Elevation: 5,066 feet
Flying to Kauai, the final leg, my lone shot at Waialeale, I am struck by how little time I have spent anywhere near a beach. For a place so associated with water, with sand and surf, it is the land that defines Hawaii’s spirit. Maybe that is too obvious to even mention: If you are surrounded by ocean, the ground is what allows for life. Beaches attract us because they are the fringe, an end and a beginning, the intersection of water and land, and yet summits are not so different. They are at the edge, too, the convergence of land and sky.
When I get to Ken D’Attilio’s hangar, near Port Allen, he shakes his head. There are perhaps fifty days in a whole year that the clouds part long enough to allow his helicopter in, and it should come as no surprise, he tells me, that this is not one of them. I was to be accompanied on my ascent by a research botanist named Ken Wood, a gentle, empathetic soul with a graying beard and a backwards Red Stripe cap. Since we can’t get up the mountain, instead we head for breakfast. Over coffee Wood tells me that Waialeale is for him a place beyond human intellect and devising. It is a place even beyond beauty, beyond pictures and poetry. “I don’t know the language for it—maybe that-ness or such-ness or is-ness, God, the divine, whatever—a place where somebody can see that all things are connected,” he says. “Anything you can conceive is small compared to what is. That gives me solace.”
I had been feeling disappointed about missing my chance and falling one summit short, but in an instant that worry vanished. If I understood the lesson, maybe I didn’t need to get to the top of every peak. Maybe nobody does. Maybe just having them there is enough.