Hawaii: Island Hopping and Switchback Trekking

Maui – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Maui – Photo by Becca Tarnas

The forty-five minute flight from Waimea to Kahului was one of the most visually stunning experiences I have ever had. First to see the dry landscape and deep cracks in the Earth on the Big Island, then the turquoise coastal edge before a vast expanse of deep blue water flecked with whitecaps far below. Then, through the clouds, the peak of one of Maui’s mountains became visible, deep green slopes descending down into plains planted with pale sugar cane. We were coming to Maui for just four days to spend some time camping with a couple we know from our graduate school. Maui feels palpably different than the Big Island, its age as one of the older islands in the Hawaiian chain immediately apparent. The soil is of a rich red color, and the shape of the mountains are clearly eroded from eons of rain descending on their slopes.

After picking up supplies in Kahului we drove to Lahaina to meet our friends for lunch. Lahaina is definitely a tourist town, packed with overpriced shops, restaurants, and cafés—beautiful and inviting, yet somehow exhausting all the same. We were excited to leave and drive about half an hour up the coast to Windmills Beach, where we set up camp among the ironwood trees right by the water. It was a soft, white sand beach, with sheltered pools to dip into the ocean water. We sat around a fire late into the night, drinking beers and gazing at the stars, talking about all the experiences we each had already had.

The following morning, after a leisurely swim at the beach, we made our slow, scenic way up Haleakala, the East Maui Volcano. The four of us stopped in at the visitor’s center to get our camping permits, and then parked several miles further up the mountain at the Halemau’u Trail Head. As we made the finishing touches to organizing our gear we conversed with the other groups of people in the parking lot, some of whom had just returned from a full twelve-mile day hike across the crater and back. One of them opened the trunk of his car and brought out several green coconuts from his backyard, which he cut open with a machete and shared with all of us. I realized it was the first fresh coconut we had eaten since coming to the islands, and it was perfect to consume before setting off on our trek. We also shared a whole pineapple, and some papayas and lilikoi, before departing with bellies full of water, fruit, and optimism.

Halemau'u Switchback Trail – Photo by Matt Segall

Halemau’u Switchback Trail – Photo by Matt Segall

Although it was warm and sunny in the parking lot, about ten minutes down the switchback trail into the crater we encountered a wall of dense cloud, and soon our vision was limited to just a few feet on all sides. The path cut back and forth across the face of the ridge, but we had no perspective on where we were going, or even really a sense of what we left behind as we passed through the landscape. The hillside was covered in vegetation, red and green ferns dominating the slopes. Every so often a nene, the native Hawaiian goose, would startle from a bush up ahead and fly across our trail. The world was eerily silent, like the dense fog was pressed against our eardrums. Soon we were drenched, moisture dripping from our hair and rolling down our faces and limbs. It was hard to tell how far we had come, and we had no idea how much further there was left to go.

Suddenly, a bottom was in sight. It came completely unexpectedly. First the dim thread of a trail seemed visible, and soon a pale green field began materializing. The fog became less dense, the path ahead more clear. Before long the last switchback was in sight, and the mountain path ended in a gate that opened onto the flat bottom of the crater. We passed through the gate, closing it behind us, and began walking through a field of tall, wet grasses adorned with sprays of delicate yellow flowers. The mist was rapidly evaporating as we continued on our way. To the left was one of the many cinder cones inside the Haleakala Crater, and the Moon, nearly full, had risen like a pale pearl in the now darkening sky. The path before us began to ascend gently, winding through a’a lava rocks and rough vegetation.

Moon Over Haleakala Crater – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Moon Over Haleakala Crater – Photo by Becca Tarnas

After about a mile, the four of us arrived at our campsite, which was just a little round clearing amongst the brush and lava. Another group of campers was set up nearby, and a pair of hikers came in not long after us and set up in the distance. The Sun had set some time before behind the ridge we had descended, but streaks of bright pink still adorned the sky to the north. The light of the Moon dominated the scene, becoming ever brighter as the rest of the landscape faded into darkness. As night descended the sounds of nene and other birds began to echo all around, a soft cooing emanating from the dry foliage surrounding us. Looking south we could see the two bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri, which Matt and I had also viewed from the heights of Mauna Kea. Yet we could also observe the slight difference in latitude between the Big Island and Maui, because while we had seen Alpha and Beta Centauri from both islands, the Southern Cross was only visible from the Big Island, the one place in all the United States from which that constellation can be seen.

