Ancient Pathways

story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Monte Costa

Late on a warm evening in June

Big Island Trails
Old Section of the Ala Kahakai
of 1867, the postmaster Henry Greenwell disembarked from a schooner in the scruffy West Hawai‘i port of Kawaihae. Being a punctilious man, Greenwell had no plans to tarry there. In his bags, he carried the overland mail for Kalukalu, and he was eager to begin the difficult journey to Kealakekua Bay. He awaited only his hired hand and enough light for them to follow the trail across the lava fields. In his journal he wrote:

“At midnight, Gilbert arrived with
the mules. Slept until 4 a.m. on
Thursday morning, when, by the
light of a small moon, we made
our way…”

Greenwell’s route followed the King’s Highway, the new trail that King Kamehameha III had ordered built across the lava fields of Kona to help speed the transport of cattle from Kohala down to the royal enclave in Kailua. Prison labor had carved this eight-foot-wide path, paving it in cinders where it crossed the jagged ‘a‘a, and lining it with rough curbstones to help guide cattle across the trackless stretches of pahoehoe. The new trail bypassed most of the old, largely abandoned fishing villages that lay along the scalloped coast. Where the ancient trails had wended in and out of these bays, the King’s Highway ran straight as a rifle shot. But the terrain that it crossed was still hard and desolate. Only a few years earlier, the 1859 eruption of Mauna Kea had inundated a portion of the trail, complicating travel. Nevertheless, Greenwell was in a hurry and kept the mules moving apace.

Despite brief pauses in Kiholo, where they bathed, and in Kailua town, where Greenwell obtained a horse, they drove the mules steadily through the day, finally reaching Kalukalu late that evening. In all, they trudged the 50 miles from Kawaihae in less than fifteen hours—an astonishing but apparently not remarkable transit. In fact, the records show that the scheduled mail carrier was paid just $2 to ride the same route as an overnight trip, making additional stops along the way to deliver mail.

The King’s Highway is still a prominent feature of the West Hawai‘i landscape. It has an air of permanence that makes it seem iconic—not unlike the shiny cobbles of the Apian Way or the indelible ruts of the Oregon Trail. Some sections—especially those that cut through the great resorts along the Kohala coast—still look much as they must have when Greenwell’s mules carried the mail more than a century ago. Where it bisects the fairways of the Waikoloa golf course, for example, the trail incorporates one of the largest petroglyph fields in the Islands—acres of mysterious symbols chiseled into the lava by forgotten wayfarers. From a high point there, you can stand and watch the trail stretch away into the distance, its stone-lined curbs gradually tapering to a point.

The footpaths of Hawai‘i paraphrase its dense history, providing tangible evidence of the things that rarely make their way into written histories. Not battles or great men, but the day-to-day commerce that bound communities together. In their diverse forms they also represent discrete chapters in a story that’s still unfolding. The most ancient trails link us to narratives rooted deep in legend, and in their continued existence provide a bridge between modern Hawaiians and their ancestral heritage. Others mark the evolving drama of the Hawaiian monarchy, the rise of Western influence, the coming of industry. … Today’s hiker doesn’t so much choose a route as an era.

The Ala Kahakai—literally “coastal trail”—was designated a National Historic Trail by the United States Congress in 2000, joining, among others, the Appalachian Trail, the Oregon Trail and the Trail of Tears. It runs for 175 miles along the coast of the Big Island, along the way linking such major historic and cultural sites as Pu‘ukohola, the famous heiau dedicated by Kamehameha the Great; the remains of Lapakahi, a 600-year-old Hawaiian fishing village; and the National Parks of Kaloko-Honokohau and Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau. Because portions of the trail are so ancient, it’s possible to describe the Ala Kahakai as the oldest of the National Historic Trails.

But, in a sense, the Ala Kahakai is a kind of myth. “There was no trail in either historic or ancient times called ‘Ala Kahakai,’” Aric Arakaki, the superintendent in charge of the trail, points out. Instead, the National Park Service has cobbled together fragments of ancient footpaths, informal beach trails, jeep roads, city streets and portions of a historic route called the Ala Loa to create a corridor that, in theory, makes it possible to walk along the shoreline from ‘Upolu Point in North Kohala, south along the coast, all the way to the eastern edge of Volcanoes National Park.

