Issue 13.2: April/May 2010

Our Town

Story by Roland Gilmore

Photos by Jack Wolford


Every time I fly into Hilo, I make the drive: across the singing bridge and onto the Belt Highway. I pass, in order of appearance, the spot where Wainaku Mill used to be, up above the small beach where the tiger shark washed ashore that one time; past the Scenic Lookout and its mud-slicked, secret trail to the rocky shore below; past the ‘Alae Cemetery and the cliff where the tombstone maker’s house once perched. In other words, past the surf spots: Bay Front, Scenics, Tombstones. Two miles on the highway, then down through the ‘Alae Point neighborhood to the edge of the cliff that overlooks Honoli‘i Beach Park.


In the ’70s, pre-driver’s license, this trip involved: a) pedaling a BMX bike along the shoulder of the highway at 5 a.m., with the open-bed, eighteen-wheeler cane trucks roaring past, dropping dirt clods and hunks of cane as they went; b) retrieving the surfboard I’d stashed under a bud’s house; and c) making the rounds to see who would wake up and paddle out. Often, this meant at least a six-pack of sunburnt little surf rats down on the black-sand beach at Honoli‘i, cooking hot dogs over a driftwood fire and waiting for the sun. Later on, I spent just as many hours alone, heading into the water at first light; watching the sun squeeze its way up between a low bank of rain clouds and the eastern horizon, the sudden orange as it broke the surface filtering through the gray-green lip of a breaking wave.


As time went by, the bicycle became a motorcycle, blasting down the unpaved cane roads that began just across the Wailuku River from my parents’ place and ran a crooked eight miles downhill to the sea. In 1980, when I turned 15, the family Landcruiser was added to the mix: a funky old jeep with just enough room for a board wedged in diagonally. These days, I still make the trip, but it’s all via rental car: full-size, family-of-four division.


I tell you all of this so that, were you seated next to me as this particular jet makes its arcing descent across Hilo Bay, you’d understand why I always well up at the sight of that famed iron-grate bridge, which literally hums as drivers head south from the Hamakua Coast, over the Wailuku River and into downtown. At this point in my life, I’ve been lucky enough to travel through a good portion of the Pacific, but I’ve yet to come upon anywhere that beats Hilo: It’s beautiful. It’s complicated. And once upon a time, I would have told you it’s my home—but that too is complicated.


“I’ve had my malama Obama bumper sticker taken off my car, and I’m just trying to find another one—do you have any here?” She says this without even crossing the threshold, not ready to commit to a full entry. Later this afternoon, a public rally in support of health-care reform will be held just up the road at the Mo‘oheau Park bandstand. This is August of 2009, during that period when the US Congress has gone home and the debate over health care has reached a fevered—really, malarial—pitch. Hawai‘i voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the 2008 election, and so one can understand her urgent desire to malama (protect) the cause.

“I’m sorry, I don’t,” Stan replies as she backs out. “We have some of his t-shirts, though. … I’ve got one of him surfing,” he calls after her. But she’s already gone.


I’ve known Stan Lawrence for thirty years now: After surfing a string of five-dollar beaters, I bought my first bona-fide, brand-new board from him in the spring of 1979. Only another surfer will know what this means in terms of how Stan fits into my personal history, but here’s the shorthand: It’s been at least twenty-five years since I last rode that board; it’s too trashed to float, but I still keep it in my parents’ basement. I not only remember the first time I paddled it out at Honoli‘i, but also how the board smelled as I walked down the switchback, concrete stairway that leads to the beach: Overtones of newly cured resin, with an essence of coconut surf wax.


So I always wander into Orchidland Surfboards when I’m back in town: Stan’s standard conversation starter—“Been surfing lately?”—not only reminds me of life’s priorities, but also of my own roots here; it’s an escape from Honolulu, where I’ve lived for the last twenty years. Beyond all of this, surf shops—because they serve a need that falls somewhere between recreation and addiction—tend to be reliable bellwethers of Island economies. Orchidland is one of the businesses that front Kamehameha Avenue, the face of old downtown. Cross the street and walk through the bus station parking lot and there it is: Kaipalaoa—a.k.a. Bay Front—once a favorite surf spot of Kamehameha I. (Dude, it’s true: Surfers rule.) Sit behind the shop’s counter for going on forty years and you’ll get a pretty good sense of what’s happening in these parts.

