My first ride hitchhiking in the Puna district was with two old hippies, beards to their stomachs, who started smoking pot as soon as I got in the car.
“You guys grow up around here?” I asked.
One of them laughed. “Not yet.”
That ride took me into Pahoa, half hippie commune, half Wild West frontier town. For better or worse, Pahoa sits directly in the path of the island’s most recent lava flows, and was nearly burned right off the map last year. Many residents evacuated. Others stayed behind. Everywhere are photos of buildings burned and roads overtaken by the advancing heart of the volcano.
You can understand why a place like this exists, and why it manages to stay free from the massive development that exists throughout the islands. Big money types are not interested in investing their stock in land that might be extra crispy at any given moment. And that uncertainty allows a kind of freedom for those who say the hell with it and set up shop down here. If you’re going to live in the path of the furnace, you might as well dance.
Perhaps the best place to see the attitude that comes from this way of living is Kehana Beach, down on the Puna coast. It’s a black sand beach with some of the finest sand you will ever feel between your toes. It’s also clothing optional.
Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of nude beaches (or clothing optional…whatever). It sounds like a sexy fun time when you’re young. But once you get a bit older and visit a few of these beaches, you realize how shockingly unsexy a time it actually is, because the last dudes on earth you want to see naked are always the first ones to bring their franks and beans to the party.
Nice photo, right? Right. So keep your naked ass out of it.
I spent four nights in the jungles of Puna, camping in a school bus that’s been converted into a dorm bed at a small work-trade hostel called Hedonisia. The morning rounds for a lot of people in this area center on a small bakery and coffee shop in Pahoa town called the Tin Shack, which is exactly what it sounds like. On the first morning I went exploring, my two hippie friends dropped me there so I could get a cup of coffee and a pastry. I saw them every time I went there afterward.
Pahoa is an outrageous town. One place on the main drag claims to have authentic New York pizza, even though nobody who works there is from New York. And that place sits directly opposite from a stand that serves several different kinds of Kombucha “on tap.” For those of you who don’t know what Kombucha is, it’s basically vinegar that hippies and New Age types have convinced people to drink at about six dollars a bottle, claiming it has all kinds of “health benefits.” And it must have health benefits, because I can’t figure any other reason why seemingly intelligent people would pay six bucks to drink something that tastes like the ass end of a camel.
After breakfast, I hiked out of town and stuck out my thumb, got picked up a few minutes later, and basically had a free tour of the district for the next seven hours.
Sam and Nikki. Partners in crime.
This is the fun thing about hitchhiking. I was just looking for a ride down to see some tide pools. The two people who picked me up didn’t even live in the area. Sam and Nikki were visiting from Kauai. They had every intention of dropping me off at the tide pools and continuing on their way. But we made a wrong turn and spent seven hours hanging out as a result.
The wrong turn led us to a beautiful, tree lined drive with monster foliage on all sides. In between exchanging stories of our lives and attempting to find our way to the locations we desired, we ended up in this Jurassic Park landscape, all of us with our mouths agape. It was obvious they couldn’t drop me there. It was hot out and we hadn’t seen another car for fifteen minutes. So we searched around for an hour, realized where we wanted to be, and turned around to look for the warm ponds.
The warm ponds are Puna’s version of hot springs. It’s basically a big public bath that gets fed by the ocean, and small volcanic vents underneath keep the water at the temperature of a comfortable bath. You just sit there and float, and if you’re really lucky (like we were), you can even hear a couple of the visitors get into a pissing contest about who’s been in Hawaii longer.
I’ve been here since 1989.
Well, I’ve been here since 1978.
The warm ponds.
From here, we made our way to Kehana Beach. It’s not an easy place to find. In fact, a lot of the places in Puna aren’t easy to find. Streets are often unmarked and whole towns have been taken out by lava flows. Basically, to find Kehana Beach, you look for where cars are parked in what looks like it could be the right location on the map. Everything around it is jagged lava coastline, so it’s not immediately apparent that you are sitting right above one of the best beaches in Hawaii. But a short hike down the cliff later, there you are, standing up to your ankles in jet black sand that feels like it’s made out of crystallized sugar.
The Big Island can be a difficult place to get around without a car. A combination of busses and hitchhiking is the only way to see the island in its entirety, and even if you spend two weeks there (like I did), it’s almost impossible to see everything. But sometimes you luck out and end up sharing a long stretch of road with some people you’re sure you’ll meet again. This happened to me twice on the island. Once on the Kona Coast, and once in Puna. I’m in Los Angeles as I write this, and Sam, who gave me a lift by chance, just exchanged texts with me a few minutes ago.
There are a lot of strange roads out there. It’s often a pleasure to share them.
Hedonisia Eco-Hostel is about four miles outside of Pahoa town. They have a website here. The bus is known as the “Aloha Love Bus.” This is where you want to stay.
The Tin Shack is located in Pahoa. They have a facebook page.