Growing up an Army brat (and with parents who were brats), the Hawaiian islands were part of our family history, our travel DNA. My mother came here just before the war. And my Mom’s rendition of the old Honolulu show tune, “When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop,” seemed to capture the spirit of Old School Hawaii. I’ve often wished I had a recording of her version; the last line, “Hattie’s sure to die from too much gin,” is etched in my brain forever.
I liked our trips the the islands, in a family vaca kind of way. But as a writer of a travel/photography blog and the occasional book, I’ve begun to see Kauai, Maui, Hawaii and even Oahu with a new respect. The islands are as intriguing to me as a landscape photographer as Iceland or the Southwestern national parks. Plus, I appreciate the range of nature-related experiences that are available.
Hawaii’s an easy trip from the West Coast, not too pricey if you go the condo route. More important, the islands work on lots of levels: cultural, personal, creative/artistic. But 2 or 3 months ago, when I was trying to imagine the shape of our next little trip, Kauai in particular kept coming to mind.
We’d been to the other 3 islands in the last five years. But M had never done Kauai, so she wondered how it stacked up against The Big Island and Maui (her fav). I hadn’t been on Kauai in over 15 years, when I did an outdoorsy solo trip.
I’ve come so many times and know the basics, beach, luau, snorkel tour, restaurants, a smidgeon of Hawaiian culture and ecology — all that good stuff. And all those choices become more personal if I add in photography and a helping of creative exploration. That was my idea.
An Old Photo in an Album
My first Kauai experience had been a family trip there in the mid-90s, a few years after Hurricane Iniki had leveled much of the island. That trip didn’t do much for me, no time on my own to explore.
The second trip to Kauai did stay in my head, partly because of a photograph. That trip had included a scuba trip, the NaPali Coast hike, the Waimea Canyon and Overlook drive and general forays around in my rental car. I started to see that deeper side of the island that time, but I never went all that deep.
But the thing from that trip that stayed in imagination was when I took that photo of the Waimea Canyon overlook and a little helicopter.
I only had a P&S, not 35mm; film, so no Lightroom or Photoshop. But I loved that shot. I so clearly remember that overlook. Seeing those cliffs and valleys glowing in late morning light. Zooming in on those massive barrel shaped canyon walls, all that iron-red lava. The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” indeed. I was just starting to around with composition back then and when the copter entered the frame, well…
I blew it up to 8×10 and plopped it into an album. The quality looked fine to me then. Now, with the photo technology, post prod tools — and more important, with my training and experience, something is missing. The image isn’t flashy, I’d delete it these days. But it has a core of experience. Obviously, on a technical level the image is flat and crude. The moment of creative discovery held so much more than was captured with a mid-90s point and shoot.
That was another motivation for wanting to visit Kauai again, to shoot that location now — now that my equipment is landscape photography grade and I’m a bit better at seeing composition. I wanted to go back, to do justice to Kauai as photo location. So I returned and M came with me.
Going Deeper into a Place
Ultimately, the idea of returning to Kauai for a third time (first for my wife) kept pulling my attention. Most of the earlier trips to Oahu, Maui and Hawaii happened as family vacations. Three generations of family. Everyone did beachy stuff and sightseeing, the occasional museum, snorkeling, a little hiking.
And don’t get me wrong, these were great as family vacations. But all the photography-oriented trips I do now, my blog posts on Iceland from this last March (or my Zion/Bryce and Arches/Canyonlands books) have taught me to see these classic locations as places of self discovery.
I think the best shot locations have a balance or geology, light, compositional elements, culture, experience. So another motivation for Kauai was to see the island at that level.
And as I sit here in Poipu, I’m starting to figure out what pulls me in. On some level, I’m becoming more enticed by the simple. I’m not letting myself get as sucked into the media-driven angst and the political. Yeats’ line, “… the center cannot hold” is a true statement of our out-of-sorts time. But I won’t let that be my reality.
I’m learning to not let the endless media hand-wringing define me. Instead I’ve been staying more centered, doing stuff that’s as close to fully positive as I can muster. And part of that process is maintaining a creative focus that mirrors the sense of balance I choose to move towards. Kauai seemed a good choice for that internal work.
Kauai, the “Garden Isle,” is spoken of as the most fully Hawaiian of the four main islands — because it’s the least touristy, most laid back — closest to the Hawaii of old. Not surprisingly, it’s the least populous of the big 4 with about 70,000 residents. Oahu, location of Honolulu, has about a million folks and gets the lions share of visitors. And the lack of population density allows nature to become primary, to take center stage.
Kauai has also practiced been a Hawaiian Island longer. The island was formed about 6 million years ago as the Pacific Plate shifted and volcanos created new land. Oahu formed a couple million years later, Maui a couple million years after that. The baby, The Big Island, was formed half a million years ago and continues to have lava flows.
As the older sibling, Kauai has a more lived in attitude. Six million years of tropical rain have hidden the lava base under thick jungle and create weathered valleys — the most obvious being Waimea Canyon. So the density of nature and natural colors creeps into your spirit when you’re here. And when a photographic artist puts the attention on these elements, it can have a healing effect on photographer and audience.
And after all, that’s a core value of landscape photography, using nature to remind us that harmony and order exist. Going to Kauai allows me to immerse myself in this aspect of life.