Aloha, Yankee

Let’s talk Hawaii, shall we? Yes, I lied to you last week when I suggested in my pre-flight excitement that I would post updates while I was gone. I thought I would, and I’m sure it would have been fun to read, but I have recently learned that when I have only four and a half days to hike and swim and play in a beautiful place, I prefer hiking and swimming and playing to fussing with a dinky keyboard and hunting down WiFi passwords. Who knew?

Also, who knew that it is really easy to go to Hawaii?

I always thought it sounded like a beautiful place that other people went to. People with beach cover-ups and shiny luggage. I do not travel that way. I do not take “vacations.” I do not visit resorts. I take road trips in my truck. I camp with friends. I go backpacking once in a while. I fly for work or to visit family, but I’ve been lugging the same canvas carry-on for fifteen years and I don’t even own a beach cover-up. Nor do I intend to.

It’s not that I don’t like to travel. I quite love it. But I’m a Yankee at heart and I was raised to be frugal and also to believe that pleasure ought to be justified. You can go to a beautiful place, but only if you have a good reason. Or if it’s cheap.

However, my friend Steph—who is not a Yankee—has the kind of job that obligates her to do things like run a cocktail party at a resort in Hawaii, which is what she had to do last week, and which is why she called me up one day and said, “Hey, do you want to come to Hawaii with me?”

Right about now my pride would like for me to adopt the pose of a casual globetrotter. I would like to think of myself as a person who is pleased by waterfalls and volcanoes, but in a jaded sort of way. As if I went to keep Steph company, but I wasn’t impressed after all my camelback safaris and round-the-world sailboat voyages. Or maybe I would like to act like a hard-nosed reporter, unmoved by rainforests and coral reefs, but I believe in reporting the truth and the truth is that I reacted to Steph’s invitation pretty much like a small child reacts to the circus. And since I’m telling the whole truth, then I have to admit that I reacted the same way to everything that followed. I giggled my way through buying my plane tickets. I clapped my hands after I booked rooms for a couple extra, non-business-related nights. I nearly kissed the guy at Wide World of Maps who sold me the guide map to the Big Island. I was bouncing in my seat by the time the plane landed at Kona. Luckily, Steph actually has small children, so she’s used to this sort of thing.

But we’re home now, and I will attempt to make good on my promise, even though it’s not a live-blog. Sorry. And while I’m apologizing, I’ll point out that I didn’t notice until far too late that I had somehow switched my camera to low resolution. I’m not a great photographer under the best of circumstances, which means that what follows is going to resemble Blind Aunt Batty’s Slide Show even more than my usual travelogues.

Regardless, let’s go!

Friday afternoon: We land at Kona International Airport, which immediately tells me that I am in a whole new place because it is not a normal airport, with cable news monitors and recirculated air, but a cluster of little buildings scattered among palm trees. Very few of the buildings even have four walls. They’re more like open-front beach cabanas where TSA agents hang out. And little old ladies stringing flowers into leis. Furthermore, some of the people meeting our flight were wearing swimsuits and had sand crusting their legs, as if they were on the beach three minutes ago and intended to return just as soon as they fetched Uncle Bob. For obvious reasons, I liked Hawaii immediately.


If you aren’t a seasoned Hawaii traveler like me, then you might appreciate a quick primer on the island of Hawaii, a.k.a. the Big Island. It is the largest and most southerly of the Hawaiian Islands and the entire island is volcanoes. As in: it was formed and is still being formed by five volcanoes, one of which is extinct, two of which are dormant, and two of which are active. The active ones are Mauna Loa and Kilauea and they are located on the eastern side of the island, but Kona is on the west side, so as soon as we got off the plane, we hopped in a rental car and headed east.


Steph is driving. Steph had to drive everywhere because her company booked the rental car. I felt bad about it, but you don’t have to: she was in Hawaii, after all.

