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Thursday, 11:00 p.m. 12 October 2023, American Samoa

Okay, I'm here. Luggage has arrived and cleared customs. Now how do I get to my room?

I step into the mass of humanity outside of customs. This airport is small; no indication of any rental car offices. Luckily, a woman holding an Avis sign finds me looking confused and rescues me. A short drive away, she drops me at the desk where an agent awaits (and looks forward, I'm sure, to ending his late shift).

Given the warnings I'd heard regarding lack of tourist infrastructure, I'd reserved an airBNB room. I had no address, so I call the host on Avis's phone. As feared, my Garmin GPS did not work here, so I needed precise directions: "Take Hwy 1 to Futiga Village. Across from the bus stop at the Futiga Council House, take the driveway [a dirt track] through the trees to the house.

If you have a problem, call me back and I can talk you through it."

Of course, that only works if my cell phone works - which it doesn't. I hand the phone to the Avis agent, who tries to get better directions. When he hangs up, he tries to clarify it. "And if you get lost, you can call me back and I'll try to help you."

Again: that's hard to do with no cell signal. Finally, we call the host back, who sends his assistant over to Avis to lead me to the house. Good thing, too - finding the driveway in full daylight would challenge me in the coming days; no way I would have found it at midnight. The eagerness of the locals to help me, though, heartens me and gives me hopes that my visit would thrive. Now, time to sleep away the time zones I crossed...

Friday, 13 October 2023

My Garmin didn't work... but Google Maps did. I plugged 'National Park of American Samoa' into the phone while connected to Wi-Fi, and it downloaded. As I left my room, I carefully noted all nearby landmarks so I could find my way home later. Take note of the bus stop (since the road featured dozens of them) and memorize what the council house looked like (since no sign identified it).

The road took me around the headland to Pago Pago Harbor, offering the first views of the island landscape. With reefs protecting much of the land, waves broke far offshore,

leaving the shore placid (save for stretches exposed to the pounding surf). Hwy 1 through the harbor was lined with businesses, government offices, a beach park, and more. Not knowing where in the park Google Maps would take me, I rejoiced when I saw a sign for the park directing me to turn left.

That road took me up a side road past homes. Up, up, and over a ridge to the island's north side - now in the park (though no sign confirmed that). On the far side, the road ended at a beach and woods - no Visitor Center. With no signs giving me any hints, I took photos, then drove back toward the harbor. On the way, I stopped at the top of the ridge to take a shot looking back on that bay. Across the road, I marveled at the trailhead for Mt. Matafao.

If that's what all the trails around here are like...

As I stowed my camera, a pick-up truck pulled out of a side road in front of me. A pickup truck with an NPS emblem on the door! I flagged them down before they could escape, asking how to find the Visitor Center. "Follow us," the driver said. "We're headed down there now." I hopped in my car and followed them as they returned to Hwy 1, turned right, then turned into an unmarked parking lot. "Right in that door," the ranger said, pointing to his left.

The center was small, with several exhibits filling the space. I went to the desk where a volunteer welcomed me. "I'm happy to say that my visit here marks my 63rd and final National Park," I told her.

"Congratulations! Would you like your official certificate?" I nodded, so she asked for my name, typed it in, and hit 'print'.

"If you don't mind, I'll take your picture so we can post your achievement. Every Tuesday, we update out Friends of the Park page on Facebook with pictures of people who have completed the quest in the past week." And they did - my picture joined those of three other couples this week who'd joined the ranks.

I wandered among the exhibits, learning about the culture and myths of the island. One legend in particular entertained me: Long ago, an owl, a snail, and a rat boarded a boat and set sail for the island. Along the way, the boat took on water and sank. The owl didn't mind; it took off and flew the rest of the way. The snail could live in the water, so it dove to the bottom. The rat, however, had no choice but to swim toward the island. It was too far, so he enlisted the help of an octopus who could give him a ride.

When the octopus reached the island, the rat hopped off and thanked the octopus profusely. "By the way," he said, "I have left you a present on your shoulder." Imagine how it angered the octopus to discover rat feces there! The octopus swore that he would exact revenge on any rat he saw from then on. That is why today, when islanders want to fish for octopus, they will use bait shaped like a rat to attract those vengeful octopi.