“I’ve been in business now since 1972, and the last two years have been the roughest I’ve ever had,” says Stan. “I had to downsize, so now it’s just me, myself and I.” Walk the blocks that make up the heart of old downtown, and you’ll see that it’s been even rougher for others. The vacancies tell their own story: These are obviously not the best of times.


But the economy is not Hilo’s only story, and anyway it’s been touch-and-go ever since sugar began its downhill slide and—though genteel people don’t talk of such things—the island’s other major crop simultaneously went to seed. The bush I’m beating around here is Green Harvest, the marijuana eradication program that shifted into high gear in the late 1980s and, for better or worse, put a serious dent in the sale of Twinkies and tricked-out four-wheel-drives.


Was it Confucius who said, “When life sends waves, go surfing”? No matter: One of the defining characteristics of Hilo people is that they always find a way to make it work. And quality of life isn’t so much about what you do for a living as what you do for fun. So even as he frets over business, Stan can turn on the stoke. He still surfs at least three times a week. The Quiksilver/Kamaaina Motors Big Island Pro-Am Surfing Trials, an annual surf contest he helped to found, celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last August, graced with solid surf via a near miss by Tropical Storm Felicia. Each year, the event provides ten surfers with round-trip airfare and entry fees for one of O‘ahu’s North Shore winter contests in the hope that they’ll break into the professional surf scene. “You’ve got to get them off this island,” says Stan. “Otherwise they get lost over here.”


Stan’s also involved in a push to get Kaipalaoa Landing designated as a minipark—nothing fancy, perhaps a crosswalk and a crossing light, some landscaping and maybe a shower, picnic grounds and some interpretive signage. To that end he’s lately been rallying a dedicated group of volunteers to pick up trash and weed-whack, beautifying a spot that has in recent years been best known as a sewage pumping station and unsanctioned rubbish dump.


It’s a worthy cause: Kaipalaoa is—according to one version of the story—the spot where King Kamehameha gave Hilo its name following an incident involving a bodyguard proficient in weaving ti leaf rope (hilo translating as “to twist or braid”). Kaipalaoa is also a gateway, located in the shadow of the singing bridge. “It’s the first place you see when you come into Hilo and the last place you see when you leave,” says Stan, any trace of recession weariness slipping from his smiling face. “It’s going to be a beautiful park one of these days: People are doing it because they want to—this is what’s happening in Hilo.”


There are other versions as to how Hilo got its name. Some point to a much older origin: Hilo—alternately Hiro—is the name of an ancient voyager famed throughout Polynesia. In the Tuamotu Islands near Tahiti, he is known as the brother of Hina, another pan-Polynesian deity who herself figures in stories set on the Wailuku River. On Easter Island Hiro is a rain god … but this might only be coincidence for our Hilo, a town that averages 130 inches of rain per year.

Though it’s uncertain when “Hilo” came into use, early Hawaiian accounts indicate that the district was divided into named ahupua‘a (land divisions) by at least the sixteenth century, with its ruling ali‘i based at Waiakea—across Hilo Bay from the powerful Wailuku River and the large surf that often broke near its outlet at Kaipalaoa Landing—close to the relatively calm waters surrounding the islet of Mokuola (a.k.a. Coconut Island). Prior to his island-uniting conquests, Kamehameha I often spent time at Waiakea; in 1796, having brought every island but Kaua‘i under his control, he based his government there for a time. In 1822, three years after Kamehameha’s death, Christian missionaries found their way to Hilo and eventually built their church on the other side of the bay, near the Wailuku River.


