September 8, 2014 | Posted in:Hawaii
We hitchhiked to the airport on Maui with a woman who owned a coach bus company on the west coast and was working remotely without her employees’ knowledge. I learned quite a bit about the for hire transportation business, something I never really explored in my career, but actually seems quite interesting.
We didn’t really have much in the way of plans for the Big Island aside from meeting up with my friend Jess later in the week (note, the island name is Hawai’i, but most people just call it ‘Big Island’ and write it ‘BI’). I had some vague recollection of hearing someone say Hawi (‘w’ is pronounced like a ‘v’) on the northwest tip of the island was cool, so when our little ring-a-dinger plane bounced us down in Waimea, we hoofed it a couple miles into town for lunch and thumbed it a gorgeous 20 some miles up to Hawi. We made straight for the kava bar (i.e. crossed the street) for my first taste of the beverage and some local recon on camping.
Kava is an herbal beverage sold all over Hawai’i, and in fact is found throughout the Pacific islands where it has been used ceremoniously for centuries. In Hawai’i there is this entire ritual you’re supposed to do, including tossing droplets over your shoulders and all over the place and then chugging the entire bowl at once, but nobody really does that anymore. The girl at the bar had us do it the first time because we were n00bs. The beverage supposedly has myriad qualities such as muscle relaxation, feelings of well-being, attentiveness and making you more outgoing. It sounded to me a lot like alcohol + coffee without all the negative aspects. I drank a pile of it in Hawi and didn’t really notice much difference, although the effectiveness varies by strain, preparation and freshness. Anyway, kava bars are generally the place to go in town to meet cool people and get info. We were told by several people to go to the end of the road and hike into the valley for some great camping.
Aloha and Hitchhiking
We had pretty good luck hitching on the other islands, but on BI it became our primary transportation plan. Our first ride out of Hawi would really show us some of the true aloha spirit that I had kind of thought was a myth before we left the mainland. We needed supplies, so we were hitching just a couple miles to the store down the road. A local woman with her son let us hop in the back of her pickup and took us to the store. Once we got there, she insisted on waiting for us while we shopped. She told us that her family had descended from King Kamehameha, who was from the area. Kamehameha was the first king to conquer and unite all of the islands, primarily because he was the first to trade with the Europeans for guns. I wondered if everyone in the area happens to be descended form Kamehameha, but she told us they had just been in the Kamehameha Day parade because of their lineage. When she got to her stop, she decided that she would take us the remaining few miles because it was getting late and she didn’t want us to have to walk the road nor hike the trail in the dark. She seemed very proud of the aloha spirit and her people and lamented the fact that some people had lost that spirit. It was definitely strong in her and I am glad to have met her. When she dropped us off she told us that her family used to live in the valley, but her grandmother lost the land when she couldn’t pay the taxes. She used to hike in there as a kid, but hadn’t been inside since she was a teen. This brings me to a point about people on the islands: they live in this beautiful paradise that is small and easy to navigate, yet many never leave their towns. Maybe for this one it was an emotional thing, but the hike is easy and there were not a lot of people besides a few tourists, so she is clearly not the only one who does not come down there. Another example is the guy who picked me up on Kaua’i. He was in his 20s and had never been to the Waimea Lookout (not to be confused with the Waimea we flew into on BI), despite the fact that you can drive right to it and it is the first thing that everyone suggests when you ask what to see! I suppose it is like that everywhere, but on the island, they seem to take localism to an extreme.
We hiked down into the valley just before sunset and found ourselves in yet another magical place. The camping area is among some sand dunes covered by a grove of windblown pine trees that do not seem to grow anywhere else in the valley, which is otherwise very damp and leafy. The Trade Winds blow in at about 30 degrees off-perpendicular to the expansive black sand beach and the steep walls on either side seem to funnel it into the valley. After an entire day and two nights here, we could read the advancement of the trees as they slowly moved with the wind and sand. The shape of the dunes could be felt in the endless wind.
The progression from sea to valley goes thus: The surf breaks far out and rolls in on a gentle grade into a wide strip of black sand. The sand stops abruptly at a dense cobblestone field with some brushy plant life and small pine trees. The stone field gradually gives way at the beginning of the full pine grove to a floor of softer grey sand and pine needles interspersed with larger stones dotting the area up to the steep dunes that rise 30-40 feet. The pine trees are widely spaced and there is very little understory so you can see through almost the entire length of the grove. Many of the trees are infected (not sure if malignant or not) with some sort of colorful fungus that dusts the bark and changes color from windward to leeward side. The top of the dune wall supports the old and gnarly pines where the land gently drops back down towards the inland lake and swamp. The end of the pine grove is sudden and demarcated by a wall of thick brambles and bushes with a few leafy trees, followed by a large lake that extends deep into the valley. We had this incredible environment to ourselves from the moment we started hiking in until around 9 a.m. the next morning.
