It’s midnight at thirty thousand feet and my wife Susan and I are outbound over the Pacific, en route to the largest, the southernmost, the easternmost, the most glorious (in our opinion) of the glorious Hawaiian Islands, the island of “Hawaii,” aka “The Big Island.” Above us stars, no moon; below us ocean, no land. The last land we saw was the San Francisco Bay Peninsula, nearly two thousand miles behind us, the closest land to where we are now, other than the Hawaiian Islands themselves. I’m always awed at how far these islands are from everywhere else. One more reason why I love them, even if I suspect my love may be less for what they are than for what I fantasize them to be. At the moment I don’t care. This visit, which will last eighteen days, will be the longest since I lived in Hawaii, now forty years past, then in the Navy, another life, another wife.
In less than thirty minutes we’ll land at the Big Island’s Kona Airport. The air crew will welcome us, send us off with an aloha (meaning both “hello” and “goodbye,” a curiosity in the Hawaiian language). Palm fronds will rattle in the wind. A honeyed breeze will caress our cheeks. We’ll walk through an open-air terminal past sunburned passengers who must return to the long, hard, North American winter we’ve just left, as will we, as will we, but not yet, not now, the joy!
We are on our way from Kona Airport, following the Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway. (To pronounce Kaʻahumanu or Kona or aloha or any other word in the Hawaiian language, pronounce each vowel except for the vowels in diphthongs – ai, ae, ao, au, ei, eu, iu, oi, ou, ui – each of which has a unique vowel sound, although sometimes even locals avoid this vowel-chain madness – the “Queen K” is what most call this road.) We’re heading to our hotel on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast, the Fairmont Orchid, (Orchid, I can almost taste the word!), although on this moonless night, what we see outside our car is black. Even at high noon, we’d see a lot of black. We’re crossing a black lava field that flowed from the great, thirteen-thousand-foot Mauna Loa volcano less than two hundred years ago. The land upon which we’re driving is some of the newest on the planet. The Hawaiian Islands sit atop a “hotspot,” a crack in the earth’s crust through which magma rises. As the Pacific tectonic plate sails northeast at about half an inch per year, it leaves in its track a wake of islands created by the lava erupted from this hotspot. The newest is Hawaii, the Big Island, although to the southeast another, L¬ōʻihi Seamount, is rising, as yet a thousand feet below the ocean surface. This proximity to creation pleases me, one more thing I love about Hawaii.
We pass a yellow road caution sign: Donkey Crossing Dawn and Dusk.
We exit the Queen K. and follow a road beneath a row of floodlit palms, directed sign by sign to the hotel entrance. I drop Susan in the open-air lobby. The bellman instructs me on where to park the car, which turns out to be a large, dark lot, on the edge of a large, black lava field, a quarter-mile away. The lot is so dark I have trouble finding my way back to the lobby. I make several wrong turns. End up in what looks like an unpaved employee parking area – older cars, no Hertz, Avis, or Alamo stickers. From out of the dark, a young woman greets me. “Hello,” she says, “What to party?”
“No thanks,” I reply. But I wonder. Is this yet another temptation in paradise?
C. Colors, Coconut Palms, Banyan Trees
Lime, lemon, aqua, tangerine, ruby, peach, banana, palm, mocha, taupe, purple, cerise, cerulean, lava, aquamarine, navy blue, royal blue, sand, yellow, orange, persimmon, guava, indigo, gold, pink, rose, fuchsia, lavender, lilac; from the balcony of our Fairmont Orchid room we see all these colors. The Fairmont forms a large U, within which lie gardens, fishponds, waterfalls, lounge chairs, cabanas, a couple of restaurants, and a large, irregular-shaped swimming pool. The central building is flanked by two wings, each five stories high, cream-colored, angled so that most rooms have a view of the ocean. The architecture is Italianate/tropical – green-tile roofs, open-air hallways. Beyond a shoreline path and a row of coconut palms, there’s a black, lava-sand beach. The Pacific rolls in, this morning with only a slight break, its water a glorious indigo. The indigo derives from reflecting the blue sky but also from the scattering of blue light by molecules in the seawater, a phenomena known as Rayleigh scattering, which is also why the sky is blue, but the sea is mostly blue from the absorption of longer wavelengths of light, the reds, oranges, and yellows. What is left are blues. (I wonder at the complexity of this physics – don’t we expect simplicity for an ocean blue?)
Between the beach and a paved walk is a row of coconut palms. I love these palms. The sensual curve of their trunks, the coconuts swelling at the base of the fronds, the fronds fanning out from the trunk top – a leitmotif for the tropics. Here at the Fairmont Orchid, the palms are meticulously groomed. But when you see any coconut palm in Hawaii, you are seeing the handiwork of the first men and women to arrive here; the islands are so remote that only aboard canoes crewed by Polynesian voyagers could the palms survive such a long sea journey. The handiwork of human beings on flora and fauna lies everywhere in Hawaii, even on the earth itself. The land under the Fairmont Orchid was once a lava-field desert; now ground down, it’s the foundation for hotels, townhouses, and golf courses.
Susan and I go for a first-morning walk. We follow a path along the lava-rock shore, past pockets of white coral sand, in between black sand beaches and spring-green golf courses. We pass ponds, these built by the ancient Hawaiians to raise fish, a food kapu—forbidden––to all but the aliʻi, who were the chiefs. The aliʻi, archeologists believe, arrived from Tahiti in a second wave of immigration, subjugating the first arrivals who were Marquesan. Their harsh caste system and their practice of human sacrifice left a bloody stain on Hawaii’s Polynesian history. (It turns out, a few days from now, I’ll discover the Fairmont also has a bloody stain, a crime-of-passion murder in one of its rooms, a Seattle man killing his female lover. But this peaceful morning that crime remains unknown to me.)
We follow an avenue bound by banyan trees. The banyans appear to have many-legged trunks but these are actually the roots of separate seeds germinated on the mother tree; they remind me of Maurice Sendak storybook characters. The banyans are from India. The purple bougainvillea from Brazil. The flame trees from Africa.
