The Caretakers

In Moloka`i's remote Hālawa valley, Pilipo and Greg Solatoria carry on the work of their `ohana`
Story by Tiffany Hill. Photos by PF Bentley.

Maps, guidebooks, web sites, even many Moloka‘i residents call it Moa‘ula: Red Chicken. But Pilipo Solatorio wants to set the record straight.

The lean 75-year-old clears his throat and says it right: “It’s Mo‘o‘ula, not Moa‘ula,” he says. It’s only a one-vowel mistake, but a big one: These towering waterfalls in east Moloka‘i were named not for a red (ula) chicken (moa) but for a red mo‘o, a fearsome, lizardlike deity that was said to haunt the shadowy lava tube caves near the falls.

Pilipo is scrupulous about this and hundreds of other details concerning Hālawa valley. He strings stories together like the kukui nuts on the lei he’s wearing as we sit at a picnic table in the valley’s secluded beach park. With us is his son, Gregory Kawaimaka Solatorio. We’re otherwise alone at the small park tucked at the far end of the narrow, serpentine highway leading from Kaunakakai. Pilipo and Greg meet here nearly six mornings a week to take school groups, kama‘āina and visitors on hikes through the valley, something Pilipo started doing in 1992. They pepper these daylong excursions to Mo‘o‘ula with mo‘olelo (stories) of their family’s history and of the remote, verdant valley where they have lived for generations.

Hālawa is carved into the easternmost end of the 260-square-mile island of Moloka‘i. Preserved within its intact rainforest are traces of a community that has lived here continuously for nearly 1,400 years, one of Hawai‘i’s earliest settlements. Throughout the valley are heiau (temples), lo‘i (taro patches), rock walls and home foundations. “At one time five thousand people lived here and harvested more than a thousand taro patches,” says Greg. During Hawai‘i’s territorial era Hālawa was a bustling, Western-style town complete with a school, post office, church and auto and footbridges, but two disasters put an end to its prosperity: Hālawa was twice hit by tsunami. Pilipo was six years old in April 1946 when a wave that killed 159 people statewide roared nearly two miles into the valley. In March 1957 another tsunami rendered Hālawa a ghost town. It was never rebuilt, and today there is no modern plumbing or cell service. Those few residents who did return—about twenty today—have put up no-trespassing signs to deter hunters and hikers; there is no public access into the valley, which is another reason why the Solatorios lead guided hikes. “If you want people to respect the land and learn about your culture,” says Greg, “you have to teach them.”

The Solatorios aren’t the only ones who lead hikes into the valley, but they were among the first and have the deepest roots: Pilipo is the last living resident of Hālawa who was born there. When Pilipo was five years old, his grandfather chose him to assume the family’s traditional role and become a caretaker of Hālawa. Greg is now preparing to take on that kuleana (responsibility) from his father. For the Solatorios, the hikes are a part of that kuleana, and they offer an opportunity to share their love for a place that most visitors venture into heedless of its history.

To prepare me for my hike into the valley with Greg, Pilipo tells me to breathe. He inhales deeply and says, “Hālawa in Hawaiian means ‘sufficient breath.’” I breathe, too, and off we go.

Greg blows the pū, the conch shell, to announce our arrival. Then Pilipo chants to identify our group and explain our desire to hike the valley. There is a protocol to entering Hālawa: “It’s like going to visit people,” says Greg. “You don’t just barge in, and you bring something.” I lay a ho‘okupu, a ceremonial gift, next to the upright carved stones representing Pilipo’s kūpuna, or ancestors. We stop briefly at Hālawa Hale, a pavilion with a 180-degree view of the valley, a few yards from the stones. Next door is the Solatorios’ home, where Greg, Pilipo and Diana—Pilipo’s wife of fifty-one years—live mostly off the grid. Here Pilipo will wait while we continue on to the falls; a knee injury prevents Pilipo from hiking as often as he once did. But it’s good practice for his son, he says: “Every day is training.”

As we hike deeper into the thick forest, the only sounds are birdcalls, the soft whine of mosquitoes and the occasional tour helicopter from Maui passing overhead. Frequent use has imprinted a well-defined 1.7-mile trail to the falls; Greg nimbly hikes it barefoot, which makes crossing the stream easier. The slow, curving watercourse begins at the spectacular 250-foot-plus-high Mo‘o‘ula falls and feeds the downstream lo‘i before emptying into the sea. Greg scans the forest with a hunter-gatherer’s eye and spots the hoofprints of wild boars he’ll later hunt, the ripe noni fruit he’ll later pick for medicine and the hala tree leaves he’ll later pull for weaving lauhala mats. “I love living off the land,” says the 35-year-old, pushing up his wire-frame glasses.

That’s still possible at Hālawa, and the valley’s abundance was among the reasons the earliest Hawaiians settled it. There are about twenty heiau in Hālawa attesting to the robustness of its native past. “There was almost every single kind of temple you could find, from farming to human sacrifice to a pu‘uhonua, or city of refuge,” he says. Outlaws or defeated warriors could enter a pu‘uhonua and be protected from a death sentence, he explains. If they reached the pu‘uhonua, a kahuna could absolve them. The valley’s most unique sites are its luakini heiau, commissioned by ali‘i (chiefs) for animal or human sacrifice, usually in honor of the god Kū, he says. A few yards up we find two house foundations and taro terraces. Peeking through the underbrush are large boulders with smooth indentations—birthing stones where pregnant women would come to deliver.

