The past few weeks have been tumultuous. With one hiker then another going missing, the community collectively went through waves of reactions: fear, confusion, blame, hope, empathy, relief, joy, anger, and finally, grief.
Amanda Eller and Noah “Kekai” Mina were the crux of these emotions, and were described similarly in headlines as “missing hikers.” Although the searches went on simultaneously, these cases show that no two missing persons cases are ever completely alike.
Eller headed into the Makawao Forest Reserve for a 3-mile run, and didn’t leave for 17 days. “I love to stay away from EMF (electromagnetic fields), cell phones,” Eller said at a press conference after being rescued by helicopter. She left her phone behind, which later became a major point of contention. When Mina first went missing, his father, Vincent Mina, wrote in a Facebook post, “[Kekai] is seeking clarity, and he has turned to nature to find that safe haven.” Kekai Mina hiked the Kapilau Ridge Trail (St. Anthony Cross) above ‘Iao Valley. After nine days missing, Mina’s body was found.
Because of the tragic loss of Mina, this story will reflect on the details of Eller’s journey.
There are many compelling and important elements of this story which have been covered widely by local, national, and international outlets. As the dust begins to settle, however, two useful points emerge as worthy of discussion and reflection: (1) a critical analysis of technology and our relationship to it as lifesaver but also tether to stress-inducing modern life, and (2) lessons learned regarding hiking safety.
In a press conference last week, Eller spoke of her ordeal as a “spiritual boot camp.” While 17 days alone, lost in the tangle of Haleakala’s slopes would certainly be a journey, she faced backlash from those who believed her message to be irresponsible and flippant. Recognizing that the public had made considerable investments of time, money, and energy into this ordeal, Eller made an apology video and posted it to Facebook, stating that she wanted to “clear up some misunderstandings” about getting lost in the forest. “Had I had my cell phone with me, that would not have been the case. That was my irresponsibility. For that, I apologize,” she said. “It was not my right to be so casual about safety.”
Though the whole incident might have been avoided if Eller had simply brought her phone, the truth is that she is one of many people who seek to disconnect from the digital world to reconnect in nature. In our modern world, in which masses spend inordinate amounts of time staring at screens, it isn’t uncommon to routinely leave devices behind while surfing, hiking, or spending time with friends and family.
After all, technology addiction is real, and research shows that time spent on social media is linked with increased mental health issues. While cell phone use is ubiquitous and largely assumed, many have complicated relationships with ever-present technology and want to disconnect.
But this tale is about what happens when digital detox goes vastly wrong, is viewed as irresponsible, and causes repercussions throughout the community. It’s complicated: We’re all better off in nature, and need space and time to disconnect, yet we see the possible risks like impact on the community, massive expenditures, and trauma to the missing and others involved.
Survival experts do recommend carrying a phone; obviously, technology is an essential tool for preparation in order to not get lost and for rescue – but they are not infallible in the wild. Phones are lost, die, break, and lose reception, which is sometimes the reason hikers become lost.
Technology is a double-edged sword. It’s made humans capable of immensities, both for the betterment and detriment of humanity. It’s what saved Eller and recovered Mina: the GoFundMe campaigns that funded search and rescue teams, the daily national and local media coverage, GPS mapping, infrared systems, helicopter rentals, and the daily social media updates that kept volunteers informed and organized. Ironically, it was an attempt to escape this technology that resulted in this slush of devices.
In her press conference, Eller stated that she doesn’t pay attention to social media because “I don’t want to feed those wolves.” Social media has caused considerable angst for Eller, with the online mob’s derisive criticism of her decisions, backlash against her press conference musings about numerology and boars, and accusations of hoaxes and drug use. Yet, it is this same tool that raised the money and organized the human resources that saved her life.
Even more paradoxically, one of the outcomes of the Eller case is advocacy for installing technology out in nature. A post on the Findamanda Facebook page stated that some of the extra funds will “be used to install wildlife cameras in strategic locations (such as entrances or parking lots) around the Makawao Forest Reserve, and other popular recreational areas in Maui, to significantly reduce search areas and rescue times for missing persons.” The Department of Land and Natural Resources later clarified to the Maui News that they had not received a formal request and that the process would include review and permitting. Though intended to save lost hikers, it’s essential to view surveillance and privacy issues critically, especially in spaces that may have historic, cultural, or spiritual value.
Beyond our complicated relationships with nature and technology, it’s also worthwhile to draw out some useful lessons about safety, and to look at both philosophical and practical ideas regarding how people get lost and found.
First, it’s important to know that it’s relatively easy to get lost in the wilderness. When Eller first went missing, many couldn’t believe that Eller simply went for a hike. How could one woman, seemingly fit and educated, just disappear? Obviously, foul play is not unheard of on our island. In fact, people go missing often, with Hawai‘i ranked No. 8 among states for missing persons per capita. Sometimes these disappearances are sinister, but people also go missing while hiking or in the wilderness, including the ocean.
It must be said that Hawai‘i can be very dangerous, lest we forget amongst advertisements of Hawai‘i portrayed as a Disneyland-like paradise. In recent weeks, aside from Eller and Mina, a German tourist was rescued in Kaupo after getting disoriented while hiking the crater, divers were rescued off Pu‘u Keka‘a (Black Rock), a visitor died of a shark attack while swimming in the ocean off Ka‘anapali, another man died in ‘Ohe‘o pools in Kipahulu, and ten people were caught in a flash flood at Twin Falls (all were unharmed). People regularly get injured or killed attempting to visit Kaihalulu Bay, popularly called Red Sand Beach. We are not inherently safe in nature, yet continually seek the wilderness.