Dusk in Haleakala – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Dusk in Haleakala – Photo by Becca Tarnas

The heat of the early morning Sun awakened us and coaxed us forth from our little tents. Our plan was to hike for a couple miles further into the crater before packing up the tents and returning up the switchback trail. The path into the crater led over more rough a’a lava toward the part of Haleakala where the Sliding Sands trail leads. The pu’us in this part of the crater are an array of red, black, orange, and ochre sands, seemingly drizzled over each other to form a desert landscape reminiscent of the surface of Mars. The central field of the crater looked like a sea of blackened waves, frozen in time. Off of the main path to our left we came to the Silversword Loop, a section of trail that passes a cluster of silversword plants, a species endemic to the mountain heights of Maui. The silverswords have long pointed leaves that are a pale green silver hue. Many of the silverswords on the loop were in bloom, with countless bees humming around their dark magenta flowers. The smell of the blossoms is like honeybush tea, sweet yet subtle and inviting.

Blooming Silversword – Photo by Matt Segall

Blooming Silversword – Photo by Matt Segall

Eventually we turned back, packed up at the campsite, and headed up toward the switchback trail. The Sun had been blazing all morning but we could see a bank of clouds in the distance and felt sure that we would be mired in fog as we had the day before. Ascending the switchback at first was not nearly as challenging as I expected, and I even said so to Matt. We had already ascended hundreds of feet above the crater floor and were still in good energy and spirits. The bank of cloud kept approaching, yet also appeared to be maintaining a good distance. The view with each rise in elevation was spectacular: first we were overlooking the inside of the crater where we had spent the night and then, as we rounded the other side of the ridge, a new view leading all the way down to the ocean opened up. Even though we were walking the same trail as yesterday the experience of it with clear skies and sunlight was utterly new and exciting. It soon became clear that the fog was not going to encompass us, and that the rest of the hike would be under the penetrating heat of the Sun. Suddenly the switchback grew steeper, at times even becoming stone steps. One section of the path ran across the top of a ridge connecting two larger slopes, and there was nothing but open air on either side of us, a narrow bridge on top of the world. About a mile and a half from the parking lot we ran out of drinking water. The view was still beautiful, but the end of the trail felt like it would never come. Sure that we were nearing the end of the hike we passed a sign: Park Road – 0.7 miles. From our situated perspective that seemed an eternity away.

Sliding Sands – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Sliding Sands – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Yet of course the trail did end, and we emerged hot and sweaty, coated in dust and exhaustion. We had no water in the car, but fortunately something even better—a cooler still filled with ice and cold beers. We lay on the ground for a long time just drinking beer, amazed at what we had accomplished.

After a good amount of time resting, the four of us left Haleakala behind and headed into Paia, a little hippie town to the east of Kahului. Completely exhausted, we chose not to camp, but rather find a room at the Rainbow Surf Hostel, whose manager is a recent transplant to Maui who spends his days interacting with, to use his words, all the “awesome” guests that pass through his domain while playing covers of ‘90s female musicians on his guitalele, a cross between a guitar and a ukulele. Still exhausted, we treated ourselves an epic meal at the Flatbread Company, which serves locally brewed beer and organic pizzas. The four of us stayed up late playing music and talking in the coconut-shaded courtyard of the hostel.

About mid-morning we left the hostel to spend our final moments on Maui at Paia Beach, and then Matt and I bid our friends adieu and set off for the airport. I can certainly say four days is not enough time to spend on Maui, and that I hope to return sooner rather than later to explore the road the Hana, the Seven Sacred Pools, and many other places that I have yet to hear of.

The flight back to Waimea was just as beautiful as the flight to Maui, and this time we were graced with a rainbow arcing through the clouds beneath the belly of the plane. One of my uncles met us at the airport and brought us back to rest at his house where we could just relax and unwind from all of our adventures.

With only three days left in Hawaii we decided to spend the remainder of our time moving at a slow pace and just returning to our favorite places in the area. In the morning we helped my beekeeper uncle sell honey at the Waimea Farmers Market, then spent the rest of the day at Mauna Lani Beach lying in the Sun and floating on the peaceful waves. The following day we learned how to harvest bananas from my uncle’s trees, then spent the late afternoon at Mauna Kea Beach, which I must say is my favorite beach we visited during the entire three weeks. The white sand beach is curved in a gentle crescent, and the surf is simultaneously perfect for body surfing and for just floating calmly. That night Matt and I cooked Thai green curry as part of a dinner to show our deep gratitude to my two uncles, who really made this trip possible for us by giving us a place to stay and a van to take around the Big Island.

