Our day of backpacking up the Z switchback on the Mulawai Trail as we hiked toward Waimanu had been hot at first, but a breath of fresh and cool air had hit us smack dab head-on once we got up on top of the ridge. While the refreshingly pleasant conifer forest up there was a welcomed surprise, the fact that we were in the midst of a well known part of Hawaii’s Big Island and that there was a camping shelter midway along the trail, was completely expected. We reached the elevated platform in the middle of the afternoon after several hours of hot and humid backpacking. Since there was plenty of daylight left and we were all physically drained, everyone picked a spot and stretched out on the shaded and relatively clean plywood for a quick nap. As I drifted off, I thought contentedly of black sand beaches, juicy and sweet Liliko’I fruit, and shade before dozing off into dream world. Josh and I were the oldest and the leaders of the group of 8 or so teenage boys, a fact that would eventually come into play. But for the moment, we all just slept.
Our group was alone when we arrived and settled in for our sleep. Things were simpler and easier to deal with, I’d come to realize, if there weren’t outside influences/people intermingling with our groups, so being by ourselves was an especially good thing.
About 30 minutes after entering REM sleep, I was awakened by the sound of voices coming our way from down the trail in the same direction that we’d just hiked. I stayed prone and just glanced around and noted that none of our group was stirring. Oh well, so much for keeping to ourselves, I mused.
I figured it would soon get loud and bustling as more people showed up. I wondered how many of them there might be and whether or not there’d be room for everyone on the platform, assuming of course that they were planning to spend the night there. Recognizing that there would be plenty to deal with soon enough, I decided to just let our guys keep sleeping while they could.
And then, the people came around a corner and at least some of my questions were answered. My first recognition was that there were only two of them, which meant that if they were planning to share the shelter with us for the night there would be plenty of room to do so. But I was bewildered by another situation and knew that it would be an especially tricky one to deal with—and it was that they had no clothes on.
I was increasingly flabbergasted by it all as I watched them getting closer. The first thing I did was to close my eyes and see if the situation would go away, like a bad dream- which it did not. I was careful not to stare as they kept getting nearer, but did observe that they were carrying well organized backpacks and at least had on good footwear. I looked back around at our team and noted that thankfully, for the time being at least, they were all still asleep. None of them even stirred as the backpackers climbed the steps up to the platform, talking back and forth about how many of us there were. And then, the man and woman walked directly my way, obviously seeing that my eyes were open. They had questions, or at least things to say, and immediately began directing their talk at me.
I wasn’t at all sure about how the whole situation was going to unfold. At that moment, I was thankful that the teenagers were continuing to sleep through it all. Maybe, I held out hope, the couple was just passing through and would move on and be long gone before any of our guys even woke up and realized that anyone else had been there. I kept thinking that was a very real possibility and was intent on expediting it, if it was indeed the case.
“Hot trail. You’re a big group. Where ya’ going? How many days are you all out for? Do you like those boots?”, the man was full of questions.
I’d sat up when they arrived and had tried to act normal while answering, but couldn’t figure out where to look and found my mind wandering between his various queries and appendages. I did keep looking over at the group and noted once again, that even after all of the talking and commotion, there was still no movement.
Three more minutes, just give me long enough to let this all pass, I silently hoped.
Then, the man asked me about our stoves. Before I could even answer, he looked over at the woman and just said, “I guess this’ll do. We can set up our stuff right over there. You don’t mind if we stay here for the night, do you?”
I was once again flabbergasted, but simply answered, “oh sure, there’s plenty of room.”
It’d happened in the snap of a finger and I accepted the reality that the nude couple was going to camp alongside us that night. I had plenty of unanswered questions, but came to grips with the fact that the camping part was going to happen and would just be what it was. And so, with the man’s attention turned toward setting up camp and other normal backpacking things, I just sat back and passively watched things unfold.
I like to think that I would’ve done a better job of dealing with the developing situation faster, or at least more naturally, if it hadn’t happened so suddenly and unexpectedly. I decided that at least it was going to be entertaining to watch each of the young men awaken and see their various reactions. I speculated that some of them would likely think that they were still in the midst of some sort of dream– one with a very eerily lifelike tone. The thought made me chuckle to myself.
For a short while, there was no stirring. But, within a few minutes, the teenagers began to regain consciousness and drift back into reality. As each began to come-to they initially kept their eyes closed, likely hearing the talk and commotion that was going on and assuming that it was just normal backpacking trip noise.
I knew that the moment of peace and quiet wouldn’t last and as expected, it didn’t. The first young man opened his eyes, glancing immediately in the direction of the couple. His glance lasted only less than a second before he closed his eyes again, undoubtedly trying to figure out if he’d seen what he thought he saw. Then, his moment of stillness was abruptly broken by a strange sort of upper body and head jerk that ended with his eyes appearing to open up into a locked position. I could almost feel his brain spasming to struggle with the facts. He sat up, looked at me square in the face, and kept his back to them. I could see his need for direction and that he was intent on not turning around to face the facts. His eyes implored me for help, but I had nothing to offer, except for a “you’ll figure it out” sort of look. And so, he did what he needed to do and immersed himself full throttle into changing out his shoelaces.
Just then, another one of the group began to roust which was almost immediately followed by yet another. The two sat up simultaneously, did second takes at the sight of our camping-mates, and then turned to each other and began a nonchalant discussion of Hawaiian ornithology.
Over the course of the next few minutes, the rest of the group awakened. Each person watched to see what subsequent reactions would be. In the end, we were all curious about what the right way to act or thing to do was, and we all watched to see what other people did. I realized that while it was an interesting situation, the answer to how to handle it was mostly nothing different from what we were going to do anyway. And so, we spent the rest of that day and evening working to keep our gear under control, cooked supper, and argued about who was going to clean the pots. Before going to sleep, we all organized our packs for the next day’s hike down to Waimanu, speculated about the beach and surf down there, and ended our day by counting our snacks.