Photo: Girl on Hawaiian beach
Waipio Valley's black-sand beach has long been a place of refuge and healing for native Hawaiians and now inspires locals too.

Photograph by Chris Bickford

By Elizabeth Berg

I am 1,200 feet up in the air, flying in a “trike,” a wheeled, motorized hang glider. I’m wearing a seat belt, but it seems as insubstantial as a rubber band. I clench my jaw and grab some piece of metal—I won’t look to see what exactly because I fear the movement will fatally unbalance the glider. When I finally do peer down, I take in the turquoise-colored waters of the Pacific Ocean ringing verdant mountain ridges, deep river-scribed valleys, and strips of black-sand beach—the widely varying landscape of Hawaii’s Big Island. I relax a bit, but I still cannot release my death grip.

The man sitting in front of me, the pilot, tells me the trike is perfectly safe. “It wants to stay true,” he says. “It can practically fly itself.” To demonstrate, he lifts his hands from the steering apparatus, which would make me scream if only my mouth would open. “You can let go,” he says. But I can’t. I can only put blind faith in this man I don’t know at all. He is my brother.

There is a photo taken in 1953 of my brother and me. I’m a messy-haired five-year-old wearing a ruffled dress and buckle shoes standing beside my baby brother in his high chair. I’d been charged with feeding him his strained plums, but every time my mother turned her back, I ignored him and helped myself. Over the years, things didn’t improve. I didn’t share my toys with my brother. I didn’t play games with him or teach him things. I didn’t confide in him or commiserate with him. I saw no need for him, frankly.

My disregard of Jeffery lasted through our growing-up years. When I was 17, what I knew about him was that he lived in the same house as I. Somewhere.

Our family enjoyed many gifts, but hugging and expressions of love were not among them. My siblings and I went our separate ways, and when we left home for adulthood, we didn’t call, we didn’t write, we didn’t visit each other. In the past several years, my sister and I have grown closer. Now I want to know Jeffery Hoff.

MORE THAN 30 YEARS AGO, Jeff dropped out of mainland society to live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii. 

I e-mail him, asking if I may come for a visit. It is his wife, Tobi, who responds.

Jeff is a bad typist, she says, but yes, come.

I arrive at Kona International Airport at 8 p.m. Tobi is there to meet me. She slips a lei of plumeria blossoms around my neck and says, “Welcome to Hawaii.” My brother, she adds, is working. “Oh, uh-huh,” I say, trying not to mind Jeff’s absence.

It takes over an hour of driving dark, narrow, mostly deserted roads to reach their home in Kukui­haele on the island’s northeastern Hamakua coast.

We pull up a steep gravel driveway to a pole house, an environmentally friendly wood bungalow I know Jeff helped build. When I step out of the car, I look up and am dumbstruck: I cannot see the stars for the stars. I’ve never seen a night sky so full of constellations, with the filmy sweep of the Milky Way so evident.

“Listen to the birds!” I say. And Tobi tells me that what I’m hearing in fact are singing tree frogs called coqui. The sound they make is just like that: coqui coqui.

We climb concrete steps imprinted with taro and breadfruit leaves from the Waipio Valley and various philodendrons and ferns from the yard: Tobi’s idea, Jeff’s implementation. Tobi shows me to my quarters. I fall asleep to the sounds of the coqui, a wind chime, and the rushing waterfall in their rain forest of a backyard. Sometime during the night, I think I hear a knock on the door, but then I’m not sure I didn’t dream it. It wasn’t a let-me-in knock anyway, it was more of a “hey!”

Waking early, I sip a cup of Kona coffee out on my own private lanai and breathe in the perfumed morning air. When I ascend to the main house, I find Tobi in the kitchen. Then I hear footsteps descending the ladder stairs from the loft bedroom. And there he is, my lanky, brown-haired brother. We greet each other a little shyly; we might be employees starting a new job on the same day. He informs me he has commitments today but will take three days off to show me the island. He’d like to get me up in the trike, too. “Oh, OK,” I respond, but think: The hell you say.

Jeff says he has time for a little hike before he has to leave. First, though, we have to feed the animals. We take a zigzag path down the steep hill of the backyard, past the handmade support walls Jeff built by carrying lava rocks one by one, on his motorcycle or his truck, from the other side of the island. When we reach the bottom of the property, we cross the bridge he built over the stream in order to get to the goat pen. I think, How did he learn to build all this stuff? I don’t remember him with so much as a Tinkertoy.

After we feed the ducks, the goats, the goose, the dogs, the cat, and the cockatiels, Tobi packs a cooler and the three of us head off for the nearby Waipio Valley, also called the Valley of the Kings, because it used to be the heart of Hawaiian politics and religion. Thousands used to live here, raising taro and lotus and hunting for fish; now, because of tsunamis and the seductive pull to live a Westernized life, only a few dozen do. The narrow road down is alarmingly steep—it drops almost a thousand feet in one mile—and full of blind curves. Jeff shifts his truck into low gear and proceeds carefully forward.

