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Monday, November 16, 2015

Well Done Koa!

I've looked forward to today for months. Today I got to go riding! The ride is a famous one, from the tops of the cliffs of Molokai, down a winding trail to Kalaupapa National Historic Park.

Mules getting readied for the trail
Over the weekend I drove to the Mule barns so I knew where I was going this morning. I was at the barns bright and early. I got myself signed in. Then met up with fellow trail riders, two of whom hail from Oregon, and the remainder call Brisbane, Australia home. We chatted while waiting for the mules to get saddled up. As the animals were readied, they came meandering out, to graze a bit and stretch their legs prior to their daily walk down the cliffs. 
Every Mule had a name and as a rider it was our job to learn it
Chatting with the other participants, I was surprised how few had ever sat on equine flesh prior to today. I mean, for a first ride, going downhill was going to be a doozie. As many were new to riding, I heard them asking questions of each other, 'What is the difference between a horse and a mule?' 'What are the straps on their butts for?'. I responded to the lot. That sounds like an ego boost, but what I thought to myself was 'SHUT UP CLAIRE!' I nursed in my head the idea I was going to come off like a show-off, then fall off my mule and look like a jerk. *GULP!*

My my view, in general
Soon a muleskinner came out, explaining the basics of mule riding, which in this case was mostly 'hang on!'. Each animal was lead to the mounting stand, and one by one, they were paired with a rider. We were all nervous. What qualities were used to match us up? Each called rider was given the name of their mount. As the number of unpaired riders dwindled, I remained uncalled until that ghastly moment I found myself standing alone.  I felt a deep kinship with Ashley Neil Tipton when she was the last picked for a team on Project Runway. Finally I was called, and as I mounted my mule I was told its name was 'Koa'. I thought Koa was a boy (gelding) but then I hadn't looked - Koa was a she mule, and a nice one too. I relaxed on the saddle, thrilled. We were all off, headed up the road, headed for Kalaupapa NHP.

Spot heads for the gate, onto the Kalaupapa Trail head.
The first bit of the trail was easy enough. Trees kept the trail - all of it - in the shade. The first several hundred feet gave me the idea it would all be a piece of cake, and then we hit the REAL trail; soft soil. Huge cement strips and waffled segments of cement jutting up to keep soil from rolling on downhill. Then for added interest, rocks - big ones - strewn about. Dear Koa daintily picked her way through the rubble, and how she chose where to lay her hooves seemed to me a great mystery. Oh well - as long as we didn't careen off the hillside, I was satisfied.
 A flattish, easy bit of the trail has the embedded crossbars and waffles of cement. On the steep part of the trail, they juted up and out of the soil, covered in small boulders 

The trail downhill was 3.5 miles downhill and it would take us an hour and a half. Everyone hung onto the rear of their saddle so as not to fall forward over their mule's head. Sweat poured off my nose because I couldn't hold on and wipe my face at the same time. Gradually it dawned on me, it was not hot. It was actually rather pleasant out which meant I sweat from pure nerves. So I reminded myself, the mule was an expert, and had no intention of taking us off the cliff to our deaths. Believe it or not, the sweating stopped and I settled in to enjoy my ride.

It's a miracle I got what photos I managed. There were only a couple of spots I dared to drop reins on the saddle horn, release my death grip on the saddle and dig out my iPhone for a shot. Add to that clear views through the trees on the trail did not happen often so the shot below was about all I got of the view.
Looking down on the Kalaupapa Harbor and town
Honestly, I wish I had more photos to show how - challenging - the terrain was - for the mules. By the time we reached bottom, and could hear the ocean waves a short distance away, it was a delight to be able to just relax  and just take in the scenery.  I not only survived, but I hadn't fallen off. Whew! 

