This is what you think of when you think Hawaii: long miles of fine sand, anodized water with sparkling foam, green foliage up the mountainsides.That’s on different islands, though it’s also present on the Big Island, in spots.
On the advice of others, this is my inexpensive base of operations. Spencer Beach Park has new roofless showers lit with powerful yellow sodium light, a gentle beach, some snorkeling, and is far removed from the resort bustle farther south. Six dollars lets you stay overnight. It has a municipal feel: the parking lots are old but well-painted, some sidewalks are new, and signs announce that violaters [sic] will be ticketed. There are wooden picnic tables under the trees, in the beach sand, and in the afternoons the filtered light is good for reading. Just turn so the ocean wind blows across the pages and you don’t have to fight to keep your place.
There are families camped here long-term, having taken over whole areas with tents, clotheslines, virtual rooms made of stacks of provisions and the backs of fabric camp chairs. At night they talk under the warm hiss of lanterns, laughing frequently. A large group of kids wearing turquoise tshirts with a ReefTeach logo are close to the water in new-looking tents, posing for pictures and playing guitars at dusk but not much longer. Everyone is open while keeping to themselves. People walk along the water, say aloha or hi.
The first night I am more particular, locking the car but opening the windows a quarter. It’s warm but not too warm, and by early morning I’ve pulled the cover over. Later nights I find the darkest spots and roll the windows down. There is nothing to lock the doors against. These nights the dry scrub and heat rolling down the hills are Texas, nothing but Texas.
Feral cats live here in a loose group. They slink around days but become confident at night. All are well-groomed and clean with shiny coats and eyes. They must find plenty to eat here, or handouts provided by suckers like me.
This one, gray striped with white feet and legs, wanders down the hill to me. It doesn’t meow but has no problem coming over and rubbing me and accepting petting. I share some yogurt which it laps with intense concentration. It walks off after licking out the proffered bottlecap, not looking back. I see it around other nights but it does not approach me again.
I sleep far better than I’d guess, with the sodium lights humming and the air warm. The back of a Dodge Caliber isn’t a bad place to sleep, the seat folding flat with a blanket and pillow. I can stretch all the way out if I lie at an angle, but this is not necessary. I am in my 40s and sleep in a fetal ball.
The last day a mixed family arrives the way a low-caste debutante sucks the air from the room. The father is a towering block with a flat face and squared shoulders, overmuscled so that movement is coordinated lurching instead of smooth transition. One son is a splitting image, a foot shorter, face more blank than hard. They move as a pair, both in muscle shirts, the son about a yard away from the father whose face is a perpetual rictus of moderate anger. “Don’t be pushing my buttons,” I hear him say to a kid.
The mother is small but broad, and fretful. Aside from her significant obesity she has some other medical problem: a catheter or line of some kind she does not attempt to hide coils up out of her suit bottoms, the white medical tape holding it in place sliding off its own adhesive, leaving grey outlines on her wadded abdomen.
The other kids are not biologically theirs: two boys and a girl in the middle single digits and an older boy who looks about fourteen. I’m reminded of all those Scholastic books of the week I read as a kid where the protagonist worked through the kid-epochal realization that his friend is adopted, and his brothers and sisters are too. Their dark hair and smooth deerskin-toned skin don’t match their parents’ Midwestern white. They pile out of a late model Ford crossover and move back and forth between parking lot and beach.
I mention them because they strand themselves. The mother comes up to me and asks to use my phone. They have locked themselves out of the Ford and can’t find the keys. She makes a call, leaves a message, hands the phone back, is immensely grateful. The little girl is with her in a blue bathing suit. She does not seem put out or intimidated, maybe a little bored. Her expression says: oh, this again.
There is more back and forth, more borrowing the phone to call other numbers. Someone is reached who knows the code that opens the doors, and I can see opening them does little to relieve the man. I imagine it makes him feel only slightly less trapped. The woman is grateful. The fourteen year old wanders aimlessly with a phone to his ear, not speaking into it, moving in that unseeing. languid way adolescent boys in basketball jerseys seem to move.
Hours pass as I read in the shade. I think they’ve gone when a man walks down the hillside carrying a long yellow apparatus that transitions from threatening to a defcon-class metal detector. The man is tall and rugged, handsome like Paul Newman, the skin of his face and hands scorched deep purple-red. He tromps in the sand in reef shoes and fills out his wetsuit like a superhero.
“You looking for some lost keys?” It’s obvious, but conversation doesn’t start itself.
“Yeah, drove an hour to get here, some family got locked out of their car.” I describe them and it doesn’t help him. He got a call after being up since five and came down. He will be late for a big dinner. A retired fireman, a therapist suggested he take up metal detecting when he broke his back. He charges a percentage of whatever wedding or engagement ring he’s usually looking for.
