The International Writers Magazine: Hawaii
Images © G A Lodise
Moloka’i: The journey to see an old friend
G. A. Lodise
The heat of the mid-morning is already upon me as I work my way up the overgrown jeep track that zigs its way through the stout hills of the Ualapu’e district of eastern Moloka’i, arguably the least well-known of the Hawai’ian islands.
I’ve called this place home for five years now, having left the manic hipsters, gun-toting drug dealers, and Lexus-driving soccer moms of Oakland behind so that my family can experience the serene, tightly-knit community dominated by the largest per capita population of native Polynesians in the state of Hawai’i. What we gave up to be here—the ability to just hop over to an Ikea or Trader Joe’s, the coffee houses and fine dining, being close to family—has been replaced by the crisp billowing clouds that roll off the slopes of Maui in the distance, the white-capped swells pushed up by the same winds that brought the Marquesans here 1200 years ago, the fertile hills and gulches of the lower lands, and the graceful peaks that form what remains of the once towering shield volcano. The choice to come here was, in all honesty, not a difficult one.
It is between two of the shoulders of Kamakou, the highest point on the island, that I am headed for this day, into the tight gap carved into the mountain by continual rainfall and the year-round stream whose source is high above in the bogs that line the rim of the massive crater.
||A light coating of dew clings to my shoes and shorts, scraped from the tall clumps of grass that line the trail. The grasses are holdovers from the cattle days, when the entire lowlands were teeming with ranches. Here and there ancient stone walls, some crumbling, some still maintained, jut from the undergrowth to delineate the borders of specific tracts of land. Erected almost a thousand years before Europeans would first view the Pacific, these walls are sacrosanct, and require the blessing of traditional Hawai’ian priests to be altered or removed. The haku (stones) are never simply discarded after use, so charged with purpose and meaning by their occupation. Instead they often become other structures, buildings or even altars.
My breath is coming in long draws now as the angle of the winding road increases. To the west I see the intricately laid stonework of the second largest heiau on the island. The thirty-foot tall rectangular structure is perched along the crest of a low ridge, its mass constructed from thousands of stones brought from an entirely different part of the island using, it is believed, lines of menehune (little people) in relay. From its flat crown one can see Maui to the east, Lanai to the south, and the western tip of Moloka’i, truly a vantage point of tactical significance. Here the priests of old would gather to discuss the needs of the community and the will of the island. Today I give it a respectful nod and ask it for permission to pass safely. I have found it easy to become superstitious in the face of such monuments.
Soon tall kukui trees blot out the sun and a cool breeze begins to dry the sweat that has formed on my chest and face. Inside the canopy I quickly pass through the stands of wild coffee, planted a hundred years prior in some failed attempt at replicating Kona’s success. The coffee is a Kona varietal and I have on many occasions harvested and processed the deep red cherries that make such an exquisitely delicate cup. Today, though, I move past them, taking note that the green nobs will need a few months more to be ready. Heading through the small patches of pineapple guava that have begun to fall on the trail, their rotten fruit ripe and musky but not at all unpleasant, I see the towering mango trees, easily a hundred and fifty feet tall but whose fruit is disproportionately small, that stand as sentries to the deeper forest. The boulder strewn creek is just beyond them and stepping out of the thickly woven foliage I mount a large stone and halt.
I can feel it now.
A light wind tickles the tops of the trees. The warble of an ‘Apapane echoes off the walls of the narrowing gulch. I can’t see it, but its small red form is somewhere ahead, undoubtedly alerting the rest of the forest that I am approaching. A small trickle of rain runoff courses its way under my feet, winding its way down toward the stands of mangrove that has taken over much of the coastline. A sudden movement catches my eye and I turn. There, less than a hundred feet from me, is a small herd of Axis deer, their speckled coats shimmering in the shafts of light that penetrate through the trees above. Three does and a clutch of fawns are led across the creek bed by their buck. The buck, his antlers broad and tall, lingers for a moment, eyeing me, determining my intentions, before snorting and bounding up the low rise of the gulch.
This is the mana, or spiritual essence, that Hawai’ians describe nowadays in more casual terms, but which their ancestors swam in like Olympic gold medalists. The question of whether this power is a construct of human existence or if it is inherent with the land comes to mind. But at this moment, I am certain that the land and the mana are one. How could they not be? My mind is swirling in a heady miasma of it, the trees drip with it, the winds have died and there is no sound but the breath of my own body.
|I take a second longer to steep in the moment and then hop down onto the opposite bank to find the trail. It has thinned considerably and now I have to watch for landmarks to know that I am still on course. The crooked-limbed tree, a low shelf, the set of three triangular rocks set into a small circle each topped with a cap of green moss. I come to one of my favorite points of this journey, a grove of kukui trees. These thinly based trees shoot into the sky and become the primary canopic players in the forest. Their fruit are covered in a fuzzy firmness that falls from the dizzying heights to often split open revealing the seed inside.
