Birth, Life, Death & Rebirth in the National Parks of Hawaii Island
Sitting on Hawaiian Airlines bound for Kailua-Kona, I got stuck in a middle seat between a man wearing a suit and reading legal briefs and another man, sleeping, who looked like he just left the beach, wearing Locals slippahs on feet pasted with sand. Sometimes, I feel self-conscious traveling alone throughout Hawaii. Not this day. Not with these guys. They didn’t bat at an eye at me, traveling alone.
Usually, I share a row of seats with young couples fresh from their wedding or mature couples relaxed--or resigned--in life and toting guide books, sometimes even one I’ve written, who give me that look or even ask, quizzically, "Are you traveling for work?" For visitors, it's a novel concept for the vacation paradise of Hawaii. But the question is a natural one for airplanes, airports and customs agents. Business or pleasure? Work or play?
I’ve found that having a mission helps. A special project. An assignment. Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii on a journey in search of the Northwest Passage. Isabella Bird came looking for a favorable climate more beneficial for her health. Mark Twain crossed the Pacific from San Francisco to write about the business opportunities in "The Sandwich Islands."
The theme of this trip for me was national parks. There are five national parks on Hawaii Island. Five. One island the size of Delaware. Five national parks. I had no idea. Did you?
1. There is, of course, the biggie. Volcanoes National Park encompasses 333,086 acres of Hawaii Island’s southern flanks, including Maunaloa, a mountain that rises 30,080 feet from its base at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Here, in the crater of Halema’uma’u, Pele finally settled down. After traipsing the Pacific and across the Hawaiian archipelago, Pele found her long-searched-for home.
About 30 minutes outside of Hilo and two-and-a-half hours from Kailua-Kona, the park encompasses lush rainforests and deserts of volcanic rock. This is where, if Madame Pele is feeling particularly showy or angry, you’ll see red, hot lava oozing down the sloping mountain, making its way for the sea in a sizzling display: The creation of land right before your very eyes.
There’s much more to VNP than lava, though. What gets me is the amount of life that takes root in this rugged terrain. You can hike through lava tubes, across crater floors or through rainforests, even to the chilly 13,677-foot summit of Mauna Loa in search of rare and endemic plants, mosses, insects and birds. The hau kuahiwi plant is found in the park and no where else in the world. The rare Mauna Loa silversword was in bloom along the Mauna Loa Trail when I visited, while native ‘apapane and ‘amakihi flitted from one ‘ohia tree to the next. And if you’re more “science” than “nature,” you’ll dig the volcanology going on here, real time seismograph readings of the island as she inhales and exhales, plus a whole lotta displays and interpretive talks.
2. Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park. When you lived on an island, back in the day, strict rules governed behavior. There were rules for fishing, for killing animals, for gathering timber, for who could eat what and with whom. Commoners were not allowed anywhere near a chief—not in the chief’s footsteps, not on their sacred grounds. For violators, the penalty was severe. But not permanent. Kapu-breakers were sentenced to death. If, however, they sought refuge at a pu’uhonua before being caught, the offenders would receive absolution and could return home safely, sins forgiven, a second chance at life. And I thought the rigors of my Catholic childhood church’s confessional were strict.
But this 413-acre national historic park located in south Kona was also once the home of royalty, ali’i. A massive dry-stack rock wall built about 1550 separates the pu’uhonua from the royal grounds, where you’ll find a canoe landing, thatched work houses and fishponds. Here, ali’i might have strategized war, negotiated peace or kicked back with a game of konane, sort of like Chinese checkers.
3. Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. This place will give you an idea of how an early Hawaiian settlement lived along the rugged—and hot—coastline of Kona, using sophisticated aquaculture and environmentally sound harvesting methods. Here, you’ll find a heiau, sacred site, fishponds and fishtraps, and a small petroglyph field with symbolic representations of canoes, turtles and family. Native shorebirds and the endangered green sea turtle often hang out at Honokohau Beach, a short half-mile walk from the Visitor Center.
4. Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. When you gaze at some of these massive lava rock structures, the mind cannot help but wonder how in the world they were made. I mean, some of the rocks are enormous. The heiau here was built in 1790 and 1791. It’s said the rocks were passed hand-to-hand in a human chain that snaked its way as far as Pololu Valley, some 25 miles away. Kamehameha I built this heiau in honor of the war god Kukailimoku to fulfill a royal prophecy and seek aid in Kamehameha’s efforts to conquer the Hawaiians Islands. Here, at this 86-acre park in the Kohala district on the northwest corner of Hawaii Island, you’ll get to know Hawaiian warriors, their training and their tools of choice—17-inch-long daggers, shark’s tooth-edged daggers, six-foot-long fighting staffs, clubs with stone heads and slings of stone.
5. Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. A 175-mile trail runs through each of Hawaii Island’s four national parks. It’s considered a “living trail” that remains in use and is maintained by the descendants of its original makers. The trail traverses by ancient settlement sites, natural wonders, petroglyph fields and native wildlife habitat.
I am forever trying to make meaning out of my travels. To find a thread that weaves throughout the events of the trip. It might be born out of the demand of editors as a way to give shape to a story. Or, it might just be me.
On this trip, I discovered a thread, the meaning of Hawaii Island for me as represented in the five national parks. There is new life—the birth of creation at Volcanoes National Park—in land, the dispersal of seed on the wind and the growth of ferns and trees, which, thereby, attracts birds and insects and starts the cycle of life. There is the every day living of life in the settlement of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park and the moving around the island in Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. There is death, inevitable of any war, at Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. And, at Pu’uhonua o Honuanau, there is rebirth and second chances.
Birth. Life. Death. Rebirth. It’s all profoundly evident on Hawaii Island.
What’s more, I discovered, the five national parks of Hawaii Island are made up of a whole lotta rock. As in boulders, rubble, gravel, cinders, stones and sand.