Life is often like walking through a forest. Surrounded by oft unfamiliar environments full of different beings that we can’t always see but are surely there living out of view, we move along pathways formed by those who came before us. Both in life and on the trail, we sometimes can only see right in front of us.
I found myself in the late afternoon of a mildly humid, overcast Saturday in need of the quietude of nature. Personal life events have been recently challenging me to new levels of understanding, vulnerability, and acceptance. Significant shifts in my life and increasing maturation have been taking place over the past few years, particularly this past year.
While I am grateful for these things overall, the work of processing and integrating deeper layers of existence requires considerable energy and is not always easy. One lesson I am in the midst of establishing as a new default is recharging my energy before it becomes depleted. This can be accomplished in as many ways as there are people—for me, nature photography has long been one method, and it is one I have been neglecting for some time. Today, I felt the pull to return to the land and show it respect through admiration and appreciation of its beauty, knowing this act always has something profound to offer us in a way that is distinct from what people or things are able to give.
I grabbed my Nikon D7000 with a manual Rokinon 85mm f/1.4, a reliable and commendable duo to help soothe the nerves and force everything to slow down, a combination I have not used in years. A quick search of nearby hiking trails turned up Waimano Valley Loop Trail in Pearl City on Oʻahu and I decided it would be my destination. Its location made it easy for me to get to while offering the solitude of other valley trails that require a greater travel time commitment. Proximity was not the only factor—I felt called to appreciate a new place on this sacred island that I was born and raised on. A short drive later, I arrived at the trailhead and gave thanks for the ability to walk through this place before I headed down the path.
The lightly visited trail promised a short, pleasant, and minimally challenging 2.3 miles, just long enough for a brief walking meditation away from other people and the incessant clamor of civilization leaving an ample amount of late afternoon light remaining. Only a few steps onto the dusty red dirt path surrounded by birdsong and sunlight, my thoughts and emotions took a backseat as I engaged my senses with the life around me. Textures, colors, and dancing light caught my eyes as I walked and I stopped to slowly capture them. My grip on the manual lens and attention to its tiny variations in focus drowned out the competition of my mind for awareness.
I am here right now, and what is in front of me is the most important thing right now, I told myself as I took the first few shots I’ve taken with any non-mobile camera in months. Everything immediately slowed down.
Time slows down when we immerse ourselves in nature. It seems that the mere presence of a clock or electronic technology amps up the speed of our lives, pressing us to flit about competing priorities like forest moths in daylight, haphazardly roaming space looking for some safe branch on which to land. Only when we pause and feel our feet touching down do we realize our safety is tied to the depth of the roots embedded in the sovereign ground.
I slowly made my way through the still forest, focusing my attention on each sense in turn—the crunching of rocks in dirt amid the soft thud of my booted steps, the crispness of my nylon backpack muting house keys dancing inside while birds harmonized with the tinkling breeze of leaves; the moist scent of humidity from sky and stream merged with vivid hues of tree, earth, and grass; the invisible heat of dusk approaching danced with pores across my skin; the faintly metallic taste of my clean palate that had been washed in cool water twenty minutes before; striking violet flowers dotting heart-shaped vibrant green leaves joined to dry brown stems that curled at the ends and stuck out like antennae from the ground.
This rotating awareness centered me in my aliveness, connected with everything surrounding me in an unbroken tapestry of existence. Soon, I was no longer walking in the forest, but just a cell of its greater body playing a part in an endless symphony of life.
The trail was often almost overgrown, tall blades of grass offering barely perceptible resistance as I stepped through, like tens of thousands of paper thin fingers gently brushing my legs with soft whispers. Roots of trees formed perfect steps seemingly placed just for me to trust with my weight and bearings. The trail descended into a dry stream bed where I sat for some time before continuing up the path that hooked right back into the trees.
The rich yellows and greens of the forest repeated themselves in stone and leaf, palm and bark, ground and cover. Sunlight twirled shadows through translucent leaves that seemed to be running away from its touch, enlisting the wind’s help in evading the caress of light. I watched their game and smiled at how joyous they looked, endlessly hiding and reappearing in an undulating verdant spectrum.
Continuing along the path, I encountered forks with no trail markers where both footpaths seemed plausible. Yet, I knew only one choice could be the right way to keep me on the loop trail. The other may dead-end into the stream bed or lead off to an unknown part of the forest reserve area that includes a hunting ground.
