Story by Roland Gilmore
Photos by Jack Wolford
Every time I fly into Hilo, I make the drive: across the singing bridge and onto the Belt Highway. I pass, in order of appearance, the spot where Wainaku Mill used to be, up above the small beach where the tiger shark washed ashore that one time; past the Scenic Lookout and its mud-slicked, secret trail to the rocky shore below; past the ‘Alae Cemetery and the cliff where the tombstone maker’s house once perched. In other words, past the surf spots: Bay Front, Scenics, Tombstones. Two miles on the highway, then down through the ‘Alae Point neighborhood to the edge of the cliff that overlooks Honoli‘i Beach Park.
In the ’70s, pre-driver’s license, this trip involved: a) pedaling a BMX bike along the shoulder of the highway at 5 a.m., with the open-bed, eighteen-wheeler cane trucks roaring past, dropping dirt clods and hunks of cane as they went; b) retrieving the surfboard I’d stashed under a bud’s house; and c) making the rounds to see who would wake up and paddle out. Often, this meant at least a six-pack of sunburnt little surf rats down on the black-sand beach at Honoli‘i, cooking hot dogs over a driftwood fire and waiting for the sun. Later on, I spent just as many hours alone, heading into the water at first light; watching the sun squeeze its way up between a low bank of rain clouds and the eastern horizon, the sudden orange as it broke the surface filtering through the gray-green lip of a breaking wave.
As time went by, the bicycle became a motorcycle, blasting down the unpaved cane roads that began just across the Wailuku River from my parents’ place and ran a crooked eight miles downhill to the sea. In 1980, when I turned 15, the family Landcruiser was added to the mix: a funky old jeep with just enough room for a board wedged in diagonally. These days, I still make the trip, but it’s all via rental car: full-size, family-of-four division.
I tell you all of this so that, were you seated next to me as this particular jet makes its arcing descent across Hilo Bay, you’d understand why I always well up at the sight of that famed iron-grate bridge, which literally hums as drivers head south from the Hamakua Coast, over the Wailuku River and into downtown. At this point in my life, I’ve been lucky enough to travel through a good portion of the Pacific, but I’ve yet to come upon anywhere that beats Hilo: It’s beautiful. It’s complicated. And once upon a time, I would have told you it’s my home—but that too is complicated.