Eldon "Buzzy" Sproat, the owner of the Molokai Mule Ride, was easy to find with the help of his partner, Roy Horner. Roy described Buzzy, who was standing beside his mule, as "the one with the hat that is not the mule's butt." Sproat bought the operation in 1995, and if ever someone had a business in his genes, it's Buzz. He is a third-generation mule skinner -- his grandfather was a Missouri mule skinner.
As we all began mounting our mules, the mule skinners continued their repartee. "No pass, no ass," we were teased. I asked for a gentle mule and was given Laka, whose name means "tame, or gentle" in Hawaiian. In legend, it is also the name of the woman who first taught the people of this island the hula.
Single-file, we started down the fragrant trail through Palaau State Park leading to the 1,800-foot-high cliff we would descend. During the 1 1/2-hour descent, which covers a little less than three miles and incorporates 26 switchbacks, I rode near the back with Buzzy. I benefited from his soothing assurances that I should just relax and let my well-trained, sure-footed mule do its thing. "If they moved any slower than this, they'd be dead," he quipped from a few mules behind me.
It wasn't long before we were all seduced by the aesthetics of the trail, which dates to 1887. Our eyes feasted on the lacy lichens and velvet mosses covering wayside rocks, and on the unusual varieties of ferns and other native vegetation. We fell into a rhythm of people softly conversing, and of mules sporadically whinnying, stopping stubbornly when they got tired and furtively grabbing a mouthful of attractive grasses to munch on whenever they could get away with it--a trait that has earned them the nickname of "Molokai mowers." Vast sea panoramas stretched out before us as we caught our first glimpse of the expansive (five-miles square), flat Kalaupapa Peninsula. The last stretch of the trail, which paralleled an achingly beautiful isolated black sand beach, was the most scenic. And then we were there.
After dismounting our tired mules, we were met by an old school bus for our four-hour tour of the peninsula. Our guide was the owner of Damien Tours, Richard Marks, who himself suffered from Hansen's Disease (as leprosy is now referred to in Hawaii by decree of the State Legislature). He is also the town sheriff. Marks began the tour with a quick stop at his house to feed his cats.
Though he's lived here for most of his life, Marks is considered a newcomer. Still, he had many tales to tell. As he drove us through the eerily silent streets of the settlement--where the only gas station is open just once a week and where everyone, even the blind, has two TVs because, according to Mark, "it takes so long for repairs, you have to have a spare"--we learned that Hawaiians had lived here a thousand years ago -- 900 years before it became a naturally bounded prison for leprosy victims in 1866. When the disease was in its heyday of contagion, victims were taken here and dropped ashore--or sometimes right in the water--with minimal supplies. Unfortunately, renegades, who also suffered from the illness, ran things for a long time.
Then Father Damien arrived in 1873 and things changed. He convinced the rebels to help make things better for all the exiles, including themselves. Father Damien, who eventually came to be loved by everyone in the colony, secured funds for building homes and other structures and established medical comforts for the neglected, suffering victims. Eventually Father Damien also fell victim to the highly contagious disease and died in 1889.
Father Damien was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II. A relic of his remains was brought back from his native Belgium and re-interred at his original gravesite beside St. Philomena's Catholic Church in Kalawao, built by Damien in 1876.
With the discovery that sulfone drugs both curtailed the mortality rate of leprosy victims and rendered them non-infectious, Hawaii ended its policy of isolating them in 1969. (Leprosy is said to be one of the least contagious of all communicable diseases, with only 4 to 5 percent of the world's population even susceptible.) All patients were free to leave, but many chose to stay. The peninsula became a national historical park in 1981.
On a less somber note, we also found out that the opening scenes of "Jurassic Park" were filmed here, and we enjoyed a picnic at a gorgeous site overlooking the spectacular, lushly green north coast cliffs.
On the ride back, my long-eared mount insisted on being second in line. Though I tried several times to hold Laka to the back of the line, she insisted on trotting around the other mules back to the front. A female mule skinner told me Laka always likes to be at the front on the way back. Picturing potential disaster if she tried to volley her way up to the front once we hit the switchbacks, I acquiesced to her stronger will. She was a delight all the way back up. Didn't scare me once.
And a big YES in answer to the question the bumper sticker souvenir they gave us back at the stables asks: Wouldn't your rather be riding a mule on Molokai?