Tobi and I are riding in lawn chairs in the open back of the truck. May I repeat that? Tobi and I are riding in lawn chairs in the open back of the truck. I mention something about the lack of seat belts and Tobi says, “Oh, you don’t wear seat belts on this road. If anything happens, you need to be able to get out of the truck.” If anything happens refers, I know, to the truck tumbling down, down, down. I look straight ahead and try to take in the magnificent sight of the ocean and the imposing cliff walls rather than envisioning myself lying smashed on the ground with X’s for eyes.

We park near the black-sand beach and settle ourselves down for a picnic of sushi and Hawaiian beer. I stare at the moss-green gorge before us. The valley is only one mile wide, but it goes back some six miles. There is a Bali Hai kind of pull to the place, a suggestion of mystery and intrigue. I’m glad to hear we will drive deep into it on another day—there’s a person who lives there whom Jeff wants me to meet.

On our hike, I get introduced to Indian mulberry and tropical almond and beach naupaka, also called half-flower bush, which sprouts beguiling little blossoms. There’s a legend behind them: Pele, the fire goddess, had a lover who spurned her for the affections of her sister. Infuriated by their betrayal, Pele turned each of them into half flowers, but as one variety lives on the beach and one in the mountains, they are forever separated.

“HOW CAN ANYONE LIVE HERE?” I ask the next morning as we ford a stream in Waipio Valley. I’m in the front seat of Jeff’s truck this time, holding on to the door handle and grinning like a fool as I lurch left, right, forward, and back. I keep thinking: I’m driving up a river!

Jeff tells me his friend Linda Beech lives here. She’s an 86-year-old former actress, who became a major TV celebrity in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s. She was also a pilot, a wartime correspondent, a psychologist­—and for decades owned a local landmark: a tree house built in a monkeypod tree. We find Linda sitting on the sofa in her living room wearing a Hawaiian print blouse, yellow pants, yellow bead necklace, and two bracelets. Her white hair is neatly styled, her complexion glows. She tells me about her former life and her current one, beset now with some health concerns, but she takes this all in stride.

She says, “I think we should have some wine!” and Jeff produces the two bottles he’s brought her.

From Linda’s floor-to-ceiling living room window, we can view a towering cliff wall with a waterfall tumbling down it. Her two-acre backyard brims with avocado, kukui, and mango trees; lilikoi vines; flowers like red flame ginger and honeycomb heliconia and Queen Emma lilies; and garden spiders who make designs in their webs that look like letters.

We enjoy conversation of the old-school variety, civilized and rich, devoid of the bouncing knees and darting eyes characteristic of people who are addicted to electronic devices for their entertainment and stimulation. “I adore your brother,” Linda tells me, glancing at Jeff, who has been sitting quietly back in the corner. Only as the sun starts to go down do we manage to tear ourselves away.

We drive back down the river, then wind around the high narrow roads now absent of any light but the truck’s headlights. Jazz plays low on the truck’s radio as we slowly inch our way up, up, up. Jeff points to a sign. “A guy I know once ran into that, bounced off the rock wall, and plunged down into the ocean.”

“Really,” I say. And then, “Did you have to tell me that now?” And in this gentle ribbing I feel a tiny bit of what—thawing?— happening between Jeff and me. I don’t want to think about it too much. It’s like walking up to a butterfly: You must appear not to move while you’re moving.

THIS EVENING, I AM INVITED TO JOIN an impromptu gathering at the home of another of Jeff’s friends. Jeff volunteers to stay home and cook our dinner. I think about offering to help him, but it doesn’t feel as though he wants me to. And so Tobi and I go.

Dallas and Dave Allen are a 60-year-old couple who look like prosperous hippies. Dave has offered to perform his flaming poi ball dance. We find our way to the grove on their land where Dave will be dancing. Banyan tree roots rise so high they form a natural amphitheater.

When we arrive, we find several people seated in lawn chairs, visiting with each other, laughing, and enjoying a huge bonfire and snacks laid out on a picnic table. Solar-powered lights hang from branches for a festive touch.

Suddenly, Dave leaps up and lights his poi balls, flammable spheres hanging from chains. He swings them around in circles, faster and faster, making a kaleidoscopic pattern of light. He throws something into the fire to change the color of the flames. He grabs a baton that he ignites at both ends, then twirls. We ooh and ahhh and applaud.

And then we hear the sound of a motorcycle. It’s Jeff, come to tell us that dinner is ready. Tobi drives the car back, and I climb on the back of Jeff’s motorcycle for a ride that has me closing my eyes tightly. My brother likes to drive his motorcycles fast, even when it’s over bumpy pastureland.

But his speed has made it possible for us to arrive at the house ahead of the others, and so we have a little time alone. At last, I think.

I take in a deep breath and say, “Jeff, I just want to say I’m so sorry for the way I treated you when we were growing up. I never was the kind of big sister you deserved to have. But I’m so happy I came to see you.”

Jeff offers a kind of shrug and smiles. “You know, when I first came to Hawaii, I worked in a bar. The people there were incredibly open and loving. They made it seem easy, natural. And so, I just started being that way, too.”

“In our family, that kind of openness wasn’t natural,” I say.