Modern Hilo town grew up in the area around the mission church, fueled by a variety of industries that came and went in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There was whaling and then coffee farms, which were in turn replaced by ever-larger sugar plantations. With the plantations came railroads and a move to modernize Hilo Harbor, which sparked even more growth. In other words, by the turn of the twentieth century, Hilo was a boomtown—so much so that in 1923, Charles Eugene Banks opined in Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual that it had blossomed “from a village of a few hundred to a city of ten thousand with fine business blocks, churches, schools, hotels, banks, a chamber of commerce, public library, and Kamehameha Avenue, one of the quaintest and most colorful streets in the Western World.”


I wonder whether Banks would recognize it now. The final sugar harvest came and went in 1996. The population now stands at forty-thousand-plus. Much of the old downtown area still looks and feels like a turn-of-the-century sugar town, but many of the buildings Banks knew are also gone, washed away in the devastating tsunamis of 1946 and 1960.


What remains is a mix of the old and new, Mom & Pops’ sitting shoulder-and-elbow to tattoo parlors and coffee shops. Parts of town—say, the farmers market on the corner of Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue—are alive with activity; other areas are weathering back into the ground. Mamo Theater, known as Yura-Kwan when it opened in 1921, used to be just up the road from the current site of the farmers market, but that was a long time ago: The roof collapsed back in 1995, and it was demolished a few weeks later. The Palace Theater, built in 1925, is still with us. Its recently restored pipe organ—the largest in the Islands—is put to regular use, the four-console keyboard and portions of its 1,600 pipes having been salvaged from the Waikiki Theater before that venerable, seventy-year-old movie house was demolished in 2005.


These cycles of growth, decline and occasional outright destruction are a familiar story in Hilo, but the economic roller coaster is nothing compared with what nature can bring. There are, of course, the Big Island’s famously prolific volcanoes, one of which, Kilauea, has since 1983 swallowed more than 180 homes and other structures up the coast in Puna. (On the plus side, it has added nearly 500 acres of new land to the island’s southern coast.) Earthquakes are common, too—since 2000, nine on the Big Island have registered 5.0 or greater; one was 6.0, one 6.7. More than a dozen major tsunamis have hit various spots on the island in the last two centuries, the most recent in 1975. I tell you this not to alarm you, but as prelude to a memory: It must be 1989, after a 6.2 quake that shook the island late one afternoon. Many of the folks who live down in the inundation zone have by now made their way uphill to Komohana Street, a long, upland stretch of road with a wide shoulder and perfect view of town and the bay. There they sit, in truck beds and on the roofs of cars, drinking beer and waiting for a tsunami. Good times.

Thankfully that wave never came, but the reaction to it—partying in the face of disaster—is to me another important trait of Hilo people. It’s an independent streak, with a dose of cheerful fatalism and an undercurrent of survivalism: Not the backyard bomb-shelter and garden-for-the-apocalypse variety, but the kind of no-bull attitude that comes from living next to an active volcano. From living in a place where earthquakes regularly rattle roofs and where there are people who know firsthand what it means to survive a tsunami and rebuild a town.


Self-reliance is only one side of Hilo’s coin: There is also an unspoken rule that you give before you take. Those who ignore the rule are politely tolerated but, for reasons unknown to them, ultimately find that things never really work out.

Things are working out well for Kalewa Correa and his partner, Kaleo Veary-Correa. I’ve known them both for years: Kalewa since the mid-1990s, soon after he returned to Honolulu from university in Colorado; Kaleo from a little later, when she returned to O‘ahu to attend UH after a family move to the Mainland. Back when I first met Kalewa, he talked about moving to the Big Island, building a house, living completely off the grid. I loved the idea but wrote it off as the Green Acres daydream of a kid born and raised on O‘ahu’s windward side. Then I ran into him in Honolulu a few months back. He told me I ought to stop by his farm the next time I’m in Hilo—so I did.