Hurrah, flat and no huge flippin' boulders!
Soon we were out on a grassy meadow, and our mules sped up, knowing they were at their resting spot for the next few hours.
headed for the coral
A look back to the forest covered cliffs we had just descended
Two Aussies on right are up on the mounting platform
When it was time to dismount, our mules obediently walked to the mounting platform. Now here's the thing - the floor of the platform I was to climb onto, was level with my bum. It was as though I were sitting on the ground, and had to stand up with the added encumbrance of a mule between my knees. You see the difficulty there? My left leg, my good leg, rose up, but refused to clear Koa's neck. Yes, that's how I have always dismounted, leg over neck. Anyway, my mule-sweat-soaked leg  refused to rise high enough. The overly optimistic muleskinner took my arm and slung it over his shoulder to lift me out of the saddle & up onto the platform. I kept unhooking my arm from his neck and finally he caught on to my predicament, and just gave my left foot a slight pull. Bingo! My foot was up and over Koa's neck, and seconds later I was up on the platform under my own steam. Whew! That whole scenario start to finish took 4 minutes, but in my mind it was more like a four hours.

I wasn't the only rider with 
Our Tour guide and bus, coming around the bend
'jello-legs'. I busied myself walking up and down while my legs decided to obey me again.

After some chatting and a wait, we saw our bus round the bend, for our guided tour of the park. We climbed on board an ancient school bus for a nice orientation our Brit guide, whose lovely name was 'Claire'.

Now it was time for our tour of the National Historic Park. Claire gave us a talk on how Kalaupapa became the place the Hawaiian government segregated unfortunates with Hansen's Disease (leprosy) in the 1800s. Startlingly, to this day it is home to 9 patients who range in age from 73 on into their 90s. I was reminded of the novel Hawaii read ages ago, some of whose chapters explored the misery that was the 'leper's colony' of Molokai.

Let me set the stage on the location. Imagine it is the late 1889s; you live happily with your family on Oahu, and a letter arrived, informing you, your doctor decided you were 'suspected' of having leprosy, and in 7 days you will be shipped to Kalaupapa on Molokai, a different island. You will go there and never see your family again for the rest of your life. With little time to wrap your mind around what that meant, you were stuffed on a ship, then deposited on Molokai to fend for yourself. There, whether you were 9 or 90 years old, you were expected to find water, and oh yes, grow your own food. If you were female, there was the added bother of keeping men from jumping your bones. Not a nice situation to find yourself in. Yes. Welcome to beautiful Kalaupapa!

Happily, our 2015 visit to Kalaupapa was not so brutal. Our first stop on the day's touring was a little grocery run by one of the patients. We were all encouraged to purchase drinks, water, snacks and such.

Next we visited a book store - also run by a patient - where I was able to get my National Parks Passport stamped. HURRAH!

The pretty little bookstore
It was then on to visit the grave of Mother Marianne, who is one of a handful of American Catholic saints. Mother Marianne Cope moved to Molokai in 1886 where she set up the hospital care system for those suffering Hansen's Disease (leprosy) at the start, in Oahu. Later she accepted an invitation to come to Molokai where she she saw young women with Hansen's who were treated like chattel by men on the island. Mother Marianne set up a home for the girls and protected them, making their lives bearable.
Mother Marianne died on Molokai at 80
Claire told us how much mother Marianne did for the sadly
mistreated girls in the colony at Kalaupapa

Leis on her grave are testimony. Mother Marianne's good deeds are not forgotten by those on the island.
Although we started with Mother Marianne and moved onto Father Damien - also sainted - we rather got the order backwards. Father Damien arrived on Molokai first, then he invited Mother Marianne to Molokai, in hope she would come to the island to fill in as he was by then dying. The priest got his wish and Mother Marianne came to the island, further improving conditions there.

Entrance to lawns in front of Father Damien's Church
Mother Marianne left, St. Francis on the right
Saint Francis Church
There were already lots of religious people when Father Damien arrived in Kalaupapa, but under his care the town went from a place people came to to die, to a place people could live. Father Damien may have been a saint, but he worked like the devil; never idle, built churches all over Molokai, planted hundreds of trees, and set up a water system that would boggle the mind of today's engineers.
Saint Francis is still an active church

The altar at St. Francis
After perusing the church we all ambled down to the pier, which the church faces. The pier is where supplies come into the town to this day.

