The sun had yet to crest Kamakou, Molokai’s highest mountain at 4,970 feet, when we pulled up to a stable--its paint long gone, its tin awning a pleasant rusty red--and an equally weathered sign that said, “World Famous Kalaupapa Rare Adventure. Kalaupapa Mule Tour.”
A dozen, saddled mules tugged at the few sprigs of grass growing along the edges of the corral out front. My eyes immediately went to one—a male, laden with brown spots and sporting the longest white eyelashes I’d ever seen. I could have sworn he batted them at me.
“Now, first thing we’re going to do is match you up with the mules,” said Buzzy Sproat, wearing four key elements of a cowboy’s uniform--hat, jeans, belt buckle and boots. “And how do you think we match you up to the mules?”
The last time I rode a mule, I was a young girl, and the mule broke for the barn, trying hard to scrape me off its back with the help of a few well-placed, low-hanging tree branches. Somehow, I managed to hang on. That was in the woods of a Missouri valley. This time, a few decades later, I stood “topside” Molokai and was about to ride a mule along a 3.2-mile, cliffside trail that descended 1,780 feet in elevation, and I—or my mule—would need to maneuver 26 switchbacks to get there.
Kalaupapa Peninsula, as all peninsulas, is surrounded by water on three sides. But what sets it apart, literally and figuratively, are some of the world’s largest sea cliffs that abut the back of the peninsula. It’s suspected that a landslide created the vertical wall in a cataclysmic event and a later volcanic eruption formed the flat, pancake of land at its base.
Nine of us showed up for the daring attempt to descend into Kalaupapa National Historical Park, whose remoteness set the stage for a tragic human saga that got its start in the 1860s. Theresa, from Alabama, answered Uncle Buzzy’s question. She suggested that Buzzy and his muleskinners would match us to our mules “by height and weight.”
Buzzy has been leading mule tours into Kalauapapa
since 1973. But he made each and every one of us feel like our day was his first. He asked our names, where we were from and what we did with our lives when we weren’t about to straddle a mule. So, when he gave his answer to how they matched up mule with rider, we all laughed, as if it was the first time he delivered the punch line, even though we knew it was well practiced.
“Nope,” he said. “What we do is bring the mule over here, and if you look like the mule, we put you on it.”
Other times, you had to listen closely to catch his humor.
Buzzy and his business partner Roy Horner own the mule part of the day’s adventure that would also include a tour through Kalaupapa Peninsula. Buzzy continued, his slow drawl and easy smile calming everyone’s quiet fears—save one. Dawn, from Washington, had no idea what was in store. Her sister had signed her up, saying it was just a mule ride. Just a mule ride?
“All the mules have a name,” Buzzy said. “And we want you to remember that name, because we cannot remember your names but we sure know your mule’s name. Some of these mules have Hawaiian names. This mule’s name is Makani. It means ‘wind’ in Hawaiian. Not because he goes like the wind but whoever rides in the back of him will know why we named him Makani.”
As the saying goes, Buzzy grew up in the saddle. Heck, he was almost born in the saddle. The youngest of seven children, his mother had to ride a mule two hours from the depths of Pololu Valley on Big Island to reach the closest hospital. By the time Buzzy came along in 1937, she hitched a ride in a car. When Buzzy discovered I lived on Kauai, the smile on his closely-cropped, grey-bearded face brightened even more, and he tilted his belt buckle, so I could read it. Princeville Rodeo. 1980.
When it came time to pair up mule with rider, Buzzy assigned the spotted mule with the long eyelashes to me. Buzzy, too, must have seen the mule batting his eyelashes at me. When I asked the mule’s name, Buzzy said, “Stripe.”
“Stripe?” I asked, confused. I was expecting the Hawaiian word for spot.
“Stripe,” Buzzy said and tightened the saddle’s straps and cinched its buckles. “So he remembers who’s in charge.”
But the truth is the mules run the show here. Buzzy knows that. “When you get on, at first, the mules will walk around and shake their heads and some people get all worried and say their mule isn’t any good. But this is not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship. If the mule wants to get mad or something, we cannot do anything about it.”