Some people object to the ad hoc nature of the Ala Kahakai but, in a way, its formation seems natural. Hawai‘i’s trails are like palimpsests—in many places, new trails were simply built over older ones, and highways and roads over those. Much of the old King’s Highway, for example, now lies under the tarmac of the modern Mamalahoa Highway. In fact, because trails are often known by many names, it can be difficult to keep track of their history. To help put the Ala Kahakai in its historic context, I spoke with Kepa Maly, a historian and cultural specialist who, over the years, has interviewed many of the kupuna (elders) who once lived along Hawai‘i’s footpaths, and delved deep into the written record.

“The oldest of the ancient trails are called ala hele,” Maly says. “Ala hele generally were trails within ahupua‘a—the traditional land district of Hawai‘i.” These simple trails linked people with the resources of their ahupua‘a, connecting villages with fishing grounds and sacred sites. Some of these trails ran along the shore; others, what we call today the mauka-makai trails, connected the agricultural land of the interior with the sea.

“As land use expanded,” says Maly, “the ala hele expanded, too, both within ahupua‘a and among related ahupua‘a. In the 1500s, a formalized trail system evolved.” This trail system, which circled the island, became known as the Ala Loa—that is, “the long trail”—and it played a major role in the religious and cultural events of the island. For example, it was the route taken by the priests and royal emissaries who circled the island each year as part of the ceremonies of Makahiki.

But Maly is quick to point out that even this trail wasn’t necessarily continuous, and that there were other kinds of “trails” that linked sections of the Ala Loa. “At places where it became too steep—where there were sea cliffs, for example—you might have to swim.” These “trails” were known as ala hula ana, and might entail ceremonies to test whether they were safe—whether, for example, there were sharks. Ala ‘ulili were sections of trail considered too steep to be formally part of the Ala Loa. And, where it became too steep even for a footpath, ala haka lewa, or rope ladder trails, were installed.

It’s important to remember that the ancient Hawaiians had no beasts of burden, nor any carts or wagons. Although the pathways of the Ala Loa were improved, they were still footpaths. In general, the Hawaiian trail followed the easiest walking route. In some places, it might be filled, but it was normally more basic. Across smooth pahoehoe, there might simply be a line of coral stones marking the route. Where the trail crossed areas of tortuous clinker lava, smooth rocks might be brought from the shore and lined up like stepping-stones across the flow. Trails like this were perfectly adequate for foot traffic and are still in use in sections of Punalu‘u, on the island’s southeastern coast, and in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

But the influence of Westerners changed the nature of Hawai‘i’s trails. As Maly points out, “In the 1820s, particularly on the island of Hawai‘i, they found that, because of hoofed animals and carts, they needed to improve the trails.” Crooked trails needed straightening, narrow trails needed widening, and rough surfaces had to be smoothed to accommodate horses and wagons. “Even into the 1830s,” Maly says, “the konohiki—the chiefs in charge of the land—called upon the people to work on the trails.”

Then, in 1847, King Kamehameha III established the improved trails that came to be known as the Ala Nui Aupuni. The King’s Highway is a portion of that modern trail system. But, much as the Ala Loa was an extension and improvement upon the old ala hele, the Ala Nui Aupuni was simply an evolution of the trails that preceded it. In places, the old trail was filled and improved; but, often, the old meandering footpaths were simply abandoned. Here and there, you can still find sections of them in the lava beds of North Kona, testament to both the history and unsure future of the pathways of old Hawai‘i.

Eager to get a sense of this history, one bright August morning I drove down to Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park—the old City of Refuge—to join Aric Arakaki and Dennis Hart for a hike along a section of the Ala Kahakai known as the 1871 Trail. Hart, whose ancestral lands are in nearby Ki‘ilae, is a Hawaiian activist and organizer of Na Hoa Aloha, a group of volunteers who work clearing the trail one day a week.

The section of the Ala Kahakai that passes through Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau is a particularly historic one. It passes among old stone ruins—ancient heiau, burial sites, old ranching pens and home sites—that serve as concrete reminders of the living history of the trail. As we hike, Hart shows us lava tubes once used to access the sea, and places where fishermen used to launch their canoes and cast their nets. This area is also startlingly beautiful. In places, the trail runs along the edge of jagged sea cliffs. Below, heaps of boulders have been rounded by the waves and encrusted with pink coralline algae.

“Kahekina was apparently the last person that lived out here,” says Hart, pointing to an unseen homestead in the scrub. When the highway was made up mauka, his daughters married and eventually moved away. Kahekina was a fisherman though, and held on to his place by the shore as long as he could. “When he couldn’t pull up his canoe anymore, then he knew it was time for him to move. So he moved up with one of his daughters until he died.”