D. Diamond Head, Fort Derussy, and Pineapple Tears
I first visited the Hawaiian Islands in 1966 onboard a Navy guided missile frigate, the USS Gridley, on a midshipman’s summer training cruise. The pink majesty of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel dominated Waikiki Beach then – today the hotel is lost in a jungle of high-rises. I remember how excited I was to see the profile of Diamond Head, emblematic of the islands’ volcanic past. There was a barracks-like R-and-R motel on Waikiki, Fort Derussy, solely for the use of military personnel, where a nineteen-year-old midshipman could be served Mai Tais, no questions asked. We weren’t in port more than a few days, but it was this visit when my love for Hawaii began. Five years later, I would be stationed in Pearl Harbor, this time aboard a Navy destroyer. A plumeria tree grew outside our married officers’ quarters; its milky, gold-centered blossoms gave off a fragrance like honey. From the upstairs bedroom, we could watch rainbows arch over the Koʻolau Mountains and a fine rain fall – what Hawaiians call “pineapple tears.” In autumn, when the cane fields were burned, the air smelled like maple sugar. My first thought each morning was this: <emThey pay me to live in paradise.
Susan and I are driving up the Big Island’s Kohala Coast to Hawi (the w in Hawaiian is pronounced like a v), a former sugar plantation town on the north tip of the island. Normally the coast here would be desert-dry, even though a few miles away, on the other side of the island, it’s one of the wettest places on earth, over two hundred rain inches a year. But today, on this normally dry coast, it’s raining. And it’s raining hard. Islanders call this weather “Kona.” In Kona weather the wind shifts south and west from the prevailing northeasterly trades and the weather becomes unsettled, rain in winter, humidity in summer – the town of Kona on the Big Island’s western coast is where Kona weather gets its name from: during Kona weather, the wind blows directly on the town. This morning, at the Fairmont Orchid, also on the western shore, the surf was breaking big twenty-footers. A cadre of surfers were riding the waves. To the east, “mauka,” as islanders like to say, Mauna Kea’s summit was freshly snowed. (Islanders forgo cardinal directions in favor of mauka, “toward the mountains,” or makai, “toward the sea,” a sensible practice for an island topography). Mauna Kea is by some measures, the tallest mountain in the world, beginning as it does on the floor of the Pacific and rising thirty-six thousand feet to its summit. Mauna Kea and her sister volcanoes (five on the Big Island alone) are one more reason why Hawaii is unique. The range of elevation and the steadiness of the trade winds cause rain to fall on the island’s windward side, leaving the leeward side dry, thereby creating an extraordinary number of exotic microclimates – coastal desert, high desert, high grasslands, tropical rainforest, alpine tundra, coastal wetlands.
Despite such diversity I suspect Hawaii is losing its aura as an exotic destination. Which is not to say that people don’t love Hawaii, but perhaps they no longer celebrate its unique environment in quite the way they once did, when it was more difficult to get here. The volcanic and oceanic geology. The tropical and subtropical flora and fauna. The mix of terrain and climate. The isolation in the vast Pacific Ocean. Now most people come here to golf, lie in the sun, swim, get a tan. As do we. As do we.
We round the northern tip of the island. Now we are in rainforest dense, green, and wet – koa, banana trees, mango, papaya, fan palms. Hawi was once a sugar plantation town. The town’s main street has been given over to art galleries, clothing boutiques, coffee shops, ice-cream emporiums, sushi cafes. The rain pours down. When Susan opens the car door, water gushes over the sill.
Only two land mammals are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands: the monk seal and the hoary bat. All others arrived courtesy of human beings. With the Polynesians, rats, dogs, and pigs; with the Europeans and Asians, horses, goats, sheep, cows, mongoose, donkeys (hence the Donkey Crossing signs) – and cats.
Our friends, Sandy and Peter, have a house at Kohala Ranch. At night wild pigs dig up their lawn. If you shine a light on the side of the road, you will see the glowing eyes of dozens of feral cats. As early as the 1860s, when Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, visited the islands he described Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, as a city of cats.
There are, of course, other native mammals, the marine mammals. Spotted dolphins, spinner dolphins.
Above all, there are whales.
G. Grady-White and Swimming with Whales
Our friend Peter wants to swim with the whales. In his sixties now, Peter is checking off his bucket list. A one-time collegiate swimmer as well as a Navy diver, Peter is superbly skilled in the water. The whales are humpbacks. From Peter and Sandy’s ocean-facing lanai we can see them, blue-black bodies, V-shaped tails, large pectoral fins, up to fifty feet in length, chuffing twenty-foot spouts, breeching and diving, singing whale song, (from the lanai we can actually hear them sing). The whales are here from December to April, during which time the females give birth to their calves. Then, in April, they depart, a long, annual migration to the Arctic. Susan and I have offered to pilot Peter’s twenty-foot Grady-White runabout while Peter swims, but first we must find a whale. Our plan is to locate one swimming in our direction, then maneuver the Grady-White into the whale’s path. Once there, we’ll turn off the engine; less annoying to the whale, safer for Peter.
We launch the boat at Kawaihae, a manmade harbor the Matson Company uses to supply the island, an un-paradisiacal, functional place with stacks of shipping containers, a tank farm, a pier for the tugs and barges, a breakwater open to the north. When swells come from the north, often their direction in winter, surge may flush in and out of the harbor, which can make launching a boat tricky. But today it’s still. Outside the breakwater, we speed into a universe of primary colors. White boat. Yellow sun. Blue sky. Indigo sea. Even the island, which on this leeward coast is usually a sere brown, glows bright green after a wetter than usual winter.
Where are the whales? We scan the horizon. We spot a pair: a mother and calf, the mother perhaps forty feet long, the calf twenty, both longer than the Grady-White. Peter steers the boat into the whale’s course. I take the helm and kill the engine. Peter dons snorkel and mask and rolls backwards over the side, diver-style. Susan hands him a pair of fins.
“Suddenly,” an exuberant Peter later tells us, “the entire floor of the ocean appeared to rise beneath me.”
