Source to Sea

Barefoot to the Waterfall
by Mark Downey -- October 14th, 2013

Maunawili Falls, HI.


I’m walking along with mud slurping through the cracks in my toes on the slip-and-slide trail to the waterfall. We’re climbing up a hill, then down one, across some brooks, up again, down. Rocks and roots and jungle leaves all underfoot. Then along the banks of a stream, and into the water where the boulders are slick with algae and the water is frigid.


We’re walking barefoot, my friend and I. There’s a way to do it where you don’t stub or stab anything on a pointy rock. We walk with toes landing first, probing the mud for the solid and soft places, keeping our weight on the balls of our feet. So that if, as we gently set down the arch and heel, something pokes from underneath, we’re already positioned to rebalance or skip away. It’s sometimes steps and steps without a heel touching the ground. We walk like this, and it looks like we’re sneaking up the mountain, children on a secret adventure.


We’re in Hawaii, on Oahu. I’m on vacation. I had been drying into leather in the Nevada dust, and I wanted a break. A few weeks ago I lay sweating in bed, dreaming maybe, and was awoken by a phone call. My friend, you should come to Hawaii. Yes, I should. I did!


Oahu. Beyond the city and hotels. The volcanic peaks in the center of the island have eroded steep and deeply furrowed like the knapped edges of an obsidian blade. They fall out of the clouds towards the ocean, rising again at the shore in smaller ridges and craters that ring the island like spires on a crown.


Forests cling to what they can up the mountainsides, covering them in dripping vegetation. So green and foggy with humidity my desert eyes wanted to cry. Somewhere in there, the Maunawili Valley, we’re climbing up a rain-soaked trail through the jungle to find a waterfall.


So different, all of this, from where I’ve been recently. My body loves it. Here my hands don’t dry out, and the sweat lingers on my skin; the air feels rich in my lungs and fragrant with the smell of wet leaves and decaying fruit. And my bare feet, especially: we like it, they tell me, and, we were born for this. I used to keep them trapped inside or in shoes every day, where they stayed tender. But they’ve been growing strong in the dust and heat of the desert, enjoying the open air and frequent contact with the rocky earth. Dry, wet, sand, mud – they’re ready for it all now.


This trail is better barefoot anyway. Shoes would keep me worrying about their ruination in the mud, or inopportune soakings and the resultant blisters. Or I would make precarious moves up the trail, from one slim dry spot to the next in the underbrush off the side of the trail. Thinking more about my shoes than about the earth underneath them.


And sandals would be sloppy messes. I’ve tried before.


So I go barefoot, because I can now, and because I want to enjoy the journey. Texture of the mud, differences between freshly fallen and already composting leaves, patterns the trees carves with their roots, fruits and nuts that have fallen to the ground – let me feel it all. The one drawback being I can’t go too fast. But what a pleasant drawback.


I carefully place my feet, letting them tell me where to go. And I feel the wet earth seep up over them, sometimes sinking past my ankles and liking it. When we get to the falls, my feet are like flippers across the deep pool, my strong toes like claws scale up the black lava waterfall and past it, finding the cracks in the slippery rock. It’s a tricky climb, twenty feet above the water to a ledge from where I can spring into the pool.  And when I reach the ledge, I let my feet tell me what’s too slick and what’s safe, and I find the exact right spot to poise them. And then – a bracing leap down into the water.


I want my feet nourished, so I climb and jump a few more times before heading home the way we came. The more they’re out in the world, the more they’re able to handle it, and enjoy it. And the more waterfalls I’m able to climb.


  1. Ashley
    Oct 14, 2013

    Mark! Maunawili Falls is in my hometown!! I hope you’re loving Hawaii. I miss it!

    (P.S. Make sure you stop by Island Snow in Kailua some time while you’re there!)

  2. Brandt Whitehurst
    Oct 22, 2013

    I’m living vicariously through your blog…

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