Issue 7.4: August/September 2004

Hanalei Calling

by Liza Simon
photos by Jim Shea

First you see it from the lookout—the manmade plaid of luscious green taro fields, held in the sweeping embrace of zigzag mountain ridges and cloud-covered cliffs. Then you cross the bridge, a one-lane wooden affair that not only limits tonnage but requires you to shed some psychic weight as well and practice the aloha code by yielding, yielding, yielding. Literally, you give way to oncoming traffic; mentally, you give in to the power of beauty. And you have arrived—welcome to Hanalei.

When I lived on Kauai for a lucky thirteen years, Hanalei was my getaway. On payday, I had my routine: an umbrella drink at the Tahiti Nui Bar, a stroll through Ching Young Shopping Village, a visit to trailheads and beaches on the far side of Hanalei, where the beauty glimpsed from the lookout was suddenly mine. By sunset, I’d hooked up with friends, and in conversation that continued long after the symphony of color in the sky had faded, I’d listen to them talk about the joys and sacrifices of living in Hanalei. For all its charm and isolation, Hanalei was as enveloping as a human presence, they said. It’s not just that Hanalei calls, as you might hear it sung in a schmaltzy lyric. It’s more accurate to say that Hanalei is a calling.

Over a decade since my departure, I start a foray of rediscovery by heading to Hanalei Bay. My old friend Joanna is at my side, dropping hints about a fact I’m not sure I want to acknowledge: A new millennium has come to Hanalei. I notice that vacation rentals have replaced vintage plantation-style homes around the fabled horseshoe-shaped bay, and Joanna informs me that even the Hanalei Bridge is new, a replica built to accommodate more traffic. Apparently, a lot more people are getting away to my old getaway.

I figure the community’s newest members will know if coping with change has become a new part of the Hanalei Calling, and that’s how I end up in the library of the Hanalei Elementary School. "So, is it cool to live in a place that everyone likes to visit?" I ask a third-grader, who turns out to be Joanna’s nephew. Little Iiams thinks it’s totally cool and when I ask why, he makes a small proclamation that resonates with me in days to come: "The old people here are special, they know where things used to be and they know so many stories," he replies before he runs off with his laptop—barefoot. The librarian looks at me and shrugs. "This is still a country school," she says. "When we try to make the kids wear shoes, it doesn’t work."

Next I check out a fifty-foot sailing canoe that is, in essence, Trevor Cabell’s dreamboat. Trevor was born and raised in Hanalei, and during calm summer months, he and his partner take the vessel down to the sea and use it to race between islands and conduct ocean tours. This latter pursuit is a business, but it’s much more than that, says lanky, blond Trevor, because it introduces visitors to the sailing practices honed by Native Hawaiians. "Sailing canoe is the way I honor the people here," he says.

As we settle into the lanai of Trevor’s old wooden house, the dramatic view of Hanalei’s cliffs makes me feel like I’m in the box seat of a mythic opera house. One wave of people after another sat around here—not unlike us on this late afternoon—looking at the rich expanse of soil and devising ways to turn it into a field of dreams. The Hawaiians planted taro here for nearly 1,000 years and then Americans, Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos blanketed the earth with a succession of crops, including coffee, silk, tobacco, oranges, sugar and rice. Trevor reminds me that there’s an old rice mill out there somewhere, still standing. My mind summons up a vine-covered Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish treasure, buried in a place where tropical abundance can obliterate the very life it creates.

But the first plant is a survivor. Today taro has made a comeback as Hanalei’s dominant crop. Trevor says this proves the strength of natural cycles and the wisdom of Hawaiian culture in understanding what’s right for the spectacular valley. He gravitated to the sailing canoe business, he says, because it has a low impact and doesn’t hurt the reef. He made sure he had the blessing of a respected elder, kupuna Cathy Ham Young. It’s a name I remember from a well-established Hanalei family. Trevor will call Cathy for me, he says, and she can explain more about the community spirit in Hanalei.

I don’t have to wait to make the connection. Things that are supposed to happen in Hanalei always do. That evening, at the bar in the Tahiti Nui, I meet an older woman with striking features. Cathy Ham Young. A trio of old-timers is playing Hawaiian music as she tells me about her life as a mother of four, a businesswoman, a restaurant manager and a farmer and fisherwoman. She starts singing along to a tune she tells me is the school song of Ha¯ena, a bay past Hanalei where she was born. Memories of the idyllic place are in the voices that fill the air of this famed watering hole.

The beloved proprietress of the Nui—Louise Marsten—is conspicuous in her absence. The Tahitian grand dame of the rollicking Nui passed away last summer. Her memorial service brought together a promenade of Tahitian royalty and local civic leaders, helicopters dropped orchids, and traffic in Hanalei was stopped for half a day. She had a heart of gold, Cathy says of her friend Louise. "It didn’t matter what you did all during the day. When you walked into the Nui, you gave to the moment with your heart and soul," she proclaims. We toast to the future of the Nui—and the future of Hanalei.

