Issue 8.6: December 2005/January 2006

The Motorcycle Diaries

story by Stu Dawrs
photos by Kirk Lee Aeder

8/10. Route 250.
It takes a rare breed of numbskull to leave a beautiful, kind and extremely pregnant woman alone for a week. I am just such a man, but that only goes so far in explaining why I’m stretched out in the grass on the shoulder of the Kohala Mountain Road, halfway between Waimea and Hawi and not too far from the northern tip of the Big Island.

These then are the facts: In five weeks I’ll be forty years old. In seven, I’ll be a first-time father. My love and I live in Honolulu, where we share a rented home with another family and commute to work each day in a Scion Xb—a cute little box of a car that gets superb gas mileage and would run neck-and-neck in a drag race with a shopping cart. It’s a far cry from the Hog that’s sitting behind me: A 1,200cc Harley-Davidson Sportster, rented this morning in Kailua-Kona. It’s been parked for awhile now, but the engine’s still giving off the small pings and clicks that all motorcycles make after running hard for more than an hour at speeds we shouldn't discuss in print. It’s the sound of metal changing shape, minutely contracting as it cools.
Anyway, here I sit. Ka makani Kohala, the famously persistent wind of Kohala, is blowing along my sightline: Down the long expanses of hillside pasture, flattening the grass and buffeting an occasional ironwood or cactus as it runs off toward coastal Kawaihae and on out to sea. Far below, the sloping grasslands give way to the old lava fields of South Kohala, a blackened expanse that runs all the way out to Kailua.

This is one of my favorite spots on earth: a beautiful, wide-open space perfect to sit and empty the mind. But there’s not much time to hang around: A late afternoon fog is building on the upper slopes, and there’s still a serpentine, ten-mile run down into Waimea. After that, it’s another forty-five miles on the narrow Mamalahoa Highway between Waimea and upcountry Kona, where I’ll be staying tonight. Best hit the road ... but before firing up the beast, I feel compelled to assure you that, regardless of the evidence—rented Harley, pushing forty, impending fatherhood, exhibition of speed—I am not in fact having a mid-life crisis.


8/11. Kainaliu. Mauka Kona.
I am, however, a long way from home. I was raised in Hilo and the majority of my family still lives there, but I haven’t spent more than five straight days on this island in close to twenty years. No good reason for that: Life, as they say, just got in the way. But lately I’ve been feeling the Big Island slip away from me—it’s becoming the place I grew up in rather than the place I call home, and it’s been undergoing a lot of change in recent years. I guess I’m hoping that, by tooling around on a motorcycle and talking story with the people I meet, I might somehow reconnect with the place.

First stop Kainaliu, where Jerry Tracy is looking for a few good men—at least one of whom can look reasonably hot in fishnet stockings. Jerry’s the director of the Aloha Performing Arts Company, a nonprofit theater troupe that, in various incarnations, has been staging plays in and around Kainaliu town since the late 1980s. In a few days, he will oversee APAC’s twelfth annual Original Play Festival—a three-day series of never-before-seen works by local playwrights. Then it’s back-to-back productions of the Rocky Horror Show and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ... that is, respectively, the star-crossed tale of a cross-dressing alien and a musical rendition of the Bible’s Joseph of Canaan story. This would be an ambitious line-up in any city, but it’s all the more remarkable in a town of population 1,467 (give or take), where there are more residents over the age of sixty-five than there are between eighteen and thirty.

“For Rocky we need a muscular young man. For Joseph, we need thirteen men—god help us!” says Jerry with a hearty laugh, his resonant voice sounding a bit like Alan Rickman (oh, you know: Harry Potter’s Professor Snape). He looks a bit like the man, too—similar nose, perhaps.