For our final full day Matt and I returned briefly to Honaka’a, then went back to Mauna Kea Beach to body surf and eventually watch our last Hawaiian sunset. We went out for sushi near Mauna Lani, and then met up with my cousin and her boyfriend for a final dip in one of the resort pools and hot tubs.

Three weeks can seem like a long time, but when you are in a place as rich and diverse as Hawaii it seems to go by in half a heartbeat. Yet how much we had experienced; indeed how much we had been changed in so many deep and beautiful ways by this experience together. I want to learn how to hold these experiences within me in such a way that I can draw on them for strength and inspiration when I need them. And yet, as much as I hope to embody as fully as possible the transformative power for growth and healing that Hawaii can offer, I also cannot help but ask, when can I return?

View from Halemau'u – Photo by Becca Tarnas

View from Halemau’u – Photo by Becca Tarnas

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Hawaii: Pahoehoe Desert and Forest Rains

Onomea Bay – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Onomea Bay – Photo by Becca Tarnas

The journey of exploring Hawaii’s Big Island continued as Matt and I made our way in our traveling van home down the Hamakua Coast and eventually into Volcanoes National Park and Puna on the eastern side of the island. We had begun our morning on the heights of Mauna Kea, watching the Sun rise among an ocean of clouds, but we spent our first night of this leg of our adventure right by the water’s edge, back at Laupahoehoe Point where the grandmother banyan tree stands. I mentioned in my last post that my dreams seemed to be shifting depending on where I was sleeping each night, with an array of violent dreams taking place in Waimea, but dreams of majestic mountain-consciousness occurring on Mauna Kea. At Laupahoehoe, where the tsunami took the lives of nearly two dozen people, many of whom were schoolchildren, my dreams were saturated with watery depths, beginning first in a car that was being driven underwater, bloated bodies with white eyes floating past the windows, and then having the experience of floating far out at sea with two other people, debris littering the rough waves, an endless distance between myself and anything that felt safe. When I awoke I finally was beginning to recognize how much the history of each place we were staying was influencing the content of my nightly visions, and it led me to inquire later into the history of violence that took place in Waimea.

Akaka Falls – Photo by Matt Segall

Akaka Falls – Photo by Matt Segall

Once again waking before the dawn, I leapt from inside the van to stand near the crashing waves and watch the Sun emerge in blazing gold from the sea. I have been coming to love these early mornings on the Big Island, the whole day stretching before us filled with the potential of new places to see and explore. We began driving south along Old Mamalahoa Highway (which seems to be the name of half of the roads on the Big Island, at least according to Google maps), going first to Akaka Falls, an exquisite plunging thread of water descending 442 feet into a narrow, circular pool. A trail loop circles through lush rainforest, across a passing stream, and over to first one look-out where Kahuna Falls can be seen in the distance, and then up to a closer look-out where one can see the full length of Akaka Falls. Throughout the rainforest were flowers of almost unimaginable complexity, intricacy, color, demonstrating the sheer creativity of tropical evolution.

We continued along the winding thread of coastal highway until we reached the Onohi Loop, a scenic route through rainforest trees, over streams and small waterfalls, and along the coastal cliffs. At Onomea Bay, which is at the base of Alakahi Stream, Matt and I walked out onto the stony beach, and then onto a jut of land that extended out into the crashing waves. In a playful mood, I walked as far out as I could and stood up on a promontory of rock above the waves crashing all around me. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I started to use my arms to conduct the waves, in synchronized movement pulling the swells up from the sea and raising them until they crashed against the sharp, black lava rocks, splashing me with salty, white foam. It was a dance with the waves, each seeming to respond to me as much as I to them, a dialogue of danger and play. It was like being a child and a god all in one moment. I felt so serious, yet couldn’t stop laughing, playing in shear delight with the rhythms of the world.

Conducting the Ocean Waves – Photo by Matt Segall

Conducting the Ocean Waves – Photo by Matt Segall

After Onomea Bay we drove into Hilo, making many short stops in and around the small city. First we went to Rainbow Falls, a much smaller yet still immensely gorgeous waterfall. Unlike Akaka, it’s possible to climb up above the waterfall and watch it flow past below you, catching the light in arc after arc of misty rainbows. We sat with our feet in the cool pools of rushing water, soaking in the warm sun of the still early morning. After Rainbow Falls we made another quick visit to Boiling Pots, a series of pools that looks like pots of boiling water as they bubble and splash on their way downstream. From there we continued into Hilo itself, walking along Kiawe Street, stopping in shops, picking up some lychee from the farmers market, and eating papayas while looking upstream from the Wailuku Bridge. We ate a picnic lunch in a park full of dozens of enormous banyan trees, and then walked through the Japanese Botanical Gardens over to Coconut Island, a tiny plot of land out in Kuhio Bay.