I always knew a lot of artists in Hanalei. The area boasts a fair number, probably for the same reasons that Seattle has a lot of umbrella salesmen. Or does it? Anyway, the point is a torrent of eye candy rains down on you here and it’s only natural to want to do something about it—even if it means endlessly collecting seashells for a mobile that sprawls half-done for years in the garage (my great opus).

The day after I meet Cathy, I drive out to see my old friends, Sharon and Doug Britt. Both went to high-powered serious art schools, but while their colleagues went on to make edgy art in drab cities, they moved to Hanalei and opened up the first gallery in town. They used to live in a home on the beach next to Charo on Haena’s "movie star row." (Sharon had a picture of "our gang" on New Year’s Day 1988 linking arms on the sand with Michael J. Fox and Billy Idol.) Sharon would stage slide shows of her photography on the beach, setting up a screen in front of rows of deck chairs—it looked like a drive-in movie for the shipwrecked. Doug painted big blocky boats and milk-maidenish ladies and went through a chartreuse phase.

After Hurricane Iniki pummeled Kauai in 1992, Doug and Sharon closed their gallery for a while. When they re-opened, much to their surprise, sales were brisk. Their success continues. Doug has a rep in Los Angeles, a fact unbeknownst to clientele at the Hanalei gallery who rather imagine they’ve come across the next Gauguin. "People go Ohmygod! I’ve discovered this artist!’" laughs Sharon. In fact, the gallery does feature a number of Hanalei artists waiting to be "discovered," artists who all thrive on the way that the area’s vistas and light drink in one another’s shadows.

A sprinkling of celebrities continues to stream through the gallery, but Sharon and Doug say no one pays the stars any extra attention. And isn’t Hanalei the real star, after all? We all agree that the place fosters a live-and-let-live ethic, otherwise known as aloha.

Okay, with some exceptions. There is a Hollywood producer who recently incensed people in Hanalei by trying to deny public beach access through his property. Sharon and Doug tell the story of how the local radio station KKCR spoke for the community by dedicating an hour of songs to the guy, songs like Hit the Road, Jack! KKCR’s anything-goes format is just the right soundtrack for Hanalei life, Sharon says. As I drive off, a voice on KKCR reminds me, "All life is a dance." Another deejay wonders, "Ahh, but is it a waltz or a cha cha?"

Alikai Kinimaka at Black Pot.

Call me a worrywart, but something about the sight of a multiton moving wall of water makes me want to run the other way. Still, on my return to Hanalei, I take my first-ever surf lesson. A surf mom I met hooked it up for me. After she spoke glowingly about surfing as the glue that holds a family together, she asked me how often me and mine paddle out. When I tried to give her my old line about my dry-clean-only swimsuit, she whipped out her cell phone and set up the lesson with two expert local surfers.

The next morning Mitch Alapa and Alikai Kinimaka are pelting me with advice as I maneuver in waist-deep water. "Find the sweet spot!" they urge, describing the place on my surfboard where I will be able to balance. Alikai—the youngest of fourteen siblings that include Hanalei surf legend Titus—assured me earlier that he always succeeds in helping his students to stand up on the board, even a family of Iowans who had never seen the ocean before. Alas, I bring down his coaching record, as my riding style is strictly white-knuckle: I can get my feet into position, but I can’t seem to let go of the edges of the board.

Back on the beach, we sit in Mitch’s "office," a picnic table with a thatched covering, a yellow dune buggy and a Hawaiian flag. Mitch talks seriously about how balancing on the surfboard restored his life’s balance. Sent to the Mainland for a period as a boy, he spent years seeking his identity. He’s been in recovery for drug addiction now for seventeen years. Ali, who has picked up his ukulele and is strumming a song, talks about his father, who was such a renowned waterman that at the first report of swimmers in distress, the firemen would stop at his house to pick him up en route to the ocean. "By the way, if you can’t spell my name, it’s on page 83 in the book on the ruling chiefs of Hawaii," Ali says.

Billy Hamilton

In one of those moments of Hanalei synchronicity, Mitch and Ali are talking about Hanalei surf legends when—"There’s one of them now!" Mitch exclaims. He calls over Billy Hamilton, whose exploits include riding waves at Dump Trucks, a surf spot so named because you can drive at least two cement mixers through the tubes.

"Oh yeah, Dump Trucks! I had a couple conversations with God out there," Billy says.

What did God tell you? I ask.