Kukui nuts have been a staple of Polynesian cultures for unknown eons. Their high oil content makes them quite flammable and they have been used as candles across the Pacific, hence their common name, the Candlenut. Before me is a bed six inches deep of these pingpong sized nuts that stretches for a few hundred feet before giving way to a sharp bend in the gulch. To walk through the grove is a lesson in balance and humility and for expediency’s sake I have brought my walking stick which steadies my stride.
With the grove behind me I enter a discernibly different zone. It is a wetter, more dense, more edible microclimate that smells of crisp, flowing water and lush earth. The trail is a tangle of slopes and maze-like meanderings between the roots of giant mango trees and ginger stalks that form tunnels over the path ahead. Wild pigs have turned parts of the trail over looking for tender morsels. Beautifully striated tree-ears like the rings of Saturn cling to downed trunks. A Black Witch moth circles around the eight-foot diameter of the tree ahead before fluttering above the tips of pink ginger blooms at its base. I pick tender thimble berries, their sweet tartness exhilarating, almost rapturous. Beside the trail are dozens of small lo’i, walled terraces built by Hawai’ians to retain water and grow a variety of foods. They sit on higher ground like steps for giants trying to reach the ridge line. Soon the trail comes to a steep, rather narrow section that takes me up above the rock-strewn creek below. Just as quickly I am back down and thrust out into the open experiencing a brief encounter with the sun and I realizing that even with the exertion of the trek I am cold and the sun’s rays are incredibly warm.
It has come time to leave the trail. Few, if any, come this far into the gulch and there is no direct route to my destination other than to simply follow the creek. The boulders that I scramble over are enormous and grand but the true force here is the water which at the moment is no more than a slender crawl. During the height of a storm I know that this sonorous gurgle will become a torrent that will push the bulky stone masses around like a child playing with marbles. The water will course its way down through the channel between the two ridges and flow over the highway, creating deep fords that the less strident will be unable to cross.
Even though this part of the island receives rainfall year-round, the worst of the storms are still a few months off and I needn’t be worried about being caught in such a cataclysmic deluge. The foliage is receding now, giving way to the narrowness of the rock strewn ravine. Still there are patches of wild bananas and kalo (taro), the food staples of the Pacific, that have gone rogue, seeking purchase in the earth where ever they can find it. The kalo’s unusually broad leaves, set upon slender stems, wave like massive umbrellas overhead. Next to the kalo is an oddly out of place stand of coffee that is both in bloom and baring fruit, a schism in the very being of an otherwise singular-of-intent plant. I notice that the cherries are almost as large as the pineapple guavas that dotted the trail far below. Like a Lost World everything here seems to have taken on gigantic proportions. The steep walls are closing in, their surface covered in a blanket of delicate ferns fed from springs that seep from the face of the chasm like tears of joy. I turn a final corner and there is my journey’s end.
In a tight horseshoe the gulch comes to a head, smoothed rocks jutting from the wall that rises over a hundred feet above. Down this cascades a fine ribbon of water, a delicate shower of iridescence that is the Kahananui falls. I stand, transfixed by the sight of wispy tale of a waterfall. Moving closer I find the ti plant that rests near the small pool at the base of the falls. Pulling one of the long pointed red leaves off the plant I fold it carefully over a chunk of the banana I have been saving for this moment. Taking the stiff stem of a coconut frond I pierce the bundle to secure it and place it in a recessed hollow beside the falls. Some people leave small stones wrapped in the leaves of the ti but I prefer food. For some reason it makes more sense to me, leaving something to eat, to nourish, as a way to say thank you. I let my bare feet soak in the pool, the mist coming off the fall covering me in a cool blanket. There is no epiphany here, no coalescence of the sublime. It is more like old friends seeing each other again after a long separation. Many events have shaped the two lives in the interim, changed them and given them greater depth, moved them in divergent directions. There needn’t be a forced exuberance, a recitation of tales of adventure or trophies claimed since the previous meeting. The outside world and its infinite complexities fade away. It is enough to just sit in the company of a friend and enjoy the silence together.
© Genesis Lodise November 2012
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