From something I published, last year . . .
It was 4th of July weekend. I’m sitting in a tent, some-700′ above sea level, not far from where volcanic earth gives way to deep blue Pacific water, far below. Brian and I were here a couple of nights before but this time he’s dry-heaving out the side of the tent. Just a couple of days before, we hiked away from here (the closest thing to civilization) to a primitive campsite on Kalalau Beach, five miles away. With Brian in bad sorts, things didn’t look good for us getting back to the start.
We’ve been friends for a couple of decades now but it wasn’t until recently that I realized why we’re friends. If life were Star Trek, Brian is Spock. He’s Spock but with sarcasm. I realized Brian is that guy you want around largely because of brain function but mostly because he’s incredibly polite (Texas Mom!) and so damn witty. Technical proficiency doesn’t come naturally but amazing cerebral capacity makes up for it. He’s that guy I’d always want on my side, I imagine. When we met, he was the first “civilian” friend I had as I was transitioning out of the Army. He was smart and funny and a life-line back into civilian life.
Brian went to school with Chona. She spoke of him often but we didn’t meet for a full year after she and I started dating. I met most of her close friends, already, but I looked forward most to meeting Brian. He was at Harvard studying History and Literature when he came home one break to visit with his folks. I heard he was a mental badass but I also heard he mailed his Harvard application to himself.
The summer we met I did my best to teach Brian how to fish. We fished quite a bit but it never caught on with him. The following years, we found shared interests in hiking and then later running, until he discovered his feet just aren’t made for the kind of punishment you experience with long-distance running. He was a great running partner. I have fond memories of three or four mile runs around Diamond Head and Waikiki.
He’s one of the smartest people I know. Don’t let the application-thing fool you. He never remembers movie plots but he would’ve excelled at medicine (something I know a bit about) or anything that requires a high mental capacity. He chose to enter law school.
Following his first year of law school, Brian found a clerkship in Honolulu during the Summer of 1999. We talked about doing the Na Pali Coast hike along the Kalalau trail if we felt ready. Eleven miles from the start to the beach at the end. Elevation gain of 800′ at one point (where the narrow trail often snakes along a shear cliff). We hiked on the weekends, all over Oahu, conquering progressively more-strenuous terrain as the weeks passed. We did that for a month and a half before we finally decided we could do it. The only thing we were forgetting: we each weren’t carrying sixty pounds on our back for any of those half a dozen hikes.
We had a couple of weeks to plan before we’d fly over to Kauai (on the 2nd of July). Brian got a nice pair of boots but decided against a backpack as he had a suitcase that converted into backpack—really it was a clunky suitcase with straps. I bought a backpack and we chipped in on supplies and other community equipment, including a hand-pumping water purifier, iodine tablets and a container of electrolyte drink mix. I had a fishing pole and a couple of pounds of fishing lead to go with. I had no complaints with my new backpack but Brian developed a blister not long after buying the new boots, to which we assumed was due to a lack of sufficient break-in.
I contacted my close friend, and former ambulance partner, Tiffany, who was stationed at an ambulance unit on the road out to the trailhead. She volunteered the use of her pickup truck to get us there. And she would be working the days we arrived and departed. All was set. Susanna, whom I’d only started dating the month before, boarded Kona for me and dropped us off at Honolulu International.
We stuck to the plan fairly well. Crossed the Hanakapi’ai river at two miles, camped at the Hanakoa campsite, at the six-mile point the first night. The elevation gain was fairly significant but we were blown away by the sight of it all: how much more tropical Kauai is, the shear cliffs, the elevation, etc.
The following night, we camped at Kalalau Beach, another five miles away. That part of the trail is mostly down, so we made really good time, arriving not long after lunchtime. We hung out on the beach mostly, as the cliffs ringing the beach were shear, with falling rocks nudged loose by wandering goats. I fished a bit (caught a small Akule, or Big-eyed Scad, which swim in schools close to shore). We left the next afternoon to return to Hanakoa (where we spent the first night), after we roasted in the sun for much too long.
The entire time, from the moment we ran out of the potable water we’d brought with us, we siphoned water from the streams, through the hand-pumped water purifier, and added iodine tablets as an added measure. I knew this but didn’t put much thought into it at the time: iodine kills bacteria but it doesn’t discriminate—normal flora in our gut was killed as well.
There we were, at the Hanakoa campsite, late-evening, sitting in the tent ready to rack out and Brian has the dry heaves. He’d puked out anything, long before, right about the time we arrived back at Hanakoa, earlier that afternoon. I thought his nausea was caused by staring down at the trail as he hiked but, in-hindsight, realize it was likely heat exhaustion bordering on heat stroke.
We ran out of water sometime after leaving Hanakoa. We ran out of electrolyte drink, the night before, when Brian wasn’t able to keep his dinner down. We were very nearly too exhausted to go through the laborious task of generating potable water when we got to Hanakapi’ai river, where we were both suffering from a heat illness. We were both hurting pretty badly, though, Brian’s condition was compounded by severe dehydration, so water was little help at that point. Muscle cramps were slowing me down. And that massive suitcase/backpack was a giant gorilla on his back.
Less than a mile from the pickup truck, I told Brian that I couldn’t keep stopping and would continue ahead, take the truck to get some intravenous fluids at the closest ambulance unit, and wait for him at the parking lot. Neither medic knew who I was at that station and we couldn’t reach Tiffany, so I was unsuccessful at getting any IV equipment to rehydrate Brian. I bought a few bottles of electrolyte drink and waited on the tailgate of the pickup truck in the parking lot. I couldn’t move well at all.
Maybe thirty or forty minutes after I’d perched myself on the tailgate, I spied a man carrying Brian’s suitcase pack, walking down from the trailhead. He reported coming up to Brian with his wife (who was back assisting Brian to our point).
With Brian in the passenger seat, I sped to Tiffany’s unit, where they’d just returned from a call. I loaded Brian with a few bags of saline as he cautiously gulped at the drinks I bought earlier. After the third bag, he could stand well-enough to make it to the airport.
I felt guilt for many years, following, realizing he could’ve died out there or I could’ve made his condition much worse with all of the fluid I gave him (diluting his already electrolyte-depleted body). I remember Brian’s wife, Sarah, telling me to take care of Brian before we left. I kept thinking of that.
I think of that time, Brian dry-heaving outside of the tent, miles from nowhere, and breathe a mental sigh of relief. When I see their daughter, I think about meeting her only a few weeks after she was born. Each visit, she’s even more of an amazingly gifted person. During my last visit with them, seeing him compete in a cycling event in my hometown, I feel blessed we both got out of that beautifully deadly eleven mile stretch of coast. All four marathons I took part in were not as tough as that stretch of Kauai coastline. I think we’re both wiser and better people for surviving.