The Big Island On Foot


In the 1970s, realizing that their world was in danger of being lost forever, a group of Hawaiians sought out and interviewed surviving elders, who were known as kapuna . This began a cultural renaissance, and by the end of the century the Hawaiian language and many original native place-names had been revived. Interest grew in the authentic hula, including fierce, athletic dances performed by men, along with studies of traditional medicine, celestial navigation, and other ancient arts. Groups had also formed to research, map, and walk the old trails.

Hannah Springer is an ardent advocate of reviving not just the Big Island’s seaside trails but those that wind into the interior as well. She is part Hawaiian, a descendant of John Palmer Parker, a New Englander who arrived in 1815, and his wife, Kipikane, the daughter of a Hawaiian chief. Parker amassed what remains one of the largest privately owned cattle ranches in the United States, spreading over 225,000 acres of the Big Island. He was a friend of Kamehameha I, the legendary chief who united all the islands in 1778. Hannah Springer’s family ranch is in North Kona, not far from the Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai. Inland trails tend to cross ranchlands, and many of them are closed to the public because walkers forgot to shut fences behind them or because poaching had become a problem. Hannah understands those worries, but still she persists in opening the trails. “I’ve spent the better part of my life walking the trails that came to us from ancient times,” she says. “They have rekindled interest in those of us who are Hawaiian. They are a historic resource that has a purpose.”

“Trails represent history,” agrees Rodney Oshiro, a trails and access specialist for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. His job is to identify them and claim a right-of-way for the National Historic Trail. Negotiating public access is no easy job, he admits. “There is resistance from developers, which is not surprising when you consider that oceanfront lots in the new Kamalani Estates are selling for four million dollars. Also, some native Hawaiians worry about opening to the public paths that go by ancient burial sites or other sacred places.” Still, “a road can be used to understand how people lived.”

The pathways already open reveal tantalizing glimpses of a remarkably sophisticated ancient culture. They run by great stone temples called heiaus , alongside ancient anchialine fish-breeding ponds, and through fields of petroglyphs, drawings of symbols and figures, carved into smooth lava. The now mostly indecipherable messages come from an age when there was no written language, which in the case of the Hawaiians was the entire era before New England missionaries arrived in the nineteenth century. The Hawaiian islanders were the most prolific petroglyph artists in the Pacific, and the Big Island has more surviving artifacts than any other island.

OVER THE CENTURIES MOLTEN lava covered the island’s five mountains like black icing slathered onto a cake, and today much of the dry western slopes, as well as great sweeps of Volcanoes National Park, wear a hardened layer of it. Mardi Lane, a ranger at Volcanoes, says, “There’s no better way to experience the magic of this place than to hike it.” On some trails, she says, you can find “snowballs,” rocks that gathered speed and bulk after rolling down the mountain during volcanic paroxysms. Other trails lead to footprints preserved in layers of ash spewed out by some long-ago eruption. “You see those prints that date back hundreds of years and know that people were walking around, going about their lives downwind of the volcano with acid rain spewing down on them.” She laughs, gently. “I mean, it was just another day in paradise to them. They carried on. And seeing those prints now, you are touching those lives.”

In 1823, William Ellis, a missionary, spent long months tracing the island’s paths and kept a richly detailed journal about a culture fast being supplanted. At the top of one pass he came upon “two rude and shapeless” idols, one on either side of the path. The natives called them “gods of the precipice.”

“They are usually covered with pieces of white tapa, native cloth,” Ellis wrote, “and every native who passes by to the precipice, if he intends to descend, lays a green bough before these idols, encircles them with a garland of flowers, or wraps a piece of tapa around them, to render them propitious to his descent.” Almost 200 years later I decided to follow Ellis’s example and trace some of these pathways myself.


OVER A WEEK’S TIME I TOOK A series of walks, none very strenuous, on this great child of an island, scarcely half a billion years old. In spite of the tourists who pour into Keahole and Hilo airports, it is remarkably easy to spend the better part of a day on empty trails; often I walked for an hour or more without encountering another soul.