You goin' down?" The question came from inside a battered pickup truck to my right. Inside, a scruffy guy in his 40s, with a bushy auburn mustache and a ponytail protruding from a sun-bleached baseball cap, sat drinking Smirnoff Ice and smoking a clove cigarette. He had serious dude written all over him.
I was at the Waipio Valley Lookout, a small parking lot at the end of a road, staring down at jungle treetops, taro patches, a black sand beach lathered in white surf, wild horses, a few rusted metal roofs and a handful of spectacular waterfalls. Once home to thousands of ancient Hawaiians--it's where the first inhabitants settled--Waipio was devastated by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960 and is so prone to flooding that developers have yet to arrive. Today there are a few dozen rustic homes and a full-time population of less than 60--taro farmers, disgruntled Vietnam vets, New Age seekers and an eclectic assortment of funksters who'd happily subscribe to High Times if they had a mailing address.
The dude's name was Barry. He'd moved from Alaska to Hawaii 10 years ago one February when he could no longer bear the cold. A builder by trade, Barry seemed as spiritually inclined as a compass, but 10 minutes into our conversation he said, by way of a warning, "The mana in the valley is heavy. Very heavy." Mana, which means the spiritual force that energizes everything in the universe, is a word I'd heard a lot during my first two days on the Big Island. By the time I arrived at the lookout on the rugged northeastern coast, I'd heard so many stories about supernatural shenanigans that I felt as if I'd wandered into The World According to Shirley MacLaine--but from a guy drinking Smirnoff Ice?
Barry launched into a story about Shark Rock, a sculpted stone as large as a wheelbarrow that sits on a rise near the beach. "It was sacred to the old Hawaiians. They used to cut people's heads off there." A few years ago, he said, his business partner, Pete, tied the stone to his all-terrain vehicle and with great difficulty dragged it a quarter mile to his property. A week later, Pete's wife was diagnosed with cancer. "How is she now?" I asked.
"Dead." He paused, blew smoke through his nostrils and pulled a beer from the cooler in the back of his pickup. "There's mana down there," said Barry. "It's just a question of being in tune with it or not." I asked what happened to the rock.
"He moved it back."
I made a mental note to give Shark Rock a wide berth and headed nine miles back to the Hotel Honokaa Club, a clean, unpretentious place in the sleepy town of Honokaa. The next morning, as I availed myself of coffee and local fruit served on the porch, I chatted with Kathy Kenyon, the hotel manager at the time. She had seen scores of Waipio pilgrims pass through. "Few find what they're looking for," she said. "A few have never returned."
Known to triathletes and armchair fans of abject suffering for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship and to coffee devotees for its ultra-smooth Kona bean, the island of Hawaii is the youngest, largest and most geologically diverse of all the Hawaiian Islands. Of the 13 climate zones on Earth, 11 are found on the Big Island. Less than a million years old, the island is still growing; Kilauea, an active volcano, has been erupting continually since 1983.
The west (or Kona) coast is dry and sunny, dotted with world-class golf courses and luxury oceanfront resorts. The windward coast to the east is wet, rugged, mountainous and tropical. In the middle, usually shrouded in clouds, are Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the world's largest volcanoes. In short, the Big Island is one of the wildest and most wide-open, sparsely populated and diverse islands in the Pacific. For my money, the most intriguing spot is the valley that the ancient Hawaiians called Waipio--"curving water."
I left my rental car at the lookout, donned a day pack and started down the lone road into the valley. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides and fronted by the ocean, the valley receives more than 80 inches of rain annually. Imagine a giant hand pressed 1,000 feet into leprechaun-green dough, making an impression a mile wide at the wrist and six miles deep at the middle finger, and you've got the basic lay of the land. A four-wheel drive vehicle is required for the rutted, 25% grade road.
On the valley floor, the towering waterfalls, "Jurassic Park"-sized foliage and din of the crashing waves miniaturize everything that's man-made. I walked toward the beach on a dirt road, skirting giant puddles. An ancient burial mound was nestled under a grove of ironwood trees posted with "No camping" signs. This had been the site of Pakaalana, a huge temple, or heiau, built in the 12th century and left largely intact until the 1946 tsunami dismantled and buried its massive stone walls.
Most Waipio tourists settle for the lookout; most of the few who make it down stop at Waipio Stream, which divides the valley floor. I made the tricky crossing at the mouth, where at low tide the stream is separated from the heavy surf by a partly submerged rock ledge. At the far end of the beach, a dozen colorful kayaks were stacked on a bamboo rack where the trail reached the valley wall and turned left, away from the sea. The first home off this narrow, muddy path was a collection of well-maintained structures behind barbed wire. This, I later learned, was "Pete's Palm Palace"--Pete being the owner of the kayaks and the misguided mover of sacred stones.
The foliage grew denser and the sky darker as I headed farther down the path. It rained every 10 minutes. Gargantuan ohi'a and koa trees competed for space, while thickets of bamboo erupted into a percussive frenzy with every gust of wind. And water--streams, waterfalls, ponds, sinkholes--was everywhere. I eyed overgrown rock walls: an ancient temple or a platform for a thatched hut? Three wild horses stared impassively from chest-high grass. I passed few houses and even fewer people.
