At the urging of a friend, when my husband and I were in Hawaii, we took a drive from our hotel to ‘the end of the road.’ We were staying on the west side of the Big Island around Mauna Lani. We had flown into Kona at night and driven to our hotel through pitch-black countryside. We had no idea what lay beyond the bounds of the property.
After a day of rest, we ventured forth to discover where we were. There is one major road, Highway 270, that follows the coast most of the way around the island. At the northeastern tip of the island, it ends, in the rugged region known to be the birthplace of great Hawaiian ruler, King Kamehameha. The distance there was less than forty miles. Just right for an afternoon outing. We’d be able to see the little towns of Hawi and Kapaau, too.
This short drive, one of the most dramatic I ever took, was a lesson in the micro-climates of Hawaii. The scenery was beautiful and astonishingly varied.
The greatest surprise came when we drove off the hotel’s grounds. Dry rock stretched as far as we could see. It was the broken-up refuse from a lava flow, underscoring what it meant to be on the island’s “dry side.” It’s much sunnier and less rainy here than on the island’s east side, which makes the west preferable for vacationing. The resorts here are unnaturally green and flowery, making the arid wasteland just beyond a shock to see. (Only 10 inches of rain fall annually on this part of the island, according to this interactive map from the Rainfall Atlas of Hawaii.)
Once out on the highway, we could appreciate the extent of these great lava plains. They stretched out on both sides of the road, while in the distance to our right were the heights from which the lava initially flowed.
As the lava breaks down, it supports a tough sort of grass and some scraggly trees. We drove through this sort of terrain for perhaps twelve to fifteen miles. With the ocean on our left and the land sloping gently up and away on our right, we followed the road’s simple ribbon as it threaded north.
Sometimes, peeking over the hills, we could see places that were tantalizingly green. There were clouds on the heights, possibly even rain. Up to 300 inches of rain fall annually on parts of Hawaii.
Sometimes in the distance we could see a blue cloud that I later learned was Maui.
Suddenly, in the space of a mile, the landscape around us turned dazzlingly green. The thick, tall grass was hypnotically undulating. We saw many horses and cattle grazing.
Each mile we drove was wilder and wilder. The road cut in to steep hills with cascading plants. The clouds thickened and spread, blocking out the blue.
Strong trees, including banana, towered over the road. When the road crossed a bridge, it was only one lane. Our path was hillier and tortuously winding.
Suddenly, we arrived. Parking our car, we found the camaraderie of motorists enjoying the sense of having done a great thing.
Picnic baskets came out, and cameras, too. People ambled absentmindedly, getting their bearings, heading the stiff wind, contemplating a beyond that was mysterious and foggy.
We peered toward the legendary land that had cradled a great leader: King Kamehameha, who in 1810 united the Hawaiian islands under his sole rule. The islanders who lived here centuries ago regarded Kamehameha as special from birth; it is believed he was born as Haley’s comet passed over Hawaii. He was given the name Paiea and hidden in these secluded valleys to secure his safety from warring tribes. On reaching adulthood, he became a warrior, giving almost miraculous proofs of extraordinary physical strength, such as moving the Naha Stone, weighing over 2 tons.
Today, the wonder is that anyone could grow so strong in a land so elemental and forbidding. To travel to the end of the road is to confront the earth’s natural richness and beauty, and to be awed by the astonishing resourcefulness of the humans who made this their home.
We returned to the comfort of the road, satisfied.