There seems to be a lot of love for the place and a lot of people add their own little touches.
Despite the winds, we chose to camp on top of one of the dunes because we wanted the full view of the enchanted forest. Our tent is badass. We were rewarded with a sunrise view right from our doorstep; we didn’t even have to leave our sleepingbags!
We wandered around the grove and beach on our middle day, content to just soak in the place. We were swimming in the afternoon when suddenly my leg registered what felt like a stunning jolt of electricity and I knew immediately I’d been stung by a jellyfish. I saw the douchey blue sack a few feet away and fled the water immediately. The pain was rather intense and after a few minutes I started feeling it in my lymph nodes. I knew nothing about what got me, so I was understandably nervous that it could be something nasty. Luckily there was a group of locals hiking in at that moment who assured us that it was not a jellyfish, but a Portuguese man ‘o war and their sting is more like a bee sting in that a few people have bad reactions, but most simply suffer intense pain for an hour or so. Indeed, the pain subsided after the appropriate duration and left me with a circle of dark blue dots around my leg. The PMOW is interesting in that it is actually a colony of four genetically individual creatures that are dependent on each other for survival.
The four kids who gave the info were the only other campers that night, so we hung out around the fire with them for a while. Aside from the PMOW, the only other poisonous thing on the islands is the centipede, and these guys are pretty gruesome. It seems they give everyone the heebie jeebies and after what we saw at that fire, we were initiated into that group. The ‘pedes in Hawai’i are these thick, almost muscular tubes with really long legs and humongous antennae. One emerged from a log at the fire and made straight for a disc of sausage someone had dropped in the dust. While it was munching on the meat, one of the dudes had the idea to start prodding it with a stick. The bug grabbed onto the end of the stick with its ass end, all the while chomping on the sausage at the other end. The real kicker was when dude picked up the stick and the thing held tight on both ends, dangling from the stick squirming all over the place and holding onto the sausage piece mid-air. We are not talking about some little schnivel, but a half-inch thick slice of a real link. Everyone was pretty much freaking out, but nobody would throw it onto the fire because there is a myth that they mate for life and the mate will then spend the rest of its days pissed off looking for revenge. Finally it got fed up with the bullcrap, dropped its prize, released the stick and bee-lined it outta there.
Our time in the valley was unfortunately limited by our water supply, so we hiked out after two nights and hitched down to another beach campsite further south. The guy who took us down there turned out to be a retired bus driver from Spokane, so we talked shop a bit. When we pulled into the park we got our first and only view of sharks feeding. There were about a dozen of them flopping around out there with dorsal fins flying high and all. We camped in a kiawe grove and bid the day goodnight around a small fire with a sweet couple from Montreal who brought us COLD BEER, a luxury in our lifestyle.
The next morning we did a little impromptu snorkeling. When I emerged from the water I noticed I’d cut both my foot and hand so I strolled over to our stuff to dress the wounds. I was almost there when I stepped full force on a massive kiawe thorn. The flurry of curse words that emerged from my mouth seemed to have no effect on the tree, so my only recourse was to grumble and chalk this one up as payback for all the kiawe I’ve burned.
We decided to check out Kona, so we headed up to the road to catch a ride. Unfortunately we were in kind of a desolate area, so we had our worst luck thus far, waiting almost an hour after our first short, rather odd ride. This girl with a beer between her legs and a dude in the passenger side picked us up and it didn’t take long to realize she was tweaking on something. She started asking questions a mile a minute.
“You’re not cops, are you? I f***ing hate cops. Do you want a beer? They’re warm. Don’t touch my stuff. Do you have any needles? Just kidding. Where are you going? What are you doing here? I can only take you a little ways, but I’ll drop you off somewhere better.”
After a mile or two, we passed a car stopped on the side of the road and she asked her buddy if she could drop us off ahead and circle around. After dropping us off, she u-turned and within a few minutes we saw the car that had been on the side of the road come by. He did not pick us up.
The next couple was really cool and we considered just going with them where they were heading, but realized we couldn’t stay in that car because it somehow had a colony of ants in the trunk and they were coming up the back seat. We then caught a ride most of the rest of the way in the back of a local pickup from which we had sweeping views of the ranches and lava fields. Our last ride into town gave us some more great aloha, handing us a delicious lunch when she sent us on our way.
