POSTCARDS FROM PARADISE
There is only one road into the Valley of Kings, and it is a treacherous four-wheel-drive track with grades up to 30 degrees and paving — if you can call it that — that gets slick as river-rocks when it rains. You can walk it, as many people do, with trepidation; or you can drive down in your shiny 4×4 rental and hope for the best. I was on a short assignment, so I drove. In and out, at least once a day, sometimes twice a day. By the end of the week the park ranger who manned the entrance to the valley started joking that today might be the day I don’t come back. He meant, of course, that I had fallen under the spell of the valley and might just stay down there, but I took his double meaning as well. Beauty is best savored with a splash of danger.
The official name of the valley, Waipi’o, means “curved water”, after the river which forms from waterfalls running down the high mountains of this northern corner of the wet side of the Big Island of Hawai’i and meanders back and forth across the plain of the valley as it makes its way to the ocean. According to traditional lore, the Valley was the seat of many of the great Hawaiian kings, and was also a place of healing and redemption. Some of the most numinous legends and songs in the Hawaiian oral tradition take place at Waipi’o, from great battles between gods of fire and water, to tales of love and deception between sky gods and waterfall goddesses. Because so many kings were buried in the Valley, it is believed that the place holds great mana — a Hawaiian term loosely translated as “earth-power” — and that no harm will come to those living there. Keepers of this lore will point to the great tsunami of 1946 and the even bigger flood of 1979, both of which which completely destroyed the crops and houses in the valley, but which took no human life.
After the tsunami of ’46 the residents of the valley moved to higher ground, and the Waipi’o went feral. In the ’60′s and ’70′s the hippies moved in, and a number of permaculture projects and communal living efforts were started, and then abandoned after the flood. There are still a few holdouts from those days living in the valley, and because of the exhuberant planting they did in their heyday, the entire watershed is bursting with edible vegetation. You walk over stevia and mint covering the valley floor. Bananas and star fruit hang from the trees. Wild horses roam and graze on the abundant pasture. Permaculture scion Bill Mollison says it best in a documentary he produced on sustainable agriculture in 1993. Walking through the valley, he turns to the camera and says, in his thick Australian accent, “And here we are in the Garden of Eden”. Then he reaches up to pick a ripe mango from a low-hanging branch.
But Eden is jealously protected. There are probably 30 or so small houses in the valley, all off the grid, occupied almost entirely by Native Hawaiians, who have small taro patches that they cultivate on the weekends. Some of them have signs in their yards that read, “Native Hawaiians Only”. Visitors are welcome, so long as they don’t stay too long. There are hikers of all nationalities walking the road and climbing the steep Z-trail that leads over the mountain and into the next valley. There are stables that give horseback tours of the valley. There is an old woman living way back in the valley who used to be a big TV star in Japan. Now she is in her eighties and lives alone in a small cabin, next to a dilapidated tree house that used to be a somewhat famous retreat for rock stars and movie stars.
I gave a ride to an old guy named Whiskey who lives in a tent on the north side of the valley, and has lived there for well over 20 years. He kayaks across the river and hitch-hikes into town for his provisions. He’s one of the last of the old hippie holdouts, from an earlier time when everybody had names like Sage and Moonrise. Whiskey’s name pretty much explains why he’s still here. In any other place he’d be considered a bum, but here he’s just another character, a mild nuisance to the locals because he doesn’t dispose of his trash properly.
And then there is Chris Carter. The world knows him as Coconut Chris, and he’s a bit of a rock star in the world of hard-core sustainable living. He can be seen most days walking barefoot through the valley, harvesting exotic fruits, planting other exotic fruits, climbing palm trees to harvest coconuts. Sometimes he has a friend or two with him, as he did the day we picked him up and gave him a ride back up the mountain with bags full of bananas, star fruit, and plants I’d never heard of before.
