WON Landing Page OCT 2022

Vera Koo: On Hiking the Lanikai Pillbox in Hawaii

Vera Koo learned a lot more than what it takes to get to the top of the Lanikai Pillbox hike in Hawaii. She discovers what time does to us all, if we’re fortunate enough to get there. 

I took an elective course in horseback riding while I attended college. I am not naturally athletic. My family did not raise me around sports. And I did not have a background in horseback riding – unlike my husband, Carlos.

Carlos and I started dating a couple of weeks before I went to college. He’s always been very active and sporty, and he’s done equestrian most of his life. Throughout our 53 years of marriage, Carlos has introduced me to so many outdoors activities and sports. We’ve enjoyed horseback riding, downhill skiing, windsurfing, water skiing, camping and hiking. 


Throughout it all, he’s been my guide. Carlos would introduce me to a sport, support me as a I gained competency in the sport and serve as my safety net. 

The Shooting Sports

Sport shooting was an exception. I pursued sport shooting on my own. I wanted to learn handgun safety and how to shoot so that I would not have a fear of firearms. I enrolled in instruction courses and later sought mentors as I started in the sport.

Vera Koo Eyesight article, photo by Chris Tropea copy
(Chris Tropea photo)

But, other than shooting, my sporting adventures have unfolded with Carlos at my side.

That was true for my horseback riding college elective, too. I remember, I could not make my horse cantor at first. Carlos helped me. He would rush at the back of the horse and make it cantor. 

Hawaii Trials and Times

Earlier this year, though, Carlos was unable to join me on a hike to the Lanikai Pillbox in Hawaii. He’s 78 – three years older than me – and he felt he physically could not make the trek up the trail.

I hiked to the Lanikai Pillbox with my daughter, Christina, and granddaughter, Ashley. On a previous trip to Hawaii earlier in the year, our family endured a distressing experience while kayaking in the Pacific Ocean amid strong winds. 

getting ready for kayaking

Each of our family’s three kayaks capsized during that excursion. Carlos, in particular, struggled in the water in what became a frightening situation. After our kayaking incident, Carlos said, “Vera, I can no longer take care of you, because I can no longer take care of myself.’”

open waters off Lanikai Beach

Carlos has endured knee trouble from bone rubbing on bone for quite a while, and I knew he was making the right decision for his body to sit out the Pillbox hike. His knees never could have handled it.

Still, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness after the hike – not just because Carlos didn’t join me on the trail, but because of what it symbolized: Our years of tackling adventures side-by-side might be winding down. 

This thought breaks my heart, but I also feel appreciative of all the sports I learned thanks to Carlos and the quality time we shared through those activities. Additionally, I see the torch passing from Carlos to our adult children, as they assume a bigger role in our family. That gives me pride.

The Lanikai Pillbox in Hawaii

The Pillbox hike was about a 2-mile roundtrip that took us up a steep incline, ascending 650 feet in elevation. The hike follows a trail that is just a few feet wide in some areas. It is a popular trail with drop-offs along the side, and you must be careful while passing people headed in the opposite direction. 

How about a 2 mile hike at the Kaiwa Ridge Trail in Oahu Hawaii
How about a 2 mile hike at the Kaiwa Ridge Trail in Oahu Hawaii

The hike offers incredible vistas overlooking Lanikai Beach. The trail is highlighted by multiple concrete bunkers – military observation stations that were used during World War II. Because the sites were used for military observation and did not house defensive weaponry, the term Pillbox is actually a misnomer, in this case.

I try to follow an exercise and diet regimen that keeps me in shape for my age, but I had not hiked in a long time, and I admit I was not fully prepared for the ascent. 

This is supposed an easy hike?  Lanikai Pillbox
This is supposed an easy hike?

In the old days, this Lanikai Pillbox hike is the type of challenging ascent to which Carlos and I would have gravitated. Nowadays, though, I needed to muster my full energy and focus to make the climb. I stopped to rest a couple of times on the way up, and I was mindful of staying clear of the trail’s edge.

I found myself breathing heavily on our ascent, although I took comfort when I noticed Christina breathing heavily at one point, too, and she is strong.

Resting during the hike up... Lanikai Pillbox
Resting during the hike up…

Ashley is very fit, and she set out at the front of our group. Christina followed behind me, so she could keep an eye on me in case I encountered any trouble. I trained my attention on executing each step, and I used my hands to help maneuver past the bigger rocks.

Knowing I would have to descend after reaching our summit, I monitored people who came down the ridge to see how they handled the descent so that I could gauge how careful I would need to be.

Finally I got there! Lanikai Pillbox hike
Finally I got there!

Our reward was a beautiful view at the top of the trail, where we could overlook the town and ocean. Ashley maneuvered over big rocks to several lookout points, but I didn’t dare stray from the trail.

Got to rest before going back down Lanikai Pillbox Hike
Got to rest before going back down

Because of a spiral leg fracture I suffered while training for the Bianchi Cup in 2013 and an ACL tear I sustained on a ski trip in 2015, I no longer trust my leg with full confidence. So, on our way downhill, I made sure to focus on having solid footing before making each step.

Nonetheless, I fell once during our descent. We had reached a rocky place, and I put my hand down to support myself. In doing so, I leaned forward a little and fell in the rocks. It was a silly blunder. I know better than to lean forward like that while going downhill.

Christina showed concern when I fell. She asked whether I hit my head or back. Thankfully, I didn’t. 

Thoughts from the Lanikai Pillbox Hike

This reminded me that, although Carlos might not always be there to protect and support me in our old age, we have our kids to look after us now. Carlos has always been the leader of the family, and while it is sad to see this changing of the guard, we take comfort in knowing that we raised our children well.

I would like to try this hike again on a subsequent trip to Hawaii. My fall aside, the descent wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. My hiking boots held up well, and I did not slip and slide.

Also, with some training, I think I will be prepared to tackle the elevation gain.

Seeing Carlos’ body age reminds me that my clock is ticking to do activities like this. It used to be, Carlos had three times the energy of other people. Our family was go, go, go all the time, with Carlos setting the pace. All the while, Carlos kept a watchful eye over the family.

Vera Koo Thankful for Those Who Helped Along the Way with Carlos 2019

Although I feel sad when I consider the activities that Carlos might have to miss in the coming years, I take comfort in knowing his absence will not diminish the love that we share for one another or tarnish the memories we’ve made.  

Carlos made my life complete by always being the partner at my side throughout our lifetime of adventure.

Want to read more about Vera Koo’s life? Check out her posts at The WON.

Purchase Vera’s latest book, “Wisdom and Things.”

  • About Vera Koo

    Vera Koo is a first-generation Chinese American woman. She’s a wife and mother, author, entrepreneur and retired competition shooter. Along with two published books -- "The Most Unlikely Champion" and "Wisdom and Things: Essays From an Unlikely Champion" -- she writes her column, Vera Koo, at "Women’s Outdoor News."