Our Apartment, Makiki, Hawai`i
The not-so-short version follows.
Friday, Dec. 31, 1999:
My fantasy for the last day of 1999 was to drive up to the volcano after sunset, then down to the sea, to greet the new year miles from civilization and mere yards from the most powerful, peaceful energy on Earth.
But Jen and I knew anything planned for that late at night was a tricky proposition with a toddler in tow. And frankly, the prospect of driving back into Hilo on the notoriously deadly Route 11 unlit, smoky, and likely peppered with speeders and drunk drivers terrified me.
So we resolved to make the trip to the volcano the highlight of our day, but to be back safe and sound in our hotel room for the stroke of midnight.
Our first stop on our trip south was the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut factory. It was mostly closed, and overall a very touristy place the streets have names like Brittle Nut Boulevard and Chocolate Hill and Sprinkles Lane but we knew we had to go anyway.
You see, Katie's addicted to mac nuts. Goes absolutely bonkers for them.
The first place she'll head when we visit mom's is the end table where the little turqouise can of plain salted nuts sits. If the can is hidden, she'll climb up and pull it out. Then she'll shake it and chant "uts! uts! uts!" until we open it and give her some, resorting to shrieking and throwing it repeatedly on the floor if she has to.
When we hide the can somewhere else in the house, she'll know immediately that it's been moved, and she'll walk around looking straight up (we're very uncreative and generally just put it on a random high shelf), again chanting "uts!" and basically extorting us into bringing them down, else she might "accidentally" walk into a wall or door or something.
(She's developing quite the flair for drama, further evidence that she is our kid.)
When we drove up and Katie saw the ten-foot-tall inflatable mac nut can, she just about exploded all over the back seat of our rental car. When we went inside and saw the samples of all seven variety of nuts (including onion and garlic, my favorite), she was in heaven.
After walking around the plantation a while, and after buying Katie a bag of hot, fresh-roasted nuts, we were back on the road. Next on our list was the Lava Tree State Park.
Unfortunately, the so-called map we picked up wasn't exactly clear as to where the park was, and one particular intersection vexed us for nearly an hour. Of the three ways we could have gone, we ended up going five miles or so down every wrong one before finally finding our way.
The park was very cool and quiet, lost in a thick forest of brush and ironwood trees. Just the atmosphere was refreshing, but there was the added attraction of the lava trees.
Now, we'd never been there before, and I didn't find any plaques or signs explaining anything, so I can't say exactly how lava trees are formed. My guess is that they were especially thick trees that weren't completely burned away when lava rolled through. Over the next thousand years, I figure, the petrified trees and their shell of rock stood while everything else eroded away, future eruptions perhaps adding more layers.
Not quite like stalagmites.
They were unusual, all right. Impressive, even. But... well, let's say the mysterious attraction people have for the things could make for an interesting study by any student of Sigmund Freud.
We sighed and snickered and eventually piled back into the car. Finally, the long climb, up 3,000 or so feet in under 20 miles, to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Not to miss a clear opportunity for big bucks, there was someone at the gate to collect our $10 entry fee, despite the holiday. (Most of the time we'd come up as students, we'd come late at night and slip in for free.) We gladly paid, of course... anything for cleaner public toilets.
We stopped briefly at the visitor's center to discover conditions down at the coast were better than they'd been for some time. The spot where lava poured into the ocean was only about a mile from the end of Chain of Craters Road, instead of four miles. As the friendly ranger said, we'd get a good view even if we didn't get out of our car.
Before heading down, though, we circled Haleakala Crater, checking out the the steam vents and observatory too. Katie was anxious and looked forward to every stop as a chance to run around.
Finally we headed down Chain of Craters Road, enjoying what could easily be the most magical, awe-inspiring 40 mile drive on the planet. Winding down the massive cliffside, gliding through endless stretches of black lava rock, looking down at the vast, gentle Pacific Ocean. The memories of our many trips to the remote coast came rushing back.
Finally we pulled up where the road ended closed many many years ago when one big lava flow covered several miles of it and admired the huge steam clouds from a distance.
After some debate, we decided to hike part of the way over the lava fields to get a better view.
There were lots of people there, but not as many as I would have expected for New Year's Eve. A path across the jagged black hills was marked with orange cones, and Jen and I (with Katie on my shoulders) carefully made our way out.