Notice the green outside the car? Since we don’t see much of that in Phoenix, we were both pretty excited. We were less excited to see the fog and afternoon showers, which were beautiful and not something we get much in Phoenix, but they made our drive across the island somewhat harrowing, especially when we missed our turn and then the game birds started wandering into the road. Francolins, pheasants, wild turkeys, all trying to kill us. However, we arrived in Hilo unscathed except that we were beginning to feel the effects of the three-hour time difference. So we found a comfy restaurant by the ocean and ate dinner (including coconut creme brulee) while listening to a ukelele player. Then I went for a walk in the rain. Because Hawaiian rain is different from other rain.

Saturday morning we woke up at 5, thanks to that three-hour time difference, so we ate enormous breakfasts at Ken’s House of Pancakes (motto: “Jammin’ since 1971”), which is open 24-hours a day but otherwise has so little in common with other Houses of Pancakes that somebody ought to change their name and I don’t think it should be Ken. That place was amazing. Coconut syrup, people! At 6 a.m.! This is what my life has been missing.

Thus fortified, we walked over to the Hilo Farmer’s Market, which is somewhat legendary and now I know why.


The Hilo Farmer’s Market is just like any other farmers market, except that it’s really big (up to 200 vendors on any given Saturday) and they are selling things like this:


Pineapple. Taro root. Mangoes. Papayas. Avocados the size of a small head. Did you know there are lots of different kinds of bananas? And that some of them have actual flavor? People in Hilo know. They also know about flowers with actual color.


There was more, of course. Not just fruit and vegetables, but aloha dresses and seashell jewelry and handmade quilts and turtles carved out of wood. I bought a giant ginger root to bring home ($1.50 a pound!) and Steph bought pink muumuus for her children and we filled a tote bag with treats for lunch—sliced pineapple and spicy steamed buns and avocado rolls with peanut sauce and mango-ginger-limeade.

Thus re-fortified, we drove to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses Kilauea and Mauna Loa, which is just excellent because it means that we got to hike IN A LIVE VOLCANO. Although, sadly, the rangers wouldn’t let us anywhere near the lava. Here’s the view from the rim of Kilauea looking out toward the current volcano action.


It was a cloudy day, so the colors are muted, but that place is a full-sensory experience. Wet rainforest above the crater, dry lava fields below, hot steam venting out of the earth everywhere, the stink of the sulfur banks, the calls of the Apapane and Amakihi and other birds. We wandered around, trying to find some analog in our experience by which to comprehend the things we were seeing. It didn’t work. Eventually we just resorted to grinning like fools and taking a lot of pictures.


The Sulfur Banks. They look beautiful. They smell terrible.


I have seen ferns, but I have never seen ferns like this. Sweet lacy little ferns you could hold in your hand. Ferns the size of trees. Ferns with purple fiddleheads. Ferns with furry fiddleheads big enough for a double bass. So many ferns.


The hills are steaming.


As is every crack in the earth. There are a disconcerting number of cracks in the earth.


This is not Phoenix.

After walking through the rainforest for a while, we hiked down into the crater. And then things got really weird.


Sure, Steph. You can go first.

Geology is just awesome. And evolution. And we could pretty much watch both of them playing out in front of us.


An Ohi’a Lehua blossom. I saw hundreds of these trees, but I never did learn how to pronounce their name properly.

The Ohi’a Lehua is native to Hawaii and pretty much as soon as a new lava flow cools off, some of these trees will germinate on it. Native birds eat the nectar and seeds; and the bird droppings, as well as dead leaves and plant material from the Ohi’a, decompose to form a few scraps of soil that can support ferns, and so on and so forth until proper top soil and whole plant communities have eventually developed on top of what was once bare rock. The Ohi’a in the crater are shrubby and contorted-looking, but the ones that grow in deeper soil can be as tall as an oak tree.

I wouldn't grow there. But the Ohi'a will.

I wouldn’t grow there. But the Ohi’a will.

We walked across the floor of Kilauea Iki crater and up the other side, back into the rainforest. Then we ate our picnic lunch (oh, for more of those steamed buns right now), and drove the Chain of Craters road, which follows a series of lava flows from the crater edge all the way down to the ocean.


This is fairly primal, no? The lava still flows into the ocean sometimes, but not right now.

