The unabridged Webster’s Third New International Dictionary
gives one definition of “nostalgia” as “a wistful or excessively sentimental or sometimes abnormal yearning for return to or return of some real or romanticized period or irrecoverably condition or setting in the past.”
In 1881, some 15 years after Mark Twain visited Hawaii, he wrote his friend and fellow essayist Charles Warren Stoddard:
If the house would only burn down, we would pack up the cubs and fly to the isles of the blest, and shut ourselves up in the healing solitudes of Haleakala and get a good rest; for the mails do not intrude there, nor yet the telephone and the telegraph. And after resting, we would come down the mountain a piece and board with a godly, breech-clouted native, and eat poi and dirt and give thanks to whom all thanks belong, for those privileges, and never house-keep any more…. What I have always longed for was the privilege of living forever away up on one of those mountains in the Sandwich Islands overlooking the sea
Twain’s biographer (one of them, at least) claimed Twain always planned “to return [to Hawaii] someday, to stay there until he died.”
That day never came.
But Twain did return once for a visit. In 1895, the by now famous and debit-laden writer began a round-the-world lecture tour. Unfortunately, by the time his ship rounded Diamond Head, and the passengers drew Honolulu in its sights, an epidemic of cholera had broken out in the capital city and no one was allowed to disembark. A few days later, the Warrimoo
steamed out of Hawaii. I’m sure that close-but-no-cigar moment only reignited Twain’s nostalgia for Hawaii.
Today, what I find interesting as I review the photographs that I took last month is that I am feeling nostalgia. And, similar to Twain, it is for Haleakala.
I have spent many moments thinking about the ahinahina
in bloom inside the crater. I recall the nene
flying overhead and snoring their soft call outside my window as I napped in my bunk in the cabin. I remember the flash of scarlet in the ohia
trees, both their blossoms and the apapane sipping the flowers’ nectar. I envelope myself again in the camaraderie of newly-made friends around a communal dinner table, easing in and out of conversations. I also recall the steady drumbeat of rain on our cabin in Paliku. And the gusting winds blowing up and shaking the walls of the pit toilet. And that’s the thing. It wasn’t the perfect trip. There was wind and rain. It wasn’t an easy trip. There were those 10 long miles to get there and the steep nine to get out. But there was the solitude that Twain wrote about. There was no cellular service. No wi-fi. No email. No text messages. No instant messages. No Facebook posts. No tweets. No Instagramming.
As I re-read Twain’s words for probably the 100th time in my life, I am struck by something new I see in them. He writes, “What I have always longed for was the privilege of living forever away up on one of those mountains in the Sandwich Islands overlooking the sea.” Note: not the beach, not the ocean. But the mountains.
Sure, Hawaii is known for its mountains, as in volcanoes. There’s Haleakala and her famous sunrises and Kilauea and her spreading lava. Mauna Kea is home to world-class scientists studying a world way beyond ours. But those places—those mountains—I suggest, are second-layer material. Places you get to know once you’ve visited a time or two. What most people unfamiliar with these Hawaiian Islands think of first when they think of tropical Hawaii are beaches and palm trees. Like Twain realized long before me—146 years, to be exact—there is so much more to Hawaii than beaches and palm trees.
But what makes one place give rise to nostalgia over another? Why did Twain yearn for Haleakala and not Lahaina where he discovered a bevy of naked bathing beauties? Or Diamond Head where he went horse-back riding and discovered a bevy of human bones. Or Waiohinu on Hawaii (Big) Island, where he was supposed to have planted a monkeypod tree, the descendent of which still grows there? As I ponder how one place can give rise to nostalgia over another, I offer these five requirements.
1. Far away. Either physically or mentally.
2. Solitude. Just you and your mind. Or you and a few friends. No intrusions from the outside world.
3. Nature. A place where birds can be heard, the dew on the grass can be felt against your skin, and the shade of large tree can bring respite. And the views. Oh, the views.
4. Effort. Some sense of physical exertion or a sense of determination to reach your nostalgic place is necessary.
5. Not likely to get back any time soon. As much as you’d like, circumstances probably mean you won’t go back to visit. Or, if you do, it won’t be for a very long time.
But there’s a sixth required element that really cannot be explained or commanded or willed into existence. It’s personal. It’s temporal. It’s circumstantial. And it’s ephemeral. You may never capture it again. That sixth thing has to do with where you are in your life at the time. Are you a young adult venturing out for the first time? A divorcee trying to find your way back again? A retiree grateful—or not—for the long life you’ve lead. For me, when I hiked through Haleakala for three days last month, I strapped on a backpack and hauled my food and clothes and sleeping bag on my back for the first time in 10 years. I was pushing one of those big birthdays that end in a “0” and, honestly, not sure my body was up for the task. Except for a few toenails just now getting ready to release their hold on my body, I did make it. In glorious fashion. And, now, I yearn to return.
What about you? What special place do you feel great pangs of nostalgia? And what, if any, elements would you add to my list?