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Kaimu Black Sand Beach at Kalapana, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

By Donnie MacGowan

On the southeast coast of the Big Island of Hawaii runs the Kapoho-Kalapana Highway, perhaps the only road in the world named for two cities that have been buried by volcanic eruptions. Before the destruction of these towns, this area harbored some of the last refuges of the native Hawaiian way of life–it was a safe haven from the ravages, temptations and noisome encroachments of western civilization. Here were villages of Hawaiians, living as they have for hundreds of years, fishing, farming and keeping their culture, their way of life, their people, alive and vital.

But life on an active volcano is uncertain. Life on an island with 3 active volcanoes, as Hawaii has, is perilous. And for this particular corner of Hawaiian paradise, Madame Pele, the Goddess of the Volcano, began to have other ideas.

In 1990 Pele determined it was time for some serious geographical reorganization. Lava flows from Kilauea’s East Rift swarmed down the mountain and engulfed the villages of Royal Gardens, Kaimu and Kalapana, destroying virtually everything. Immolated and buried were centuries-old fishing villages and a world famous black sand beach. The road ends today where Kaimu Black Sand Beach once stood, and is now a thousand yards and more inland.

When the lava came, it wiped out not just homes, gardens, crops and material things, it wiped out a way of life and a landscape cherished by generations. Imagine the staggering losses to the community. The coconut grove by the beach where, for a thousand years, the Kahunas had blessed the fishing canoes, was not only wiped away and covered with lava, but the landscape was altered so permanently and completely that none are even sure where it used to be. The spots where generations of fathers taught their sons to fish, gone. The groves where mothers sat with their daughters passing on the arts of weaving along with the family stories, gone. The beach where thousands of young lovers had walked the moonlit surf, arm in arm, for centuries, and where perhaps not a few babies had also been made, gone beneath 50 feet and more of lava. Everything gone; a landscape, a way of life, an entire culture.

It was from her vision of strength and a refusal to let her community die, rather than feelings of loss and desolation, that inspired one local resident to replant and reestablish the area. Not to just replant her land, but the entire village. Inspired, tirelessly, steadily, she worked planting hundreds, then thousands, of sprouted coconut and other palms and encouraged others in her community to join in. Even when she discovered she had a terminal disease, she selflessly redoubled her efforts, continuing her campaign to replant and recover the village, the community pitching in even more after she passed away.

Today there are literally thousands of young trees growing on the no-longer barren lava, and a new geography for new lives and new memories is being born. Her vision of rebirth, now being realized, is a moving testament to the power of love of ones’ community and commitment to ones’ culture. This living vision of young palm trees is an amazing, enduring monument to her optimism, faith and perseverance, and to that of her community. One of the truly most moving stories in the Islands, this place has to be seen to be appreciated.

When you visit Kalapana today, the devastation of 20 years ago is still obvious, but so is the vision of rebirth. Although none are yet as tall as a man, the rebuilt trail to the new black sand beach, Kaimu Beach, is lined with the young palms. You should take time to wander out to the beach, over the acres of new land, and look back at where the village of Kalapana once stood. Near the parking area along the path are fossils, lava casts, of palm trees, coconuts, pandanas fruit and other plants…keep a sharp eye out, they are everywhere. Swimming is hazardous at the new beach, so is surfing, the ocean currents being strong and treacherous. But take some time to relax, wade, feel the sand beneath your feet and amidst the lunar desolation of the fresh lava flows, contemplate the drive of one dying woman to rebuild a world she loved from a devastation few of us can imagine.

From the lava hillocks along the trail you can get nice views of the eruption plume at Pu’u O’o, up on the flank of Kilauea as well as the steam clouds down a few miles along the coast where the lave enters the sea at Waikupanaha. This is one of the few places where both can be seen easily and at the same time.

Back at the parking area at the road’s end, look a bit farther to the west and find Uncle Robert’s House, one that was spared the destruction, where a display of photos of the lava flows and the village in pre-disaster times in a miniature museum can be found, along with an interesting nature trail. The stop is worth your time, and be sure to leave a donation in the offering jar.

The extreme devastation suffered by the people of Kalapana may be a long way from our own life experiences, but we should take inspiration and example from their vision, their optimistic perseverance and their deep love of, and commitment to, their way of life.

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and touring the Big Island in particular, visit and


By Donald B. MacGowan

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Pahala Theater, Pahala, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Like many people, my life on the Island of Hawaii involves, figuratively, my wearing many hats…today I am wearing my “Independent Filmmaker” hat and driving from my home in Kona south to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to film the fire-fountaining eruption at Kilauea Volcano.

The drive is calming and scenic, much of the highway is posted thirty-five miles an hour, as the Hawaii Belt Highway runs from my sleepy little fishing village through the mountainous coffee-growing region of Kona, south through cattle and horse ranches and into the heart of the macadamia nut producing region. This is my favorite part of the Island; in my heart and mind it is the loveliest place on earth–rocky, rough open ocean shoreline with huge mountains and rolling, green volcanic slopes giving way to wide open spaces, uncrowded, even largely unknown to the outside world. I have a strong emotional bond to this part of the island. It was here, in the village of Pahala, that I first lived when I fled the frigid Rocky Mountain winters for a new life in tropical Hawaii a decade ago.

