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So much raving about the desert. In reality, our excitement waned pretty fast. Being beach people, we got desert fever after barely a week. There’s only so much rocks and stones you can look at before they start to blur together into a reddish hue under the unrelenting sun. At Arches, we barely had any energy left after lunch whereas before, we would hike from sunrise to sunset. We decided to hit the gas pedal and bolt out of Utah. desert primitive camping, Escalante, Utah

road trip, America, Utah, open road Our time in Idaho was short but rather eventful. I wanted to head north to check out the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness. I had no idea what is there except that the name sounds badass, but all roads up north were blocked due to forest fires. We camped at a small park by a dam outside Boise before moving onto Oregon, and witnessed an unfortunate accident of a car falling into the dam that resulted in a dramatic helicopter rescue.

Shoshone Falls, Niagara of the West, Idaho

Shoshone Falls, advertised as Niagara of the West

In Oregon, we made a quick stop at Bend for me to go on the Deschutes factory tour and then headed to our last national park of the trip: Crater Lake. The cool air was a nice welcome after the desert and forest fires. There were still patches of ice covering the ground, in the middle of August. We actually didn’t have high expectations for the park since neither of us had heard much about it before. As it turned out, the main attraction of the park enchanted us as much as the desert did before. It’s the bluest of blue. I’d never known that blue could be so unyielding and mesmerizing, and I doubt any photos could do it justice. We later learned that Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the US, the second deepest in North America, and the 9th deepest in the whole world. Not a bad record. Another reason for the water clarity is that it has no inlet or outlet and is refilled by direct precipitation.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, hiking

Crater Lake

Our trip concluded with leisure hiking and rafting with friends in southern Oregon and northern California.

whitewater rafting, Trinity River, California

On the Trinity

Goodbye national parks! You are what I admire most about the US, preserved undisturbed wilderness that is open to anyone with the time and energy to explore and enjoy and cultivate the love for nature, for the Earth.

But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us — if only we were worthy of it … Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself. – Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey.


August 2012,

Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break….I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun. – Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey

As we left California for Nevada and Utah, I started reading out loud “Desert Solitaire” to Col whenever we had a break, at lunch or after setting up camp before cooking dinner each night. I didn’t know then but I couldn’t have picked out a better companion for this leg of the trip. Abbey is so witty and opinionated – especially on his car-loving compatriots – and his prose reads like poetry. The whole book is quotable. He gave us the perfect introduction and explanation of the desert landscape, based on his experience as a seasonal park ranger at the Arches National Park.

Quite simply, I had never seen such a scenery before. It actually got me interested in that dreary sounding subject of geology. I could never have imagined that one day my jaw would drop looking at rocks! But how could you not? Looking at rocks of orange and pink and red layering on top of each other, flaming up as the sun sets, how could you not ask questions and want to learn to pronounce those prehistoric names of the Earth’s past?

Valley of Fire, Nevada, colored rocks, desert

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada, colored rocks, desert

Valley of Fire, Nevada, colored rocks, desert, hieroglyph

Zion national park, Utah, cliffs

We went marveling, from the fire rocks at Valley of Fire to the colored cliffs and narrow gorge at Zion to delicate bridges and arches diligently carved through millions of years by water, sometimes in the form of rivers and other times as tiny droplets.

Zion National Park, Utah, The Narrows, gorge hiking

The Narrows, Zion NP

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

a natural bridge

balancing egg, Arches National Park, Utah

Balancing Egg, Arches NP

Double O Arch, Arches, National Park, Utah, hiking

Upper O of Double-O-Arch, Arches NP

But Bryce Canyon topped it all. Hoodoos, what the hell are those! It was surreal walking through this rock forest, each hoodoo a unique creation of nature.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, hoodoos, amphitheater, hiking

the amphitheater, Bryce Canyon NP

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, hoodoos, amphitheater, hiking

