top of page

Sheltering in Place: John Wehrheim Documents Refuge and Survival in Secret Hawaiian Valley

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Humans have long stigmatized the idea of solitude and going off-the-grid. It has often been deemed something to avoid, a punishment, or the realm of loners.

For others, it is a spiritual yearning for greater autonomy.

These people seek a refuge away from the trivialities and busyness of a hyper-connected world characterized by endless structure, bureaucracy, chattering people, humming power lines, and the incessant anxieties of daily life.

As the global population soars in our rapidly shrinking world, many people are making radical life changes, and are hell-bent on pushing into remote areas. Untouched, truly quiet locations devoid of crowds of tourists.

While places of refuge are becoming increasingly scarce, there are still some pristine locations left, however, that are worthy of special protection. The first place that comes to mind is one square inch of space located in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park in Washington. It is marked by a small red pebble atop a moss covered log and is claimed to be the quietest place in the United States, where you can hear frogs croak from miles away and water droplets plop on the forest floor.

The second place is a secret valley located on the Hawaiian Islands. This valley is inhabited by contemporary "menehune” who wish to remain hidden, protected by the high folding cliffs. Their tropical sanctuary has always been an escape for renegades. In the 19th century, outlaws even fled here to escape the government.

In the midst of the pandemic, photographer, film maker, and writer John Wehrheim was invited to this "Hidden Land" as a guest. This was a time of severe lockdown in many parts of the world, which began in late March and only started to be lifted in mid-June. A time when some of the most human moments of celebration and sorrow were taking place behind face masks while social distancing, or in total isolation.

The only way to access this valley was down several thousand feet of cliff face and precipitous slopes on a roped route. Throughout his 21-day journey, Wehrheim documented these people, their refuge, and their survival skills.

My goal is to simply show that this place, and it’s scattering of people, exists—that such lives are being lived. Sheltering in Place continues the theme of my work at Taylor Camp and in Bhutan: that a few rare humans can be creative, resilient, and live strong, satisfying lives without so much of what we have been made to believe is essential for post-modern living. But note, there will be no evidence of children in these images because there are none in the valley and that, I believe, is for the best. Take heart that this secret valley, with its people, exists.

I caught up with Wehrheim following his return to talk about his experience in this secret valley and his photo series Sheltering in Place.

Check out our interview and a selection of photographs from the series below.

Where are you currently? 

I live on Kauai. We have four generations of family living on the island.

What is your connection to this secret place and/or the people? If you didn’t have one before your journey, what is the connection now?

I’ve been camping in the valley for 50 years. It’s been a refuge for generations of our family, but this is the first time that I’ve been an invited guest of residents. My hosts were a well-established couple, friends of our family, with government training in botany and conservation. They are highly skilled and knowledgeable long-time residents. Artists and survivalists. It was a very intimate and enlightening experience.

I am in awe of places like this that exist. It is so beautiful to get a glimpse of their world hidden away from society. What inspired you while taking refuge in this secret valley? What did you learn?

The invitation came at a perfect time. The pandemic had shut down the island and reduced demands on my time. I had nothing better to do and couldn’t imagine doing anything better!

In the valley, the individual is sovereign. There’s no identity politics. No “other” to blame when you show up a day late to your banana patch and the birds and rats have eaten all your ripe fruit, or you’re too lazy to check your snares every day and when you do finally show up all you have is a stinking, bloated, maggot infested carcass (without a trigger warning).

It is deeply calming and a great relief for me to be removed from screens. Most media outlets do their best to inflame their viewers, gluing them to their screens with rage. I am old enough to remember the advent of TV in our neighborhood when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until university that I realized just how insidious, powerful, and damaging TV could be. Junior year I got rid of my TV and swore that I would never again live in a house with one. We raised our daughters without TV, in a home with a library and books in every room. Now our granddaughter is being raised that same way.

When I moved to the North Shore of Kauai in 1971, there was no TV. I witnessed its arrival and the unraveling of a critical element of rural Kauai’s social fabric, the back-porch music, talking story, neighbors dropping in unannounced. In 1991, I started working in Bhutan and in 1999, I watched with dread as TV arrived—the internet soon followed. The next year, a popular bumper sticker in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, read “TV ruined my life.”

