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Ascent 2018 Feature: Paradox of Paradise

When Hawaii sent out a ballistic missile alert the author reevaluates everything. (This feature appears in Ascent 2018. Ascent is a compendium of the best climbing writing.)

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Paradox of Paradise. At about 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, January 13, I was standing in my kitchen in Makawao, Hawaii, eating a pancake and working on a haiku. I was teaching haibun—linked prose and verse—and wanted to try to write a haibun about a climb. The 17th-century Japanese master poet Matsuo Basho had written his classic travel sketches as haibun, and what is a climb if not a journey?

For inspiration, I’d been reading Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, a haibun travelogue about his years-long road trip into wild and dangerous Edo-period Japan, where travelers risked brutal cold, illness and meeting roving brigands who’d chop your arm off with samurai blades to take the gold out of your fist. Basho sold his house in 1689 and took off for two and a half years, traveling over a thousand miles and living on handouts as a Zen-influenced pilgrim. In 1694, five years after starting his northern journey, Basho died back in his home province at the age of 50.

That morning in January, I was standing, eating, looking at a haiku I’d written, holding a book and hollering at my two boys to be quiet so I could get in the right mood to tell the story behind a route that Guillermo Marun, Coco Dave Elberg and I had put up a couple years before.

The route is Sky Turtle (5.10+). A long, steep hike past ancient petroglyphs and shelter caves leads you to a room-sized hole in the mountain, the remnants of a giant gas bubble. You make five rappels out of the hole past orange, black and purple streaks that trail down the gently overhanging trachyte (a close geological relative to the syenite of
Hueco Tanks.)

Foggy, green, rainbow-laced valleys rise northward toward the crest of the West Maui mountains jutting like pyramids from the Pacific Ocean, which shines like a 2,500-mile-long grow light behind you. From the halekoa tree at the base you climb back up the only crack, 100 feet of 5.9+ protected by cams up to six inches. A pitch that will keep away the riffraff. Continue up ladders of tacky finger buckets and wormlike lava flows for six more pitches, all bolted. Wandering, bulging, cutting across the big wall, they take you places where you can really feel the mana (spiritual power) all around.

Sky Turtle is a metaphor for the mystery that hovers above us all the time. Climbs can be portals into that mystery; you just have to step outside the familiar confines of habit. Or something like that. Honestly, I was having a little trouble with the metaphor.

After some stern hectoring from me, the boys quieted down, and I tried again to conjure a poetic frame of mind.

Looking for insight, I opened my book and read the introduction: “In other words, the Narrow Road to the Deep North was life itself for Basho, and he traveled through it as anyone would travel through the short span of his life here—seeking a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destined to perish.”

That’s the contradiction of life, I thought. Everything we love dies.

At precisely that moment my phone buzzed, and I saw on the screen a little exclamation point in a triangle.

I’d seen that before. It was a flood alert, but instead of the familiar flood warning, in a glowing light-gray box, under the heading EMERGENCY ALERT, were the allcap words:


Perhaps you’re wondering: Did he really read that heart-rending line from Nobuyuki Yuasa’s intro at precisely the moment the missile alert went out?

The answer to your question is: Yes.

My mind went blank. Then my guts melted. I called my boys over and hugged them tight for a long time.

My mother-in-law goes by the name Unci, which is Lakota for grandmother. She came in from the ohana (grandmother’s cottage) and pointed to her phone. “Did you get this? Ballistic missile inbound to Hawaii?”

My 10-year-old, Kai, perked up. “Missile?” he asked. I could tell he thought it was cool.

Blond and long-limbed, into baseball, Norse myths and playing the violin, Kai trusts in the universe. I don’t think he had any sense of danger. He’s also into that fearless boy-stage of broken collarbones and chipped teeth, and to him maybe missiles were just another name for a rocket ship.

Isaac, 7, is more perceptive. He picked up on the vibe, hugged me harder, and said, “I don’t want missiles to come here.”

“I don’t either,” I said.

What do you say to your still-pudgy, blue-eyed, soft-cheeked first grader about the inbound-missile alert? I couldn’t think of a single honest way to assure him of its impossibility.

I wanted to believe it was a hoax or some hacker or a mistake—that it couldn’t be true because nuclear war is MAD (mutually assured destruction) and crazy and unthinkable, and just the dumbest fucking thing human beings could do to each other.

And yet Trump had been Tweeting, engaging in a nuclear pissing contest with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Just a month earlier, Hawaii had started testing nuclear sirens for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

I thought about what might happen in the next few moments. Would we be wiped out in a flash of white light? Vaporized or turned to glass?

The missile, I thought, would probably be targeted on Honolulu, Hawaii’s largest city, with a metro population of nearly a million people. Honolulu is on the island of Oahu, about 116 miles away. But I didn’t know how far the blast—or whatever you call it—would travel or whether we’d have radioactive ash raining down like red-hot cinders for a decade. The alert had said to seek shelter but there are no shelters. We live on Maui. Our house is single-wall construction, built in 1957. I looked around at the open windows and felt again the knee-weakening sink, and in an ironic moment lamented never finishing my haibun.

I thought about all the things I’d left unfinished. The climbs and stories—raising my sons. I’ve had a great life and was surprisingly O.K. with dying in a flash. In some ways a quick death would be easy, maybe even a relief from the existential ennui that troubles everybody from time to time, some of us more than others. But not these little boys, who had all of life unlived—their fate couldn’t be so senseless.

I held them in the kitchen for a little longer, gaming it out—wondering how to survive the blast and the fallout and the horror-show of what was going to happen to North and South Korea and Japan and China and the Pacific Ocean and the Mainland. War, martial law, power outages, contamination, burns, shortages, starvation, disease and death. At any moment there could be a roaring concussion and mile-high drifting radioactive cloud only 100-some miles away. What was I gonna do?