This was written as a creative essay tongue-in-cheek:
“Absolutely no rental cars,” read the sign, “ 4 wheel drive vehicles only. Vehicles traveling uphill have the right-of way.”
After looking down the steep 25 percent grade I decided to heed its advice. It was extremely steep. Although paved, I couldn’t imagine a rental car getting up that road. A normal road would switch back. Not this one. The road descends into the Hawaiian valley from high on the cliffs and drops to the rumbling surf below. We parked our rental car at the small area at the top, got our backpacks out and headed on foot down the concrete ramp scored for better traction.
Our destination was Waimanu Valley, a distant and remote valley only accessible by a trail. We first had to pass through the beautiful and more visited Waipio Valley to reach the best backpacking the Big Island had to offer; the Muliwai trail. My girlfriend, Kristi, and I try to escape the stresses of modern life as much as we can afford, and this trip was to be a respite from society’s constant bombardment of advertisement, rampant consumerism and the consequent war over depleting resources.
We stopped half way to rest our calves.
“Feel the burn!” I said stepping to the side to catch a glimpse of Kaluahine Falls plunging off the cliff face in to the surf. “Wow.”
The paved road ended at the bottom in a wet marsh, then switched back to reveal some rental cars that had dared to make the journey. They were flipped over and burned by the locals in retribution for the drivers not reading the sign.
“I hope they got the full damage waiver,” I said smugly.
We arrived at what the Hawaiians called the Valley of the Kings. Traditionally taro, bananas, guava, and coconuts were grown here among the native trees. This was a favorite destination for King Kamehamea, and also where he was commissioned as guardian of the war god Kukailimoku. They celebrated luau style by hunting wild pigs, and cooking them buried in the sand with banana leaves. The ceremony is still observed by torch carrying “Night Warriors,” to this day.
Toursits delivered here in masse by four-wheel drive, frolicked in the waves where the Waipio River meets the sea. Then something sinister caught my attention: a lost and abandoned flip flop. I started to look around, another one, and another, littering the beach. They remained, after the tourists had left, flipping and flopping in the waves. One moment they appeared to be headed for open sea, the next they were washing up on shore. Our hike had begun with a slap, a wake up call: did I actually think I could escape society’s blatant disregard to its natural counterpart? There was a war going on over the same resources that constructed the flat rubber soles, and they were cast away, left floating like flotsam. There was something wrong with this picture.
I don’t spend too much time thinking about fashion, but flip flops were becoming more difficult to ignore. They’re found in the most far-reaching places in the world, and cheap enough for even the poorest to rely on them, but seeing them half buried in the sand made me take a closer look at the negative effects that these seemingly necessary footwear has had on the environment.
I tried to put up a wall, and deny the existence of man’s destructive wake, and headed back to the trail, after all I was also culpable. I had a pair of rubber flip flops strapped to the outside of my pack. The trail quickly left the beach and made it’s way up the valley wall. The jungle closed in as we trotted over fallen berries that stained the rotten trail floor. The smell of leaf matter mixing with ginger root stimulated my olfactory nerves in alternating cycles of curious pleasure.
The trail dipped into smaller and more rugged overgrown valleys and wound over the course of 12 more miles. Occasionally I was reminded that the ocean was only a few hundred yards away from the top of a valley cliff. Rising and falling 500 feet, each valley became more and more difficult to navigate. Rain and fallen leaves made it wet and slippery, providing a constant challenge.
The humidity and the mid-day heat was relieved by a small waterfall and pool, right off the trail. We stripped down to our skivvies, put on our camping flip flops, and plunged into the jungle run-off. Drying off our feet, we put on our boots, ate lunch and continued. Valley after valley we snaked our way down the coastline.
My mind kept flashing back to the littered beach we left. I couldn’t keep from thinking of the flip flop as a metaphor for the destructive effects society imposes on the natural world. My fascination with the flip flop stems from what the sandal means to modern society. Were we ever going to be able to shed our unsustainable dependencies in favor of the environment? I started to take stock of the social and physical ramifications that flip flops have brought upon the world.
The first traditional flip flops were designed by the Japanese and were woven bamboo, or wooden soled sandals. Ironically they are called “biisan” in Japan, derived from English meaning “beach sandal.” The flip flop has infiltrated almost every country, spawning specific nomenclature in many languages. For example in Italy they are refered as ‘infradito’ translated literally as ‘inter-toes.’ Danes call them ‘Klip-clapperes.’ New Zelanders call them ‘Jandals’ condensed from Japanese sandals. The Hawaiians affectionately call them “jap-slaps.” Like the pig, the flip flop was introduced to Hawaii as a foreign species. Now they are deeply ingrained into the society.
I kept hiking and thinking. Was I opposed to flip flops? No, they were useful, after all I had a pair. Comfortable and perfect for camping, they are light and pack down to a minimum. I can wear them at river crossings to keep my boots dry. They are perfect for drying out my feet after a sweaty day locked in hikers. They are too useful to be opposed to… until they’re trash.