At these crossroads, I marveled at the parallels between navigating hiking trails and finding our way through life. Just like life, we often have to decide between two choices where only one will take us where we want to go and where the other may lead somewhere unwanted and dangerous.
While I’m all for adventure and discovery—traveling solo to foreign countries is my favored avocation—sometimes even I want the safety of a vetted route. Indeed, even while adventuring the less-traveled path, we have to make tiny adjustments to our choices based on what we observe in others within our environments. This is usually a matter of cultural sensitivity and can often become a matter of physical safety, and the two are generally intertwined in a complex language of mannerisms, words, and beliefs. Whether we’re on a trail or in an unknown land, our environment often tells us most all we need to know if only we pay attention.
After walking through increasingly overgrown paths, I rounded a bend and spotted a reassuring bright pink trail marker adorning a tree. A few steps later, and the ground was blanketed with what looked like an unusual type of wild, orange hibiscus flowers. While writing this, I discovered they are indeed a variety of tree hibiscus called the sea hibiscus or hau, which in turn delighted me to chance upon the namesake of the classic Waikīkī restaurant, the Hau Tree Lanai.
Just as I began looking for a flower to capture, sunlight punctured the tall, thick tree cover and illuminated one that had fallen upright into the bamboo-like leafage lining the trail. The gleaming lasted just for a few moments before fading away. Capturing the right light in photography is much like capturing an opportunity in life—you only have a few moments before it changes forever, I thought.
Right past this mulching memorial of hibiscus, I followed the path to the right and spotted an official trail marking sign ahead of me, the only one I had yet come across—all those before were pink ties on tree limbs and trunks, typically the volunteer efforts of trail-going enthusiasts.
While I paused to take this photo, I heard the sound of footsteps approaching, and shortly after the only person I would encounter on the trail appeared to the right of the sign, donning wireless headphones, passing by with the briefest gaze of obligatory eye contact and greetings when momentarily happening upon a stranger.
I secretly found it humorous that in the moment I took this shot, the arrow signage depicting a hiker pointed directly at a person hiking.
From here, the trail ascended into a steep climb up exposed roots and rocks, rising dramatically along with my heart rate. Carefully I placed each step, my attention focused on avoiding loose rocks lest I lose balance and fall backwards in peril. It was then I was thankful I had chosen the lower loop route by intuition back at the start of the trail. The sharp grade of the mountain would have been more difficult to negotiate in the opposite direction. Just like life, I pondered, we sometimes have to face dangerous paths, but when we trust ourselves, even difficulties have fortune embedded within them.
Nearly ten minutes of constant ascent and I reached a plateau, rewarded by deep valley views and a strong, refreshing valley wind that felt cooler against the newly earned dampness of my face. I admired the scene before resuming heading down the earthen path that at brief points narrowed along the valley ridge to treacherous widths punctuated with scattered loose rocks. It wasn’t long before I noticed a small tunnel burrowed under trees to the left of the trail.
I stayed on the main trail, not knowing where the tunnel may lead, and was amused that it led right back to the trail only about twenty-five feet later. Just another short distance ahead, I was surprised to see that another similar tunnel appeared. Only while writing this did I learn the tunnels are parts of a former water irrigation system, and there are ten of them along the path that continues to the longer Waimano Ridge trail; two longer tunnels form their own loop off the Ridge trail.
I embarked on this hike to seek refuge in the familiar embrace of Oʻahu’s mountains and valleys via a novel trail I’d yet to discover. My sense of duty to the environment and mālama ʻāina has been deepening over the past few months, and in return, today I felt nature gently calling to comfort and share wisdom with me in a time of distress if only I offered my love. It certainly gave me both the solace I sought and the guidance I needed.
If you’ve been on one valley or mountain trail on this island, then you will be familiar with qualities consistent with all of them, even as the location and terrain shifts and changes. Like life, many things will often be similar, but it is specific elements that vary and determine the choices we have access to. Not every valley hike on Oʻahu has irrigation tunnels or hau trees, just like not every path in life will offer us the same choices, even though they all occur within the overall “hike” of our life. It’s up to us to choose our path and respond accordingly to what we encounter. If we remember to slow down along the way and connect ourselves back to our lives and our place in the greater whole, we will surely end up choosing the path meant just for us. There can be no outcome more precious than this, an echo of priceless life itself. ॐ