Originally published in Arthur No. 17 (July 2005)
Small parks are set up along the Upcountry road that leads to Kanaio, commemorating the Chinese workers who settled on these higher slopes as the lower lands got bought up by Westerners. Many of the similarly pushed-to-the-edge Hawaiian communities took up the Chinese iconography, feeling a kinship to its mix of the hard and beautiful.
Closest to the Edge: Life in a squatters’ village on the wild side of Maui
By Paul Smart
Photography by Fawn Potash
Maui, the state of Hawaii’s second largest island, is shaped like a small-headed figure eight laid on its side, a lopsided infinity symbol. Giant volcanoes, both dormant, center each half of its configuration; the middle is a verdant swath of massive pineapple farms and suburb-like housing tracts, malls and a busy airport. On the left, West Maui is ringed with increasingly expensive and exclusive resorts catering to someone’s golf and condo dreams. At center is a verdant ring of cloud-draped mountains. On the right, the massive volcanic national park of Haleakala splits the terrain between bone dry and rain forest wetness. A small sliver of the northern coast is home to the world’s leading surfing waves, while the southern coast is said to be Hawaii’s sunniest spot.
“Upcountry” is what Maui natives, and guide books, refer to the long western slope of Haleakala, once a center for the island’s great beef cattle industry. Today it’s a land of Northern California-like communities nestled under imported eucalyptus trees and intensive flower farms shipping their goods world wide. Less touristed than the rest of Maui, Upcountry gets its own tourist brochures, touting the area’s long vistas and cowboy heritage, its cooler temperatures and more mellowed lifestyle. There aren’t many attractions up here besides a few restaurants and b&b-like lodgings. People tend to come for day trips to the National Park, or en route to the Eastern, rainforest side of Maui where Hana lies, a three-hour drive from the airport. Otherwise, it’s a land of upscale bedroom communities, like the Bay Area’s Mill Valley, the Berkeley Hills, the Peninsula.
The views are magnificent, and give a sense of what it must feel like to live on Maui year-round. There’s little traffic. It feels laidback.
Yet all the maps of Maui, tourist-oriented or not, mark a quiet Upcountry border, including little boxes past the site of the Tedeschi Winery warning that rental cars are not allowed past a certain point. And the long, 50-mile Southern Coast of the island gets no references in guide books, or even in Maui’s various newspapers.
That’s Kanaio. That’s where this story takes place.
We will come into Kanaio at its darkest. Late December and the firmament alive with a hundred constellations mirroring the tourist constellations created by the mega-resorts of Kihei and Wailea far below by the ocean’s edge. I’m in a rented jeep climbing higher than anything I’m used to, feeling the altitude muddy my attitude, sweeping up the jet lag and flight fatigue into a maelstrom of mental mist, a long way from home. My wife’s in the truck up ahead with her brother Brad. We spin out from the airport to Home Depot, then upcountry on back roads that channel through endless cane fields. There are fewer American flags flying in this part of the nation than we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years.
The humid smell of fertilizer rises up. I feel my pores soaking it all in, as if I’ve stepped from autumn crispness into a greenhouse. After a Y turn, I sense pineapples in the fields, even though all I can see are the jury-rigged tail lights on Brad’s Ford pickup and red earth berms on either of the narrow roadway. We pass through a suburban tract of ranch-style homes festooned with giant swanlike shrubbery. Christmas lights on palm trees. A vinyl picket fence.
Brad turns onto a higher-grade two lane roadway and I follow him several miles until he signals left. We climb a steep incline past a siren tower and more houses, less ritzy now. We pass a strange, octagonal wood church that’s all steeple and pull into an open-door concrete market for snacks. No one needs to watch the bags this far out of the tourist areas. Everyone knows each other up here, greeting each other with thumb/pinkie shaka waves, low and super-cool.
A native steps up: “Brother dude, how goes it?”
“Meet my sister, my brother-in-law, man,” Brad says.
“You new to Upcountry, good people?”
“New to Maui,” Brad tells him. “Coming from the airport.”
“Heavy. Take’em to Kanaio, my man. They learn what it is now.”
