I’ve long been fascinated by all things Hawaii, including paniolo culture. It was a part of my child- and young adulthood, due to the many clinics and seminars my dad has done for the Hawaiian veterinary profession and horse industry. In my 20s, I twice lived on Maui, and I’ve returned to Hawaii many times as a food and travel journalist. In 15 visits, however, I’d never made it to Molokai. In August, I finally made good on my longtime dream of seeing this oft-overlooked island. More important, I did so on the back of a mule (I grew up on a mule ranch, so this was the proverbial “two birds, one stone”).

While Hawaii received a record 7,998,815 visitors in 2012, tiny Molokai saw just 53,578 of that number. True, this rural island off the west coast of Maui is lacking in the kind of luxury tourism infrastructure guests have come to expect when visiting Hawaii, but Molokai’s many charms are more subtle. Historically, its primary income has come from agriculture, but Molokai’s paniolo culture has also helped provide a bridge between the island’s dark, harrowing, distant past, and its present as one of a few remaining examples of “old school Hawaii.”

The Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour (www.muleride.com) (previously known as the “Molokai Mule Ride;” it changed ownership in 1993) is inarguably the island’s most famous activity, but the reason behind this scenic attraction is to provide education about one of the most tragic events to occur in Hawaii’s turbulent history.

In 1865, an outbreak of the highly contagious Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) spread throughout the islands, threatening the future of the Hawaiian race. King Kamehaha V thus made the difficult decision to banish the afflicted to the isolated Kalaupaupa Peninsula, on Molokai’s north shore. Surrounded by the world’s tallest sea cliffs—over 2,000 feet in height—Kalaupapa even today is accessible only by boat, aircraft, or mule.

In the 19th century, the exiles were often tossed from boats (accounts vary as to whether this was because ships couldn’t safely get close to shore; certainly, it’s true that not all went willingly). Although native Hawaiians had lived in the region for centuries, there was no established settlement for the lepers, and their lives were ones of extreme suffering and brutality, due to inter-fighting, harsh conditions, and the effects of their disease. For the next century, 8,000 native Hawaiians were banished to Kalaupapa; the forcible removal from their families and ‘aina (land), which are at the heart of Hawaiian culture, has devastated generations of islanders.

The story of Joseph De Veuster, a Belgian missionary better known as Father Damien, has achieved global renown. While not the first caregiver to arrive at Kalaupapa or the adjacent, initial settlement of Kalawao, Father Damien was responsible for helping to turn the colonies into places of hope, rather than despair. He established hospitals, schools, housing, a water system, and recreational pursuits for the patients, and chose to stay at Kalaupapa until his death at age 49 from Hansen’s Disease. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1995. Damien’s protégés, Mother Marianne Cope and Father Joseph Dutton, carried on his work until their own natural deaths.

A cure for Hansen’s Disease was discovered in the 1940s and in 1969, the state’s isolation laws were abolished, yet many former patients chose to remain in Kalaupapa and Kalawao. Today, less than 20 former patients reside there; they’ve chosen to spend their remaining years in the close-knit little community. Although it’s not possible for visitors to interact with them, they help to keep the peninsula’s history alive by working with the National Park Service, which established it as Kalaupapa National Historic Park (www.nps.gov/kala/index.htm) in 1980.

The Kalaupapa Mule Tour is the most popular way for visitors to get to the colony, although it’s also possible to take a flightseeing tour, or hike the steep, 3.2-mile trail, famed for its 26 switchbacks and 1,700-foot near-vertical descent. Founded in 1973, the operation is now co-owned by head wrangler/mule trainer paniolo Buzzy Sproat and Roy Horner, who oversee the administrative side.

Sproat, 76, grew up on Kohala, on Hawaii Island, and is still actively involved with the mule ride. A former paratrooper, mill worker, and truck driver, he has mules in his blood (Although half-Hawaiian, his great, great-grandfather was a vaquero; coincidentally, it was the Mexican cowboys who later taught the paniolos how to ride and work cattle).