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, hoodoos, hiking  Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, hoodoos, hiking, desert tree

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, hoodoos, hiking, desert tree

July 2012, I never traveled much during my years in the US, except for a couple of trips along the two coasts where I stayed with friends and their families. It’s a vast country and everything is so far apart that it’d only make sense to travel if you can drive. I’m not a fan of driving. And I didn’t feel safe hitchhiking in the mainland either. In July, as I was getting ready to move back to Vietnam permanently, I thought here might be my last chance to try out the famous concept of an American roadtrip: open road with endless paths and opportunities. In Hawaii, you can’t roadtrip. You only drive around (literally). Col wanted to go as well and would take care of the driving. So out we flew, equipped with an edition of National Geographic North America Adventure Road Atlas borrowed from Nancy, a second-hand national parks annual pass I bought from a fellow Hale Manoa resident, a floppy one-person tent purchased at 50% off ($15) from Sports Authority, and lots of sunscreen. We landed in Oakland, where Col’s sister and a bunch of my friends from college lived. I had forgotten how chilly the mainland could be, so one of our first stops was a thrift store for me to pick up a sweater, and a cowboy hat. Our rental car came through Costco travel, a black Kia Rio, the smallest size and most fuel efficient available. And we hit the road. Did we know where we would end up? Only for the next day. And that’s the beauty of a mainland roadtrip. Each morning, we woke up and looked at the maps to see which trail we would hike and where we would drive to after. It was a bit of trouble in the beginning when we were still in California because all the parks were packed and there was not a single space open at campsites since reservations were made weeks, if not months in advance. But still, not held down by routines and itineraries, we felt free.

Yosemite National Park, car camping

what to do when you can’t find a campsite

Yosemite: Yosemite national park, hiking, cliff  Yosemite national park, hiking, cliff

Yosemite national park, hiking

Yosemite national park, hiking, cliff

Yosemite national park, hiking, waterfall


Sequoia national park, giant dead sequoia tree root

Dead giant

Sequoia national park, giant sequoi tree

Living giant

May 2012,

Strange. Is the one word I’d use to describe Moloka’i, the friendly island. People were certainly friendly and embracing, in the way that only island people can be. But there is something else, hard to put my finger on.

Moloka'i, sunset, Lanai, Hawai'i, Alii beach

sunset over Lanai

At first I thought it was because of how local the place is, with Native Hawaiians accounting for more than 60% of the population and so few visitors (barely 200 a day on average, while nearby Mau’i is 3 times bigger and gets 35 time the number of tourists). I was walking along a beach park in Kaunakakai when I came upon a hula group practicing to the tune of Wahine Ilikea. (I never saw any hula practice at the beach on other islands). People talked about when to go out for an outrigger paddling session and where to go for the best shells at the moment and what they had found recently – Every single person I met was excited to discuss shells! In island-style, locals identify strongly with the area they’re from and live in (east/windward, west/leeward, north shore, south shore, and central). It’s even more extreme in Moloka’i and borderline incomprehensible given how small the island is. This lady in Kaunakakai told me how generations of her family have lived in central Moloka’i and how much she loves it there and she couldn’t remember the last time she went all the way to the east end. All the way to the east end! It’s 25 miles and 40 minutes down the road. I didn’t know how to respond.

Moloka'i shells

A Moloka’i obsession?

I was picked up by: a local Hawaiian who works in the helicopter patrol (looking for marijuana farms) who drove me all the way to Halawa valley; a mixed Brazilian-American who works for the county TV station and has the most adorable 4-year-old boy, whose neighbor is a famous fishing spear maker; another local Hawaiian, this time a medical kahuna, who took me in his home and convinced me to change my flight back to Oahu to a few days later so that he could talk more traditional Hawaiian medicine stuff with me, who fed me delicious pink Moloka’i mangoes that grew thick in his garden and gave me lomi-lomi massage every morning and once drove me up in the middle of the mountain where I got another lomi-lomi. Maybe this is why Moloka’i was so strange to me.