This eighteen-to-thirty arid zone isn’t really a new phenomenon in the Islands. A great many kids grow up, graduate from high school (or not) and, for a variety of reasons, take off. Economics, higher ed, big-fish-in-a-small-pond angst ... some combination of these factors caused virtually everyone I grew up with to leave the Islands. Our long-term trajectories have generally followed one of two paths: Some return, drops roots and start the cycle again; others buzz back through on rented Harleys.

In recent years, calm little Kainaliu has found itself surrounded by growth. The town sits near the border of the North and South Kona districts, and the last twenty years have seen a huge influx of new residents. The population of South Kona has risen more than 45 percent in the last twenty years; in North Kona, which includes Kailua town, it has more than doubled; in South Kohala, the next district beyond North Kona, it has tripled. Add to this an average daily population of 18,000 visitors in the Kona region, and you begin to see the town in a new light. Formerly abandoned storefronts are now brightly painted galleries and boutiques, which rub awnings with such stalwart local institutions as Oshima’s Drug Store (est. 1926). Aloha Theater, built in 1932 to entertain plantation workers, continues to serve as both landmark and town hub: It’s the first thing one sees when driving in from the Kailua direction; home not only to the majority of APAC’s productions but also to an eclectic mix of films and concert performances and a pretty good café.

Talking to Jerry, it’s easy to see how the joys and challenges of staging live theater in a small town parallel what’s going on just outside APAC’s second-story rehearsal space.

“It’s interesting how other parts of the culture have forced us to change,” says Jerry with a sigh. “As one small example, we used to have Bargain Thursdays, a discount if you came on a weeknight. But now Friday is the cheaper night, because it’s the absolute worst day for traffic—they call it the ‘Kainaliu Crawl.’”

Still, he says, APAC is lucky to make a go of it here. “Coming from the Outback, as it were, this company actually has a very urban feel to it”—and here he bursts into that full, Rickman-esque laugh—“it’s not men in tights, but men in fishnets.”

Barney Frazier and Elizabeth Jenkins
with son Sammy, at the K‘au Tropical
Espresso Bar & Fruit Stand

8/12. Mamalahoa Highway, Kainaliu to Ka‘u.
I come from a long line of motorheads. In the 1940s, while working as an engineer for O‘ahu’s Libby Pineapple, my grandfather spent his free time building high-horsepower sports cars—MGs, an Austin-Healey, a fiberglass-bodied Victress—to race up at the abandoned airstrip in Kahuku. My father, a twenty-something in the 1950s, kept his own fast company on a hopped-up BSA Goldstar—the cream of post-WWII British motorcycles. In the ’60s, my pop’s younger brother was a pretty hot motocross racer and their uncle owned Yamaha of Hawai‘i, then the first U.S. distributor for the Japanese motorcycle giant. My siblings and I—two brothers followed by two sisters, then me—were all born in Southern California. But by 1970 the family was living in Hilo, where my parents had opened a Yamaha dealership, which my father ran for the next thirty years. I got my first motorcycle for my sixth birthday.

I tell you this so you’ll believe me when I say that Robert Pirsig was right: Motorcycles are a Zen pursuit. Watching the pavement roll past just below your feet at sixty miles per hour, powered forward by a series of internal combustion explosions occurring almost directly between your legs, you tend to have a decent grasp of the concept of mortality: A lapse in concentration at the wrong moment and ... well, you die. This creates what for me has always been an unexplainable paradox: Being conscious of danger forces one to live in the moment, which empties the mind of extraneous thought ... which in turn sets the mind free to wander. For lack of a clearer description, think of it as ultra-conscious daydreaming.

For instance: Cruising down Route 11, the two-lane segment of the Mamalahoa Highway that runs from the upper elevations of South Kona around the southern flank of Mauna Loa and eventually down to coastal Na‘alehu, I see a wild boar. A big one, dead on the side of the road. It’s not the kind of thing a hunter would leave behind, so it must have wandered onto the street during the night and been hit by a car. I wonder at the sudden terror both driver and pua‘a surely felt when they met in the lonely night.