With several hours still left in the afternoon, Matt and I went over to Richardson Ocean Park to see how snorkeling on the east coast of the Big Island compared to what we had seen on the western side. I pushed myself to face my fears of the water and set off from the black sand beach closely tailing Matt. The corals and fish at this particular location were gorgeous; purples, yellows, brain corals, rainbow-colored fish. No eels. We went out for a ways until the water got deeper, and then turned back in to where the water was shallower and rougher, which seemed to house an even greater diversity of fish and corals. Just as we decided to head back to shore, we had a deeply profound encounter. At the base of one of the larger rocks was a dark cave; gazing out from that cave was the head of a turtle. The turtle watched us swim nearby, and then slowly swam up to meet us. Not wanting to disturb this majestic creature we backed away, but the turtle followed. Each time we retreated, she came closer, floating gently in the water, gazing at the two of us. How old must this being be? What is her consciousness like? What does she think of the world around her, what changes has she noticed in the decades she has spent beneath the waves? After some time the moment of connection came to an end, and the turtle swam back into her cave. Matt and I both felt blessed to have had such an encounter.

We ended our day in Hilo by going to a tiny sushi restaurant, Hime Bar Sushi, that had only three tables and was run by an elderly Japanese couple: he made all the sushi behind the counter while she served at the tables, a quiet dance between two people who seemed to have been practicing the steps for many years. It was some of the best sushi I have ever had, somehow at half the price of most other sushi restaurants I have been to.

As night descended we left Hilo, and drove in the dark to Volcanoes National Park, where we awoke to the sound of two little birds tapping on the windows of the van. What did they want? Perhaps tapping at their own reflections, or perhaps offering a needed reflection for us at that moment, I do not know. This was our fullest day yet, beginning with a short walk through the Thurston Lava Tubes. The lava tube we walked inside was enormous, lit up with warm yellow torches that gave the sense of entering an underground dwarvish kingdom. Mosses and other plants grew around the entrances, and in places throughout the tube a tree root broke through the outer layer of rock.

Not far from the lava tubes was a path along the top edge of the Kilauea Iki crater, which is close to the main summit caldera of Kilauea. A trail runs across the crater and we could see tiny figures far below walking it. I recalled making the same trek a decade ago with my cousins. But today we had a different adventure in mind, so after a brief look out over the edge we returned to the van and drove to the parking lot where our real hike would begin.

Matt had chosen the Napau Trail for us to hike that day, a trail which crosses a vast field of forty-year-old pahoehoe flows from the Mauna Ulu eruption that eventually leads to the Makaopuhi Crater, the largest crater on the Big Island. We decided to walk about eight miles of the trail, four miles in to the crater’s edge and then the return journey. This trail leads all the way to the Pu’u O’o vent, but the end of the trail has been closed due to volcanic activity at Pu’u O’o. At the start of the trail we had to self-register at the hiker’s check-in station so that we would be accounted for if anything were to go wrong. I felt very tentative about this hike, seeing the immense stretch of lava desert before me. It was not a hospitable environment, and at times I couldn’t help but see our two little figures crossing this bleak landscape as something akin to crossing the plain of Gorgoroth in Mordor. It was absolutely fitting for the Sun-opposite-Pluto transit in the sky.

Rainbow Sun – Photo by Matt Segall

Rainbow Sun – Photo by Matt Segall

About a mile into the hike we reached Pu’u Huluhulu, a rainforest-covered cinder cone which provided an amazing view in all directions from its top. A circular rainbow happened to be surrounding the Sun at the time we reached the summit of the cinder cone, casting enchanted colors across the stark landscape. Leaving the minimal shade of the rainforest, which felt stuffy and close compared to the open air over the lava flows, the landscape of the hike unfolded like waves that had been frozen into crystalline structures. Each step was precarious, the path uncertain, yet all the better for it. Nothing could be taken for granted. An orchid in the middle of this desert appeared a small miracle. Golden ferns adorned the landscape here and there. Eventually we began to approach a crater, which at first we thought was the Makaopuhi, but soon realized that it was but a small chasm in the Earth compared to what we were about to encounter. The colors of the lava all around this smaller crater were amazing to behold though, rusted reds and yellows that seemed to be a product of the intense heat arising from this part of the ground.

