The Far Side of Paradise

By Lisa Gosselin
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Just before sunrise, off the eastern coast of  Maui, clouds stack up on the horizon and drag their shadows across the glistening Pacific. Waves born four time zones away move in softly and then thunder into the black lava cliffs. Somewhere in Kipahulu, the last settlement before the pavement turns to dirt, a wiry old Hawaiian named Eddie Pu sits meditating in front of his house. An 'apua-kea lets loose–the name Hawaiians give to the predawn showers–and then moves up the mountainside, cleansing everything in its path. "Eddie, come inside!" Beverly Pu, the daughter of a Wisconsin dairy farmer, calls to her husband. "What do I care," Pu calls back with a laugh,  "This is Hana."

The town of Hana has two stores, one gas station, and a coffee shop. It has the Hana Ranch, with 2,000 head of cattle, and the venerable and lovely Hotel Hana-Maui, which reigns discreetly over town like a Queen Mother. There is a historic church, a few small inns and guest houses, a cultural center, and a harbor. But to most people, "Hana" refers to the eastern bulge of Maui, starting where the Ke'anae Peninsula juts out from Haleakala's lush volcanic slopes and encompassing Hana town, Kipahulu (and its famous waterfalls), and the dry ranchlands around Kaupo.

Hana is as much a state of mind as a place. Though it has been colonized by pot-growing hippies and New Age organic farmers, reclusive rock stars and working artists, it still harbors the old soul of Maui. Polynesians arrived here between a.d. 500 and 800 and discovered that Hana was the perfect place to grow taro and other crops. By 1883 there were six sugar plantations, and by 1940, Hana had a population of 3,500. When the cane operations shut down, so did the town. As of the 2000 census, 709 people lived in Hana, most descendants of Hawaiians and Polynesians.

Hana is a place where most of the native Hawaiians still live off the land, and money rarely changes hands between neighbors. Fishermen share their catch. And if you break a bone, run a fever, or are facing irreconcilable differences with your brother or your spouse, you turn to a kahuna la 'au lapa'au, or native healer. The phone book lists no therapists, and the nearest hospital is a two-hour drive away.

Eddie Pu may not be a kahuna, but he is a legend in Hana. "I am just a simple Hawaiian," he says, like a refrain, as he talks story one morning at the Hana Ranch coffee shop. "I wake each morning before sunrise and meditate to thank the land, to thank my ancestors for what they have given us."

Eddie Pu has the lithe, proportioned body of a man who has always worked with nature. He was hired in 1972 as one of the first park rangers at 'Ohe'o Gulch, a series of pools and falls now part of Haleakala National Park. Over the years, he saved many lives, including those of the Saudi ambassador and his wife and son, who were swept out to sea. Pu dove into the waves and rescued them one by one, though he ended up in the hospital for several days. Later, the "simple Hawaiian" was flown to Washington to be thanked in person by President Ford. In the decades Pu stood guard at 'Ohe'o Gulch, where flash floods in the mountains catch seaside bathers unawares, no one drowned. Since he retired, seven people have died.

It is hard to guess Eddie Pu's age. His long gray hair is pulled neatly back and kept in place by a ti-leaf headband to ward off headaches. In a few weeks, he tells me, he would set off with a towel, a walking stick, and a bag of dried fruit to do what he has done nearly every birthday for more than 25 years: Walk around Maui. On November 25, he turned 75.

Pu always walks the nearly 200 miles alone. "A spiritual walk to heal my soul," he explains, and his secret route changes from year to year. He might walk past Hotel Hana-Maui's Hamoa Beach, where he lifeguarded for 21 years, out past the flower farm his son owns and then to Kaupo, where the last abandoned church stands sentinel. The road moves inland here, spiraling up toward Haleakala's crater, past the wineries and lavender farms of Kula.

But Pu often follows the desolate, uninhabited coast, passing the remains of ancient fishing villages, traveling along the overgrown path of what was once the King's Highway. He may walk for a day in the no-man's-land of volcanic rubble and windswept dry grass before La Pérouse Bay comes in sight, and later, the clipped golf courses of Wailea; then the condos of Kihei, the old whaling town of Lahaina, and the beachfront resorts of Ka'anapali on the westernmost end.

Along the way, he talks to the trees and the birds and plucks a leaf or two from plants he knows not by name but by their medicinal values. (Once back home, he sends them to the University of Hawai'i for identification.) "These are healing plants our ancestors left for us," Pu explains. "They planted what they needed at the shores and then moved inland." Ancestors, I start to gather, means not the deceased great-grandfather or grandmother who often show up in his dreams to offer unsolicited advice, but the Polynesians who brought with them the canoe plants.

Pu has come across sacred ruins and even human remains. "I bring no camera, draw no map–these things must be left there and not disturbed," he says. He tells a story about how on his first two trips, all the film he shot came out black. After the second trip, he dreamed he must go to the island of Moloka'i. A young girl met him at the airport and said, "You follow me. My great-grandmother is waiting for you." They came to a home where an old woman sat on a porch chair, rocking and laughing.

Reproduced with permission from Bonnier Corporation. All rights reserved.

Published: 30 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 21 Sep 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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