Through the burned brush, desiccated stretches of tropical desert and lava fields that threatened to break through the soles of our shoes, the cacti and gnarled trunks opened up onto a plain of red rock, endlessly smooth from the constant winds of the Pacific. Covering the stone field are etched imprints of a culture suppressed by modern amenities, petroglyphs from a record of life forgotten. People, warriors, families, children, animals and lines, all forming stick-figure masses of unknown meaning and unknown age.
The Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve can be accessed through the gates of the Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. They keep it difficult to find and difficult to get to on purpose, hoping that through lack of effort, people will not take the time to locate the remnants of ancient Hawaii. It is the irony of archaeology that to enjoy and learn about archaeological sites is to ultimately, slowly or in one fell swoop, destroy them.
After spending a lazy morning sipping coffee on a black sand beach and watching the ocean slowly usher the morning sun to the shore, we saw something – or several somethings – flitting in and out of the bay’s calm waters.
Dolphins, taking advantage of the swells and incoming tides, played just off shore.
Campers at Ho’okena Beach Park, a small, peaceful beach park run by a local non-profit, snapped up fins and masks and snorkels and waded into the clear waters of the Pacific to spend some time living like the dolphins.
While we snapped our photos with our underwater cameras, it became obvious that our sea-faring friends weren’t the entertainment, WE were. The dolphins poked fun of us as they swam in between and around and over, coming close to flirt with danger before skipping away in a flood of delphine giggles.
On top of a mountain.
It’s easy to do in Hawai’i, if you aren’t seduced by the thought of sitting on the beach drinking mai tais for days at a time. People don’t usually head to the islands to mountain climb, but they could if they wanted to.
Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Island of Hawai’i are both well over 13,000 feet, and the tips of Mauna Kea flirt with the same elevation as the tallest mountain in Wyoming, and that height doesn’t even begin to count the 35,000 feet of it that are under water.
While the summit of Mauna Loa is reserved for hikers and climbers, Mauna Kea plays host to a dozen or so international organizations that study space in some of the clearest air in the world with some of the most retro-space-aged equipment I’ve ever seen outside of Mystery Science Theater.
Some of them you can drive right up to, other you can even tour if you call ahead.
NASA’s infrared telescope is up there, as is a CalTech machine, a Gemini Telescope that jointly owned by several countries, a site that belongs to the National Observatory of Japan and the UK’s infrared telescope, and absolutely NO invasive species (unless you count the telescopes).
It’s a regular Alpine United Nations up there, and it looks like a scene from a creepy 60s science fiction movie that would be riffed by the MST3K guys…
An in accordance with Hawaiian law, the Hawaiian people are allowed to continue traditional practices and ceremonies at the top of Hawaii’s largest mountain.
I had never thought of a place like Wyoming as having anything remotely in common with the Island of Hawai’i. But as we drove the belt of the Big Island, through fields and pastures, around mountains and into neighborhoods of extreme wealth juxtaposed with shanty towns, I could have been near Lander had I ignored the ocean off the port bow.
Both states have a long history of cattle ranching and cowboy culture. Cows were brought to Hawai’i in the early 1800s, and until very recently, the largest cattle ranch in the United States, Parker Ranch, was on the Big Island. Cows and cowboys dot endless waves of honeyed grasslands that tumble over lava flows into the saltwater world beyond. Ranching companies own entire towns, and fancy events are dressed for in a clean pair of boots and your best cowboy hat.
In between cattle herds are fields of windmills, perpetually on double duty in the tropical winds. Alternative energies are all the rage in Hawaii, as companies vie for green fuels futures in Wyoming. Cowboys have to share bar stools with hippies and surfers, who morph into hippies and climbers as the elevations goes up and the ocean fades away. Both cultures also have to mingle peaceably with historic indigenous populations who are making a stand for their heritage and history.
Even the architecture is the same, those flat, wooden, Old West facades lining wide streets full of old general stores and boardwalk pathways, only with palm trees instead of cacti or vise versa.
The communities feel the same, too, odd in their diversity and standoffish, but not entirely unfriendly. Beer is the drink of choice, and people spend their nights hanging out around bonfires in the summer and seeking out the perfect powder for snowboarding in the winter.
The mountains in Hawaii rise up as starkly as they do in Wyoming, suddenly appearing in the surrounding plains through a clearing of fog, craggy and moonlike. Alpine lakes melt into high deserts into thick forests into shimmering saffron plains.
Though admittedly, Hawaii is the only place in the world where you can snowboard in the morning and surf in the afternoon.
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