Finally in the distance we could see the green of trees growing along the edge of the Makaopuhi Crater. At first it was difficult to even begin to take in just how enormous this crater was. We weren’t able to see it fully before the path plunged into the trees, which provided a welcome relief from the hot sun. The path wove between soft green grasses under a canopy of tall trees. Suddenly there was an opening in the trees to my left, and I dared to walk off the path for the first time since starting this hike. Just a few yards from the path was an open ledge, and beyond that—nothing. The cliff before our feet went down and down, hundreds of feet. The bottom of the crater was a lifetime away, and nothing was between us and that precarious edge. It was almost too much to behold. One side of the crater was covered in the multiple shades of the green rainforest, the other side the deep purple-browns of lava flows that spilled over its edge and obliterated the living forest. Life and new land were intermingled in a flow of colors, the life of the rainforest an older presence on this land than the seemingly dead flow of lava. Standing on that cliff edge, and the conversation that took place there between me and Matt, will remain one of the most precious moments of my life.

At magic hour we turned back toward home, walking with the Sun before us, casting ever-longer shadows behind. The return journey felt shorter than setting out, with familiar features of the landscape making themselves apparent. At long last we returned to the van, and then to the campsite where we had spent the previous night. Although we never saw the sunset, the sky was a myriad display of fuchsia and tangerine, tangled in a spiderweb of clouds.

Makaopuhi Crater – Photo by Matt Segall

Makaopuhi Crater – Photo by Matt Segall

The following two days were a series of adventures all around Puna. We went first to the town of Pahoa and breakfasted at Pele’s Kitchen, before going to Lava Trees National Park to see the eerie towering remains of a forest covered over by lava flows. Our next stop was to Hedonesia, a little hostel and intentional community located in a lush pocket of forest overflowing with coconut trees and raspberries. The funky rooms are all open to the landscape, with screens as walls and tall grasses already seeming to swallow the structures back into the Earth. After being given a tour of the work they are doing on the land there, Matt and I headed out again, this time to Kehena Beach. It happened to be a Sunday, the day when many of the local Punatics descend on this rocky black sand beach after Ecstatic Dance at Kalani Retreat Center to bodysurf nude, play drums, dance, smoke, converse, laugh. It made both of us want to join the community here, to have the rhythm of Sundays at Kehena be a part of the rhythm of our own lives.

We returned to Pahoa for dinner at Kaleo’s Bar and Grill, and then had a slightly trying night attempting to find somewhere to park our van to sleep. First we had to leave from Isaac Hale Beach Park, only to later be kicked out by police from Alahanui. At last we found a place where we would not be troubling anyone, and got a few hours of sleep before waking to a lush, rainy morning. For lunch Matt and I decided to go to Kalani, the local retreat center where my Dad has come to give workshops at times. Kalani reminded me of a tropical version of Hollyhock in British Columbia, with flowering trees and gardens, open lawns, small rustic yet beautiful buildings set up for guests and workers. We enjoyed the abundance of the kitchen while seated on the Lanai, and imagined what it might be like to be able to teach workshops there one day.

After a return visit to Kehena Beach and a quick dip in the waves, Matt and I returned to Hilo to meet a fellow scholar of Alfred North Whitehead at a local burger joint. Over a series of pints we dove into process philosophy and archetypal reality, exchanging ideas that may come up next year in the International Whitehead Conference being held at Claremont for which Matt is the organizer of the track “Late Modernity and Its Reductive Monism.” To my surprise much of what we were discussing was extremely pertinent to the paper I was working on at the time on the nature of archetypes and if it is possible to have an experience beyond the patterning of one’s birth chart and transits. That paper was deeply influenced and shaped by the different places I wrote it in, with each new landscape and experience offering different perspectives on the material.

Much later that night we made it back to Waimea, and spent a few hours doing laundry and repacking all of our gear in preparation for our early flight to Maui the next morning. Sleep was such a relief after all our adventures, and yet we still had so many more awaiting us.

Hawaii: Coastal Roads and Mountain-Consciousness

Our first week on the Big Island of Hawai’i was based around Waimea, with daily excursions to the beach or on a day hike. The second week I have come to think of as the week of the van: my uncle was kind of enough to lend Matt and I his van to travel in around the island, so we took out the back two rows of seats, put in a futon and created a little traveling home for the next week. We had a handful of my uncle’s family’s CDs for entertainment—the I Am Sam soundtrack with its Beatles covers became our theme music for the trip—as well as the exquisite changing scenery all around us and rich conversation throughout.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Kealakekua Bay – Photo by Matt Segall

