Road to Hana

view from the Road to Hana, silhouetted cliffsides tower over crystal blue waters, the sun sets golden beneath clouds in a bright blue sky

Photograph by Paul Bica

By

Our journey begins in Ka’anapali.

Other than a few resort hotels and some scrubby low lying sand bushes on the dunes, it’s mostly a well manicured vegetative state. We hit the main road out of town amidst the herds of restless tourists seeking the release of their money and time. We pass shopping centers sandwiched in malls and pharmacies. It’s the perfect consolidation of markets. The same thing you would find stateside, but these developers were smart enough to build on the more arid and populated side of the island. Far away from the scenic vistas and volcanoes. We are ensconced on the tip, a fat bridge to the larger chunk of island.

All along the roadside we pass shallow-rooted trees that lean eagerly towards the salt water sea; white sandy beaches spotted with a sporadic fisherman or swimmer. I roll the window down, allowing the reggae music to escape into the rain washed air. My feet are up against the sky on the ledge of the rental car door and I revel in the juxtaposition of flesh against sky.

This is freedom. Just my father and I on a ride to the stables at the base of the mountain that have made this island. We pass cane country, where the fields lie low enough to catch sight of the old plantation houses and barns. The traffic is slackening, but the steel drums and mellow voices roll on through the car speakers.

green lush farmland on the coast of Maui
Photograph by Frank DiBona

Slowly, our elevation begins to rise and we are climbing with the birds. This is the countryside. Vines twist and turn around fence posts standing sentinel and marking the parcels of land. It becomes more and more rugged as we begin to leave the houses behind and it looks as if the road we are on will take us straight into the sun.

The grass is swollen with rain and the road is so slick it looks like it wouldn’t take much to hydroplane off of it and into the ocean. There’s a reason the rental companies tell you not to take your car this route, but my father and I were never ones to listen.

Goats scramble up the hillsides, bleating in their fearlessness. Invasive species go wild here. It’s this perfect environment that lures the haoles to this archival land, but that same attraction has created its own demise. We wait for them to cross, praying another car doesn’t come careening around an unseen corner.

a church
Photograph by Frank DiBona
paniolo, similar to a cowboy, with a tattooed arm and sunglasses, sits on a brown horse draped in plants
Paniolo on horseback. Photo by Gabi

Paniolos are roping cattle on horseback, and we are officially in the rural parts of Maui. We swerve narrowly avoiding a woman pushing a baby carriage, perhaps coming to see her lover at lunch time. What houses we see are mostly patched together, little homesteads of recycling and sustainability. My father is quiet in his concentration, and I’m keyed up to ride.

This is a place of lushness and fierceness. We leave the craggy coastline to trek farther in towards the jungle. A neighborhood crowds around a fruit stand, raising their coffee cups towards us in a gesture of welcome as we turn in to Maui Stables. The driveway is flanked by tall trees and stone walls, guiding us into its shady arms until we arrive at our final destination.

white horses with black manes stand in a green field, trees abound
Photograph by Mark Faviell

Two stable hands are finishing the last of the tacking up. The horses are a mixed bunch, small, but hardy. They paw their last flakes of breakfast hay as a little boy runs around in his flip-flopped feet. We’re welcomed by a tall tan man in a Nike windbreaker and Oakleys. His spurs jingle as they hit the concrete pad of foundation underneath the open air pole barn.

I set my things down on the picnic table and we begin introductions.

“Sarah.” My hand is outstretched.

“Kione.” A grin splits his face wide open.

“This is my son.”

“This is my father.” The men shake hands.

“Jim.”

My father and Kione are talking about the Hawaii of yesteryear. A mention of an old friend named Frank turns out to be Kione’s uncle. They talk of the sacred pool that he has begun to chase interlopers away, even fighting them if necessary.

“Some travel channel covered it and people started to find out about it. They were leaving beer bottles, tampons. He just snapped!”

They chuckle, but this is serious business. When you are a native Hawaiian, you realize how precious fresh water is to an island nation. Combine this with the fact that these were worshipping places to the gods and goddesses of the land, and you can see how serious this offense would be. Another couple has arrived, and they sign the obligatory paperwork.

green and blue, a pond waterfalls into
Photo by John Hyun

I’m loading film into my camera when the little boy approaches.

