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Searching for Hawaiian culture

God help us, we’re back to driving on roads marked NOT ACCESSIBLE on the map Shantell gave us at the rental car agency. This is our third day searching for Hawaiian petroglyphs, which we’ve yet to find.

“Why do you want to shoot petroglyphs anyway?” I ask Macduff. “They’re just ancient graffiti left by a bored teenager tired of hunting for wild pigs.”

“Culture!” shouts Macduff. “I thought we were searching for Hawaiian culture.”

A front wheel sinks into a gully in the road and the bottom of the Jeep scrapes something hard. There’s a thack! as something flies up and strikes the undercarriage, all of which Macduff ignores.

“Not that sort of culture,” I say.

“Then what?”

“I don’t know. The old time-y Hawaiian stuff. Pineapples and authentic hula, that sort of thing.”


“Authentic hula? Hah! That’s your idea of Hawaiian culture?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Haven’t a clue.”

Actually, I haven’t a clue either. When I decided to come to Lanai, the smallest of Hawaii’s inhabited islands, to search for Polynesian culture, I was thinking about Hawaii the way it supposedly was fifty years ago, when, on their honeymoon, my parents, Tom and Joan, took the SS Lurline from Los Angeles to Honolulu and spent a glorious week at the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki, the “Pink Palace of the Pacific.” I was thinking about the stories my parents told me as a child of “old Hawaii”—the sacred chants, story-telling dances, the odd tales of fire gods and shark kings—before it became the 50th state in 1959 and the stylish Matson Line cruise, which my parents took, was replaced by middle–class throngs flying over on Pam-Am and TWA.

It reminds me of how every year, on their anniversary, my mom would bake a pineapple upside-down cake, just like they had at the Royal Hawaiian, and my dad would put on an album of old slack key guitar music and make a batch of pina coladas, and when they were looped enough, my mom would giggle her way through the hula before collapsing on my dad’s lap. That, to me, as a kid growing up in Southern California, was what Hawaiian culture was all about.

But, of course, that’s crazy. Like saying French culture is madeleine cookies and Maurice Chevalier crooning “Thank ‘eaven for lit-el girls.” Or Vegas culture is Liberace in a rhinestone-studded sequin suit and a fake pirate ship shooting off a canon in a wading-pool-deep lagoon. Okay, maybe that is Vegas culture, but certainly there has to be more to Hawaii than petroglyphs and pineapples, right?

But what?

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Shooting pond scum

I hate traveling with photographers. They’re always screaming about “The light! The light!” Like Tattoo announcing the arrival of “De plane! De plane!” on Fantasy Island. Hell, I said the same thing to Macduff over drinks in the Honolulu airport as we waited for our connecting flight to Lanai.

“I despise photographers,” is what I said. He took a gulp of his single malt and replied, “They’re all right in a way. In fact, I’m rather good friends with a few of them. But I get your drift. They can be a pain in the ass sometimes, there’s no denying it.”

Said this as if he weren’t talking about himself, which he was, of course, because he is a professional photographer. And a very good one. One of the best. But he’s also an incredible pain in the ass.

I’ll show you what I mean. Yesterday morning we were driving down to Manele Bay which heads south from Lanai City and immediately drops down into Palawai Basin. Gorgeous drive. Palawai means “pond scum” and is so named because of the fog that often pools here early in the morning. This is the heart of the old pineapple lands. The earth is bright red and the high grass, growing where the pineapple fields used to be, is lime green. And there’s a long stretch of two-lane road, just past the turnoff to the airport, that is straight as a rail and lined with Cook pines (which look just like Norfolk pines, and that’s what most people think they are, but actually the only Norfolk pine on the island is up at the Lodge at Koele and that’s a different story).

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Anyway, we’re zooming down Manele Road and suddenly Macduff grabs my arm and says, “Pull over! Now!” He wants to take a picture. Fine. I mean, how long can it take to snap a photo of an empty road. So I pull over and he gets his camera bag and starts looking around like he’s Baz Freakin’ Luhrmann and he’s setting up a shot in the Outback for Nicole Kidman and he wants to make sure the light is just right and everything. So he gets his light meter out and he stands right in the middle of the road and shoots about four thousand photos and then he goes and stands in the low-cut grass on the right and shoots another two- or three-thousand photos and then he changes lenses and shoots some more and then he wants me to get a different camera bag out of the Jeep so he can shoot another eight thousand shots with a different camera.

And while he’s doing all this, I get out my little Canon and take exactly one photo of him. Just so you’ll know what I’m talking about. About an hour later, he’s finally finished shooting his masterful shot of the empty road. And this is what it looks like.

photo by Macduff Everton

photo by Macduff Everton

Now you tell me: Was it worth it?

Well, yeah, maybe.