"He said, Wise up, young haole!’" There is laughter that Mitch caps off by saying, "Billy is our kupuna." He adds that Billy is also the father of Laird Hamilton who, as Mitch puts it, "rides mountains the size of Everest."

Everyone at the table agrees that the intimacy of life in Hanalei has a way of fueling the great achievements of its watermen and women. People witness and celebrate one another’s daring deeds in the water every day. "That’s our job! Beach boys got a job to do. Stay in shape. Get visitors out on their boards and bring ’em in safe," declares Mitch. But there’s another part of the job that is outside Hanalei hands: the permits, the applications, the creeping imposition of new regulations—all indications that these surfers are riding the currents of changing times. "The bridge. That’s what keeps progress out. But some want to widen the bridge and let more progress in. What’s gonna happen?" asks Ali.

"The one with the most money maybe gonna win," suggests Mitch.

"Or maybe whoever has the biggest toys," I suggest.

"Yeah, but honesty and truth will get you through the real gate and isn’t that where you want to go?" says Ali, who hands over a lauhala rose that he’s been weaving.

Uncle Shorty

Where to start another day in Hanalei? Actually, with all the new espresso bars along the highway, with multiple cups of coffee. Finally, I amble into the venerable Ching Young Shopping Village and settle into a spot familiar to me from my previous life: the Hanalei Variety Store. The fare is still bacon and eggs, nearly as old-fashioned as the vintage photos of the first Ching Young family members, who arrived here from South China and established a general store that morphed into the North Shore’s main mall.

Ching Young Village is a crossroads for Hanalei’s people: old hippies, new agers, fresh-off-the-jet-tourists, surfers and farmers. Downstairs, I take my place at a picnic table among folks who are about to head off to jobs at the hotels in neighboring Princeville; in the last twenty-five years, the resort industry has become the area’s biggest employer. The man eating his breakfast next to me, though, is a taro farmer.

As I tool around Hanalei, I see that Trevor was right: There’s still a whole lotta taro root-pulling going on here. In fact, Hanalei is Hawaii’s chief supplier of taro, and the Hanalei Poi Factory on the highway is exactly that and not a souvenir shop as I’d assumed. To find out more about the crop, I’m told to talk to Clarence Kaona, a.k.a. Uncle Shorty. I’m assured he’s easy to find if I just look for the county school bus—Uncle Shorty is the driver.

I wander over to the landmark white-steepled Waioli Huiia Church in the middle of town and speak with the dignified church administrator, Verdelle Peters Lum. We talk about the church’s history and get onto the subject of taro, for there are fields right in back of the church. It turns out these fields belong to Verdelle’s cousin—none other than Uncle Shorty. That Hanalei synchronicity again. Moments later, he pulls up in the school bus. He tells me he will never sell this land. He is confident that at least one niece is interested in carrying on the family business of farming taro. He describes the backbreaking work and I ask him why he sticks with it. Without hesitation, he looks towards the mountains and describes what it is like to hold a bucket that is brimming with taro so big that it can only hold five pieces of the pinkish root. "We call it a five-bucket day’ and it makes you feel good to see so much healthy taro. That’s the reward," he says. "The beauty keeps me going."

At sunset I head over to Black Pot—the area of the bay right along the river, a place I remember as ground zero of Hanalei hospitality. Seated at yet another picnic table, I meet a motley but merry bunch that has made this a hotspot for pitching horseshoes. Beer and pu¯pu¯ appear from nowhere. The sky darkens, and in the last embers of light, someone mentions Cathy Ham Young is out on the pier.

Cathy Ham Young

I walk out and, under a banana moon, sit and talk with Cathy as she fishes. She is dressed in traditional fishing clothes: a headscarf and a hat like a bonnet on top. Cathy credits her father for teaching her the basic survival skills of fishing and farming. He served as a county representative in Hawaii’s territorial days and is best remembered in Hanalei for establishing Black Pot as a center for the hukilau, where, when the fish were running, everyone would come down, pull in a huge net and then reap the rewards.

"We had a little hale [house] made out of bamboo. A lot of people used to come here with the kids and play music.

We raised our kids here," recalls Cathy. She tells me that the taro crop is being hurt by a new pest, a snail that escaped from a commercial farming project, and she is getting the word out. She is also leading the charge to renovate the pier we are standing on, a dilapidated landmark with sentimental value: Parents teach toddlers to swim in the calm waters that surround it. As we talk, I realize that Cathy is like the Hanalei Bridge itself—nothing gets past her without a nod to the aloha code. She tells me she is certain that good common sense will keep Hanalei safe and happy. In all her endeavors, she says, she applies the rule her father taught her, the Golden Rule: "Treat people like how you want to be treated, then everything will be okay." I look back over to Black Pot, where the glow of campfires and the sound of Hawaiian music linger, and I’m convinced that she’s right.