St Francis is on the left, with the pier dead ahead
I had no sooner walked out of St Francis than I got a text message from Joann, in San Diego. Her text blew me away as only seconds ago been thinking about her and how much she'd have enjoyed visiting such a beautiful old church. That I had any phone connection at all was something of a miracle too. It was one of those times you feel amazed you can be so far away, and yet feel so close to someone when those little texted messages pop up. 
A view from the landing dock at the pier

Cruising through tiny Kalaupapa we saw a fair bit of the town. Most of what we saw were tiny streets, amazingly people-free. I mean, we saw no one out walking or driving for that matter. One can imagine the locals lead a quite life that except for the little trucks all over the place, must be as if the clock were set back a sixty years or so.

The market at the corner of a busy - for Kalaupapa - intersection
Claire drove us east where we stopped to view some ruins. It was a good distance from the main town. The ruins are all along the coast, understand, and were occupied at one time by Hawaiians and are at least a thousand years old

per-historic ruins, or 'Heiau' with ancient walls and terraces
 After looking around we headed further down the road. Must add, my favorite thing at the site was seeing a White-tailed Tropicbird, far up the mountainside, flying by.
Rickety old road with amazing surrounding scenery
We stopped for lunch in a designated picnic area, where there lots of benches. Before we ate we walked down to an overlook to take in an amazing view of the ocean and cliffs.

Though the cliffs on the right, Father Damien worked with patients, building an aqueduct that brought water to the town. How they accomplished getting water to move that great a distance is almost unbelievable.  The man was the whole Army Corps of Engineers wrapped in kindness.

View from Kalawao Park
After lunch we visited the historic St. Philomena Catholic Church. The building is the only one currently occupying the town of Kalawao. When Father Damien arrived, the church was quite small and he added to it, then it was added to and rebuilt yet again.

The Church was enlarged several times
A placard shows how the church was remodeled over time
Impressive interior of the church's main building

Within the church is this much beloved bust of Father Damien. He was a Belgium Catholic priest who came to Molokai, working his butt off to help the community and bring comfort to the patients of the leper's colony. He hugged his patients, and would sample food from their plates. That might not at first seem unusual, but remember, no one back then, would go near the ailing patients, much less touch one, for fear of catching leprosy. But Father Damien didn't care, he felt making the patients feel loved was more important that his own health. You can see from the leis lovingly placed on his bust, that his kindness is not forgotten. This man was totally a saint, long before he passed on.

The 'side' church, the original building that existed when Father Damien first arrived

Interesting bit we were told, is about the many holes in the wooden floor of the older section of the church (the original building). There are lots of stories on what the holes were actually for, but the predominant believe is they were sort of spittoons for the many ailing patients.

Outside the church is a huge cemetery, that holds the grave of Father Damien. The father contracted leprosy and died after devoting 16 years to the colony.  Eventually his body was exhumed and returned to Belgium, but years later, his hands alone, were returned to his grave his original St Philomena grave site, where they worked so tirelessly.

Father Damien's original resting  place, where his hands now rest
The cemetery faces Kalawao off in the distance
I ambled on up the road to Siloama Protestant Church. By this time I was beginning to understand why it is said, Molokai is the most spiritual of the Hawaiian islands. Molokai has 8 thousand people, and 33 churches. Bet I've seem most of them.

Siloama Protestant Church
Inside the quiet little church
It was  now time to head back on the bus to the coral.

Remounted and ready to head back
Good old Spot was still just ahead
The ride up was shorter than the ride down - magic or 'back-to-the-barn' motivation'?
The ride back up hill, was a picnic compared to the ride down. Even with the mules occasionally coming to complete halt and requiring rather a lot of rider effort to get the animals moving again, the ride back uphill was a full half hour shorter than the ride down - seemed like magic! Suspect it wasn't magic, just that it is easier to go uphill than it is to go down with a HUMONGOUS load of weight on a mules's back that it has to balance.

Now, although the ride uphill was easier on us humans and faster, it was much harder on the poor mules. Koa sweat buckets and groaned a good deal on the way uphill; I was wracked with guilt. We were almost all the way uphill that I realized all the mules were sweat lathered, sides heaving a bit with some moaning. Poor babies!

Soon enough we were back at the stables, and I asked one of the Aussies to get a picture of me with Koa before my leg, absolutely magically, swung easily over that trusted sweaty neck.
I loved my day mule riding to Kalaupapa, and this visit to Hawaii. Tomorrow I head back to the mainland with lots of Aloha memories.

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