“Hello.”

He sticks his finger in his mouth.

“Do you want to see my camera?” I try again, offering the olive branch. A polaroid camera. “Want to take a picture?” He nods and his eyes twinkle. I hand him the camera, and we walk over towards the horses.

“Hey girl.” A quick look under her belly and a pet to the paint’s nose. She’s all raw umber and white patches with some black strung through her mane and tail. “Hey pretty girl.” The low sing-song voice works like charm and she relaxes.

I show the little boy which button to push, and he snaps off a picture of the horses, which I let him keep. He clambers onto the stone walls and begins to talk to me. He tells me stories about his brothers and I gather he must be the youngest.

The stable hands shyly smile and I smile back, “Aloha!” It’s such a beautiful word. The way it just slides off the tongue and means so many things. The little boy and I head back to the barn to listen to rules.

“He likes you.” Kione says off-handedly,”He’s shy, he doesn’t take to people right away.”

“I noticed.” I shoot back.

“OK, everyone circle up.” Kione uses his most authoritative voice, although only two others, a couple from Washington, DC are going. My father has opted to go exploring rather than getting on the back of a horse. The other two are slathering on sunscreen while Kione leans back explaining the basics of how to control these beasts.

Mostly they are trail horses that do this every day and will follow, nose to butt, the horse before it. He and I both know that. My horse for the day is a compact paint, little more than a pony really.

“She’s sweet,” our guide tells us as he leads us to stand next to our mounts.

“You sure have a lot of cameras,” he continues, pointing to the gear I’ve loaded up into their borrowed saddle bags. “Are you a photographer?”

“Yeah, that’s what I want to do.”

“Do you know who Jean Michel Basquiat was?”

I had recently caught the tail end of a documentary, so his vision was fresh in my mind.

“Yeah, he was a painter.”

“He stayed with my parents once. They found him wandering the streets and picked him up. He came out here to Maui to let down. I painted with him once when I was a kid.’

My eyes widened, “That’s crazy!”

His voice lowered, “He did really well, then, well he went back to New York, got back on the stuff, and you know what happened next.” Kione tightened the latigo, double checking the girth around the horse’s center. He tapped her side.

“Let it out, girl.” He tightened it one more time. I could tell his memory of Basquiat was still weighing on his mind. Sometimes the memories stick more when you make them during childhood. “You can go ahead and get on, I’m gonna help those two.”

The man and woman had finished their sun blocking and were talking to my father about vegetation or weather, or some other such small talk thing. We’d already discovered that they’d been to the Shenandoah Valley for the changing of the leaves. This is my home stomping ground when I’m not galavanting around an island considered to be the heart chakra of the world, in a tiny town who’s name literally means “Welcoming of the Birds.”

“Here, leg up. ” Kione is at my side.

I jump one, two, three, up and over using his cupped hand and settle into the seat of the Western saddle. Not the most graceful thing ever, but I’m grateful I mounted from the ground as he leads the other two tourists to the three step tall mounting block, where the stable hands hold their horse’s bridles. I cruise around the edge of the small grass opening, testing out the little lady underneath left and right turn signal and brakes. I squeeze her into a little trot up the gravel road to the top of the hill and ask her to stop. She obeys.

I like her already. At the top of the hill they’re still working on getting on, so I take her for another lap, the two of us getting acquainted with one another. They’re ready and I wait while Kiane practically bounds onto a beautiful palomino, it’s golden hide glistening in the sun. He kicks it sharply with his spurs.

He looks at me.

“Gotta let them know what’s what,” but I give no sign of approval. He’s just showing off, and you can be firm without being rough. “Ready?” He looks at us one by one and nods.

First, he leads us in a chant, asking the ancestors to protect and guide us while we journey to the highlands. He talks about how many indigenous cultures would pierce their mouths, or plate their lips in an effort to be more conscious of the words that leave their mouth. How the Om sound, and the deep feel of chanting, is really linked to the sound the earth makes as it rotates around. I am awed by the idea that land loving people already knew in their hearts what modern science has only just discovered.

“I’ll go first, you two in the middle, Sarah, you bring up the rear.” I know this trail rider’s trick, you sandwich the inexperienced in the middle, “just in case.” “Here we go.”