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Mr. Toad on Lanai

Macduff, his unkempt hair flying in a stiff breeze, guns the silver Jeep out of the rental car lot in Lanai City, ignoring the speed bumps, and, wheels squealing, pulls onto the narrow two-lane blacktop that constitutes Lanai Avenue. “What should we do first?” shouts the mottled-faced photographer as we pass dangerously close to a little pig-tailed girl zig-zagging on a rusty bike alongside several meandering dogs.

“I think we should check into our hotel, maybe have some sort of  tropical cocktail, and have a lazy walk around town before dinner. You know, get the lay of the land and all that.”

Macduff shoots me a look as if I’m quite mad as my Jeep, which foolishly I’ve allowed him to drive, zooms past our digs, the Lodge at Koele. From the quick glimpse I’m accorded, the Four Seasons resort looks regal and inviting in the late afternoon light, just as it did in the brochure they sent me, the sort of place where one could sit peacefully in a wicker chair on the veranda and, as the copy reads, “Relax at the end of the day with a Lava Flow or Ship Wreck cocktail.” No idea what those might be, but I’m willing to find out.

The Lodge at Koele                                   photo by David Lansing

The Lodge at Koele photo by David Lansing

But it’s a moot point as the Jeep goes airborne over a slight rise in the road and the hotel, with its 10-foot tall mural of a pineapple over the entry, vanishes behind a row of swaying pine trees.

“You missed the turnoff,” I shout.

“The light, the light!” Macduff screams through the wind. “Look at the light! We’ve only got an hour or so…must…hurry!”

Macduff stares at the map on his lap while steering with his thighs. The Jeep veers off the highway and onto the red cinder shoulder. Rocks fly. The Jeep fishtails. Three or four wild turkeys, which had been peacefully pecking at insects along the side of the road a few minutes ago, hurl themselves recklessly into the thick undergrowth, terrorized beyond belief. Macduff mutters an obscenity at the fleeing birds, shoves the map between his legs, jerks the car back onto the road, and smiles at me, completely ignoring our near-disastrous brush with death.

“I think there are petroglyphs somewhere over there,” he shouts, stabbing at the flapping map with a stubby finger as the Jeep teeters, like a drunk, on two wheels. “Imagine—petroglyphs!”

I grab the map out of his lap. “You drive,” I tell him. “I’ll navigate. And for godsakes, slow down!”

“Hah!” he says, yanking the wheel sideways as we go off the paved road and onto a rocky dirt road with a sign that says “WARNING! Deep Sand!” This must be one of the roads Shantell had stamped NOT ACCESSIBLE.

”Look,” I tell Macduff as we plow through a sandy pothole, “it says the road is closed.”

Macduff gives me the stink-eye. “Only to mere mortals,” he says. “I’ve driven Jeeps on trails only a donkey could muster,” he says, and then goes off on some story about a trip to Tonga or someplace where he navigated a 4-wheel drive vehicle across a pontoon bridge made out of coconuts. “Now that was a nasty road,” he says, delighted with himself. “This is nothing.”

And with that, Mr. Toad veers off the road, barely avoiding a rock at least a foot-high, and into the bush where we proceed to plow down a field of waist-high ferns. “Hang on!” he warns me. “It could get interesting!”

I fear he is right.

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I’m in a standoff. There is no way Shantell is going to hand over the keys to my rental Jeep until I initial the form she’s thrust at me that acknowledges, in legal-eze, that she has given me a map of the island of Lanai with most of its off-roads stamped NOT ACCESSIBLE in one-inch-high red letters and, should I ignore her emphatic instructions and drive on said roads and need to be towed or, god forbid, cause any damage to the Jeep, I will be one sorry kanapapiki. Which is Hawaiian slang for sonofabitch.

The problem, as I see it, is that the roads she has forbidden me to navigate happen to be the ones also marked with funny little symbols of a stick man with his arms out like a scarecrow, signifying places on the island where one might find petroglyphs. And searching for Hawaiian petroglyphs is the main reason Macduff Everton and I have come to Lanai in the first place.

When I explain this to Shantell, she frowns and says, “Why you want to look at petroglyphs anyhow? Not much to see.”

I explain that Macduff, a California-based photographer, has lured me here in a search of authentic Hawaiian culture. Which confuses Shantell even more.

“Like what?”

“Like that old time-y Lanai stuff. Stories about the pineapple plantation days, paniolo songs, old archaeological sites. That sort of thing. Know what I mean?”

Shantell just frowns. “If you don’t sign, you don’t rent Jeep.”

At which point Macduff leans in close to me and whispers. “Just sign the goddamn form. I’ll drive the Jeep. They’ll never know the difference.”

Yeah, right. As long as he doesn’t get us stuck on one these unpaved roads marked NOT ACCESSIBLE. Against my better judgment, I sign the form promising I won’t drive anywhere I’m not supposed to. And I won’t. Macduff will. Let’s just hope it all works out.

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