I have always wanted to go to Hawaii. But to be honest, we landed on Hawaii as our honeymoon destination without too much thought. My parents gifted us use of their Disney Vacation Club points as a wedding gift, Disney has a resort in Hawaii, and Hawaii was (kind of) on the way back to Melbourne from Colorado. Tom and I briefly experimented with the idea of trying to add some sort of backpacking adventure in South East Asia to the trip, but it wasn’t feasible with the amount of leave we both had from work and the logistics of crossing an ocean with a giant wedding dress (my gown would be needed again for our reception in New Zealand a few months later). So just like that, Hawaii it was. And after saying goodbye to our family and friends who traveled from all over to meet us in Colorado, we packed up and headed towards the Pacific.
After a long day of travel we landed in Honolulu delirious. We zombied through the logistics of collecting our baggage and picking up our rental car, then made the 40 minute drive to the other side of the city and the place we’d be calling home for the week. Arriving at Disney’s Aulani Resort was honestly like a dream. We were greeted with leis and fresh fruit water and arrived at our room just as the sun began to set. We had an ocean view from our balcony. Like everything Disney does, it was magical.
We awoke lazily the next morning. Reaching over to my cell phone to check the time, I saw instead a message with a red exclamation point on my screen.
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
It was Saturday, the 13th of January, 2018.
To be honest, I’m so used to reading sensational things on my cell phone that I can tell you that weirdly, I didn’t feel a thing when I read that alert. It did feel more real a few seconds later when I read it aloud to Tom. But even then, single reader, I was highly skeptical.
Later I would see videos of people running in the streets, of hotel lobbies filled with upset tourists, of cars left abandoned. But that’s not how it was at Aulani. I got out of bed and looked out the window. I could see families floating in the lazy river below. It seemed business as usual in our little corner of paradise.
Tom and I spoke briefly about what there was to be done about it all, if it were true. Tom was pretty solidly team ‘I’ll stay in bed thank you.’ I wasn’t sure, so I did what anyone looking for answers in this day and age does, I googled it.
We were lucky. We slept in. By the time we received and processed the alert, the internet was already full with the news that it was all a false alarm. Maybe five minutes after we awoke to the message, the follow up message was delivered. I’m sure the experience was much more terrifying for those who lived through those first 30 minutes when everyone thought it was real. Thank god for jetlag.
Eventually we did roll ourselves out of bed, and decided we wanted to start our tour of Oahu from up high.
The remnants of the long dormant shield volcano known as Ko’olau rises above the center of Oahu like an ancient, weathered spine. There are lots of walks to the tops of various craters and cones that have erupted from this range around the island – and many in the area of Honolulu. We thought stretching our legs and climbing something high would be the best way to orient ourselves to the island on this first day of our Honeymoon.
First on our list that morning: Koko Crater.
This trail follows an old railroad track straight up the side of the crater and had been recommended to us by several friends. It looms massive over the parking lot, which I was surprised to find completely full. We were lucky to slide into a spot just as it’s previous occupant pulled out.
The crowds weren’t my only surprise on this sunny Saturday. Immediately as we got out of the car we heard them.
I wasn’t sure. But as we made our way up the trail I was continually startled by the near constant claps.
Yes, they were definitely gunshots. Near the bottom of the crater, just beyond the parking lot for the trail, is a shooting range.
Maybe I was more effected by the ballistic missile false alarm than I had thought, maybe it was my HSP-ness, either way, I felt immediately uncomfortable. I’m not an exercise hiker – that is to say, while I enjoy exercise, I don’t typically hike or climb for the physical challenge. I do it for access. Access to views I wouldn’t otherwise enjoy, connections I couldn’t otherwise make, peace I wouldn’t otherwise find. I can be forgiving of a crowded trail if there’s something special along the way, but I was finding it really, really hard to be forgiving of the abrasive sounds of that shooting range. It immediately left me feeling frazzled, as I felt my body tense with the anticipation of each loud clap and my inner ears tightening each time. The physical sensation was intense enough that it nearly made me sick.
It was so abrasive that I immediately started thinking about how strange it was that so many people had recommended this hike to us and yet none had mentioned it. Maybe the range was extra busy because it was a beautiful day, or a weekend, or because people spent the morning thinking they were going to be blown off the face of the planet and needed to blow off some steam. Maybe it’s usually quieter at Koko crater. I don’t know. The crowds on the tracks that day didn’t seem as bothered by the sounds as me. For the millionth time in my life, I cursed my HSP-ness.
