It was off-and-on rainy in Kapaa one Kauai morning last week after rounds of loco moco, eggs and spam, buttermilk pancakes and shave ice at Ono Family Restaurant. Angry clouds circled Sleeping Giant. Conventional weather wisdom would have suggested we go west. Or, at the very least, south to Sunny Poipu. But we wanted to go the other direction into the tropical rainforest of Kauai’s North Shore, to a special place, for a special reason and a special man.
Its Hawaiian name is Makua, but the beach is more commonly known as Tunnels. Hovering like an anxious parent, the mountain overlooking the beach made its Hollywood debut as “Bali Hai” in the 1950s movie South Pacific. Hawaiians once scaled this mountain to toss off embers tucked into hollow branches in an ingenious invention of ancient-style fireworks. They’d discovered an unusual updraft of air that rolled across the Pacific from thousands of miles distant and hit this spine-straight landmass jutting out of the sea. The result: Burning sticks tossed off the peak danced and fluttered in the air like a falling leaf or, for you seabird-lovers, like white-tailed tropicbirds in full courtship mode. They called this mountain Makana, which translates to English as “gift.”
Many come to Hawaii to celebrate the start of life--with a new spouse or an about-to-be-born child. Others come to celebrate the life of a man (or woman) well-lived. And, last week, that was our purpose.
To that end, we had stocked the SUV with snorkel gear, sunscreen and sunglasses; beach chairs, beach mats and beach towels; a cooler full of beverages, cameras and a collection of memories and thoughts of one Robert C. Willson. We called him Big Bob.
There are certain words that should never escape the lips of a 9-year-old girl. “Mommy, when are we going to spread Daddy’s ashes,” are nine such words.
There were only a couple days of vacation left, but with luau reservations and a date for lomi massage at the spa, the schedule only allowed for this day, this afternoon for this anticipated and yet procrastinated event. But would the weather cooperate?
You never quite know about Kauai’s weather in winter. Sure, it’s always warm. But standing outside a restaurant in Kapaa, you cannot tell whether it will be sunny or rainy in Poipu, whether the clouds have rolled into Waimea Canyon, the northeast trade winds are whipping up waves in Hanalei Bay, or whether high surf is tumbling ashore the beach at Tunnels, some nine miles and seven one-lane bridges beyond Princeville on Kauai’s North Shore. You can only go, stand in the place, tilt your face to the sun or the rain, and feel the wind tangle your hair before you can report the weather.
Metaphysically, the lesson, if there is one, must be about living in the moment.
Scientists would explain it this way: Micro-climates. Apparently, Kauai has seven of the dozen or so distinct micro-climates in the world, from dry dessert to tropical rain forest.
Scientists would also tell us the average American male lives to be 75.6 years old.
But Robert “Big Bob” Willson was no average American male. He stood every bit of his 6’ 5” in height. He spun the dial of the scales a full three times. And he only, sadly, saw 44 turns of the sun around this earth. But knowing him--watching him stride off the challenging Prince Golf Course to report he’d shot one over par, remembering him saunter down the beach with his wife Linda on his arm, recalling his broad smile and round eyes after coming face-to-face with the gaping maw of a moray eel--all of that was a gift. All of Big Bob was a gift.
And, so, one Thursday, braving the threatening clouds and bracing the stiff tropical winds of Kapaa, our caravan headed north to Rob’s favorite beach, and we found clear, blue skies and the scorching sun so typical of the tropics. We watched kite boarders surf the outer break. We witnessed an endangered Hawaiian monk seal snooze on the beach and, later, head out to sea for a night of foraging. We donned our own snorkel gear to teach a nine-year-old daughter how to do something her father so enjoyed, and we discovered she took to it, well, like a fish.
And we toasted. We toasted a great gift of a day and a great, big gift of a man and a life well lived as the sun slipped behind Makana and the tide rolled up the beach.