Monday, May 25, 2015

Shimps in Jail

This one time in high school, I bumped into a curb and lost my hubcap. Terrified of the consequences, I convinced some friends to try and put it back on before my dad noticed. They did, but it didn't quiiiite go on all the way, and when they tried to take it back off, it stuck.

So I brilliantly took my car to a parking lot in Maple Lawn, where I drove around crazy, jerking around corners and stopping suddenly, in an attempt to make it fall off again. A policeman sirened up behind me, told me the speed limit in the parking lot was 5 mph, and asked if I was having a driving lesson. 

I was not. I was 18. 

(Weirdly enough, another policeman would ask me the same question when I rolled through a stop sign....5 years later. #babyfaceproblems)

This, and a smattering of speeding tickets, are the only run-ins I have ever had with the law. 

When I started planning our trip to Hawaii, I asked a lot of people what they recommended. "Hike the Stairway to Heaven!" they all said. "It'll be fun!" they said. So I put it down as the very first thing on our list, on Thursday morning at 2:30am.

Stairway to Heaven is an illegal hike unlike any other hike there is. You just climb this staircase, straight up the mountain and into the clouds, and when you get to the top, you've got a view of the whole island. It was legal for a little while, and the city put tons of money into repairing stairs and making it safer. But then....there was a storm? Erosion threatened to destroy the path? Hawaiians were still annoyed? People kept dying on it? I don't know. For whatever reason, they closed it up again. Now there are barbed wire fences and huge signs saying "No Trespassing" and "Government Property" and "Keep Out," and the residents of the neighborhoods right by those barbed wire fences have bought big mean loud dogs, and there are guards who watch the trailhead and policemen who stop by throughout the day. If you look on Yelp, you get the impression that the guards watch the trailhead from early in the morning (5ish) to about noon, and it kind of seems like something that's illegal in the same way speeding is - yeah it's illegal, but everyone does it and it's not a big deal.

At 2:30, we drove over to a neighborhood that Jonny told us about, close to the entrance. We silently walked toward the mountain and ran into two guys wearing backpacks. They were either out for a 3:00am bank robbery or they were going to hike Stairway to Heaven, so we took our chances and asked if they knew where the entrance was. It wasn't too hard to find. We hemmed and hawed and finally just climbed over the barbed wire and started up the trail.

We barely felt safe enough to talk, so we just whispered introductions as we walked. They were from Austria, and it was everyone's first time in Hawaii, and when I asked, they said they'd never done anything illegal either. Eventually Margot and Gonzalo caught up to us when we got to a fork in the trail. We were like a walking joke - two Austrians, two Americans, a Frenchwoman and a Spaniard all walking down some illegal pathway before the sun has even come up.

When we saw the guard, we all had a mini freakout and sat in the trees, hearts pounding, crouched down and fumbling with the flashlights like he hadn't already seen us. We sat there whispering for about five minutes before we finally decided to venture out and talk to him.

The guard was nice enough and just told us that it is illegal, but we could hike it if we wanted to. He wouldn't try to stop us on our way up. However, he promised to call the police when he saw us heading back down and said that it would be up to a $600 fine or 4-5 years in jail. He said he grew up here but has never hiked it, and although he's heard it is incredible, he didn't think it was worth it.

"It's up to you," he finally said. "If you do decide to go, you can just walk up there. No need to run. I'm not going to chase you down." Then he went to his car, turned on some music, and leaned the seat back.

We stood around debating for a few minutes. It actually wasn't much of a debate - I wanted to go back down, but everyone else was still determined. We waved to the guard and started our ascent.

The stairs start pretty immediately, and it's nothing but stairs all the way up. Now that we had already passed the guard we felt more comfortable with talking, although I was pretty beside myself thinking about how I was definitely going to get fined and go to jail and lose my job, and my vacation was going to be ruined just because I had to go on the StairStepper 5000 because my husband and our new Austrian friends and old French friends needed to get their adrenaline fix.

Admittedly, the hike was probably one of the funnest hikes I've ever done in my life. It was super dark on our way up, and it looked like there was nothing on either side of the stairway - just a sheer drop. It wasn't as dilapidated as I had expected it to be, from what other people have said. There was just one part of the trail where the railing of the stairs had bent over, and maybe two other steps that were wobbly. Water and humidity dripped off the railing, and sometimes I needed Stephen to shine the light back, but I actually felt quite secure the whole time.

There are three platforms leading up to the top, but other than that, you don't have anywhere to rest. You really just have to keep stepping up and up and up again until you are at the top. 

We stayed at the top for a little bit, shivering and talking and snacking, and waiting for the sun to rise and the clouds to clear. A group of people who are all staying at the same hostel came up behind us. At that point, we were two Utahns, a Missourian, a Frenchwoman, a Spaniard, two Austrians, an Australian, a Canadian, and a guy from Wales (anyone know the name for that?). It was fun hearing everyone's stories and getting more ideas for our time in Hawaii. 

Eventually, two of the hostel people started heading back down. We followed about 10 minutes after them with the Austrians. By now the sun was up and it was easier to see where we were going, which made it scarier in some ways! But again, I never really felt scared of the trail - just of the guard. Was there going to be a policeman waiting for us? How much was the fine really going to be? Was this the last hike I would ever take, or would I spend the rest of my life in prison??

