Learning from the ‘Wild’ Cheryl Strayed

By January 28, 2016 Musings, The Daily Dish


There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing.

But a close second is learning how to write better — and by a well-respected, New York Times bestselling author. It’s a writer-nerd dream!

I was fortunate enough to make the cut to attend the 10th annual Hanalei Writers Retreat this past weekend on Kaua‘i, a two-day intensive writing workshop led by Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, “Wild,” topped the New York Times Bestseller list, was named a Best Nonfiction Book of 2012 pick by The Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly, made the Best Books of the Year list by NPR, and was turned into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

It was my first time to this retreat — and, to be honest, any kind of retreat where all you do is write. I know it’s not for everyone, but to me, it was a dream.

The schedule was simple: Show up at 9 a.m. on Saturday with a laptop or notebook — or, in my case, both — and maybe some snacks and get ready to work.

First off, we got to stay here, right on Hanalei Bay. It was a good start!

First off, we got to stay here, right on Hanalei Bay. It was a good start!

Strayed is as talented a teacher as she is a writer.

Strayed is as talented a teacher as she is a writer.

Now, I was an English major and have spent a lot of time in writers’ groups and fiction workshops. And while I was already wowed by the star power of Strayed, she turned out to be a phenomenal teacher, too, very generous and compassionate and instructional. She discussed the mechanics of memoir writing, from where our stories come from to being fearless with the truth.

“You have to transcend the civil, the polite, and write who you really are,” Strayed says. “You want to aspire to credibility, not likeability.”

What a perfect place to sit and write.

What a perfect place to sit and write.

We spent hours talking, learning and, of course, writing. Some worked on their own memoirs, others crafted new material for the class based on writing prompts. While the scenery was a bit distracting, the place was perfect for this — tranquil, picturesque, soul-filling.

For many of us, including Strayed, writing can be incredibly therapeutic. There have been many times when I’ve turned to my journal or laptop to work out complicated issues. There’s something powerful about actually, physically writing something down — and seeing your words (and thoughts and feelings) on paper. It becomes suddenly and alarmingly real.

I love writing for all these reasons. But it can be a very solitary process. We tend to write alone, often in dimly lit rooms or corners of trendy coffee shops. We don’t talk to anyone, we turn off our cell phones, sometimes we even block such time-sucking sites as Facebook and Amazon.

So it’s nice to be around other hermit-like writers, to share and commiserate and cheer each other on. It was a relief to hear I wasn’t alone in my fear of writing something utterly and shamefully crappy. And I loved hear Strayed’s own stories of procrastination and self-deprication.

Oh, and we get to spend a weekend in Hanalei on Kaua‘i? Sign me up!

Hanalei Bay. Right?

Hanalei Bay. Right?

I came back from the retreat refreshed and recharged and eager to start writing. (Lucky for me I write for a living!) And I did come back with this new perspective: It doesn’t really matter how good or talented you are, if you love it, do it. That’s all that matters.

Thanks, Cheryl. 🙂

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A Day in the Life of a Magazine Writer

By January 20, 2016 #CatTravels, Musings, The Daily Dish


People often wonder what I do all day.

If you follow me on social media, it may look like all I do is eat, surf, hike with my dogs and bake butter mochi.

That’s partially true.

But since 1997 — and I’ve just realized this is actually a long time ago! — I’ve been working as a writer. My longest stint (10 years) has been with a daily newspaper, my shortest as a government public information officer (9 months). And for the past several years, I’ve been a freelance writer. Meaning, I write for a variety of outlets, from consumer magazines to travel guides to start-up websites. And meaning, I write all sorts of things, from long-form non-fiction to blurbs in brochures that hardly get noticed.

Last November, I was fortunate enough to get a full-time job doing exactly what I love. As food editor at HONOLULU Magazine, I write about new restaurants, prominent chefs, food trends and local agriculture. It’s really a dream job.

(Interestingly enough, I was talking to a friend about how lucky I feel to get paid to write all day, and she winced. “That sounds like my worst nightmare,” she said. To each her own, I guess!)

