An interview last month with Sarah Vowell on “The Daily Show” alerted me to the availability of her new book “Unfamiliar Fishes”. I completed this short read about the annexation of Hawaii in a tidy five days.
When we honeymooned in Hawaii a couple of years ago, I sensed a sad aspect to the place: the greasy slackers, the high prices, the cluttered beaches, the struggling aboriginal culture, the besieged native flora and fauna, the suffocating military presence. I admit most of these were greatly amplified in Honolulu’s urban environment. I didn’t find Maui quite so distressing but such things were easy to overlook while swimming in the turquoise surf under perfect weather and backed up by lush green scenery.
The sad aspect of America’s archipelagic paradise resonates throughout Vowell’s book. Her narrative reminds me that Hawaii is a very different state, in terms of its historical perspective, from those on the mainland. For example, it is the only state that used to be an independent kingdom. Vowell writes of how attached some Hawaiians still are to their long-ago deposed monarchy. To them the monarchs are symbols of the islands’ cultural heritage, though the former kingdom’s lame attempts at creating a modern nation-state also laid the foundations of its demise.
Such an attachment to a ruling caste of unelected inbreeds is a bit unhealthy in a modern democracy. At times while I was reading I worried that Vowell would miss this and lapse into a bleeding-heart narrative of gentle savages victimized by big, bad white men. As usual, though, Vowell’s account is more nuanced than that and describes how concern for the royal lineage’s well-being has its roots in certain traditional Hawaiian values.
The fall of independent Hawaii is also a story about the fall of America’s self-image as a repository of republican virtue. In annexing Hawaii, the United States justified its new empire of island possessions by rejecting many of the moral pretenses articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
In “Unfamiliar Fishes” Vowell does somewhat less linking tangible places and things to broader historical themes than she did in her best book, “Assassination Vacation”. If we go back to Hawaii, though, I’ll try harder not to breeze past the museums and historic sites on our way to the beach.
We spent our last morning on Maui at H.A. Baldwin Beach. Now we’re back in Honolulu. We liked Maui better but Waikiki is not all bad. For dinner walked up to a market that sells excellent chicken teriyaki plate lunches. On the way back from dinner, we saw many, many surfers. Lore said they looked like ants. Whatever is cool about surfing seems lost when you have to wait in line for a wave like you’re at the DMV.
Our last evening in Haleakala: another fire, another soup. We’re getting better at it. The tent stinks, our clothes stink, we stink. Everything must be washed. We’re only allowed three nights here per month so this is it. It occurred to me that leaving the comfortable, steady climate of the coast, the hotels, the nice little tourist towns, for the relative discomfort of camping and hiking in a volcanic desert high above the clouds takes some mental discipline. I can see why the park wasn’t too crowded.
With the weekend done there was a tamer crowd in the campground last night: no potheads, no later music, no loose chihuahuas. In the morning I walked the campground’s nature trail and belatedly discovered its environs. The campground is exactly at the tree line, between a planted forest of nonnative trees and a native shrubland. I finally saw a few honeycreepers (of the more common species, ‘Apapane I think) in the shrubs.
We’re back at God’s Peace of Maui, a nice place to stay if you don’t need a lot of attention. We treated ourselves to a nice lunch at the Hali’imaile General Store (Lore was already beyond tired of granola bars and trail mix), owned by one of Hawaii’s better-known chefs who is also a proponent of Hawaiian regional cuisine. In the middle of a pineapple plantation, they have a mean pineapple upside-down cake.
We also had a good pizza dinner at the Flatbread Company in Pa’ia. I never have high hopes for pizza from anywhere west of the Hudson, and I think barbecue sauce and pineapple on pizza are separate atrocies. However, our pizza was delicious.
We’re going to the beach one more time tomorrow morning and then leaving. Lore and I discussed whether or not we would want to live here. We both like it a lot. The weather is superb (forecasts are ridiculous: 89 and mostly sunny every day). There is so much to do that we barely scratched the surface of it. The towns are pretty, the scenery is incredible, and the food is tasty. I wonder if we’re better off just visiting when we can.
This is one of those easy downhill hikes (about 2.6 miles and 1,400 feet) into Haleakala Crater along the Sliding Sands Trail and then to Ka Lu’u o ka O’o, the nearest cinder cone. The view across this part of the crater is (by my own reckoning) about 5 miles from ridge to ridge, but it is impossible to get any perspective on the scale because there are no man-made objects inside it.