And we’re off to the races. I wave back to my dad, eternally grateful that he’s sacrificed his day to let me go to see the falls. I’m that gawky little kid being dropped off at day camp again, but this is so much cooler.

“Bye Dad! See you in a couple of hours!”

We leisurely head down the same driveway we entered, turn right and we’re back on asphalt. “Everybody alright?” Kione looks back at us, “Yeah,” we reply in unison. We pass a little white church, it’s seafoam green cross competing with the tops of the mountains.

Kione describes Hawaiian traditions, how each family was allotted a section of land that contained a highland, to commune with the gods, a middle land, to farm, and coastal area to fish and swim in. He held up the symbol for hang loose, his thumb and pinky stretched apart and the rest of the fingers curled down.

“You’ve seen people do this? Yeah? ” We all nodded back. “That was actually the measurement for land. When the haole, the whites, arrived, they would see my people down on the beach measuring, like this” He held his hand back up again, “And they thought they were welcoming them. They thought that was how you said hello.”

The rock walls were strewn with a blanket of moss, and vines wove their way in and out of the trees. “This was a temple. And a school. They would come here to learn. Did you know the Hawaiians were one of the best sailors? They came to this land from Australia in dugouts, following the stars. No equipment, no nothing. ” I could see him swell up with pride. He had every right to. We are taught about Colombus, Vespucci, but the distance that was covered to get from Australia to Hawaii seemed even more impressive to me.

We continue on, Kione occasionally waving and stopping to talk to people in cars that he knew. Eventually we make it to road off the trail and began our ascent. We follow an old access road through the tall grasses mixed with medicinal herbs.

“That one’s for anxiety and depression.” He points to one then another.

“That one’s for keeping bugs away.” I’m trying to memorize the leaves and the flowers.

The mud is thick and dark from the recent rains. Our horses nimbly picked their way over rocks until we made it to a locked fence gate.

Photograph by Rex Bennett

“This is government property. We have permission to ride here, but generally they don’t allow access. The fence is for the cattle. They’ve been loose a long time. This whole place is essentially our big refrigerator.” He opens the gate from his horse’s back and waits for us all to come through the gate, shutting it behind us.

The ground continues it’s upward climb, but the grass is shorter here, occasional cow patties dotting the land and rivulets cut through the earth from the heavy rains. Kione points to the trees that envelop the field.

“Guava. It’s an invasive species. The cows eat them, two days later, they’re sprouting. ” He pulls one off of the tree for each of us. It’s beautiful and yellow in my hand, slightly soft to the squeeze. I bite into it, revealing pink and white innards, reveling in the hard crunch of the seeds in my teeth.

half eaten guava
Photograph by Justin Kent

“We have a real problem with invasive species. Goats. Birds. Rats. They come here and this land is perfect for them. They just take right off, leaving our plants, birds and animals without enough habitat.”

Our horses haunches are working to get up the hill. I turn around and look at the ocean crashing against the coastline. The air is so light and the sun is soaking into my heart. I can’t help but smile. This land will draw it right out of you.

“We’re here,” Kione says. I slide my feet out of the stirrups and hop down, tying my horse to a low hanging tree branch. I dig out my cameras from the saddle bags as the other guests dismount. When we’re all ready, we begin to walk towards the path that will lead us to Weimoku Falls. As we pass through the funnel of trees, Kione points to a plant with a long purple flower.

“See that? Do you know what Viagra is? That does the same thing.” He chuckles to himself. The path leads to a clearing which leads to the ends of the earth. Across from us Weimoku falls beckons. She’s streaming, hurling down the mountain. A carpet of greenery lies below, to the left mountains shrouded with lush trees and another hidden fall and at our backs, the ocean. It’s 360 degrees of paradise.

The earth is spongy beneath our bodies as we all sit to rest our bones. Kione’s hand pats the ground next to him. “There’s a lot of air trapped in here.” He points across to the falls, “They used to bury the chieftains in the lava flumes over there. This is where they danced the hula in honor.” He pats the ground again. “See all that down there, the plants that look like a lime green shag carpet? That’s all bamboo. Another invasive species.”

We’re all silent for a while, imagining the kings in their tombs. Women’s hips slowly shifting in grass skirts, undulating and adulating.

