Hawaii county provides a free bus, open to anyone. In July fees are imposed, but it’s only one dollar. Surfboards or large packs are another dollar each. A handful of routes run a few times a day between major stops. One route from Hilo to the resorts and jobs on the island’s western side starts at 3:30am. Because people have to get to work, the woman at the schedule desk says, her tone a mixture of contempt and surprise. Like some haole would know, ya?
A free bus with four-dollar gas seems like a smart way to see things, but the bus as a cheap viewing platform was a suggestion I took only once. It was only a matter of timing and my interest–I ride the bus all the time at home, even the neighborhood and downtown routes days and nights, when both drivers and passengers are colorful. Bus riders here will be the same unpolished but aloha people I see all the time.
So it was. The bus was cheaper and more worn than those at home: cheap blue vinyl seats and filmy windows with busted seals. The coin box has no motor to take the dollar–just a clear box I stuff it in, the driver checking off a clipboard. The driver could be mistaken for a shaven sasquatch; he grunts when I confirm the route. The air conditioning is the most total and frigid I have experienced here: my breath shows if I hold it.
Departure is on-time and the bus wends through town: up past the massive imperial Post Office and middle and high schools, turn at the library, wander through the green and gently-spaced homes and buildings that make up Hilo. Whether the bus makes stops other than where there are signs I’ve never been able to figure out, but people get off and on. The largest group is by the mall, a modest affair with a Sears and a movie theatre. A security guard sitting in a lawn chair behind her pickup truck gets up to accompany a kid across the sidewalk. The bus fills with kids: early high school or middle school, overdressed in jeans and fancy sneakers, laughing modestly, flashing a few hand signals, yanking on each others’ clothes from the seats behind.
A part of me bristles when they board. I realize it is afraid, the grumpy old pensioner fear of kids coming to pick your pocket. Some of it feels like the old limbic brain, stuck in its eternal present, realizing the bullies have finally come back to finish the job. I pick up my bag and fish the phone out, telling myself I was nonchalant. The limbic brain answer feels right. For a few minutes, it feels like middle school.
On the highway a kid opens the window, bumping my shoulder, and apologizes. No problem, I say, because it isn’t, it’s a kid opening a bus window. It’s way too cold in here, he says. Too cold for haole even, I say, and he laughs. The bus stops at Kea’au, where I dropped some hitchhikers once, but the kids stay on. The bus groans on up through the steam out of Hilo, through Volcano’s grey cool, out to the warm scrub and hills and cliffs beyond. The landscape goes from close up to spread out and far away. We pass the Ka’u desert trailhead where no one is parked today and I have that end-of-trip sensation of now knowing that place, having been there, having stopped and slept a few hours late nights in the parking with the emergency phone. At night it is dark and clear, Mauna Loa lumbering upwards in a blacker dark. Today I see the ocean side: all grey scrub with a broad scarp rising in the distance, blue sky, dirty puffballs of cloud. It does look different from the bus when I can look on square. It is far bigger given time to see.
The kids stay on past where the speed limit picks back up to 55, past the few beach parks, to the tiny little towns at the island’s southern tip. Nā’ālaehu is like a Main Street out of a Ray Bradbury story: the highway slows to twenty-five, a school’s long fields and low yellow buildings takes up the left and white houses with low fences and the grand relaxed canopies of old trees spread a Mayberry shade. Half the kids pile out here, where a man at a gas station watches them from his leaning perch in a doorway. The gas pumps are old: the handles go in the side and the numbers on the front spin as you pump. The rest get out at Waiohinu, home to Shaka’s, the southernmost bar in the United States. Shaka’s claim to fame is not enough to keep it busy, though the lights are on, and a man walks by.
Kids get off the bus like kids got off a bus when I was one: they say goodbye to each other, tell each other to call, walk to the front, and a few shout at people on the ground. A mom waits and little brothers and sisters jump in place under the spreading shade. Nobody goes very fast and few go. These kids had it better than we did, a zillion years ago: they had a bus to take them somewhere.
What is it like to live in this place, without seasons and frost? What is that normal like when it is shared with geckos? Do kids run under the macadamia trees still, conspire with each other to spend Friday afternoon going the back way to the beach? At home poor kids watch TV, play Xbox and hang out at school. Here most everyone is poor, but I hope the kids are ignorant of that kind of truth.