It occurs to me that in death the pig has become a type of geographic shorthand, a way of knowing where in the world you are: Rural. Mid-elevation. Rain forest. Get beyond a car’s hermetically sealed environment and the Big Island will reveal itself in all sorts of ways. By smell: In South Kona, it’s a green and wet odor, sometimes with a hint of Eucalyptus, sometimes rotting guava or ‘ohi‘a lehua, the last not so much an aroma as a sensation—cool, foggy; in Na‘alehu, just a bit past
the southern tip of the island, it shifts to the hot, dry fragrance of keawe wood and pastureland, with an essence of cow-pattie. Changes in altitude are easy to tell: The temperature rising off the road, the humidity ... they vary markedly with even a few hundred feet gained or lost.

Of course, there are also the signs of humanity, varying from place to place. From Kainaliu all the way to Na‘alehu, a trip of roughly fifty miles, you can easily place yourself by reading the occasional hand-lettered, roadside advertisements: “Buying coffee cherries today, $1.05 per lb.” in Kealakekua—an independent roaster looking for product; “horse rides” and “manure for sale” near Na‘alehu, echoes of its paniolo culture. And also, midway between the sixty-seven- and sixty-eight-mile markers, on a fence in front of a stand of immense Cook’s pines: “Espresso bar and organic fruit.”
Caffeine. Sweet.

8/12. Ai Lani Orchards, Ka‘u.
“I had a guy come in the other day and order a ram, a ewe and a cappuccino,” says Elizabeth Jenkins, laughing merrily as she wipes down her granite-topped espresso bar. The Ka‘u Tropical Espresso Bar and Organic Fruit Stand is a spare, open-air set-up: Four wooden posts and a roof, gravel floor and a few wrought-iron tables. Jazz drifts up from a portable boom box; a Hawaiian flag luffs in the light breeze. Twenty yards or so to the right, a good-sized flock of sheep frolics in the grass.

Elizabeth and her husband Barney own Ai Lani Orchards, the ten-and-a-half acre, certified organic spread that sits just beyond the espresso machine. They live here with their two young sons, do all the farming themselves and are also the proprietors and sole employees of the fruit stand. With the exception of the white and dark chocolate used to make two varieties of extremely decadent macadamia nut butter, everything that’s for sale at the stand is grown and processed in the orchard: Lemons, limes, red and white grapefruit, tangellos, tangerines, Ka‘ü oranges, apple bananas; coffee beans and macadamia nuts; fresh honey (yes, they keep their own bees). The sheep are highly efficient lawnmowers and, given their tendency to reproduce, they’re occasionally for sale, too.

“When we first got here we noticed there was an espresso void—sixty miles in both directions,” says Elizabeth, when asked how an Italian espresso machine and granite-top bar would find their way into a pasture that, roughly speaking, is somewhere near the middle of nowhere. “We’d come here from San Francisco, where there’s espresso on every corner. So I was like, ‘Where am I going to get my latte?’”

OK, that sounds a little San Fran ditzy, but don’t be misled: Elizabeth and Barney are serious on a lot of levels—about organic farming, about how they’re raising their sons. It’s just that she doesn’t seem interested in taking herself all that seriously. Anyway, the odd feng shui of espresso machine, orchard, Hawaiian flag, jazz and sheep works: Elizabeth and Barney fit in here, which is important these days because not everyone does. Ka‘u is home to the longest single stretch of undeveloped coastline in the Islands—some eighty miles of it—and growth has always been a sticky issue. Over the years, everything from a prison to a resort to a spaceport has been proposed for the area, invariably pitting preservation against economics. So far, preservation has the upper hand, but the Big Island is in the middle of a real estate boom, and prices in this particular neck of the woods have as much as doubled in the last year alone.

