Barney Frazier and Elizabeth Jenkins
with son Sammy, at the K‘au Tropical
Espresso Bar & Fruit Stand
8/12. Mamalahoa Highway, Kainaliu to Ka‘u.
I come from a long line of motorheads. In the 1940s, while working as an engineer for O‘ahu’s Libby Pineapple, my grandfather spent his free time building high-horsepower sports cars—MGs, an Austin-Healey, a fiberglass-bodied Victress—to race up at the abandoned airstrip in Kahuku. My father, a twenty-something in the 1950s, kept his own fast company on a hopped-up BSA Goldstar—the cream of post-WWII British motorcycles. In the ’60s, my pop’s younger brother was a pretty hot motocross racer and their uncle owned Yamaha of Hawai‘i, then the first U.S. distributor for the Japanese motorcycle giant. My siblings and I—two brothers followed by two sisters, then me—were all born in Southern California. But by 1970 the family was living in Hilo, where my parents had opened a Yamaha dealership, which my father ran for the next thirty years. I got my first motorcycle for my sixth birthday.
I tell you this so you’ll believe me when I say that Robert Pirsig was right: Motorcycles are a Zen pursuit. Watching the pavement roll past just below your feet at sixty miles per hour, powered forward by a series of internal combustion explosions occurring almost directly between your legs, you tend to have a decent grasp of the concept of mortality: A lapse in concentration at the wrong moment and ... well, you die. This creates what for me has always been an unexplainable paradox: Being conscious of danger forces one to live in the moment, which empties the mind of extraneous thought ... which in turn sets the mind free to wander. For lack of a clearer description, think of it as ultra-conscious daydreaming.
For instance: Cruising down Route 11, the two-lane segment of the Mamalahoa Highway that runs from the upper elevations of South Kona around the southern flank of Mauna Loa and eventually down to coastal Na‘alehu, I see a wild boar. A big one, dead on the side of the road. It’s not the kind of thing a hunter would leave behind, so it must have wandered onto the street during the night and been hit by a car. I wonder at the sudden terror both driver and pua‘a surely felt when they met in the lonely night.
It occurs to me that in death the pig has become a type of geographic shorthand, a way of knowing where in the world you are: Rural. Mid-elevation. Rain forest. Get beyond a car’s hermetically sealed environment and the Big Island will reveal itself in all sorts of ways. By smell: In South Kona, it’s a green and wet odor, sometimes with a hint of Eucalyptus, sometimes rotting guava or ‘ohi‘a lehua, the last not so much an aroma as a sensation—cool, foggy; in Na‘alehu, just a bit past
the southern tip of the island, it shifts to the hot, dry fragrance of keawe wood and pastureland, with an essence of cow-pattie. Changes in altitude are easy to tell: The temperature rising off the road, the humidity ... they vary markedly with even a few hundred feet gained or lost.
Of course, there are also the signs of humanity, varying from place to place. From Kainaliu all the way to Na‘alehu, a trip of roughly fifty miles, you can easily place yourself by reading the occasional hand-lettered, roadside advertisements: “Buying coffee cherries today, $1.05 per lb.” in Kealakekua—an independent roaster looking for product; “horse rides” and “manure for sale” near Na‘alehu, echoes of its paniolo culture. And also, midway between the sixty-seven- and sixty-eight-mile markers, on a fence in front of a stand of immense Cook’s pines: “Espresso bar and organic fruit.”