But sometimes — and this is when life gets really good — I get tossed a writing assignment that takes me away from the day-to-day. I mean, I love eating white truffle risotto like anyone else, but sometimes every food writer needs a break.

My editor wandered over to my cubicle and asked what I was doing on Saturday.

Usually, that’s never a comfortable question to answer. In other workplaces, I’ve desperately scrambled for excuses — Baby shower! Funeral! Unscheduled appendectomy! — to get out of working on the weekend.

But there was something about the way she had asked — aside from very nicely — that made me think this was different.

She wanted to know if I’d be willing and able to fly to the Big Island to tour the observatories atop Mauna Kea, the world’s largest mountain and the absolute best place on Earth to study the stars.

The Maunakea Observatories and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center partnered to offer free monthly tours of the world-class telescopes atop this sacred mountain after protests erupted last year against the building of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT. (You’ve probably seen the hashtag.)

Called the Kamaʻāina Observatory Experience, this daylong experience allows residents to learn more about what’s going on up there, how science and culture can work hand-in-hand, and what kind of larger impact the research done at these observatories has on the world around us.

My inner geology geek squealed!

“Of course! No problem! I’m so there!”

And so the work begins.

I Googled the tour, which had already been promoted on several news outlets. I made contact with the public relations person in charge of organizing this field trip for me. And I booked my flight — arriving early enough to eat at Ken’s House of Pancakes and with enough time to make the flight home. (I’ve missed many flights in my years of traveling. Sometimes I’m at the airport, waiting, and I still manage to miss my flight. It’s a talent.)

Then it’s time to do research. You never want to walk into an interview — in this case, a daylong tour — without knowing what’s going on. What’s the point of going on this tour? What should I expect? What would readers want to know? These are the important questions I need to answer in my story.

We landed in Hilo at around 7:30 a.m., giving us an hour to eat breakfast before making the hourlong drive to the Maunakea Visitor Information Center at around 9,300 feet above sea level.

I looked over the waivers I had signed the night before. (You have to sign these liability forms at sea level, believe it or not. I found out why soon enough.) I’ll be honest, I just glanced at them. Reading them, though, was a bit eye-opening. I probably shouldn’t have had that glass of wine for dinner — or the eggs, bacon, hash browns, waffles and Diet Coke for breakfast that morning.

I was, however, prepared for the weather.

At the summit, which soars 14,000 feet above sea level, the temperature outside hovered around 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit — and that’s without the wind chill. Luckily for us, the winds were only blowing about 30 miles per hour. It has gotten as crazy as 150 mph, which is just insane.

Inside the telescopes, though, is a different matter. Since the instruments are exposed to the air when the observatories are open, the temperature inside has to be the same as it would be outside at night. So it’s close to freezing inside. Yes, freezing. Layering — and gloves and a beanie and a scarf — were imperative.

So after a very informational — and important — two hours of presentations and safety briefings at Hale Pōhaku, a collection of support facilities for the people who work at the telescopes, we headed to the cafeteria there for lunch.

Teriyaki beef was on the menu!

Teriyaki beef was on the menu!

As food editor, ahem, I felt compelled to, you know, sample the food. All the food. Today’s menu included beef teriyaki, chunks of seared ‘ahi, egg foo young, crinkle-cut fries, salad, rice and four flavors of ice cream.

And to be honest, the food was great. I could eat here every day.

Posted on a bulletin board in the kitchen was the menu for the rest of the month. Pork adobo, shrimp tempura, laulau, kalbi short ribs, fresh corned beef and cabbage, teri chicken, meat jun, TACOS. Sign me up!

After digesting another too-big meal — you want to keep oxygen in your head, not in your stomach — we rode up to the summit in two four-wheel-drive passenger vans. And as we progressed through the alpine region of Mauna Kea lined with māmane trees, we could start to feel the elevation change. I felt like passing out — though I did have a restless sleep earlier that night — and my husband was already feeling lightheaded, a typical symptom of altitude sickness.

I went over the list in my head. Headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, nauseas, vomiting. So far, so good. Our guides told us that most of us would feel something, though only a few might actually get sick enough to need oxygen or be transported back to the visitor’s center.

