I’M ON THE BIG ISLAND doing a story. Or rather, I’ve done the story, as best I could, have blown my entire accommodations budget on one muffled night at the Hilton Waikoloa (the Mauna Kea being closed for renovation), and am now over in Puna, on the wet side, in a rental car, with 36 hours to see what Hawaii is really all about.
And perhaps, I hope, to see some actual red-hot lava.
I’ve seen the crater and the fumes. Now I’m on my way to where melted rock is reported to be pouring into the ocean. I’m thinking I might stop off along the way at Kehana Beach, south of Pahoa, where I’ve heard there’s to be an after-dark event of some kind featuring, among other things, fire-juggling and naked women dancing on black sand. If I can find it. Then I pick up a hitchhiker and find myself agreeing to take him all the way to Hilo.
“See this scar?” he says, launching into a disquisition on the gangs in Pahoa, how one time he got stomped by five or six of the motherfuckers, how I shouldn’t go there at night. “Didn’t used to be like this,” he says, “the drugs, the ice.”
“Meaning crystal?” I ask, trying to sound like I have a clue.
He points across the road to a wall of concrete rising ten feet above the weeds along the shoulder. “I’ve seen a guy drive his car off that parking lot embankment, then get out and cross the road running.” Then he segues into a glowing description of mud-track drag racing in Hilo.
Suddenly it seems as if everyone around us is tweaking. People are driving over curbs, hanging out in cars in strip-mall parking lots at 2PM on a Sunday afternoon. There are vehicles in the Borders parking lot with skulls affixed to their hoods. One bumper sticker reads: “The Islands Are On Ice.”
I park at the edge of the lot. My passenger, poor abused waif, steps out into the drizzle. “It was sunny this morning,” he says. “It’ll probably be sunny again.”
I make my way toward the bookstore. I need a break from the road. I need some local tunes for the CD player, and caffeine. On the way in I cross paths with a father and his little girl. “That’s a messed-up car, Daddy,” she says, pointing to a low-slung mid-70’s Japanese mini-pickup done up in Bondo and matte-black primer. There’s liquid (water? gasoline? blood?) dripping onto the pavement from under the tailgate.
“Yes,” says the man, lifting his daughter into his arms. “That’s a messed-up car.”
I ask an old hippie in the Philosophy section what I should get by way of local music that would really embody the spirit of the place. He thinks about it earnestly and for quite some time. I nearly withdraw the question. “Iz,” he says, finally. “Hawaii, 1978.”
Which I will soon recognize, especially when I come to “White Sandy Beach of Hawai’I” and “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” as the soundtrack I have already been subjected to more or less without pause since I stepped off the plane two days ago.
(On the plane, the fellow next to me was a fish and clam farmer on his way back from a wedding in Cabo. He told me about the asphalt shortage on the islands. Then he told me about the bottles of mescal and absinthe and tequila in his suitcase, and about the excellent sleeping pills he’d picked up in the airport in Mexico. We upended our plastic cups, chewed our ice cubes, then fell asleep.)
The road is four lanes out of Hilo, expensively canted with ample left-hand turn lanes and wide drainage median. Three sets of old power lines run across to what looks like an abandoned refinery, rust-colored stacks set against the gray sky. Everything in between is overgrown with mutant colonies of reeds and grasses and crazy flowering shrubs — all first-growth stuff fresh off the ocean breezes.
I drive through a subdivision called Hawaiian Paradise Park. At the edge of the highway, on Shower Drive, is a new spec home with a van parked in the yet-to-be-paved driveway. There’s laundry hanging in the dirt yard across the street. It’s spitting rain.
I pull into a lava-rock turnout in front of a tarpaulin pole-tent advertising a fairly cheap plate lunch. A banner proclaims “The Kingdom of Hawaii (the reinstated Hawaiian Government reinstated de jure March 13, 1999).” I park next to a Range Rover with a stainless steel skid plate welded to its front end.
The gentleman at the end of the spoon recommends the pork-and-peas and beef stew combo. I take my plate and sit in an empty chair at the only table, across from a man who will eventually introduce himself as Sam Kaleleiki Jr., District 1 Representative of the Lawful Hawaiian Government. People call him Uncle Sam, he says. He has a long white Fu Manchu, salt-and-pepper eyebrows, and a gold cap on his front tooth. He eats his lunch bare-chested.
He tells me about his time in the Marines, in Korea. How he learned to shoot and to read. How one time he fell in a binjo ditch when a piece of corrugated metal gave way. How he jumped in the ocean to wash himself off. How he bought a 3-bedroom house in Oceanside, California, in 1962, for $5,900. How his daughter sold it in 1988 for $178,000 (with the truck) then promptly lost all the money in Vegas.
“Daddy,” she said on the phone, “I want to come home.”
He explains the illegitimacy of U.S. sovereignty in Hawaii based on the overthrow of the monarchy by U.S. Marines in 1893.
He describes the drafting of a new constitution and the first “legal” election in 1999, which event he refers to as a bloodless coup. “It took us a long time,” he says, “but this is a lifetime trip.” He talks about how everyone’s welcome but only kanakas have full rights, how the Kingdom’s got some money in a Swiss bank, and how Hugo Chavez has expressed an interest in meeting with the Prime Minister.
I ask him if the constitution is online. He thinks it is. He calls the Prime Minister on his cell phone to make sure. He has to raise his voice to make himself understood. “Supposed to be,” comes the reply. “Sounds like they’re having a wild party over there,” Uncle Sam says to me with a wink.
A German woman comes in to renounce her E.U. citizenship and thereby join the Kingdom. There’s a test she has to take. “I’m nervous,” she says. “English is not my first language.”
“Let me give you an answer sheet,” says Uncle Sam.
The woman looks it over, chuckles to herself. “Some of the answers are really funny,” she says.
“We try to make it fun,” says Uncle Sam.
The Village of Pahoa is mostly clapboard churches, covered boardwalks, and bungalows sagging on stilts. Across the street in front of my car strides a young man in an Australian saddler’s hat and a full-length oilslicker. Another, with a baseball cap turned backwise, squats beside the Cash & Carry, waving at all passersby.
At the other end of town I pick up another hitchhiker, named Angie. I follow her directions down a dirt road to a clothing-optional community where she is living and studying permaculture. She gives me a tour of the hot house: peppers, elephant cilantro, edible begonia, green beans the size of cucumbers growing out of crushed lava rock. “The most we have to do is weed,” she says.
I join the half-clad community for a supper of wild pig stew and other home-blended sundries. I learn about how Rockefeller was involved in a program of eugenics, how oshos and christs move too much energy, and how rats have invaded the laundry room to get at the soap nuts.
By 7:30 PM I’ve threaded the car across several old lava flows and made it past the checkpoint to the end of the road. The rain has stopped. The night is dark and muggy. Signs warn of loose rocks, earth cracks and drop-offs.
I strap on my headlamp, stumble out past the porta-potties, past where a county employee in a reflective yellow vest is selling flashlights and bottled water, out along the spray-painted trail across a fresh-made, still-hot wasteland where not long ago there was a housing subdivision.
“This just popped up at around 6,” says the County Civil Defense agent at the end of the line, gesturing out toward a glowing-red surface flow in the distance. “You guys had excellent timing.”
I borrow a pair of binoculars and for a fraction of a minute watch as the latest sludge-pile of territory is added to the realm. Then I retrace my steps across the badlands in search of a place to sleep.
Best Travel Credit Cards
Top offers from our partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
80,000 bonus points
The Platinum Card®
75,000 bonus points
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 bonus points