Molokai's remote north shore was where Hawaiians with leprosy were cast off, initially with little provisions or medical care. More than 8,000 were sent to Kalaupapa, the fields of unmarked graves attesting to the thousands who died there. But the settlement is also a tribute to the thousands who lived for decades as exiles, shunned by society while suffering from the disfiguring ailment, also known as Hansen's disease.
It's into this world of tidy white cottages, churches, stores and beaches that the Kalaupapa mules travel, transporting visitors to a place that has changed little over time. Think of an undeveloped, lush and sleepy Hawaii -- with a history of heartbreak looming over the scene, just like the green vertical Pali cliffs that separate the peninsula from "topside" Molokai.
But first you have to get there, no easy feat when the destination is a place where people were dropped by boat with the notion they wouldn't be leaving by foot. You can hike the trail, 3 miles one way with 26 switchbacks; fly in from the Molokai or Honolulu airports; or sign up for the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour. All visitors must have a permit to visit the settlement, now a National Historical Park. Once in Kalaupapa, a guide from Father Damien Tours leads the 3- to 4-hour visit, respecting the privacy of the roughly 15 former patients who still live there.
Taking a mule down is an adventure in itself. The morning starts at 8 a.m. with a leisurely welcome and briefing from Mule Tour co-owner Buzzy Sproat, 74. Born into a mule-skinning family, Sproat assures nervous riders "there's no such thing as a suicidal mule." Hook the reins around the saddle horn, he says, dig your feet into the stirrups and lean back -- waaaay back. The descent is so steep there's the feeling you might topple over those big ears if you didn't solidly dig in.
Sproat, a former rodeo star with the bowed legs to prove it, has been running mules on Molokai from the ramshackle shed at the start of the trail since 1973. The outfit takes care of the permits for the trip (limited to 100 per day and to ages 16 and above) and packs a lunch for the riders. After an hour and a half on the mules, riders come out on the beach, dismount and wobble over to an old school bus driven by a Father Damien Tour guide.
The lilting voice of guide Norman Soares, a part-time Kalaupapa resident and auto mechanic (a useful skill to keep the ancient buses running), takes the little group through the settlement, first stopping at the store owned by Gloria Marks. She and her husband, Richard Marks, a former patient, started Father Damien Tours in 1966 to introduce visitors to the community and dispel myths about the disease. Richard Marks, who died in 2008, was considered an international ambassador for those suffering from Hansen's disease.
As Soares explained, Hansen's is a chronic illness caused by a bacterium that damages the nerves, skin, respiratory tract and eyes. Patients don't die of Hansen's itself, but from secondary conditions brought on by the disease. When King Kamehameha V made the decision in 1865 to exile those suspected of being infected, little was understood about the disease, which carried a stigma from biblical times. Families were torn apart when members -- even a child -- were taken to live on Molokai. If a baby was born at Kalaupapa to parents with Hansen's, the infant was shipped off the island for adoption.
Early on there was little help for those on Molokai, but that changed with the 1873 arrival of Joseph de Veuster, a 33-year-old Belgian priest. Known as Father Damien, he gained worldwide acclaim for his work to improve the living conditions of those afflicted. After 11 years Damien contracted leprosy, dying in 1889. We know now that 95 percent of the world's population has a natural immunity to Hansen's disease; Damien's misfortune was that he was in the other 5 percent. But his years on Molokai left a lasting legacy, and in 2009 the Roman Catholic Church made him a saint.
Another saint on the way
Following in Father Damien's footsteps was Mother Marianne Cope, less known than Damien but critical to the work on Molokai. Formerly Barbara Koob of Utica, New York, she arrived in Kalaupapa in 1888, months before Damien's death, already having established herself as a progressive hospital administrator in New York. Those skills served her well in Kalaupapa, Soares said. Father Damien was a visionary, he explained, but Mother Marianne had the practical skills to put plans into action. She was instrumental in moving most of the patients from the rainy Kalawao side of the peninsula to the drier west side, where most of the Kalaupapa settlement is now based, and expanded the community significantly with help from her Franciscan sisters.
Mother Marianne died of natural causes in 1918. On Oct. 21, she too will be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, the second saint to rise from Molokai's shores.
At the height of the settlement, more than 1,000 people lived on the peninsula. Eventually there was a theater, Lions Club, historical society, musical groups and churches. Entertainers and writers of the era visited Kalaupapa, including John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ernie Pyle.
What changed in the 1940s was the discovery of sulfone drugs as an effective treatment for Hansen's, which stops the progression of the illness and makes it noncommunicable. Residents have been free to leave for decades, but many chose to remain in a place that had become home, with medical care provided by the state of Hawaii. Today, in addition to the handful of former patients who are in their 70s and 80s, Kalaupapa residents include National Park workers and state health employees, totaling about 100. The sound of hammers is common in the settlement as the plantation-style buildings are restored. Perishable food is flown in; larger items come once a year on a barge from Honolulu.
Soares' tour takes visitors to several other sites in the settlement, noting that some places, such as the post office, are off limits for the sake of former patients' privacy. A ride on the bus to Kalawao ends at Father Damien's landmark church, St. Philomena, with a grave marker (his right hand is buried there) and a look at the picturesque bay where Hansen's patients were cast off in the early years. It's a lovely, hushed place for a picnic lunch before the bus rumbles back to Kalaupapa and the trail topside.
The mules' trip to the barn is brisk, although the riders are mostly quiet and subdued. That is, until Makani the mule lets loose a long-winded and sonorous blast of flatulence. Buzzy Sproat's earlier cryptic comment about her name becomes clear: Makani means wind in Hawaiian, but she didn't earn it because of her speed.
Soon other mules join in and the group has a good laugh, just another unexpected adventure on the trail to Kalaupapa.
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