And when lava meets ocean, some pretty cool things happen.


Holei Sea Arch. Just to clarify: the arch was eroded by the ocean, not poured by the lava. I’m sure you knew that.

Since Kilauea is an active volcano, the landscape is changing even more rapidly than most landscapes. For instance, the Chain of Craters road used to continue along the coast for a few miles. Not so much anymore.


We walked as far as seemed necessary to get the point across.


And then we turned around.

After a short walk to see some petroglyphs and then a quick tour of a lava tube, we checked into a funky B & B and cleaned up, then went back to the Volcano House, where we ate dinner and watched the glow of the lava from Halemaumau, the active crater within Kilauea and the home of Pele, the volcano goddess. I didn’t even try to take a picture, but it was lovely in the same hypnotic way that a campfire is lovely. Except that instead of flickering embers, we were looking at a lake of molten lava. It was very romantic.

In fact, we were so smitten with the volcano that when we woke up Sunday morning (at 5 a.m.), we decided to go back for another visit before breakfast (not til 8 a.m.). We walked the steaming bluffs again, saw a flock of five Hawaiian Nene geese, and got as close as possible to Halemaumau by visiting the observatory.




And then: Breakfast! Not as good as Ken’s, but few things are. We blew kisses at our volcano and drove back down to Hilo, where we found slightly older lava. And also the ocean.


This is a public beach. One of many in Hilo. And I cannot imagine how anybody in Hilo gets anything done.

We splashed around in the warm Pacific waters for a few minutes.

Check it: that's coral!

Check it: that’s coral!

And then continued on our way. Next stop: Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, which is overflowing a valley along Onomea Bay and where we found things I can’t even explain. I recall there was an entire walkway planted with varieties of wild ginger, but after that I don’t know. I am pretty well-versed in New England plants and Southwestern plants and alpine plants, but I just had no idea how to understand this extravagance:


or this:


Because I always understand water, I did appreciate this:


And this:


We wandered around the garden for as long as we could before our eyeballs started spinning and Steph’s impending afternoon meeting started making us worry about time. Then we found snacks. Because we do nothing without snacks.


Yes, that is a coconut. And it was delicious.

We drove up the Hamakua Coast, which was as beautiful as it sounds, and stopped to visit Akaka Falls, which is huge and impressive, but maybe too huge, since we could only view it from a distance. Still, running water:


And then we were back around on the west side of the island, which is the sunny side with the sandy beaches and also the fancy resorts. Now, resort vacations are exactly the kind of vacation that I don’t take. And it’s true that I would never have gone there on my own. But since I was there…


It wasn’t so bad.

We swam a few lazy laps in the pool next to the ocean and ate dinner next to the ocean and Monday morning (5:30 a.m.) we had coffee on our balcony. With a (partial) view of the ocean.


And then we went snorkeling, which involved a boat ride that bounced us down the coast at 20 miles per hour. We stopped at the aptly named Place of Refuge, which is home to important Hawaiian history, but also to a beautiful coral reef. I went with the reef.


Can you see the snorkeler in the water? It isn’t me.

I had never been snorkeling before, unless you count that time when I was ten and peering around a murky lake in Maine  with a leaky plastic mask from K-Mart. This was different. First off, the water was clear as air. Clearer, in fact, than some air. And through it, I was looking at a living coral reef. Do you know how many kinds of coral there are? I don’t, because I lost count. And the fish! Yellow fish, black fish, yellow and black and white fish. Blue fish, rainbow fish, skinny fish, flat fish. Fish that swam right next to me without caring a whit. Black sea cucumbers and red pencil urchins and green sea stars with eighteen arms. I glided in toward the shallows to watch a big white fish dig a hole in the sand, then floated out over a coral valley to take in the big view of darting colors and light.

In short: I enjoyed snorkeling.

We climbed back into the raft and took a break for snacks (Pineapple slices! Guava juice!), then headed for another reef further north. After the second round, once we were all thoroughly water-logged, we explored a few sea caves on the way back to the harbor. And then it was party time.

