Hawaii: Our Most Foreign Place

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Driving around the island of Hawaii, I got a strange feeling that I was driving through all of time. At the famous Kilauea Volcano I could watch the creation of the earth (the volcano adds to the island’s size every year); farther along I saw the vivid remains of a civilization that barely two hundred years ago got along without the wheel, the written word, or the notion that anyone else existed; I visited the spot where that society first collided with the modern West; and I ended up at a town where the Hawaiian people plunged from prehistory into the nineteenth century. The abruptness of that leap can still be felt.

I started out at Hilo, the island’s largest town and principal port of entry. Hilo, an old-fashioned fishing town on the island’s quieter eastern coast, gives you a strong feeling that you’re in the real Hawaii—the one you’re not in when you’re in Waikiki. Behind the peaceful main streets, a long, lush plain rises gradually toward Mauna Kea, the highest peak in the state.

The thirty-mile drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park passes through gentle, tropically shrubby country and hardwood forest, past anthurium and orchid farms, and into noticeably cooler air four thousand feet up. At the park I checked into a room at the hotel on the rim of the big Kilauea Crater and spent the afternoon poking around among the walk-through lava tube, the sulfurous steam vents (Mark Twain remarked, “The smell of sulphur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner"), and the various moonlike debris that littered the place. The main crater, enjoying a quiet spell, looked like a deep, empty pit two miles wide, its bottom lined with caked, cracked, steaming gray mud.

Heading south and downhill in the morning, I was soon beyond the utterly barren fields of rubble that mark old lava flows but did not quickly reenter tropical paradise. Rather, I found myself in a scrubby plain where cattle grazed. The climate in Hawaii seems to change every mile; the mountains constantly build rain clouds, but the sunny coastlines can be arid. As the road approached the shore, I passed some fields of sugarcane and a resort hotel or two and sped right by the turnoff for Kalae, the southernmost tip of the United States. There some mooring holes drilled into coastal rock offer sparse early evidence of the Polynesian navigators who first hauled up here sometime between 200 and 700 A.D. and made the islands their own.

Instead I continued on and followed the road as it turned north to head up the island’s western coast. This is where the human history of the island comes alive. The land, spotted with macadamia groves and coffee plantations, seems to make one long sweep, from the smooth, brown thirteen-thousand-foot cone way off to the right to the sea visible several miles away to the left. At the sign for Pu’uhonua o Hõnaunau, I turned left.

This is a seaside spot to which until 1819 Hawaiians fled for absolution when they broke any of the many holy kapus, or taboos, punishable by instant death. Kapus were the glue of society. It was kapu to rise from prostration in view of a king or for a woman to prepare food for a man. Refuges like this one were attached to royal grounds; since setting foot on royal earth was kapu, you could reach it only by swimming across the bay or running in, just ahead of your pursuers, beyond the edge of the royal compound.

Pu’uhonua o Hõnaunau is now fully restored as a National Historic Park, and it gives a strong feeling of what royalty and refuges were and weren’t in old Hawaii. Royalty was utterly feared but was hardly grandiose; the chiefly grounds and the holy grounds each take up just a few acres, and a high chief slept in a grass hut the size of a large closet. The refuge is pretty, set on a point surrounded by a calm turquoise sea and shaded by palms, but is also a hard place. The ground is all lava rock, and it is enclosed by a ten-foot-high lava-rock wall from the 1500s. Once a kapu breaker arrived, he had only to receive absolution from the resident kahuna, or priest, and he could leave to begin a new life. Standing there by a reconstructed temple, I thought I must be in the most foreign place in the United States. (These islands are the most geographically isolated in the world and were a kingdom from the 1790s until 1893, a republic from 1894 until 1898, and a United States territory from 1900 until statehood in 1959.)

Leaving, I did not return to the main road but drove four miles along the shore to a small town behind a local beach on a wide, peaceful cove named Kealakekua Bay. This is where Capt. James Cook, “discoverer” of the islands, met his bizarre death. These islands were the only major landmass unknown to Europeans when Cook landed on the island of Kauai in January 1778. He was on his way north, to seek a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. His men spent several weeks exploring and provisioning in Kauai and Niihau and then headed on toward the Bering Strait. After a frustrating summer amid the ice, they returned, this time first reaching a different island, Maui. Cook knew the people there “were of the same Nation,” for they had already “got a mongst the veneral distemper” left by his men in January. Thus began the long decimation of Hawaiians by foreign disease.