(As a bit of escapism, a break from the frustration of politics, I offer this glimpse of a real day in my life before I joined society - with adventure, traditional Hawaiian cooking techniques, and a hint of romance. Yes, there is an alternative to the eight to five…)
Waimanu Valley, for the typical hiker, is an intense, all day up and down trek along a jungle trail, gaining and losing thousands of feet as you traverse the vertical valley walls and thirteen gulches between the nearest road and the beautiful beach which is your destination. But to those of us who live nearby, it is just a waypoint towards a more alluring destination, through the waves pounding the massive cliffs on the far side of the valley – a paradise of languid pools at the foot of astoundingly high waterfalls, of groves of tropical fruits, of perfect waves washing the untouched beds of shellfish crowding the shore. Getting there is the problem, but my friend Dano and his girlfriend Ty had joined my son Kala and myself in a lengthy getaway from the “stresses” of interacting with the other members of our small community of outcasts and farmers. But all things call for change eventually, and I was feeling restless and ready to go home. We would have left sooner, but high surf had come up and trapped us on the point.
I awoke at the first hint of dawn and tuned my ear to the surf, deciding if I should awaken the rest, if today was the day. The waves were still loud, but they had died down a bit in the night, and the rains had passed. We had been on the point for a few weeks, and while there is never a shortage of food there, we had run out of the food and treats we had carried in a good week before, and as good as the food one gathers is, the craving for sugar and chocolate was getting the better of us. The tide was low an hour or so after dawn- perfect for our escape. And getting out was easier than coming in. I decided we should at least try.
The first crossing was exhilarating, although the waterfall was raging from the heavy rains in the night. Walking behind it we had to feel our way along the overhung cliff, as we could see nothing through the spume generated when the falls hit the ocean after a 500 foot drop. But on either side, the waves petered out into foam by the time they hit the base of the cliff. The prospects of making it down the coast looked good.
Most of the run was “dry” rocks- dry as in not underwater, anyway. “Run” is a bit of a misnomer, too, as running over jumbled boulders was difficult with a pack and a five year old on my shoulders. Besides, it was Ty’s first trip and she hadn’t quite gotten the knack of boulder hopping, although she had certainly improved after a few weeks of regular forced practice. Speed was important not just to make the tide, but because the 1400 foot cliffs we were passing on the narrow belt of tidal rocks between their base and the ocean constantly dropped pebbles, which fell with such force that they pulverized into powder when they hit the boulders below. The half mile stretch you have to spend in the impact zone is not a good place to linger. We stayed as close to the cliff as possible, not just to escape the waves but because most of the falling rock would hit further out.
The great obstacle to our departure was the three points of solid rock that protruded out from the base of the cliffs into the waves. Kala whimpered in fear when he saw six foot waves slamming the end of the first point, but this one was easily climbed from the side we were on. Normally we would have had to go around the second, exposed to the full force of the waves, but we had salvaged a rope from an old net on the way in and it was still attached to the top, allowing us to climb right up the smooth rock face. The tiny stretch of berm between second and third point was in a sea cave, and the water was washing to the back. But timing is everything when you are living a feral life, and we knew it would be no problem timing the sets so we could make it up the third point before the next big set washed in. Dano went first and pulled Ty up after him. I waited through the next set, ran across, handed Kala to Dano, and pulled myself up just as the next big wave washed my feet.
Thinking we had easily surmounted our big obstacle, I was dismayed as the real problem became apparent. The big surf that had kept us from leaving had washed out all the boulders along the base of the cliff for quite a ways- there was an impressively long wall where the waves washed right against the cliff face. There was no way we were going to cross that in the brief lull between sets. We were going to get pounded by any wave that came in while we were crossing. And it could be months- years, even- before those boulders washed back in. After a brief discussion, we decided that the tide didn’t get much lower, or the waves much smaller, that time of year. Ty trembled in fear, and even Kala could tell this was not good, but we all realized we had to go for it.
The drop from the top of the point was now a good twelve feet, we guessed- ten to the water, anyway. Clearly I had to go first so Dano could hand down Kala. I watched a long time, trying to get a feel for the pattern of the sets, but the tide wasn’t going to stay down forever. I lowered myself and hung by my fingertips, waiting for the proper moment. Finally dropping into the water swirling below, I discovered that under the whitewater the boulders that remained were large and slippery. I did the splits over the top of one and fell over with my foot wedged between the rocks. Scrambling to my feet, I found I was only slightly injured but precious seconds had been lost. Dano threw Kala down at me, and I caught him and flung him onto my shoulders as I started running through the whitewater at the base of the cliff, utterly blind to my footing on the slippery algae covered boulders below.
