This is for Mary Park who I met on the Big Island at Hele Malie last month. It’s an article I wrote upon our return. I’ve since gone on every trip.
"Hele Malie pushed me way out of my comfort zone. It was a five-day backpacking sesshin at Kokee State Park on Kauai. I am new to Zen practice and backpacking is something I have never considered doing. To be honest, I didn’t really know what backpacking was. I knew it had something to do with camping and hiking.
The thought of combining it with sesshin was interesting to me as I tend to be a little hyper and I thought meditation would be better for me if it involved moving.
At first, my husband wasn’t too thrilled about the idea. He knew what I didn’t about how much time, energy and money it would take to get me outfitted. Being the supportive husband he’s always been, he came around and encouraged me to do. The decision to go was just the first of many decisions to be made.
Brian, the trip planner, sent daily email correspondence with advice and information about the trip and recommendations of what to bring. These emails were invaluable for a newbie like me as they lent support and kept me informed. He also planned weekly hiking trips to get us in shape and to test out new equipment.
The first thing I needed was a backpack. When I went shopping, the only one that fit me was the biggest one in the store. I thought I’d have plenty of extra room. This thing looked huge. It was the biggest thing I’ve ever carried. Then there was the one-person tent. I’m going to put up a tent? Yikes! I ordered one from L.L. Bean that weighed 4 pound. Pretty lightweight shelter, huh? I can go on and on about gear…waterproof jacket , sleeping bag, mini flashlight, dry bags, and camera.
The camera decision was a big one as I am a photographer. I knew there would be great photo opportunities, but my focus was sesshin and not shooting. Digital was out of the question as there would be no way to recharge batteries as digital cameras are insatiable users of power. Film camera? Too heavy. I considered sing-use cameras, but have never been happy with the results and knew I’d be frustrated with them. During a workshop in Maine, I purchased a novelty camera called a Holga. It takes medium format film, but has a plastic body and lens. The light leaks are a lovely bonus. The camera still needs to be taped up to control some of the light leaks. It is lightweight and offered the possibility of surprises. Perfect…made for our trip. Group gear was organized by Brian and Lisa, our amazing tenzo. This included food, water purification, cooking gear, and stoves. Preparation for sesshin seems to be taken care of by invisible hands, but much of Brian and Lisa’s work was revealed when we met on Friday night before departure to distribute the gear.
First, all of it was weighed and the total weight divided by the number of hikers. Ninety pounds meant that we each carried ten pounds in addition to our personal gear. All of a sudden, the pound of tamari roasted almonds I bought seemed like an extreme luxury.
We met in the zendo and talked about our physical condition and potential challenges for the trip. One of the most important things Nelson said in regard to this trip was to take care of ourselves for the sake of the group. It was something that guided me throughout.
We left for Kauai on Saturday morning. Diana lives on Kauai so she met us at the Kihei Airport with two people who kindly agreed to give us a ride up to the Park Headquarters. Brian briefed Diana in the car on the way up. We had lunch and enjoyed a light sprinkling of rain. We then headed for the trail, leaving a distance of about 50 yards between each of us. The distance allows for a feeling of walking alone and in silence. It’s quite a beautiful thing. At the very beginning of the trail there is a lookout to the ocean that is stunning. Ginger said later that it was â€œlike having dessert first.â€ﾝ
Luckily, we were to walk at our own pace. I was the second to the last person and lagging quite a big. At one point when I stopped to rest, I noticed Nelson behind me. Uh, oh. Nelson was the designated sweep that dayâ€“the last person on the trail whose job is to be sure no one is left behind. I tried to rush, but I was staggering from the weight of my pack at this point. He slowed me down and suggested that I take my time and rest. That was the best news I heard all day. This leg of the trip was the hardest and most rewarding for me. Every time I’d get to a spot that I needed to climb, I’d think that there was no way I was going to be able to do this without help. Well…there was no one in the immediate vicinity to help me so I’d make an attempt and, amazingly enough, I’d make it without falling. Before we went on the trip, I expressed to Brian that I was afraid of falling. He simply said, â€œIf you do, we’ll pick you up.â€ﾝ It didn’t seem like much at the time, but it kept me going.