Brad buys New Zealand ale and Beck’s, throws in a few packs of generic ciggies. We get some homemade macadamia nut cookie drops and basic supplies: pasta and tuna, canned corned beef, Spam. Back in convoy, we drive through a landscape of long vistas broken by gnarled trees, their purple blossoms littering the asphalt. Cows stare out from behind barbed wire fences, munching nonchalantly. We stop and down brews at Sun Yat Sen Park, eyeing the even-bigger vista at 3800 feet. A plane moves slowly across the horizon at eye level. There’s nothing it can hit, no fears of it falling from the sky. Only an hour to go to Kanaio, Brad says, swigging on a Beck’s.
Rock walls give everything the look of a lopsided Ireland. I’m filled with memories of Brittany and the Amalfi coast, of Quebec’s Charlevoix district high above the St. Lawrence. But this is warmer. Softer, it seems.
I’m getting used to the firmament’s subtle lighting. There’s a hypnotic allure to the distant shimmer of resorts against an endless sea. I’m downing a beer now, too, although I know about Kanaio’s reputation as an outlaw haven where drinking’s no different than breathing.
We’re here because my wife hasn’t seen Brad in over a decade. He was a troubled boy, taken to drinking and fighting, going in and out of reform schools, even the Army, until he up and flew to Honolulu when he was barely 20. Since then he’s been in touch only intermittently.
One time he’d gone home to the Midwest with his dog, who then got hit by a police car. Brad got into a scuffle with the cop. The dog died. Brad tried to give it a Kanaio-style burial, complete with bonfire. Only it was the Midwest. The cops came again. Now he isn’t allowed back on the mainland.
Up more winding roads and we pass through a cluster of ranch buildings nestled into a copse of eucalyptus. A cinderblock church, St. John the Less, is surrounded by sweet-smelling honeysuckle and wild tobacco in a half-state of construction. I follow the battered truck off the paved road and up a long incline. We seem to pass through jungle. When the views return, they’re darker. No more vistas of tourist hotels and convenience store lights. Instead kudzu shapes loom stretched out supine on the starlit sea.
After several miles we stop. Brad comes back to make sure the Jeep I’ve rented is in four-wheel drive. He’s shirtless, dirty jeans slung around narrow hips. Flip-flops on dirt-encrusted feet. A disheveled mop of hair over an equally disheveled beard. He moves with the loping gait of a contractor, his main means of employment. He carries a beer in his thick hand.
Back in our vehicles we chug ever-so-slowly and carefully through increasing numbers of junk cars and tortured lava rock walls and cliffs. A cow looms in the road, lit red in Brad’s sole running light.
We turn into what seems to be a gully. Plywood shacks brightly lit for the holidays come into view. We slow to a crawl, taking what feels like every possible wrong turn.
At a wall of weather-beaten plywood boards, a grizzled Hawaiian emerges and talks to Brad. He comes back and gives me a shaka sign, says I’m welcome here. A bit further on we pass a group of kids standing amidst fencing and kudzu. One’s got a small dog in his arms. They stare at me and my rent-a-Jeep. No one waves.
Through piles of spent, windowless Nissans and Toyotas, Harvesters and Broncos, an A frame shines higher up. Above that, the stars. We’re off the map. This is the side of Maui tourist agencies and car rental companies denote with a broken line. They don’t want you to know about this side of it all, where what’s left of the native Hawaiians have been given special squatters’ rights… but no water or electrical service. No roads. Where the cheap labor that builds endless resorts and cleans them hunkers down with a view of their old holy island, Kahoolawe, now emptied after serving for years as a U.S. military bombing practice site.
We pull into trees and junk, a motor here, wires and old doors there. A dog barks. Brad gets out of the truck and asks me to keep the lights on as he fires the generator. Welcome to Kanaio, he announces with rough exuberance. We hear are the hum of generators, the rustle of strong wind, the distant love cries of drunken couples or their progeny, multiracial and tough as nails. We’re on the far side of Paradise, the deep recess of America, the mirror image of all things consumer.
Brad pulls power anyway he can. He’s got orange extension cords running through trees festooned with laundry. At one end is a generator. At the other, a solar cell on his shack’s corrugated metal roof. Plugs run into jumper cables that hook to Brad’s pickup, which he’s used to running for hours at a time. Everything feeds into a converter, an inverter and more masses of cords and wires, all running pell-mell in this heap he calls home. To fill in the gaps, he’s got stashes of candles, kerosene lamps, flashlights and lighters strewn all over.
