Molokai, Hawaii – Early morning, high up in the misty reaches of the northern mountains of Molokai, we arrive, park our rental car, and then gather with the other tourists next to a mule stable. Distinctive smell of barn, of leather, of feed, of manure, lingers in the air, reminding me of my youthful days spent at my grandfather’s barn in Franklin, Tennessee. A little over ten mules are corralled and saddled. Audrey, a mule skinner, wearing jeans and a fluorescent-yellow T-shirt with sleeves tucked up, inspects each mule. Other mules munch the grass. “We don’t need to mow the lawn here,” she says. “They do the work for us.”
A young man, decked with a cowboy hat and Western boots, gathers us with the wave of his leather gloved hands. “We’ll match you up with your mules,” he says, and looks at each of us. “You know how we do that?” People guess but no one gets it right. The young man sneers, cock his head downward, and tips his hat in that cowboy fashion. “We match them up by looks,” he says. “We find you a mule that looks just like you.”
So matched with our mules, we start our slow, swaying trek down a switchback trail, down 1,700 feet of the world’s tallest cliff facing an ocean, toward Kalaupapa, Saint Damien’s “Land of Sorrow.” Our destination is a former leper colony operated from 1866 to 1969 with a dark history. Patients from all over Hawaii were abandoned on this remote land, never to see their families again.
Now Kalaupapa is a National Park. In Hawaiian, Kalaupapa means ‘the flat plain’ or ‘the flat leaf.’ If you fly over this piece of land (the only other way, other than by mules or by walking the trail, to get there), you’ll understand why the Hawaiians gave it that name. The peninsula appears like an afterthought, stuck to the rest of the island at the base of sheer cliffs, an inaccessible flat plain sticking out like a thumb from a hand. Its remoteness is heartbreaking.
The trail we’re taking is over a hundred years old. It was opened as the only land connection to the leper’s colony below, carrying supplies and news to Kalaupapa’s isolated population. It twists down the cliff with 26 switchbacks. At some point the trail is only eight to ten inches wide. Perhaps sensing our uneasiness, Audrey says, “A mule can see all its four feet. Horse can’t do that. So don’t worry. Settle back and trust your mule.”
To keep our minds off the scary looking drop, Audrey talks about Uncle Buzzy, the legendary man who started the mule trek down to Kalaupapa. Uncle Buzzy died on 14 June 2014. He was 76 years old. He was half-Hawaiian and half-Caucasian, born in Molokai. For 40 years Buzzy Sproat, wearing his signature black cowboy hat, led the mule rides down to Kalaupapa, regaling visitors with his stories about Hawaii, or with his whistling tunes to the beat of the mules’ strides.
For Audrey, leading the tourists on mules down to Kalaupapa is a dream job come true. “Every time I saw Uncle Buzzy,” Audrey says, who used to work at a grocery store where Uncle Buzzy shopped, “I’d ask him, ‘Hey, Uncle, you looking for a skinner?’ It took me two years before Uncle Buzzy decided to try me out.” She looks out toward the ocean below. “I’m glad he gave me a chance. I love this job.”
After Uncle Buzzy died, his guided mule ride business was in danger of dying. But Roy Horner, Buzzy’s good friend and business partner, and group of young skinners, like Audrey, united with a determination to carry on Uncle Buzzy’s legacy.
The ride down to Kalaupapa takes about an hour and a half, and all the while, feeling the rhythmic steps and sways of the mule, I’m thinking about Uncle Buzzy’s life, leading the mule train down and then back up the trail, rain or shine, for 40 years, living out his life on Molokai, an island without a traffic light, an island so laidback and sidestepped by most tourists. His life must have been a great life. Life lived well. A simple way of life now forgotten by many. I look at Audrey, smiling on her mule. Now she’s living that life.
To visit Kalaupapa, visitors must contact Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour by calling (800) 567-7550 or 567-6088, or email “firstname.lastname@example.org” or contact Damien Tours by calling (808) 567-6171.