Down the 26-Switchback Trail

KALAUPAPA is today’s destination on our week-long trip to Molokai, Hawaii. Early in the morning, high up in the misty reaches of the northern mountains of Molokai, we arrive at Uncle Buzzy’s Guided Mule Tour. We 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.”

Another mule skinner, 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, inspecting 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 the looks,” he says. “We find you a mule that looks just like you.” 

Kalaupapa Molokai Hawaii
The Mule Ride down the 26-Switchback Trail

Kalaupapa – Going down to the ‘Land of Sorrow’

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 diagnosed with leprosy from all over Hawaii were abandoned on this remote land, never to see their families again.

Now Kalaupapa is a National Park. In Hawaiian language, Kalaupapa means ‘the flat plain’ or ‘the flat leaf.’ If you fly over this piece of land (the only other way to get there, other than by the mules or by walking the trail), you’ll understand why the Hawaiians gave this place that name. The peninsula appears like an afterthought, stuck to the rest of the island at the base of the 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, “The mules can see all its four feet. Horse can’t do that. So don’t worry. Settle back and trust the mules.”

Kalaupapa Mule Skinner Audrey
Uncle Buzzy's Mule Skinner Audrey

Kalaupapa – The Life of a Mule Skinner

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 whistling his 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.

Kalaupapa Uncle Buzzy
Uncle Buzzy Sproat, Paniolo of the Pacific

What Am I Doing Here?

Kalaupapa – Your Trip Back into the Hawaiian Past

If you live in Oahu, as I do, your life could get real hectic, real fast. It’s really not the Hawaiian paradise of a century ago. If you imagine Waikiki with the palm trees swaying in the Trade wind over a quiet white sandy beach with lapping waves of crystalline waters and someone in the background strumming a ukulele, you’re in for a huge reality shock. All that was ‘once upon a time.’ What you find here today are people. Lots and lots and lots of them. Tourists. Locals. Homeless. And let’s not forget the cars. Cars everywhere, congesting the few island highways (mysteriously called Interstate Highways). So, you if you’re like me and live in the purported paradise, you need an escape for a breath of fresh air in a real paradise.

Of the eight major islands of Hawaii (some say there are nine, counting Las Vegas as the ninth), and of the few easily accessible Hawaiian islands, Molokai still holds that old island charm of the times long gone. Here you won’t run into many people or see many cars. In fact, the last time I was there, there was not one traffic light on the island. If you like solitude, Molokai is your Hawaiian island.

So, here I am, straddling a mule in Molokai descending the trail down to Kalaupapa. The ride takes about an hour and a half. And all the while, feeling the rhythmic steps and sways of the mule, I think about Uncle Buzzy. I imagine Uncle Buzzy’s life. Uncle Buzzy 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 so laidback and sidestepped 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’s back, her on a mule. Then I realize. She is now living that simple life.

Kalaupapa – If You’re Interested in the Mule Ride

To visit Kalaupapa, visitors must get the permission to enter the National Park. Make a reservation at the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour website, or by calling (800) 567-6088, or you can contact Damien Tours by calling (808) 567-6171.

First, be sure to watch Uncle Buzzy’s Vimeo Video, “Panilo of the Pacific”  and get to know him and his way of living. Next fly to Molokai. Then get on one of Uncle Buzzy’s mules. Here begins your time-slip experience into the old ways of the Hawaiian past.

Categories: Hawaii


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