Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Photo of Thousnd Island Lake
Appropriately named Thousand Island Lake.


Stretching out along the spine of the Sierra Nevadas, the John Muir Trail unwinds like a languorous serpent sunning itself on a lazy afternoon. Those who have completed its entire length have navigated a narrow, winding dreamscape that roller coasters over 14,000-foot mountain peaks only to tumble into 5,000-foot prehistoric canyons. In certain parts of the trail, the very path itself disappears and hikers must resort to landmarks, compasses and dead reckoning to regain their bearings. Stitched together between 1864 and 1938 by multiple generations of surveyors, naturalists and conservationists, the 211-mile trail is a finely woven tapestry of glacier-fed streams, alpine vistas, glittering waterfalls, crystalline lakes and primeval forests. As the trail ascends to the higher elevations, hikers must deal with altitude sickness and lunar-like terrain that is littered underfoot with broken, loose shale rock and shifting gravel. In addition, trekkers must adapt to temperatures that can range from the 70s to near freezing in one day. Separated from hunters and human development, however, the trail has also become a rare sanctuary for a wide assortment of wildlife that now thrive because of their protected habitat.

Photo of Nevada Falls, located four miles into the John Muir Trail.
Nevada Falls, located four miles into the John Muir Trail.

“Hiking the John Muir Trail was my dream since I was a young man in my 20s,” says 67-year-old Keiri Kanbayashi. “I had hiked a small part of the trail when I lived in Berkeley, but I always promised myself that I would hike the entire trail at some point in my life.”

Born in Hayama, Japan, a little coastal village 30 miles south of Tökyö, Kanbayashi spent his childhood on the seashore —swimming, fishing and diving in the Inland Sea. In order to eat, Kanbayashi and his brothers often turned to the ocean to survive, supplementing the family table with the bounty of fish, crabs and lobsters that lay outside their door. “Japan was still suffering from food shortages even until the early ’50s because of the war, so we had no choice but to go to the ocean for food.”

At the age of 22, Kanbayashi left Japan and headed for California, where he hitchhiked across America, slept under highway bypasses at night and lived the wanderer’s life before finally ending up managing a Japanese-owned produce market in Oakland for eight years.

When a good friend invited him to come to Hawai’i to open a small produce store in Kaimukï, Kanbayashi leapt at the chance. The market that Kanbayashi operated on Wai‘alae Avenue is still remembered fondly by old-timers for its quality produce, reasonable prices, easy credit and nontraditional approach to running a business.

“We had a huge bulletin board that was filled with IOUs and promissory notes from our customers. We knew most of our regulars were living on fixed incomes and we had to be flexible and take care of them.” The market quickly became a fixture in the life of Kaimukï town for locals to drop in and talk story as they shopped. Kanbayashi would even reserve part of his day to deliver groceries to many of his customers who were housebound. The conversations that arose from those visits were precious and heart-rendering.

“The best part of my day was delivering the groceries to my customers, because I got to talk to them and really get to know them. They were all remarkable people. All my friends told me this was no way to run a business, but they didn’t understand how much joy it brought me.”

When the market died a natural death after 10 years and the arrival of the big box stores, Kanbayashi’s bilingual skills landed him a job as a reporter at the Japanese-language newspaper, Hawaii Hochi, where he eventually became the editor in chief for six years. When he retired from the newspaper, he began looking for his next challenge, but instead fell into an unexpected rut. “To tell you the truth, I was bored. I’m semiretired, and I do a job that requires just a few hours a day in the morning. My life is lukewarm, and I found myself getting more inactive. I was walking four miles a day, but I had no goal other than to live a few more good years, which is no fun. And then I saw a movie that reminded me of the promise I had made to myself as a young man.”

