“Closest to the Edge: Life in a squatters’ village on the wild side of Maui” by Paul Smart (Arthur, 2005)

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.

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