After spending a couple hours at Kona Brewing Company (yes, I know they are an A-B InBev brewery but they were right there and I wanted to check out what they were up to), we decided that the hostel was too expensive and far away so we took a stroll through town to scope out a stealth spot. Kona is heavily geared towards consumption tourism and while it is sort of cute, it is not at all my kind of place. I have very strong feelings on the tourism industry, particularly consumption-based tourism. Someday I may elaborate, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
We got to the end of the strip and sat down to discuss our options. This end of town seemed a little more boisterous and therefore more promising. It was then that we noticed a block of thick trees across the street next to a hotel. When Brandy returned from her exploratory mission, she had good news. She had followed a path into the woods and came across an obvious squatter who she felt very comfortable with and who had agreed to let us pitch our tent in his space. The place was a little more messy than Brandy had let on and the guy was clearly nuts, but it was also obvious that he was harmless, so we decided to go for it. He talked pretty much constantly as I’m sure he was thrilled to have an audience for his whacky tales that wasn’t laughing him out the door. He talked to us until he needed to go out and collect cans, which is his cover for his real job working surveillance for the real king of Hawai’i, who apparently has come forth to reclaim his crown.
The next day we spent most of the day at a cute coffee shop right on a little park by the water, and then caught an afternoon bus outta town. We originally planned to ride to the northeast corner of the island, but then chose to go all the way down to Poho’iki in the Puna region in the southeast corner.
Ok, listen up bus nerds. The Big Island bus service, Hele-On provides single-fare service all over the island. It costs only $2.00 to go all the way from friggin’ Kona, up to Waimea, and then down to Hilo, which is a distance of 94 miles (76 miles directly from Kona to Hilo). Then, once you get there, you can transfer to a local bus for free. The local bus we took brought us another 20 miles. This is absurd, and by that, I mean awesome!
We were planning to go down to this farm where you were able to camp for $10, but the problem was that the bus dropped us off a few miles north of there and it was pitch black. We walked for about ten seconds until the tree canopy closed above our heads blocking out even the faintest bit of light and we realized we’d need to hitch it or pitch it there. Hitching at night is quite a hassle, especially on a relatively deserted road, but again we had luck and some dude picked us up and brought us all the way to the farm.
The farm was a nice spot, but the place was a bit of a dysfunctional mess. The owner is some old guy who is having medical issues, so isn’t around much. There are a couple of caretakers and several other random people who are supposed to do work for their stay, but I’m not sure that actually happens. One caretaker is an alcoholic who can’t get along with anyone, and/or he’s just fed up with all the hassle. He liked us though. There seemed to be constant drama but we still had a blast while we were there.
The next day I wanted to get back to Hilo to meet up with my buddy Jess, but Brandy decided to spend another night at the farm. I got a few rides on my way back, including this guy who only could take me about a mile, but he got me away from a crappy hot sunny spot AND gave me frozen lychees! Aloha, brah. My final ride turned out to be none other than a retired traffic engineer. He had done the traffic signals and roadway plans for a gigantic Boeing plant. WTF, this now made a total of three of my rides that were fellow transportation workers. The next day I borrowed the family car and went back to pick Brandy up.
We spent the rest of our time on island with Jess and her fiancé bumming around the area. Jess’ parents live in a unique open-plan house high above Hilo Bay. Her father spends a huge amount of his time tending his incredible organic garden, which provides the vast majority of their food, in addition to food for barter. He has an elaborate 16-pile compost system and has cultivated seeds to produce plants that are best suited for this particular patch of land. He is a really unique fellow and I enjoyed talking to him while we were there. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Japanese dude with spray tanks on his back chasing angry chickens out of his yard.
We did some of the tourist things, visiting the beach, waterfall and the excellent Hilo farmers market. The highlight of these visits (aside from the bushels of great food we ate) was Volcanoes National Park. We were disappointed to find out that the lava was flowing where it was impossible to see (well, not impossible, but extremely dangerous, expensive and difficult), but the park was still really cool. It’s neat to realize you are walking on some of the youngest land on earth, and then right next to that are some ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs.
Unfortunately, that was the only photo we managed to snap off before the Panasonic batteries we had bought gave up the ghost after only two days! From now on we will stick with Duracell and Energizer, which have lasted much much longer for us.
From Hilo we flew over to Honolulu to catch our flight back to NYC. We had originally planned to skip O’ahu, but decided to spend two nights there in order to visit a friend of mine from my Budapest semester. Unfortunately, she could only spend a bit of time with us on the day we arrived, so we just chilled out at our hostel on the North Shore catching up on the things we’d neglected while on the islands. The area was pretty and we had a nice beach for snorkeling (sea turtles!) and sunsets right across the street, but like a lot of the rest of the island it is overbuilt and a bit too touristy for our tastes. One interesting bit about the beaches there, the sand was perhaps the most perfect texture. It was kind of stiff and almost felt damp and didn’t get broiling hot in the sun. It felt cool and almost massaging on the feet. The granules were a bit larger than most sand, so it didn’t get in your hair and brushed off easily.