So when I reached the turn-off to Pahala I decided I had time for a break from driving to see what had become of my first home in Hawaii in the near-decade since I had lived there. For reasons and madness best left to the dust of the ages, I arose at 3:30 one morning at my home in Laramie, Wyoming. After living 20 years in the high plains, I was packed, ticketed, excited and ready for my move to Hawaii. The thermometer on my house read twenty degrees below zero and there was at least two feet of snow in my front yard–from the windows of Brees Field Airport I watched the rising sun light-up the east face of the Snowy Range, as frigid and alpine a view as I had ever had of it. Changing planes in Denver, San Francisco and Honolulu, I arrived on Hawaii in the brilliant sun and tropical warmth–I will never forget smell of paradise as I got off the plane; flowery, ripe, heavy with promise, romance and adventure.

No matter where I am flying in from, where I have been or for how long I have been gone from Hawaii, when the door of that airplane first opens and Hawaii’s gentle breath envelopes me, I know I am home. I have lived all over the US but I have never, ever felt that I was where I belonged, that I was at home, until I moved to Hawaii. When I come to Hawaii, I am coming home. I love Hawaii with a tender intensity that sometimes surprises me with its fierceness.

In Pahala today, I parked my car at Ka’u High School and walked across campus to the Teacher’s Cottage I had inhabited my first months on Hawaii, just to see how things had changed. My mind went back to the first morning I had walked across campus, full of excitement at living in this strange land, eager and curious to learn about this island and her people. There are not words to explain my joy-filled love for Hawaii, nor for the utter heartbreak of unnecessary sorrows that lurk just below the surface here.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Abandoned Sugar Warehouse, Pahala, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Some of the very first people I came across that first morning was circle of 5 girls, barely adolescent–ten, maybe twelve years old but certainly no older–playing with their Barbie dolls. All of them were smoking cigarettes, passing around a couple of 40-ounce beer bottles wrapped in brown paper bags; two of them were pregnant, another two were caring for their very real babies while they played dolls with their friends. One of the girls was my next-door neighbor’s daughter, Lehua; the others were her cousins. The babies all had the same father.

Moving from Wyoming to Hawaii I had expected to experience eagerness to explore my new home, perhaps some home sicknesses, and certainly a bit of culture shock but I was absolutely unprepared for this, what would become one of my most enduring visions of Hawaii.

How I came to understand this aspect of Hawaii is an allegory for how I came to love my tropical home here…for it is in the warp and weft of the contradictions, of the beauty and sorrow, of the ancient traditions and modern hustle, of snow clad peaks and steaming jungle, spuming volcanoes and calm, clear lagoons and yes, the interplay between the embracing promises of paradise and the greed-fueled waste and grinding poverty here that Hawaii weaves her magic spell on me.

Friendly, clean, quiet, scenic; Pahala seems a perfect community. Thirty years ago Pahala was a prosperous, bustling center of activity for the Pahala Sugar Company, but with the demise of the sugar industry, Pahala residents have either moved on to other towns seeking employment, or hunkered down to await what future may come.

When the 102nd US Congress convened in 1994 with the first Republican-dominated legislature in a generation, they set out to politically reward states that went conservative and to punish states that elected liberals in very, very quiet, but ultimately devastating, ways.

In a bid ostensibly to reign in “federal pork-barrel spending”, the Congress cut the Farm Subsidies Bill a few paltry million dollars by slashing the federal price support for sugar that protected American sugar companies from cheaper Central American and African sugar. The support was cut to a level where it still made sugar a profitable crop in sugar states that went Republican, such as Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Florida and California, but bankrupted the sugar industry in Hawai’i, the only liberal-voting sugar state. The amount saved was less than the cost of a single Tomahawk Cruise Missile, but the one-industry towns all over Hawai’i were completely devastated and no new industries moved in to take up the employment slack. There has been 70-80 percent unemployment ever since. The usual miseries of substance abuse and poly-generational sexual abuse, crime, hopelessness and degradation of the educational system moved in with the unemployment and small towns like Pahala have writhed in agony ever since. Everyone with ambition leaves town to live near work elsewhere, while those too old or unskilled languish, the human flotsam of a political system that rewards vindictiveness and cynicism. Such political finagling is as old as politics and rife in both political parties, but rarely does one get to see the painful cost of such partisan political gamesmanship writ so hugely, or tragically, upon the human landscape.

To be fair, shortsightedness among residents played a role in the misery of sugar-plantation towns in general and Pahala in particular. In mobilizing to fight against resorts moving in and to block a proposed private satellite launching facility, residents gambled on the sugar plantation economy lasting indefinitely. In seeking to preserve their generations-old way of life and their communities, they virtually guaranteed that life there would ultimately never be the same for anyone.

A re-birth, of a sort, is underway in Pahala and other small towns in Hawai’i; because of the extremely undervalued real estate, compared with the extremely over-valued real estate elsewhere in Hawai’i, mainlanders and retirees are buying up land as residents finally sell. This has caused a small renaissance in service-sector employment, but it will take a generation or two for these tiny towns regain their former energy and optimism.

Today, with nothing more pressing than nostalgia, I walked the small downtown of Pahala, stopping at the local market for a snack. The clerk was a young Hawaiian of exceptional beauty who eyed me somewhat oddly–I thought because strangers are still a bit uncommon in this town–then, coming around from behind the till she embraced me, kissing my cheek.

“Welcome home, Donnie” she smiled to me, “Aloha”.

Clean, sober and happily married for these past 6 years, a now 21-year old Lehua told me she had also had four more children. She and her husband had bought a house and a boat for tuna fishing; and he was general manager at a local macadamia nut farm. How had all this happened?

Laughing, she explained “Lucky we live Hawaii”, in her musical local pidgin that I had once found so impenetrable.

Lucky, indeed.

And magical.

No matter how long I stay away, Hawaii is always welcoming, and Hawaii is always home.

And this is why I love Hawaii so.