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Jul. 17, 2008 by Judy

Kipahulu Roundabout

Aloha All,

I wrote the following essay when I was working as a short-term hire for Haleakala National Park in the Kipahulu section, past Hana. A lot of you will learn the wrong name for this place: 7 Sacred Pools. The proper name is Oheo Gulch, in the Kipahulu valley. Oheo means, as far as I have been able to understand, something like 'the drum', or 'the drumming sound'. This is because this valley drains a truly formidable and astonishing volume of water when it rains upslope of this part of the coast -- something that is more common than not, especially in the winter. On this E/NE side of the island you are smack-dab in the rainy part of the rain shadow, meaning, water-heavy air moving across the Pacific from the NE runs into this mountain sticking 10,000 feet up out of the ocean. Result: the heavily laden wet air is forced to rise, and when it meets cooler upper level air that water condenses and falls -- sometimes to the tune of 200-300 inches a year. Much of that water pools up and pauses a bit before making its way downslope, and when it comes, it can come in such volumes (containing, as I have seen, guava trees, boulders, and cattle) that the ground in the area literally thrums, like a drum, and you can hear it for miles.

One memorable day I heard a wall of water roar through the streambed canyon, and when I got to the public part of the stream the fire department helicopters were plucking newlyweds out of trees. Nobody died on that day, but people have died on other days.

When the National Park Rangers tell you to stay away from the stream, stay away from the stream. They know when the water is likely to come.

Now that we've got the safety briefing out of the way, let me share with you this batch of memories. My job was part Rangering around keeping an eye on things, and part fee collecting. The fee collecting part was fairly surreal, humanity being what it is. I was moved to write about it and this essay was published in a Parks magazine a couple of years ago. Here you are:

Kipahulu Roundabout--

A warm wind of frito scent and wet TEVAs wafted out of the bright orange Dodge Neon as soon as the blonde with suspiciously perfect teeth cranked down the window. She regarded me blearily with The-Luau-Was-Last-Night eyes. I asked for ten dollars.

This was not, mind you, a curbside drug deal. I was just doing my job: Emergency Hire Kipahulu fee collector.

Ah, the human variety. I was partly prepared for the parading festival of weirdness by a book I'd read years ago, a collection of truth is stranger than fiction battle tales from the fee collectors working on the Golden Gate bridge. However, out in the jungly wilds of Kipahulu the working conditions were distinctly more relaxed in a lovely, sort of third-world way, and decidedly less foggy and cold. We didn't have a booth out here, for instance, but we did have a nifty green 4WD all-terrain vehicle which we'd park under a kukui tree at the entrance to the dirt parking lot. From this haven we'd spring out to extract the necessary cash for the government from an endless parade of M-n-M-colored vehicles, most of them redolent of sweat and fast food moldering in the foot mats.

Looking down into innumerable car windows all day long, I had the feeling that I existed in some other, fractured reality. Human vignettes of infinite variety, framed by the dimensions of a car window, opened to me every few minutes. It was like opening a series of boxes designed by a benevolent and seriously twisted television miniseries writer.

There were, for starters, the ubiquitous honeymoon couples. Sunburned, exhausted and over-stimulated, they lethargically handed me damp cash while the sun winked off of as-yet unscratched and very screamingly new wedding rings. Some of them were in mid-argument, some dazed by the beauty of the windward side of the island. Some were dazed by the illicit purchases they'd made from a local kid by the highway on the way to the park. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.

There were the dreamy, distracted lovers and the families who'd been in one small car too long. The little old ladies in aloha wear from Kansas or Missouri or Florida who tried to feed me through the car window or marry me to their doctor/lawyer/pilot/investment banker sons on the mainland. The locals cruised in in their jacked-way-up-there trucks with their benevolent dogs and squirmy big-eyed kids and fishing gear in the back. And, there were the utterly dislocated Chinese.

There were the sweet Indian families with carsick kids and wives with emotive brown eyes. The polite and expensively-dressed young Japanese. Local hippie kids, themselves the kids of hippies, finagled to get in free by wielding the potent easy charm of surfers. And, as on Maui everywhere, there were the young "Trustafarians", dreadlocked and wearing 100% hemp outfits in muted earth colors—ostensibly humbly living off the land, but in reality incubating turgid trust funds in some bank in Princeton.

There were Germans in hilarious swimwear who'd printed out a timetable of their day and wanted only specific coordinates to certain waterfalls, New Yorkers who were clearly disoriented by the natural beauty and absence of pressure to BE anywhere or DO anything, and sweetly chatty old folks -- some of whom insisted on knowing everything about my personal life as the chain of rental cars piled up behind them and spilled down the road.

The tour vans would rumble through, wave and/or hand me a sticky Minit Stop mystery pastry and something cold to drink, smile big and go on to deposit their geriatric roadtrip enthusiasts by the Visitor Center. Hana residents in muffler-less "Maui cruisers" would honk and shaka me as they roared past on the road, trailing blue fumes. The occasional mongoose would trot by after a long morning of hovering around the trash barrels, often pausing to swing a pointed brown head in my direction to shoot me a look of pure disdain. Yellowjacket wasps would loop lazily around the roof of my vehicle, looking for all the world like they were trying to find an out-of-the-way place to grab a nap.

I'd take a break during the calm periods, my dented and muddy green 4WD at my back and the view to the ocean in front of me, rain squalls inevitably tracking across the windy channel, thinking that life is the most surreal of all possible experiences.

I'd fold the ten-dollar bills in front of the bigger bills in my waistpack and think about the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your poor, your tired, etc. etc. MY inscription on the bottom of my own monument might read:

"Give me your lost, your hung-over, your stoned, your bleary/
your delirious masses yearning to be free from the car/
and the irritating person you married/
and the whining of the teenagers."

But you can leave the stinky TEVAs in the trunk, if you don't mind, and small bills are always appreciated.

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