Not far up an unpaved road I come upon a group of about two dozen men armed with large pistols, multiple clips of ammunition strapped to their belts. They regard an obvious interloper with caution, but continue about their business; a shooting competition is about to get under way. Ray, a Maui native, shows me his equipment with pride—a modified 9-millimeter pistol and a number of bulging clips of ammunition. “I prefer the hollow tip. See.” He thrusts a bullet under my nose for inspection: “It keeps the gun cleaner.” Without comprehension of why that might be, I nod my admiration and wish him luck in the day’s event. The sound of gunfire and the ping of bullets on metal targets is lost in the trade winds as I head back toward the young families playing on the beach a few hundred yards—and a world—away.
A little farther on, the West Mauis, rising 5,788 feet, take on imposing dimensions. Deep, lush green valleys are visible amid jagged drop-offs. The nearly impenetrable mountains were home to the last great battle for dominance on Maui (in the Iao Valley), and perhaps because so much of their interior remains inaccessible, they exude a sense of inviting and forbidding mystery.
And then suddenly I am in Lahaina, the most energized and enervating town on Maui. It’s a place where you can have your picture taken on the street with multicolored parrots perched on your person, or you can spend $1,400 on a ukulele made of curly koa wood. You can buy art by Picasso, or Chagall, or Dalí, and then step next door and have a beer at Moose McGillycuddy’s Pub.
It’s easy to dismiss Lahaina (which translates as “merciless sun,” and it always feels that way) as a tourist-riddled sham, and the longer I walk down Front Street, passing scores of men and women in floral clothing, the closer I am to doing just that. But Lahaina is also a town rich in well-preserved history, a history that juggled the relationship between the whaling industry and the missionaries during their heyday in the mid 1800’s. From a look at the records available in the old prison, Hale Paahao (“stuck-in-irons house”), built by King Kamehameha III to detain unruly sailors who refused to return to their ships by sundown, it’s easy to see which group prevailed more often than not. In 1855 there were 330 convictions for “drunkenness” and 169 for “fornication,” as well as 89 for “furious riding.” But apparently life in the prison, which is beautifully preserved, with its well-manicured yard under large monkeypod trees just off the main drag, was not all bad. Seaman William Mitchell Stetson confided in his diary: “Male and female all had freedom of the prison yard and mingled promiscuously.” And if the hardships of jail life ever did become too much of a strain, the wooden cells were barely secure and the coral restraining wall, at just over 10 feet high, was easily scaled once the sailors sobered up.