Carter is a young and passionate back-to-the-land evangelist, a raw food vegan who literally lives off the fruits of his labors. Other than a couple of Columbia shirts, a raincoat, some boardshorts, a knife, and a few dog-eared books, he has no worldly possessions. He spends his days harvesting, planting, cultivating, walking, and talking to folks along the way. Oh, and eating. He has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of edible plants, which is good, because there is an encyclopedia’s worth of varieties in the valley and the surrounding countryside, and Chris has planted a lot of them. Occasionally he travels to far-off islands to buy or smuggle exotic seeds. He dreams of a strange fruit that grows in the Seychelles, which he is determined to bring back to Hawaii. They call him the “Johnny Appleseed of the Waipi’o Valley.” Articles have been written about him in magazines around the world, and people who have heard of him come from near and far to live and learn with him.
I spent a couple of days with Carter, roaming the valley, walking the beach, swimming in the ocean. Two young women joined us, one from California and one from Montreal. After about 24 hours with them I entered what I can only describe as a state of natural high. An ineffable sense of freedom, an expansion of the senses, and a spirit of play and creativity. Maybe it was the wild sugarcane we sucked on, or the exotic durien fruit that Chris had been saving for just such an occasion. All I can say is that were it not for the strict vegan diet and the preponderance of conspiracy theories being bandied about, I could have hung with that crowd for a very long time.
The river empties cool fresh water into the ocean at the dead center of the beach, splitting the valley into a north side and a south side. Both sides are framed by massive cliffs that rise up almost 2,000 feet, cradling the valley and funneling the swells into beachbreak surf near the rivermouth. A close-knit local community keeps the beach safe and clean, and the vibe there is so peaceful and relaxing, you feel like you could spend your life there. I thought to myself, more thank once, this could be my Brigadoon. I really might just stay here for a few more days and end up home 20 years later, with a strange nickname, wondering what happened to the time.
The closest town to the valley is a little strip of roadside shops called Honoka’a, which looks like something out of a Wild West set. Word is that back in the day, it truly was a cowboy town, a place where ranchers would come to trade, visit the brothels, see shows at the theater, and get in fights at the bars. Now it’s a fairly sleepy town populated by retirees, hippies, natives, and ex-military pensioners. But still there is a feel of mystery about the place, as if ghosts walked the streets and strange happenings would not be unexpected.
On rainy afternoons I would go into Honoka’a and wander the main street, looking for interesting things to photograph. I didn’t have to walk far. At the local youth center, I met a young man named Lanakila who was giving hula lessons to a mixed group of women, mostly native but some haoles as well, ranging in age from about 10 to 65. As they practiced the dances, Lanakila would sing Hawai’ian verses in a liquid, tuneful voice that contained the wisdom and beauty of countless generations of oral history and legend. He explained the meaning of every movement in the dances, each of them corresponding to the forces that animate the natural world–-stars, wind, waves, light, day and night, the trees swaying in the wind…I had never seen hula explained in such rich detail and with such passion. I’ve never been to a luau, never been much interested in what always seemed to me to be a tired tourist cliché. But here, in this flourescent-lit studio on a broken-down street in a little Hawaiian outpost of a town, I felt like somebody was whispering little secrets of the universe into my ear.
I asked Lanakila if he would sit for an interview with me. It wasn’t part of the assignment and I wasn’t sure if NatGeo could use it for anything, but I knew this guy was full of knowledge, so we hung out for an hour in the back room of the youth center and I rolled the recorder while he talked. Outside the steel-louvered windows, the local insect population provided a soundtrack. He sang a song for me about the Valley, an ancient song from before the time of British sailors and American missionaries. It told the story of a woman who went to the north side of the river to atone for an unspecified misdeed, and the offerings to the gods she had to make in order to be forgiven. Lanakila explained that in the old days the north side of the island was a place of sanctuary, where those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law could go and be safe from punishment. By making the proper sacrifices, by making amends with the people they had crossed, and by reflecting upon their wrongdoings, they could eventually find forgiveness and be welcomed back into their community.