Power lines run across roads all over Kanaio. When one house plugs in Christmas twinklers, four homes get their systems blown. People really scamper when a fuse blows. Now, during the holidays, everyone’s being extra careful as they plug in. The men scoff at the luxury of lights, but it keeps their women around.
Only one or two places up here are hooked into Maui’s water system, a PVC pipe that circumnavigates the island from the rain forest Hana side to this, the lava desert. People pay good money for the privilege. But the water’s been shut down for years as the county struggles with the threat of new homesteaders setting up shop past this outlaw outpost and around the southern coast of 1790 lava flows. Costs per household are running upwards of $5,000 a spigot.
Kanaio, in its present form, is only a little over a dozen years old. A few Hawaiian families were allowed back on these lands after the rest of Maui started filling up and the giant ranches on this side of the island–Ulupulakua and Kaupo–were forced to share a bit. Each Hawaiian brought in family and friends. They built as they could and as the land dictated, dragging up old plywood, two-by-fours, corrugated metal, lots of tarps. Everything’s been in flux ever since. People add onto stilted shacks, moving barbed wire fence boundaries to suit their whims, until collapse nears, either physical, mental or marital. Then they start over.
Exes hang on here like bad dreams, expanding family compounds and holiday events like cesspools covered with building scraps. Children count relations everywhere they look. Even newcomers like my wife and I are aunt and uncle to the Kanaio kids.
Dogs with names like Honeybear and John Wayne, Killer Dude and Argonne, Surf-Baby and King K break into fights over table scraps and too-close sniffings. Everyone has stories about what happens when a good bowzer goes bad. They get their head chopped off. It’s a lesson, brother.
Stories also abound about a series of county busts several years back. Police wore camouflage and came down the side of the volcano from far above, where they’d been dropped by helicopter. Said they wanted to break up a thriving crystal meth business. Snooped into everything. Got threatened, hit, slightly mauled when the arrests came down. Which caused more arrests.
But the cops haven’t been back. Too hard to get up here, people maintain. That’s why the roads stay 4 by 4 only. That’s why everyone keeps an eye out. People want it that way, much like the West during rancher days. Or the way they remember Maui from the early 1960s and 1970s, when cattle were still the big business up here, before the hippies came.
People here drink a bit too much for their own good. Wives take to hiding guns when binge time comes around. Men walk around bruised and unkempt. Brad tells us about Kanaio-style emergency care: duct tape and super glue. Over the course of a few days we see it in effect, or after the fact, on several men. Big, mean-looking sutures. It’s funny, and slightly menacing.
Funny thing, too: everyone’s named Paul in the hood—Hawaiian guys with stringy hair and half beards, Southern crackers who’ve pulled their teeth out with pliers. We meet three kids, all named Paul. Everyone laughs when hearing I’m also a Paul. Means I must be okay. Do the shaka sign, someone says… like this, a Paul tells me, waving his hand low to the ground like a surfer hanging ten. He smiles a big grin, so I shaka back.
Every once in a while every homestead is suddenly eating loads of beef. That means someone’s poached a cow from a neighboring ranch. People up here don’t like going much further than Upcountry for shopping.
Upcountry is the area of flower and weed farms we came through the first night, scattered roadside communities near the Sun Park, the Morihari Market and Chinese stores where everyone runs up accounts for their beer and ciggies. There’s a hardware store down in Kula. Brad keeps saying it’d make sense to do a second one up here for all the local men, the Pauls who all do a bit of contracting when they’re not patching their own homes. Even though they’ll easily travel two or more hours for a contracting job, they don’t like leaving Kanaio much. They’re sick of employers who get mad about men having a few sustaining beers while on the job. And hours. Like, who keeps time? Wasn’t this Paradise?
My wife and I take to exploring the local flora. It’s amazing what can grow through lava, catching what it can from the sun and rain for nourishment. Kipukai, a mesquite-like tree, has subtle blossoms. There’s something like heather that nestles in low rocks. Cactus and spindly-limbed shrubs. There are names for everything but most of the people in Kanaio can’t remember them. They just know what smells good, and what’s collectable for native leis.
Brad heads out one day and clambers over needle-sharp lava rocks to get some rare flowers that ride high in the gnarliest of local trees. His friend, Meadow, is a fan of the sweet-smelling Plumeria. My wife loves the honeysuckle allure of wild tobacco. Everywhere you look there’s something new. The place is fecund, overflowing, hard to tame.
