"They were strangers to each other, collected by common calamity, disfigured, mortally sick, banished without sin from home and friends." -- Robert Louis Stevenson, in writing about the Kalaupapa Leper Colony in 1889
More recently, John McBride of Molokai Day Tours says, “The National Park Service doesn't own Kalaupapa. The residents do!”
I've been on Molokai for less than a day and I feel I already know half the population. Molokai, between Oahu and Maui, may be the least-commercial island in Hawaii. With little more than 7,000 residents, it doesn’t have any chain restaurants, motels, not even a McDonald's. Cell service and Wi-Fi are pretty spotty as well.
I’ve come to Molokai to visit Kalaupapa National Historical Park on my own after a family vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii. From both tourists and locals, I hear a same refrain:
“Are you traveling alone? How brave!”
This is the United States, I want to say, but I accept their compliments.
The Kalaupapa peninsula is the most remote section of Molokai. Surrounded by crashing Pacific Ocean waves, the land is separated from the rest of the island by 1,600-foot rocky hills. The first leprosy patients were sent here in 1866; some would say dumped here.
The Leprosy Act passed a year before allowed the Kingdom of Hawaii to segregate and move leprosy victims to Kalaupapa. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease as it is now called, was horrifying and misunderstood. The infectious condition caused by the bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, disfigured and eventually killed its victim, but was not very contagious.
These first patient residents had no provisions at all. They were left to fend for themselves on the rocky shores without shelter, medical care, or food. In 1873, Father Damien, originally from Belgium, arrived in the village and built the first Catholic Church, a leprosy hospital, and orphanage.
However, Father Damien himself succumbed to the disease in 1889. By then, other lay and religious assistants worked in Kalaupapa. The most famous is Mother Marianne Cope, who became Father Damien’s successor. She built Bishop Home for women and girls, a convent still open today. The Catholic church canonized both Father Damien and Mother Marianne as saints: Father Damien in 2009, and Mother Marianne in 2012.
By 1946, sulfone drugs were introduced for long-term care of leprosy patients. Leprosy should have been less scary since effective treatment made patients no longer contagious. Yet, it wasn’t until 1969 that the official isolation policy ended in Hawaii. Patients were free to leave, but most have stayed and lived out their days here.
“Some people have left but then come back. It's not easy to live on the outside without skills,” Gloria L. Marks says.
Auntie Gloria, as elderly women are affectionally called in Hawaii, owns Damien Tours. At 81 years of age, she’s spent her adult life here. She married and has children and grandchildren who help in the business.
Today In The Kalaupapa Settlement
Today, 13 patient/residents still live in Kalaupapa. The Hawaii Department of Health administers the site with a huge group of state and federal workers, including doctors, nurses, maintenance people, police, fire fighters, and National Park Service employees. Workers live in the village five days a week and fly home on the weekends.
I walk around the Kalaupapa settlement with a map. The self-guided tour starts at Fuesaina’s Bar, also owned by Gloria, where you can find drinks and snacks, when it’s open. Today, Auntie Gloria greets me and gives me a tag, which is my visitor’s permit, to attach to my shirt. The bar provides a gathering place for residents and workers. Gloria decorated the walls with clever signs such as, “Don’t cry over spilled milk — it could have been beer!”
Father Damien originally built St. Francis Catholic Church. The modern structure dates from 1908 after the previous wooden church burned. Today, Father Pat is the resident priest. The village is a mixture of historic buildings, which meets modern needs. A police station and jail are now used for National Park Service storage. Paschoal Hall, built in 1916, serves as the local theater and social hall. I pass a prominent monument to Father Damien.
Large supplies come to the peninsula on the annual barge, and are stored before being sold in the Kalaupapa Gas Station and Store to residents. A typed sign explains that people may pump eight gallons of gas a week in their car and an additional five in a can. A long list of exceptions applies, including for garbage trucks.
