story by Chad Blair
photos by Monte Costa
Aaron Johnson Lowe
Aaron Johnson Lowe is not a large man, and I’m worried he’s not strong enough to control the Grillo motorized barrow that’s about to tip over and bury four workers with gravel. We’re near the entrance to Manoa Falls and Lowe, the O‘ahu trails and access specialist for the state’s Na Ala Hele program, is determined to manhandle the errant barrow. Using all his body weight to bear down on the machine, his feet actually lift off the ground.
One of the workers, Jeff Kleinschmidt, shoots a look back at me as if to say, “See? I told you this was dangerous work!”
As a rule, I never doubt a man who’s served time, and Kleinschmidt is still doing his: five years for a shoplifting charge, at the O‘ahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi. Along with three other inmates—each wearing identical work boots, khaki cargo pants and a white T-shirt with a last name stenciled on the front—Kleinschmidt is part of a community service work line from O-triple-C.
“I got to be honest with you, this work here is real dangerous,” Kleinschmidt had told me a few minutes earlier. “At any given time somebody could fall off a cliff. Some of these trails are only two feet wide, and it’s a 200-, 300-foot drop to nothing but rocks. Trees can fall, too; they fall all the time. People could get killed out here.”
“Would you rather be back in the slammer?” I ask.
Kleinschmidt smiles slyly. “Hey, it’s fresh air, sunshine. It’s dangerous, it’s serious work, but it’s also exciting. And it’s gratifying to know that people are going to come and look at what you do.”
Right now, if any hikers passed by, they would see Aaron Lowe, light brown hair tied back in a ponytail, sunglasses perched atop his head, riding the Grillo like a cowboy on a mechanical bull. With its tank-like tracks, the Grillo resembles one of those NASA vehicles designed to roam the lunar surface. Through sheer will and the force of gravity, Lowe manages to steer the metallic beast safely off to the side.
Lush Manoa trail hardly resembles the moon, but the .8-mile hike to the falls is in need of regular repair. Save Diamond Head, it is the most heavily traveled trail on O‘ahu, even more so since a deadly rockslide closed the windward side’s popular Sacred Falls trail seven years ago. Lowe and his Na Ala Hele (“trails to go on”) crew are focused today on rerouting a segment of the trail midway up. The new section skirts a natural drainage made by runoff from the mountains that washed out the original path. Freshly graded and lined with hard plastic cribbing made from recycled milk jugs, it looks like a Hot Wheels track.
“If I had my way, I’d have gravel all the way to the end of the trail,” says Lowe, wiping sweat from his furrowed brow. “When you got over 200 people a day coming here, you gotta do this at least three times a year. You gotta buff the trails out.”