The warm, moist air, the incredible landscape, it really got to me, recharged my batteries. Being there, moreso than Times Square or London, really made me feel, on a universal level, that the coming of the New Millennium was something special.
Finally, when the signs started getting too scary, we stopped at the edge of one of the taller lava hills and got the best look at the lava flow we would get. At times, even hundreds of yards a way, you could still see a thick, intense orange beam reaching out into the sea, each wave unleashing another enormous white cloud.
Risking grave emotional problems in our daughter, I held her in one arm while holding Jen in the other and kissed my wife for fifteen minutes straight. I was incredibly happy. Katie, meanwhile, was rather amused, butting in now and then to give both of us messy wet baby kisses on the chin.
Our eyes and hearts full, we hiked back to the car, and drove slowly and thoughtfully back up to the crater and then back down into Hilo. The sun set somewhere on the other side of the island as we traveled.
We relaxed in our room for a bit, then headed downstairs for the Naniloa's special New Year's Eve roast beef and crab buffet. It wasn't all that fancy, but very tasty (at least in Hilo, they don't skimp on the seafood). On a whim I also ordered a plate of sashimi. Jen grinned from ear to ear.
Finally, we returned to our room, stretched out on the cool bed, and watched cities around the world cross into the new year. Of course we stuck with Dick Clark for New York, and it was quite a show (and quite a crowd, despite the specter of terrorism), but Paris several hours before took the cake.
Outside, save for a few small firecrackers on the hotel lawn, it was refreshingly quiet. Jen and I had to make an effort not to fall asleep.
After San Francisco, we watched the various celebrations in Honolulu on the local network affiliates as the clock counted down. The stations had all their stars out and about, and I was vastly entertained watching the various goofs and antics of the public that are always risks when it comes to broadcasting live.
On KITV Channel 4, sportscaster Jai Cunningham was down at Kaka`ako Waterfront Park for the rave to end all raves. All around him, half-dressed, half-stoned ravers unfailingly acted up for the camera, one woman even grabbing him and hanging from his neck until a faceless crewmember pulled her off.
On Channel 2, Linda Jaimeson was at the Hawaiian music bash at the Waikiki Sheraton Ballroom. The celebration itself was probably the most lethargic, but the real fun was watching Linda get more and more drunk as the night progressed. Eventually, she was simply babbling or randomly enterviewing tall blonde guys, and her regular reports were suddenly and noticably absent by the time midnight rolled around.
When the time came, I opened a cheap bottle of champagne, poured a single glass, and shared it with Jen as we looked out the window. Katie was asleep over Jen's shoulder. Below, on the hotel lawn, a small, almost quaint little fireworks show.
"Happy new year, pumpkin," I said.
"Happy new year, honey," Jen said.
"I love you," I said.
"I love you too," she said.
And we went to bed.
We slept in, perhaps in the hopes of setting a lifestyle theme for the next century. We didn't get out of bed until Katie insisted on it. We planned to spend the first day of 2000 on the opposite side of the island, but we weren't in much of a hurry.
We ate breakfast at Ken's House of Pankcakes, again. In part because we could never get enough of the place, and in part because every place else in town was closed (believe me, we checked!). Then, out of morbid curiosity, we made a short stop at the Prince Kuhio Mall ostensibly the adolescent social hub of the city.
If what we found wasn't so depressing, it would be almost funny.
When Jen and I lived here four years ago, Hilo was steeped in recession, and the two other malls (strip malls, actually) in town Kaiko`o Mall and Hilo Shopping Center were painfully short of tenants. Surviving local retailers were closing ranks and moving to the newer, more attractive Prince Kuhio Mall.
Today? The recession is still in full swing, now likely entering its second decade. To make matters worse, WalMart, Ross, and other national discount and warehouse chains have swooped in and set up shop right next to Prince Kuhio.
So not only are the other two malls not even malls anymore, but even the once-bustling Prince Kuhio is struggling.
One out of five storefronts were empty, the signs pulled off and the windows used for sad displays for the remaining tenants. Just like Windward Mall on O`ahu, there were entire wings that were essentially abandoned.
