What do you say when a relative announces that he has an apartment available in Hawaii whenever you want to come visit?
In our case, we said we’ll be there in December, before the Christmas rush. We drove to Seattle – Marypat, Eli and I – and flew on over, landing in Kona, greeted with leis in the tropical evening air by my cousin Al (easy name to remember!). For more than a week, we enjoyed snorkeling with an amazing array of colorful fish, hanging out with sea turtles, being bashed around by surf on boogie-boards, witnessing the amazing wet/dry phenomenon where within a couple of miles you cross from what feels like Arizona to what passes for jungle, eating Hawaiian cuisine (Spam and eggs), hiking to black beaches and surf-beaten headlands, walking across fresh lava flows, visiting farmer’s markets and botanical gardens and 200-foot waterfalls.
Best of all, at this point in my life, was the chance to deepen relationships with relatives who we’ve only recently begun to know, hearing their back story during evening conversations, finding out what makes them tick, how their lives came together, why they live where they do. That is the take-home piece for me, the thing that outshines the usual tourist highlights, this deepened bond with another branch of family.
What also stays with me is the remarkable geography of this outlier state, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the inescapable background knowledge of that location, surrounded by horizon after horizon of open ocean. First, the rampant isolation of it. But also, the solidity of these islands, rising as much as 13,000′ above the sea in volcanic mounts that are still building themselves, eruption after eruption, lava river after lava river, towering above the deep, sheer skirts of rock rising out of the seafloor far below.
Partway through the visit, we listened to a ranger talk at one of the island parks. She spoke of the first settlers of the islands, some 1,500 years earlier, and the circumstances under which we now surmise they made their way to these islands. They were South Pacific sailors, from Tahiti or one of the other Polynesian Islands roughly 2,500 miles away. They girded themselves for voyages north, assuming from evidence like bird migrations that land existed somewhere out there, and set off in ocean-going vessels that were little more than large canoes with outriggers and sails.
They had nothing besides their abiding knowledge of the ocean – its vast eddies and winds and storms. They had their navigational wisdom based on observations of the stars and sun, currents and trade winds. They carried the most basic foods and supplies. For more than a month they lived and navigated and survived on the ocean, sailing northward. Eventually, they came to what we now call Hawaii, where they landed, they settled, they built culture and organized politics and developed ceremonies. They were among the avalanche of exotic species who have come to these mid-ocean lumps of lava and found ways to live – plants, animals, insects, birds, people – all arriving by some circumstantial quirk to take up residence and wreak various havoc and flourish and compete.
What an unbelievable leap of faith. It begs the question of what desperation, or curiosity, or adventurous urge, led to that launching of boats. It begs the question of how many voyages set out and never returned, never found land, and perished in the quest. It stirs the imagination, these unbelievably daunting voyages and the intrepid confidence or desperate circumstances that fueled them.
It beggars current expedition lore, robust and ambitious as it sometimes is, to consider these oceanic odysseys. It certainly beggars our own voyage, by plane and car, with a waiting apartment and the local knowledge of relatives at the other end with fragrant wreaths of flowers to put around our necks.
What a thing!