Television and social media are designed to create strong passions and desires—divisive and destructive emotions, the psychological elements of unhappiness. My work in Bhutan as an engineer gave me almost unlimited freedom and access to research to document these rapid cultural changes—access I couldn’t have experienced as a journalist or filmmaker. The results are my book, BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness and our Emmy Award winning film, BHUTAN, Taking the Middle Path to Happiness. Both works explore what happened to the last place on earth to get TV and the Internet.

Many folks fantasize about getting off the merry-go-round of modern life and going off the grid. How would you describe the daily way of life for the people you met in this valley?

I was concerned about romanticizing life in the valley, and tried to present a balanced story, but often people can only see what informs their own fantasies.

To illustrate my point, since publishing this 18 installment Sheltering in Place series on my Facebook page, two people have died in the valley—a woman and a man—from causes that would not have been fatal had they been in town.

Most people don’t have the endurance, the strength, and the skills to "get off the merry-go-round of modern life." The ground is too far down. If you broke a leg while hunting a secret spot, it could be a death sentence. Many people have tried living in the valley—or just visiting—and those not acclimated to tropical parasites, microbes, and viruses have come close to death from dysentery and staph-related septic shock. And let’s be real, most people could not handle withdrawal from social media.

I think some of the residents fled to the valley because of their sense of the absurd coupled with a search for an anarchy of order without rules.

Throughout history, dictators and tyrants have hated comedians and persecuted jokers and jesters. Trump has no sense of humor, only mean spirited mockery, and on the left, political correctness is the death of comedy.

Growing and hunting/gathering food, cutting firewood, carrying water, repairing and maintaining irrigation systems, garden walls, trails, and shelters while often hiding from the law—all of these people are technically homeless squatters—this describes life in the valley. All of these tasks require strength, health, discipline, awareness, and a great deal of knowledge and experience.

The beauty of life in the valley is that once one has built a camp, a garden, an irrigation system, and has developed an intimate knowledge of the valley’s micro-environments, life’s essentials can all be earned with a few hours of work a day. That leaves the rest of one’s time for play: music, art, crafts, and/or napping in astonishingly beautiful surroundings. While most of the individuals and couples in the valley might be described as “loners” and don’t encourage visitors—even visits from their neighbors— they often gather for feasts and parties at common ground “community kitchens” where, around the campfire, there’s always a lot of music, laughter, and conversation.

There’s a lot of laughter in the valley, no political correctness, and much well-intentioned humor. Joking around the campfire at night, one experiences a playful, well-honed sense of the absurd and ridiculous, often to the point of mime and slapstick.

Rock shelters are scattered throughout the valley. Typically, these cave dwellings have southern exposures located above flood elevation near the headwaters of spring-fed streams. I would imagine that they were inhabited by Polynesians for centuries. The modern advantage: they are ready-made and impossible to detect from the air. Valley residents burn only well dried, smokeless hardwoods.

You wrote that you documented this place and its people to simply show that they exist. Following your 21-day journey, what do you find yourself most often reflecting upon from your time there?

The beauty, peace, and quiet. The quality of light. The pure taste of the spring water. The focused concentration of the hunt. Eating everything fresh and organic. Watching rainbows form against the folding cliffs. Waking in my hammock at first light, walking to breakfast, crossing the sparkling irrigation channels along the way, and eating the purple-sweet Surinam cherries growing on their banks.

I’ve also reflected on the simple, irrefutable truths, and the laws of nature that dictate life in the valley. Of course, these are the same laws that apply everywhere but the complexity of modern society often confuses, hides, and postpones consequences. I see both the fringe right and the far left at war with nature—the fringe right in denying global warming, the death toll of pollution, and the inherent naturalness of a broad spectrum of sexual identity; and the far-left postmodernists claiming, “There is no truth!” as an absolute truth, denying the reality of biological sex and claiming the scientific method is a means of minority oppression.

Individuals, families, institutions, and governments break the laws of nature all the time then kick the can of consequences down the road. Just look at the environmental devastation and economic debt we are leaving our grandchildren. In the valley, breaking these laws usually brings an instant karmic price. There are no safe spaces and the laws of nature are not relative to one’s identity.

Tell me more about the sustainable practices and food that was sourced, grown, hunted, cooked, and eaten during your trip. 

There is an astonishingly wide variety of fruits and vegetables in the valley, with taro and bananas producing the most bulk. There's the rare and legendary Kapua Ilohena Tahitian banana, two varieties of taro, watercress, basil, mamaki tea, kawa, and the most delicious water in the Pacific.

