The first stop we make is the site of a former village and temple. It’s also the place where an attempt on Kamehameha’s life went awry, ending his competition and consolidating his power — he went on to unify the island kingdom, changing the history of Hawaii. Reef sharks swim lazy circles in the bay, we can see them from the shore, their black tipped fins breaking the surface of the water. The ranger at the park HQ assures us that they’re scared of humans, that if we got near them they’d skitter away, but we don’t have plans to swim anyway.
The Kohala Coast is dry and scrubby, the beaches rocky and rough. They’re pretty, of course, in ways that clichéd language was made for. Blah blah blah rolling surf, blah blah blah black sand, blah blah blah uncrowded sandy swaths with gentle breakers, yadda yadda yadda. I’m not saying it like this to be jaded, I’m just telling you that it’s exactly how you picture it. Lovely, everywhere.
Our destination is Hawi, the north end of the island, to the look out over the Waipio Valley. About 15 miles outside of town, the landscape shifts from scrubby black to vibrant green. There are banana trees and bougainvillea, huge banyan trees. The town reflects the same bright colors of the landscape, the buildings are pink and blue and orange with reddish or green steel rooftops. I’m in love. Hawi is my kind of place, a hippie town with good coffee and snacks, battered pickup trucks in ramshackle yards, smiling girls in natural food stores. We get coffee and sit on the sidewalk. J. is flabbergasted at the site of a fallen down house, the roof caved in, palms invading. The entire space is stuffed to bursting with crushed Wurlitzer juke boxes.
At the end of the road, there’s a bit of a traffic jam. We park on the shoulder and wander down to the viewpoint –it’s spectacular, of course, and looks out across the cliffs of the coast — the pali — and down into the green valley. We can see surfers out in the breakers. Three local boys come flying down the pathway, boogie boards under their arms. They are fast in their flipflops, their faces dead serious as though they are late for a very important meeting.
We leave Hawi thinking that this will be the place that we cash it in for, but we’re wrong, of course. From Hawi, we wind up the slopes to Waimea, through green farmlands. We pass a pumpkin patch â€“ the color of the pumpkins against the bright green of the meadows is an optical shock. There are horses and cows grazing the hillsides, and every now and then we see all the way back out to the ocean. At the Waimea crossroads, we wander in to the Hawaiian Style Cafe — breakfast and lunch only, until 130. I’m starving and delighted when I get a first rate chicken salad sandwich, J gives the burger a thumbs up. There are local dudes at the counter, the waitresses are wearing pink Hawaiian Style tank tops. I’m beyond content here with a giant glass of lemonade in a red plastic glass because in this crossroads diner, I feel like I’m in Hawaii.
We stop in a music shop and I ask directions to Huloaloa. I have to find the Ukulele Gallery. I feel a little guilty about this, it’s not one of my goals for the book, but a uke friend in Seattle has told me I have to go see this guy, that he’s a great guy and has lovely ukes. Armed with directions from the music store at the Parker Ranch shopping center, we head into yet another ecosystem. Here the black lava is punctuated with neon green grass, it’s another crazy treat for the eyes. The light is doing something amazing. I don’t know if it’s the condensation or the clouds or what, but it’s got that afternoon pink glow even though it’s only 2pm.
When we make the turn towards Holualoa, we’re in yet another climate. It’s crazy humid and it’s gone from dry lava to rich rain forest like jungle. This is the Kona Heritage Trail. The road is narrow and winds past coffee farm after coffee farm. Rolling in to Holualoa, I’m again smitten. This is a little one street village, again the domain of hippies and artists and free spirits. And there it is, on the left, the Ukulele Gallery.
Only it’s closed. I’m crushed until I see the sing on the door — Back in a Few Minutes — and I hear the distinctive sound of a uke being tuned. My. Dog. Has. Fleas! I wander down the block to a gallery where a woman with a Swedish accent sits in a plastic chair reading a paperback. “Can you tell me something about where I am?” I ask, and she tells me a little about the town. “Yake a walk, see the galleries,” she suggests, “and get some coffee.” But back on the sidewalk, J. waves me down and point to the Ukulele Gallery. It’s open.
I explain to Sam Rosen, the owner of the Uke Galley, what I’m doing there. â€œMy friend Ben A. sent me, â€œ I tell him. â€œHe insists you’ll remember him.â€ We chat for a while and Sam has no recollection. We do a little geography, a little description. Finally Sam says, â€œI know a guy named Uncle Ben â€“ is that him? You should have just said Uncle Ben!â€ He remember him perfectly, asks after him, and the ice is broken. (There must be an island phrase for that.)
Sam teaches uke making workshops in his tiny store. There’s a contented student finishing up his new instrument â€“ he hands it to me and it’s pretty and clean. He’s just finishing up. And I’m playing the ukes, of course, sitting on a thatched stool and noodling with ukes that cost more than I’ll earn this month.