Room 512, Naniloa Hotel, Hilo, Hawai`i
As soon as we touched down at the ambitiously-named Hilo International Airport, a wave of peace and spiritual energy washed over us. The air was cool and crisp, the sky was uncharacteristically bright and clear, and we immediately felt like the innermost parts of us were rejoicing in being home again.
"It's where mommy and daddy met six years ago," Jen said to Katie, still half asleep from her nap on the plane. "You weren't even a glint in daddy's eye then."
"But you were an ovum," I added, unhelpfully.
I had to stop and force myself to recalibrate my brain to the slower pace of life. To take deep breaths, walk slow, and resist the urge to push past everone.
The temperament of a high-strung, stressed out, always harried corporate slave from downtown Honolulu is about the furthest one can get from that of the average Big Island resident.
I went to pick up our rental car, afraid we'd get a Ford Aspire ("It aspires to be a real car!") or a Hyundai Echo or some other moped with doors.
It turned out to be a Dodge Neon, actually, which wasn't bad. But when I discovered I could get a Dodge Stratus for nine bucks more a day, I went for the upgrade.
What a car! I mean, I love our trusty Nissan back home which we dropped off just this morning for a few thousand dollars in overdue repairs but if I had $27,000 to play with, this Dodge would be on the short list.
Nice shape, solid body, leather seats ("Oooh, slippery!" Jen cooed, sliding around), and every special feature on the menu. I could drive it for a month and still not figure out all the buttons.
Although it's an automatic, it also had "AutoStick," a pseudo-standard transmission with which you can manually shift gears with a flick of the wrist if you so desire. A little cheesy, but fun.
Okay, enough about the car.
We drove, misty-eyed, up Kekuanaoa up to the main highway, then down to Banyan Drive. We arrived at the Naniloa, still my hotel of choice.
Now, for whatever reason, every time I told someone we were staying at the Naniloa, they would scrunch up their face and go, "But why?" To hear them talk, you'd think we were holing up in a bomb shelter. "Stay at the Hilo Hawaiian," they'd say. "The Naniloa is a dump!"
But I always liked the Naniloa. It's old, sure, but it's got history and character. I guess it's a dump in the same way the Pagoda hotel in Honolulu is a dump, in that there's some squeaky hinges and mildew and the occasional odd smell. But it's more like Hawai`i to me than, say, the Hawai`i Prince Hotel, or the Waikoloa Resort in Kona.
Sure, the place feels half deserted and the service sucks, but it sucks with such great personality!
Our original room turned out to have a panoramic view of the parking lot. Since I was in an upgradey mood, we decided to spring for better accomodations higher up and on the other side.
We relaxed, enjoyed the view of calm Hilo Bay, and unpacked, then headed out to visit the only place we knew we had to visit while here: Ken's House of Pancakes.
Nothing had changed. The same smell of bacon grease. The same petroglyphs painted on the wooden beams. The same orange vinyl seats.
Four years since we last ate there, some of the servers were the same too. People that, accordiing to the plaques on the wall, have actually poured coffee there for more than twenty years.
Our favorite server, Ruth, wasn't in. We'll have to try again late at night, I guess, which is when we always saw her.
Next we drove to the UH-Hilo campus, oohing and aahing the whole way as we spotted landmark after landmark. The depressingly empty Hilo Shopping Center, Tyke's laundromat, the quaint house with the huge lawn at the corner of Kilauea Avenue and West Lanikaula Street that Jen and I fantasized about owning someday (and it's for sale!).
We drove past The Collegian Apartments, our first permanent address together, located right across the street from campus. Only now did we realize the dirty, run-down building looked like an inner city crack house. (It was a palace when we were poor college kids.)
Then we drove to the dorms and walked around. Hale Ikena. Hale Kehau. Hale Kauanoe. Hale Kanilehua. Oh the memories!
On a whim, we walked down to Campus Center. It was open. And Ellen Kusano was there. "Things here don't change very fast," I said.
I went over and admired the door to Room 214, still labeled "UHH Vulcan News." (The campus newspaper hasn't been called that for ages.) Behind it, the desk where I spent many a night editing and laying out Ke Kalahea until sunrise, racing it over to the Hilo Tribune Herald at the last minute, as usual, every week.