When Brad starts a frustrated flurry of work trying to finish the shack he’s been talking about for years, we pick up tools and clothes, lighting implements and wires, and create some form of order. We cut back the junk trees in a small arroyo next to the shack and move in a giant picnic table, build up a firepit. We string Christmas lights (which will later break Brad’s power grid). His 12-year old daughter Jesse, my wife’s niece who she’s not seen since a toddler, is coming for the holidays. We want to capture a sense of spirit out of the disarray.
All that’s in Brad’s home is a giant television and a bed. After a few days there’s a kitchen nook, a table, some pictures up on the walls. We invite the neighborhood: Uncle Dennis, whose property this is and who’s let Brad squat the far end of the property; Meadow, the Californian goat herder with a heart of gold and a penchant for marrying the wrong men; Dennis’ son Little Dennis, always on the verge of boiling anger; Quentin, who’s just recently married a German lady with a host of blonde kids. When not drunk and bitter, Quentin goes net fishing off the lava coast down-country. He’s supposedly a genius at pulling in prize fish, none of which he or the others in this community like to eat.
Kanaio is one of the stranger edges of America. It’s a circus side show where folks can’t be called geeks. It’s like Quasimodo’s beloved Sanctuary. The Hawaiians know the specialness of the place. It’s somehow apart from the concrete block houses that make up Hawaiian ghettos on the Big Island or in the vast expanses of bustling, dying Honolulu. The sea’s omnipresent, the other islands popping in and out of view. There are no trees brought in from other parts of the world. And back when the French explorer Jean de Francois La Perouse first landed on Maui in 1786, this is where the population was based. Here, where the weather is always cooler.
The tourists that swarm the rest of Maui just don’t make it up here. Maybe to the winery, a half hour away. Maybe on the road to Kaupo and its cute store, and then the Hana side of the island. But people turn around at the cattle guards that separate the 40 or so miles of empty road, surrounded by lava fields and the looming rise of the volcano, from what they were expecting in the South Seas.
Which may be why everyone says the place is utter shaka.
Christmas in Kanaio starts early with a wild boar hunt from ATVs, the hunters egging their dogs on. Everyone started drinking a few days beforehand—it’s the holiday spirit, they say. Time’s spent with guys looking into engines, hands firmly planted in back pockets. Womenfolk hold babies, hosting cousins and half-sisters and stepbrothers and uncles and aunts from all over the state, with great Peyton Place caches of woeful gossip and sordid tales. Everyone’s got good weed to pass around in joints and bongs and brownies. Yet they keep it out of kids’ view. Call it local discretion.
Some of the ladies, married into the Hawaiian community but originally from Indiana or Kentucky, a bit bloated and skin-scorched by Maui’s constant sun and wind, decide to put up lights. The effort takes all day. At nightfall, they sit around drinking pineapple wine, waiting for their men to return.
It takes only a year or two for those seeking refuge up here to gain that singsong dialect that’s pure Hawaiian. And with the dialect comes a shrinkage in language. People will read the daily Maui News, they’ll listen to the all-Hawaiian music radio station and its homebred broadcasts from the Big Island, and they’ll catch what’s happening in the wider world via giant television satellite hookups. But they won’t look at books much, or read magazines, or talk culture.
Christmas Eve, the guys come back with nothing but several small deer, eventually traded for a giant domestic pig which gets butchered, cleaned and carried up a back mountain 4-wheel drive path to a plywood sheep herder’s cottage. Meadow’s house. Many of the men know it well. She’s central to a wide world of exes, and matron to a number of women going through troubles.
It’s time for the Kanaio community’s Christmas luau feast.
After dressing the heralded kalua pig, the ATV dudes dig a four-foot hole, line it with lava rocks and banana leaves, then heat the whole thing with a bonfire fueled by mesquite wood, shack leftovers, several cases of beer and an endless stream of Maui Wowie bowls. The next day, Christmas, everyone lays the dressed pig onto a bed of chicken wire and moist banana leaves. This is placed over the coals. More leaves cover the whole thing, which is then covered in blue and brown tarps and two feet of black lava soil. This whole contraption is called an imu. It draws a crowd like a swami in India.
