Stairway to Haven: Climbing the Infamous Haiku Stairs of Oahu
By Samara Ferris (Photos Samara Ferris)
It was grey at 5:00 am and the parakeets were just beginning their frantic chatter. The road, lined with small white houses surrounded by toppling waves of bougainvillea and rows of upright hibiscus, was quiet beneath a layer of wet fog.
My brother stepped out of the car and tied a brown bandana dotted with images of cactus and wagon wheels around his forehead. We stuffed our jackets and water bottles into our backpacks and re-tied our hiking shoes, ladened with red mud from the wet Hawaiian coast we had trekked just a few days prior.
We parked the car around the corner of a corner of some sprawling, serene street, and began to walk toward the mountain ridge that lie in the distance. I began to laugh at the silliness of parking so far from the trailhead of the hike when my brother looked at me with stern eyes, and with the willingness of the uninitiated, I shut up and followed suit of passing by unnoticed.
The road led to a single-floor wooden house obscured by a towering fence opaque, cream-colored, and so high above my head that I could barely make out the pink face of the soggy-faced bald man as he slipped his head up and above the edge of the fence and pointed his jaundiced, angry blue eyes at my brother, my boyfriend, and me. Suddenly a camera appeared in his hands and with incessant clicks, he began to capture every moment of our illegal ascent through the bamboo grove adjacent to his property that led to a maze of back roads that eventually led to the beginning of the steps of the infamous Haiku Stairs outside of Honolulu.
“Get off my goddamned property! I’m going to the police! I have pictures of all of you…ALL OF YOU!” he yelled, his face puffing up like some overinflated Pepto Bismol-hued balloon.
“I’m sorry sir, we’re not trying to—” my boyfriend Paul began to reason…
“—screw you!” I interrupted, “You don’t even own this property…take my damn picture, I hope the police DO come!” I yelled defiantly, my arms beginning to quiver with rage, my head suddenly growing hot, and my hands beginning reflexively to form into tight fists.
“Should we keep going?” Paul respectfully wondered, admonishing me by the presence of his peacefulness and kindness.
“F**k yeah!” I yelled, grasping at some expletives that I began to hurl in succession at the man whose face resembled a hog the more I stared.
My brother began to mentally weigh the options, his gaze focused on the cool mountain, still wet with the heavy mist of Hawaiian mornings, then he looked back at me, his foot planted between two strands of browning bamboo, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Guys, let’s just keep going,” with the coolness usually reserved for those lucky few whose wealth renders them impervious to external conflict.
My hands still clenched, I stared into the stolid blue eyes of the man, still clicking away on his camera every few seconds, his cheeks imbued with the red-veined pinkness that is born from years of boredom, joylessness, rage, and a few too many Mai Tais while watching Wheel of Fortune 5 days a week. I tried to regain my composure, ravenous for a brawl, and yet knowing that light was quickly arriving and still we had not set foot on even one of the 3,992 steps that make up the Haiku stairs…that is, 3,992 steps that must be walked up and then must again be walked back down. Persuaded by the terror of jostling myself down the tiny, almost child-sized metal steps, glistening with pools of slippery mountain mist as night began to crawl over the mountain and upon us, extinguishing all light, I summoned my zeal for a good fight and focused it instead on the upcoming physical ordeal.
The man still called after us as we ignored him, climbing over 6-foot-tall chain link fences posted with State of Hawaii no “No Trespassing” signs in English and in native Hawaiian, through bogs of red-earthed mud, and through groves of bamboo and elegant stalks of wild ginger whose head of red tubed flowers resembling royal scepters imagined from long ago. A sense of wonder filled me with the electric energy of discovery.
We walked past an old concrete building, shining with gold and red and cyan blue graffiti, past more signs detailing the danger of the now illegal hike, written in flowing Hawaiian. Canopy trees shaded the roads up the foot of the mountain, branches stretched out like the arms of a waiter carrying delicate dishes atop the tips of his fingers. Clots of small green leaves huddled together in shelflike quivers of foliage, remarkably similar to those graceful canopy trees that silhouette the horizon in auburn-scaped images of the Savannah. And yet we were here: cool, wet, seething orange-and-red-earthed Oahu; the fragrance of the jasmine-like Puakenikeniflower, tuberose, and plumeria riding the trade winds across the island, the sounds of tropical birds clattering in staccato and undulating rhythms escorting one wherever he go.
The quiet of the mountain eventually found us after losing our way a few times in the muddy labyrinth. Finally, we arrived at the beginning. An overweight security guard in an aging white sedan languidly pushed open the driver’s side door and indifferently said that he was obliged to warn us that we were trespassing on government property and to inform us that the hike was dangerous and illegal. As soon as he said his piece, he slopped himself back into the car and began to tear pieces off of a piece of sweet bread. We asked him a few questions and received back a meager response. Now quite confident that there was no real concentrated effort by the government to stop us, we began to ascend the most muddy, slippery, steep, and small staircase one could feasibly imagine climbing without dying on the second step, still standing—at least partially standing—since its year of creation 67 years ago here in the Koolau Mountain range.