Of course, it wasn’t my party, but I stopped by long enough to snag a cocktail and a lei, and to watch the fire dancers. Fire Dancers!


Oh, for a D-SLR. And the ability to use it.

And then I wandered down to the beach and found a hammock and gazed at stars and listened to the surf break ten feet away. It still wasn’t so bad.


It was dark. But note the shoes!

Tuesday, was (sob) our last day, so we drove up the absurdly beautiful Kohala Coast to the even more absurdly beautiful Pololu Valley. Well, strictly speaking, we drove to a parking area overlooking the valley. That’s where the road ends.


And then we hiked down. The valley is almost unbearably lush, especially to people who live in the desert.

Very lush and very dangerous, or so I’ve been told.


But somehow we survived, and at the bottom of the hill we found a black sand beach and a trail that led through the woods and up the other side of the valley. We followed the trail.


Or at least, we tried to follow the trail. It zigged and zagged through underbrush so dense that for a while we had to go on faith that there was still something to follow. Then we climbed up through a forest that made all the crazy trees we’d seen before look kind of reasonable.


And then we were on top of a lush ridge, which looked down into a lush valley, and beyond that to another lush ridge, then a lush valley, and so on for a long series of lush ridges and valleys that wrap around the lush north tip of the island back toward the lush Hamakua Coast. It would make an excellent backpacking trip, I’m thinking.


But that’s for another day. We picked our way back down to the black sand beach, which was sandy and beachy, but possessed of ocean currents too alarming for a swim. Still, it made a nice walk.


And I found my new house.


But I couldn’t close the sale because it was nearly noon and we needed lunch (priorities!). So we hiked back up the hazardous hill and drove back along the coast to Hawi, which is a lovely old town that features the equally lovely and slightly less old Bamboo Restaurant. Considering the setting and that it was our last day, I ordered a Mai Tai. I’m not usually a fan of fruity rum drinks, but when in Hawi… Sadly, I didn’t have the sense to take a picture before stirring it up.


Looks like mud, tastes pretty darned good.

After lunch, we strolled around town and got some homemade ice cream at Tropical Dreams (Coconut Cream, Kona Coffee, Tahitian Vanilla, Candied Ginger…how to choose?). Then we decided to find a spot for one more swim before we had to pack up and catch the red-eye home.

And so: Hapuna Beach. White sand, soft waves, and Hawaiian sun.


Aloha, indeed.

Take a vacation. It’s easy, even for a Yankee.


Kona, Hawaii is 2,861 miles from Phoenix, Arizona. It is so far west it’s almost east. And yet somehow you can get from one place to the other in less than six and a half hours. The plane took off at 10:40 this morning and through my triple-paned portal, I watched the grid of freeways and red roofs fade away behind the dusty Sierra Estrellas. For a while, I kept watching the land below, tracing the dry arroyos as they poured their memories of water into equally dry riverbeds. The Gila and the Hassayampa and others that I couldn’t name. I thought of a line from a Gila Indian man who once spoke at a public meeting: “When it’s dry, we call it a river. When there’s water, we call it a flood.”

However, there was water in the canal. From the sky, I could see it cutting for miles through the hills and plains of the desert. That thin blue ribbon is literally a lifeline for, what are we up to now? Four million people? It doesn’t look like near enough.

I got distracted for a few minutes helping the couple next to me work out their crossword puzzle. (King of England from 1452 to 1485: Richard the Third, “Since” in Spanish: desde. Finally we have a practical use for my undergrad double-major in Spanish and Theatre.)

When I glanced down again, it was in time to see a flood, or at least what remains of one by the time the Colorado River passes through Yuma. “You poor thing,” I thought, as I looked at the green squares tight up against the east side of the river like leeches. Lettuce fields, and melon fields, and alfalfa fields, and who knows what kinds of fields; many dark acres neatly sectioned off from each other and from the surrounding brown hills.

On the California side of the river, there were no fields. But there were still canals, strict and narrow and draining due west through a parched geography of canyons and rocks.