It is worth noting here that world over, Moloka’i is famous for the leper colony founded by Father Damien. In Hawa’i, the island was (is?) renowned for its powerful kahunas, or priests, sought after by kings from other islands in matters of spirits and sorcery. Many believe this explains the distinct mana of the land.

Halawa valley, East End, Moloka'i

Halawa valley, East End

Halawa valley, East End, Moloka'i

Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, leper colony, Father Damien

Kalaupapa, the most scenic leper colony in the world

leper colony, Kalaupapa, Molokai, Hawaii, Father Damien

fish pond, Moloka'i, Hawaii

ancient fish pond on south shore

The people that I remembered most fondly were the 2 brothers that let me camp near them for safety on a desolate west end beach. When I told the younger one, still a teenager, that I’m from Vietnam, he asked: “oh, there are lots of scooters there and you all go crazy on the road right?” I was taken aback; I didn’t expect anyone on Moloka’i to know anything about contemporary Vietnam, let alone the traffic. Turned out he talked with a girl from Singapore on the internet who sent him youtube videos of southeast asian countries. Vive the internet! The older brother was living off the land; he caught some fish to grill and share with me. The teenager came to spend the summer with his brother, away from all the troubles at school where he had difficulty fitting in. There’s lots of love on these islands, and lots of broken homes. Their hearts are right, and I hope they have found, or will find, their way and their place.

West End trail and beaches:

West End trail, Moloka'i

West End beach, Moloka'i, Hawaii

West End beach, Moloka'i, Hawaii

Early 2012 when my class went to Big Isle for a field project, Nancy organized a night manta ray snorkeling group and asked me to join. I reluctantly said no, opting to spend that weekend with Col. It didn’t take long for them to report back on the trip with raving reviews, and Col said he’d take me to a better swim with the mantas than any of the commercial tours. That took 3 years to happen. And my first and only manta that night was a baby chilling right by the pier; we saw it before even setting foot on the outrigger canoe, and long before I tried to shoo away the disappointment that the crew only provided a wetsuit top instead of a full suit, took the deepest breath and dropped off into the cold water. Col and I were the first to wimp out after barely 10 minutes hanging onto the surfboard-as-floater looking down at plankton and blue needle fish, blaming our intolerance on our upbringing in the tropics.

But the ocean was still kind. As we sat shivering in our towels back in the canoe, thoroughly disappointed at the lack of warmth, manta rays, and hot chocolate that the crew had promised but then forgot to bring, we got unexpected guests. The best kind 🙂 Dolphins! My first time seeing them in real life actually. A playful pod of 7 bottlenose that didn’t seem to get tired of circling us. For a moment I was tempted to go back down in the water and swim with them, ’cause they came so close, within 10 feet of the canoe, but staying dry won out. I was happy enough to just sit and watch them going round and around. Such elegance when they glide in the water, and such delight when they jump one after another (it’s so hard to imagine that they’re capable of some horrific acts). I would like to think that it was just as exciting and entertaining for them to check us out as it was for us to watch them. Later as we headed back to shore, the captain woman in an attempt to steer away from the failure of the night decided to chase the dolphins to give us a few more show minutes. I was abhorred at such harassment and any of my positive feeling for her promptly dissolved away. But I didn’t say a thing.

Cold water in Hawai’i also brings another much loved group of immigrants: the humpback. Both dolphins and whales are considered manifestations of Kanaloa – god of the ocean, one of the four major gods in Hawaiian religion. I’d only heard their strangely soothing singing and seen their bumps far out in the water, usually a mom and her calf playing. Luck was on my side again during this trip. We went to pebble beach at the same time that a whale was patrolling along the coast. We saw her pump up a fountain as we drove down, and on the beach, while we were busy eating opi’hi freshly picked off the rocks, she came and flipped her tail up 100 feet at most from where we were standing. I was in awe.