At twilight, we arrived at Sugi Grove, our campsite. I was apprehensive about pitching a tent by myself for the first time. I never realized what a scaredy cat I am. Yikes! There were pine needles all over the ground. It was quite different from the flat grass at home where my husband showed me how to pitch the tent. Luckily, Diana chose a spot nearby and I was able to follow her lead by clearing a spot. I probably would have tried to pitch it right over the needles.
The sounding of the conch shell meant dinner. We assembled in the dark. There were no lamps, just our personal mini lights. The dinner of rice and miso soup was served and condiments passed. What a surprise I got when I tasted the soup and got a dusty mouthful of cayenne pepper. I love spice, but I had really overdone it in the dark. I ate the soup gratefully, though. I was hungry!
Our schedule was to meditate at 5 AM. I’m sure that Michael, our jikijitsu, gave us a break and we got to sleep in until around 5:30 or so. The conch woke us to let us know it was time for zazen. I stumbled to the restroom and back in the dark. Sugi Grove had a nice clean restroom with toilet paper. I pointed my light toward camp to find my back to my tent and didn’t see the huge puddle that I stopped into. My foot made it out, but my rubber slipper was left behind. Her I was with socks on and one rubber slipper. I headed to the area that was designated as our dojo and sat. When it was time to do kinhin, I stumbled around with one slipper and one sock. Brian commented later that he thought I was trying to set a new trend in meditation fashion.
After breakfast, Michael, Teresa, Bob and I made attempts to find my slipper in that puddle. We used walking sticks first and then our hands. It had sunk deep into that puddle or the resident frogs took a liking to it. I had to go on without it. We broke camp and headed out. We were uncertain where our campsite for that evening would be because it was dependent on the availability and suitability of several potential sites. I’m not sure how many miles we covered that day, but we ended up in Kawaikoi Campsite, which was five minutes from Sugi Grove. We took a long circuitous route with our packs. We ended up getting in late so that we had dinner in the dark again the second night.
It rained in the evening and I worried about my tent surviving the wind. In the morning, we meditated in the misty rain. I couldn’t recognize anyone…there were just eight other human forms sitting in a circle. Everyone came up with innovative ways to protect themselves from the rain and chill. One morning someone wore their backpack cover and looked like a little tent. It was comical.
The third day was layover day and we could do whatever we wanted to. Ginger and I chose to stay at the campsite and relax. We found a wonderful pool with cool running water and soaked ourselves surrounded by the greenery and rocks. At night, we could clearly see Mars and all the stars. Even though the moon was new, it was enough to cast shadows during zazen.
On day four we went on a day hike to the Alakai Swamp. It is a long and beautiful hike thorough forests of fern and ohia. At the end of the trail is a fragile environment. It’s hard to describe. Everything seemed muted. The colors were soft with a narrow palette, clouds were low, and it was quiet. Native Hawaiian grasses and plants thrived. At the far end of the swamp w were rewarded with brief, but stunning views of the north coast each time the mist would blow away.
On the final day, we volunteered for a session of eradication of invasive plants. A Truck picked us up and whisked us off to a forest where we pulled kahili ginger shoots. After seeing the precious native plant environment the day before, I didn’t mind eradicating these lovely invaders.
Our guide and park person extraordinaire, David Alexander, drove us to the airport. He happened to be a high school classmate of Nelson’s and spent a lot of time giving us information about the park and plants that he cared so much about. We threw our packs into the back of the truck and were strapped in on benches in the truck bed. It was a wild ride in the open bed to the airport and a great way to end the trip.
This was a wonderful journey for me. Each person was a teacher at this sesshin and each taught me something that I will never forget."