A few months ago, I found myself standing on a grassy hillside on Easter Island, looking up at a giant stone head. The scene was uncannily similar to those I'd sketched in colored pencil as a kid, when I was obsessed with the place, mostly because I'd been poring over copies of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki and Aku-Aku. He had explored the island on one of his quests across the Pacific in the 1950's, and made it a centerpiece of his theories about the South American origins of Polynesian civilization. The theories had long since been discredited, but my curiosity about the totemic statues and the people who made them had persisted. So there I was.
Fifty years before, Heyerdahl's expedition members had camped in tents along a lonely beach; there are now at least a dozen hotels to choose from. Commercial air travel to the island began in 1967, and these days passenger jets make frequent stopovers on the 12-hour run between Santiago and Tahiti.
Yet even in 2006, the journey to Easter Island feels like sailing over the farthest edge of the earth. The plane leaves Santiago at dusk and chases the setting sun westward. For five hours, you fly across one of the emptiest expanses of ocean on the planet—thousands of miles of lightly ruffled blue, with not a scrap of land in sight, nor even a ship. Then, suddenly—just as the sun seems poised to sink below the horizon, just as you wonder if the plane is going to fly until it runs out of fuel and then drop into the sea—a green form rears up from the deep like a sea monster, craning its long neck forward, its humped body behind. It is the island.
Rapa Nui, as the natives have called this place since long before a Dutch ship sighted it on Easter Sunday, 1722, is about the size of Staten Island, but the thousands of miles that separate it from the next human settlement seem somehow to magnify it many times over. And it exerts a disproportionately strong magnetic pull on the imagination of the outside world.
In the months before my departure, I discovered that there were two different reactions I would get when I told people I was going to Easter Island. Some would squint vaguely and say, "Where's that again?" But others would get a faraway look that told me they'd also read Heyerdahl's books. In fact, one friend—the novelist and painter Allan Gurganus—immediately announced that he was coming with me to the South Pacific.
I was glad to have Allan and his painterly eye along for the ride on the morning after our arrival, as we drove in a minivan with Jojo, our guide from Casas Rapa Nui, the Explora property where we were staying. Casting a glance over the green hillocks strewn with black boulders, he declared, "It's like a Constable landscape—with lava."
The high, nearly treeless meadows, crisscrossed by tumbled stone walls, sloped toward dark bluffs where the surf thrashed and sighed. Overhead, great cumulus clouds sailed past on oceanic crossings. To complete the picture—of a bit of Cornwall come to lodge somehow in the midst of the Pacific—skittish brown horses grazed here and there. But then Jojo pointed to something that complicated the art-history lesson just a bit.
Lying on its back in the tall grass was a toppled giant of volcanic stone, its eroded eye sockets gaping sightlessly at the clouds. This was our first encounter with the island's thousand colossal statues, known as moai, some of which are more than 30 feet high and weigh as much as 20 tons. The one before us had been abandoned centuries ago after it broke in the process of being moved from one side of the island to the other. The palm-trunk rollers and bark ropes that—according to archaeologists' best guesses—were used to transport the statue had long since decayed. Now it was stranded in the meadow, alone but for the browsing horses and the buzzing insects, and us.
Standing there, it was easy to see why some people talk of space aliens or superhuman races and why the modern-day Easter Islanders—descendants of the statues' original builders—insist that the moai walked on their own across the island. Yet the most remarkable thing about them is not their size. Despite all the photographs I had seen of moai, I had never, until I stood there in front of one, realized what profound and powerful works of art they are. It was as though they were the original human sculptures, of which everything else—from ancient Greek kouroi to Christo's Gates in Central Park—was a pale, secondhand copy.