Outside the observatories. It was about 45 degrees.

Outside the observatories. It was about 45 degrees.

Kumu hula and our cultural guide Micah Kamohoali‘i, taking a break in the control room at the Gemini Observatory.

Kumu hula and our cultural guide Micah Kamohoali‘i, taking a break in the control room in the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope.

In the break room in the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope. Eating chocolate made all of us feel better.

In the break room in the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope. Eating chocolate made all of us feel better.

When we stepped out of the vans, it was obvious my husband wasn’t feeling well. As soon as we get inside the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope, our guides checked our oxygen saturation levels. To put this into perspective, normal blood oxygen levels in humans should be at least 90 percent. If it’s below 90 percent, it’s considered low, resulting in hypoxemia. Below 80 percent, and it could compromise organ function.

My husband was at 69 percent.

He was quickly outfitted with an oxygen tank — as were a few others — and immediately felt better. Better enough to spend the next two hours at the summit, touring two telescopes and even asking semi-coherent questions. (But we did rethink our plans to hike to Everest Base Camp this year.)

Lightheadedness? I'll take it with this view!

Lightheadedness? I’ll take it with this view!

I felt a bit lightheaded and disoriented up there, too, I’m not going to lie. But as my first time to the summit, the strange feeling was well worth it. I learned so much about the science that goes on up here. I learned more about the cultural significance of the tallest peak in Oceania. And I learned that there’s no way I could ever get a job at a telescope and have to work at this elevation. Could you imagine my emails?

And that’s what this job is all about. It’s about learning and sharing, and that’s it.

Traveling? Well, that’s gravy.

Read my story on HONOLULU Magazine’s website here.

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Some things (should) never change

By January 15, 2016 Musings, The Daily Dish


Last night a group of us met up for drinks at AMUSE Wine Bar in the Honolulu Design Center.

It had been a long day, and a glass of rosé sounded incredibly appealing.

And it had been a long time since I had seen this particular group of girlfriends. As it happens, life had pulled many of us in different directions. What had brought us together initially — we were all volunteers in the Cherry Blossom Festival — wasn’t something we all shared anymore. Some of us still helped out, others moved on. So we didn’t have that annual reason — the festival and all of its events — to bring us together.

It’s not that we don’t keep in touch. Thanks to social media and texting, it’s easier than ever to stay in contact with your friends, even ones who don’t live here anymore. I probably text some of them several times a week — sometimes several times a day — but could go weeks without ever seeing them face-to-face.

And therein lies the rub, right? We stay in touch electronically, but we don’t actually see each other anymore. We don’t talk or laugh or hug — and that’s something sorely missing in our lives.

So while we’re mostly caught up on things like births and illnesses and vacations and new jobs and husbands, we don’t really know the details of our lives. And it’s in these details that I think make close friendships so special.

I got to the wine bar a bit late, frantically scrambling to get home before heading back into town. (I forgot how bad Downtown Honolulu traffic at pau hana can be!) Most of my friends were there already, some with half-filled glasses of wine. We fell easily into catch-up conversations about everything from a son who’s trying out for the football team at school to my recent experience with a Chinese healer. (Long story, maybe a blog later.)

This group, several years ago, was a very different bunch. Most of us were single without kids (and fewer dogs). Some were starting new jobs or careers, others were trying to get of them. Some of us were dating and knocking back shots and planning girls’ trips to Vegas. It was a carefree, stressful, exuberant time.

And then we got married, had kids, adopted more dogs (then chickens), bought homes, changed careers, became full-fledged, mortgage-paying adults with beneficiaries. It all happened so fast!

I feel like I’m late to this adult game, having one unsuccessful marriage and no luck in the child department. But as it turns out, it doesn’t matter. It never mattered. We weren’t friends because we had a ton in common. We were friends because, as luck had it, our meandering paths in life had intersected. And we liked each other. I mean, truly liked each other. It’s a real, genuine appreciation for the other person, and that’s what makes this group so special.

I love that one of them is a master of spreadsheets. I love that another has a photographic memory and always calls my dad, “Andy.” I love that one has every single Apple product that has ever existed — and is totally unashamed about it.