Left there, that statement might make some people nervous. But Buzzy followed up with this. “We don’t have any suicidal mules. I’ve never seen a one suicidal mule. These mules are computerized. An hour-and-a-half down and an hour-and-a-half back. When you get on the trail, put the reins around the saddle horn, and you’re on automatic pilot. But if you want to go right, pull right. If you want to go left, pull left. If you want to stop, say ‘ho.’ When the mule goes around a turn, some like to take the outside. Let him. You can pull his reins to the side, and he’ll turn his head, but he’ll still take the outside. Just sit there and let them go down the trial. They’ve been down a couple times before.”
A couple times? These mules work six days a week, hauling bodies up and down the wall.
According to the certificate of completion that was issued at the ride’s completion, the trail was built in 1887 by Molokai resident Manuel Farinha Joao in order to provide a land route for delivery of supplies and goods. Mules helped, of course, hauling tools, pulling up trees and moving large rocks. The cost to build the trail was $1,000.
Finally, mules and people matched and saddled, Buzzy saw us off with three of his muleskinners, the last, bringing up the rear on a mule-in-training, Buzzy’s son. We headed down the blacktopped road to a dirt trail and a sign that said, “Stop. Warning. Go back unless you have written permit to enter Kalawao County. Violators of HRS 326-26 subject to citation and $500 fine.”
In 1865, King Kamehameha V signed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy,” and in early 1866, 12 men and women of what would over the years number thousands were forced into exile at this remote peninsula. A cure for the disease, which has come to be called Hansen’s Disease, came in the 1940s, although the forced isolation was not lifted until 1969. Even so, many patients decided to stay, their isolation becoming their sanctuary, and, today, a dozen or so still make Kalaupapa their home. In 1976, Kalaupapa was designated a National Historic Landmark and in 1980, it was re-designated as Kalaupapa National Historic Park. Out of respect for those who still live there, visitors are limited to 100 per day, Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday.
Life, though, is still remote on Kalaupapa, even with a small airstrip on the peninsula. We met a NPS worker hiking out as we made our descent. Even though a barge comes once a year with non-perishable food and hard goods, and weekly air freight provides residents with perishable food, this man was hiking out to do some shopping topside.
Our mules jostled and positioned themselves into a long long for the descent. Laka went first. Then, Poele. Stripe fell in behind Poele. It wasn’t long before Dawn, atop Laka, realized the demands of our mule ride and let her sister—and the rest of us—know she wasn’t having any fun. She made a few shrill threats. In turn, Laka halted in the middle of the trail, refusing to budge. Poele kept her distance, knowing from experience that Laka’s temperament might result in a kick to the face. I couldn’t help but think that somehow Buzzy had matched up mule and rider perfectly.
I admit that I, too, watched the numbered switchbacks as they came into view. I leaned back with one hand on the rear of Stripe’s saddle, as he angled us downward. I stretched my legs, practically standing as I sat in the saddle—a saddle, by the way, that Buzzy won at that same Kauai rode in which he was awarded the belt buckle. And I may have asked myself that wonderful Bruce Chatwin-esque question, “What am I doing here?” But only once.
We nudged and encouraged and maybe even cussed at our mules, making our way down the tree-lined trail and, soon, a sweeping panoramic view of Kalaupapa Peninsula opened before us. Then, forgetting the numbered switchbacks, I looped my reins around the saddle’s horn, and using two hands to steady my camera as Stripe took sure step after sure step over rocks and tree limbs, I lined up the horizon and took pictures and, even, video—from the mule head cam.
By the time we reached the 26th switchback, I knew that Poele preferred to let Laka get three or four mule-lengths ahead. That Stripe had no qualms about sticking his head in Poele’s backside. And I could have sworn that Stripe had a soft spot for Poele, for when she stood waiting a bit too long for Laka to move ahead, Stripe gave Poele a gentle nudge in her backside.
It was then that I realized what an achievement Stripe had managed on my behalf. I dismounted, my legs shaky, and gave his muzzle a nuzzle, declaring, “Mules are amazing. These must be the most fit mules in the world.”
At the end of the day, when the mules raised no stink about climbing 1,780 feet in 3.2 miles along 26 switchbacks and returning to the barn, Buzzy and Roy would have our certificates of completion waiting for us declaring our entry into the renowned club of “Ali’i Mule Skinners of Molokai.” Dawn included, who, about the 23rd switchback had decided she liked the mule ride, after all.
We also received a bumper sticker that said, “Wouldn’t you rather be riding a mule on Molokai?”
And I would. As long as it was on Stripe, my trusted stead.
[Note: Part 2: The Tour of Kalaupapa to come.]