“I came up here once with my dad and just fell in love with the Big Island, felt I had a connection to it,” he says. “Later on, Kaleo and I came over from O‘ahu and camped out in the only small clearing there was here. It was a totally clear night. We saw a comet shooting and all the stars, and we just said, ‘This is where we’re supposed to be.’”


Where Kalewa and Kaleo are is Kaiwiki, across the Wailuku River and five miles uphill from Hilo town. Up above where the cane fields used to be, in what was once known as Portuguese Camp, which borders the old Filipino Camp—that is, in the segregated housing clusters that were once home to the various communities of plantation workers.


Kalewa’s Hawaiian family tree has roots in the Big Island; so too does his Portuguese side, his Azorean ancestors having become naturalized Hawaiian citizens in the 1860s. It was his Portuguese great-great-grandfather who first leased this ten-acre spread from the kingdom, and then later bought it. It has remained in the family’s possession ever since, though Kalewa’s grandparents were forced to abandon the Big Island for O‘ahu during the Great Depression.

When the couple made their camping trip in 2005, the rolling property was drowning in waiawi­—cherry guava—an invasive, fast-growing hardwood that creates nearly impenetrable thickets. Both were then grad students on O‘ahu; over the course of a single spring break, they cleared a space and built a one-room cabin. It took an additional two months of chainsawing and bulldozing to clear the bulk of their land, and now, four years later, they’re about to harvest roughly nine thousand organic, white-flesh pineapples to sell at the farmers market and various health food stores in town. Down on the back of the property, they’re experimenting with fuel crops and hope to eventually produce enough bio-diesel to run all of their farming equipment. There will also be a taro patch and heirloom tomatoes and anything else they feel like growing. A few hundred yards from the main house, there’s a canvas yurt where Cameron Walter, a band-mate of Kalewa’s from his Colorado days, lives. By day, Cam serves as farmhand; by night, they make music in the yurt’s recording studio. They are completely off the electric grid.


How three people could possibly achieve all of this is hard to fathom … until you consider the many other hands involved. “It’s just super-aloha up here,” says Kalewa. “I grew up knowing all my neighbors, but it was different: Because of the pace on O‘ahu, everybody did their own thing—over here there’s a little more time for everybody to offer each other help.”


That help has come in many forms. Puggy, who lives across the road, helped raise their roof and also removed and milled for them an ancient koa tree that had died on their property. Souza, the couple’s 84-year-old neighbor and a lifelong Kaiwiki farmer, taught them everything they know about pineapple farming and supplied them with their starter plants. In exchange, they plan to help him market his crops.


“Our lives depend on our neighbors,” says Kaleo. “The other day, one got his tractor stuck all the way to the floorboards. So Kalewa went over with our tractor and pulled him out—it’s like nothing, like you would do for your family: You don’t expect anything in return.”


But this is part of Hilo equation: When everybody gives what they can, everybody gets what they need.


That gray-green, sunrise ocean I was telling you about earlier: This is the image I always retreat to when I need to remember where I’m from—even though, these days, it’s easier to say that O‘ahu is home: where I live, where I work, where I fell in love, where my kids were born. If for no other reason, I hold onto Hilo in the hope that my children will absorb its ideals: that they’ll learn self-reliance but also communal awareness; that they’ll consider “family” in a much broader sense. It’s no accident that our two children refer to all of the adults in their lives as “auntie” and “uncle”; all their friends as “cousin”—we’re brainwashing them.

So anyway, after Kaiwiki and before the airport, I make the drive out to Honoli‘i. There’s a small swell coming in and rain about to fall. I still surf these days but never here: I haven’t even stepped out of my car here in at least fifteen years. Truth is, I usually feel too much like a stranger, so I just sit up on the pali (cliff) and watch the waves roll in. Mind-surfing, they call it.

But this time, I get out of the car and head for the beach. I don’t have a board with me, but there’s that resin smell. Halfway down the paved stairs, there’s a platform where the steps veer left and then continue down. Painted there on the concrete is a bit of faded graffiti that reads, “Go home.” I look at that for a while, then continue down the stairs as the rain begins to fall.