We flew over several dry basins and ranges. And then another grid sprawled into view. Los Angeles is a large city by any standard, but we skimmed overhead so fast that I had barely registered we were there before we were past. The Pacific Ocean started to fill the left side of my window as the California coastline zigzagged out along the right.

For twenty seconds or so, I was looking down at the yachts and fishing boats moored around Catalina Island which, despite the surrounding ocean, looked not much greener than South Mountain back in Phoenix. I had a split second to consider the cruel realities of climate, and then the land was gone and my entire view was water. From famine to feast, I guess.

I love water. I really do. That’s why I spent an hour and a half tracing watersheds across the west. But four hours later, after a couple thousand miles of unbroken blue, I’ll admit that I was losing interest. The ocean is beautiful, of course, but in an abstract way. It occurred to me that oceans and deserts share a monotony of scale.

I thought how nice it would be to find a place where water and land came together. Something that was neither ocean nor desert but some happy, green medium.


It’s 3 p.m. local time and I think I’ve found a very happy medium.

in which I do nothing

I’m happy to announce that Cactus Camp is over and even happier to say that, for the second year in a row, there were no fatalities.

What’s that? You don’t know what Cactus Camp is?

No, I suppose you wouldn’t, although it’s hard for me to recall a time when I was that innocent. I will attempt to elucidate.

Cactus Camp, to the best of my recollection and understanding—both of which have been called into question recently—started last year when my sister Angela brought her children to visit us during their April break. At the time, the girls were 7 and 10 and they’d been here a couple times before. Our house isn’t very interesting to most adults, and has even less to recommend it to people below the legal drinking age. (Those above that limit might be mildly pleased by the prospect of sipping grapefruit margaritas on the back patio in late afternoon sun.) Anyway, I was concerned that the kids might get bored. More than that, I was concerned that I might then be required to take them to the zoo.

I loathe the zoo.

As it happened, we did end up at the zoo last year, but it wasn’t out of boredom. It was because Cactus Camp sent us there. Cactus Camp sends us a lot of places. It sends us into the desert and into rivers and even into museums. Cactus Camp runs us all over the state of Arizona.

But we don’t know who runs Cactus Camp.

We’ve never met anybody who claimed to work for Cactus Camp. We’ve never seen so much as a stray lanyard lying about or caught a polo-shirted counselor out of the corner of our eyes. Things just appear. Challenges, clues, riddles, and vague warnings, all printed on large index cards that seem to manifest out of nowhere. The first signs of Cactus Camp—the very first appearance—were found on top of the inflatable mattress that the kids share when they come to visit. It’s a queen size airbed that I borrow from a friend and it takes up most of the floor space in my office. When the two sleepy girls tumbled into it one night in April 2013 after a long plane trip from Vermont, they snapped awake and started giggling like…well, like little girls.

There was a card on each pillow. They were identical and they said:

New Cactus Scouts
Cactus Camp is seeking new scouts.
(Don’t ask what happened to the last ones.)
If you like exploring deserts,
having daring adventures,
accepting dangerous challenges,
meeting wild creatures,
and baking chocolate chip cookies,
then, you too, can be a Cactus Scout.

Are you brave enough to try?

The mysterious (and somewhat sinister-sounding) camp challenged willing participants to find an adventure log, which turned out to be a simple booklet made of a posterboard cover bound with ring clips. Later challenge cards came pre-punched with holes to enable the eager campers to add them to their books. And those campers were eager. Despite recurring allusions to former campers and unsolved disappearances, they pounced on every challenge. Angela and Ryan and I scrambled to drive them to and fro and accompany them on hikes and swims and various outings and also keep everyone fed. By the end of the week, they went home with log books filled with drawings and lists of things they’d seen and done and a printed record of their adventures. Apparently this is considered a Cactus Camp success, because when they got home, I hear they got packages in the mail with souvenir t-shirts and certificates of survival.

And apparently, Cactus Camp was a success with the girls as well, because as soon as their mother and I had confirmed the dates for this year’s visit, I heard that they wanted “to do Cactus Camp again.”