I couldn’t be more different from these women and, yet, we all get along. We laugh with our eyes closed — being Asian helps — and know when to pull someone in for a warm hug. We have all been there for each other through divorces, promotions, births, miscarriages, marriages, every heartache and every celebration.

We may not celebrate birthdays or hang out every weekend or even meet up for coffee once a month. But we text, we keep up on Facebook and we know that if we ever need a friend, we always have each other.

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Saying goodbye to my Murano

By January 12, 2016 Musings, The Daily Dish


I never thought I’d get so attached to a car I never wanted.

Back in 2011, I totaled my 2000 Honda Civic on Kalaniana‘ole Highway. I had had that car for 11 years — and suddenly, it was gone.

I didn’t occur to me then how attached I was to my Civic. I had reluctantly bought the car — used — and had even tried to sell it a couple of times to no avail. It was a coupe, too small, too low to the ground, I complained. But I could fit my longboard inside of it, no problem. And I moved several times with the help of that little car. It was a trooper, and I had grown to love it.

I almost cried when it got hauled away, wishing I could drive it one last time.

My then-boyfriend was driving a 2003 Nissan Murano, a mid-size crossover SUV that he had long admired. I wasn’t much of a fan. Compared to my Civic, this was a tank, hard to drive and maneuver, almost impossible to parallel park. He liked it because it was safe, well-built and aesthetically pleasing. And since he was getting his Ph.D. in Wisconsin, the all-wheel-drive feature on the Murano was particularly useful should he ever decide to ship his car to the Mainland.

But he didn’t. It stayed here. And it worked out just perfectly since I now didn’t have a car of my own.

Fast-foward a couple of years — we got married and divorced — and he graciously let me keep the Murano while he stayed in Wisconsin. I was incredibly grateful, though I secretly fantasized about replacing it with something smaller and easier to park.

But over the years, something happened. I got attached.

The Murano is almost the exact opposite of my old Civic. It’s bulky, heavy and imposing. It’s huge and tall and not easy to get into.

But on the flip side, I always felt safe in it. I knew other cars could actually see me. I could lug just about the entire contents of my rental in it. And whenever I pulled up to a fast-food drive-through window, I was eye-to-eye with the cashier. It felt good.

It reliably carried three dogs and me to Makapu‘u most mornings. It securely housed my longboard. And it safely got me from place to place, providing a comfortable ride and always with ice-cold air-conditioning.

But like with most older cars, the Murano was seeing its final days. And it was time to move on.

I resisted. My husband had long wanted me to get a newer car. It would be safer, more reliable. It would give me — meaning, him — peace of mind.

The idea of buying a new car — and I’ve never had a new car in my life — had been unthinkable. A car depreciates in value as soon as you drive it off the lot, and I figured it would be more worthwhile financially to maintain my old Murano instead of ditch it altogether and get a new one.

But despite my argument to keep it, the reasons for letting it go won out.


Last night, I drove to the Honda dealership in Kāneʻohe and traded it in for a new Honda Fit.

As ridiculous as this sounds, I actually teared up.

Who gets attached to cars like this? It’s crazy! But there I was, running my hand over the contours of the car one last time. I thought about how the dogs would sleep in the backseat after a long, hot hike. I thought about the Christmas trees, bicycles, surfboards, fishing gear and groceries it had carried. I thought about how much this car has been part of my life for the past six years. I snapped one last photo, took a deep breath and let it go.

I had to.

I’ve got a new car to obsess over.

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#40trails No. 16: Going solo on Kuli‘ou‘ou Ridge, O‘ahu

By January 4, 2016 #40trails


HIKE: Kuli‘ou‘ou Ridge, O‘ahu
WHEN: January 2016
LENGTH: 5-mile roundtrip
DIFFICULTY: Fairly easy, especially the first two-thirds of the trail; more challenging to the summit
FEATURES: Gradual switchbacks, usually dry and shady, some native plants like ʻōhiʻa trees, groves of Cook pines, open ridges, summit view of the windward coast.

I knew it was going to be crowded.

And that’s precisely why I decided to do it.