H. Hilton Waikoloa and Huli-huli Chicken
Sandy and Peter have just returned from the mainland and we’ve offered to meet them for lunch. We’ve decided on dim sum. The only dim sum place we know is inside the Hilton Waikoloa. Inside is imperative: the Hilton Waikoloa is in Hawaii but not really of Hawaii. On two previous occasions, the first twenty-three years ago, the second a dozen years ago, Susan, our son John, and I stayed in this hotel, although maybe calling the Hilton Waikoloa a “hotel” understates its intent. The Hilton Waikoloa is a synthesis of hotel and amusement park. Once you set foot in its towering, open-sided, airy lobby, you could be in any tropical place in the world. I suppose that’s the idea. Generic paradise. It has a light rail “train,” canals and canal boats to transport visitors from building to building, five multistory towers. It has Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese, and French restaurants. It has fishponds and waterfalls. It has its own saltwater lagoon. It has three swimming pools, a number of bars, what my sister calls “the best waterslide on the island, maybe in the world.” You can pamper yourself in its spa, swim with dolphins in its dolphin pool, play tennis and volleyball on its world-class courts, golf on its adjacent links. It offers modest-sized rooms. But it also offers luxury suites. The first time we stayed here – I was then a Fortune 500 sales vice-president at an annual sales award meeting – we stayed in a luxury suite. The last time, paying our own way, we didn’t quite have an ocean view. But each time the idea was the same: we would never have to leave, we would never want to leave. We’d remain in an elite, airy strata of what was then a millennial (and by this I mean 1990s through early 2000s) destination resort ideal; and thus it raised an unintended but fundamental question: just what was a tropical vacation in paradise supposed to be?
On this day as we walk through the lobby, the Waikoloa may be showing its age. There’s a Hawaiian clothing shop stuck incongruously in the lobby corner. The people-mover train moves slower than we remember: has it grown weary hauling so many people? The open-air hallways have a musty too-long-in-the-tropics smell. The artwork on the walls – reproductions of South Seas Gaugin and, who else, Rousseau? – looks as if it needs renewing. The Chinese restaurant is darker than we remember it, incongruous on such a bright day. The dim sum, however, is excellent. But, as we talk over lunch, we find ourselves reminiscing about the huli-huli chicken Peter and Sandy introduced us to last year. The chicken was barbequed outdoors in oil drum half-barrels over kiawe charcoal by a mobile chef who cooks at a different location on each day of the week. The chicken is so tender it falls off the bone and it’s spicy with chili, sweet with citrus, and salty with soy and if a cuisine typifies contemporary Hawaii perhaps this is it, a combination of all the cuisines of all the different peoples of all the different cultures who have settled here – Polynesian, Portuguese, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, American – surely more authentic than the roast pork, poi, and pineapple of the tourist luaus, or even the highfalutin cuisines of the Hilton Waikoloa. And this Hawaiian authenticity, inside the Hilton, is something you are not likely to find.
I. Island Tales
Sam Clemens wrote about Hawaii. So did Jack London, Joan Didion, James Jones, Herman Wouk. But the most widely read book must surely be James Michener’s Hawaii, which for me, as for so many others, was my first literary introduction to the islands. The book opens with a Genesis-like account of the island’s volcanic formation. When I was thirteen, I thought this beautiful. Having recently reread the book, the early chapters seem overwritten. But as the novel proceeds the characters carry the tale. Michener tells the stories of the major island ethnic groups through the eyes and words of protagonists belonging to each group.
But as I grow older, it’s Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, whose words about Hawaii speak to me best. Clemens spent only a few months here in 1866. But the islands haunted him for the rest of his life. Late in his life he wrote this:
“For me, its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, it remote summits floating like islands above the cloud rack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the plash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.”
J. Jackhammer Jockeys
We’ve laid in a two-day detour from the Big Island to the island of Lanai, an island Susan and I have never visited. I book our hotel on the Internet, expensive by our standards, but still less than I expected. Until 1992, nearly all of Lanai, one of the smaller of the Hawaiian Islands, was a pineapple plantation – almost every arable acre of it. Now ninety-seven percent of it belongs to the Silicon Valley software mogul Larry Ellison, who has vowed to restore it to its natural state using “renewable energy” technologies, albeit with a few luxury hotels, upscale housing developments, and golf courses. According to the Internet, at present, there are two luxury hotels on the island: the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele, an up-island golf and equestrian venue, and the Four Seasons Manele Bay. We’ve booked Manele Bay, although we’ll soon discover that the Four Seasons Manele Bay is actually located on Hulopoe Bay. The Internet doesn’t tell you everything.
We arrive at the Lanai Airport late afternoon. The scars of Lanai’s pineapple plantation past are clear. Red-earth fields, no pineapples, a gridded plantation town, Lanai City, no plantation employees. We pass rows of Cook pines in Lanai City, planted, the bus tourist brochure tells us, by a Kiwi plantation manager who was homesick for New Zealand. With their uniform height and their stick-drawing branches they resemble a child’s rendering of a Christmas tree. If “renewable energy” restoration is in progress, we can’t see it – but what would it look like anyway? We descend to the shore on a winding road. We’re greeted at the hotel entrance with the ubiquitous leis, (most Hawaiian hotels present leis: these are seed-gourd leis, no flowers, chocolate brown). The lobby is tasteful with South Seas paintings. The hallways are open-air. Parrots and macaws inhabit large hallway cages (rescued from the local humane society, a plaque reads). Our room is large. It has a flower-bedecked balcony from which we can see Hulopoe Bay below us, to the east, Haleakalā, the massive shield volcano that overarches the neighboring island of Maui. “Haleakal¬¬¬ā¬” means the “house of the sun.” Twenty years ago, Susan and I and our four-year-old son John drove to the volcano summit to watch the sun rise. It was foggy. We saw no sunrise. John broke into tears. Was he worried the sun wouldn’t rise? Here, on Lanai, we’ll watch the sun rise over Haleakalā each morning.
We breakfast in an open-air restaurant. In the bay below us, scores of dolphins, leap, spin, turn, splash into the water – a flight of silver arrows. The dolphins are called “spinners” and they overnight here in the bay, so as to protect their young, our guidebook says, “from large predators.”
“What large predators?” Susan asks. We plan to snorkel later today in this same bay.
