Elevation: 1,477 feet
Back on Maui, I head for a different harbor, the Kihei boat ramp, my gateway to a summit that was once nearly bombarded out of existence. For half the twentieth century, Kahoolawe was pounded and strafed with every projectile in the US Navy’s arsenal. The island would glow at night under a toxic veil of gas and smoke. “This island is our baby, a very special child,” says Atwood Makanani, a founding member of Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, the grass-roots coalition that waged an oft-quixotic, decades-long battle to reclaim the island, ultimately compelling the Pentagon to relinquish control in 2003. Known to all as Uncle Maka, he speaks in rhyme and metaphor, dispensing axioms that range from the hip-hop to the biblical. “The baby is of age now,” he says. “It never died. It survived to remind us that we’re human, not perfect. When it hurts, we hurt. This is a child that reflects the world.”
We have finagled our way onto a flat-bottomed cargo boat, property of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, the state agency created to oversee the island’s transition from bombing range to cultural sanctuary. Access is strictly regulated (though not as strictly as it is on cloistered Niihau, the one island I am forced to skip), and those fortunate enough to gain clearance are expected to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. “When you get there, you’ll know you’re there,” says Maka, who began making unauthorized trips to the island in 1977, forays that were widely dismissed at the time as radical showboating and that are now considered a milestone in the rebirth of Hawaiian practices and pride. “It’s called a dream. Live it. Unconditionally. No regrets.”
Our landing craft hits the beach at Honokanaia Bay—there are, intentionally, no docks on Kahoolawe—and I am given a government-mandated safety briefing. Although the military spent ten years and $400 million removing ordnance, much of the cleanup was superficial, and the risk of stumbling across some half-buried shrapnel or even an unexploded shell remains considerable. Not that I had planned to be using my cell phone, but I am instructed to power down, lest its wireless frequencies detonate a long-lost radio-controlled device.
We pile into a battered pickup, Maka at the wheel and Kim Kuulei Birnie, the Ohana’s access coordinator, acting as copilot. At forty-five square miles, Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight major Hawaiian islands; without the elevation to hold clouds in place, it is also the driest and most desolate. As we jangle up the main road, a rutted aisle of hardpan, it becomes clear why the Ohana focuses so much of its efforts on re-vegetation: Whatever napalm failed to destroy, erosion has scoured and cleaved. Of Kahoolawe’s two summits, one fifty feet higher than the other, it is the lower peak, Puu Moaulaiki, that most appears to rise above the island. From it, nearly all of Kahoolawe’s shoreline is visible, and in ancient times young seafarers would ascend for their first training in the ways of the water and sky. Pulling up to its base, Birnie suggests that we approach barefoot, as would be customary in a makahiki ceremony, to signal the season of the god Lono. We are in city clothes, with a crackling walkie-talkie and a hissing old Ford, but we remove our shoes and socks, standing silent while Maka—a moolono, or priest of Lono—blows a conch shell.
I take a tentative step, trying to avoid the jagged stones and thorny vines underfoot, then another. We only have a few hundred yards to walk, but my soles are ill equipped. As I continue inching my way up, stifling yelps, I am suddenly struck by what it means to tread gingerly on the earth, to return to Kahoolawe the respect that was robbed by a generation of warfare. “You see the pain the island has gone through,” Maka tells me. “In the process of healing the island, we begin to heal ourselves.”