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How I Came to Love Hawaii

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Like many people, my life on the island of Hawaii involves, figuratively, my wearing many hats. Today I am wearing my “Independent Filmmaker” hat and driving from my home in Kona south to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to film the fire-fountaining eruption at Kilauea Volcano.

The drive is calming and scenic, much of the highway is posted thirty-five miles an hour, as the Hawaii Belt Highway runs from my sleepy little fishing village through the mountainous coffee-growing region Kona, south to the cattle and horse ranches and then into the heart of the macadamia nut producing region of my island. This is my favorite part of the Island; in my heart and mind it is the loveliest place in the world—rocky, rough open ocean shoreline with huge mountains and rolling, green volcanic slopes giving way to wide open spaces, uncrowded, even largely unknown to the outside world. I also have a strong emotional bond to this part of the island. It was here, in the village of Pahala, that I first lived when I fled the frigid Rocky Mountain winters for a new life in tropical Hawaii a decade ago.

So when I reached the turn-off to Pahala I decided I had time for a break from driving to see what had become of my first home in Hawaii in the near-decade since I had lived there. For reasons and madness best left to the dust of the ages, I arose at 3:30 one morning at my home in Laramie, Wyoming. After living twenty years in the high plains, I was packed, ticketed, excited and ready for my move to Hawaii. The thermometer on my house read twenty degrees below zero and there was at least two feet of snow in my front yard—from the windows of Brees Field Airport I watched the rising sun light-up the east face of the Snowy Range, as frigid and alpine a view as I had ever had of it. Changing planes in Denver, San Francisco and Honolulu, I arrived on Hawaii in the brilliant sun and tropical warmth—I will never forget smell of paradise as I got off the plane; flowery, ripe, heavy with promise, romance and adventure.
No matter where I am flying in from, where I have been or for how long I have been gone from Hawaii, when the door of that airplane first opens and Hawaii’s gentle breath envelopes me, I know I am home. I have lived all over the US but I have never, ever felt that I was where I belonged, that I was at home, until I moved to Hawaii. When I come to Hawaii, I am coming home. I love Hawaii with a tender fierceness that sometimes surprises me with its intensity.

In Pahala today, I parked my car at Ka’u High School and walked across campus to the Teacher’s Cottage I had inhabited my first months on Hawaii, just to see how things had changed. My mind went back to the first morning I had walked across campus, full of excitement at living in this strange land, eager and curious to learn about this island and her people. There are not words to explain the fullness of my love for Hawaii, nor for the utter heartbreak of unnecessary sorrows that lurk just below the surface here.

Some of the very first people I came across that first morning was circle of five girls, barely adolescent—ten, maybe twelve years old but certainly no older—playing with their Barbie dolls. All of them were smoking cigarettes, passing around a couple of 40-ounce beer bottles wrapped in brown paper bags; two of them were pregnant, another two were caring for their very real babies while they played dolls with their friends. One of the girls was my next-door neighbor’s daughter, Lehua; the others were her cousins. The babies all had the same father.

Moving from Wyoming to Hawaii I had expected to experience eagerness to explore my new home, perhaps some home sicknesses, and certainly a bit of culture shock but I was absolutely unprepared for this, what would become one of my most enduring visions of Hawaii.
How I came to understand this aspect of Hawaii is an allegory for how I came to love my tropical home here … for it is in the warp and weft of the contradictions, of the beauty and sorrow, of the ancient traditions and modern hustle, of snow clad peaks and steaming jungle, spuming volcanoes and calm, clear lagoons and yes, the embracing promises of paradise and the grinding waste and poverty here that Hawaii weaves her magic spell on me.
Friendly, clean, quiet, scenic; Pahala seems a perfect community. Twenty years ago Pahala was a prosperous, bustling center of activity for the Pahala Sugar Company, but with the demise of the sugar industry, Pahala residents have either moved on to other towns seeking employment, or hunkered down to await what future may come.

When the 102nd US Congress convened in 1994 with the first Republican-dominated legislature in a generation, they set out to politically reward states that went conservative and to punish states that elected liberals in very, very quiet, but ultimately devastating, ways.

In a bid ostensibly to reign in “federal pork-barrel spending”, the Congress cut the Farm Subsidies Bill a few paltry million dollars by slashing the federal price support for sugar that protected American sugar companies from cheaper Central American and African sugar. The support was cut to a level where it still made sugar a profitable crop in sugar states that went Republican, such as Wyoming, Utah, Colorado Kansas, Florida and California, but bankrupted the sugar industry in Hawai’i, the only liberal-voting sugar state. The amount saved was less than the cost of a single Tomahawk Cruise Missile, but the one-industry towns all over Hawai’i were completely devastated and no new industries moved in to take up the employment slack. There has been 70 to 80 percent unemployment ever since. The usual miseries of substance abuse and poly-generational sexual abuse, crime, hopelessness and degradation of the educational system moved in with the unemployment and small towns like Pahala have writhed in agony because anyone with ambition leaves town to live near work elsewhere, while those too old or unskilled languish; the human flotsam of a political system that rewards vindictiveness and cynicism. Such political finagling is as old as politics and rife in both political parties, but rarely does one get to see the painful cost of such partisan political gamesmanship writ so hugely, or tragically, upon the human landscape.

To be fair, shortsightedness among residents played a role in the misery of sugar-plantation towns in general and Pahala in particular. In mobilizing to fight against resorts moving in and to block a proposed private satellite launching facility, residents gambled on the sugar plantation economy lasting indefinitely. In seeking to preserve their generations-old way of life and their communities, they virtually guaranteed that life there would ultimately never be the same for anyone.
A re-birth, of a sort, is underway in Pahala and other small towns in Hawai’i; because of the extremely undervalued real estate, compared with the extremely over-valued real estate elsewhere in Hawai’i, mainlanders and retirees are buying up land as residents finally sell. This has caused a small renaissance in service-sector employment, but it will take a generation or two for these tiny towns regain their former bustle.

Today, with nothing more pressing than nostalgia, I walked the small downtown of Pahala, stopping at the local market for a snack. The clerk was a young Hawaiian of exceptional beauty who eyed me a bit oddly—I thought because strangers are still a bit uncommon in this town—then, coming around from behind the till she embraced me, kissing my cheek.

“Welcome home, Donnie” she smiled to me, “Aloha”.

Clean, sober, and happily married these past six years, a now twenty-four-year old Lehua told me she had also had four more children. She and her husband had bought a house and a boat for tuna fishing, and he was general manager at a local macadamia nut farm. How had all this happened?

“Lucky we live Hawaii,” she explained in the local pidgin I had once found so impenetrable and laughing.

Lucky, indeed.

And this is why I love Hawaii so.

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