Our first day with our travel van was a day trip, heading down the west coast toward Kona. After checking out the small city briefly, and stopping at a painting exhibition detailing the life and conquerings of King Kamehameha, we drove further down the coast to Kealakekua Bay, a dark blue bay with deep waters where spinner dolphins often come to rest during the day. We first walked along the rough lava rocks on the shore before finding a grassy beach area where we could lie in the sun. Although we did not encounter any dolphins we did go for a short snorkel in part of the bay, seeing a whole school of bright yellow fish among the coral. We also hiked a little ways along the shore, exploring tide pools filled with little fish, crabs, and sea anemones. On our drive back up toward Waimea we stopped off at Da Poke Shack, a tiny little storefront south of Kailua-Kona, where we got the last of the day’s catch of fresh poke served with steamed rice and seaweed salad—hands down one of the most delicious meals I’ve had on the island.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Laupahoehoe Point – Photo by Becca Tarnas

The following day Matt and I decided to head out from Waimea in the opposite direction, going east toward the Hamakua Coast. Our first stop was about 45 minutes away at Laupahoehoe Point, a leaf of lava jutting out into the more turbulent ocean crashing along the east coast. A school had been operating on this point during the first half of the 20th century, and it had been tragically impacted by the 1946 tsunami which killed 23 people, mostly young students, on this one part of the island. Further destruction hit both Hilo in the south and Waipio Valley up north. One of the most beautiful aspects of Laupahoehoe is the enormous banyan tree growing there, that was planted by the third grade class in 1916. The tree survived the incoming waters of the tsunami and still thrives today. We spent a good amount of time with this majestic goddess of a tree, climbing barefoot into her branches where whole rooms were created by the braided ropes of ascending branches and descending roots.

As we made our way back up the coast we drove into the hills above the ocean towards Kalopa Native Forest State Park, a tropical forest mired in mist where red birds flitted around us and mongooses scurried mischievously through the grass. We ate our lunch among the trees before going back toward the coast and driving up into the little town of Honaka’a, which is essentially one road with an array of little shops and cafés. The crystal store boasts the largest crystal on Hawai’i (although it actually originated in Brazil), and the woman running the shop offers free mini massages with a rounded crystal as you sit on a geode-encrusted stool named the “chair of adventure.” From Honaka’a we went several miles further down the road to the Waipio Valley lookout. Much like Pololu, which is two valleys further north, Waipio is a deep rift between steep forested ridges with a black sand beach stretching between the enclosing cliffs. Waipio is privately owned, although it is possible to hike or ride horses down into the valley itself. From the lookout we could see forest and grassland, and a few small cultivated plots with an occasional building here or there. A heavy mist hung over the valley, and rain was pouring in distant sheets over the ocean, catching the wan sunlight between watery veils.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Waipio Valley – Photo by Becca Tarnas

On the road back to Honaka’a the roadside was littered with bright yellow fallen guava fruits. I was determined to stop and pick some, but by the time I convinced Matt to stop by a guava tree we had passed all the ones whose branches were within reach. Alas, all the fruit available to me was past its prime rotting on the ground. Next time, I suppose. Very much craving dinner as we rolled back into Waimea, we chose to stop at the Red Water Café, recommended to us by several different family members. We arrived under an epic rainbow, the second we had seen so far on the trip. Red Water was delicious but a little expensive—arriving just in time for happy hour we shared Negihama sushi and a lilikoi yellow curry. The décor seemed to be a cross between Western saloon and sushi bar: truly a fusion, and fitting of the culture in Waimea.

Matt, my cousin, and I spent the next day completely melting into the sand at Mauna Lani Beach, known for its excellent snorkeling in its small protected bay. It’s a short walk in to the beach through a field of rough a’a lava with the openings to some lava tubes here and there. The path then winds around some brackish ponds with trees growing right out of the water and with moray eels peering eerily out from their rock homes. I recalled a startling encounter I had with a moray eleven years ago while snorkeling at this same beach and felt a little reluctant to enter the water again. The inverted teeth are less than friendly looking.

Photo by Matt Segall

Mauna Kea – Photo by Matt Segall

That evening Matt and I set off for an adventure we had both particularly been looking forward to: a night spent up on Mauna Kea at the Visitor Information Center, located at 9,200 feet elevation above the cloud line. The observatories at the summit are at 14,000 feet but it requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to manage the road so we settled for the lower station. We soon learned that 9,000 feet is actually the best elevation for humans to view stars because while the atmosphere is thinner at that height than lower elevations, any higher there is not enough oxygen for the human eye to function optimally.