When I reach Staff Row, a long street that could be in any small town in the United States, I feel that something is not quite right. Originally, the neighborhood was designed for doctors and other high-level administrative staff, and the homes are still occupied. The village looks like a 1940-1950s suburb with its wooden houses, picket fences, and Christmas decorations. A young couple just pulled up on bikes, probably on their lunch hour. However, something is missing. It's almost eerie until I figure it out. No tricycles, no swings, no strollers on the porch. There are no children here.
The obvious question is what will happen to the site after the last patient resident dies. I need to find a ranger. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as all the workers drive and I’m walking.
The Future Of Kalaupapa
“So what will happen after all the residents are gone?” I ask Ranger Adam Guzman, a law enforcement ranger.
“Right now Kalaupapa is managed by the Hawaii State Department of Health. They call the shots along with the residents,” Ranger Guzman explains. “The residents are pretty healthy. They're on massive medication therapy, which keep them younger than their years. They're in superb shape.”
When there are no more residents, the state will leave and the National Park Service will take over Kalaupapa. It will become a more conventional park. Right now, only working NPS employees can stay here. In the future, families of workers will be able to live here with children, though there still won't be any schools. Interpretive rangers will interact with visitors.
Currently, there's a limit of 100 visitors per day. In the future, there won't be a maximum. The National Park Service might allow backcountry camping by permits. Patient/resident volunteers operate the bookstore, managed by Pacific Historic Parks. Though it’s supposed to be open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., it’s shut today. I’m going to leave here without my national park Passport stamp.
In the future, Ranger Guzman says, “You might even have ATV tours from roads on the eastside of the peninsula.”
You may never be able to drive your own car just to have your passport stamped, but the area is not as isolated as it first seems.
Visiting Kalaupapa is easy, but it takes planning, before you arrive in Molokai. You can reach Kalaupapa by hiking, taking a mule trip, or flying in from Honolulu, Maui, or the Molokai airport. If you choose the ride a mule or fly in, you automatically get a permit from Damien Tours and a bus takes you through the village. I chose to hike the trail down.
Children under 16 are not allowed in the village, another request from the patient/residents.
I called Damien Tours two months ago after I made my reservations with Hotel Molokai. Gloria laughed at me. “Call a week before,” she said. Her website doesn’t provide an email address or even a price for the tour. I finally reached her on her landline a couple of days before my visit, but I didn’t get a good feeling that I really had a reservation and a permit. There’s no reliable cell phone or internet connection in the village.
When I arrived at Hotel Molokai, I talked to John McBride of Molokai Day Tours and he set it up with Gloria. Yes, I paid for a middleman but it was trivial compared to the cost of this whole trip. John drove me to the trailhead and opened the gate for me. We agreed on a pick-up time and I was off.
The hike is 3.5 miles one-way, with 1,600 feet of descent down to the village. It has 26 switchbacks, all numbered so you can keep track of your progress. The stone steps are muddy and slippery, though well maintained. We're in a tropical rain forest. The mules take the same trail and add to the mud.
As soon as I reached the shore and the village, I find Father Pat waiting for me in a van.
“I’m here to take you to Gloria,” he says.
Father Pat has been here for over four years ministering to the patients and any worker who wants to go to the Catholic church. He drives me to Gloria, who is sitting at her table in the bar, doing her inventory with a pencil and a ledger book.
You need to start out at 8 a.m. to be ahead of the mules. But I forgot to ask when I needed to hike back up in the afternoon so as not to meet the mules behind me.
Richard Marks, Gloria’s late husband, founded Damien Tours in 1966. Marks was an activist who supported the involvement of the National Park Service.
Yesterday in Kalaupaula by Emmett Cahill quotes Mark: “... with the peninsula under the care of the National Park Service, we feel safe from developers and exploiters. We’ve got a good landlord in the Park Service.”
Danny Bernstein is a hiker, hike leader, and outdoor writer. Her latest book, Forests, Alligators, Battlefields: My Journey Through The National Parks Of The South, celebrated the National Park Service Centennial.