Jen and I rattled off the names of coworkers and associates past, trading notes with Ellen on their whereabouts. William (now in Japan), Mitchell Dwyer (now teaching English at HBA), Pamela Maru and Ian Murphy (in Honolulu, and likely married), Corinne Denis (who knows?), and Shannon Olsen (still, unbelievably, at UHH and working at the newspaper).
Eventually we wished Ellen well (betting that she'd still be there in another four years), and headed out to play tourist.
We drove north out of Hilo to Rainbow Falls, one of the town's more popular natural landmarks. Then we drove even further out to Akaka Falls, which believe it or not neither of us had ever visited in our time there.
It was a long drive inland, then a surprisingly strenuous hike, to get to Kahuna Falls (the smaller sibling) and finally Akaka Falls. But it was worth the sweat. Apart from some of the falls on Kaua`i, Akaka Falls must be one of the highest. A wave of water takes more than ten seconds to fall from top to bottom.
We drove back into Hilo taking the scenic route past Onomea Bay. Everything was thick and green and beautiful.
Katie was getting grumpy, so we went back to the hotel, and took a long family nap. Jen and I woke up in time to catch the sunset, then we roused Katie to get some dinner.
We ended up dining at Satsuki's, one of two old family-run Japanese restaurants in downtown Hilo, and another of our regular haunts.
The service was terrible by city slicker standards, of course, the place was dim and dusty, and there were a few bugs in our food (protein supplements!), but again, I convinced myself it was just rural charm, and enjoyed my suspiciously sauce-drenched teriyaki chicken.
Before Katie's bedtime, we drove out to a lookout just across the bridge heading up the Hamakua Coast to admire the city lights. It was a favorite cuddling spot for Jen and I (provided there weren't people already there drinking or smoking recreational pharmaceuticals).
Compared to the Honolulu nightscape from Tantalus, Hilo looks positively sparse. But the upside was that the sky above though still tinted orange from Hilo's streetlights was dark and clear enough to see a dazzling carpet of stars.
It had been a while since I'd seen a sky like that. It took my breath away.
Like I said, I'm so glad we're here.
It's midnight. Seinfeld is over, and Jen's switching between PBS and ABC for their 24-hour millennium broadcasts (we don't get CNN in this hotel).
In about ten minutes, the fine people of Kiribati will cross the threshold into the next century. (The cheaters redrew the International Date Line to get a jump on everyone else!) They're on TV, dancing away in the unnatural white glare of network television cameras.
Soon, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, and eventually, everyone else. Wild.
Hawai`i, and thus us, will follow suit twenty-three hours later. The last spot to pop the cork, and thus below ABC's radar, apparently, as its daylong coverage ends with the celebration in San Francisco. (CNN will be in Honolulu, at least.)
Jen's a little freaked out, actually, at times wondering if we'll have an apartment in Makiki to go home to, and at times wondering if the end of the world might actually be coming. Tonight's news was full of last-minute updates from HECO, GTE and the Board of Water Supply. Fire and police are scrambling all available staff; the Department of Health and assorted meteorologists predicting the worst smoke in decades.
I'm just excited, and actually enjoying the hysteria, and whenever a news correspondent says "Y2K Bug," I just take a cue from Nate and in my best Jar Jar Binks voice ask, "Meesah people going to die?"
It'll be a scene. Even without the millennial hype and Y2K paranoia, this will be a most wonderful, memorable New Year's. A special trip to a special place, as a close, loving family that couldn't be more content with life in paradise.
Jen and I haven't decided yet where we'll be when the clock strikes midnight, but I know it'll be somewhere quiet.
Chances are we'll just be here in our hotel room, looking out at the Pacific Ocean, sipping champagne. If we're feeling ambitious, we might be at the end of Chain of Craters Road, standing on the newest land on Earth and silently admiring the faint red glow of a distant lava flow.
I do know that I won't be typing on this computer afterward, so this is my last dispatch from the twentieth century. So to everyone, hau`oli makahiki hou, hau`oli ho`okahakaha, a malama pono i kela me keia la!
See you on the other side...