We spend the morning on a scimitar of golden beach. We dive amid a rainbow of tropical fish, reef corals, and submerged lava ridges, we sunbathe in our lounge chairs, we swim behind a gentle surf break, we spot no large predators, see no more spinner dolphins. Beach boys bring us wet towels and ice water. But no booze. Booze is prohibited. The beach is a public park and on Lanai, no alcohol is permitted in public parks. We wonder at this: is it a holdover from plantation paternalism? We opt to spend the afternoon at the hotel pool only to encounter a cacophony of jackhammers. Half the hotel is under construction. Why, we now realize, our room cost less than we expected. Wranglers in jeans and cowboy hats from the up-island equestrian center (it’s been raining up island and the riding trails are closed) pass out moist towels and complementary Mai Tais. Pool boys offer us headsets to drown out the roar. But about the jackhammers, as with much else in tourist Hawaii, the internet hasn’t told us everything.
K. Kailua-Kona, Keauhou Bay, King Kamehameha
Jack London, in his short story “The Sheriff of Kona”, has one of his characters describe the town of Kona as a “lotus land” where “They were not winds; they were sighs – long, balmy sighs of a world at rest.” London wrote his story after an extended visit in the 1920s. When I first visited Kona in 1972, London’s description was still germane. The town had a sleepy charm – like a New England village planted in the tropics: stone churches, wood-framed buildings with long, open verandas, modest beachside bungalows, coconut palms, the entire town within a block or two of a blue, placid Pacific. The tourist industry then, such as it was, catered mostly to deep-sea sport fishermen. Charter boats rose and fell on the swells behind the town seawalls, the boat trolls waving back and forth like lobster antennae. The next thirty years, however, weren’t kind to Kona’s aesthetic. Five-story condos crowded the beach. Seventies-style hotels were built so close to one another that from the shoreside Aliʻi Drive, you could no longer see the sea. The town expanded until it merged with Kailua and it spread up-slope to Holualoa. In time the housing developments, shopping malls, and car dealerships became better planned (presumably because they were better zoned) but also ended up looking like Orange County in California rather than Kona in paradisiacal Hawaii. There was, however, a small fragment that retained some of its original tropical charm – Keauhou Bay.
The bay is a modest indentation south of Kona. It has a boat-launching ramp, the Keauhou Canoe Club, a few single-family homes, a couple of low-rise condo complexes, a small park, a large Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa, a vendor that rents paddleboards, sea kayaks, canoes, and offers snorkel trips and boat charters. All below scores of coconut palm trees. Last year Susan and I stayed at the Sheraton. We took morning walks down to the Canoe Club. A small enclosure, overhung by palms and ferns and adjacent to a lava cliff marked the birthplace of King Kamehameha III, son of Kamehameha I, the Hawaiian king who, by war and statecraft, united all of the Hawaiian Islands. Kamehameha III reigned from 1825 to 1854 and presided over the westernization of Hawaii but also over a series of epidemics – European and Asian diseases – that killed nearly half of what was left of his indigenous subjects. Still, there is something peaceful about this place, if sad too – the ferns, the palms, the stillness of the bay, an Eden that gave way to an (apparently) more ambivalent future.
Susan and I decide to watch the sunset from the Kona Inn quayside restaurant. We park across the street behind a strip mall with a tattoo parlor, jeweler, and T-shirt shop. In the parking lot below a stand of trees, we watch a sixtyish tattooed man sell drugs to a blousy, barefoot, fiftyish woman. Two more faces of paradise.
Aʻa lava is stony, rough, and laden with clinker – it can cut your boots. Pahoehoe is smooth, ropy, and looks like frozen molasses. Pahoehoe advances in lobes and toes. Aʻa plows over the earth like a bulldozer. A kīpuka is an island of land completely surrounded by a lava flow. Black volcanic glass particles shaped like drops are called “Pele’s tears.” It’s no wonder so many words for lava are Hawaiian. Lava made Hawaii.
During our visit this year, no lava is flowing. Last year it was. So much so that in Pāhoa on the southeast corner of the island, the county licensed tour guides to prevent tourists from wandering out onto an active flow. The FAA issued special air traffic regulations to keep the tourist helicopters from running into each other. The Chain of Craters Road, in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, which runs from the park headquarters down to the coast, is closed. Lava from Kīlauea Volcano flowed over the road several years ago. Forty years past, my then-wife and I drove down this road to the shore, hiked alongside a flow, and watched lava plunge steaming into the sea. Kīlauea is by many accounts the world’s most active volcano. Even now, as I write this during the summer of 2014, lava has begun to flow again, threating to isolate communities on the southeastern Puna Coast. When lava hits the sea, it forms glass-like nodules that accumulate as black sand. The shards are called limu o Pele, or “Pele’s seaweed.”
Pele is the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. She’s notoriously capricious: jealous of her lovers, hot-tempered, vengeful, sometimes compassionate, always unpredictable. Susan promised our niece Bailey Maynard to bring home sand from each of the Big Island beaches we visit. “Not a good idea,” our friend Peter warns, at least not black sand. Removing black sand or any lava rock angers Pele. Susan, a scientist by degree, doesn’t necessarily believe in gods or goddesses. But she does believe in luck. Why tempt fate? Susan forgoes sand from black sand beaches.
M. Mauna Kea
Susan, Sandy, Peter and I decide to stargaze at the Keck Observatory. The observatory is sited atop Mauna Kea’s summit, at thirteen thousand feet, well above much of the Earth’s interfering atmosphere and also free from the light pollution that plagues more urban observatories. We will not visit the summit tonight – the telescopes are closed to visitors anyway. Instead, we’ll drive up to the visitor center, located at 9500 feet, where amateur astronomers armed with hobbyist telescopes will help us survey the glory of the Hawaiian night sky.
When we arrive, it’s still daylight and the visitor center is shrouded in clouds. There are quite a few people, some in down parkas, others in shorts. It’s chilly up here. Not shorts weather. The grasses and bushes are brownish-gray, sparse in the reddish-brown volcanic soil. We’re well above the tree line. We brought our own picnic – a bottle of red wine and hamburgers, although the burgers, which we purchased an hour ago in Waimea, seven thousand feet below where we are now, are barely warm. We eat them anyway. A kind of partridge pecks around our picnic table – the bird, either an Erckel’s or black francolin, isn’t native, but was imported from Africa for the benefit of hunters. A rail-fenced enclosure a few feet from our table is labeled DO NOT ENTER – SILVERSWORDS. The silversword is an endemic plant, slow-growing and slow-blooming, much like the yucca and century plants of the mainland deserts, which it resembles. Non-native cows, sheep, goats, and donkeys have nearly grazed the silverswords out of existence. Thus the enclosure. In the area around the visitor center we see two-story buildings that look like barracks or dormitories tucked discreetly amid barren hummocks. The Keck is a teaching observatory and the buildings are for students. In the last ice age, Mauna Kea had glaciers – were these hummocks between the dormitories glacial moraines? We see no sunset. From here, on the east side of Mauna Kea, we wouldn’t see much – because of the fog, we’d see none today.
