So far the most challenging part of my traveling-instead-of-working life has been avoiding excessive laziness between trips. For most of January I puttered around Marie’s place in Mountain View and over-consumed media. Marie and I did make one excursion – a weekend roadtrip to Death Valley National Park, where on Sunday morning we awoke to a rare snowstorm that almost stranded us – but my only real accomplishment that month was to finish organizing my next trip.
For years one of my personal goals has been to visit all 59 U.S. National Parks, and my next trip would start at the only park I hadn’t yet visited: the National Park of American Samoa. From there I’d jump over to “Western” Samoa, check out Fiji, and then meet Marie for a couple of weeks in New Zealand. All of those places would be new to me. If everything went as planned I’d be gone a little over a month.
Before this trip I knew almost nothing about American Samoa and would have struggled to find it on a map. Its four islands – Tutuila, Ofu, Olosega, and Ta’u – sit in the middle of the South Pacific, roughly between Tahiti and Fiji. To get there I first stopped in Honolulu and then flew six more hours southwest.
Pago Pago, on Tutuila, is American Samoa’s largest city. My plane landed there at night, and first thing the next morning I walked from my hotel to the National Park Visitor Center. Soon armed with maps and helpful advice from the park ranger, I decided to do the relatively short Blunts Point / WW2 Heritage Trail hike that afternoon and the longer Mount Alava hike the next day. Only the second hike would take me inside the borders of the National Park, so I’d have to wait a day to check off the last park on my list.
The Blunts Point trail might not have been particularly long, but hiking up slippery jungle slopes in tropical heat made it more challenging than I expected. Thankfully there were interesting places to stop and rest along the way. The path passed several World War 2 gun batteries, and for some reason one of them – but only one – was overrun with cane toads, literally hundreds of them, packed into every crevasse of the rusting metal artillery foundation. I had fun photographing the toads until persistent mosquito attacks finally drove me off.
Swiftlets and fruit bats darted over my head. Lizards constantly skittered away from the trail, some tiny with neon blue tails, some orange-yellow like leopards, others shiny black and large. Unsurprisingly, I failed to stay on my feet. I took pride, however, in the fact that I only wiped out once, and the damage to my ankle was minor.
Before sunrise the next morning I walked back along the harbor coast and then cut inland to Fagasa Pass, the starting point of the Mount Alava Trail as well as the border of the National Park. How fun, after so many years, to walk into my 59th and final park! I felt a mix of exhilaration, gratitude, and relief, along with – unexpectedly – a twinge of regret that this goal, a bright light on my horizon for over a decade, was being extinguished.
The muddy but well-maintained trail followed the spine of the mountain range just north of Pago Pago up to the 1,611-foot summit of Mount Alava. On clear days there are nice views of the harbor, but the summit was enveloped in clouds when I arrived and I saw nothing but swirling gray mist in all directions.
I continued past the radio tower and the disintegrating remains of a cable-car foundation that apparently once carried people from Pago Pago to the mountaintop. Beyond the summit the trail narrowed and became much steeper. According to my hiking map, there were 56 rope ladders on that part of the trail, some of them so steep that they hung vertically. And yes, I wiped out again. Of course. But I didn’t fall far or break anything, so let’s call that a win.
The trail spit me out at Vatia, a small coastal village on the north side of the mountains. From there I hoped to catch a bus back to Pago Pago, but I hardly saw any people around, let alone a bus. So I walked along the road until eventually a friendly local family on their way to Pago Pago offered me a ride.
“You here for work?” asked the driver. I’d heard the same question from the clerk at my hotel and the National Park ranger. Tourism in American Samoa is so uncommon that everyone assumed I was there doing some kind of job. I hadn’t seen a single person on either of my hikes, and the only guests at my hotel who looked like they might be tourists turned out to be parents visiting their daughter, who was teaching on one of the islands.
Tutuila had been awesome but I was even more excited for Ofu. The National Park of American Samoa is spread over parts of three islands, including the mountainous area I’d just seen near Pago Pago, a large swath of jungle and sea cliffs on Ta’u, and a pristine beach on Ofu. The next day, if all went smoothly, I’d be leaving my footprints in Ofu’s white sand.
Rain blocked the sunrise during my first two days in Pago Pago, but the morning before my flight to Ofu the sky put on a show. I watched from my hotel’s small beach and couldn’t have asked for a better send-off.