The Narrow Path to Enlightenment
Evidence doesn’t suggest that St. Matthew ever made it to Hawaii. But it’s easy to think he was talking about the mule ride to Kalaupapa National Historic Park (www.nps.gov/kala) when he said “the way is narrow that leads to life.” The harrowing mule route, thin as a sidewalk, twisting from the world’s highest sea cliff to the Pacific Ocean beach 1,700 feet (510m) below, may instill the fear of God in even the most secular visitor. Indeed it helped make a saint out of local legend Father Damien, who was canonized in 2009 for his work in the 19th century with a former leper colony on the beach below.
The Molokai Mule Ride (muleride.com) starts with a brief tutorial on handling these beasts of burden trained specially for steep descents. Then, after mounting your mule, you’ll travel a very short stretch on an open path before reaching the first of 26 hair-raising switchbacks on the 3-mile (4.7km) trail to the beach that leads to Kalaupapa. Dazzling views and precipitous drops compete to make your heart pound and blood surge as you steadily plod downhill and around hairpin turns for an hour before reaching the beach for your journey into the world of Hawaii’s courageous patron saint.
A Belgium-born missionary priest, Saint Damien took his life in his hands when he came here in 1873 to care for lepers who were cast off other islands, shipped here, and forced to swim the last few yards to shore. Now called Hansen’s Disease, which is treatable with sulfone antibiotics, leprosy claimed St. Damien too in 1889—but not before he organized schools, turned shacks into painted houses, provided medical and spiritual care, and guaranteed basic civil rights for his flock of outcasts.
During the fascinating tour you’ll learn about the banished community’s struggle to create a colony from a narrow strip of land surrounded by ocean and steep cliffs; visit various buildings and the church where Father Damien preached; and then eat lunch with a view of the seaside cliffs on the central northern coast of Molokai. By mid-afternoon, you’ll remount the mules to negotiate the steep ascent, switchbacks and all. By this time you’ll probably feel heavy in the saddle, but just as likely you’ll feel enlightened by the resplendent views and glimpse into the life of a brightly shining human being.
Visit Molokai (www.visitmolokai.com).
Tour: Molokai Mule Ride, 100 Kalae Hwy. ( 800/567-7550 or 808/567-6088; www.muleride.com).
When to Go: Year-round.
$$ Dunbar Beachfront Cottages, Kamehameha V Hwy., past mile marker 18 ( 800/673-0520 or 808/558-8153; www.molokai-beachfront-cottages.com). $$ Hotel Molokai, Kamehameha V Hwy. ( 808/553-5347; www.hotelmolokai.com).