When I tell people that I live in Alaska, or when I post photos on my Facebook fan site from Alaska, people often comment on how lucky I am to live in such a place. But when people think of how lucky I am, they are likely envisioning the gorgeous scenery, the wildlife, the frontier lifestyle. What people likely do not consider is how wonderful it is to live in a wide open state. Most of the land adjacent to any road or trail is public land, whether state or federal. When exploring across the state, you will likely not see fences anywhere, except for in some of the agricultural parts of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. But just about anywhere in the state, you can get off the road and go for a hike in any direction without trespassing on private property. You will likely not even need a permit, because with all of the public lands and the smaller number of visitors, there is no need to regulate access. And if there is a public resource, particularly water (waterfall, stream, or glacier), there will be no restriction to access.
Hawai’i apparently is just about the opposite. Additionally, the locals have a penchant for despising outsiders. These two elements combined for a rather wasteful two-day trip down the Hana Highway, or what we came to call, the Howlie-Go-Home Highway.
Michelle and I had experienced the “howlie-go-home” syndrome during our last visit to the Hawaiian Islands, when we stayed in Hilo on the Big Island. On the Kona side of the island, which is frequented by tourists, we found friendly, receptive and welcoming locals and businesses. Not so much on the Hilo side, where we were warned by locals about how outsiders are treated and we had a bizarre experience at the local landfill. The general sense was that outsiders were not welcome, that the locals would rather they just stay away.
On the Hana Highway, we experienced this disdain for outsiders at almost every corner. Relying on Maui Revealed by Andrew Doughty & Harriet Friedman, we had identified several features we wanted to visit along the way. The scenery along the Hana Highway is well-known for its waterfalls and pools. But with several of the descriptions in the book came the warning that access to the particular waterfall may be through private land, particularly, private roads owned by the East Maui Irrigation Company, which diverts much of the fresh water from the east side of the island over to the central part for use in the sugar cane fields. The authors also warn that on the many narrow, winding, blind curves you may possibly find a local driving across the centerline to spook the tourists for pleasure.
Our first roadblock that we encountered was along the Nahiku Road. He had driven along this side road to check out an “idyllic” pond and a “jaw-dropping” view of the coastline, according to the book. But as we progressed through a small community, we came upon a line of construction pylons stretched across the road with a make-shift sign saying that access further through this public road was for local residents only. Disgusted, we were forced to turn around and return two miles back up the road back to the Hana Highway.
The next destination we wanted to check was a famous destination known as the “Blue Pool.” The Blue Pool is almost straight out of a movie: a large pool with a waterfall spilling straight down into it, perfect for standing underneath and feeling the warm tropic waters wash over you. To access the Blue Pool, you must again leave the Hana Highway and drive down the Ulaino Road. Along the way, however, we encountered a sign stating that the Blue Pool had been closed off from any public access, and that anyone trying to access it would be prosecuted as trespassers. Continuing down the same road, we thought we would try to visit the Kahanu Gardens, a large botanical gardens with some archaeological ruins. Unfortunately, we arrived at about 3:00 in the afternoon to find a gate closed: the gardens are only open from 10-2. Another detour and another complete waste of time.
The best access we had for any resources that were not directly adjacent to the road was in Haleakala National Park, where we were able to explore an area known as the Seven Sacred Pools and a well-known and oft-photographed bamboo forest.
The unwelcome feeling that permeates the Hana Highway is not restricted to blocked access. The repeated warnings on signs and in literature to not leave anything valuable behind in your car because of rampant theft by locals added to the feeling. Additionally, any trail or location off the road system was replete with signs warning you of every conceivable danger, as it either they considered tourists to be complete idiots or enough of them actually are to warrant the warnings.
But the Hana Highway was not the only part of the island where we found restricted access. In Wailea, which is a resort area south of Kihei, there are long stretches of beach where access is completely blocked by private hotels and all of the land they occupy. While the beach itself is open to the public, access to it is limited to one point with limited parking at the far end of the beach. And consistent with our experiences in other states, most of the roadside property is private and blocked by fences.
I find the entire idea of blocking off whole tracts of public land and resources to be rather repugnant. Many Alaskans complain about how much of Alaska is “locked up” and restricted from private development, but I think their attitude would change if access to their favorite salmon stream was blocked from public access, or if they were prohibited from hiking up a mountain to pick blueberries because of a barbed-wire fence. I guess that I am spoiled and have become a devout believer in the concept of trust lands, with the state being responsible for allowing access to and use of public resources by its citizens.
The openness of Alaska is only matched by the warmth of its residents. Yes, we are quirky and sometimes feel superior about our outdoor skills and knowledge compared to that of outsiders (the famous cases of Timothy Treadwell and Chris McCandless are resoundingly referred to as suicides, kind of like suicide-by-cop), but we will never make outsiders feel unwelcome. Pretty much everywhere you go, Alaskans are friendly and helpful to visitors and willing to assist anyone who is in need, whether in need of directions or a lift to the nearest gas station. The simple reason is that even the best of us sometimes find ourselves in compromising situations, with the unpredictability of the weather, landscape and wildlife constantly making life challenging. You certainly would never find a local playing chicken with you on a narrow, winding road for entertainment.