Lonesome Valley: Hawaiian dream not so rosy close up


My video game set in Hawaii always gives me a nostalgia attack…beachside bars, aqua swimming pools, and, of course, a luau. But this was not MY Hawaii, Sam’s and mine, the one we spent a few months in all those years ago.

Sam was my first boyfriend in Alaska, and he was a sweetheart. Sam is dead now, struck down by ALS at the age of 61. He was 23 like me in 1970, when we met. He was fresh out of the Air Force. I was fresh from a divorce.

We went to Hawaii because, while hitchhiking, we met a guy who’d been there. Back then, everyone wanted to move to the country and “live off the land”. This guy convinced us that Hawaii was the place.

“You go to the Big Island, and find an uninhabited beach,” he said. “You bring a staple gun, and make yourself a cozy shelter in the trees with mosquito netting and viscoline.”—that plastic sheeting so popular in the hippie community—“And every day you go down to your private lagoon and shoot a nice fish with your spear gun. You wrap it in banana leaves—they grow everywhere—squeeze on some lime juice—and bury it in the sand, where it’ll cook in the sun in just a few hours.” He added that the only other thing we’d need was a heavy kettle to cook our rice.

So that is how—and why—in June, 1971, we sold all our stuff and caught a standby flight to Hilo, our backpacks loaded down with rolls of plastic and mosquito netting, tools, snorkeling gear, spear gun, and, of course, a cast iron kettle. As a precaution, we brought a tent, telling ourselves we’d only need it for a few days, until our idyllic beach home was ready.

We honestly thought we’d be able to live there forever.

I remember thinking, as our flight descended, that the Big Island actually WAS big. How were we going to find our beach with all this luggage?

In the airport, Hawaiians in bright outfits hung flower leis around the necks of SOME of the passengers, but those turned out to be the ones booked into expensive resorts, like the one depicted in my game. We got no reception.

In retrospect, the whole thing is funny.

We ended up buying an old car, because we’d never find our beach without wheels. Besides, Hawaii was not a place where you could leave your stuff lying around, and it was simply too heavy to carry everywhere. We then drove around the island, living in our tent—thank god we brought it!–and spending most of our remaining cash on eating out, mainly the teriyaki plate at the Dairy Queen in Kona. Cooking on a campfire was impossible. The wood was like iron and perpetually damp. Did I mention it rains a LOT over there?

As for fish, we couldn’t get near one with our spear gun. They recognized it and took off. In 4 months, the only fish we shot was so small that the gun snipped it in half. The thing with the banana leaves totally didn’t work, either, and, by the way, they do NOT grow everywhere.

Finally some hippies gave us an electric hot plate, so we were able to cook by plugging it in at the park pavilions, which (happily) had roofs. We used the park bathrooms, too, and bathed in the showers at the beach. None of this seemed very natural, but we figured we’d do more natural stuff once we settled in.

We finally found a coffee shack to rent outside of Kona–$25 a month with electricity, a sink, and a roof(!)…but…no fridge or bathroom. Some people who were leaving gave us a mattress, and we had our little stove. It was a big improvement over the tent. We even got a cat.

But by then we were really out of money, and for a couple of weeks all we ate were avocados, which actually WERE plentiful in the woods. Our dream was unraveling, but we could not go home. We had only bought one-way tickets.

Finally, we got jobs at a Chinese restaurant in Kona, and saved enough, by late October, to pay our way home. We decided to go. We were losing our house, layoffs were coming, and our car was about to die, too. We left the cat, mattress, stove, the unused roll of viscoline, and that damned iron kettle for the next folks. We took the staple gun, because you can always use one of those.

We got back to Anchorage on a bright chilly day, with $40 to our names, and our luggage (including the staple gun) missing. Sam called some friends to see if they’d take us in for a month, and I hitchhiked to get the winter clothes we’d stored with some other friends. Standing on windy Spenard Road in my flowered mini-dress and sandals, I got some funny looks, and, quite quickly, a ride.

And so my one and only attempt to “live off the land” ended. Sam went back to Hawaii, a few years later, with his new girlfriend, but I never did. From that point on, wherever I lived, I always stayed in town.

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