Slipping and sometimes falling to my knees, I floundered no more than half way before I saw the next set looming. Relying on past experience, I braced myself with one hand as far away from the cliff face as I could reach, while grasping my son’s ankle hard enough to bruise with the other hand. “Hold on!”, I yelled, and he wrapped his arms around my neck so tightly it strangled me. The wave broke over our heads, and I held my brace as best I could. After a split second during which it felt certain that we would be slammed into the cliff, the backwash from the wave hitting the cliff in front of us pushed us away with a force nearly equal to the force from behind, and we were washed along the cliff instead. Regaining my feet, I braced again for the next wave, but this time the outwash from the first blunted the force of the following wave and I kept my footing. The third wave was smaller, and behind that looked flat, so I resumed my flounder/run for the end of the wall. Just as we were about to reach our goal, I looked out to sea and saw what looked to be the biggest wave I had seen all day humping up. My adrenaline pumped up yet another notch, just when I thought that would have been impossible, and as far as I know I literally flew the last few yards to safety. We leapt up onto the high boulder berm as the wave broke and pushed us along from behind.
Dano and Ty, meanwhile, had gotten a grandstand view of this drama from their high, safe perch on the point of rock. “I can’t do it!” Ty cried. “You don’t have any choice” Dano pointed out. “Can’t we wait for a better time?” “We’ve been stuck for a week. Who knows how long it will be before another chance comes?” “I don’t care, I’d rather live out here for the rest of my life than have to cross that wall!” Dano gave up on reason and started to bully her into it. Suddenly both realized that the best lull yet was upon them, and it was now or never.
Dano grabbed Ty and pretty much dropped her off the point, jumping down after. She landed gracefully and started to run, but Dano clearly came down hard and it looked like he was hurting. Ty sprinted ahead, driven by fear, while he limped and staggered after her. The inevitable set rolled in, but luckily it was small. Dano, experienced, braced and held his ground, but Ty fell into the wave, which saved her from getting smashed on the cliff. Washed along the base of the cliff, she came up dazed and Dano had a chance to catch up and lift her to her feet. Holding hands, they bolted to safety where Kala and I stood watching. “Not as bad as it looked”, said Dano, as Ty stood there bleeding.
The group of hikers in the valley were just starting to drag their aching bodies out of bed when their still tired eyes beheld a couple, hand in hand, and a man with a young boy on his shoulders appear from the base of the cliff at the end of the beach, glowing with adrenaline and excitement, as if they had stepped out of the very cliff itself. Clearly the route beyond the valley was impassable, so where had they come from? Intrigued, they invited these wet but sparkling strangers to dry themselves by their fire.
When you have been living away from civilization, with no one to talk to for weeks except the small circle you brought with you, a storytelling opportunity can be hard to pass up. Besides, they had sugar and chocolate, so what need was there to go further? We broke out our fruit, they broke out their treats, and soon they were spellbound by tales of the feral life they only dreamed of. It was quite early yet, and even at Kala speed we could make it out in five hours or so, so there seemed no hurry. Besides, it had been well over a year since Kala’s mom Lisa had left me, and some of the girls were quite attractive. I had been somewhat tormented by Ty’s nudity over the past few weeks- she was shy but still skinny dipped with us, and her shyness somehow added to the attraction. Her perfect figure and full yet shapely breasts didn’t hurt either. But while she obviously liked me and I felt I could make my move if I wanted to, she was my friend’s girl. Still, attraction was pulling on me, desire, and it felt like it was time to move on from Lisa. My conclusion was that even thinking about it was a clear sign that I had been single too long. Way too much temptation. I needed a lover.
This was swirling around in my head as I listened to Dano tell tales of jungle exploits and watched the perfect waves roll in. I figured if we were going to stay a bit before we hiked out, I might as well catch a few.
“Lets go bodysurfing!” I suggested, but the others looked with trepidation at the size of the surf and declined. Walking to the water, I found that the prettiest girl in the group was sunbathing nude on the beach. Discreetly glancing past her red hair as she lay on her side watching the ocean, at her small but shapely breasts, her smooth young body and nicely rounded buttocks, I thought “You could be with any girl you want if you would just try. Why not her? She’s beautiful, and just hiking in here shows she has something at least in common with you.” I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind as I tore down wave after perfect wave- especially when I realized she was watching me.
When I got out of the ocean, I saw that Jackie had arrived. Jackie was my hanai father- he had “adopted” me as his son after we had lived together in the valley when I first came to the island. One of the last of the true Hawaiians, Jackie had taught me everything he knew about living off the land. Although considered a bum when I first met him, as he chose to live more traditionally rather than fitting into society, attitudes were evolving back towards respect of the old ways and those that held the knowledge, and he was by this time something of a legend.