Unrelated photos of beaches and sunsets:

picking opihi, pebble beach, Big Island, Hawaii

pebble beach, Big Island, Hawaii

sunset, Keauhou, Big Island, Hawaii


sunset, Mauna Loa, Big Island, Hawaii

Not many places where one can witness the earth as it breathes, destroys, and creates. I love Hawai’i.

It’s such a world apart: going from where you can’t escape the human presence to where it is nil. I’m typing this after having got back to Vietnam, looking out to see a constant stream of traffic and activities, at the hardworking masses and imagine that this must be what it feels like to be inside an anthill or beehive. I still have that fresh image of sitting on Col’s porch looking down at the ocean in the distance, with big ohi’a trees around, no sounds but the wind and the birds. Or of us walking on barren lava field, bristle crust breaking under each of our steps, Pu’u O’o steaming right ahead. Us walking in complete darkness except for the weak light from an old hand crank lamp, trying to locate rock cairns to bring us back to the trailhead. I love the Big Island, and there’s no one but you that I’d want to be with on lava field in complete darkness.


Big Island, Hawaii, Pu'u O'o

lava field, Big Island, Hawaii, Pu'u O'o

Pu'u O'o, Big Island, Hawai'i, 'ohelo 'ai berry

pioneering ‘ohelo ‘ai



July 2007: The first time I set foot on Waipi’o valley on the eastern Hamakua coast of the Big Island was during my short trip in the summer of 2007. It was my first time hitchhiking, and I was picked up in Hilo by a man called Frank. Frank was going back to his house in the cowboy Waimea and would drop me off in Honoka’a, a small town 10 miles before the valley. During our chat, Frank revealed that he was a Vietnam vet and had had some terrible nightmares. We connected, and the initial 40-mile ride turned into a 6 hour trip. He stopped to show me waterfalls, drove me down to the coast of Laupahoehoe wherethe waves are forever crushing down on shore, took me to his place in Waimea for lunch, drove me through the saddle road to go back to Hilo, and most memorable of all, he introduced me to Waipi’o. It was a typical misty day on the windward side; the whole valley was shrouded in a white mist. He drove his 4WD down to the valley and there we stood. It was verdant, moist, quiet. But you can’t quantify feelings. I took in deep breaths, listening to the soothing Hi’ilawe in the distance. Since then, I have always been very partial to the windward side of the Big Island, and Waipi’o has a special place in my heart.

Waipio valley, Hiilawe waterfall, Big Island, Hawaii

Waipio valley, Hiilawe waterfall, Big Island, Hawaii

April 2011: A quick trip with H. to the Big Isle the weekend before Merrie Monarch for a special project that H. was working on. We weren’t officially together at that time, but the tension was always there. We managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Waipi’o. Hiking down the valley and then to the waterfall in a late afternoon, we found the place empty, which was rare as it is a popular spot. Just the two of us. I went down to the pool, closed my eyes, kicked my feet gently and floated on my back. My body caressed, my soul lulled. The chute of the water, the sharp dropping into the pool, the leisurely widening of circles. My eyes softly opened again, and in that instant, part of me almost went up in the air to take a look down below, a look down at me, tiny in the giant arms of the mountains. We kissed, in a small nook under the stream, and again in the cave under Hi’ilawe. Intoxicated by beauty, by love’s sweet taste.

December 2011: A month long trip on the Big Island, going around to all my favorites, including Waipi’o. I found a small farm that lets people stay in exchange for a helping hand, and there I pitched my tent. Every day, I dug my bare hands into the rich soft airy black soil as puffy fat worms wiggled their way around. I strolled past houses with no one there except for a couple of quiet cats. I sat by the river swollen up after months of rain. I walked back into the lush mountains with dozens of waterfalls trickling down the slopes. We’ll be gone in no time. But this valley, this water, this energy will stay. Time is immortal.