“It’s a deal, really.” He explains with pride he knows he shouldn’t have, and mostly doesn’t. “They’ve got a ring for twelve hundred, maybe two, three thousand. I get three, four hundred. Saves them the deductible at least. Which they rarely have that kinda coverage anyway.” He will ask the hapless melded family for “something”, hoping to make up gas money.
The mother approaches as we talk, taking her time. She is glad to see him. Yes, the keys are over there, by the lifeguard tower. They pad off through the sand and I go back to reading. In three minutes they are back. The keys were opposite of where she said, just under sand.
“We looked and looked over there,” she said, and I remember the family halfheartedly scuffling around, the father determined to make the keys visible from his ferocious glare alone. The fireman walks past as if heading into a wind, and some time passes before I think I should have offered him something.
The guidebook, and all natives, rave about this beach. It is classically perfect: a smooth interface of white fine sand and gentle water. This too is a park, but no camping is allowed. The upper part, where people park and bathrooms and shelters are, is interchangeable with any Texas Interstate rest stop: frazzled grass watered by immense agricultural sprinkler heads, lowslung buildings, lots of cars prowling for spaces. There is an asphalt path and the beach opens like coming down a hill onto a plain.
Lifeguards set up surfboards on metal stands, the boards resting on a sling of old garden hose. Kids throw themselves at waves and laugh as they are tumbled. A pair of old men, one wearing a veteran’s beanie, stride with purpose down the shore in their white velcro-close shoes.
For the first time since my arrival, I really swim the ocean.
The Rockefellers built Mauna Kea Resort in the early 1960s. The place is a movie set: immaculate, coiffed, smoothed and polished. There is not a blade of grass askew, a paint drip marring any surface. The perfect lane winds through golf courses that look computer generated. I meet someone the next day who says it’s the kind of place where the cheapest rooms are $700 a night. Apparently, a $700 minimum is what’s needed to so tame nature.
The guidebook says drive up to the gate and say you’re exercising your beach access rights. That isn’t necessary: the woman in the gatehouse can sense what you’re after and hands you the piece of paper. “Lucky, last one,” she says, and hands me the form.
I might like this beach a little better than Hapuna, and not because hotel staff watch your car. It feels more playful, more…administered. I am not sure what it is. Maybe it is the imprimatur of old money declaring a thing good. They wouldn’t have bought the place if it wasn’t top notch.
Swimming across the beach and back is more than a mile. It’s not hard but not easy either. There is the disconcerting experience of pausing and letting my legs drop to rest and the ground being lot farther down than it looks. It’s just right there, the visual cortex says, but you keep falling through the water.
I spend two days here. It’s a comfortable place, with a cove to the left that nobody sees. The second day I meet a woman there who is on her last day. She works for Caltech and is here for the telescopes, but would come to Hawaii anyway. This is the place I need to be, she says. This is where the aloha is.
The second day I feed a turtle. Three of them come, bobbing on the waves, chasing leaves blown in from trees onshore. My friend and I are swimming the beach length and see knots of people on the way back, the waves pushing us toward them. She grabs leaves from the water. “They like the soft ones!”
One turtle floats in the shallow spot where we are, the water waist high so waves don’t push us over. She holds out a leaf where the turtle can see it, and it reaches its neck out and takes it. The motion is delicate, not grabby, and it eats the leaf in several gulping bites. “Just hold them so he can see,” she says. The turtle spins in a lazy circle, facing me, its flippers ludicrous, and holds itself against a wave to take the leaf. It gets my fingers a little–not hard, like being nibbled by a parrot. Its large unblinking eyes seem unnatural compared to its legs and its shell. It can hold its position within a foot or so as the waves come in. I wonder how anybody can take intelligent design seriously. Look at this turtle, its weird head and beak, the flippers, the shell. Who would design this?
The Caltech woman is ecstatic. “You fed a honu! Do you know how incredible that is? Nobody will believe you. It’s magic here!”
It seemed perfectly natural and unexceptional. It was not threatened and nonthreatening, strange in a friendly way, like a kind old animal in a children’s story. I am glad that no one has done anything to make turtles suspect human motives. I am glad nobody official saw us harassing protected wildlife.
This is where I return to and where it feels comfortable. The beach I like the least, as rough and scattered with rocks as it is, but it has a family feel, a sense of being useful and valued. The combination of nature and utility is soothing.
One college summer I went camping with people I knew from high school, somewhere in Texas, near a river. I remember the heat and how the air stuck to us, unmoving, how we were instantly and constantly dirty. The campground not as nice as Spencer, and at night racoons stole into the camper looking for food. We would half-wake at some noise, and then someone got a flashlight. Catching one in the light it froze for long seconds, an eternity as it stared out into blinding light hiked on its hind legs like in an old Disney wildlife film. Then it bolted, the door flying open. Joe couldn’t stop laughing to go back to sleep.
I remember that in the way you are reminded of some past thing that is parallel to but unlike your present. Translate across space and time and you are somewhere very different, looking back on something very different. It is too much to think about and you go to sleep listening to the waves.