“No,” Jeff says, but it is without rancor or blame.

We talk a little about how the difficulties in our family might have contributed to our distance from one another, which I take to mean he absolves me of my sins. And then we hear the sounds of people coming. “Uh-oh,” I say. “We’re not going to finish this conversation.”

“We’ll never finish this conversation,” Jeff says, and I’m not quite sure I know what he means. It’s not possible? He doesn’t want to? It’s not necessary?

In the next couple days, we drive on infamous Saddle Road (some rental cars are not allowed due to the narrowness and areas of poor repair) to see Mauna Kea and laugh at the sight of people coming down from the mountain with shovels sticking out of high piles of snow in the back of their pickup trucks. They are racing home to quickly build a snowman in their yards or, even better, on the beach.

We go to Hilo and meander the crowded aisles of the farmers market with its produce and handmade soaps, bags of Kona coffee, and clothing and jewelry inspired by the flora and fauna of the island. We see the historical structures of the Empire Café and the Palace Theater, and the sign on the Salvation Army Thrift Store that reads, “We are very, very open.”

The best part of Hilo is a flower store that Tobi simply calls “The Ladies.” But the store is actually named after its longtime proprietors, the Ebesugawa Sisters, whose family has owned a shop in Hilo since the 1920s. Three of them stand side by side, threading fuchsia-colored orchid blossoms onto strings to make leis. “Don’t make any money from this,” they keep saying, and I think it must be true. Over 75 blossoms are used to make a lei that costs less than seven dollars.

They tell me how one sister wanted to go to college to study medicine, but their father thought girls were meant to stay home, so they did and for 60 years worked in their family’s fruit and vegetable store.

In their 70s, the sisters retired briefly but found it boring. “When you work, work, work all the time, you become workaholic,” one says. And so they looked around for something else to do, and—voilà—they transformed their family grocery into a highly praised flower shop. Sisters, together all their lives.

NEAR THE END OF MY VISIT, I wake up one morning and have a little Kai lychee nut–flavored vodka for breakfast. It is on that morning that I realize I haven’t combed my hair for three days, that I have become a happy savage.

For my last night, I stay at the Hilton Waikoloa, where Jeff works. He drives the trams and the boats that transport guests around this huge resort, complete with an art museum, pink flamingos, African cranes that live on little man-made islands, and oceanside restaurants that offer million-dollar views of the sunsets. But I find I miss the non-fancy side of the island, the wild side.

Still, I avail myself of the pleasures of the hotel. I ride the tram my brother drives, sit with the hotel guests and eavesdrop on their conversations. I have a drink called a Lava Flow while I watch the sun go down. I have dinner at a bar where a jazz trio plays and where the bartender says of Jeffery, “Oh, he’s a good man.” It’s all I can do not to grab the guy by the lapels and say, “Do you know him, then? What can you tell me about him? Who is he, really?”

After dinner, when Jeff has switched from the tram to the boat, I climb on board and ride up top with him. He’s wearing the orange uniform required by the hotel and next to him is a little bell that I hope he doesn’t have to ring. I feel bad for him that he has to supplement his income from his trike flying lessons and tours in this way—isn’t it humiliating for him?

Not at all, as it turns out. He chats with everyone he comes in contact with. He points out birds and constellations, he makes jokes and smiles, and he kindly and unobtrusively helps anyone who needs it on and off the boat. I see two things: He is happy, and he is having fun. And I am, too.

On the day of my flight home, my brother drives me to the airport. It’s a longish ride, and we don’t talk all that much. But when we arrive and get out of the car and he puts my bag at my feet, he says, “Oh, just come and live here and I’ll build you a tree house in the front yard.”

“I just might,” I say and walk away before I start blubbering.

On the plane, I rest my head against the window and watch as we lift up and away from this intoxicating island. I feel a little sad that my mission was not exactly accomplished. There was no Oscar-clip heart-to-heart that would illuminate and elucidate the sins of the past and lay out the hopes for the future.

But then I review all the things he showed me: the sweeping views of ocean and dramatic cliff faces, the black-sand beaches and java rice birds, the untamed horses and the strange splendors of the Waipio Valley, the wild ginger and parrot’s beak heliconia and the wiliwili trees, and the way to cook shrimp on a grill. I remember all the friends he introduced me to, the way he invited me into his work life.

I recall the community center we visited where hula classes were held and the words on the center’s brochure: “It is our kuleana and greatest joy to share the values of aloha, love; kokua, helping; malama, care; and mahalo, gratitude.” And I decide that what my brother “said” to me was this: You want to know me? Look at this place where I have chosen to live.

And then I think about being up on the trike with him and what happened before we landed.

We have descended to 500 feet, but my hands are still clenched around a metal part. Again, Jeff says, “You can let go.” And suddenly, I do. I raise both hands up in the air and fly free—of fear, of guilt, of the past—behind a man who is no longer a stranger.

Elizabeth Berg is at work on a memoir and a new novel. She and her brother chat on the phone far more than they used to. This is photographer Chris Bickford’s first feature assignment for Traveler.

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