It’s the last night of my tenth trip to Hawaii. This time I’ve come to visit my daughter, Jenny, who is planning to move back to California this month after living on Oahu for more than two years. My wife, son, and I have gathered for one final family fling.
And we’ve had a wonderful time, mixing Jenny’s favorite spots with the kind of visitor-oriented activities that even a soon-to-be-leaving local can appreciate.
We’ve devotedly devoured the garlicky, lemon-buttery shrimp scampi at Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck, where the manager told me they now serve up to 800 customers a day who pack away a total of one ton of shrimp a week!
Jenny took us to her favorite tourist extravaganza, the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park, which was consummated by a succulent kālua pig and an eye-popping, heart-pumping fire dance. And we took her on an ATV adventure at Kualoa Ranch, where a gregarious guide led us deep into the verdant wilds and enthused at how the owners have nurtured, over six generations, their ancestor’s commitment to malama aina: taking care of the land and giving back to the community.
Now our trip is coming to an end, just as Jenny’s stay on Oahu soon will, and I’m lingering on her porch, staring at the tropical moon and remembering an earlier journey to the Big Island, when Hawaii first cast its spell over me.
I’m recalling sun-bathed days and balmy, moon-bright nights on the Kohala Coast; the starscapes of Mauna Kea and Pu’u Loa’s precious petroglyphs; the virginal, vertiginous green folds of the Waipi’o Valley; the embered expanses of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Kīlauea‘s fiery lava rivers roiling and coiling into the sea, where steamy plumes signaled the creation of more island.
And most powerfully of all, I’m remembering Mo’okini Heiau, and my first experience there.
Heiau are Hawaii’s ancient temples, and Mo’okini Heiau is one of the oldest (possibly dating to the fifth century) and most historically significant heiau across all the islands. According to legend, it was built in one night with basalt stones gathered in Pololu Valley and passed from hand to hand along a human chain stretching 12 miles.
Mo’okini Heiau is on the northern tip of the Big Island, well off the tourist track. You don’t just stop there on your way to somewhere else; you have to make a deliberate effort to go. I was the sole visitor the morning I drove there. I wandered around the grounds for an hour, then sat down on a crumbling patch of ancient hand-passed rock and took out my journal.
I’ve brought that journal on this final trip to see Jenny and her Hawaiian home, and now I open its wrinkled pages and read the words I wrote then:
It’s slightly after midday, and the sun is stiflingly hot. The insistent rays and the equally insistent flies make me dizzy.
The air is dry but it feels somehow thick, thick with the history of it all, the sinew and sweat that went into building the heiau, the ceremonies that transpired here, the swelling of blood, the dizzying drone of flies down through the ages, the beat of sun upon rock, of wind and rain upon rock, the slow disintegration of rock into history, history into dust.
I try to imagine the ancient rites, but can’t. So I look around. I see rainbow-colored necklaces and leis visitors have left scattered on the rocks; an uneaten orange; a bright red bloom. Offerings? I have no idea.
I see the blue, cloud-striped sky soaring beyond one of the heiau’s nine-foot-tall rock walls; it looks like something in another world.
The sun beats. The flies buzz. The rocks crumble.
Not far from here, I know, is the barren, rock-bordered site where Kamehameha the Great, the chief who united the islands, was born. Just after his birth he was brought to these grounds for his birth rites and then spirited away to the green refuge of the Waipi’o Valley for safe upbringing.
Directly to the north is Maui and the high cone of Haleakala jutting into the clouds. Between here and there is the blue and white-tipped stretch of sea, always moving in the silent give and take of the current. I stand and stare and after a while, the air around me seems to move, too, souls swaying in the silent give and take of time.
I think of the Hawaii that existed before Cook and the condos, the Hawaii of wave-skimming dugout canoes and vast, undisturbed valleys, of sacred chants, tribal chiefs, sacrificial ceremonies. My skin moves.
That’s where the entry ends.
I remember that an eerie stillness descended on me after I finished recording my thoughts. I told myself that it was the sun, the toil of too many traveling days. But I knew what it was—and I know still.
Hawaii is many things: sun-swept sands and savory shrimp scampi, black triggerfish and green valleys, luaus and lava flows. And it is also a bleak windswept heiau on an island’s northern tip, with a haunted and haunting heritage.
Hawaii’s layers plunge deeper than I can comprehend, and so I know, even as I contemplate leaving tomorrow, that something in me will stay here, and something here will stay in me.
It will pull me back, a sacred susurration, ancient secrets swaying in the Pacific of my soul.
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.