by Mark Hendricks
The semester before our 2009 trip to Kaua’i, Diana took a college astronomy course from Don Olson, a truly world-renowned astronomer on the Texas State faculty. Hawai’i is considered the most remote population center on the planet, meaning that – for a relatively large population – it is further away from a major land mass than any other. This remoteness makes it ideal for stargazing, and, in fact, the Big Island is home to one of the world’s most significant observatories.
So, it seemed only natural that Diana would ask Don if there would be anything interesting in the sky for us to see when we were there in late May. And it was only natural that Don would be helpful and very happy to inform us that we would be there at the only time of year – late May – when the Southern Cross would be visible from the Hawaiian Islands. That particular constellation is usually only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, but Don assured us that there is a narrow window where it can be seen in the southern Hawaiian sky in late May. All you have to do is look in the southern sky after 9 p.m. or so and it should be there, slightly above the horizon. That would be easy for us as we were staying on the southern shore of Kaua’i. A simple look straight out at the ocean from the beach should give us a great view of the Cross.
So we were disappointed that the first three nights, the southern sky was shrouded with cloud cover. The rest of the sky was perfectly clear and the stars were beautiful, but the southern exposure was non-existent. It would have been so easy for us to see it, too, because our balcony lanai faced directly south. It should have provided a perfect view for “Cross-gazing.” On the third night, though, I had about given up.
“Don is going to be so disappointed,” Diana said.
I told her I would send him an email to soften the blow, and went inside and wrote to him that the southern sky had been cloudy and our attempts at finding the Cross had been fruitless.
“If there’s anything you can do to blow these clouds away with your powers of great astronomy, we would appreciate it. Otherwise, we are going to give up the hunt,” I wrote to him.
But the Southern Cross was the last thing on our minds the next morning as we loaded up the Escalade for a trip to Hanalei. Hanalei is a beautiful little artsy town on the North Shore and is home of Hanalei Bay, where they shot much of the movie South Pacific. The trip from Poipu to Hanalei has to be one of the most beautiful drives imaginable. It seems that every corner you negotiate and every hilltop you crest yields one incomparable view after another. Gorgeous beaches, incredible mountain vistas, valleys of taro, rain forests so dense you lose your cell phone signal and your satellite radio feed, and, always, the magnificent floral displays. Color EVERYWHERE. I could not make this drive without quietly thanking God for his handiwork and for providing my eye surgeon with the necessary skills to correct my vision, which only weeks earlier had nearly completely abandoned me.
We stopped at the Kilauea lighthouse on the way up to the North Shore. The little peninsula that is home to the lighthouse is also a wildlife preserve and the view of the Pacific is breathtaking, as is the distant glimpse of Mount Makana, the “Bali Hai” mountain of South Pacific. Then on to Hanalei, crossing the little one-lane bridges where local custom dictates five to seven cars pass in one direction, and then you give the oncoming traffic its turn. They call this “driving with Aloha” in the Islands. It is how people should drive everywhere. So civilized. Road rage does not exist on Kaua’i.
In Hanalei, we “discover” the Hanalei Gourmet Deli. Great lunch of fish and chips. The fish had no doubt been swimming recently, maybe that morning. A quaint little bar where the locals rub elbows with the visitors and one just wants to stay and swap stories and stay some more. Would maybe forever be long enough?
But the beach beckons, so we pile into the Escalade for the 10-block trip to Hanalei Beach Park. And there is the pier from South Pacific and a beautiful, very sparsely populated beautiful white sand beach. Calm, blue water. The bay surrounded by green mountains, seeming to rise out of the water. It’s sunny, but rain showers can be seen coming over the mountains. Still enough time for a great swim. The water is cool and effervescent. It cleanses stress from our bodies and we are younger.
Time to go. The beautiful trip back and we see all the same views from the reverse angle this time. They are just as magnificent. To the condo pool where a plunge rinses the sand away. Then a rest and a shower. Tonight, we are going to the Casa Blanca for dinner.
We went there two nights ago. It’s a place recommended to us by Ed. The drinks are good and very reasonable and the food is too. We have met a local singer/songwriter named Mike Young and he has become our friend. He is playing tonight. He has been very impressed with Diana’s knowledge of and ties to country music. He is a typical Kaua’ian in that he is humble, unassuming, laid back and smiles easily. Good cocktails, food and music prove a great cap to what has been a wonderful day so far. But we figure it is about time to be heading back, so we get up to leave.
“Hey, where are you going?” asks Mike. “You can’t leave yet. I have a special surprise for you.”
He introduces us to a woman who he has been talking with for a few minutes. He says, “She is the best hula dancer in the islands and is the head dancer in the show at the Lihue Marriott. She wants to perform a hula for the two of you.”
Well, this is a great honor and one that cannot be spurned without causing great loss of face in the Hawaiian culture. So, of course, we pull up a couple of seats and are entertained as she dances a beautiful dance to Hele on to Kaua’i, which, roughly translated, means Coming Home to Kaua’i. It is a song Mike has chosen for us and it is one of our favorites. She then dances the Hawaiian wedding song for a young newlywed couple. It is purely magical and there is not a dry eye in the place.
We thank Mike and the dancer (sadly, I cannot recall her name) and we promise to catch Mike’s act again before we leave for home. We go back to the condo where we fix a nightcap and turn on some music on the Ipod. We are sitting on the balcony lanai reflecting on what a great day it has been. The trip to the North Shore, the great evening at the Casa Blanca, our own private hula performance, new friends. And then the song comes on the Ipod. A sledgehammer of a reminder that there is one more thing to do tonight.
The song is Fly Me To The Moon, and it is a song that our astronomer friend Don Olson has said would be one that he would launch into space to be played for all eternity if he could. It reminds me to look to the southern sky. One last shot at the Southern Cross. If the clouds are there again tonight, I guess it was just not meant to be.
When you look straight south from our balcony, the lower portion of the sky is kind of blocked by a line of several palm trees. But there is a break in those palm trees and right there in the break, perfectly framed by the silhouette of the palm fronds, shines the Southern Cross. It is bigger and more majestic than I had imagined it would be. And the framing by the palms is just amazing. What a wonderful sight. Diana and I dance to the rest of Fly Me To The Moon and then we raise a glass in a toast to Don Olson, the astronomer who chased the clouds from the southern sky and gave us a look at a wondrous creation.
That night, I send Don another e-mail, telling him of our greatest day ever and how it ended, right on cue from Ol’ Blue Eyes hisownself.
The next morning, I receive a message back from Don: “Isn’t it wonderful when the heavens perform as advertised?”
Yeah, Don, it sure is.
The child of a Marine Corps officer, Mark grew up on the move. A barefoot childhood on the beaches of Oahu, coming of age in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Mark made his way through five universities before settling in as a Texas State University Bobcat. He was a news, crime and sports reporter as well as news editor for the Laredo News, and served time at the San Marcos Daily Record. After a decade or so in the newspaper business, he went into higher education communications, and has spent almost a quarter-century back at Texas State, where he is now the Director of the University News Service.