The visitor center is small, about the size of a suburban tract house, wood-and-stone-sided, half-gift shop, half-museum. Amateur telescopes have been set up on the stone patio that fronts the center. There are signs describing the symptoms of altitude sickness as well as electric pots full of hot water, tea, and coffee. Many people seem to be spooning Cup Noodles from Styrofoam cups – the patio smells like chicken broth. We wait for the clouds to clear. “They clear most nights,” a visitor center guide, a young woman, tells us. “As the air cools, the clouds sink.” We watch a video in what is now a very crowded, very chicken-broth-fragrant visitor center. The gist of the video is the conflict between the astronomers and the Native Hawaiian community. The astronomers want more telescopes. The Native Hawaiians consider the summit a religious place that should be left alone. The Hawaiians in the video seem very angry. Were the astronomers so arrogant as to have stirred up so much anger? Or does the anger stem from larger and broader matters than telescopes? The video concludes on a note of compromise, although a newspaper article I read this morning says lawsuits against a larger telescope are still pending. (And the new telescope groundbreaking, which will occur six months from now, will be canceled because of the threat of violent protests.) A second video (the clouds still haven’t lifted) is an animated exploration of the solar system narrated by the movie and television star Alec Baldwin. The video alludes to solar system catastrophes: comet crashes, extinction of species, the ultimate red dwarf flameout of the sun. I notice several elementary school kids in the front row watching, their faces frozen in horror. When the clouds finally do lift, we can’t see many stars. It’s a moon-bright night, not ideal for viewing. We stand in line to look through a telescope trained on the planet Jupiter. All we see are thin black lines on a fuzzy white disc.
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is on the southern slope of Mauna Loa Volcano and includes all of the smaller Kīlauea Volcano. We pass a sign that reads “Nene Crossing.” The nene (pronounced nay-nay) is an endangered goose, the state bird of Hawaii, the rarest of all the state birds. It resembles a Canada goose and is actually descended from Canada geese some half-million years past (perhaps blown off course to Hawaii by a Pleistocene hurricane). The remoteness of the Hawaiian Islands has resulted in a wide variety of species descended from a few ancestors. The Hawaiian honeycreepers evolved from an original single species to over fifty species and subspecies, some with long, curved bills to access nectar and insects, others with finch-like bills to crush seeds and twigs. Sadly, under the pressure of human contact, many of these have perished. It’s fitting that the Hawaii state bird is threatened because the record of Hawaiian avifauna extinction is grim. Thirty-five or more species extinct subsequent to the Polynesians’ arrival, another twenty-three species or subspecies subsequent to the Europeans’. Loss of habitat is a primary cause, but so are imported predators, competition from non-native birds, even the sartorial appetite of Hawaiian Polynesian royalty for feathered capes – each cape demanding the death of hundreds of birds. The nene (so far) has dodged the bullet of extinction. In part this is because it thrives in captivity and captive birds have been reintroduced into traditional habitat, although, because of predators, few of these are self-sustaining. Today we see no nenes in the National Park. Perhaps they’re hiding from mongoose predators.
Susan and I drive south to Honuʻapo Park on the southern tip of the island. The highway skirts Mauna Loa Volcano. Its volcanic mass rises above us, although not so we can see it – Mauna Loa is a shield volcano with gentle sloping sides. But below us, pali cliffs drop to a narrow coastal plane. This is coffee country and the Kona coffee raised here is renowned for its sweetness. We pass several stands offering plantation tours and tastings. Farther south the highway turns inland. The treed landscape gives way to brush and more recent lava flows. We round the southernmost point and pass from a drier to a wetter climate. Scrub brush gives way to green fields, ranchland, and macadamia nut plantations. We turn south toward the coast and arrive at a black sand beach shadowed by palms, backed by fish ponds, fronted by the Pacific. This locale was an early Polynesian settlement. Freshwater springs provided water but the outflow was under the sea. The early Hawaiians dove down with gourds, held them upside down, trapped the freshwater, and returned to the surface. Fish are plentiful here because currents meet at the southern tip of the island that are rich with planktonic food, attracting smaller baitfish, and larger predator fish: tuna, mahi-mahi, marlin, ono. Ono, like barracuda, is streamlined, a fast swimmer, and a sought-after sport fish. Its meat is white and flakey, a staple of Hawaiian fish tacos, poke (a raw fish salad), and sushi. You catch them by trolling (meaning you drag a lure on a line behind your boat), but you must troll fast, as fast as twelve knots, which if you know trolling is very fast indeed. Several days ago, north of here, we raced back and forth in Peter’s Grady-White trying to catch an ono, amid other boats, also racing back and forth. There was something Chaplinesque in this madcap trolling, or so it seemed to me. We caught no fish. At the launching ramp near our black sand beach we spot a local unloading a half-dozen ono from his jet ski cooler. A few kids wade in the ocean. The water is cool here because of the undersea, freshwater springs. We feel as if we have the beach to ourselves, like during our first visit thirty years ago, the payoff for having driven so many miles from Kona.
P. Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historic Park – the Place of Refuge
On our way back to Kona, Susan and I stop at Puʻuhonua National Historic Park. I first visited here in 1972. Then it was called “City of Refuge.” As with many things in Hawaii, it has resumed its original Hawaiian name. The setting is a flat, lava-flow shore, coconut palms, a mostly gentle sea, mortarless stone walls. The National Park Service has allowed several Hawaiian dwellings and wooden statues to be reconstructed. Now there’s even an exhibit at the park entrance with an audio track of Hawaiian chants and narrated legends. For me the audio doesn’t add much, not to the archeology, not to the beauty, but a National Historical Park serves more than science and beauty or even history. It must also serve those whose ancestors made its history. You are allowed to swim off the refuge beaches but you’re not allowed to play Frisbee or toss a football. This is a holy place.