For a place with only a few sparse plants it is spectacularly colored with red, yellow, green, brown, black, and gray cinders. The walls of the crater are chocolate brown or slate gray with occasional sparse covers of yellow-green shrubs and white-leaved silverswords. The cinder cones of the smaller, later volcanoes inside the crater are red– brownish red to bright brick red– against a deep blue sky. The clouds below seep over the crater rim or through the massive gap in the north where the volcano is eroding into the ocean. Lore and I spent about an hour and a half alone at Ka Lu’u o ka O’o, walking around the rim, photographing, painting, eating lunch, and staring at the scenery.
The price of this is the hike out, not long or steep but tiring in the thin, dry air under the mid-afternoon sun which alternated with chilly overcasts of clouds.
The only front-country campground in the summit district of Haleakala National Park is Hosmer Grove. It is simply a small field with picnic benches, potable water spigots, and fire pits, a picnic shelter and a pair of pit toilets with a sink. It is free and there are no assigned camp spaces nor is there a ranger or host stationed there.
Lore wanted something hot to eat this time and was confident about building a fire. After a couple of lame attempts Lore challenged me to do better and we started an unnecessarily large blaze in the fire pit for my little one-quart pot, which is really only meant to be used with a backcountry cook stove. The soup was good but my pot is black with pine resin.
Maui is generally dark at night, but you can see the stars here above the clouds. The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon directly above our heads like a celestial archway.
This campground seems kind of free and easy but it has a downside: it is noisy. We were woken by some chatty potheads (12:30 a.m.) and then some jackass playing a radio (1:00 a.m.) and then by somebody’s errant chihuahua sniffing around the tent (5:30 a.m.).
We got up late but I feel better and can eat again. We planned an easy hike to get acclimated to the high elevation, and followed the Halemau’u Trail to the rim of Haleakala Crater. The crater is pretty amazing: steep cliffs, red cinder cones, and nothing much grows down there. I want to see more.
We are above the clouds. It is very strange. The park road is a good one, well paved and clearly marked. There are no guard rails or shoulders so if we drive off the road we’ll dive right down in to the clouds.
There is a Visitor Center near the summit, at almost 10,000 feet. A few exhibits there explain the geology and efforts to protect several endangered species. Mostly it has more stunning views of the crater.
We are at Haleakala National Park. After we set up the tent and had a cold dinner I got really sick, probably from the high elevation. I’ve camped and hiked higher than this but I’ve never gone from sea level to 7,000 feet in one day.
While I was incapacitated in the tent Lore experimented with fire-making in one of the fire pits. A couple of neighboring campers– of all people a couple of Long Island transplants who teach tango– helped Lore build her fire.
We tried another beach, H.A. Baldwin Beach State Park, on the other side of Pa’ia. This is more of a stereotypical beach, long and sandy with clear water and lifeguards. It’s supposed to be good for body surfing (which growing up I called “riding waves”) but not so much today.
This beach is busier and has a lot of locals judging by all of the beach joggers and dog walkers. People in Hawaii have great tans.
We are staying at God’s Peace of Maui, a guesthouse in Hali’imaile. Hali’imaile is a small upcountry village surrounded by pineapple fields that look like they go on forever, except that you can see the ocean in the distance below. There isn’t much in the immediate vicinity but it’s a short drive down to the beaches and to the other nearby upcountry towns.
We took it easy today, spending the morning at a small beach in Pa’ia. It’s sheltered by a submerged ridge of lava, so the water is calm for swimming but you have to be careful not to swim into the rocks. I’m a believer in going to the beach early, but as of noon there were still no crowds.
We drove up to Makawao for lunch. Makawao is a nice little town with art galleries. The winding mountain road above the town has ranches mixed with ritzy homes. We attempted to hike down to Waihou Spring through the experimental forest reserve but we ran out of daylight. The forest is in the cloud layer that hovers around the mountain most of the day. It gets dark early in the cloud forest.
We had dinner in Pa’ia, which is much quieter at night.
We got to Lahaina for an excellent late lunch at Aloha Mixed Plate where I tried poi (mashed taro root which doesn’t have much flavor) and lau lau (salt pork steam in taro leaves which does). Of course I ordered Pass-O-Guava. The waiter told me to just call it “POG”.
Lahaina is a standard tourist town with overpriced souvenirs. There is a historic area we didn’t get to explore much and which seems like it’s drowning in tourist schlock. I tried the exalted Hawaiian shave ice (I asked for mango, passion, and pineapple flavoring which the kid seemed to approve of) but it was not so good. It was clumpy ice drowned in flavored corn syrup that collected in the bottom of the bowl. It had nothing on Italian ices from Staten Island. I’d like to give it a second chance if I can because I’ve heard it’s good here.
