A couple of months ago I was catching up with my old friend Shane over the phone. It was the usual conversation between me and Shane–the latest news from our lives, musings about women, a little hippie philosophizing, talk of good books we’d read, comparisons how the surf has been in our respective corners of the world, musings about women, tales of adventure and money problems, more talk of women…you get the idea. But this time Shane had some big news. Some really big news.
“I got a place!” he said.
See, for the past year and a half or more, Shane had been living in a tent up in the hills on a friend’s farm on Kauai, Hawaii. He had a latrine; a sort of lean-to structure for eating and relaxing; and his truck, which he’d had shipped over from the mainland. He spent his first year there picking up odd jobs, working for this contractor or that plumber, surfing, and getting involved with various island women in various island ways. He hung out with shamans and yogis and Rastas and organic farmers, wrote poetry in soggy journals, and opened himself up heart and soul to a place he’d dreamt about living for years. And all the while his home was a six-foot nylon tube pitched a few miles from the rainiest location in the United States.
But finally, after a couple of brief stabs at questionable cohabitation arrangements, Shane finally got himself an actual honest-to-goodness domicile, complete with running water, electricity, and ridiculous Hawaiian rent. A little bungalow with a leaky roof, a block or so from the beach on the north shore, just a couple of miles from where the road ends and the trailhead to the Na Pali coast begins. “So now you can come out and visit,” he said.
“Yeah, okay, well, that probably won’t happen this year, but I’ll definitely try to make it out there, maybe next winter” was my somewhat non-committal reply. Much as I’d have loved to go out to Kauai and have some Shane time, there were too many other travel destinations on my list. I wanted to go back to New Orleans. I wanted to go back to Haiti. I wanted to go to Ireland and start a long-term project on music, landscape, and legend. And then there was my Carnival project to think about: I still had to make it to Trinidad, Brazil, West Louisiana, Peru…and, more importantly, there were career considerations: trips to New York and DC I had to make to show my face to various industry folks and try to roust up a few good assignments. And I needed to start putting more time into the nitty-gritty grunt work of image cataloging and marketing. I needed to re-do my website. I needed to submit work to contests and journals. I needed to find a publisher After the Storm. I needed to clean out my Jeep. I needed to sell my house. There was no way I could fit a trip to Hawaii into all of my off-season plans.
But Hawaii is a powerful vortex, as the hippies and shamans and yoginis will tell you, and it has mysterious ways of drawing you in to its orbit. And so it came to pass that while working out the (ultimately unworkable) logistics for a one-day shoot in New York for my favorite travel editor, I entered into the vortex. The telephone conversation went something like this:
Editor: So are you still planning on dropping by (to the magazine headquarters, in DC)?
Me: Well, I’m not sure, I just picked up this little thing in Virginia, so…
Editor: Well here’s what I’m thinking. What’s your schedule like next month?
Me: Uh, pretty open at this point…
Editor: Well, one of our writers pitched a Hawaii piece and Keith wants to run with it. It’s on the Big Island and the writer’s going to be out there in December. So here’s what I need to figure out from you…
The rest of the conversation is highly confidential. But the upshot is that not only did I land the assignment, but the travel coordinator found me a ticket that included a two-week “layover” on Kauai at no extra cost.
Verry, verry cherry. I had scored a dream assignment and also got a chance to go visit my homeboy in his new home. In paradise. I started planning and visualizing what kind of gear I was going to need: short lenses, long lenses, polarizers, my water housing, swim fins, board shorts…the thought of swimming and surfing in warm water got me giddy with excitement.
In the meantime, however, came the sudden and tragic news of Andy Irons’ death. Irons, a three-time world champion and Kauai native, died mysteriously in a hotel room in Dallas, Texas on November 2. He had withdrawn from the World Tour due to illness and was trying to make it back to his home and family on Kauai. The exact cause of his death remains unknown.
About a week before my arrival members of Andy’s family and the island community held a memorial paddle-out for their hometown hero in Hanalei Bay. Shane had paddled out, joining a cast of thousands who had come to celebrate the life of one of surfing’s greatest competitors. Had I been able to move my flight up to pay my respects and witness firsthand such a beautiful tribute to one man’s life, I’d have done it in a heartbeat, but I had commitments.
However, there were plenty of reminders of Andy left on the island when I finally did arrive. Everywhere, on the side of the road, on the walls of shops and houses, were makeshift signs, painted surfboards nailed to trees, with “We Love You Andy” or “Rest in Paradise”, or other heartfelt words handwritten on them. They were, all of them, poignant testaments to the ripples one life leaves behind once it has passed from the realm of the living. I never met Andy, never photographed him, don’t know his family, never ran in that circle. But I had the sense that he had made it home, finally, and the island welcomed him with open arms for his final homecoming.