I lay flat on the ground, absorbing the sun like a lizard. Letting the air and vitamin D thin the blood flowing through my veins. I close my eyes and the lids are flooded in red, bursts of green haloing the suns rays. I feel decadent and whole, as if nothing else matters in the world but myself and this moment.

Suddenly I realize the group is waiting for me. I scramble to my feet, Kione takes my picture in front of the falls, and we head back towards the horses.

Somewhere a bird cries and Kione’s head snaps back to the sky. He returns the bird’s call, and it circles our group. “That’s a very rare bird. I’m making the call of it’s mate. It’s looking for me.” We watch it circle around the cloudless sky.

We don’t speak to one another as we head back, soaking in everything we’ve just seen. Kione gives me a leg back up into the saddle and assists the others at the mounting block. I am changed. I am forever changed by what I have seen. I have found my happy place.No matter the deepest darkest hole, I will always have these mountains and lush foliage emblazoned on my eyes and my mind.

It doesn’t seem near long enough until we are back at the barn. It’s always faster on the way back then the way out. My muscles are beginning to tire from heat and mis-use. My father waits at the barn with the stable hands and the owner. Her Weimeraner runs around the perimeter, nose to the ground.

We hand our horses over to the stable hands. While they disassemble their tack and hose the hard-working horses down. I change in the bathroom and reluctantly say good-bye’s. We hop in our rental car and it’s just my father and I again.

“To Hana!” This has been the moment of this trip my father has been waiting so long for. He lived in Hana when has was younger. When he surfed and raised pigs. Before he had to move because of a drug deal gone wrong. His words, not mine, but I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

We stop at the Seven Sacred Pools park on our way, but it’s so crowded with people, there seems to be nothing sacred about it. We hike down far enough to see them, but not all the way to the bottom of the falls I’ve just seem from across the mountain.

My dad is still keyed up to get to Hana. His body is set to a steady thrum. Back to the car, along the narrowest, death-drop road I’ve ever been on in my life. We pass by philodendron leaves larger than my body. When two cars come upon each other, one cautiously holds back to let the other pass. Finally we are in Hana. We drive to a shallow fingernail crescent beach with dark sand. I slide my bathing suit on beneath the shield of my towel while my father orders a hamburger at the snack shack. A beached catamaran lays fallow on the shores while I take a solitary dip, washing the salt and warmth from my earlier ride.

Each stop is quick as the sky keeps darkening. We pass the few hotels in town, an empty baseball diamond. We stop and sample exotic fruits at a farm stand, a coconut popsicle at a convenience store. We drive by the land he used to live on, and I wonder about the house he allegedly burned down.

waves crash along the shores of Maui
Photograph by Gypsy and the Fool
the beach off the road to Hana, lush and green foliage blossoms around
Photograph by Pedro Szekely

Pulling the car into Waianapanapa Caves, we’ve come to see the blowhole. The sign at the beginning of the trail tells a story of a Hawaiian princess named Popoalaea who fled from her cruel husband, the Chief Kakae. She hid on a ledge just inside the underwater cave. While her faithful serving maid sat across from her fanning her with the feather of royalty. The Chief noticed the reflection in the water and killed her, turning the waters red with her blood. To this day when the tiny, red shrimp take to the caves, the locals suggest it is still the princesses blood.

a rugged stone path weaves through a bamboo forest
Photograph by Chris Taleye

Water droplets fall from the leaves onto my father’s head. An invasive mongoose scurries across the path. These were introduced to control the rat population, but a lack of consideration to the animals nocturnal and diurnal habits left the mongoose ineffective.

We come upon the black lava rocks, waves crashing to the sides and spilling over. I had never seen land this fresh before. The palm leaves appeared lime green in the distance. I danced as close to the blow hole as I could, but feared being pulled into it’s powerful maw. Just then the rain began to pour and my father and I ran to the car as fast as we could, huffing in our haste and slamming the doors behind us.

We looked at each other, eyes alight. Alive.

Steadily it grew darker and the roads became more and more treacherous, filled with hairpin turns. I turned some classical music on, instantaneously calming our nerves. It was as if we were in a movie, like we were filming this scene to be able to play on repeat for the rest of our lives. Like we were forever changed by the road to Hana.

a colorful roadside shack selling fish and chips
Photograph by Pedro Szekely

Photograph by Paul Bica