Sometimes you don’t see the signs even when they are in your face. Sometimes you don’t know enough to know a sign when you see it. Sometimes, it all begins to make sense. Not that day in Kahakuloa.
Spinner dolphins on Maui’s Nakalele Bay. A grinning pit bull at the valley’s padlocked gate. The rustling pareu in the window on a calm day. The wet rock in the stream that sent me flying. How could I have overlooked all that? Now, years later, I can close my eyes and see the signs for what I think they were: A force in opposition, a wandering spirit, night marchers, the soul of the place. Whatever. Something objected to my presence in the valley that day and there were signs I failed to heed.
I began to realize this only last September down in the South Pacific, on Huahine, an island with mana strong enough to lean on. It happened after the Tahitians found three teeth of their ancestors at the Maeva dig, the day Sinoto fell off the marae, the day Michael folded a ti leaf around a rock and we, all three of us, elected without a word not to ascend the Sacred Mountain of Mata‘ire‘a where the giant banyan tree once draped with human skulls of the sacrificed now keeps the marae in deep shadow.
That’s when I finally came to understand that the supernatural world so easily embraced by Polynesians affects us in different ways. They do not concern themselves with solving riddles. They accept the insoluble. We want supernatural things to make sense. They are content not to understand. For a long time everything that happened that day in that valley on Maui bothered me because I didn’t know that. I do now.
Kahakuloa Valley lies on the far north side of Maui where the pavement ends. You may go there but only by invitation and with a guide.
The road to the valley is named for Kahekili The Feather-Caped Thunderer, the King of Maui. Tattooed Marquesan-style over half his body, Kahekili took flying leaps off Pu‘u Keka to prove his courage. He built houses out of the skulls of his enemies.
Narrow, winding and rough, the old King’s road skirts around sheer sea cliffs without safety rails.
On the way to the valley, you pass Kahakuloa, a village so picturesque Gauguin might have painted it: sun-faded houses with red tin roofs on a black sand cove laced with white fishing nets under a green grove of coco palms.
I recall a green clapboard church with New England steeple. Little roadside stands selling fresh, young coconuts and shave ice. You want to stay there forever.
At the gateway to Kahakuloa the chain link fence is doubly padlocked and the entry is blocked by jacked-up pickups of locals with zigzag Polynesian tattoos on bulgy biceps. Hawaiian warrior helmets dangle from rear view mirrors and pit bulls sit in the back. A stranger does not feel welcome here.
I always wondered why the valley was kapu and yearned to go there if only to learn the secret of the place. I knew that I must wait for an invitation. In Hawaii, nobody goes poking around interior valleys without an invitation and never alone.
One day the invitation arrived and from the most unlikely source-John Toner, a blue-eyed, blonde haole, then general manager of The Ritz-Carlton Kapulua, and a most unusual host and legendary hotelier.
“Would you like to visit Kahakuloa Valley this weekend?” Toner asked. Of course, I replied.
An ambassador of cultural exchange, Toner invites Hawaiians to meet guests and sends them on authentic encounters. He’d struck a bargain with residents of the valley so his guests could experience a Hawaii nearly lost in Maui’s rush to progress.
A day in Kahakuloa Valley could be experienced–a Ritz Carlton activity–like snorkeling in Honolua Bay.
“The valley is magic,“ Toner said. “You’ll be delighted.”
Just after sunrise next morning the only two people on the wild coast in a rental car, riding along, savoring the nature and solitude out of the blue Marcie said:
“I’ve never seen spinner dolphins,” as we came upon Naalehu Bay where as if on cue the bay exploded with spinner dolphins, a hundred or more, leaping and spinning in tight circles, clockwise and counter clockwise, tumbling and somersaulting in the air, a splashy water ballet gone berserk. We stood on the cliff watching the dolphins so long we almost missed our appointment at the valley gate.
The usual cluster of pickup trucks blocked the entry. In the bed of one, I notice a black pit bull dog who seemed to be smiling, grinning, actually, big and wide and friendly–the Cheshire cat of pit bulls–I thought and reached for my camera just as two hounds ran up to meet us followed by a slim, handsome Hawaiian fellow holding a ring of keys–Oliver Oliver, our valley guide.
“Call me Oliver,” he said, smiling.
A modern Hawaiian who chooses to live an 18th century lifestyle, Oliver dives for fish, tends his taro path and clings to old Hawaiian values that include “respect for my health, my family, the ocean, the mountains and this valley.”
Oliver inflicts such arcane values on local delinquents with great success. An ex-law enforcement officer, he takes custody of dead-end kids, puts them to work in the valley planting taro, repairing rope bridges, clearing the jungle and restacking old rocks. I realized then that the trucks at the gate belonged to his young charges. They leave the valley with a new attitude, he said. And visitors come away with a new understanding of a Hawaii now almost lost.