I had a few hours to myself on New Year’s Day, and since I had already surfed that morning, I wanted to hit the mountains. But I was going to have to do it alone. (My husband was on a rescue mission to find a friend’s drone that had crash-landed on a ridge. Long story.)

I don’t recommend hiking alone, though I do it more often than not — and more out of necessity and convenience than anything else. A lot of times — like on Friday — I make the decision to hike spontaneously, not giving anyone enough time to gear up and meet me at the trailhead.

Solo hiking, though, can be a revitalizing, uplifting experience. I love being outdoors by myself, hearing the chirps of forest birds and breathing in the crisp mountain air without no one else around.

That said, I’m always armed with pepper spray and a big stick — just in case.

But on New Year’s Day, I figured hundreds of people would be hitting trails all over the island. It was the start of a new year, and many, like me, wanted to kick it off right.

It helps that hiking torches the calories you’ve likely put on over the holidays, too.

So I picked Kuli‘ou‘ou Ridge Trail, between ‘Āina Haina and Hawai‘i Kai, for two reasons: One, it’s a fairly easy, non-treacherous hike to a summit lookout that offers great views of the windward side; and two, though I was hiking alone, I could guarantee I really wouldn’t be.

A word about the trail itself: Kuli‘ou‘ou Ridge Trail is one of a handful of state-managed trails that end at a summit atop the Ko‘olau Mountains. Of the three that traverse this stretch of the range, this five-mile hike is slightly longer and a tad more difficult than Wiliwilinui Ridge but easier than Hawai‘i Loa Ridge. It’s also easily the most popular, with its gradual switchbacks and shady paths.

The trailhead starts here.

The trailhead starts here.

This trail traverses a public hunting area. Here's the hunter check-in if you want to see if there's hunters on the trail while you're hiking.

This trail traverses a public hunting area. Here’s the hunter check-in if you want to see if there’s hunters on the trail while you’re hiking.

The trail starts at the end of Kala‘au Place in the residential neighborhood of Kuli‘ou‘ou. There’s no parking lot for this trail; you’ll have to find street parking in the area. And as with any hike, be respectful of the residents who live here. Don’t block their driveways or throw your trash in their yards or wipe your muddy feet on their lawns. I say this because, unfortunately, it happens more often than you’d think. (Ask anyone who lives by the trailhead to Maunawili Falls.)

I got to Kala‘au Place just after noon on Friday, and the entire stretch of road was already lined with cars. Hikers were parking on Kuli‘ou‘ou Road and walking up the steep street to the trailhead. Luckily, I found parking just at the bottom, after another car had pulled out. So for me, the hike began here.

The trail at the start.

The trail at the start.

My favorite part of the beginning of the trail, where you can see the blue skies overhead.

My favorite part of the beginning of the trail, where you can see Kuli‘ou‘ou Valley and the blue skies overhead.

This trail traverses a public hunting area, and it’s also open to mountain bikers and dogs on leashes. So there can be a lot more going on along this trail than just hiking.

There are two trails here. Kuli‘ou‘ou Valley Trail is a very short and shady two-mile walk along a well-groomed and graded path through this leeward valley. It’s perfect for beginners or families. The ridge hike, which veers to the right, is more challenging, with switchbacks that zigzag to the summit of the Ko‘olau.

After walking through a forest of Christmas berry, haole koa and guava trees, you’ll reach a signed junction. Go right. (Left will take you along the valley trail.)

The switchbacks start almost immediately, and they offer the easiest way to climb a steep ridge like this one. But you have to pay attention, as some of the turns aren’t super obvious.

And avoid the shortcuts that cross these switchbacks. While I’ve done them — I even cut across a few this time — using them can cause erosion that damages the trail. And to be honest, some aren’t any shorter than walking along the marked trail and others may not even be shortcuts at all. Case in point: I was following a group of college coeds from Russia. At one point, going down, they took every shortcut they could find. I stuck to the path and still caught up with them. Then they took another trail that appeared to be a shortcut — and I never saw them again. Either that was the worst shortcut in the world — or the best. I will never know.

The path weaves through ironwoods.

The path weaves through ironwoods.