Convinced that we were the only ones with the courage and fitness to climb this seemingly unending staircase, we climbed and stepped and pulled ourselves up the first flight of the journey, stopping every twenty steps for a breath, pulling our bodies up the vertical incline with the knowledge of its difficulty—so difficult that we were the only ones to pursue its apex, to climb its factrade, which seemed to tower precariously over the city below, seemingly right above the highway where the cars were mere playthings and even the slightest wind became aggrandized by this razor’s edge along the spine of the mountain range without a single windbreak. A slight breeze along the water’s edge, far off and down below would ripple upward, upward, upward, until, without anything to stop it, it became a gust pushing into the sides of our bodies, pushing against our unsteady stance as we climbed higher and higher into the cloud cover, above the city, away from the morning perfume of buttercup yellow plumeria, and into a section of the staircase so warped it seemed as though a giant had taken a menacing hold onto it to thwart visitors to his mountaintop hermitage.
We stop and stare at the landslide that took away this piece of land, now a hollow sinkhole with a tangle of steps and steel and twisted arm rails that lie across in haphazard angles. I begin to doubt the sanity in remaining committed to such an undertaking and think of turning back and enjoying a day reading in the sun on some beach to the North, drinking passion fruit tea and sampling the local food truck fare…perhaps a fish taco? A cool acai bowl topped with curls of fresh coconut and local honey…
My brother jumps forth like a gazelle, all of his agility focused in the certainty of his feet, in the certainty of his stride. Reluctantly, I move forth, scuttling across the strip of broken footing as if I am a hermit crab clinging to the rocks on shore as the tide begins to fight to take me away. I can see myself plummeting off of the steep face of this hike, my boyfriend having to climb back down and watch as some trained officer carries my limp and bruised body onto the helicopter where it will be delivered to the morgue.
I am speechless at my realization of the closeness of death.
Just as we pass through the knot of steel and the clear earth, barren from the recent landslide, I know that the possibility of acute danger is a very real thing, not just lazy words out of the mouth of some indifferent guard—if he could even be called that.
Then, suddenly, the image of our absurd stupidity and also of our rare courage and ability fall below like a penny thrown from the wing of the Empire State Building: I hear voices.
“Do you hear something?” I ask Paul, beginning to think that perhaps by some feat of physics we can hear the voices of the people far below us as if they are right here, their words being carried by the wind.
He stammers and looks around in confusion, clinging to the loose side rail, a false sense of security. Straight ahead I look up and see almost completely vertical in front of me a wall of mud and rock with steps upon it so steep that the parade of people climbing down are descending as though from a 1,000ft ladder. Without betraying even a slight look of perplexity at our presence, two, three, nine, fourteen, twenty-two or so people creep past on a ladder-stairway so narrow it can barely contain one full human. My eyes bulge, aghast, staring as teenagers, twenty-somethings, one eight-year-old and even a man in his sixties push through as if it were a moderate hike on a well-traversed trail through the joyful woods of Asheville, North Carolina. I look at the woman who seems to be the spouse of the man in his sixties and ask her how it was up there. She looks at me and says without passion, “Eh. OK. We were hoping to see the sunrise but there was too much cloud cover. Oh well.”
Then I ask her about how far is left to go. She looks at me seriously and says, “Well, put it this way: you are about 1/10th of the way there. And I don’t mean of the whole hike. I mean, just on the way up.”
After hearing these words, I sincerely want to cry. I feel as if I were choking and that no matter how much I breathe, it will never be enough oxygen. My thighs already feel as though they will collapse beneath me at any moment, my strength dissolving into jelly. My knees can no longer support my weight without giving out here and there and my arms are sore from trying to pull myself up the steps because it is too steep to climb. I look at the man in his sixties, the little eight-year-old boy, a group of overweight girls with stern faces and one in flip flops and what could be called a sporty skirt, and I feel very, very small and very, very regular and very, very unprepared for the difficulties of this reality, now well aware that much of this trip so far has been under the gaze of overestimating myself and underestimating the efforts of others. I feel very lazy and very stupid, and I vow to finish this hike no matter how long it takes or how badly my body screams with soreness, with pain, with thirst and exhaustion.
A few more scrambles upward and more and more groups of people of all ages, shapes, and abilities squeeze past us.
After what may have been one, two, or four hours, Paul and I spot a flat, concrete landing that, from our vantage point, seems to be the top of the mountain. We spot my brother there, listening to his radio, slugging water, his legs hanging off the edge, and lighting up a joint which gets passed around as we try to regain our breath and appreciate the view: the clouds opening around us, the sun gazing through, and the whole Koolau Mountain range an array of vivid and muted greens as the peaks fade farther and farther into the clear blue distance.
“You know, that wasn’t so bad after all,” Paul says triumphantly.
My brother stares at him in silence.
We look above the platform.