After a breakfast stop in Wailuku, the pleasantly untouristed county seat, we drove up the Kahekili Highway in search of the Olivine Baths. The Kaheliki Highway is the coastal road around the northeastern part of West Maui. We bought some fresh cut pineapple from a Hawaiian guy who was a good salesman, and we ate it at a pull-off overlooking the village, bay, and headlands of Kahakuloa. The hairpin turns along one-lane mountain roads got a little tiresome but the drive was worth this scenery.
The drive was also worth it for the olivine baths, natural ocean pools accessible– against the formal wishes of a “Do Not Go Beyond This Point” sign– after a climb down the cliff to the lava rock beach. We found a deep pool high on the ledge above the open ocean where we could watch the waves. Tide pools, of course, are a naturalist’s delight: inside were various rock fish, crabs, snails, anemones, and urchins.
On the plane to Maui we were seated next to a lady carrying a bird in a travel cage. I tried to fit it under the seats in front of us, in the process bumping the poor animal against the arm rests and seat backs. The lady grimaced with each bump, causing Lore to laugh hysterically. The flight attendants found her another seat.
The flight to Maui from Oahu is an up-and-down flight of just over half an hour. I don’t remember the plane leveling out except for a few moments. They still managed to serve Pass-O-Guava (passion-orange-guava juice; I can’t get enough of it). Maybe they could engineer the beverage service to deposit the drinks and collect the trash using the pitch of the plane.
Honolulu is what we expected of a city but not what we expected of Hawaii. Waikiki, where we are staying for a couple of days has a funny 1960s look. It’s filled with blah-looking high-rise hotels. After the flash of Las Vegas, Waikiki is dull to look at.
Waikiki is also seedy, like a Bourbon Street-by-the-sea. Yesterday evening we saw a man puking over the porch onto the street from his table at a Mexican restaurant. Classy. Then the guy in the room above ours was wringing his bathing suit out onto our patio were we sat. Also classy. He had that greasy middle-aged surfer look which is pretty common around Waikiki. I think there are a lot of old slackers in Hawaii, people who liked their beach vacation so much they never went home.
Downtown Honolulu is much more polished with its glass high-rise office towers and its historic districts have more character than Waikiki. The Hawaii State Capitol is a very impressive modern building and the district around it includes buildings from the old Kingdom of Hawaii (‘Iolani Palace and Ai’iolani Hale). Chinatown is a few blocks away. There were only a few visitors around the State Capitol. All of the tourists were screwing around in Waikiki when they could have seen this cool building.
The weather in Honolulu is balmy. The sun goes in and out of clouds but the breezes are what make it pleasant.
I was spoiled by nice public beaches as a kid so I found Waikiki’s central beaches narrow and crowded. This morning we picked out a spot of people with lots of Japanese tourists. They like to carry inflatable floaty things into the water with them. Between them and the surfers there are a lot of flotation aids in the water. As the morning went on the crowd of surfers out around the breakers grew until it looked like a flock of sea birds.
I never understood people’s attachment to surfboards and body boards. Our bodies can float in sea water and if you get a good wave you can ride it without skill or expense. However, the water nearest the beach was calm and the waves were too wimpy to ride. The surfers were much farther out to catch the waves.
The water here is warm and clear. I could stay in it all day. I certainly can see the attraction to this place.
Construction around USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center made our visit a little chaotic. There are several attractions besides the Arizona around the harbor and it was hard to get a proper orientation.
The USS Bowfin Submarine Museum is pretty cool as it is a restored submarine docked in the harbor. The portable audio tour plus the on-board exhibits gave us a pretty good description of how the submariners lived. The exhibits are in excellent condition and the metal fixtures are very, very shiny.
The USS Arizona Memorial was everything I expected. The visit is short by necessity (the average visitor stays for 13 minutes) because there is not much to do once you are out there but look and reflect. Visitors must first see a film for historical context before boarding the ferry to the memorial. The film was good; it made a good impact without being either too sentimental or overly polite.
The infamous oil slicks are eerie. Tiny black blobs of oil rise slowly up from the wreck through the water column, then bloom at the surface into a shiny rainbow colored lick, as if the soul of each dead seaman is escaping the tomb in turn.
We made a quick tour of the USS Missouri battleship, where Japan formally surrendered to the Allies. Unlike the Arizona, the Missouri is intact and afloat, and I felt the massiveness of the ship overshadowed its central significance.
The overall experience of visiting these sites is powerful, though their scattered locations around Pearl Harbor make the visit disjointed and exhausting. The sites still do a good job of telling the story of the Second World War in terms of its people rather than its hardware.