Our plan was to arrive in time for sunset, but by the time we climbed the nearest hill with a view of the western horizon the Sun had just passed below the ocean rim. The colors were still spectacular, vermillion and rose bleeding into a darkening indigo sky. The crescent Moon hung high in the western sky, a clear white arc lit up on the edge of a darkened orb. As night descended stars emerged everywhere one turned, more clear and bright than I have seen anywhere else. Down by the visitor’s center a young student from the University of Hawaii guided us through a tour of the constellations, beginning with the Southern Cross, which cannot be viewed anywhere else in the United States except on the Big Island of Hawai’i. She then pointed out the constellation of Leo, descending toward the horizon. Near where the Sun had set a glow was still in the sky, although it was now long past sunset. We were told this was indeed the Sun’s light as it reflected on the accretion disc of our solar system, the remaining particles of dust that lie on the plane of the ecliptic.

We were led through all the constellations of the zodiac visible above the horizon in the summer sky, as well as several particularly prominent stars. Polaris, the north star, is visible at 19.5° above the horizon, indicating the latitude of the Big Island. We could see the bright blue-silver star Vega, and were told that due to the procession of the equinoxes Vega will be Earth’s north star in about 12,000 years. I recognized then that knowing the constellations of the night sky at a glance is something I would like to master. While it is not as easy to see the constellations while living in San Francisco, there are still places I can go that are not too far away where the stars are clearly visible. But it is difficult to find a stargazing platform that can rival the heights of Mauna Kea.

Photo by Matt Segall

Mauna Kea – Photo by Matt Segall

Because we just missed the sunset I had the thought we could sleep in our van right at the visitor’s center, and wake up in time to see the sunrise. So we spent the night at 9,000 feet, our first evening where the temperature was actually cool, awaiting the dawn. I’ve had an interesting experience with my dreams since coming to Hawai’i: each night we stayed in Waimea my dreams were incredibly violent in content, but when we slept on Mauna Kea my dreams changed completely. There was a majestic stillness; I dreamt mountain-consciousness and starlight. The experience was far beyond human. It was grandness, height, vastness. Stillness. Without an alarm I awoke as the sky was getting light, and woke Matt up so we could climb back up the nearby hill to see the Sun complete its night journey as it passed back above the horizon. The sky lightened slowly, reds and salmon-orange clouds streaking the yellowing sky. Behind us the shadow of Mauna Kea stretched over the plane below. The wind picked up in the moment before the Sun seemed to melt as fiery gold over the horizon. Awe. No wonder we are drawn to worship this life-giving orb of fire. The landscape all around awakened, golden light hitting the edges of the pu’us, the cinder cones, down the slopes of the mountain. At long last we left, having seen the Sun at last from the heights of Mauna Kea.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Mauna Kea – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Hawaii: A Waterfall of Stars

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Pololu Valley – Photo by Becca Tarnas

When you arrive on Hawaii by night your first impression is the stars. The land is dark and only instinct and memory remind you that the ocean is to your left as you travel north along the coast. Diamond stars bejewel the sky, the Milky Way a blazing band through the darkness. Our first night we were ushered into the welcoming arms of family, met at the airport with orchid leis, and brought to stay up in Waimea. It has been seven long years since I was last here, and for my partner Matt it is his first time on the island. We awoke the following morning to the sound of banana leaves rustling in the wind right outside our bedroom window, and our first meal was fresh papayas and apple-bananas from the grove my uncle has planted all around his house. I want our time here to be a drinking in of experience: of sights and sounds, tropical tastes and cultural variety, rich emotions and the beckoning call of the unexpected. I am open and ready for what this volcanic land has to teach us.

First thing in the morning one of my cousins came to meet us and take us to the Waimea Coffee Co. where we got to try White Mountain Kona Coffee—perhaps the most perfect coffee I have ever tasted, without a hint of acidity and thus requiring nothing to supplement its superbly smooth taste. No wonder it costs $58 a pound! Happily caffeinated, my cousin took us to our first beach visit of the trip, a secret little beach we had all to ourselves (except for the appearance of a spear-fishing octopus hunter who emerged in camouflaged gear from under the turquoise waters) a little ways off of Mau’u Mae Beach. Lying on that first beach I kept having to remind myself that there was nothing more that I had to do than just lie in the Sun, swim in the waters, and let go of all the planning and scheduling and millions of other thoughts that are always flying around my mind. Hawaii reminds you to release all agendas. And since it was our first day we figured we ought to go to a second beach, so we spent the later part of the afternoon at Anaeho’omalu Bay, watching the Sun and horizon slowly begin to approach one another as the wind picked up and whipped across the surface of the waves.

