When Better to Visit the Big Island Than During a Volcanic Explosion? [Summer Travel 2018]

Photo by Joel Beers

His best friend had died four months ago. A brief, but intense and intensive love affair had just immolated. Like any self-respecting egocentric and scarred Leo, all he wanted was to slink away and lick his wounds.

So why not head toward an erupting volcano?

The trip to the big island of Hawaii was a parting gift from the aforementioned friend, Sandy Kates, the owner of the Back Alley Bar and Grill in Fullerton, where he had worked part-time for 12 years. Battling cancer for more than a year, Sandy had repeatedly urged him, “There are frequent-flier miles on the company credit card. I don’t think they can be used after I die. Use them.”

Photo by Joel Beers

And he did, booking a flight to Hawaii after learning Sandy had two weeks to live. That was January. The trip was late May. And though in his miserable state of mind, flying over 2,500 miles of ocean sounded awful, it was still better than Fullerton.

It was his last of the 50 states. But he yearned to travel solo to a state—hell, a part of the world—where no one knew him. Just because. He chose the Big Island (with a one-day $190 flight to Oahu) to see a volcano. But since Kilauea, which has been erupting since 1983, turned aggressive in early May, nearing its summit wasn’t workable. So he hunkered in Kailua-Kona, about 90 miles west. The bars, shops, excursions and such were open, but locals said the visibility was the worst in at least 30 years. But he had nothing to compare it to, so he moved on with no planned agenda, no car, no place to stay (Airbnb, Lyft and Turo made all that dumb stuff easy enough).

He had one important thing to do: scatter the four small vials of Sandy’s ashes that his daughter-in-law, Jenn Kates, had given him.

Photo by Joel Beers

The first was Kahalu’u Beach Park, about 5 miles south of downtown Kona, his first snorkeling spot, where he uttered a hasty, silent benediction and dumped the ashes into the life-pulsating sea. The second was further south, across the small bay from Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, a sacred place for native Hawaiians, where anyone who had broken an ancient Kapu law could be spared death by a priest’s forgiveness—as long as they could traverse a treacherous land or ocean passage and scale a 10-foot wall while eluding potential captors. The third was Pearl Harbor, the one place he’d told Sandy he’d wind up. The last was South Point, the southernmost part of the United States. It was his last piece of Sandy—and the most emotional of the four. (Note to the wise snorkeling guy: Don’t snorkel when you’re shedding tears. You won’t stay down long.)

Scattering Sandy’s ashes in a place neither of them had been before was heavy. As prosaic as it sounds, every time he tipped those vials into the sea, he felt connected with the person he missed the most, saying hello and goodbye and, weirdly, hello again. He could have done that anywhere. But he’s glad he chose Hawaii. Yes, selfishly, all he’d done, in AA speak, was pull a geographic, distancing himself from the noises he felt were drowning him; but the biggest noise of all—himself—was still between his ears. Yet he discovered something more about that island. Or, better put, the water surrounding it. There are no clocks, text messages, doctor’s appointments, expectations or disappointments in those waters. Just the life and rhythm of the sea. Serene, colorful, enchanting. Yet, there is a sense of finality. John Cale said it years: ago: In the end, the ocean will have us all

Photo and design by Richie Beckman

Of course, the ocean isn’t the only thing that makes Hawaii Hawaii. There are also earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the laidback people, slower vibe and stunning landscapes. It’s a place of natural splendor and beauty that can, occasionally, turn terrifying, constantly being reborn and renewed through sporadic fits of destruction. Most people visit there to recreate, but it is also a living and unruly temple to consecrate a friend and to take halting steps toward dealing with a loss, whether it’s the unyielding memory of someone you loved or the piercing reality of someone you’ve just lost. And, maybe, living in an uneasy state of harmony—or at least awareness—with what is so unpredictable can make us more humbled or appreciative of what truly matters.

As Carl the Lyft driver, who drove him to the airport on his last day, said, in response to the question he asked everyone he met who lived there, “What do you most like about the island?”:

“The volcano, man. I mean, it puts it all into perspective, you know? Kind of makes you realize that property and all the hassles we put ourselves through really aren’t that important.”

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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