her pineapples on a folding table, presenting them as though they were her children. And across the way, dimpled avocado and ruffled greens nested next to feathery carrot tops in bright red crates under the watchful eye of a young artistic entrepreneur. Why was it, though, I smelled so little on the stony path? The rows of papaya, greens, pineapple and avocado closeted their enticement like gifts. I would only receive them if I had opened them.

 

On our last stop before our thoughts turned home, we wound our way to Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Hawaii. Although much smaller than its continental cousin, the vista from 2,000 feet above the canyon floor was indeed grand. Across the way, rugged, red-rock formations jutted and greenery dotted deep-cut valleys. I was surprised to learn that an island that appeared so strong, rising up from the ocean six million years ago, actually had a weakness. In geologic time, Kauai formed so quickly, the whole of it cracked beneath the eager and overbearing rise of molten earth. The Waimea Canyon, is a geological fault, a blemish on the west side of the Garden Island. We didn’t see it that way as we stood peering over the rim, our eyes seeking to touch the other side and the valley below. What wondrous force made beauty of imperfection.

 

Reluctantly, we coasted down to the Lihue Airport. In our days of wandering around Kauai’s north coast, we had shifted into an alternate reality. We walked the muddy trails, bathed in moist ocean breezes, and tasted the treasures of tropical fruit and the fresh catch of the day. Whatever turn of the road caught our attention, we drove until our curiosity was sated. In the comfort and rest, I discovered the concerns of deep winter on the ranch had washed away and a renewed energy and optimism had filled in. How easy it had been to relinquish our hold on the grip of the ranch and winter.

 

With the return of our rental car keys, it was time to reset our thermostat from island heat to late-winter snows. Sitting in the airport at ten o’clock at night, the outdoor terminal still suffused with a low light, I was a child anticipating a return to school, mourning the end of unencumbered time, yet looking forward to a reunion with our familiar ranch roots and routine.

 

Mary B. Kurtz’s work has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Ruminate Magazine and The Colorado Sun. Her first collection of essays, At Home in the Elk River Valley: Reflections on Family, Place and the West, was recognized as a 2012 National Indie Excellence Award Finalist in Regional Non-Fiction. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Regis University. She and her husband raise quarter horses, cattle, and hay on their ranch in the Elk River Valley of northwestern Colorado.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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