Pigs and goats provide meat and there are fish and shrimp in the streams. Open ditch diversions not only irrigate the crops but provide a fertile silt load that constantly replenishes the gardens. Cultural practices are, for the most part, traditional. Sea bird guano, compost, and manure gathered in the goat caves provide fertilizer. Goat and pig guts and skins are usually buried in banana patches and around fruit trees providing a rich, long-term nutrient source.

Which photos or moments from your experiences in this secret valley resonate with you

the most? 

The strongest images are the “Lord of the Flies” stuff: skulls, severed heads, and bones. I also love Buddha in the Waterfall, some of the architectural images, and garden photos. I am known for my portraits, but in the valley, I avoided people pictures out of respect for the residents who wish to remain anonymous.

What’s your perspective on the importance of documenting but protecting wild, pristine places and their people? 

History is essential to our collective wisdom. Visually recording cultures and landscapes adds a sense of perspective and place to our shared past, informs scholarship, and provides material context and critical details documenting environmental and cultural changes.

But I refuse to use my photography to exploit or popularize a wild, pristine place or an imperiled way of life. That’s why I won't reveal the location of the valley, why I didn’t publish photos of Taylor Camp until after it was burned to the ground, why I held on to the Bhutan work until the traditional material culture that I documented had all but disappeared. Documenting a wild, fragile place should be done in the name of science, history and art—not advertising for adventure travel, now often fraudulently reinvented and repackaged as “eco-tourism.”

What are your thoughts on these strange times we are living in? How are you staying balanced and grounded these days?

I try to keep some mental/physical balance with frequent, extended breaks from social media, smart phones, and screens enforced by staying in places (like the valley) that don’t have any internet or Wi-Fi. I also distance swim, surf, hike, garden, and play with my granddaughter. She’s a joy, but already at four years-old doesn’t let me get away with much.

During these times, I am reminded of W.B. Yeats’ poem "The Second Coming." I am completely baffled by cancel culture and the fight against free speech. When I was in college, we were considered “radical lefties." Without first winning the struggle to establish free speech on campuses, we wouldn’t have been able to stage protests and demonstrations for civil liberties, environmental protections, and against institutional racism and the war in Vietnam.

Much of the legalized, institutional racism ended during the 1960’s and 1970’s. We now fight the racism, hate, ignorance and fear that lies in people’s hearts. That can’t be achieved with policy and laws alone but requires a change of hearts through the generations—and the freedom to engage in open and honest debate without threat and disruption.

The great James Baldwin wrote, "Not everything faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

Anything else you’d like to share about this series and/or your experiences?

I see a possible bright side to the pandemic—culturally and environmentally. The world is now taking in slow, deep breaths. Mountains not seen in generations have appeared on distant horizons. In many places, rivers and streams are running clearer and cleaner, the roar and congestion of traffic has been reduced, carbon emissions and global warming slowed. This is a vision of the Green New Deal.

People the world over are witnessing this cleansing and it may be difficult to convince them that it’s not possible to restructure industry and create jobs to make these changes permanent. Unfortunately, the polluters are now bolder than ever. Trump is giving them billions in public funds and regulatory rollbacks in the name of economic recovery. Suspending enforcement of air and water pollution regulations, curtailing states' ability to block energy projects, and suspending a requirement for environmental review and public

input on new mines, pipelines, highways, and other projects.

The history of pandemics shows that they bring on social change, they shake up how people think. The Black Death ended the Middle Ages and started the Renaissance. For civilization to survive back then, some people had to abandon superstition, church doctrine, and classical medicine. The plague blew in a wind of common sense that led to Galileo’s scientific method and shook up the stagnant dictates of religion over people’s minds—those people who survived. Will this pandemic lead to a new era of rationality, cooperation, and common sense?

Right now, in the US, this pandemic seems to be leading us in the opposite direction: tribalism, religious hysteria, conspiracy theories, and the shattering of community bonds. When I see people gathering in churches, at political rallies and protests, in bars and nightclubs without masks or social distancing, raving about liberty, freedom, oppression; shouting and sputtering about Nazis and commies and socialists and screaming “All Lives Matter” while waving confederate flags, I think of my favorite Facebook meme, a photo of Darwin with a wry smile, looking straight into the camera with a finger to his lips, whispering, “Shh...I’ve got this.”

To learn more about John Wehrheim's incredible work, visit the links below, or check out his Instagram.


bottom of page