“Cross the stream here,” he said pointing to smooth boulders in the fast rushing stream. “We’re working on the bridge.”
I stepped out upon the biggest rock in the stream, slipped and went flying into the air. In the fall, I saved my camera from a dunking but sprained my left thumb and emerged sopping wet, bleeding and sore, feeling not just clumsy but as though something had pushed me.
Once I regained my composure and daubed peroxide on my scrapes, Oliver pointed to his taro patch, told me to kick off my shoes and step into the silky soft mud.
Immediately, I felt a warm sensation spread through my whole body.
What’s in the mud? I asked, but Oliver laughed and said it was “the soul of old Hawaii.” While I stood in soothing mud Oliver explained how he diverts Kahakuloa stream into loi, or taro patches, which he called the cornerstone of Hawaii’s early agriculture.
“Without taro we Hawaiians would wither away. Taro is our staple.”
We sipped ice tea outside his tidy handcrafted house beside the babbling stream in a tropical oasis of banana, papaya, mango, plum and coconut trees.
Then we set out hiking into the valley carved over eons by the stream that originated as a waterfall on mile-high Pu‘u Kukui, the second-wettest spot on Earth, whose cloud-wreathed summit early Hawaiians believed was the intersection between heaven and earth.
It all began to sound like a paradise but I knew better, that life here long ago was harsh and brutal and savage. Skulls were crushed because of an errant glance.
The valley, Oliver said, is full of ancient, mysterious sites: heiau, shrines, platform and night marchers-spirits of ali‘i who stroll through the valley with alacrity revisiting lifetime haunts.
As we pushed by chest-high ferns on the banks of the stream we came upon an abandoned house.
“What happened here?” I asked.
“Night marchers,” he said, as if he’d seen them himself last night.
Against all advice the former occupant–“that old coconut head”–built his house on the night marchers’ trail.
He lost his job, his wife, his family, everything, Oliver said, because he built his house in the wrong place.
I didn’t know whether to believe him and looked to see if was joking–he wasn’t.
As we walked by the empty house I saw a pareu rustling in an open window of the empty house like they do when trade winds call but there had not been a breath of air in the valley all day and there was no breeze now.
We hiked on deeper in the dead-end valley toward the waterfall pool but dense jungle that had never known a machete prevented us.
We followed a footpath on the east side of the valley now in full shade and soon came upon hard evidence of early inhabitants: terraces and heiau, and strange C-shaped rock shelters all built, Oliver said, more than 1,500 years ago.
The shadowy prehistoric site was deadly quiet and I shivered in the day’s heat and was glad to go.
Sitting in full sunlight outside Oliver’s house by the babbling stream, I enjoyed a great sense of calm and wished everyone could experience Hawaii like this.
It was hard to leave this old Hawaiian place. I understood the dilemma of the departed and why they return.
When my Kodachrome slides came back, only one image came out: the house in the path of the night marchers. The images of Oliver and his house, the taro pound and stream, the essence of the valley–all blank and I was puzzled.
I called Oliver at the number in Lahaina he gave me but he was not there. I told the woman who answered about the pictures, how only one came out and she said she would tell Oliver but he probably already knew.
For a moment I wondered if our day in Kahakuloa was only a dream but no, Marcie was there and she remembers the events of the day even as I do. The valley is full of enigmas I would never understand.
Last September I joined the famed archaeologist Yosihiko Sinoto on another dig on the prehistoric Huahine village of Maeva.
Diggers unearthed three human teeth that day. “Tupu pau” the Tahitians said–their word for phantom or ghost. Everyone laughed.
That afternoon, Sinoto, his assistant Michael and I went up the Sacred Mountain of Mata‘ire‘a to measure the stone walls of a marae.
I heard a crashing sound and turned to see Sinoto tumble head over heels into sticker weeds.
“I’m okay,” he said, brushing himself off.
Michael wrapped a stone in a ti leaf and we all went back down the mountain. We never said a word about our sudden departure; it just seemed like a good idea not to press on. I began to suspect that powers beyond our control may and often do appear when you encounter the soul of a place.
In Kahakuloa I couldn’t read the mixed signals so quickly. The clues, if they were clues, were ambiguous, conflicting, unclear–the spinner dolphins, the slippery rock, the grinning pit bull, the soothing mud, the rustling pareau, the sudden chill at the strange C-shaped structure, my sense of well-being in the sun, the missing photographs.
Signs of approach and avoidance, I felt welcome/uneasy. I wanted to stay/flee. Maybe it was my imagination, a coincidence, a prank of nature.
I didn’t understand what was going on that day and I don’t now. What I know is this: I am content not to understand.
* * *
Rick Carroll is the author of Huahine Island of The Lost Canoe (Bishop Museum Press) and many other Hawaii books published in the Gutenberg era. This story appears in his new collection Beyond The Reef, which is due out later this summer. His new e-book The Eyes of Easter Island is available globally at amazon.com.