Hawaiian society, pre-contact, was highly stratified. Rules – the kapu system – kept the underclass in place. Men couldn’t eat with women, commoners were forbidden certain foods, certain trails, and certain sports that were reserved exclusively for the aliʻi, the chiefs. Even raising one’s eyes to view a chief, or allowing one’s shadow to fall upon a chief was kapu. The penalty for violating a rule was severe, often death, usually by having one’s head bashed in by a war club, sometimes even death to the offender’s family members. Soldiers on the losing side of a battle faced a similar fate. There was, however, an out. If the kapu violator or defeated soldier could make it to a “place of refuge,” he or she would, subsequent to rituals administered by the resident priests, be forgiven. The idea of a “place of refuge” appeals to me, softens what otherwise seems a harsh society. In its harshness, of course, pre-contact Hawaii was hardly unique. Think Inquisition Spain. Aztec Mexico. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao in the twentieth century. Still, something about first contact often seems to trigger change, often seems to loosen things up. After first contact, but before the first Western missionaries ever set foot in Hawaii, the Hawaiians themselves had overthrown the kapu system and tossed out many of their bloodthirsty gods.
Q. Queen Liliʻuokalani
Susan and I drive over to Hilo on the windward side of the Big Island for lunch. A different crowd hangs here. Cruise ship passengers, tour bus tourists, marijuana planters, wannabe counterculturists, but also the people who actually run the island government, teach in its schools, own its businesses, work its farms and plantations. Not far from our lunch restaurant a beachside garden is named for Queen Liliʻuokalani. The queen was the last Hawaiian monarch. She was deposed in an 1893 coup after she unilaterally declared the Hawaiian constitution abrogated. Her supporters maintained she was trying to throw out a government that had become notoriously corrupt. Her opponents argued she was preparing to overturn guarantees of property and civil rights enshrined in the original constitution. Whatever the case, the conspirators, mostly Americans led by Sanford Dole, (whose last name later became synonymous with pineapple), requested annexation by the United States. The American president at the time, Grover Cleveland, turned them down. (Cleveland wasn’t anxious to annex anybody but he also didn’t want to antagonize his southern Democrat sugar plantation supporters who feared competition from tariff-free Hawaiian sugar.) The plotters reluctantly declared a republic and waited until a more annexation-amenable administration was elected, which they got in 1898 with the election of President William McKinley. Shortly thereafter, the Hawaiian flag was hauled down. The Stars and Stripes were hauled up. The Hawaiian Islands became a territory of the United States.
For the rest of her life, Queen L. struggled to regain her crown and her royal properties. Though unsuccessful, she became an icon to all who love Hawaii as the composer of the ballad Aloha ʻOe, originally a lover’s goodbye, but which came to symbolize how Hawaii lingers in the hearts of all who love her.
Farewell to thee, farewell to thee
The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers
One fond embrace
Ere I depart
Until we meet again
In the 1970s, the Kona Surf Hotel opened at Keauhou Bay. The hotel sunk into receivership twice, closed in 2000, reopened as a Sheraton in 2004, was sold again in 2011 to a private equity firm that ultimately negotiated a deal to retain the Sheraton name. The feast/famine cycle is not uncommon for Hawaii hotels. Bubble collapses from Tokyo to Silicon Valley can rattle the tourist trade. Plus there’s no sand beach here, which may also explain why the hotel lost customers to the larger, newer, sandier resorts up the coast. There is, however, a picturesque black lava point. Even in gentle weather swells break against the point. Back in the seventies, the original owners decided to floodlight the point so guests could view the wave break at night. The lights had an unexpected effect. They attracted zooplankton which in turn attracted manta rays. Manta rays feed on zooplankton.
If you’ve never seen a manta ray, you’ve missed seeing one of the most magical creatures on the planet. Mantas are diamond-shaped, have flattened disk-like bodies. They swim by moving the “wings” of their bodies. They are big, adults having wingspans of up to sixteen feet, and they are filter feeders, which means they have a complex array of traps, filters, and gill combs in their guts to strain plankton from the seawater. They also have two specialized fins called “cephalic horns” on either side of their mouths. These unroll during feeding so as to channel flow into their mouths. (The “horns” are the reason for the manta’s other name, “devil ray.”) Mantas are solitary creatures, rarely coming together except to mate. Thus, they’re rarely seen in their natural habitat. In 1991 an enterprising scuba dive operator noticed the mantas off the hotel’s point and began leading night dives here, placing more lights on the sea bottom to attract more plankton. In 2013 when Susan and I stayed at the Sheraton, we saw no mantas. This year we’re staying in a condo near the hotel and we’ve decided to have dinner at one of the Sheraton restaurants. We arrive after dark. We sit down at the shoreside terrace bar for a pre-dinner cocktail. The sea is still. Off the point, we notice lights. Red and green boat navigation lights. White underwater lights. Then a bat-like form breaches and roils the surface. Manta rays! We can’t decide which is the most magical – the rays or the boats or the divers’ lights. It’s a spectacle, truly Hawaiian. A symbiosis of what is natural and what is human endeavor.
S. Surfers, Stand-up Paddleboards, Snorkel Bob’s
A dozen or more years ago my family and my sister’s family vacationed on the Big Island together. One afternoon my sister arranged for everybody to take a surfing lesson. Our son John opted in. Susan and I opted out. At the time I was in my mid-fifties. I was a snow skier, a water skier, a cyclist, a sailor. I’d taken up scuba diving when I lived in Hawaii, had let it go, and had little interest in adding another sport to my sports resume. We sat on the beach, Susan and I, and watched as the rest of the family mounted boards, fell off boards, paddled out to sea, mounted boards again, fell again, and finally, at least briefly, rode one or more of the gentle waves that were rolling in. Nearby there was a tiny, white-painted, beachside chapel. A Japanese wedding party stood at the chapel door posing for photographs, the groom in a black tuxedo, the bride in veiled white, and I remember thinking how incongruous it was, our family surfing a hundred yards away, while this couple, in all likelihood already married in Japan, underwent a Western marriage ritual on a beach chapel and how the whole package – surfers, brides, chapel – was synergistic in a uniquely Hawaiian way.
