Posted: 03/27/2017 9:24:53 AM

In the Sunlight: Tommy Penick, Adventure Photographer

There’s a funny balance that lies within being an adventure photographer—when you’re busy, it means you did something right. Your work has been validated, your adventures and pursuits in the past have paid off. But consequently, you’re locked down. The very thing that made your work desirable in the beginning is now disappearing below folders of client work, and sometimes—we get a bit lost.
I set out to change that on my recent trip to Hawaii. Wait…what? Hawaii? Isn’t that just resorts and piña coladas?

Hawaii sounds pretty tame to most world travellers. Everything’s still in English, it’s loaded with tourist attractions and accommodations — there’s nothing that difficult about it. But think about it ditching your car, your house, your knowledge of the area, all connections and loosely packing things that might come in handy in one bag, even your hometown can be an adventure. 
Coming hot off the fields of a music event I threw some dirty clothes, a ton of sunscreen and my EnerPlex gear into my trusty backpack that has been along on most of my formidable adventures, and hopped on the plane set for Honolulu. At this point I knew nothing of the entire state, but I had been advised to get out of Honolulu as soon as possible.

Almost immediately upon arrival, I grabbed another plane to the more laid-back, rural island of Kauai. This was based off some beta that was as simple as, “dude, Kauai’s rad. You should just do that”. Upon arrival I felt like I nailed it. The island hopper plane ride was already worth its $50 to check out the massive volcanic mountains slammed into the Pacific Coast. Naturally at the airport I wandered around until I found the cheapest mode of transportation, the bus.  And for two dollars I was northbound to what I was told was the “cool” part of Kauai. At this point my boycott of airport food left me famished. So after a quick grocery stop, I made my way over to a beach shelter to cook some oatmeal and slice up a pineapple. I was joined by a couple of old, salty locals, who appeared to either live on a boat or on the street, perhaps some kind of mixture. After a peace offering of some leftover pineapple, the guys loosened up and asked if I was hitting the trail.
“What trail?”
Little did I know the feared and revered Kalalau Valley trail, along the Na Pali Coast, was only a few more miles down the road. The trail spans 11 miles of rugged, mountainous coastline before turning into a habitable beach. Kalalau is what you think of when you imagine “Castaway”, but voluntary. It’s somewhere a dinosaur could pop out of the woods and you wouldn’t be all that shocked.

I decided to tackle the trail and one of my new friends told me which corner was best for hitch hiking, so I put my thumb to the wind. After an unsuccessful hour of hitchhiking I heard a voice say, “Mind if I stand with you?” It was a cute Polynesian girl, who seemed to have the same mission of tackling Kalalau. Within 30 seconds we had a ride. My new friend did indeed have the same destination, but her plan was to hike the entire trail that day. It was already 2:00 p.m. and 11 miles seemed like a stout chunk to bite off in the remaining four hours of light, but we decided to give it a whirl. After an hour I knew it wasn’t happening. I had already slaughtered my allotted 32 ounces of water to the first good water source, and the sun was destroying my complexion that is more suitable for Norway than Hawaii.  
The trail itself is notorious for a number of reasons, but mainly for its technicality and exposure. Any “dangerous trail” editorial list in a magazine or “You Won’t Believe This Trail!” click-bait FuzzBeed article probably lists the Kalalau Trail — and for good reason. Most of the trail is no wider than 10 feet and is constantly exposed to loose, steep hills that after about 400 feet of vertical trail it leads directly into 100 to 200-foot cliffs over the Pacific. The trail meanders back and forth along the spires, constantly gaining and losing elevation between sea level and nearly 1,000 feet at the highest points.

It was only at mile six that the lack of water mixed with my 50-pound bag containing everything I need for a month (including a commercial shoot and wedding) got the best of me — I bonked. Straight up, out of energy, bonked. My new friend proved to be more bravado than I expected. At only half way in and 30 minutes from dark, she announced she would be continuing.  I wished her good luck and found myself a nice campsite right by a beautiful creek.

The following morning I leisurely cruised the rest of the trail, aided by the cooler than average morning temperatures that came in the low 80s instead of 90s. Kalalau was just what everyone explained.  A hidden beach surrounded by 4,000 feet green spires. I found myself a nice tree, pulled out my hammock and made a home. I  was then quickly introduced to the local population; a tight-knit community of ex-pats who sometimes wear, at most,  loin cloths, but generally wear less and are quite… fragrant to say the least. The area was also full of other folks like me, just in for a few days, but the lifetime locals were quite a shocker.
Don’t be mistaken—there is absolutely no cell service close to this magical place. But music is sure appreciated and my EnerPlex Jumpr and Kickr kept the tunes bumping until I ran out of food three days later, when I planned my bailout.

After nearly five gallons of water, 11 miles and no food, I was lucky to find someone who took pity on me, ignored my multi-day sweat and dropped me off at the nearest Hawaiian style rotisserie chicken house.  Half a chicken later, I felt like a champion and was southbound with no mission except finding surf and a place to lay my head.