The resulting spoon-soft kalua pig gets served with white bread, white rice, macaroni salad and more beer. Kids play with BB guns. Long-haired bare-chested bronze men drink in full-body swigs while discussing generators and quick ways of stealing water and cows. Womenfolk blow fuses with short-lived displays of Christmas lights. A radio plays an endless mix of Christmas tunes done Hawaii style. A shy hippie dude from higher up the mountain plays ukulele.
Morgan has just earned a PhD in studies of the South American ayahuasca vine, a powerful hallucinogen. He goes on and on about how he’s planning to take over where Big Island grower/philosopher Terrence McKenna left off when he died. Morgan, with his Wyatt Earp mustache, seems to survive on capture-and-release diatribes. He keeps talking until someone finally smacks him so hard he’s knocked silent.
Stuart is a braided white-beard sadhu from Colorado. He drives an expensive Toyota Land Cruiser and yaps on and on about a Finnish family who have discovered a pre-Ice Age Hall of Records.
Henry Silva is a leather-faced older guy who walks like John Wayne and is famous for making saddles and being, well, famous.
Gabriel’s wearing an ankle bracelet, trying to break a crack addiction that led him to hold up a Bank of Hawaii without a gun. His dad turned him in after he spent all the bucks on generators, Steinlager and drugs. He says, quietly, that he loves nothing better than kalua pig. And beer. And drugs. And women…
Kenny talks for hours about his blackout problems while boar hunting. Paul’s living with his ex-wife so he can provide shelter for a crack-addicted daughter and her five under-four year old kids. Bobby’s a former prison guard who spent four years as a prisoner after his fishing partner disappeared following a major Methadone Clinic bust. He’s now born-again. Tommy’s pulled three of his front teeth out with pliers. His family’s from North Carolina, though he claims rebirth the moment he hit Oahu twenty years earlier.
The women tend to cluster around kids and each other. They prepare the side dishes and talk about problems. Who’s been drinking again. Who’s cheating on who.
A beautiful teenager speaks about going to college in the coming year. She’s been practicing hula since a girl, part of the ethnic craze for the almost lost art that’s grown as big as the martial arts in recent years. Fawn asks the girl to show us what she can do but she begs off. She doesn’t have her outfit. The air’s too chilly up here. There’s no music.
Her mother, who’s been downing beers and spewing a litany of get-rich schemes she’s been hatching for years, tells her little girl not to worry, mom will sing for her hula dance. But only after supper.
The men have pulled the pig from its pit and placed it in a cleaned bathtub. The bones have been picked out and everything placed in large-sized aluminum temp-containers. One dude’s been very carefully cooking up teriyaki beef. The boys have all been helping out the men, and are now sitting down with pig meat and root beers, exhausted.
Before everyone’s gathered, all have eaten. There’s no toast, no formal sit down. It’s like the food has just come and gone.
My wife gathers the hula girl and her mom in the tent. Some of the men stumble in and take chairs. The kids sit on the floor. The women teeter in the background. It’s chilly and quiet when the hula girl appears, barefoot in jeans and tank top, a flower hastily placed in her long luscious hair. She nods to her mom.
The mother sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in extra slow time, her voice quavering somewhere between Judy Garland and a drunken slur. But the girl takes to the sound and interprets the words with a lilting pumping of her strong supple blue-jeaned thighs. Her arms beckon, pull away. Her eyes look far off, past the back of the temporary garage tent to that idea of Paradise that’s brought us all here. It’s a stunning performance, heartfelt and raw. Every last one of the men, women and children in this place get tears in their eyes. The dance has entered our souls.
A half hour later, when the men start fighting, women pack the food into ziplock bags and put it in ice-filled coolers. They double check the generators, switching electrical current from solar to running truck engines. They sit my wife and me down and explain that although the men drink and fight so much, they’re basically harmless.
Just before the imu got opened, as Richard the shy hippie played Bob Marley tunes on his ukulele, Uncle Dennis stumbled up to me with sunglasses on, even though it was already an hour past sunset and the only light around were hurricane lamps.
“Hey, brother, I call you New York Man,” he said in his sing song pidgin Hawaiian accent.
I steadied my footing, awaiting a two-by-four upside the head.
But then he turned and swept a hand over the distant view of ocean and miles-away hotel lights, twinkling 3,000 feet below.
“Paradise’s far, but at least we can still see it,” he said to the wind before turning back in my direction.
He raised a close-fisted hand then extended thumb and pinky in the shaka.