There is a fine line between something utilitarian and trash. Two flip flops are utilitarian. They provide protection from the rough rocky ground, a necessity in today’s tender-footed world. One flip flop is trash. Not only is it trash, it is trash that lasts forever. The rubber will not decompose. They will last and last until a pile of unmatched flip flops gathers on shore, or in a land fill. Eventually the world will begin to fill up with unmatched flip flops. Perhaps an environmental organization will need to be developed to battle the population explosion of lone flip flops. The groups mission: to gather mis-matched flip flops of similar sizes and re-sell them to concerned conservationists. Transients will collect them like aluminum cans then trade them for a few meager bits, proud that they contributed to the mitigation of the destruction of the natural world. A new fashion trend will be born; the ‘U2 Unmatched Flip Flop Special Edition,’: all proceeds to help fight foot fungus cancer- coming soon to a retailer near you.
We arrived at the top of Waimanu Valley with plenty of daylight to spare. This was the steepest and slipperiest valley yet. Layers of wet fronds and leaves lined the trail. We slid down 500 feet to the valley floor. Covered in mud and little cuts we stumbled out of the jungle and onto stable river rock. Before we could access the camping area we had to cross the Waimanu river. We took off our backpacks and put on our flip flops again. The river was deep. We had to carry our packs over our heads and navigate submerged boulders. Waves broke on shore and flowed upstream creating surges that kept us unbalanced. Slipping and falling forward I managed to toss my pack to the opposite shore. Since I was already wet, I swam up the lazy stream and frolicked in the luke-warm water.
Emerging from the water I found my self at an impasse. I was actually thankful for my flip flops. This was a symbol of wanton destruction and resource depletion. It was made from fossil deposits for the comfort of my foot. This disturbed me. Modern variations made out of rubber and plastic are un-sustainable, and float. The backless sandal is easily lost in strong currents. The freedom that it gives the foot is directly disproportional to the dependence society has on its consumption. Why couldn’t they just be made out of bamboo, I wondered. Then they could decompose when they were lost.
My thoughts of the evil sandal faded with the beauty found at the bottom of this remote Hawaiian valley. The ocean breaking on the rocky shore provided a soothing soundtrack. Distant water falls cascaded down steep green cliff faces. The swirling clouds that obscured the top of the valley gave fresh water to feed each fall.
Stumbling into camp we plopped down our packs to take it all in. We were alone amid a dozen campsites. We decided to look around to see which site was the best.
We both turned around to face the source of the grunting: a large pig was rustling in some leaves a few feet away. Startled, it squealed slightly and scampered off toward the far side of the valley. “Oooh, there are wild pigs here.” I said.
“Cool,” Kristi said, “Lets try to get a better look.”
We followed what appeared to be a game trail. It took us into the muddy and mosquito infested jungle. We could see depressions in the ground where many pigs had made their beds.
“There.” She pointed at a huge daddy sized pig. Behind him there were three or four piglets. They scampered away making little pig sized grunts. Weaving through the jungle we pursued them, catching quick glimpses until we could no longer keep up.
“Bananas.” She said. Sure enough, there were a bunch of bananas just lying there, with no banana tree in sight.
“The pigs must collect them from the jungle.”
“Pigs can’t climb trees!” I shrugged, baffled.
A distant rumble of a waterfall piqued our interest, and we followed a game trail in that direction. Slightly overgrown, we couldn’t gain direct access to the falls, but we got as close as we could. It was cascading down a cliff face and into a dense gathering of bush and bamboo. Slipping on the wet rocks, we approached the falls. There, at the base, obscured by leaves and mud, was my nemesis, the source of much internal debate.
“A flip flop!” I declared. “Only one.” It blew my mind. I had been “jap-slapped” again.
“I can’t believe this! I just hiked 12 miles into the jungle to get away from people, found wild pigs and a remote inaccessible water fall only to find an f-ing flip flop!”
I was livid. This was it. It was time to do something drastic. A short rant ensued, but was short lived. After all, I was preaching to the choir. We returned to camp with the flip flop, not sure what was going to be done with it. It wasn’t going to stay there.
We set up camp and started a fire, then passed a Nalgene bottle of wine back and forth. I began to relax and return my thoughts to nature. The sun had set and a subtle glow lingered in the canyon. While looking through the other campsites for firewood I found some animal remnants.
“Check this out!” I said returning to camp.
“What is it?”
“A pig skull.” I declared. Grabbing a short piece of string laying on the ground, I tied the skull to a tree near the fire.
“Just like Lord of the Flies!” That was it! My primal instinct took over. I knew what I had to do. I disrobed, applied some soot to my face and began to chant. Holding the flip flop over my head like some holy grail, I danced around the fire. Our silhouettes flickered and reflected off the trees while the pig skull peered over our shoulders nodding in approval. I’m not sure what happened next, as the effects of alcohol and mounting frenzy took over. I was channeling some ancient Hawaiian pig ritual. It was time for the great ‘Jap-slap’ sacrifice. I offered a few choice words, mostly unintelligible, then, committed the flip flop to the fire. It resisted a few seconds, as if to reinforce its perseverance. It would not disappear so easily, it was destined to exist forever! Slowly it succumbed, drooping, lowering into the flames, then, finally, it caught fire. The light from the burning plastic flashed and died: the final catharsis.
“Nature, One, the Corporate Flip Flop Conspiracy, Zero!”
“We should throw all our flip flops on the fire!” Kristi said caught up in my psychotic episode.
“No don’t!” I stopped her. I was overcome with a moment of clarity, “We need those!”