When Good Vacations Go Bad: My Hawaiian Crap-Cation

Rainbow over Kipahulu

Hawaii. Its mere mention conjures mental images of sun-kissed bodies lying on sandy beaches, palm trees swaying in warm breezes, and leis of colorful, tropical flowers. It connotes relaxation and luxury. While my trip to Hawaii certainly had a little bit of all of those things, this is not that kind of story. For no matter how meticulously one plans, dream vacations can turn into nightmares in the blink of an eye, or, in this case, a crick in the neck. And when good vacations go bad, they can go really, really bad.

I’ve tried to write about my trip to Hawaii for more than two years. Each draft was ultimately scrapped. They either read as aggressively depressing or superfluously disingenuous. My brother asked why I hadn’t written about the trip and I told him my predicament. He said with confidence, “You’ll find a way to make it funny.” At that point, however, I was entirely unable to find anything funny in that shit-sandwich of a vacation. And so, two years later, here I am. Trying again.

Everything started out great. Lindsey and I had two weeks planned on three islands, mostly camping, with bookend stays at AirBnbs and a resort. We spent our first two days on Oahu at our beachfront guesthouse; snorkeling, swimming, hiking, driving around in our convertible, and eating our dinner under the palm trees in our lounge chairs on the beach. It was magical. We assumed the next leg of the trip (camping on Maui) would be even more so. The universe heard that assumption, laughed diabolically, and said, “Hold my Mai Tai.”

sunset ewa beach oahu hawaii palm trees
Sunset from our AirBnb in Ewa Beach

Our first night on Maui, my sleeping pad popped. We were in the middle of nowhere, at Wai’anapanapa State Park, on the Road to Hana, and had zero options as far as finding a replacement. No big deal, I thought. I’m a badass, outdoorsy woman, right? I wasn’t going to let a little ground-sleeping interfere with my bitchin’ Hawaiian Ladycation, so I popped some ibuprofen for my sore shoulder and carried on like the boss-ass bitch I am.

We hiked across barren fields of ancient lava flow, swam next to sea turtles in the crystal-clear ocean, soaked up the sun on the black sand beach, and spent countless hours staring out at the waves as they crashed against the rocky shore. We invented our own constellations at night, made friends with fellow campers, and were generally having the time of our lives in “paradise.” Unfortunately, my shoulder was becoming more and more of a problem, the pain extending farther down my arm with each passing day. My boss-ass bitchness was wilting faster than a Hawaiian lei.

After the third night of camping I couldn’t lift my left arm. My shoulder had just stopped working. Shit. The pain was extending from my neck to my fingertips, and had evolved from an annoying ache to a burning, ferocious, all-consuming pain. Shit. I struggled to get dressed (shit, ow, shit), trying, to no avail, to mentally will my arm to work. Shiiiiit. That was my last night’s sleep of the entire trip, the first of an infinite number of “shits,” and the moment my Hawaiian Ladycation turned into a total Crap-cation.

The pain continued, unabated, despite deploying every weapon in my arsenal: ibuprofen, Tylenol, ice, steroid cream, prescription strength NSAIDs, stretching, massage, reiki, and copious amounts of cannabis. Nothing helped. I didn’t want to ruin Lindsey’s trip, so I tried to “woman up,” and just deal with it, but when we missed stargazing from atop a volcano because I couldn’t handle the drive, then I had to use a pool noodle for snorkeling the Molokini Crater because I couldn’t swim with only one arm, and finally got seasick on the boat ride back to shore (I grew up on the water, I do not get seasick), I lost my ability to be even a wilting version of my boss-ass bitch self, and was just straight-up bitchy.

I went to the emergency room on Maui, got X-rays, a cortisone injection in my shoulder, a sling, a prescription for pain medication, and off we went to Kauai for the final leg of our trip. None of those interventions helped. I suppose one would think, “I’d rather be miserable in Hawaii than Ohio.” But, when you’re blinded by unrelenting pain the view doesn’t really matter.