They were clearly taking anything to fill the empty slots. In some they plopped plastic lawn chairs and droopy potted plants. In others they let vendors who'd barely fill a kiosk spread out over several cheap folding tables. There were not one, but two rehabilitation/drug treatment offices in the mall. And at least two neighborhood car dealerships filled former shoe stores with shiny new cars and big vinyl sale signs.
Sam Goody's, surprisingly, was still there, still charging $18 for two-month-old "New Releases" even with a big new Borders down the street. So was Irresistable Too, a cheezy trinket store (a la Spencer's Gifts) that I didn't think would make it when the mall was packed years ago.
Arby's, once our favorite cheap Hilo eatery, toiled on too. But we decided not to take a chance on the roast beef and just ordered a large Coke.
Still in love with Hilo's spirit but further convinced we could never live there again, we picked up an overpriced 1999 Grammy nominees compilation tape (Hilo radio sucks!), got back into the car, and headed up the Hamakua Coast.
The drive up and over the north part of the island was another favorite regular road trip for Jen, our friends and I while pretending to study at UH-Hilo. It's long, occasionally winding, and like everything on the Big Island, very scenic.
We reached the super pretty mountain village of Waimea shortly before noon, thinking of just breezing through. But after we rolled into town, we saw something that convinced us to hang around a while.
In Waimea, you see, there is one remarkable playground across from Parker School. Lots of parks have big, colorful plastic playground equipment sets with slides and swings and such, but this one was not only huge (with lots of towers and ladders and things to play with), but built entirely out of wood.
We always admired it when Jen and I would drive past years ago. But we never would have thought then that someday, we'd actually have a child that could truly appreciate it.
We played there for more than an hour, and if we didn't chase Katie everywhere, we could have easily lost each other in the huge maze. The locals were quiet friendly, or at least tolerant of tourists running amok on their fancy playground. Curiously and impressively, many of the families most of them pale and blonde spoke fluent Hawaiian.
Eventually we drove down to the Kona side, with its long flat highway and broad black lava fields. Our first stop was Hapuna Beach, probably the only notable white-sand beach on the entire island.
Hapuna Beach was, hands down, our most frequent weekend destination. We have pictures of us kissing in the surf there on April 1, 1994, our first day as an official couple. Even with the new hotel built at one end five years ago, it was still beautiful.
It was also very hot, and we'd failed to pack any beach gear, so we didn't stay long before deciding to drive to Kailua-Kona to pick some up and wander a little as well.
Kailua-Kona, like Kihei on Maui, is the Waikiki (read: tourist trap) of the Big Island. It's popular because it's almost always sunny and clear, but the prices are among the highest anywhere. We paid a mint to get a cheap towel, some water and sunscreen. I considered getting a swimsuit for Jen, too, but with prices ranging from $60 to $120, I figured we'd both just make do with shorts.
We stopped, at Jen's pleading, at Wendy's (they were extinct in Honolulu for years, and even no are hard to find) for an early dinner, then got back on the road to return to Hapuna Beach. I timed everything to get there an hour before sunset, and we got there right on time.
Katie frolicked fearlessly in the rough surf, frequently getting toppled by the waves but just shaking it off and getting back up again to play some more. We just enjoyed the slowly changing sky and kept Katie safe until she finally started shivering too much to really enjoy herself. Even after pulling her out, drying her, and dressing her, of course, she still wanted to get back into the water.
The sunset at Hapuna. One of my favorite sights in the whole world, and just what I wanted to see that day.
Hard to believe we left the Big Island only this morning. Already it seems like a lifetime ago.
The flight back was pleasant enough. At the very least, we got to enjoy "preboarding," the perk (quite needed, it turns out) for "families traveling with small children."
This time we stuck with our scheduled flight, got our three seats, and thus got to properly set Katie up in her car safety seat. She was much more comfortable, but much more restless, and we had to read her the three Dr. Seuss books that we packed over and over again to keep her from fussing.
As we took off, we could see the Mauna Kea observatory out the window. Almost as a parting gift from mother nature, the clouds and vog were all but absent, allowing us to see the snow-dusted mountaintop with breathtaking clarity.
We'll probably be eating macaroni and cheese for a few weeks, given how over budget we went on this trip, but it was more than worthwhile.
Hey. You only get to celebrate a new millennium once every sixteen generations or so, right? So... why not live a little? We did, a little, and it was great.