Issue 7.2: April/May 2004

Cliff Hanger

story by Paul Devlin Wood
photos by Richard A. Cooke III

Buzzy and his son Sale,
with the north end of Molokai
visible in the distance.

Everybody on Molokai knows Buzzy Sproat. For one thing, he’s easy to spot. The black cowboy hat, he wears that day and night, indoors and out. The trim white beard, the burly linebacker physique, the bowed legs of a man who grew up in the saddle—these are instant signatures. Then there’s that smile, genuine and generous.

Everybody on Molokai also seems to love Buzzy Sproat. He walks into the pizza café and everyone looks up admiringly. Kids cry out, "Hi, uncle!" Go with him for breakfast at the Kualapuu Cookhouse and every single person—out on the street, inside the diner—greets him like a best friend. Mention his name anywhere and people smile. They smile that Buzzy smile. The man is a magnet for good will.

And he’s tough. He’s tougher, certainly, than the string of twenty-five mules he keeps at the top of Molokai’s North Shore seacliffs. He tamed those mules and the terrain he rides, and has ridden nearly every day for thirty years—the Kalaupapa Trail, a vertical drop down the face of a cliff that descends more than 2,000 feet by means of twenty-six severe switchbacks. Buzzy was the first person to dare to take a mule down that rocky plunge. He has repaired that trail, built bridges into it, hauled telephone poles and cement down there, all by means of mule power and personal brawn.

Molokai’s North Shore—a monumental wall consisting of what are said to be the tallest seacliffs in the world—this is no ordinary landscape. Just the sight of it evokes contradictory sensations: Its gravity tests your mettle; its grandeur opens your heart. In Buzzy Sproat, you have a classic case of a man who has found his landscape.

I say "found" because Buzzy is not a Molokaian by birth. He grew up in Kohala, the northernmost point of the Big Island, a frontier on the brim of the deep cathedral valley called Pololu. He served as a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne Division, stationed in Germany. For seven years he lived in Northern California’s Humboldt County, where he worked in a plywood mill and drove a garbage truck. (He drove it by himself, mind you, jumping out of the cab at every stop.)

When he came back to Hawaii, he drove a semi for Mid-Pac Trucking on Oahu, hauling bridge girders and pre-stressed concrete piles. He was delivering hundred-foot-long loads on double-rigged trailers, backing them into impossibly tight passages in Waikiki. But he didn’t like city life. The Molokai mules gave him the opportunity to return to the Hawaiian frontier. How that happened—that’s a good story. But to tell it, we have to step back a couple of generations and explain what it means to be a Sproat.

The first Sproat in Hawaii was Buzzy’s granddad, a kid from Missouri who left home seeking adventure. He wound up in San Francisco, probably headed for the Klondike gold rush. On an impulse, though, he signed a contract to work in Honolulu, and he landed in January of 1893—just a few days before the overthrow of the monarchy. Put in charge of the livestock at the ‘Iolani Palace barracks, Jacob William Sproat had a front-row seat for the drama. The injustice of the overthrow disgusted him, and he left Honolulu as soon as his contract expired. He got on a boat for Tahiti and wound up shipwrecked on the Big Island. For a while he hunted wild cattle and sold the meat to road-building crews. Eventually, he became superintendent of the irrigation flumes for Kohala Ditch Company, a subsidiary of Kohala Sugar. Since he was from Missouri, the mule capital of the world, he did all of his work on muleback. His superintendent job—and the mules—passed to his son Bill (Buzzy’s dad) and later to one of Buzzy’s older brothers, who kept up the family tradition until the sugar company folded in 1975.

Buzzy’s other granddad was a structural engineer from Wales. Walter Rodenhurst came to Kohala about the same time as the first Sproat; he designed railroad trestles for the sugar company. Both men married Hawaiian women, whose families were bird catchers and canoe builders in Pololu Valley. So Buzzy is almost half Hawaiian—the only hitch is one great-great-grandparent who was a vaquero, one of those Mexican cowboys who started the paniolo tradition in Hawaii.

"My mom and dad spoke good Hawaiian, but also good English," says Buzzy. "When I was a kid, they made you sit there. Then they talked in Hawaiian, because they didn’t want you to know what they were saying. But pretty soon—’cause you want to know—you start to pick it up."

Buzzy, born in 1937, is the youngest of seven kids. The homestead near Pololu was so remote that when his mother gave birth to the older siblings, she had to ride a mule for two hours to reach the hospital. By the time the youngest came, the family had moved closer to the paved road. For Buzzy’s birth, mom hitched a ride with Mr. Takaki, who owned a nearby store—and a car.

Buzzy’s was a childhood spent in the saddle. "My dad always said, ‘Ride a mule! Never mind those damn horses. They’ll kill you.’ But I like horses." As young as ten, Buzzy used to ride horses across the vast grasslands of Parker Ranch. He would trail along with the cowboys on their two-day cattle drives to Kawaihae Harbor. At the end of the first day, the cowboys would pick up fresh mounts and turn the old ones loose to walk home. "I used to go that far and ride back with the horses. That was fun," says Buzzy.

The freedom was fun, but home life was rough. "Being the last child in the family, I got beat up by everybody. I was the whipping post." He picked the military as an escape route. He was just seventeen, so his dad had to sign permission papers. "When I asked him, he said, ‘Yeah, give me that. Maybe you’ll learn something.’" In boot camp, when the sergeants would yell, "I would enjoy that," says Buzzy. "The other guys used to say, ‘You’re smiling!’ I’d tell them, ‘Hey, if you knew my dad, you’d understand. He’s worse than any drill sergeant. He’d kick your butt, too!’"

Twenty years goes a long way toward easing the pain of a hard upbringing. It was 1973 when Bill Sproat, retired, got a phone call from Molokai. Some entrepreneurs had bought a bunch of mules with the idea of imitating the Grand Canyon trail rides, and they needed help. So Bill called his son and said, "Come on, let’s go look at them."

Here’s the short version of the story: They found the mules at the top of Kalaupapa Trail, along with a couple of handlers from California. "These guys only did show mules. They were scared to go down the trail. I said, ‘Oh, baloney! Give me that little black one, Popolo.’

I shod him, jumped on, and said, ‘Wup, wup, let’s go, boy.’ The others stood at the top watching, and I went all the way down to the beach." When Buzzy got back to the top, the owner of the would-be mule ride made him an offer he couldn’t resist. In time, as fortunes changed, Buzzy wound up owning the company. He runs it today with a partner, Roy Horner, who handles the promotion and desk work.

In the thirty years since, Buzzy has become as much a Molokai fixture as the trail itself. He married for a second time, and he and his wife Marlene have six kids. He’s the island’s volunteer veterinarian. "Where I live, seems everybody’s got one or two cows. If one gets away, right away they call me. On Molokai, everybody helps each other. Things are still free over here. People do things for you and don’t ask you to pay a penny. Kohala was just like here. You know what I mean?"