Armed with a park pamphlet, I headed back over the ridge to take a hike rated 'easy' - certainly easier than Mt Matafao! (The volunteer at the center had said that they recommend you take that hike with a guide. She'd tried it once, taking four hours and still not reaching the peak.) Parking at the last house and watching out for dogs, I set off on a wide, flat, short trail through the trees.

Another couple strolled the path in front of me - I had seen them in the Visitor Center, another couple visiting their 63rd park. We chatted about parks, and about the long flight we'd shared from Honolulu. "Can you imagine having a crew member not having their passport ready for the flight?" she said. "They didn't know this ahead of time?"

The trail didn't last long before dumping us onto the rocky beach,

with waves pounding the shore. Dead ahead, one of Tutuila's National Natural Landmarks, Pola Island, jutted out into the sea. I went a bit further among the rocks, but quickly tired of fighting the uneven footing. The woman of the couple went even further, while her husband waited patiently.

Returning on the trail, I noticed the pink debris on the trail. What plant did they come from?

I passed a family heading out - a young couple and their pre-teen daughter - and told them about what lay ahead. I must have dissuaded them, since they soon returned and passed me as I shot more photos. They'd heard that a 'moderate' trail also took off from here, so they chose to look for it.

As I started driving back, I saw them heading into the woods to the side. They must have found the moderate trail (despite the lack of signs)! I pulled over and set off where I'd seen them go. They kept up a good pace - I kept hearing them in front of me, out of sight. The trail rose quickly through the lush forest, cutting switchbacks up the slope. Loose dirt on the slope, coupled with the slope, made it a challenge (especially coming back down). I finally caught up with Morgan, Audrey, and their daughter Soleil at the crest of the ridge -

where another ladder-and-ropes trail led down to the shore on that far side. (If this is moderate, I want nothing to do with a difficult trail!)

They'd stopped there, hesitant about trying to descend the far side. As they thought about it, I struck up a conversation. "So did you come over on the Thursday night flight, or on a cruise ship?"

"Neither. We sailed over," answered Morgan.

"Sailed?!? From where?"

"We're on a long expedition. We started from Bainbridge WA, last fall - a year ago. We sailed south, spent a couple months in California, a month or two in Mexico, then over to the Marquesas and Tonga, now here."

WOW. I shook my head, thinking about how that made my epic look like a stroll in the park. "That makes me think of this great book I read while traveling in Alaska, about an adventurous couple that traveled up the coast from Washington to Alaska. It's called The Sun is a Compass."

Audrey looked up sharply as I said that, a smile beaming across her face. "I know the author!" she revealed. "We're running buddies! We'd go running, and she'd tell me all about her struggles to get an agent and a publisher."

How small can the world get?! After chatting with them for a few minutes, we all declined to tackle the ropes and ladders, heading back to our cars.

I heard the siren song of lunch calling, but had not seen signs for an eatery on my drive over this morning (except for Carl's Jr., which I dismissed without a second thought). A consultation with my tourist map revealed a steakhouse in the Sadie Thompson Inn, so I aimed for it. As I crossed the wrap-around porch toward the front door, a man wearing a Sadie's shirt came out. "Can I help you?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm ready for lunch. I hear there's a restaurant inside?"

"Sorry, it's not open for lunch. Your best bet is Sadie's By the Sea, a quarter-mile down the road. Do you know where it is?" I shook my head. "Here, let me drive you down there." Can the locals BE any friendlier?

I couldn't have picked a better spot to sup. The shaded patio overlooked the water gently lapping at the protected shore. Roosters strutted about,

waiting for food to drop. Eager to try local cuisine, I ordered the Samoan oka in a ceviche-type dish, accompanied by boiled bananas.

The bananas surprised me, as I envisioned boiling a Cavendish cultivar (the only type of banana widely available stateside) into a mush. Instead, other types of bananas proliferate here (I also bought some at a maket), and the ones served me were longer, skinnier, and firmer. An excellent lunch!

Luxuriating in the knowledge that I'd completed my parks quest, I frittered away the rest of the day exploring and taking pictures. As evening approached, I proceeded to an unmarked building my tourist map identified as Paradise Pizza and Grill - whether it was or not, I enjoyed the vegetable curry and taro tots they served. With dusk quickly approaching, I retreated to my room, lucky to find the dirt path in the deepening gloom. Despite the less-than-dazzling location, the sunset impressed me.

How will my next three days play out?

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