Arakaki interlays Hart’s stories with the history of the National Historic Trail and his plans for the future: The Ala Kahakai was largely the inspiration of a group of hiking enthusiasts now known as E Mau Na Ala Hele. According to Arakaki, “This group—people like Hannah Springer, Debbie Chang and Hugh Montgomery—advocated for more trails on the island of Hawai‘i, and one of the trails they advocated for was this concept called Ala Kahakai.” In the early 1990s, they began to push for designation on a national level as a way to preserve the ancient trails and provide some protection to the literally hundreds of cultural sites along the shore.

In many ways, Arakaki’s trail management plan is the most innovative feature of the Ala Kahakai. If his approach works, each section of the trail will be managed by organizations like Dennis Hart’s Na Hoa Aloha—the lineal descendants of the Hawaiian families from that region. The National Park Service plans to create a Friends of the Ala Kahakai Foundation to support the groups that will assume management of the trail and help them with training, resources and fundraising. As Arakaki says, “We’re creating a situation whereby our communities—and we’re looking at ahupua‘a—can manage their trails, just as they did in the past.”

Dennis Hart remembers those days. For him, a major function of the Ala Kahakai is still to connect communities. “When I was a kid, I remember this ahupua‘a—Honaunau and Këokea—would plan to clean the trail once a year. The other side was Ho‘okena and Kealia Beach—they would clean from one end and we would clean from the other, and in two days, the two sides meet. When the trail was overgrown, the connection was severed. Now that it’s open again, it’s amazing.”

The kind of personal connection that Arakaki hopes to foster won’t happen overnight—which, he acknowledges, has led to impatience in some quarters. “There are a lot of groups out there that want to see this trail happen on the ground real quick,” he says. “And I’m going, ‘Whoa!’ We have to be sure that we’re engaging the families and that we get permission from them—some kind of green light from them indicating it’s okay to do this. So it takes time.”

Many Big Island trail advocates, though, are used to taking matters into their own hands. Hugh Montgomery, for example, was an early member of E Mau Na Ala Hele and one of the principal advocates for the Ala Kahakai. In the late 1990s, he even traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for Historic Trail designation. Nowadays, his focus is often on another chapter in the history of Hawai‘i and its trails. He and his wife own Hawaiian Walkways, a company that specializes in leading small groups on hiking expeditions—among them the Lower Hamakua Ditch, an unusual trail that he knows well: Several years ago, he helped rescue it from oblivion.

One afternoon last July, I met Montgomery at his Honoka‘a offices, and we drove off in his pickup truck toward the Lower Hamakua trailhead. The trail runs through private lands, and Montgomery has to lease the right to use it. To get there, we passed through locked gates, following obscure back-roads through former sugar plantations and old ranchland, now mostly planted in eucalyptus pulpwood. Deep in the forest, he parked the truck by the side of a dirt road and we hiked down a short path to where the gentle slope suddenly fell steeply away from us—the edge of Waipi‘o Valley. Through the treetops, the far side of the valley was visible in the distance. And, just a few feet below us, I could see a narrow trail carved into the face of the cliff: the beginnings of the Lower Hamakua Ditch Trail. Montgomery led the way down, telling the trail’s story as we hiked.

Although there were undoubtedly ancient trails along this route, this one is of fairly recent vintage, and a hike here leads into yet another epoch in Hawai‘i’s history: the age of Big Sugar. By the early 20th century, it was clear that the great sugar plantations along the Hamakua coast would need more water than they could draw from local sources, and they began a series of irrigation projects that still define the landscape. Engineers surveyed the current trail in 1907 to facilitate the construction of an elaborate system of tunnels and channels known as the Lower Hamakua Ditch. An enormous undertaking in its day, the ditch still draws water off the streams in the upper-watershed of Waipi‘o Valley even though Big Sugar is dead.

In 1909, at the height of the work on the ditch, more than 1,200 laborers plied the trail—most of them Japanese immigrants. They relied upon a stable of more than 100 mules to shuttle their supplies, and the trail was cobbled and curbed with lava stone to stand up to the constant pounding of the mules’ hoofs. During the three years it took to construct the ditch, mule teams freighted more than 25 tons of candles, 200 tons of TNT, 6,000 barrels of cement and more than 1 million board-feet of lumber. Almost all of those supplies disappeared into 9 miles of tunnel bored in the cliff face.