“Take back the good word, brother,” he said, pig smoke rising behind him. “It ain’t all good. It ain’t all bad. Doesn’t need to be.”
“If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…” reads the inscription on Charles August Lindbergh’s grave on the far side of Maui. It’s part of a larger quote from Psalm 139 that continues with, “even there thy hand shall lead me.”
The gravesite is lush, 25 miles and over an hour’s drive around the lava flows from Kanaio. It’s behind the fourth church headed east, not counting St. John The Less. That’s including a French-looking place with weeds and ruins, the low-lying place that’s always open by what some call Seal Beach, and the first of the lot, just down from Brad’s place, that’s no longer open.
We stop by there one afternoon and ask to look around. The woman looking after the place stands around the entire time we’re there, following out our every move. She talks to her kids in Hawaiian. No shaka signs for her, no cool.
We learn later that the Kanaio Church should be open but this woman looking after it has got it in her head that the church is better kept vacant until the community gets its act together. We hear this in various versions throughout our time on Maui, usually a prelude to long harangues about the rights of Hawaiians, the way everyone’s getting on each other’s turf and the sad decline of things in general.
The churches on the southern edge of Maui, open as sanctuaries and weathered but alive, are about the only thing left of the pre-settlement years, when this side of the island was its most populated. Back before Mt. Haleakala’s last eruption. Back before the things people wanted for themselves and their families began changing.
Lindbergh first saw this coast when he was in his final years. He was visiting a friend who’s now buried near him at Kipaluhu, along with his friend’s goats all lined up under headstones. Lindy had reached his strange, lone eagle years, when he rarely slept in the same place for more than a week. And this was the place that gave him peace at the same time that it reflected what was deepest at his troubled core.
It’s hard not to think of Lindbergh while in Kanaio. There’s the way Lucky Lindy pushed himself into fame via what was basically a massive gamble. A failed Congressman’s son, Charles hadn’t known what to do with his life. He’d liked flying, but it wasn’t what his background had prepared him for. Then in one fell swoop he changed himself—and the world—by flying nonstop from Long Island to Paris in a single-winged plane from which he couldn’t see ahead. Took two sandwiches, a small supply of water. Hallucinated. Landed to a crowd of several hundred thousand Frenchmen ready to ride him into their capital on their shoulders. Became the first great celebrity of the modern age, despite his incredible shyness. Found a wife in the hubbub, a fellow government official’s child. Together, they hid from the spotlight, but also taunted fame by hiding. He taught her to fly. They had a baby. The child was kidnapped from a dream house before they could call it home. The trials and tribulations dragged on for years. The Lindberghs, moved overseas to try and quiet the storm of celebrity, blamed the media.
After the trial of his son’s alleged kidnapper and murderer, Lindbergh had a successful career helping major airlines get up and running as an industry by doing tours of European countries to assess their air forces. Along the way, he grew impressed with Germany’s Third Reich. He didn’t see them as tyrants, found himself impressed with their underlying snobbism, which he’d fallen into himself after years of hounding from the press. A prickly situation ensued. Lucky Lindy refused to call Hitler evil. When the War started, he campaigned against U.S. involvement in it. He was wrong, it turned out. Very publicly wrong.
The way I started seeing it, Lindbergh’s great mistake was to have a bad opinion and stand by it until forced to apologize. He still wasn’t allowed to fly for his nation when he changed his mind about the War. So he flew surreptitiously, under pseudonyms. He knew the maps and the terrain, having flown much of the Pacific over the years. He even shot down Japs, bailed planes, did all the heroic stuff all over again, albeit in T.E. Lawrence-style understated fashion.
After the War, he wrote books. His wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, also wrote. The two topped the bestseller lists, won Pulitzers, kept at their lives. Bought a home in Connecticut. He dabbled in the sciences, inventing an artificial heart. Kept traveling as if to escape whatever it was that had made him wrong in the war years. He became an avatar of the World Wildlife Federation, his travels taking him into wild areas of the world where he became a true friend to indigenous peoples. He came to Maui in the late 1960s, and bought a patch of land as far from everyone else as he could. He settled in Kipaluhu, a long dirt road away from the wet side of Hana, then still remote. Kanaio wasn’t available yet. But it was the same as what he bought.