Lanakila spoke plainly of the fact that most of the old keepers of the oral tradition of the area–and of all the Hawaiian islands in general–are dying out. The tradition is in the language, he said, and there are very few Hawaiians left that speak their native language on a regular basis. The only place where a Hawaiian language continues as a living tradition, he told me, is on Ni’ihau, a tiny island to the west of Kauai. Ironically, however, the native religion and lore were stamped out many years ago on Ni’ihau by Christian missionaries, and Ni’ihau remains to this day a fervently Christian, Hawai’ian speaking community.
It was one of those times that I wished I had more power than I have. I wanted to get someone interested in a story on Lanakila and his efforts to preserve Hawai’an culture. I wanted to get someone to fund the school he is trying to develop with other like-minded locals. I wanted this container of centuries, even millennia, of wisdom and lore and culture–to be recognized, to be re-seeded, to somehow be able to re-invigorate a world in dire need of new ways of perceiving and living upon the earth. You listen to someone like Lanakila who understands the old Hawai’ian ways, and you realize, they got it. They really got it. And now it’s almost gone, save for a few young guys fighting the current of technological teleology, trying to hold on to the old ways.
One of Lanakila’s students, a beautiful dancer named Alohi, introduced me to her husband Hualalai, a musician and teacher who has partnered with Lanakila to charter a school in the Valley to teach traditional Hawai’ian culture. Hualalai has a big vision: he wants to see camps in the Valley where people actually live the old ways–from singing the sun up in the morning to spearfishing and surfing, to telling the old stories and speaking the old language, to building outrigger canoes and thatched houses–and these camps could become educational resources for outsiders to come and learn more sustainable ways of living, and get a glimpse into the spirit of traditional Hawaiian Culture. Not like the luaus and hula dancers at the resorts, but the real deal. The work is slow going, partly because Hualalai enjoys his life, and when the surf is up, he surfs. When the fishing is good, he fishes. He’s working hard to get a program going, but the lesson would be lost on him if he didn’t practice what he hopes to preach.
My time with my friends on the Big Island was all too brief, and I tried, when I got home, to drum up some interest in doing some kind of further documentation of the area. But nobody seemed all that interested in Hawai’i from a cultural viewpoint. As a tourist destination, certainly. But due to bad relations between natives and non-natives, especially on other islands such as Oahu and Molokai, there seems to be a disconnect between conservationists and the actual natives whose traditions are inherently conservationist. And it seems as far as most people are concerned, Native Hawaiian culture is already extinct. My appeals and inquiries to do something to help Lanakila and Hualalai in their efforts fell on deaf ears. I suppose I could have tried harder, or gone back and made it my own mission. But I’ve got too many irons in too many fires, and I was headed to Rio to work on my Carnival series, and, unfortunately, money and time are two things I don’t have a lot of…
On my last day in the valley, as I was packing up my gear and bracing for the long journey back to the East Coast, I got a call from Hualalai. “You want to go riding on an outrigger with my teacher?”
How could I say no? We drove down to Hilo, with the fullest intention of getting me out of the water by 6 PM, in time to catch my 7:30 flight. We sailed through Hilo harbor to a waterfall that ran over an abandoned railroad track, where we took our turns standing under the waterfall and getting a natural massage. As we headed back to Hilo, the light started to fade, and I knew there was a serious chance I might miss my flight. But the sky was beautiful and the reflection of the red sails on the water was doing all sorts of things in my mind, so I just went with it. I held my camera low to the water, cranked the shutter speed down to about a half or a quarter of a second, and ended up with one of the best shots of the trip, which ran full-page in the magazine.
It was pitch dark when we got back to land. My flight was leaving in 35 minutes. I made hasty good-byes to my new friends and gunned my rental Cherokee towards the airport. Miraculously I made it on the plane, stressed out and sweaty, with a good 24 hours of travel ahead of me before getting home to the Outer Banks, all the while thinking, what’s the rush? Maybe I could just stay a few more days on my own…
It has begun to dawn on me. All the places I’ve been. All the places I’ve fallen for, or become enchanted by. All the places I swore to myself I would return to. And to so many of them, I have never been back. They stick in my soul like little post-it notes, a lifetime of unfinished business.
If only there were more time. If only there was a way.