Once the ditch was completed, the trail fell into disuse. For a while, it remained an attraction—drawing travelers to see the waterfalls and the striking views down into Waipi‘o Valley. But relentless weather and a lack of maintenance quickly began to leave their marks on the old mule track. In his 1916 guidebook to Hawai‘i, Henry Walsworth Kenny would still remark on its beauty, but he felt compelled to add, “But it certainly cannot be recommended for ladies or people of a nervous disposition.”

Eventually, the old trail vanished. In some places, the jungle simply overwhelmed it—choking it off in ginger and guava and tree-ferns. In other spots, it was buried under landslides or detritus pushed over the lip of the valley by the bulldozers of plantation road gangs. “Hardly anyone knew it was here,” Montgomery says. By the time he re-discovered it, there were only the vaguest intimations of its former glory: some old mossy curbstones hidden in the tropical undergrowth, cave-like adits that led into the tunnels, and, here and there, patches of the old cobbles, barely visible through the foliage.

The highlight for most hikers on the restored trail is probably the vertiginous view from one of the lookouts down into the valley, or maybe the beautiful swimming hole under Hi‘ilawe Falls, near the trail’s mid-point. For me, though, the real highlight of the hike is the tale of the trail itself: A story of loss and improbable rediscovery, it’s also testament to an enduring passion among Big Islanders for their trails.

It’s a passion shared by many. Toni Thompson, for example. Like Montgomery, she’s a prominent member of E Mau Na Ala Hele, and in 1998, she participated in a famous series of hikes that the group conducted to promote the idea of the Ala Kahakai. To prove its viability, over the course of a year, members met each Saturday to hike a different section. Week by week, they would eventually cover the entire distance—though Thompson was the only member to hike the entire 175 miles. Now well into her eighties, she’s still an avid hiker and advocate for Big Island trails. When I called to see if she’d be willing to go for a hike with me, she immediately tried to conscript me for trail work.

Thompson and I met high up on the Belt Road to see her latest passion, an unusual bird sanctuary known simply as Kipuka 21. She’s been a volunteer there lately, swinging a pick-ax and clearing brush as they build a new trail and boardwalk through the park. On the day we visited, no work was going on and the gate was locked, but she was eager to show me what all the fuss was about. Leaning against the fence, she told me the story of the project.

A kipuka is a uniquely Hawaiian part of the landscape. Geologically, it’s an area of forest or native vegetation that has been isolated by lava flows. When the flows are high, as they are at Kipuka 21, they leave deep, mysterious hollows. Even though the surrounding area may be scrub or barren lava, kipuka often contain lush vegetation. And they harbor some of Hawai‘i’s rarest habitat. The state, in an unusual attempt to take advantage of this, has chosen Kipuka 21 as the place to reintroduce two endangered Hawaiian birds—the ‘akepa and the Hawaiian creeper, both bred in captivity—back into the wild. They should feel right at home. The trail loops deep into the other-worldly landscape of the kipuka, through lichen-covered ‘ohi‘a, fluttering ‘olapalapa, and the almost-perpetual mist of the clouds sweeping through. At its edge, we can hear the twitter of unseen ‘i‘iwi in the brush, and Thompson points out some of the precautions being taken for the rare birds here. “Eventually, this trail is going to be a boardwalk,” she says, “so people don’t disturb the habitat.” And, gesturing toward the stout fence that’s keeping us from entering, she says, “That fence is buried three feet into the ground, to keep out the pigs.”

For a while, we stare down into the kipuka, trying to envision future flocks of endangered birds in the trees. In a sense, Kipuka 21 represents a new evolution in Hawaiian trails. After all, it’s a path that goes nowhere. It connects to no other trails. It links no communities. In the end, though, it’s not so different from the King’s Trail or the Ala Kahakai or the Lower Hamakua Ditch Trail. It’s still a bridge to the past, its vestigial landscape and precious bird life serving as living counterparts to the petroglyphs and heiau that line the ancient trails.

But then I’m struck by a realization: The Big Island’s trails aren’t just nostalgic; there’s something distinctly forward-looking about them. And I can’t help but think of something Dennis Hart said back at Honaunau. “Sometimes people ask me why I care about the trail. ‘It only takes you to the next village,’ they say. But I think there’s more. I think these trails not only teach us where we came from; they also take us to our future.”

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