This overgrown hothouse was visually spectacular but unsettling. I'd heard about the torch-lit procession of the "Night Marchers"--spirits of royalty who come back to Earth--from locals who spoke of ghosts as casually as people in my neighborhood gossip about celebrities.
There were burial caves in the cliffs, but an old-timer told me that you could hit bodies with a spade pretty much anywhere. I usually like poking around cemeteries, but this place felt lively rather than contemplative. I turned back toward the beach with plenty of trail left ahead of me.
Late in the day the surf was too violent to cross at the stream's mouth, so I headed upstream. By the stream's edge I bumped into a down-home guy who'd just paddled across. Robbie, a 42-year-old from Asheville, N.C., had a soothing drawl, brilliant blue eyes, a rumpled baseball cap and enough foot fungus to spawn a forest. He'd been living in the valley off and on since 1979. He hunted wild pigs and goats, gathered bananas, coconuts, papaya and breadfruit, and fished from his kayak. "If the world came to an end, I reckon we'd be fine down here," he said. But in the next breath he added, "The weather takes its toll on people, especially in the winter. Three weeks ago it rained 24 inches nonstop. Eight hours later, it rained another eight inches."
Robbie provided me with three valuable bits of information about Waimanu, the unpopulated valley to the north that I wanted to visit. One: The trail over the mountains had been closed by mudslides in the recent rains. Two: If I still wanted to go, I'd have to kayak up the coast, which could be a problem given the size of the swell in March. With the prevailing wind, I'd probably get there, he said, but I might not get back. Three: If I wanted to borrow a kayak, I needed to talk to Pete, who probably could be found at his "Propane & Sauce" warehouse in Honokaa (the sauce being a spicy Bloody Mary mix, which I would politely sample later that evening).
The following day, I was back in the valley, kayak in hand and studying the head-high waves. They were a bit intimidating for a guy who usually launches in Brooklyn's Jamaica Bay, but as a marathon kayak racer, I'd paddled in big water and figured I'd be fine. On my first attempt I punched through two big breakers before the third wave nailed me like a blitzing linebacker and smashed me into the shore break. I made it out to sea on my second attempt. Five minutes later, I looked back and gasped like Dorothy when she first spotted Oz. The valley glowed in the magnificent light; near Kaluahine Falls, several miles south, were three overlapping rainbows. An hour later, I turned and raced downwind on huge undulating bumps that had traveled uninterrupted for a few thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean. For a kayak crazy like me, it didn't get much better than this.
A hundred yards from the beach, the waves began to break. When I felt my stern rise as if on a forklift, I called on my years of paddling experience. For half a minute I flew down the face of the wave as if I were in the opener of "Hawaii Five-O." As the beach grew near, the rudderless boat broached, and I went into the spin cycle of the world's biggest washing machine. Everything I had--hat, sunglasses, shorts, confidence, dignity--was yanked violently from me. The damage: a bloody knee, some road rash and a shin with a softball-sized knot. Still, it was good to be in the valley where some believe that South Seas islanders had landed their double-hulled canoes hundreds of years before the Vikings had arrived in North America. Despite being bloodied and bruised, I decided to get up at dawn, while the sea was still quiet, and paddle to Waimanu.
But the weather turned foul. I spent a rainy afternoon hiking through dense fog in the Kohala State Forest on the White Road Trail, which skirts the rear of Waipio Valley.
The next day I hiked on Mauna Kea, the 13,796-foot volcano that sports one of the greatest collections of astronomical telescopes on the planet. I came across an altar made of stone and bamboo, containing offerings of fruit, flowers and money. A photo of an adolescent boy--dead, I assumed--was lodged between two rocks. I picked it up and suddenly felt tears rolling down my cheeks.
This isn't like me, I thought. To quote Woody Allen, my mother was an atheist and my father was an agnostic, and they didn't know what religion not to bring me up in. Lack of sentimentality wasn't too far behind on my list of dubious virtues. I tried to figure out if something was bothering me; but no, apparently I was just emoting.
I put the photo back and moved away. And that was just the beginning of the karmic weirdness.
after a week of hanging around the valley, I met Reynolds Kamakawiwoole, a 54-year-old retired cop and the local kahuna. In old Hawaii, a kahuna was a spiritual person whose blessing was sought before any major project, such as building a house or launching a canoe. Perhaps more than any other place in Hawaii, Waipio has resisted the cultural meltdown touched off by Captain Cook's arrival in 1778, and today, much to my surprise, kahunas continue to fulfill their traditional role.
Reynolds said he saw me standing on the summit of Mauna Kea, "the piko--belly button--of all mankind," overwhelmed by emotion. He could sense that I had a strong but troubled relationship with the ocean. In fact, my paddling sessions in Hawaii, like the one in the valley, are invariably an intense mixture of fear and exhilaration, but I hadn't mentioned that to him.
Good kahuna that he was, he offered his prescription: Go to Cape Kumukahi, the easternmost point on the island. Sit on the promontory, facing 40 degrees east. Meditate on blue light and see what happens.
