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Get Lost in Kauai

Talking Story and Swiping Tangerines

Gary Smith changed the way we experienced Hawaii. I believe he also changed the way we will think about the islands for all of time. Big stuff, no doubt. On a smaller, less drastic scale, he provided us with a load of tangerines pilfered from his neighbor’s back yard tree. Darn good tangerines that I hope were some part of a neighborhood quid pro quo (Gary has grapefruits growing in his backyard, so there you go).

The “we” here is our gang of four who were traveling the islands shooting pictures and video for this very web site. There was Neil, our tirelessly proficient producer. There was Worst-Case-Scenario-Doug, our video-shooter/techno-guru. Doug was ably assisted by his wife Lori, also apparently a semi-pro nutritionist (I never knew there was an opposite of an antibiotic – a biotic or something). And there was me, in charge of shooting still photos and messing up Neil’s carefully charted schedule.

We were on a blitzkrieg across four islands during a span of 14 days. Oahu to Kauai to the Big Island to Maui. It promised to be an exhausting whirlwind of a trip; rushing nonstop from an activity to a scenic vista to video interview to something else… Getting as much done as possible. Because that’s the way it works. At least it was until we met Gary.

We met him on the island of Kauai, in his hometown town of Kilauea. We had been on the island only a few hours, arriving from Oahu at six in the morning, moving on about an hour of sleep and following a day that had included hiking Diamond Head, surfing, canoe-riding, an ukulele factory tour, visiting ‘Iolani Palace (no shooting inside we discovered only after buying our tickets) and doing interviews with historians, chefs and local artisans. And of course, shooting hundreds and hundreds of pictures, capturing every moment.

In other words, at this moment, we were beyond weary; you know, that state where everything is a bit surreal and malleable around the edges…which is probably how it should be when you are about to have a life-changing moment.

One often thinks of moments like this as big and obvious; bombastic-style events that forcefully sweep you from your scheduled trajectory off to another pathway. Maybe so. But not this time. This time you had to be listening carefully to hear the words that changed your perspective on things.

We were scheduled to speak with Gary about sugar plantation history, so it was a bit of a surprise when he guided us to an ancient Japanese cemetery. But it was a still and serene place, high on a hill overlooking a beautiful green valley.  Gary soon informed us this was part of the former sugar plantation. Okay, this was beginning to make sense.

Though thoroughly hospitable, Gary seemed a bit uncertain about why we were interviewing him. But due either to our weariness or to Gary’s genuine kindness, and probably to the fact that Lori had at that moment received word that a very close relative had just died, we all were moving slower – less willing to speed through this interview. She was understandably upset and we all felt that sadness; but there was also something consoling about this location. Was it just coincidence that within minutes of hearing this sad news, we were standing on an ancient, peaceful burial ground? There was some comfort found there.

Gary spoke gently as we set up, telling us the history of the place and the surrounding land. We moved slowly, listening. Taking it in. And I think, he noticed us noticing. Slowly we all began to connect. To each other. To the place. To the history. He sparkled in his interview and we were touched by his words. “Walk softly…take the time…talk story…discover something unforgettable…get lost…” The words hit home.

Following the interview we lingered, chatting, snapping some more pictures. He then led us into town to one of the field rock houses – stone homes built by the plantation workers from rocks removed from the fields, becoming private residences when the plantation closed. We casually shot more pictures and video, chatting with the homeowners.

We stayed much longer than planned – and were thinking about packing up and moving to our next location when Gary asked if we’d like to see a waterfall. What? We had no idea we were near one, but he assured us it was close… “really close…one minute away…near where I live…”

And so we soon found ourselves standing in Gary’s neighbor’s backyard, munching on tangerines and marveling at an astonishing waterfall tucked down in the small valley below. We stood there talking story, smiling, having a great time – not even caring that we were quietly blowing our schedule for the day. We were learning to listen, to slow down and to truly appreciate what these wonderful people had to offer. That intangible, unteachable Hawaiian capacity for enjoying life and welcoming others. It felt good.

We had learned more, seen more and experienced more by stopping our trip. By listening and lingering. We got lost for a while and in doing so, discovered waterfalls, ate fresh tangerines (plus a few of Gary’s grapefruits) talked story and, best of all, made some new friends on the beautiful island of Kauai. And it wasn’t the last time we would do this during our remaining days.

Dennis Rockney is a freelance writer, director and photographer who lives in sunny (j/k) Portland, Oregon, but has the good fortune to visit Hawaii several times a year.

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