Even when lush, the southern side of Maui is otherworldly. The rocks seem to have been placed in strange messages as yet undeciphered. Patterns show themselves: ripples in the giant puddles that wrap trees after heavy rains, the juxtaposition of cows and leafless trees in a lush green lava field, the crazy passion of local gravesites, built up and heavily festooned with photos and pop iconography lamenting those passed away at the early ages of 40 or 50.
The men who built Lindbergh’s pine coffin are minor celebrities now. So are those few who attended his final service, held in Hawaiian so no one could complain.
Kanaio is a rough and tumble land. There’s a drama to its contrasting edges: green fields bounded by razor sharp lava rock, deep blue ocean harboring hungry sharks, soft beaches lapped by treacherous riptides. Occasionally, one can find remains of past lives: a foundation here, old car parts there. Like the arroyos that can fill with flash floods at any moment. Like the bottled emotions of those who have come to call this coastline home, ready to spill over at any moment. It’s just the guns that make it hard, the alcohol, the things one uses to anesthetize oneself to the terrible beauty that is life here in paradise.
The people who live here have chosen to inhabit an edge that has dangers we’ll never know. To open that world up for closer scrutiny would force all of us to look closer at what it is that defines us, as well as our problems. That, in turn, would force us to look even more deeply than we have into the make-up of our own human family than any of us would want to. It’s enough that we endure divorce and alcoholism, violence and the threat of rape, addiction and rampaging egotism.
Brad told us after one particularly confrontational, drunken evening that if he could, he’d go farther away from the center, closer to the edge. But he didn’t know where to go from where he was. His property was already bounded up against a border fence that he was contemplating moving. Beyond was nothing but deeper wilderness, more fierceness, greater self-consciousness.
“Why did they even think of inviting me to their son’s birthday party?” he kept hollering, wounded like an animal, after he and a neighbor had fought. “Don’t they know I can’t be trusted? Why do you think I’m here?”
All of the people we met in Kanaio had similar stories to tell. They’d tried living in the anonymity of cities, or the comfort of family compounds on Kauai or the Big Island. Some had spent time in the wilds of Alaska, or the bayous of Louisiana, looking for places where they could be as they were without causing too much trouble. To Fawn and I, this community seemed to be perperually poised over a powder keg, yet this was where these refugees felt safest.
Many of the people we meet talk about healing themselves with new herbs and vines. They speak of South Americans who have means of spiraling through death to the lessons on the other side. So they overuse the means as medicine to cleanse their alcoholism, their anger. But it just becomes a cycle. One drinks to sickness. One takes the medicine to get well again. And on and on.
This is a beautiful, strange life these men and women live, poised between the everyday and the fantastic, between the heaven of their hopes and the hells of their addictions. There’s an innate poignancy embedded in their guilt over tarnished pasts, their grand hopes for idyllic futures.
Brad wants to build a two-storey addition onto his shack, a home for his daughter and her mother, his ex-wife Suzie. He draws up plans, scours the sides of roads for the pieces he can eventually put together in the form of a palace-like home. And yet he’ll never be able to match the two ladies’ ideal: one of those manufactured homes from the other side of the island that looks just like what they’ve seen on television, from the mainland, from Xanadu.
This landscape is built for nurturing, and is flourishing now, but feels destined to fail.
Some have said that when one dies one enters the flow of history. But that doesn’t take into account the wildness of a place like this, where the present swallows all that came before it. Here in lovely, harsh, compassion-testing Kanaio, death simply places one into the spectrum of life. Which is as endless as the horizon, as the cycle of rain and drought, as the strangeness of life on a volcano.
I asked Brad about death once. He said there is a place on the other side where it’s all okay. He tells me that he’s defined his death already via the sharp edges he’s used to define his life. He said he knows this from his medicine, from his pain, from his experience of Kanaio.
I tell him too few people can even see the beauty of a Kanaio any more. They need the quieter, more picturesque beauties to match what they’ve been given as a definition of life.
But dude, Brad tells me. That’s not how it is. There is a greater beauty and a spirit in life and it can sometimes only be seen at the edges, in the darkness, in the spiral of blood and anger.
I tell him how I can’t get over my brother’s death-bloated face in the polaroid the cops gave me to i.d. him. So Brad says get over it. One of his first memories was of finding a dead body on his front porch and running. And how, now, he wished he’d not run.
But he had, I said. Yes, he said, he had.
Which in a way is how he, and his sister and I, have come to discover Kanaio. And the compassion and edges of life itself.