Of course, I went. Driving south along the dramatic coast past Hilo, turning east on Route 132, I stopped in Lava Tree State Park, a petrified forest of ohi'a trees zapped in 1790 by lava that burned the trunks and left hardened shells resembling totem poles.
For two hours I sat on a lava flow that had wiped out the nearby village of Kapoho in 1960, staring out to sea through rainbows that flickered in the mist like an erratic slide show. And, sure enough, the collision of these two titanic forces--nascent land and omnipotent ocean--prompted internal churnings of psychological and spiritual funk. I arose from my perch dazed and a bit confused, but I felt good. And I couldn't wait to get back in a kayak.
The sun shone the next day and I headed down into Waipio Valley with a tent, a sleeping bag, a pack full of food and advice from Reynolds on spiritual protocol. I crossed the stream in Robbie's tiny kayak and wandered down the beach, looking for the place Reynolds had recommended I camp: "A flat grassy spot near a stone that looks like a pointed fish." When I asked for more explicit directions, he said, "When you see it, you'll know." Bingo. The smooth, oblong black lava rock was about the size of a toy chest and had a sculpted indentation on top like the saddle on a coin-operated pony.
I had begun setting up the tent when a woman with short, spiky hair walked over the knoll. In a clipped Aussie accent, she said, "Not many people camp at Shark Rock, good on ya!" Her adopted name was Ku'Ava, and she billed herself as a spiritual healer and unofficial priestess of the stone that she preferred to call Meditation Rock. "All that stuff about Pete's wife and human sacrifice is [nonsense]," she said emphatically. A 62-year-old divorcee, she'd been living alone down here for two years in a tarp encampment. Shark Rock may not have been haunted, but its stony face looked purely predatory. And although it would have been a perfect rock to use for, say, drying out socks, I never touched it.
For the next three days I waited for the ocean to let me in. I explored the valley, accompanied everywhere by an affectionate black Lab mix that I found sitting outside my tent the first morning. I called him Murray.
One day we followed a stream bed to Hiilawe Falls, at 1,000 feet the tallest and most sacred waterfall in the valley. It was loud, lonely, cold; the ground trembled under its impact. I'd been puzzling for days about the mysticism associated with the valley. Was it really anything more than fear and admiration for the awesome natural forces that converged here? It was a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Did mana make the valley or did the valley make mana? Against the backdrop of these spectacular falls, the question seemed unimportant, if not downright inane.
On my final day in the valley, I was at the water's edge before 7, studying the waves hammering the beach. The swell was a solid 6 to 8 feet. An hour and five tumultuous wipeouts later, I still hadn't fought through the break. Now making it off the beach was as much a matter of pride as an exercise in overcoming fear.
Finally I busted free and was out to sea in a swell that looked like a million flying carpets. Paddling downwind, it took less than an hour to reach Waimanu. (It's a full day's hike.) I sat just outside the surf break, taking in the beauty of the valley. Then I turned into the wind and started grinding back to Waipio. The wind had picked up and the swell seemed larger. Worse, the current seemed to be pulling me toward a cliff that was battered by surf. Reynolds had said that something in my life had left me with a fear of being trapped underwater. I didn't know if he meant something from my childhood, something metaphysical or something from a past life.
At the moment, though, I had other fish to fry. I pictured being sucked to the cliff and battered by a breaking wave. I pictured myself tiring, unable to make it back to Waipio. Instead I followed the advice of a Tahitian healer and elite paddler I'd met in Oahu a few years back: Stay with your breath. Moments later, a huge sea turtle appeared beside me, floating like a cork in the swell. I inched around the point and worked my way toward the shore.
That evening I was sitting around a fire, a respectful distance from Shark Rock, when Ku'Ava rolled an empty 50-gallon plastic drum to my campsite. I'd spent hours under her tarp over the previous few days. She had such luxuries as tea and Mozart (on a radio powered with a hand crank), and I'd provided her with an opportunity to talk. Tonight the moon was nearly full and she wanted to drum to give me a proper send-off. Murray, gentle soul that he was, wasn't much of a conversationalist, so the impromptu concert wasn't altogether unwelcome. Wearing a headlamp to read lyrics written on a small sheet of paper, she began with a traditional Hawaiian chant to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, who makes her symbolic home in Kilauea.
The ocean was bathed in ghostly moonlight; the white foam of the surf was luminescent. Once I got over my initial embarrassment--some of the performance was little short of primal screaming--I found it moving, and fitting. I thought of something Ku'Ava had said about life down here: "What appears to be chaos is a profound truth [that] we need to learn about the nature of change. Fight it, and it will kill you; embrace it, and you will grow." She had been talking about the previous month's flood, which all but destroyed her home. At the very least, I could embrace the moment. As the night wore on, I half expected Pele to appear, but whether to join in or to hush, I couldn't say. You never know with the capricious goddess of fire.
Joe Glickman is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the author of "To the Top: Reaching for America's 50 State Summits" (NorthWord Press), to be published this spring.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times