The only thing I found that did help the pain were near-death experiences. How did I discover this, you may be asking? A wave at Polihale Beach knocked me down and tossed me around like a rag doll. My desperate attempt to not die caused my brain to release chemicals–an “adrenaline rush”–which temporarily blocked my pain receptors. Momentary sweet relief. So, what did I do? I just kept almost drowning. . . on purpose. . . over and over and over, until I was too exhausted to risk it again. I had an hour of glorious, pain-free bliss, and had unknowingly been providing entertainment for another group of campers, who found my apparent clumsiness and inability to learn from my mistakes absolutely hilarious, and more than a bit concerning. You’re welcome, folks.

By this point Lindsey and I were not exactly a harmonious duo of travelers. I hadn’t slept in days and was in constant pain, and Lindsey was stuck in “paradise” with a miserable, bitchy cow. Not an ideal situation for either person involved, to say the least. While Lindsey was exploring a holistic souvenir shop she found a mineral that was purported to “heal ligaments and tendons,” and told me I should hold it. I wanted to throw it at her damn face. When she performed reiki on me before snorkeling she recoiled and needed to meditate, saying I had, “too much negative energy.” Well, no shit! My arm is on fire! I wanted to slap her. Was she deliberately being dismissive? No. Did I handle it any better because her intentions were innocent? Also no.

I never want to come home at the end of a vacation. I always lament going back to reality, wishing for more time in whatever beautiful destination I’m in. That was not the case with my Hawaiian Crap-cation. I could not wait to get back to lame-ass Ohio and the medical care at my disposal there. Being that I’m a medical secretary to two orthopedic surgeons I assumed (erroneously) that I would get a quick diagnosis and surgery, and be back to Ladycation-planning in no time. Unfortunately, I was only at the beginning of a three month journey through US Healthcare Hell. 13 medications, 6 doctors, 2 spinal injections, countless physical therapy appointments, and 4 full-blown panic attacks later and I was a shell of the person I’d once been. Shit got really dark, and I gained an entirely new understanding of what our patients go through.

Ultimately I did get the surgery I needed. I had herniated two disks in my cervical spine (neck), and one was compressing a nerve that runs all the way down my left arm, which was what caused the pain and loss of function. When I came out of anesthesia after surgery the first thing I did was try to lift my arm. When it actually lifted off the bed I was so happy I cried. It was the first time I’d felt hope in months.

I don’t have wonderful memories from my trip to Hawaii. I did come home tan, but I also came home crippled. I remember watching the sunset over the ocean at Polihale, but I also remember that that’s where I deliberately near-drowned myself to escape the pain. I remember the waterfalls, and the pain. I remember the palm trees, and the pain. Every memory from the entire trip is clouded by the memory of the pain, and the several months and thousands of dollars in medical bills that followed. Even the memories of our first couple days, before “The Incident,” are under a fog of, “You didn’t even know what you were in for.” I went to Hawaii and came back physically and emotionally broken. Was it Hawaii’s fault? Obviously not, but when it comes to emotional trauma, it’s hard for the mind to differentiate between correlation and causation.

Luckily for Lindsey my injury didn’t have as negative an impact on her trip as I thought it had, and she packed up and moved to Kauai less than a year after we’d returned to Ohio. I’m glad she’s happy and living her best life–but I will never be going to visit. She can have Hawaii. The Island has spoken, and Jeff Probst has snuffed out my torch. Aloha, Hawaii.

If nothing else the trip was a learning experience. Most importantly I learned of the necessity of travel insurance. I learned the value of having backup equipment. And, weirdly, being incapacitated and miserable for several months before Covid hit kinda prepared me for the long months of lock downs and social distancing, so in the end, it all worked out pretty well.

For my triumphant return to travel, post Hawaiian Crap-cation and post global-pandemic-travel-restrictions, Ladycations is going international! Stay tuned to hear about how I am the most awesome mom ever, cause I took my daughter and her best friend to Italy and France to celebrate their college graduation. Ancient ruins, iconic art, actual castles, all the wine, and no neurosurgeons needed. The boss-ass bitch is back! But for now, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.