Sproat says his first memories were of looking through the ears of mules, while his mother rode to church with him seated before her in the saddle. His Missouri-born grandfather grew up working with mules, before eventually landing in Honolulu, where he trained the animals for the military. He later ended up settling on Hawaii Island, working as the superintendent for Kohala Ditch Company (a sugar plantation subsidiary), which also involved working with mules.

The elder Sproat passed the family business and animals on to Sproat’s father, Bill, who carried on the family legacy. Buzzy Sproat grew up riding, and per his father’s frequent admonishments, always rode mules. A former Hawaii Rodeo participant, he also served as Molokai’s volunteer veterinarian for a number of years.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the mule barn after being checked in by Horner, Sproat was adjusting stirrups and joking with our group of 12. One of his wranglers paired me up with a mule (a sweet-tempered bay named “Elizabeth Bishop,” nicknamed “EB.”). Sproat delivered a brief introduction and safety talk, and we were on our way through fragrant guava orchards to the trailhead.

The ride down to Kalaupapa is every bit as steep as legend, although it received a major overhaul in the mid-90s, and now has cement “stairs” to help prevent erosion and slippage. EB, who immediately established herself as lead mule, picked her way down with the cautious ease mules are known for. The views of the peninsula and endless blue of the Pacific are stunning (the sheer drops off the trail also inspire heart palpitations of a different sort).

The trail ends at ‘Awapua, Kalaupapa’s vast, black sand beach (swimming is strictly forbidden). After dismounting, we were met by our guide, Norman, who drove us into the settlement in an old school bus. Kalaupapa community is a tidy little place of clapboard houses and empty streets; because no residents are in evidence; it’s eerie, yet oddly peaceful. We toured the museum and church, while Norman gave us a detailed history of the place.

For lunch, we stopped at Judd Park in the neighboring settlement of Kalawao, which contains the remnants of structures like the former Boy’s Home, and ancient terraces once used for the cultivation of taro. If you’ve seen photos of the peninsula, this is most likely where they’re from. The views of a hulking, offshore “island” where the ships anchored and lowered the lepers into rowboats, backed by the towering cliffs, is dramatic. Here, it’s possible to imagine how desolate and forbidding the place must have seemed to the terrified exiles, but one can’t dismiss its natural splendor.

Our 90-minute tour concluded with a visit to the lighthouse; on the adjacent beach, we spotted two rare, endangered monk seals lazing in the sun. Back at the beachfront mule corral, we mounted up and began the steep ascent back to the corral. The mood was, if not somber, certainly more contemplative than the giddy anticipation we’d displayed on the ride down.

There’s no denying the emotional impact Kalaupapa has on visitors. That it possesses such otherworldly beauty and is so remote is, of course, part of its mystique. For Buzzy Sproat and his mule skinners, it’s also part of their legacy as native Hawaiians and paniolos, as well as all in a day’s work. Says Sproat, “I’m going to work here until I die with my boots on.” Spoken like a true cowboy.

Getting there:

You can get to Molokai year-round by either regional air carriers or ferry via Maui (www.molokaiferry.com). To enter the Park, state law requires visitors to obtain a permit prior to entering. Children under 16 are not permitted.

All entries are booked and must be prearranged through Father Damien Tours (beatofhawaii.com/damien-tours-of-molokai) (808) 567-6171, which is endorsed by the National Park Service or through a Molokai activity center, which will facilitate the permitting process. Note that the ferry times will require you to arrive on Molokai a day before visiting Kalaupapa. The park is closed on Sundays.

For the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour (www.muleride.com/details.html) (you can also call 800-567-7550), it’s recommended that you book at least two weeks prior to your visit; the mule ride automatically authorizes riders to visit the park on a blanket permit with Damien Tours. Their website also provides helpful travel logistics. $199/pp, including picnic lunch

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