For our second full day another one of my cousins, who grew up here on Hawaii, brought us up over the hills behind Waimea over to Pololu Valley, one of the three valleys that extends like fingers from the north of the island toward the ocean. The beginning of our drive was through the dryer landscape of grasslands and sparse trees that extend north of Waimea, but as we descended down the further side of the hills the vegetation became richer and more lush, the grasses tall and the trees filled with colorful flowers and enormous tropical leaves. Streams ran through the small valleys at the turns in the road and banyan trees hung their curious roots in search of new fertile places to take hold. We drove through the small town of Kapa’au before arriving at the top of Pololu Valley. Gazing out over the ocean from the lip of the valley, seeing where the waves meet the base of plunging green cliffs and the mouths of black sand beaches, I felt like the beauty of it actually hurt when I tried to fully take it in. Wonder is too small a word to describe what I felt at this piercing intersection of beauties.

Photo by Matt Segall

Pololu Valley – Photo by Matt Segall

The three of us hiked down the steep, turning path into Pololu, past guava trees, flowering vegetation, and several towering trees bedecked with large yellow blossoms. At the floor of the valley the black sand beach gave way to stands of ironwood trees hung with rope swings, that felt like a tropical enchanted forest. The ground was covered in needles and soft green plants, and small crevasses at the base of some of the trees could easily pass for fairy doors. A stream ran out from the heart of the valley, and many different species of bird careened over the brackish waters and the marshy vegetation. After wandering on the beach and through the trees, swinging on the ropes and photographing the rock cairns piled precariously by the crashing waves, we re-ascended to the valley’s edge and bid farewell for now to Pololu. Hopefully we will be able to return to this area soon, to explore one of the other two valleys, Waimanu or Waipio, when the time is right.

69s Beach

Beach 69s – Photo by Matt Segall

On our way home we made a brief stop in the town of Hawi, to get ice cream cones at the local coffee shop. Not only am I trying to eat every tropical fruit I can get my hands on while here, but also macadamia nuts in as many culinary forms as possible—so while I tried the macadamia ice cream, Matt got the white chocolate ginger and my cousin got lemon cream. Why is eating one’s way through one’s travels so much fun? Each morning since coming here we have started our days with homegrown bananas and papayas, accompanied by mango and lychee, and toast with white kiawe honey from my uncle’s bees. And from there our days have unfolded with avocado salads and carrot-ginger juice at Lilikoi Café in Waimea, bi bim bop and Thai ice tea with coconut milk at the local farmers market, fresh poke (raw fish salad), fish tacos and margaritas at the Plantation Grill in Kawaihae, local ginger and coconut brews from the Big Island Brewhaus, and still I know each day will open up more culinary adventures.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Kawaihae Harbor Photo by Becca Tarnas

On our third day we spent the afternoon at a favorite beach for locals, known as 69s, that is shaded all along the shore by small groves of trees the grow right up to the water’s edge. Like in Pololu, rope swings hang from the branches, these swings right over the incoming surf. Before we knew it the day had passed us by, and we met up with my cousin and her boyfriend for dinner and sunset out at Kawaihae Harbor. The sunsets here have been beyond words, more colors than a painter could dream to mix in her pallet. One might say you could taste the sunset, it is so rich and complex.

I always say it is better to travel with locals because you get taken to the places a tourist would never imagine to go, or you can have free access to places a tourist would pay a fortune to visit. So we spent the rest of our night enjoying an epically beautiful swimming pool at one of the coastal hotel resorts, and soaking in a hot tub beneath a swath of stars that peaked through the shifting night fogs.

Photo by Matt Segall

The Waterfall – Photo by Matt Segall

We seem to be alternating each day between hiking and beach lounging, so yesterday one of my cousins, my cousin’s boyfriend, Matt and I hiked up above Waimea to a series of pools and waterfalls. After climbing through thick, spongy kikuyu grass we first went to one of the smaller swimming holes above the larger waterfall and swam through the cool red waters. Waimea means “red water” and we could clearly see why the town had been named for the waters that flow through this land. After a couple hours we went to the larger pond at the base of the tallest waterfall we encountered that day, a circular pool surrounded by grey lava rocks and an abundance of ginger plants. We watched as my cousin’s boyfriend climbed up the side of the waterfall and made the thirty foot jump into the waiting waters below. I didn’t feel I had it in me that day to try a similar jump, but perhaps I will work up the courage the next time we go here, or perhaps when we go to the cliffs down at South Point.

We have been here less than a week, and yet have already had the good fortune to have seen so much. And yet there is always so much more to see, so many places we still plan to go: Mauna Kea, Hilo, Volcano National Park, Puako, Hi’ilawe, Maui. . . So there will be more writings and photos to share, I promise.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Photo by Becca Tarnas