“Wassup, Jackie!” I cried.
“Chris! You no moa pancake fo me?”
Back when I had lived in the valley, every time Jackie would hike in I would fix him my inch thick, frying pan sized specialty pancakes, made with at least half a dozen kinds of flour and flavored with fruits or cheese. Pretty much the only purchased food I used to eat when I lived on thirty bucks a month. Jackie loved those pancakes. This had become his standard greeting when he saw me in Waimanu.
“I’m just waiting for some boys to come in this afternoon so I can take them out”, he said. His loved to teach groups of teenage boys some of the finer points of pig hunting.
“You want to go out now?” I asked. A tentative plan was starting to form in my mind.
“No. Take the gun if you like, though.”
“Let me talk to Dano and Ty, see if they want to hang a bit.” The day was young, and bringing home a bit of fresh pork is always a good thing. They were fine with it.
About a third of a mile back from the beach a grove of mangoes shades a small stream. Pigs love mangoes. As soon as I came around the corner by the first tree, I saw a fat sow meandering up the hillside. Me, I prefer a nice fat sow. The “young bucks” like to show the world what big shot hunters they are by shooting old boars with big tusks they can display, but wild boar has a strong flavor that is not that pleasant. Besides, they fuck and fight all day instead of eating, and that makes them skinny and tough. Hunters like Jackie and by extension, myself, have nothing to prove because everyone already knows we are big shot hunters. Which is why Dano quickly showed up to help carry the sow when he heard a shot. He knows I don’t often miss.
All the hikers on the beach were suitably impressed when we showed up in camp with a pig about half an hour after I walked off. My plan was starting to take on substance. I knew I had gotten the attention of that pretty redhead- first tearing up the waves everyone else was afraid to swim in, then the big hunter literally bringing home the bacon. “How about we do an imu?” I asked Dano.
“Won’t be done before we have to go”, he noted. An imu is an earth oven, and it takes time to prepare, time to heat up, and then five or six hours to cook a good sized pig.
“What if we just spend the night? There are some old tarps you and Ty could wrap up in. Maybe Jackie has a blanket for Kala.” We didn’t have any blankets, or much of anything else with us- just some fruit and a dry shirt each in our daypacks. Planning on walking out in a single day, we had left our camping gear stashed on the point for the next trip.
“Sure, we could do that”. Always ready for an adventure, that boy.
Once that was settled, the plan shifted into high gear. A few hikers were delegated to dig a four by six, two foot deep hole in the sand. Most were sent to gather firewood off the beach, enough for a big bonfire. Jackie grabbed a couple of dip nets from by the river, and a couple hikers to use them, then headed towards the back of the valley to catch prawns. Dano and Ty went to gather breadfruit, taro leaves, and anything else they might find. I took it upon myself to teach the redhead, who told me her name was Catherine, exactly the proper type of rocks to heat for the imu. Pick the wrong rocks to heat rapidly in a hot fire, and they turn into hand grenades, complete with red hot shrapnel flying everywhere. Fist sized rocks are ideal, with small pores uniformly distributed. Dense rocks with few pores are the explosive ones.
With the bonfire burning in the hole, the carefully selected rocks were stacked in with the wood. The next step was to get an entire banana plant and a four foot heap of a broad, sturdy leaf called ti. The banana leaves and green bananas were set aside, and the trunk was cut into three foot sections, then shredded by swinging the sections against a tree. We gathered coconuts from the palms by the beach and grated the flesh, after which the cream was squeezed out with hibiscus fibers and poured over little piles of pork, breadfruit, and banana cupped in taro leaves; then the taro leaves were folded closed and wrapped in ti leaves. This is called laulau, for the two types of leaves.
By then the fire had burned down to embers and the rocks we had added were cherry red. I pulled out a few un-burnt stubs, and then with a long, green forked stick maneuvered a couple of the red hot rocks into the chest cavity of the pig. Working quickly, we spread about six inches of shredded banana trunk across the hot rocks, which we topped with a couple of ti roots we had dug up, followed by a couple feet of ti leaf. Dano and I lifted the pig and placed it in the middle of this, surrounded by the breadfruit, the stalk of green bananas, some papayas someone had found, and for a special, nontraditional treat, some heads of garlic Jackie had brought in with the tops cut off, underneath some ripe bananas which would drip sweet juice over the garlic. We carefully stacked the laulau where they could be easily found, as they tend to get lost in all the ti leaf, being wrapped in ti leaves themselves. With the food in, I placed several more feet of ti leaf bunches over it all, tipi style with stems to the center, then carefully arranged the banana leaves to provide protection from the dirt. Finally we spread about four inches of damp sand over the whole pile, and there was little left to do except wait.