I came to regret not taking that lesson. What did I fear? Looking clumsy? Failing to catch a wave? Sharks?
Now I’m facing a new sports challenge: stand-up paddleboarding, cousin to traditional surfing. The board looks like a surfboard and the rider stands on it like on a surfboard but the rider also paddles it with a long-shafted paddle. If you’re a paddleboard expert, you ride the faces of steep waves, run river rapids, and traverse long distances over open seas. If you’re less adept, you paddle in places where the water is still. Last year Sandy and Peter introduced Susan to the sport. Because I was recovering from a broken rib, once again, I decided to sit it out. I wasn’t really interested anyway: to me, beginner boarders looked tense and uncomfortable. But all year, Susan, Peter, and Sandy have been bugging me to give it a try. Susan has been offering boarding encouragement, usually along the line of “it’s harder than it looks.” Sandy has volunteered to be my instructor. Peter has offered to loan me his “easy” board. I finally give in. We load four boards on Peter’s truck and drive down to the Mauna Kea Beach Club. The club is on a popular snorkeling and swimming beach. The water is clear as cut diamonds. There are lava reefs and coral heads and sandy, submarine savannahs and hundreds of different types of tropical fish. Sandy turns out to be an excellent instructor, patient, serious, and determined that I succeed. Her most valuable advice is this: don’t look at the board, look at the horizon. It works! I’m standing and paddling, but what I didn’t expect is that I feel like I’m flying. I also didn’t expect to sweat, but I do, as countless hitherto-unknown muscles work to balance the board. But what if you have no island friends to loan you a board? Fear not. Snorkel Bobs will rent you a board, a mask, a pair of fins, a stand-up paddleboard lesson, whatever you need for your Hawaiian Islands beach holiday. Just bring your wallet.
To get to Kekaha Kai State Park on the Kona Coast you navigate a long, snaking road across a lava-flow desert to where too many cars compete for too few parking spaces. Our guidebook promised no crowds but Big Island beaches these days, especially in March, are crowded. There’s a lava-stone restroom, outdoor showers, no trees, a few scrubby bushes. People – a lot of people – march toward the beach carrying umbrellas, swim fins, bamboo mats, surfboards, boogie boards, ice chests, and camp chairs. Susan and I scramble down a lava-rock, natural staircase. What we find is a coral-sand alcove at the mouth of a black, nineteenth-century lava flow; the beach is less than a football field wide. Waves roll in, rise, crest, and break. The water is so clear we can look through the wave and see the boogie boarders and bodysurfers seemingly suspended in midair. Waders fill the surf from the break to the shore. Sunbathers occupy every non-lava nook, prone under umbrellas, sitting in beach chairs, and sprawled on bamboo mats. The native Hawaiian kids, bronze-toned, look like they belong here. The rest of us – elderly couples tanned and wrinkled, sunburned tourists, middle-aged women in neck-to-ankle smocks – don’t. A dozen young girls in string bikinis strut along the beach – what would their grandmothers say? Lots of body art. A young woman, fair-haired, tanned, slender, less tattooed than most of the others, is watching two young kids, a boy and a girl, while speaking on a cell phone. The boy is in the surf, waist-deep. A bigger than usual wave breaks, knocks him down, sucks him seaward toward a set of lava rocks. The woman leaps up, tosses her phone in the sand, sprints into the surf, snags her kid, hauls him back up the beach. She has a harried look on her face as she plants the kid in the sand. Susan and I clap out loud, applauding her maternal alertness. She acknowledges us with a wan wave.
People-watching here is excellent. Swimming is not. Too many boogie boarders slash too few waves, especially if you’re old and slow-moving like me. We love it that Hawaii is loved. We don’t love the crowds that come here to love it.
Our friend Sandy has vowed to master the ukulele, the signature instrument of Hawaiian music. She has even commissioned a custom instrument to be made by a local ukulele instrument maker. The ukulele looks like an undersized guitar, has four strings that you pluck with your thumb, fingers, or a felt pick. It comes in four common sizes – soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone – and it originated from the cavaquinho, a similar instrument brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants. The instrument was popularized by Hawaiian royalty, especially King Kalākaua who incorporated it into royal performances. By the early twentieth century ukuleles began showing up in Tin Pan Alley ballads, jazz ensembles, and even country music. Arthur Godfrey popularized it on his 1950s TV show and Tiny Tim by his 1968 hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
What surprises me now is though I once denigrated Hawaiian music, I now find it attractive, especially the ukulele, and especially the ballads of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, an enormous, sadly deceased, man, whose high tenor plays over the harmonies he calls from his tiny uke.
A high school classmate of mine lives in Pāhoa, on the southeastern corner of the Big Island. Over the last year her Facebook postings have tracked the Kīlauea lava flows that are encroaching upon her town. If shield volcanoes like Kīlauea and Mauna Loa are less explosive than their stratovolcano sisters – Mt. St. Helens in Washington State, for example, or Mt. Fuji in Japan – they remain uncomfortable neighbors. Lava flows are capricious, fundamental, and irreversible. You don’t divert them around your town. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park includes two of the most active volcanoes on the planet and both have ongoing eruptions. At night tourists stand on the rim of Kīlauea’s Halemaʻumaʻu crater and view the molten glow on the clouds of steam from its eruption. When a rare “fountaining event” occurs and hot lava plumes up into the air, flights overbook, island hotels fill, traffic jams the highways. But even slow-moving eruptions lure tourists to the park. Volcanoes summon us to witness their primeval majesty. But it’s an unsettling majesty.