It comes into view: more than a thousand stairs left to the top.
My brother Ian breaks out into an I can’t believe you thought that was the whole hike guffaw.
“That woman wasn’t kidding,” I think, “we’re not even halfway up!”
The joint calms me down and we start again, trying to enjoy the ride, and actually now beginning to.
I begin to feel energized, excited, willing.
The sun shines upon us and we’re here. On this majestic space above the city on this unlikely island in the middle of the Pacific, and it hits me that this is perfect.
When, sunburned and crazy from exercise, we arrive at the top, windy and wild, Ian sets up a hammock over the side of a cliff and I watch in disbelief as he climbs into it as it balloons with the wind, and tries to relax. Realizing we’ve all got too much adrenaline running through our veins to keep calm, he decides to go in the polar opposite direction and begins to climb onto the roof of this tiny communications tower at the top of this windy mountain overlooking the sea, standing at the very tip of the roof’s Eastern corner and posing as if he were a famous mountaineer leering over some formidable frosted Alpen ledge for some half-dead schmuck stuck following around crazy mountaineering junkies for that perfect shot promised to National Geographic. I snap a photo and laugh, realizing that if my brother hadn’t taken up the opportunity to nearly be blown off the top of a mountain, I probably would have. It’s in the blood after all. Someone’s got to do it.
He shuffles down the side of a satellite wider than the width of one of those false wood-paneled trailers with a hole in the roof rotting in the middle of the woods in the Catskills, the Oregon forests, outside the hippie camps of North Carolina, in the middle of the menacing wilderness of Alaska’s frontier, as the wind whips his jacket this way and that and as he stuffs a purple Okinowan sweet potato into his mouth to free his hands.
When he comes down, Paul and I are inspecting the inside of the tiny concrete room that was once the army’s main communications center on that side of Oahu because of its unimpaired reach.
Ian slinks by chewing a handful of raw kale, holding it with a fist as children often hold bouquets of freshly-picked wildflowers: choking the stems with all fingers. He alternates bites of purple sweet potato which tastes like honey and also like smoky bacon and bites of dark green Lacinato kale with the texture of alligator skin.
I laugh, thinking, of course, and then after a slew of pictures, we begin the descent back down from the quiet land of what I assume can only be the bizarre, imperfect, roughly-won “Heaven” to which the stairway is said to lead.
The climb down is exciting yet more difficult, though it is hard to realize that it is because the wave of endorphins that kick in after pushing your body so far beyond its comfort zone are powerful enough to convince one that the sweet potato was spiked with ecstasy. We make it down in good time with a sense of jolly, practically skipping down the steps until one of us inevitably misses a step, comes close to the knowledge of death again, and then eventually once again forgets and keeps clamoring down with naïve celebration and in a style bordering upon carelessness.
When we arrive at the bottom we are warned by some hapless hikers just beginning their hike that the security guard down there is pretty grumpy and that they thought they heard police near the entrance in the residential street where the pink-faced man was snapping pictures.
Feeling too good to compromise our joyful high, we spend the last long leg of our trip after the 7,984th step wading through one of the most beautiful accidental features of the hike: an enormous forest composed of glossy trunks of waving bamboo that creates the most peaceful and gorgeous hollow tapping rhythm you could imagine. Not one other vegetative creature grows in that forest, and all around all the eye can see is perfectly linear shafts of vivid green chambered bamboo swaying softly to its own music, shining like a million thin and fat and simple emerald towers all individual and yet melding together as an entwined, singing collective. Everyone is quiet as we breathe in the regality of this space where it seems we have become a part of the forest, entangled in its bodies, creeping through its frothy, murmuring chorus that just happens to be the only path that avoids confrontation with the guard.
I hope the forest will go on forever, wishing we could be lost here for hours, for days, so that I can remain in with these beings that feel as if they have invited me to bear witness to this performance, to be ensconced in its tranquil magic.
Alas, the emerald forest gives way to a dirt road and, surprisingly, to a carpet of wild ginger whose naked tubers are hunched and pushing themselves out of the eroding ground. My boyfriend and I stop and coat ourselves in mud, sticks in hand, trying to dig up some of the wild ginger to take home, to plant—assuming we can sneak it through customs—as we break off pieces and the spicy, warm scent reaches our noses and takes us to yet another place: to another time with another reason; to a place lush and green and windy and wild, without gravel and communications towers and computers upon which to type these stories.
Ginger in hand, in shirt, in pockets, in socks—filling up every crevice and possible holder—we sneak through a back yard laden with clouds of red, papery bouganvillea, and past the house of the pink-faced man who I imagine is chugging a Just Add Booze! Mai Tai imbued with $2.50 worth of $10/gallon jug of rum.
It’s a disappointingly uneventful walk back to the car, and probably we could have pranced past the sweet roll-eating guard after all without consequence.
But then again, that would have neglected to consider the mysterious magic of the wondrous, rigorous, and self-awakening journey of the Stairway to Heaven.