We started out cheerful and joking at the corral, a motley group of tourists chuckling as we heaved ourselves ungracefully onto the mules that would carry us down a rugged trail to Hawaii’s remote Kalaupapa peninsula.
Eldon “Buzzy” Sproat, a wiry 75-year-old muleskinner who’s been training mules and guiding mule tours for 40 years here on the rural island of Molokai, matched riders with the mules.
“Which end of the mule do you want to look like?” joked Buzzy, eyeing us from under his cowboy hat and assigning us mules based on our size and riding experience (or lack of it).
Swaying and chattering, we 10 tourists, from Mormon missionaries to trendy young New Yorkers, set off along the trail through sun-dappled trees echoing with birdsong. Soon we all went silent, unnerved and awed as the trail narrowed and plunged over the top of an almost 1,700-foot-tall sea cliff, the steep trail switchbacking relentlessly down to the peninsula below.
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The mules, sure-footed but lurching, picked their way down the 3.2-mile trail. On one particularly harrowing hairpin turn, I stared fearfully straight down to the waves crashing hundreds of feet below. I gripped my saddle’s pommel and grimly muttered a prayer.
Coming in on a mule and a prayer is a fitting way to enter Kalaupapa National Historical Park. The lonely peninsula, isolated by soaring cliffs and pounding surf and reached only by the trail or small plane, is one of the most scenic but sorrowful places in Hawaii. It is a place to approach slowly and respectfully, a place that is the burial ground of about 8,000 Hawaiians (and a scattering of white settlers and missionaries) who were victims of a cruel disease.
Starting in 1866, this was where Hawaiians suffering from leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, were forcibly exiled by the islands’ ruling monarch to try to stop the spread of the disease. An introduced disease to which native Hawaiians had little immunity, leprosy was, at the time, incurable, mysterious and dreaded. Anyone on any Hawaiian island — young children, teenagers, mothers, grandfathers — who showed signs of leprosy was snatched from their family and taken by boat for permanent quarantine in the Kalaupapa leper colony.
“It was a life sentence. They were imprisoned not for crimes but for being sick,” said Warren Naillon, a retiree and history buff from Clatskanie, Ore., with whom I toured Kalaupapa in January.
Until a cure was found in the 1940s, leprosy was a death sentence. Sometimes quick, sometimes many years in the killing, the disease weakened and slowly disfigured sufferers as it ate at their skin, muscles and nerves, making them vulnerable to deadly pneumonia and other illnesses.
Life in the first years of Kalaupapa was particularly brutal, with little food, little medical care and rudimentary shelter. Some Hawaiian family members fought for the right to go into exile with their ill loved ones to care for them, becoming stalwarts of the community. Religious helpers began arriving in the 1870s and 1880s, most notably Father Damien of Belgium and Mother Marianne of Syracuse, N.Y., who, after working tirelessly for decades in Kalaupapa and dying there, have both been declared saints by the Roman Catholic Church (in 2009 and 2012 respectively).
As more patients, and more help, arrived, the community coalesced and by the 1940s there were social and study clubs, community choirs and bands. Forced quarantine for leprosy was ended in 1949, after an antibiotic cure was found for the disease that’s been known and feared since biblical times. But it wasn’t until 1969 that Hawaii officially ended its isolation policy.
Today, there’s still no road to Kalaupapa; it’s reached only by the three-mile, steep trail (ride the mules or get permission to hike) or by small planes that swoop down to an airstrip.
Kalaupapa is disconcertingly beautiful, with a seaside village of tidy wood houses, a general store, health center and community hall. Kalaupapa is studded with palm trees and churches — Catholic, Mormon and Protestant. The National Park Service manages (and restores) 200 buildings and 10,700 acres on the peninsula, from the village and ancient Hawaiian archaeological sites to white-sand beaches, a volcanic crater and the sea-cliff trail.
Despite its physical beauty, “this is not a recreation area,’’ said Steve Prokop, the superintendent of Kalaupapa National Historical Park, who works in a small office in one of the village’s restored buildings. “It’s a place for contemplation … It’s a story of social injustice.”
Some elderly victims of that injustice still live in Kalaupapa, 17 former patients who have chosen to live out their days in the place that was home for decades. They live quietly in small wood houses, as do dozens of park service and state employees, with dogs in their yards and pickup trucks in the driveways (for roaming the peninsula’s dirt roads).
Because the community still endures — former patients have the right to remain in Kalaupapa for life — this is a national park with a difference. It’s a closed community, with strict limits on access. Only 100 visitors a day are allowed (and no one younger than 16) in order to protect the former patients’ privacy and peace. All visitors must take a guided tour, reserved in advance. There’s no exploring on one’s own, no swimming, no camping or overnight accommodations, no surfing.
Remembering the dead
On our mule ride down to Kalaupapa, Buzzy the muleskinner cheerfully led the way, talking story as he’d look back up the zigzagging trail to check on us. We plodded behind, the mules carefully picking their way down the muddy, rocky trail and its 26 switchbacks (which the park service has thoughtfully numbered).
At the trail’s end by the beach, the yellow school bus of Damien Tours awaited us. We slid gratefully off our mules, most of us rookie riders saddle-sore after the almost two-hour ride.
Damien Tours, started by a late Kalaupapa patient, is the only authorized tour company on the peninsula (Kalaupapa Mule Ride coordinates mule transport or hiking with a Damien tour).
Clambering in and out of the tour bus, we stood by grave sites and somberly explored 19th-century churches and the ruins of a children’s home where the youngest exiles lived. The genial guide delivered reams of Kalaupapa history, especially of its Catholic religious connections.
“My wife and I went to Molokai, to Kalaupapa, to pay our respects,” said Naillon, the tour-goer from Oregon. “Father Damien and Mother Marianne give us great examples of service that you just don’t find in today’s society.” Yet, he added, “It’s not Damien’s or a religious group’s story. This was what happened to the Hawaiian people. They suffered immensely from introduced diseases. It is their story.”
In Kalaupapa, the graves of most of the 8,000 exiles who perished here are unmarked, bearing silent witness to this tragic chapter in Hawaii’s history. The dead are watched over by the towering sea cliffs, and remembered in the hearts of their relatives.
“So many people in Hawaii have close family connections to Kalaupapa,” said park superintendent Prokop. “It’s very sacred land.”
Kristin Jackson: firstname.lastname@example.org