Soon Jackie came out from the back with his peons carrying a big sack of prawns.
“Where are those boys?” he wondered. “They said they’d get here early!”
“Might as well hang with us”, I said. We were busy figuring out how the hikers could contribute to the feast. Not many options- they had chips, so we turned the avocados Dano and Ty had found into guacamole. Under Ty’s direction, the girls went to work turning the fruit we had carried around the point into fruit salad.
Eventually Jackie’s boys made it, but they were too tired to hunt.
“These boys are so lazy, they’re going to eat raw ramen for dinner”, I warned Jackie. I’d seen it before. Uncooked ramen isn’t that bad- a bit crunchy- but eating it because you are too lazy to build a fire is pretty weak.
“Better have them join the lu'au.” They were pretty suspicious about coming across the river- looked like a bunch of hippies to them. But they kind of knew Dano and I, and the prospect of criticizing a “haole lu'au” apparently was too tempting. (A haole is a foreigner- not Hawaiian). Which they promptly started to do.
“Why so high? You didn’t bury it deep enough” was the first comment.
“Because it is easier to scrape sand off a mound than get it out of a hole” was my reply.
“Sand? Why aren’t you using dirt?”
“We’re on a beach. It works. You want to go back in the swamp and get me some dirt? Feel free.”
“No tarp under the sand?”
“Did the ancient Hawaiians have a tarp?” I asked. “I’m more traditional.” That shut them up for a bit.
But their skepticism was obvious. Even Jackie was a bit skeptical- he didn’t know I had done at least a hundred imus since he had taught me, and I had refined the backwoods technique. It was shovels and tarps, tin foil and chicken wire at the big, in town luaus where I had learned. But we had none of that here- only the traditional materials. I could tell my teacher was eager to see what his student had come up with.
Finally the five hours had passed. Jackie had thrown net a bit and caught some fish, and he had those grilling next to the big pot of water he was boiling for the prawns. We scooped a bucket of water to cool our hands, and spread banana leaves to receive the food. Suddenly, with a great roar, a helicopter appeared, low at the end of the beach- and then another. The two noisy machines landed by the river, not a hundred feet from us, and passengers spilled out. When we saw the pilots pulling tablecloths and picnic baskets out of their machines, we realized it didn’t concern us and went back to work. Apparently an extended, wealthy family had chartered the birds to have a picnic lu'au in the jungle. Most of the family, all dressed in silk, never even looked at the “lower class” hikers next to them, but the obvious patriarch watched us open the imu with interest.
First, Dano and I scraped as much sand as possible off the banana leaves, dipping our hands in the water frequently as it was quite hot. Then we carefully peeled back the banana leaves from the top, leaving the bottom ends in place and folding the leaves back over the sand so that we had a clean circle of leaves around the emu. Meanwhile, the helicopter pilots spread the tablecloths on the grass. Next we peeled back the ti leaf with equal care to ensure that any remaining bits of grit didn’t get to the food. The pilots set out plates and glasses. We then lifted out the whole pig, flavored and dyed purple from the ti leaf smoke, and placed it onto the bed of banana leaves we had prepared. The pilots began ladling cold, tin foil cooked “kalua pig” out of cardboard cartons onto the china. Out of the imu came the breadfruit and green bananas, which were sliced and spread with banana sweetened roasted garlic. The wealthy got mashed potatoes. Our laulau were fresh, hot, and purple with flavor from the ti, theirs were cold, and wrapped in tin foil. We had fruit salad, they had fruit salad- but ours was local fruit, theirs fruit from the mainland. The pilots had been watching us, and kind of flaunted their piece de resistance- half lobster tails, oddly colored with dyes instead of white inside. Jackie gave them a sneer, and dumped a five gallon pot of hot, fresh prawns on the leaves. They had nothing to match his fish. Meanwhile the family and the hikers watched, munching on chips and guacamole- except our guacamole didn’t come out of a plastic tub.
After we had all eaten, and eaten, the patriarch of the family came over and talked to me while the pilots packed the china.
“Tough life you lead”, he said. “Looks like everything we had, you had better.”
“I don’t know, I’d prefer that champagne you were drinking to the cheap whiskey these hunters brought in. You still hungry? We’ve hardly put a dent in it.”
“I’m pretty full, but I wouldn’t mind trying one of those prawns” was his reply.
