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True Hawaii

The view from the trailhead is of vertiginous green cliffs, called palis, and from the beach below, of limitless ocean and the notch where the shoreline connects to the valley's spooky interior. At no point was I more than 55 miles from the international airport at Kona, the place where Hollywood types park when they fly in on their Gulfstream jets.

This scrap of mileage trivia is offered to lend some scale to the grandiose claims often made for the largest of the Hawaiian islands, a 4,000-square-mile hunk of rock at the southernmost end of the chain. The Big Island is indeed big, but not so much so that a day is required to circumnavigate it. Hawaii is the youngest of the state's islands and still growing, as locals like to point out. Land formed from the incessant hysterics of the island's active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea, extends more deeply into the sea each year. People like to say of the Big Island that you could fit all the other islands of the state into it, and still have room to spare, mentioning less often that a mere 10 percent of the state's overall population lives there.

Until just a decade ago, the Big Island consistently lost inhabitants as its agricultural industries dwindled and, in some cases, went belly-up. But just as macadamia nuts took over from coffee and coffee from sugar, so speculative real estate has become the money crop. Over the past two years, people have been buying up huge swaths of land, helping themselves to prices that seem to a mainlander like bargains even though housing costs have escalated crazily in less than a year. Investors including Charles Schwab have slowly revealed their plans to develop the mauka, or mountain-facing, side of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway in Kona, one of America's great scenic roadways. Yet the island remains wide-open, hundreds of thousands of acres still actively worked as ranchland and preserved in parks and resistant to any incursion, so long as the volcano goddess is in lively form.

From the window of the inter-island terminal at the Honolulu airport, I sat waiting for my puddle jumper and watching as a cloud bank settled gray on the ground. The cloud got stranded by a downdraft and then slipped free to roll and drift in the sky. In its wake came a mist and one of the double rainbows that, as Mark Twain observed, are as common in Hawaii as potholes.

I decided to consider the rainbows an augury, an emblem of my own temporary release, not from anything so clichéd as my quotidian concerns, but from a guilty sense that I have too readily permitted certain needful elements of my life to fall into desuetude. Living in New York requires plenty of sacrifices; mostly, the city honors the debt. But lately I have started to question my own willingness to relinquish access to big slabs of open sky and the notion that the smells I daily encounter will not axiomatically be urine or diesel fumes. Is it a sign that mental rot has begun its inexorable creep, I wondered, to concede a certain fondness for the scent of jasmine carried on a breeze?It probably is. So what?

The last thing it interests me to do here is sentimentalize the islands, with their grim employment levels, troubled educational system, crystal meth problems, and the various other features of a ripe underbelly that Hollywood and the Hawaiian writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka have exploited to equally vivid effect. Hawaii is the island that gave hospitality to both Captain Cook and Kevin Costner, who lived at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel while he made Waterworld. One of the two was clubbed to death for his sins against the island; alas, in my opinion, they got the wrong man.

It seems fairly obvious to me now that my affection for Hawaii was bequeathed to me by my parents, albeit in a roundabout way. It has also become clear over many trips and years that once I stopped looking in Hawaii for a past that never existed, I could start to take note of my own moments there, and days. I could liberate myself from the burden of psychic archaeology to mark instead the simple meaning of graffiti spelled out in white-coral rock on hummocks of black lava all along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway. KALANI LOVES LEILANI, they read, or ALOHA REDLANDS, or the sprightly DO ME. Of the many legacies carried to Hawaii by the Asian laborers imported to work the sugar fields, one was Buddhism. And any Buddhist can tell you that building those greetings stone by stone is a fundamentally prayerful act.

Hawaii may be one of the few remaining American places infused with the simple holiness of things done by hand. The human touch is felt there in all sorts of uncomplicated ways. Wilson's by the Sea is a dinky storefront in downtown Hilo. Its proprietor, Ley son Sakai, is a young beauty with aquamarine eyes who grinds and packs shaved-ice cones herself. They are sold in sizes regular, small, and keiki, Hawaiian for "child." Ms. Sakai fills the paper cones with crystals of perfect snowy texture before tamping large domes on the top. Then she drizzles the result with sweet syrup: rainbow-colored for the tourists, and for locals lilikoi or li hing mui.


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