I have precious little influence in this world, but I tried to get word to the appropriate authorities. That’s no easy task when you don’t know who or where they are. But it must have worked, because the day before the girls were to leave Vermont, I heard that they received letters in the mail. No, not letters: cards.

Camp Registration
And Liability Waiver

I, __________________________,
(print your name)

want to attend Cactus Camp 2014.
I promise to be brave
and not to scream too loud
and also to brush my teeth.

Both girls signed up, which means that we adults did, too. By the time the visitors arrived, welcome notes had again appeared on their bed—although the fact that their flight arrived 45 minutes early might have thrown off the Cactus Camp log book assemblers, which I noted didn’t show up until the next morning.

However, the morning had a surprise that raised our eyebrows far higher than a mere log book could do. On Sunday night, when the Vermont contingent arrived, Angela told us  she had forgotten to pack sun hats. She had confessed the oversight to her kids while they were waiting out the layover in Dulles. Now this was a serious issue, Arizona being a land of brutal sun. We figured we’d have to go shopping in the morning.

But come morning, things got weird. Or weirder, if you would have already found it weird that someone had left notes lying around your house while you were at the airport. After last year, we were prepared for that. But we weren’t prepared for the series of challenges on Monday morning that led the girls throughout my house and yard, stringing together hidden clues that culminated in the discovery of two Western-style hats hanging in trees. The hats fit perfectly, but at no point did we learn who was measuring heads and monitoring packing lists. The mystery deepened.

After that start, we didn’t fret as much about the cryptic instructions that appeared throughout each day. We just helped to parse the riddles and we chauffeured the kids wherever they needed to go to meet the day’s challenges. On Monday, we learned about saguaros at the botanical garden and then freshened up at a desert oasis—which, to a cynical eye, might look a bit like a splash park. On Tuesday, we were charged to see as much of the Sonoran Desert as possible in one day. We tackled that with a road trip to Tucson to visit the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum.

As we were leaving the botanical garden on Monday, two docents had approached the girls and given them new Cactus Camp cards. The campers’ faces registered a mix of shock and delight. But when I asked the docents about Cactus Camp, they denied any involvement, saying only that someone had asked them to give the cards to the girls. Said the younger camper: “Okay, this is getting really random.”

So when the same randomness occurred at the Desert Museum, our eyes got very large and round, but nobody had much to say. By then, Cactus Camp was omnipresent. We’d get back to the car after one adventure only to find cards in the back seat, proposing a new destination. Cards appeared in the girls’ shoes, under their pillows, tucked into the bathroom mirror. Some arrived in the mail with no return address. Nobody ever knew how the cards got there, just as no one ever found out what had happened to the ill-fated former campers. No one ever heard a door open in the night or saw anybody sneaking around, not a person or a rabbit or an elf. The cards just kept coming, so we kept going.

On Wednesday we rode horses through the Verde River and through so many of the surrounding desert canyons that without having met them, I can assure you that the Cactus Camp organizers have cushier posteriors than I do. On Thursday, I packed a picnic and we went swimming at Canyon Lake, then explored a spooky ghost town. A spooky ghost town with a very-much-alive general store that sells prickly pear fudge. Why thank you Cactus Camp, this almost makes up for the saddle sores. And thanks also for Friday’s assignment to visit the Musical Instrument Museum, which aside from being just plain cool, was also a pleasantly air-conditioned reprieve from the hottest temperatures of the week.

I believe there were other challenges, too, although it’s beginning to blur in my mind. By the time the final riddles led the campers to their completion prizes, they had completed 20 challenges and collected a few incidental notes and bonuses. When they left on Saturday, their new log books looked at least as full as the old ones. I didn’t get one. Nor did I get a snappy t-shirt with glittery saguaros or a Cactus Camp survivor certificate, although I did feel as if I had survived something.

I mentioned that feeling when we were in the car on the way to the airport. Angela concurred. But her daughter, my now eleven-year-old niece, set us straight:

“Why should the adults get one? You hardly had to do anything for Cactus Camp.”

Maybe not, kid. But I have an idea about what happened to the last campers.

cactus kids

They survived. For now.