“Frankly, I didn’t even know if you’d noticed our little game of one-upmanship”, I told him as he peeled the prawn. “I don’t think anyone else in your family looked this way more than once.”
“They weren’t raised right”, he said with a little shudder. “They don’t understand. But me, I envy you.”
“Well, no one is stopping you from grabbing one of those tablecloths for a blanket and joining us. You would certainly be welcome, and it doesn’t cost anything- money is worthless out here. All you need is time.”
“Ah, yes, time. Time is exactly what I don’t have”, he said as the helicopters started to wind up. He trotted back to the birds, cast a last wistful glance our way, then, shoulders slumping, climbed into his seat and flew back to his miserable life. Me, I went back to our feast and waited for an opening to talk to Catherine some more.
Appetites had pretty well wound down by this time, but I was looking for dessert. Almost everyone in Hawai’i knows that during prohibition bootleggers in the mountains made ‘okolehau from ti roots, but few have followed the logic train as to why ti root was used rather than all the other fruits available in Hawai’i. Ti root is almost pure starch, and with long exposure to heat that starch converts to sugar. An imu is the traditional place for this conversion to transpire. But very few people in Hawai’i have actually tasted a roasted ti root. So the local boys were surprised when I pulled delicious molasses candy out of the bottom of the imu from where a few old roots had been thrown in.
Even Jackie was impressed- he knew it was possible to eat ti root in theory, but had never actually tried it. He sat there, looking at the traditional imu with the perfect results, enjoying his ti root dessert, and said “This is one of the best imus I have ever had. My boy, you aren’t a haole any more. You’re a…” Here he paused, looking at the shocked faces of the local boys he was teaching. We all knew he was about to call me a local, and that would be as unheard of as calling a black man white in the old South. He took this in for a second or two, then regrouped and said “You’re a local haole now!” The local boys all laughed from relief at the release of the tension- he had made the perfect compromise, complementing me but not knocking their world off of its foundation.
Mellowed with far too much to eat and the bottle of whiskey the young hunters had passed around, a young man pulled out the guitar he had carried in and began to entertain us with some music. Catherine pulled out an ocarina and improvised a harmony. When they paused, I seized the moment.
“That was nice. What is that you’re playing?” Like I didn’t know.
“It’s an ocarina. I bought it in Puna just before we hiked in.”
“Mind if I check it out?” From ocarinas and music we moved on to how she had wound up in the valley. She told me she had been hanging out in Puna for weeks after coming to the island, seeking adventure but never able to find someone to share it with or even to point the way. She had tried to arrange a trip to the lava a number of times, but each time her planned companions backed out at the last moment. When a few people had proposed hiking into the valley, she had jumped on the bandwagon, and here she was. Had I ever been out to the volcano?
There couldn’t have been a more perfect opening. The day the current eruption had started, years before, my brother and I slipped past the rangers and spent the night in piles of grass on a hill with lava fountaining at its feet. I had seen the last night it fountained, too, shooting a massive column thousands of feet into the air, house sized blobs of molten lava falling in seeming slow motion into the jungle. I had seen a new flow cutting into ancient forests, had seen the lava lake where plate tectonics happened in minutes instead of eons. I had looked into windows in the rock at lava rivers and lava falls, had melted the soles off my shoes and the lenses of my cameras, used my walking stick to make a perfect lava angelfish from the molten rock, only to have the ground open up just above it and a river of lava swallow it- a river that, once having gotten a taste of fish, then flowed all the way to the sea. I’d been cut up by new sand as sharp as glass in the lava heated waves, hit by flying molten lava exploding where the lava river met the sea. Yes, I’d been out to the volcano.
I had already scoped out where I was going to sleep. The cold night breeze was coming out of the back of the valley, straight from the mountaintop down 3500 foot cliffs and out to sea. But I could feel the heat still radiating from the rocks of the imu. I gathered great armloads of ironwood needles to fill the pit and make a mound, then burrowed into the middle and fell asleep.
It was a restless night. The cold air from the mountains penetrated the needles and my top side was freezing, but the heat from the imu made the other side far too hot. I kept waking up, half frozen and half cooked, to roll over and thaw the other side. As dawn approached, it seemed the contrast was becoming sharper - was the air so much colder, or was I becoming more intolerant of the heat? I lay there as dawn broke, sweating and freezing, thinking about all that had happened since dawn the day before, about the contrast between my feral life and the wealthy man with no time. I smelled smoke, and decided to just get up and join whoever was building the fire, help get breakfast going. I jumped up out of the needles and started to walk away. After only a few steps, I heard a low FWUMP! behind me, almost like a muffled explosion. By the time I turned around, the flames from the pile of needles in the imu were already reaching into the trees.