When we got close enough to see the guard's car, I was shocked to see that it was just his car. The police hadn't arrived! We were safe! We continued our descent, almost giddy with excitement. I looked up every few steps to double-check....and then my excitement vanished. Another car had joined the guard's car, and this one had a police light on the top. 

There's the guard in yellow. He's all, "Good morning Officer, thanks for coming so quickly. Please cart these RUFFIANS off to jail."
That other person is the first hostel girl. She made it down and we watched her talk to the cop. We saw him pull out a clipboard, and then we saw him open his trunk, and then we never saw the girl again. Dun. Dun. Duuuuunnn.
I just kept picturing myself in handcuffs, and my bank account dialing down as $1,200 were taken out to pay for Stephen and my ticket. "I am a criminal now," my brain repeated over and over again. It was not a happy time. 

We sat there, trying to figure out what to do. There was no way down, other than the stairway. If we got off the stairway, we would literally die. 

We considered getting down to the first platform and then hacking our way through the jungle until we made it out, somewhere far away from the guard and the policeman. But there really was no hacking to be done in this jungle. If ROUSes exist anywhere in the world, it's probably this mountain where they live. 

We thought about sending down just two people. They would convince the police to leave, and then the rest of us would go down afterwards. We would all split the fine. 

But in the end, no one wanted to pay the fine. We really just didn't want to! And we didn't want it to end up on our permanent records either. 

The other hostel people came down to find us standing gloomily in the middle of the stairs, in between the first and second platform. They called their friend, who we had seen talking to the policeman, and happily announced that she was safe and sound! The policeman had taken her to the gate and opened it for her. He was really nice, she said. 

As soon as this text came, we looked up and noticed that he was gone again! It was just the guard. We practically ran down the mountain. 

The guard reminded us that the hike was illegal when we got to the bottom. He reminded us of the fines and the jail time. He told us not to come back, but he wasn't aggressive or angry. 

We walked down a different path than the one we took to get to the guard, following the hostel people. They told us that they had come a muchhh easier way. There was a gate, but they said it was a lot easier to get over, so we followed them. 

Actually their way SUCKED. We had to walk past a ton of angry attack dogs, all barking and pulling on their chains from inside their gates. The gate we had to climb over this time had barbed wire and everything, and it wasn't easier than our gate. It wasn't harder either, but I was hardcore stressing out about the dogs. Even worse, once the dogs started barking, their owners came out and started barking, too. I have never felt so much hatred in my life! I partly understand....it would be annoying to be woken up e'er morning because your dogs are barking because people are breaking into the government property right behind your house. But I partly don't understand because I've never been so angry at someone that I've felt the need to come out of my house and swear at them for 5 minutes straight, so. 

The hostel people who went down first had gone and gotten the car, so they were able to get out of the neighborhood as soon as they crossed over the gate. We were not so lucky. Our car was parked somewhere else, and the Austrians were the last ones to cross the gate, so by the time we had gotten a block away, the police car was zooming up and flipping on his siren to pull us over. 

We sat on the curb all shame-faced and panicky for about 5 minutes while the policeman asked us over and over again where we had been, what we were doing, etc. At first no one wanted to say anything incriminating, but then he pointed at me, because apparently I was the obvious weak link, and said "You. What were you doing." 

"We hiked Stairway to Heaven," I said. 

I'm going to jail, I thought. He's going to taser me right now. Sorry Mom.

"Okay, thank you," the policeman said. "At least someone has the balls to tell me the truth."

So then, in a happy twist of fate, he decided he loved us. And after ten agonizing minutes of sitting on the curb while he talked to another cop and that cop went and talked to the lady who hated us, he decided to let us go with a warning. On the condition that we go on Facebook and Yelp and tell people not to hike Stairway. I literally considered hugging him but then I pretty much just ran away instead.

Anyway, I actually kind of agree with him. Stairway to Heaven was beautiful, and memorable, and in the end, I'm glad that we did it. But due to all the anxiety I experienced while hiking, I have to discourage it to other people. In another less-intense time, when the guard isn't there for 24 hours, then sure. Just for now, I wouldn't recommend it. I would say it's worth a $100 fine, but it's not worth a $600 fine, and it's not worth any jail time, and it's not worth being consumed with worry the whole time, wondering what's going to happen at the bottom. 

What really needs to happen is that they need to make the hike legal. It's not that dangerous! Honestly I'm pretty sure everyone that died on it, died because they were running down it trying to get there before the police did. That or someone killed them on the purpose by pushing them off the stairs. 

Build a parking lot at the bottom of the neighborhoods. Have a shuttle that takes people up to the barbed wire fences. Take the barbed wire off, open them up wide, and post a guard there to collect $15 per hiker. Don't re-do any of the stairs. They're fine. Just have people sign a waiver, stating that they understand that it's a kinda strenuous, kinda dangerous hike, and then let them enjoy it. 

Right now, they're paying for the guard to be there 24/7. They're paying for the cops to make several stops there every day. The neighbors are pissed and the tourists are, too. They might as well keep paying the guard but get something out of it. 

But until that happens.....at least we have a good story :) And a place to stay if we ever go to Austria. 

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