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ON THE COVER C’est si bon! Halau Mele chanter Marques Hanalei Marzan with Paris’ most famous landmark—la Tour Eiffel—in the background. Photo by Kevin German
Vol.17, no.6
December 2014 / January 2015


The King’s Country 
Written By: Catharine Lo
Photographs By: Josh McCullough

Early on an October Saturday in 2010, hundreds of Kohala residents got out of bed and formed a human chain along Akoni Pule Highway. They put their right hands in, they passed a book on down. They put their right hands in, and this happened through the route. That’s right. They did the “huki-pokey” (huki, Hawaiian for “pull together”), and when they turned around, the new library’s shelves were stocked. That’s what it was all about.

Local historian Boyd Bond, the key organizer, rode up and down the 1.3-mile stretch between the new North Kohala Public Library and the old Bond Memorial Public Library, which was named for his great-grandfather and philanthropist, Dr. Benjamin Bond, and built on land donated by his great-aunt Caroline. Boyd was on his bicycle, cheerleading and smoothing out any hiccups. The huki-pokey was inspired, he explains, by King Kamehameha’s 1791 construction of Pu‘ukohola heiau, one of the last and largest temples on Hawai‘i Island—the heiau was built stone by stone, each moved hand to hand by a human chain that stretched fourteen miles.

The huki-pokey participants drove from all over the island to lend a hand. The Lions Club, the zip-line staff and members of the fire department all showed up. Moms swung babies onto their backs and loaded their strollers with books. The Kohala High School football team, in full uniform, filled in the gaps. They responded quickly, like a good defensive line should, when the crowd urged, “Plug that hole!”

The books moved through a receiving line that began with kupuna (elders), followed by high, middle and elementary school students—symbolizing the passing on of knowledge from old to young. At the end of this extraordinary effort, the new library—itself a trailblazer, the first library in the state to achieve LEED Gold certification—was filled with books. The Kohala-born King Kamehameha would have been proud.

“A lot of what happened was on faith,” says Boyd. “We asked people to sign up, and the day before we had 430. Any event organizer in their right mind would have canceled.” The optimum number of participants, he says, would have been twenty-two hundred, the minimum needed twelve hundred. “But I knew this was Kohala. We never sign up. We just show up.” In the end fourteen hundred people appeared to help.

“There’s ‘town’ Kohala and there’s ‘country’ Kohala,” says Lehua AhSam as we jump in the car together and start driving. It was the students in a class she taught at Kohala Middle School, she says, who reiterated the distinction, telling her, “Ho, Miss, you live in da country!”—which makes her laugh, because compared with Hilo, where she grew up, all of Kohala would be considered rural enough to be “country.”

I’ve known Lehua only an hour, but the young Hawaiian has already earned my admiration. Lehua “married into Kohala,” and her deep attachment to the community—her extensive knowledge of its history and family genealogies—makes a huge impression. She has just come from tending three lo‘i (taro patches) that have been in her husband’s family since 1926. The back of her pickup truck is filled with trashcans full of greenwaste. Our conversation about Kohala flows effortlessly, some of it thoughtful reflection, some of it pidgin-fueled banter.

First we pass through “town,” which includes Hawi and Kapa‘au, Kohala’s two centers of commerce. Hawi’s main strip is a series of brightly painted, plantation-era storefronts, mostly gift shops and galleries. Tourists trickle in and out. In front of the Aloha Man store is the turnaround spot for bicyclists in the Ironman Triathlon. We drive past Shige’s, the gas station and the Nakahara Store, where you can buy everything from char siu to fishing tackle. Continuing east, Lehua points out Takata’s, a ninety-two-year-old institution and Kohala’s biggest grocery store, and Fig’s, a roadside plate lunch place that makes burgers sourced from local ranchers. Kapa‘au offers more community services—the bank, hospital, police and fire departments, and hardware store. In front of the civic center is the King Kamehameha statue, a popular photo op for visitors.

As big buildings disappear, the road picks up more curves, and the hues of green become richer. We find ourselves in the “country,” passing forested gulches that were once home to many ali‘i (chiefs) and where their descendants still live. The highway ends at Kohala’s main visitor attraction: the Pololu lookout. A handful of visitors and surfboard-toting locals are making their way down the ‘Awini Trail, which leads to a rocky coastline backed by ironwood and hau trees.

From the ridge I gain a real appreciation for the district’s allure as a final frontier. As far as the eye can see, there is virgin earth. Pololu marks the eastern boundary of Kohala, and it is the first in a series of seven windward valleys that have seen very few human footsteps. The cathedral-like valleys, with walls rising to 2,500 feet, were carved out of Kohala Mountain—the oldest of Hawai‘i Island’s seven volcanoes—by wind, rain and sea. At the mountain’s summit two hundred inches of rain fall annually, creating waterfalls and streams that flow through a coastline of boulders and black sand.

“Kohala is special because it has direct access to windward and leeward resources, along with mauka (mountain) and makai (ocean) resources,” Lehua points out. She lists the sources of the district’s historical abundance: taro production on the valley floors, pig farms and ‘iliahi (sandalwood) trees on the mountain slopes, patches of olona (a plant used to make strong, lightweight cordage) in the rainforest and ‘uala (sweet potato) fields in South Kohala.