From what poorly kept records we have, it’s believed that around 1,600 people have gone missing on public lands in America, never to be seen or heard from again. Each time, communities are rocked, as Maui was.
It seems unbelievable that someone could just go for a hike and disappear, but journalist Jon Billman of Outside magazine has detailed how hundreds of people have vanished, often in perplexing situations. A fit young man goes for a run along a country road. A woman takes her dogs on a walk and the weather turns. A man walks off a short, busy trail at a national park. An experienced hiker treks along the Pacific Coast Trail. In each case, they seem to vanish and no one can understand how it could happen. In many of these situations, the void is filled by conspiracy theories, claims by psychics, frustration, and fear – much of it fueled by social media speculation, as we’ve seen on Maui.
This is not a defense of Eller so much as a cautionary tale and a call for humility and respect before nature. Many who spend time in rough terrain understand that becoming lost is a threat. But modern lifestyles have kept most people from developing off-trail survival skills like navigating, traversing, and finding food and water among uneven terrain, steep gulches and ravines, and trees that all look the same. Throw in a poor understanding of topography and lack of preparedness, and it’s clear how Eller’s mistake compounded. This is one of the lessons to be learned here: None of us are infallible.
“This situation is hopefully making other people very aware of the preparation that they need when they choose to explore Maui in different ways,” Eller said in her apology video. Eller absolutely could have prepared better, and acknowledged as much. Proper preparedness is probably the first takeaway here.
Beyond bringing a cell phone, it’s important to tell people where you’re going and what your plans are. Bringing the proper gear is also important. The Nationals Park’s guidance on the 10 essentials of hiking are important to know for serious hikers, but there’s a difference between long, arduous hikes and a short trek through the woods, and most people don’t bring a first aid kit and emergency blanket on an afternoon stroll through Makawao forest.
Maui County has guidance on hiking and flash flood preparation. Brightly colored clothing, food and water, the buddy system, and heeding warning signs and respecting private property are a good start.
But sometimes, even the prepared get lost. What should you do then?
When compared to other lost hikers and survival stories, Eller’s journey seems pretty typical except for its length. The most common way to get lost, according to a study that looked at 100 hiking incidents, is wandering off-trail, exactly as Eller did. Other reasons include injury, weather, losing equipment, and getting separated from a group.
The very first decision to make, once lost, is the decision to stay put or keep going. Whether to do so or not is dependent on the situation. If people know where you are and you’re on a road, a known trail, near a stream or in a vehicle, stay put. But if you didn’t tell anyone where you’re going, and you’re not in any of those places, it’s best to attempt to save yourself by moving to an open area where helicopters can see you (or where you can get water) and marking your trail as you go. In that same study, they found that 65 percent of survivors keep going, while a minority stays put, and only 23 percent of survivors make it out on their own, while the remainder are rescued.
The study also stated that the most important elements for initial survival are warmth and shelter, which is one place Maui’s climate works in our favor. After that, water is the most important. In 2005, a hiker was lost on the lava fields near Kilauea for five days and chewed moss to stay hydrated. Though some streams on Maui are contaminated by leptospirosis and other bacterial diseases, the risk of dehydration is greater than the risk of infection. Find water and drink it.
In terms of food, survival experts actually discourage lost hikers from hunting and foraging, as most humans can live around 30 days without food and those activities could burn more calories than they earn. This advice should be viewed in local context, as guavas and other wild foods grow here rampantly, depending on the season. After Eller made public her claims about eating fruit and plants on her journey, Maui’s foraging guru, Sunny Savage, released her ebook Wild Food Plants of Hawai‘i, for free, as well as her guide “How Not to Kill Yourself Foraging,” both of which offer guidance on foraging in Hawai‘i.
Human instinct is another aspect that needs to be explored in order to learn something from it. Eller claimed that she relied on her intuition, which both led her astray and saved her life. “I wanted to go back the way I’d come, but my gut was leading me another way – and I have a very strong gut instinct,” Eller said, according to the New York Times. Clearly, some of Eller’s instincts did help her survive, but human instincts are often incorrect, especially in the wild. Human instinct can be a fallacy.
In the book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, survival expert Laurence Gonzalez writes that human instincts like panic can lead people far astray. This is one of the more fascinating parts of Eller’s journey – her instincts were both severely misguided, and also kept her alive for over two weeks.
While they were subject to online criticism, there might be something to Eller’s more esoteric claims and crediting her training in yoga, a practice that emphasizes mindfulness. Eller reported meditating the morning before her hike, in the forest during her hike, and at various points during her journey. Meditation is sometimes seen as a fringe concept, yet researchers are increasingly studying the effects of meditation, and evidence suggests that meditation might improve the ability to process information, control emotions, and calm anxiety.
Gonzalez points to attitude and mindset as key elements of survival when faced with being lost in the wilderness. At her press conference, Eller spoke of meditation, spiritual teachers, and going on a “spirit journey” as key elements of her survival, at one point describing meditating through a flash flood. It’s easy to deride these ideas, especially to those whose social groups don’t normally speak about psychics and Chinese astrology. Yet it’s fascinating to consider: Mindfulness may be part of what helped her survive. Note that we don’t advocate meditating through a flash flood or blindly following gut instinct – rather, as Gonzalez points out, keeping a level head does increase chances of survival.
As the dust continues to settle from the elation and sadness that impacted so many of us in the Maui community, there are still many conversations to be had on the roles and purposes – and limits – of technology in our lives, it’s ability to keep us safe, and our own fragile nature.
Cover design by Darris Hurst
Image 1 courtesy Facebook/Findamanda
Image 2 by Javier Cantellops