As for my time on Kauai, and my reunion with my soul-brother Shane, well, it was fairly uneventful. A lot of time spent catching up, relaxing, a lot of rain, a lot of listening to Pandora on my iPad, reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, hanging out at the coffeeshop, meeting his crazy beautiful friends, waiting for the rain to stop… a little bit of surfing, a Thanksgiving dinner, a circus, some fun photoshoots, a drunken night of dancing with the local girls at a local bar, and a healthy ration of Scotch, sinsemilla, and salmon burgers. Oh, and a farewell bonfire on my last night where I met a local legend named Brando who’s probably rescued more people from hairy situations out on the Na Pali coast than anyone; and during which I sat for a couple hours photographing the fire at 1/500 of a second– at which speed, I swear, you can see ghosts, or gods, or leprechauns, or some kind of spirits in the flames. In my altered state I envisioned a photo project, “Gods of the Fire” or some other pompous title. Just pictures of flames, in which you can make out epic battles, complex choreographies, and other such fiery scenes reminiscent of Old Master paintings…In the harsh light of the editing machine, only one or two shots passed the muster; but I swear, if I keep at it, the gods will show themselves. I just have to wait, for those imperceptible moments in time that only a device like a still camera can capture, when they step momentarily into the realm of the here-and-now.
My time on Kauai ended much too soon, but I was off to an even bigger adventure on the Big Island, so I had to make do with the certain knowledge that I would be back, though exactly when I wasn’t sure. I’d been caught in the vortex, and don’t imagine it will release me from its grip anytime soon. Regardless of all the other places I’ve got on my mind.
I barely made it on to the plane that took me away from Kauai; Shane and his friend Jamie were on “island time”, and we stopped at the organic market for a bite to eat, ran into some friends, made lengthy goodbyes, dropped Jamie off on the way to the airport. So used to check-in people telling me to run if I want to make my flight, I was surprised at how unperturbed everyone was at the Lihue airport. The check-in girl chatted with me about the Big Island, the security guy told me about his dad who was a photographer and had taken a very famous cover shot of the Mauna Loa volcano for Life Magazine…my flight was leaving in minutes, and still everyone seemed to have time to chat.
As I made my way to my assigned seat on the plane, a little long-time wish of mine came true. That wish you make, as a guy, when you scan the plane and your eyes instantly settle on some beautiful girl and you think, please let that seat next to her be my seat assignment. Never in all my years of flying has it actually happened, but this time it did. She was a dark-haired beauty from Miami, who had moved to the North Shore of Oahu some years ago to pursue her passion for surf. Clad in a black dress and heels, you wouldn’t have pegged her as a surfer; she was returning from a business trip. But her deep tan and the muscles on her forearms gave it away: she had some kind of outdoor life she was hurrying to get back to. And she was a photography enthusiast as well. She showed me some underwater photos she had taken with a Lomo camera and a cheap water housing, and told me of her life on the North Shore, and I found myself wondering, is this just dumb luck or are there girls like this everywhere in Hawaii? As luck would have it, of course, the flight from Lihue to Honolulu is about 20 minutes long, the shortest plane ride of my life. We exchanged cards in the terminal, a quick hug, and she was gone. Ah, the life of a traveler…
For details and photos from my time on the Big Island, you’ll have to wait until the magazine comes out. But I’ll be going back there too. There is a song that a young native teacher sang for me into my digital audio recorder about the northern beach of the Waipi’0 valley, where I spent a lot of time during the assignment and got some of my best photos: a song about a place where in the old days people could go to seek refuge and make amends for the ill deeds they had committed against others. A song about a place of forgiveness and healing. The song still haunts me. Even though I don’t understand a word of it.
Below are a selection of moments and impressions from my stay on Kauai. There’s so much more to tell about it all, but I’ll save it for a good pub conversation next time we meet. And there are many more pictures, but I figure it’s best not to water it down with too much repetition of beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
I don’t think anyone ever gets used to the beauty of Kauai; it’s simply too overpowering. And the offbeat community that calls the island home–at least for now–well, as you can see, they are all pretty beautiful as well.
You have to make serious sacrifices to make Kauai your home; it is one of the most remote islands in the world, and it’s not exactly a mecca for career opportunities. The people that live on Kauai are, by and large, there for the island. For its beauty. For its mana. For the community of funky, soul-searching, fire dancing, hula-hooping, water-sporting, organic-food-eating, skin-bearing, child-bearing, love-spreading FREAKS that make life on the island an adventure every day, even when it seems like nothing much is going on. They live on Kauai for the ability to be fully immersed in the power of earth, water, wind, and fire. And if they question whatever life choices they’ve had to make to have the opportunity to live on the island, as they no doubt often do, it only takes a couple of glances around to confirm that, even so, their time on the island is precious, and there are few more beautiful places in the world to be.
Note: To navigate through the gallery below, use the forward and back buttons at the bottom of the page. Apologies for repetitions and other glitches. My tricked-out blog has numerous bugs and it takes me hours of work and dozens of revisions to get a post working correctly. This post will remain a work in progress until all of that gets sorted out.