observations and opinion
Seven Days in the Seventies
The passage to Hawaii – from anywhere – is a long trip. Ours was particularly long, aided as we were by a trainee grounds crew guy at Dulles whose inability to secure the walkway to our plane meant a missed connection and many extra hours in unexpected places, heading west across the Pacific. “There are no words, folks” the United pilot said, as the trainee struggled, and struggled, and struggled to hook the plane to the gate.
“Sorry” is a word, I said, trapped on the plane. No one heard me.
Everyone has air travel sorrows to recount, but I am circumspect about that kind of carping, mindful as I am of Lewis CK’s immortal scolding of whining travellers: “You’re sitting in a chair. In the sky!” Flight is magic and even if it takes 24 hours of your life to get from your house to your holiday, you are after all, on holiday. In our case, on Maui.
Landing at Maui on a sultry, rainy March night drops the first time visitor into something unexpected: the past. Like Detective Sam Tyler on the eery “Life on Mars”, walking from the gate to the baggage carousel is a trip back to the 1970s. The airport itself was built in the 1970s, all open air and hard tiles and poured concrete and earth tones. But the time travel is more subtle and more intense: the air feels old. A live band plays “Yellow Bird” and some Hawaiian tunes; the air is deep, moist and thick; footsteps slow to a lazy shuffle; neurons stop flitting about and begin a luxurious passage, like fish in a tank.
Maui is an island, of course, but it is a weird one: two great humps, old volcanic monsters now sleeping in ash, hulk at the western and eastern ends of the island. Between them stretches a wide flat plain, green and thick with sugar cane farms (and other things). The entire thing is ringed with beach or rock, smashed from all sides by the sea. Towns speckle the coast, some plain and scraggly, some primped and polished. And the whole island is washed by hourly waves of sunshine and rain, in a pattern which only experience reveals.
And it lives in the 1970s. Did I mention that?
Whether by coincidence or not, a good number of the Maui residents (the white ones, anyhow) told a similar story: “I came for a vacation, then came back” or “I had a one way ticket and $300” or “I met a boy, and stayed. That was 40 years ago.” People with such spirit do precisely the things you would predict: they rent snorkel equipment, surf, grow organic produce, teach yoga and serve gluten free smoothies while an old hippy plays the harp in the corner. They know where the giant turtles hang out, too.
As I say, Maui is an island that time forgot, hanging back in the disco decade, when life really wasn’t quite so complicated (or tense) as it is in 2017. From the start, I expected to be irritated – I have an edge and things with edges tend to cut other things. But whether it was the sea breeze, the surge of the morning surf or just my unwelcome respiratory ailment, my seven days in the seventies were “full of aloha” – easy, forgiving, almost a little insensate.
And then there are the beaches. Yes, they can be busy (they’re too nice to ignore) but they are also almost mystic in their raw beauty. From the black sands, to the white sands, to the turquoise waters, to the fierce surf at Makena and far beyond our own travels, the sea keeps the whole island together, like hands holding sand. Maybe the aloha comes in on the breeze.
When I bought my first house, a century-old clapboard beach home near the lake in Toronto, it had the old bathroom, wiring, plaster, scuffed hardwood and peeling boards that the builders had slapped together in the 1890s. There was more wrong with it than I could ever afford to fix, but that was the magic of the place. “You’re lucky” the home inspector said on his way out the door, “nobody ever had enough money to ruin the place.”
That’s how it feels on Maui.
Maui still feels very “Asia-Pacific” – like Thailand, its population is a blur of races (Hawaiians, Chinese, Japanese and increasingly, white). It is developing, its urban areas congealing and intensifying, but at a pace leaving room for plenty of rusted farm equipment, high school football fields, cattle and pineapples. Its highest peak Haleakala rises to 10,300 feet, offering a spooky and humbling look at a post-volcanic world, and allows you to gaze at the verdant green valley. The old observatory at the top would attract stargazers, but they’ve had to stop all that now, and the national park service even requires advance bookings to watch the sunrise on the crater.
There is magic swirling like the clouds below the peak, but one wonders how long such a situation can endure. Isolation helps (Maui is pretty damned far away from everything, fortunately) and the local ethos really does blunt one’s sharp edges. The explosion of organic farming, flowers and yoga must be dampening down the electricity. Yet even in our brief idyll, we saw signs of gentrification along the Wailea coast (shinier and even more expensive than plain jane Kihei) and the infection of cruise ship tackiness up near Lahaina.
The 1970s have lasted almost 50 years in Maui. But the Eighties are coming. Alexis Colby and her shoulder pads are coming in for a landing. I shudder at the thought.
Time to wake up, Sam. Wake up, Sam!