Sign of the times: “If you can believe this, we actually had a lawsuit filed against us because we had a fruit stand,” says Elizabeth. “State and county law says that if you are on land zoned for agriculture, you can have a fruit stand on it—if you grow coffee, you can sell coffee. But that’s the land speculators. They say we’re lowering their property values. We were told it was our hand-painted signs—that what we needed were some nice vinyl signs.” At which point one of her sheep lets out an indignant bleat.

Dennis Matsuda, Ilima Moiha,
Henry Dulanand Alfonso Mitchell
(from left) pictured beneath the

banyan tree at the center of Hawi

8/15. Hawi.
Dinner with friends last night in Volcano, slept on the floor and then left in the grey dawn to make the 150-mile haul from Volcano Village back around Mauna Loa and up to Hawi. Stinging mist in Volcano, so painful I had to ride with one hand covering my face; then it’s suddenly so clear that Mauna Loa’s summit is visible in the rising day. Next comes Na‘alehu and then the winding climb up into the lava-rock subdivisions of Ocean View; back through South Kona, North Kona and on through the blazing heat of the South Kohala lava fields. All the way back to where I was five days ago, this time to visit with a group of folks who for the most part have lived in the same place for longer than I’ve been alive.

“I still remember the day the last cane truck left,” says David Fuertes, over a burger and fries at the Kohala ‘Ohana Grill. “I was in my classroom and I heard it blowing its horn all the way out of town. The last load.”

That was more than thirty years ago, not long after David transplanted from Kaua‘i. He’s lived in and around North Kohala ever since, but is still the newcomer in this crowd. Also at the table are Henry Dulan, born just up the road in Hala‘ula; Alfonso Mitchell, born a few miles away in coastal Mahukona; and Dennis Matsuda, born here in Hawi. Henry and Alfonso are in their seventies; David and Dennis are a generation younger.

Until 1973, North Kohala was almost entirely dependent on sugar, for both its economy and social structure: Virtually everyone was linked to the plantation in one way or another, and most lived in the “camps”—clusters of housing units that were originally segregated, but eventually became mixed through years of intermarriage.

“When they announced the closing of the plantation, I thought ‘Wow! What’s gonna happen?’ I was really stressed out,” says Henry, who at the time was the president of the plantation worker’s union. Kohala Sugar Company was the first plantation on the Big Island to go down after the industry began its long collapse.

“Fortunately, we didn’t have a problem,” Henry continues, noting that 1973 was the year the Mauna Kea Beach resort opened its doors in South Kohala, soon to be followed by several others. “We found jobs for all of our workers, either for the state or county, or at the hotels.”

At the time of the closing, the sugar company also offered its workers 15,000-square-foot housing lots for what Alfonso calls “a dollar and love.” Meaning that, since it was illegal for the company to simply give the land away, each lot was sold for a dollar.

“In fact, we didn't pay the dollar; they did,” says Alfonso, before mentioning that a house just up the road is currently on the market for $400,000.

“Camp life was good, everybody was real close,” Dennis interjects. “Now local people can’t afford the land prices, so the only new people are outsiders with money. If they make an effort to go out and meet the local people then there’s a good exchange, but some of them don't.”

After five days and nearly 1,000 miles on the road, I've come to realize that this is a central question facing the Big Island these days: Who will determine the shape of its future, and will that future have a place for “local culture” as it still currently exists?

Who knows for sure ... but as far as I'm concerned, Ilima Moiha can have the last word on the subject. Like Henry and Alfonso, Ilima is a North Kohala kupuna, a Pentecostal minister who’s lived in this same region all of her life. In her opinion, it’s the place that changes the people, and not the other way around ... and once the place has got hold of you, there’s no escaping it.

“You don’t hear it too much anymore, but there’s an old saying in Kohala: Ka makani ka‘ili aloha—the wind that blew your love away,” Ilima explains. “The wind isn’t taking your love away from you, but blowing it to someone else. Ka makani ka‘ili aloha: That wind is always blowing here.” HH