The film, titled “Mile . . . Mile and a Half,” was a documentary crafted together by sound photographers, videographers and mixed media artists who had trekked from Happy Valley Isle in Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, over 200 miles away, in 25 days. “After I saw this video, I thought this would be impossible for me at my age. These people were in their 30s. At that age, you can do anything because of your mental and physical strength,” says Kanbayashi. “I went to bed wishing I could do it, but accepting that it was impractical. But then I saw a video of high school kids who did it without training. They kept saying that they got stronger as they went on. They did it in 19 days and I started thinking that if I took my time, maybe I could do it, too.”[…]

Photo of Devils Postpile National Monument is a wonder to the eye.
Devils Postpile National Monument is a wonder to the eye.

The hardest part of the trail, however, came in the final two days as Kanbayashi crossed over Forester Pass, the final gateway before reaching the base of 14,000-foot-high Mt. Whitney.

“It had been raining and thundering all day and you had to hunker down because lightning is attracted to the hiking poles, but I couldn’t wait because the temperature was dropping and it started snowing. As I approached Whitney, the snow stopped, but then it began to hail, so I hid under a tree.”

By then, Kanbayashi’s hands were so cold he couldn’t grasp his hiking poles, so he just dragged them along behind him as he walked. By the time Kanbayashi reached his campsite at Guitar Lake, he was cold, wet and miserable. Luckily, waiting for him, was the trio of young hikers who had befriended him earlier on the journey. “Nathan, Nick and Maegan came out of their tents and helped me make camp although they were just as tired as I was.” The foursome ended up eating dinner together in silence, all of them exhausted and lost in their own thoughts.

That night, it rained continuously and the temperature started to drop. Kanbayashi slept no more than four hours. At 2 a.m., he rose with the others and began to break camp in preparation for the final leg of the trail: the 3,000-foot ascent to the top of Mt. Whitney.

“My fingers were so cracked I couldn’t operate the zipper on my tent, so Maegan and Nick came over and helped me break camp and stuff my belongings into my bag.” By 3:20 that morning, the group began their climb under a becalmed night sky, but soon became separated along the long trail.

“I had told them not to wait for me, but I could see them far ahead because Nathan would stop and shine a light to let me know where they were. I still have the memory of the small lights from the hikers’ headlamps slowly moving up the mountain wall in the total darkness. They looked like fireflies.” […]

“The best part of the trail may have been the people I met along the way. There is a feeling of camaraderie and community up there that is hard to describe. Everything is about paying it forward and helping the next guy rather than just looking out for yourself.”

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Among the people Kanbayashi got to know on the trail was Nathan Kelley from Alabama. Kanbayashi shot this photo of Nathan on the trail at Golden Staircase.
Among the people Kanbayashi got to know on the trail was Nathan Kelley from Alabama. Kanbayashi shot this photo of Nathan on the trail at Golden Staircase.
Photo of Keiri Kanbayashi outside the Muir Hut
Kanbayashi outside the Muir Hut. A hiker Kanbayashi met on the trail insisted on taking his photo after Kanbayashi had taken his picture in front of the hut.

Cover Photo of 1/20/17 Issue "America The Beautiful", photo of lake and mountain backdrop

Photo of "Monster Rock"
“Monster Rock” got its name because of the shape of these huge boulders and its scary “teeth” rocks. It is a popular spot for picture-taking, with some hikers climbing in and pretending the monster is consuming them.
Photo of Keiri at Wanda Lake (Photo by Nathan Kelley, www.nathan -Muir-Trail-2016)
Fellow hiker Nathan Kelley shot this photo of Kanbayashi at Wanda Lake, which is named for John Muir’s eldest daughter. (Photo by Nathan Kelley, www.nathan -Muir-Trail-2016)
Photo of the John Muir Ranch, making the halfway point of the trail
The John Muir Ranch marks the halfway point of the trail.
Photo of supplies and campsite, in joint with hikers who befriended Keiri
“It’s all about paying it forward,” said Keiri Kanbayashi, citing these orange bins as an example. Hikers place their excess food and supplies in the bins for other hikers to help themselves to and use. Kanbayashi found Oreo cookies and M&M’s candies, which gave him a needed boost of energy. As he continued on the hike, he would give a first aid kit to a woman suffering from blisters and another kit to two brothers who needed to mend an inflatable mattress.



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