Much of the first part of this hike is dry and shady like this.

Much of the first part of this hike is dry and shady like this.

After about half an hour, I made it to a clearing where the trail can get a bit confusing. Always veer left. You’ll come across a grove of tall Cook pines, then two covered picnic tables where many hikers decide to stop for lunch — or stop for good. (These pines were planted here in the 1930s as part of a reforestation project.)

The push to the summit starts here.

That first open area.

That first open area.

A family walking through the grove of Cook pines.

A family walking through the grove of Cook pines.

The covered picnic tables offer a great resting spot for tired (or hungry) hikers.

The covered picnic tables offer a great resting spot for tired (or hungry) hikers.

This next part of the trail gets a bit more challenging — but the payoff is well worth the extra effort.

The hike meanders through more of a native forest, with ʻōhiʻa and lama trees and the occasional native bird. (It’s so crowded on this trail, though, that hikers tend to scare off whatever forest birds frequent here.)

The climb here is significantly more difficult — and there aren’t any switchbacks here to make the trek easier.

Another viewing spot.

Another viewing spot.

Totally gratuitous dog pic! There were at least two dozen dogs on the trail when I hiked. It's a great place for them to explore.

Totally gratuitous shot: dogs! There were at least two dozen dogs on the trail when I hiked. It’s a great place for them to explore.

The dreaded stairs.

The dreaded stairs.

You'll encounter more native trees and plants on this part of the trail.

You’ll encounter more native trees and plants on this part of the trail.

As on both Wiliwilinui and Hawai‘i Loa ridge trails, the final ascent is marked with stairs. These steps are maintained by the state’s Nā Ala Hele program and the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i to slow erosion and make it safer — and easier — for hikers to climb to the summit. There are just about 300 steps on this trail to the top, which really isn’t too bad.

You might hate the steps, but they actually make it easier for you to reach the summit.

You might hate the steps, but they actually make it easier for you to reach the summit.

I gotta say, it was a gorgeous day for hiking.

I gotta say, it was a gorgeous day for hiking.

You always need to look back sometimes.

You always need to look back sometimes.

It’s the last set of steps that will undoubtedly be your hardest. Not just for the fact that it comes after an hour or so of hiking, but by this point, you’re desperate for the finale. You want the payoff — but don’t worry, it’s coming.

Your first glimpse of the summit will likely be this.

The top!

Here, you'll be rewarded with stunning views of the windward coast.

Here, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the windward coast.

Doesn't get better than this!

Doesn’t get better than this!

It took me an hour to reach the summit — and the last push was so worth it!

It took me an hour to reach the summit — I booked it! — and the last push was so worth it!

The red-dirt summit, which sits at about 1,700 feet above sea level, will welcome you with a blast of cold air. At least it did for me on Friday. It was like standing in front of an air conditioner. The air was that chilly. And after an hour of scrambling to the top, I wasn’t complaining about it, either.

The view is just as spectacular as people say. From the summit, you can see Kailua, including the offshore Mokulua Islands, the long stretch of Waimānalo, Mānana (Rabbit) Island and even Koko Crater to the south. It was so clear that afternoon, we could see Moloka‘i, Lānaʻi and Maui, too.

It’s a fairly wide summit area. By the time I got there — around 1:15 p.m. — there were about a dozen people (and two dogs) taking in the view. But even with all the hikers, I could still find a quiet place to myself, where I could gaze out over Waimānalo and the azure ocean and be thankful for everything around me.

We really are lucky to live here, and I don’t ever take that for granted.

What a great start to 2016!

VERDICT: This is a great trail for novice to intermediate hikers. Two-thirds of the trail is comprised of switchbacks, which make it easy to climb the ridge. And the last push, which involves steps (but no ropes!), isn’t very long or steep. But veteran hikers shouldn’t scoff at this trail: it’s got everything you could want in a hike — native forest, challenging sections, panoramic views of the windward and southern coastlines — just minutes from town. And it’s not too long; I finished this in two hours, so it’s a doable in a relatively short amount of time.

Follow my hiking adventures #40trails at Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish) and Facebook (/thecatdish).

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