W. Waimea, the Parker Ranch, and Paniolo
What may surprise you as a first-time visitor to Hawaii is how much of the Big Island doesn’t look like Hawaii, especially the grass ranchland that lies at two to three thousand feet, on what is called the “saddle” at the base of the island’s several volcanic summits. Here there are cowboys called paniolo who came originally from Mexico and whose descendants still work one of the world’s largest cattle ranches. This ranch is called the Parker Ranch and its de facto headquarters is the town of Waimea. The original cattle were gifted to King Kamehameha I by the British sea captain and explorer, George Vancouver. The king made them kapu to his subjects so that the herds would multiply and become a source of revenue from the beef-hungry mariners who were calling on Hawaiian ports. The cattle did multiply and ran riot, goring locals and crashing houses. Eventually Kamehameha’s son, Kamehameha III, hired John Palmer Parker to round them and get the business underway, which Parker did, winning in exchange the right to select some cattle as his own. Eventually Parker married into the Hawaiian royal family, an even better move, which led, through his wife, Kamehameha the Great’s granddaughter, to land that was otherwise forbidden to foreigners. Thus began the Parker Ranch.
Waimea isn’t just a ranch town. It’s also headquarters of the Keck Observatory and home for Keck’s astronomers as well as for those who work the coastal tourist industry and who can’t afford the pricey coastal housing and for retirees who prefer the cooler uplands climate.
What Waimea isn’t is touristy.
On our way from the windward side of the island, Susan and I stop in Waimea to pick up a few things, including straw beach mats, which we’ve been unable to find in the tourist venues. The drug/variety store where we’re shopping is part of a mainland chain. It could be Anytown, USA. The midweek shoppers are what you’d expect: Moms with toddlers, haole retirees (haole being the island word for Caucasians), a few high school kids skipping class. Except for the retirees, most appear to be of Polynesian/Asian/Latino descent. They are reserved, not impolite, but absent the Aloha Spirit approachability you encounter elsewhere on the island, almost as if to say, “In our house we don’t have to act out your South Sea Island fantasies.” A middle-aged female clerk helps us find the mats.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge never visited Hawaii. Nor did Kubla Kahn, about whom Coleridge wrote his famous poem. But the poem evokes Hawaii for me, my personal Xanadu. Why is this? Pleasure domes? The sea? The incense-bearing trees? Or is it the sunny spots of greenery?
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
When I lived in Hawaii, I lived in a cocoon: duty days on the ship, Navy Exchange shopping, Officers Club happy hours, diving off Nānākuli, bodysurfing Makapuʻu, polo picnics at the North Shore polo club. We were having a wonderful time, my wife, my Navy friends, and I, but we denigrated Hawaii for its 1972 celebrity kitsch: Duke Kahanamoku for surfing, Jack Lord for the TV series Hawaii Five-O (Lord was the Grand Marshal for all Aloha Days parades), Don Ho for Hawaiian music We saw them as fake, like the tourist brochures, the orchid leis, and the hotel luaus; how our parents saw Hawaii.
What the real Hawaii was, of course, we were too isolated to know.
If we had paid attention, we would have seen faultlines propagating. A native rights movement was agitating for recompense for a stolen patrimony. A nascent environmental movement was challenging the regimes of Big Agriculture and Big Tourism. Crime was rising, especially against sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen, to the extent that we, their officers, advised them to avoid Oahu beaches at night, to never camp in public campgrounds, and to stay clear of the Honolulu Hotel Street bars. A decade of dissent had begun that would be amplified by the conclusion of the Vietnam War with its attendant Hawaiian job losses, and a mid-seventies oil-shocked economy that would, for a while, kill tourism. By 1980, it seemed only Japanese visitors and Japanese investors would keep Hawaii afloat, accomplishing by tourism and a strong yen what Japan failed to accomplish by bombs at Pearl Harbor.
My 1970s personal life had also developed faultlines. A marriage that had seemed solid in Hawaii fractured once my wife and I were transferred back to the mainland. The camaraderie of a small ship gave way to the grimmer reality of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The Hawaii I visited in subsequent years felt bittersweet, the sunlight less bright, the air less fragrant, the trade winds less cooling. Now I realize this: what I felt had less to do with Hawaii or a failed relationship; it had more to do with age. The brilliance I remembered was the brilliance of youth. Now, near the end of my seventh decade, Hawaii is warmer, mellower, if less brilliant than it once seemed, no longer bittersweet.
Z. Zone, Zen, Zeitgeist
The Big Island lies in the planet’s “torrid zone,” that range of latitude between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, although “torrid,” it seems to me, completely misses the sense of Hawaii. But “zone” also conveys the idea of separateness. In that sense, Hawaii lies in the zone that defines my identity. Why is this? Certainly where we live, where we’re from, where we went to school define who we are. But why do other places, places we may not even visit that often, or places we visited long ago or lived in during another era of our lives, also become integral to who we are? Do some places speak to us beyond words, as a Zen meditation sometimes illuminates truths indirectly? Do we arrive at some places when we are especially open to their spirit, their zeitgeist in tune with what is at the time also our own?
What is it about Hawaii that speaks to me?
Is it the benignity of its climate, its remoteness from the continents, its flavors of pineapple and papaya, the harmonies of its music, the fragrance of its trade winds, the blues of its deep ocean, the by-and-by spirit of its people, the sound of its fronds rustling in its breezes, the rainbow of its reefs and fishes, the hours I spent as a young man sunning on its beaches and swimming in its coves? Is it all these things?
The day comes when Susan and I must return home. We pack up our snorkel gear, bag our swimsuits, roll our Aloha shirts into our suitcases, cap our suntan lotions, put away our dark glasses. We leave behind our straw mats and our folding beach chairs in the condo beach gear annex. We turn in our rental car keys. We check in for our flight. We clear security. Now it’s us who are the sunburned ones, and it’s the arriving passengers who like us three weeks ago are the pale ghosts, poised to assume corporeality under the Hawaiian sun. We will come back, but for now, farewell Hawaii, until we meet again…
Neil Mathison is an essayist and short story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in Ontario Review, The Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, AGNI, Under the Sun, -divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, Blue Lyra Review, Notes, Northwind, Blue Lake Review, Moon City Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Brooklyner, and elsewhere. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z,” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010. A second essay, “Wooden Boat,” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2013. His essay collection Volcano: an A to Z and Other Essays about Geology, Geography, and Geo-Travel in the American West was the finalist in the AWP 2013 book-length nonfiction contest. Neil’s short story “The Cannery,” winner of the 2013 Fiction Attic Short Story Contest, has just been published in Modern Shorts: 18 Short Stories from Fiction Attic Press. Neil’s author website link is http://www.neilmathison.net.