In the postcard of Hawaii, one island tends to blur into another until the disparate physical, cultural, and spiritual ecologies of the place dissolve. I have spent a great deal of time in the state, for both psychic and occupational reasons. And unlike a certain American lady of letters, who once expressed her distaste for the linguistic meanings of "gentle hula hands," I am persuaded of what the culture can yield to anyone who troubles to look beyond the beach boys raking the sand outside one's luxury hotel.
Over the years, I have hiked the cool upland flanks of Haleakala Crater and driven the tortured switchbacks of the Hana Highway on Maui. I have done time on Oahu, the one island squarely located in the 21st century—Dior bags, homeless people, and all. I have holed up for extended periods on Kauai, where it never fails to surprise me how seamlessly one can ease away from clock time and into a rhythm that makes it natural to spend days traipsing through abandoned cane fields on red-dirt tracks patterned with squashed frogs and stained with the juice of Kokee plums.
Of the major Hawaiian islands, the Big Island is the one my parents visited least often. And yet it is the one that consistently draws me back, and for reasons that are none too mysterious. What always surprises me about the Big Island is how much of it is unspoiled, not yet disfigured by developers and architects and their inevitable misapprehensions of place and blunders of scale. There is much that would be recognizable to the people my parents were in the 1960's, and also to a German traveler of 150 years ago who was already sounding a warning that has since become a ritual complaint.
In 1852, this traveler bemoaned the effects of outside contact on Hawaii: along with bowling, ships had imported to the islands live theater and even a circus. Tightrope walkers were the least of what Hawaiians had to fear from the people who had already brought the rat, the mosquito, and syphilis as house gifts. If there was reason back then to worry that the people of Hawaii would never excavate themselves from under the cultural detritus being cast on their shores by uninvited strangers, there certainly is now.
But there is also the sense that the vaguely missionary concerns of the professional hand-wringers are no longer warranted, Hawaiians themselves having taken their own problems in hand. True, the claims put forth lately by civic boosters of a Hawaiian renaissance are predicated mainly on the introduction of Hawaiian language programs at local universities and belied by counts showing that pure-blooded Hawaiians number fewer than 5,000. (In 1876, 90 percent of the islands' population of 55,000 was Hawaiian or partly Hawaiian.) And not enough has been done to stanch the state's hemorrhage of biological diversity. Nearly half the 114 species that became extinct in the first two decades of the federal Endangered Species Act were native to Hawaii.
Still, there are signs that optimism is not entirely out of place—among them, the fact that some towns on the Big Island continue to fit Mark Twain's characterization of Kailua as "the sleepiest, quietest, Sundayest looking place you can imagine." Kailua itself may not be too Sunday-looking anymore, its honky-tonk atmosphere cranked up whenever a luxury liner puts in. "I don't care if I sit or stand or walk or fall down with it, I want me a mai tai," one cruise ship escapee was heard to say on my recent visit, as he and some pals lurched past the 19th-century coral-rock Hulihee Palace.
Inside the palace, Auntie Nona Wong, a docent with an implacable expression and white hair arranged in a sugarloaf coiffure, explained to a visitor that the mahogany four-posters, koa calabashes, and feathered staffs of nobility, or kahilis, were all original to the place, left by the estate of the Anglophile aristocrat David Kalakaua, widely known as the Merrie Monarch. From the palace lanai, it was easy enough to catch wind of another form of merriment, as a DJ called out the winners of a Big Booty contest at a nearby hotel facing Kailua Bay.
I had stopped into town to buy writing pads, and headed out the minute my errand was done. Soon I found myself in snoozy Kapaau in northern Kohala, sheltering from a midday cloudburst beneath the branches of a monkeypod tree. A short while after that, I drove on to Pololu, where the road ends abruptly outside a former mule skinner's house overlooking the remote Hamakua coastline, and then started down a trail, through a series of valleys, that cuts in rocky switchbacks and ends on the black-sand beach where the ocean and Waipio Valley converge.