I didn’t disclose this discomfort to Tom at first. If I told him every time the world felt overwhelming or physically painful we’d never get to do anything. I reasoned that the shots would grow further into the distance as we climbed. So up we went.
I knew it would be hard. From the parking lot it’s clear just how steep and long the trail is. We went up and up, passing and being passed by multitudes of sweaty bodies. As we got higher the ocean, it seemed, got bigger. The views were beautiful.
After walking upwards for what seemed like forever, we got to a section that flattened out slightly – but not without a price. For most of the hike, the railroad track lies directly on the ground. But on this section, the ground falls suddenly away some 40ft. The track may be flat, but between each tie is a view of the ground, uncomfortably far away and no handrails with which to steady shaky hands.
I am famously unsteady on my feet. I have bad balance on flat ground. Tom didn’t think twice before continuing across but for me, this was an easy ‘no thank you.’
There was a man resting on the ground just beside this part of the trail. I must have looked concerned, because he told me he was a local and pointed to a small opening in the trees behind him. He told me it was a trail that would take me around the section and would meet back up with the track in a less hairy spot. Feeling determined, I took his advice and headed into the trees.
He was right. When I emerged on the other side I met a lady who had just crossed the tracks on her hands and knees. She was still trembling. When she saw me appear she smacked her partner and exclaimed ‘you mean I didn’t have to do that??’
The trail became even steeper now. I was drenched in sweat, and my knees were wobbly. Weirdly, the noise from the shooting range below seemed to be getting louder. My heart was racing from the exertion, but also from the intense anxiety that often appears when I realize my physical reactions to the world are not what others’ around me are experiencing. My hands were shaking from frazzled nerves. Above me there was still a lot of track to climb. Below me the crowds kept coming. Why isn’t this noise bothering anyone else? I convinced myself the sound of gunshots ringing was only getting louder in my head. I thought I was going crazy. I told Tom I better go down.
I felt overwhelmed and upset. I told Tom to continue on as I turned around. I used my special path through the trees again to avoid the dropping section. The shots were still so loud. My balance was horrendous, and the nerves were not helping. On the way down, feeling defeated rather than determined, I started to see details in the railroad ties I hadn’t noticed before. Details like exposed nails, splintering wood, and jagged, rusty iron everywhere, ready to catch me if I fell. The view was nice when I looked out, but I couldn’t enjoy it.
It would be easy to read this account as dramatized or an over reaction. If you don’t suffer from anxiety, if you yourself don’t identify as a Highly Sensitive Person, it might be hard to understand. Scores of people completed the climb that day and had a lovely experience. Tom was one of them. But I share my version of the story because I was and am still shocked that so many guidebooks, websites, and blogs could recommend what is actually an unmaintained, deteriorating railroad track with a shooting range at the bottom as a sight seeing trail. If you suffer from anxiety or identify as HSP, I would sincerely recommend you look somewhere other than Koko Crater for your Oahu views.
I waited at the bottom of the tracks for Tom, and as I sat on a warm rock I realized that while I could still hear the gunshots, they weren’t as loud anymore. Later, when I shared with Tom the details of my panic attack above he told me I wasn’t going crazy, that the gunshots had rung louder as we got higher. They must have been echoing off the side of the crater or something. That made me feel better, like a bit less of a weirdo.
My determination had sprung back up again by the time we got back to the car. I may have failed this climb, but I needed to get to the top of something today. To prove to myself I could, if nothing else. So we decided to pay a visit to what is perhaps Koko Crater’s more famous cousin – Diamond Head.
The trail at Diamond Head was originally built in 1908 by the army. There are cement bunkers, artillery cannons, man-made observation decks and a lot of stairs (the real kind, not re-purposed railroad ties). But even with the military history, the lack of actual live ammunition made me feel much more at ease. Diamond Head was even more crowded than Koko Crater, but the history of the place was so interesting, and the views spectacular.
I was so happy at the top. I felt vindicated.
We all have limits. I have a bad habit of constantly comparing my own limits to others’. But from the observation deck at the top of Diamond Head, I gave myself credit. I gave myself credit for acknowledging my limits, for listening to my body, and for not letting it ruin my day. Just an hour before I had sat at the bottom of Koko Crater close to tears, and here I was at the top of another crater on that very same day – joyful. We can’t all make it to the top of every mountain. But there is a mountain we can all summit, it just differs by the person.
Koko just wasn’t my crater. And that’s okay.