Greg knows Hālawa like his own house; Pilipo began showing him its every secret when Greg was a boy. In the late 1960s Pilipo led noted Hawai‘i archeologist Patrick Kirch on numerous hikes to radio-carbon-date significant sites like the ones we’ve just passed. Kirch’s research details the pre-contact Hawaiian community and established Hālawa as a significant settlement in ancient times. Kirch’s book Pre-history and Ecology in a Windward Hawaiian Valley: Hālawa Valley, Moloka‘i credits Pilipo for his contribution. “He called dad a scholar,” Greg smiles—mainly because Pilipo himself had only an eighth-grade education. But his cultural knowledge was doctoral-level. “Kirch came to him because he lived the lifestyle,” says Greg. “He knows the stories.”

Two hours later we reach Mo‘o‘ula, where the falls thunder into a wide, dark pool. According to local custom, before entering the plunge pool you must first drop a ti leaf into the water to ask for the mo‘o’s permission. If it floats, it is safe to swim; if it sinks, stay out. Sort of, say the Solatorios. When Pilipo was a boy, his grandfather showed him the family’s way to ask permission: Snap off an entire ti crown, tie a small stone to the bottom of the crown and place it in on right side of the pool. If the crown bobs in the pool’s currents, it’s safe to swim; if it sinks, the mo‘o is in no mood for company. “I was in the fourth grade when he first showed me and my sister,” says Greg.

Sitting at the pool’s edge, Greg tells me to look up. I tilt my head back and see a reptile-shaped boulder at the upper left of the falls: the mo‘o of Mo‘o‘ula. “Do you see a chicken?” he laughs.

Back at Hālawa Hale, Pilipo adjusts his kīhei, a rectangular piece of cloth tied at one shoulder, cocks the green haku lei on his salt-and-pepper hair and shares his story. “I was adopted,” he says. Pilipo’s mother suddenly died when he was three, leaving him and his siblings in the care of the Solatorio family. Young Pilipo bonded with his adoptive Hawaiian grandfather, who chose Pilipo to carry on the family traditions. “I didn’t understand why,” he says. “My siblings thought I would be the favorite, but I worked in the kalo [taro] patches and learned hula while they played.”

Pilipo craved a change, so at 16 he joined the Navy by fudging his age. “I went from Pearl Harbor to San Diego and was put with seventy-five boys from Texas,” he laughs. Pilipo says if it weren’t for his naval career, he would have never visited Japan or met Diana in California, an Indiana farm girl who returned to Moloka‘i with Pilipo and raised six children with him.

When he got home in the early 1960s, Pilipo was ready to assume his kuleana. “I wanted to acknowledge the kūpuna,” he says. For twenty-nine years Pilipo divided his time between Hālawa and working at the now-shuttered Moloka‘i Ranch during the height of the island’s biggest tourism boom, running its safari tours and the cultural programs. That’s how he met Matt Yamashita. Pilipo was Matt’s kumu hula (hula teacher); Pilipo and Diana became Matt’s second parents and Hālawa valley a second home. Pilipo estimates he’s adopted—hānai in Hawaiian—twenty children in the community. “He’s a true kupuna,” says Yamashita. “There’s no one in Hālawa doing what he’s doing.” Yamashita, now a filmmaker, is making a documentary on Pilipo’s life.

Such generosity got Pilipo elected honorary mayor of Kaunakakai in 1970. “I met with dignitaries and promoted Moloka‘i,” he says, pointing to the large wooden key to the city hanging from the wall. The position of unofficial mayor of Kaunakakai dates to the 1930s, when actor Warner Baxter, who played the Cisco Kid in the 1928 film In Old Arizona, got drunk at a lū‘au held in his honor when he visited Moloka‘i. Baxter was later memorialized in song as “the cockeyed mayor of Kauna-kakai.” “Do you know it?” asks Pilipo. Father and son break into song: “He wore a malo and a coconut hat/One was for this and the other for that/All the people shouted as he went by/He was the cockeyed mayor of Kaunakakai!” While Pilipo’s mayoral days are long behind him, he remains an ambassador of Moloka‘i, a responsibility he’s ready to hand down.

“When people asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid, I always said, ‘My dad,’” Greg says. “I, too, cleaned the taro patches and started dancing hula at five.” Pilipo encouraged Greg to leave home, to experience life beyond Moloka‘i as he had, confident his son would return. “Even though I was away, I was still practicing my culture, still learning,” Greg says. For three years Greg lived in Los Angeles, working for Cirque du Soleil. He then moved to East O‘ahu, making pastries in a bakery and raising his three sons with his wife. “I have my traditional life here,” he says, “and I have my city life there.”

In June 2013 Pilipo called. “He talked to my wife and said, ‘It’s time for Greg to come home,’” he recalls. “The hardest part is being away from them,” says Greg, but it’s better for the children’s education and for his wife’s career in broadcast television that they remain on O‘ahu. Greg visits and calls as often as possible, which is no simple feat: He drives three miles up the winding road to a nēnē crossing sign over-looking the Pailolo Channel, the nearest spot to the valley where you can catch a cellphone signal. It’s dubbed “the nēnē phone booth.”

It’s a heavy kuleana that like any true calling demands sacrifice, but it’s one that Greg is ready to make. “This is the life I prefer,” he says. “When I was little, Dad used to drag me to listen to the kūpuna talk story. But now I get to share all of that with visitors. There is a bigger purpose for me in my future.” Then he heads out to the nēnē phone booth to check his messages for tomorrow’s hiking reservations and call his family.

Pilipo stands to look at the grainy photographs of the valley and its waterfalls inside the hale. He looks at them often. “I did not understand the name Mo‘o‘ula,” he says, “until my grandfather. The story was passed on from his grandfather and those before him,” he says, wiping tears from his eyes. “The mo‘o died at the falls to become the goddess of the valley.”

Pilipo says he feels pride in sharing the correct name of the valley and the correct way to ask permission to swim there. “Life in this valley is beautiful,” he says. “If you come back, it was meant for you. You carry on the legacy.” HH

Story by Tiffany Hill. Photos by PF Bentley