In praise of lipstick-red convertibles

Cruising topless on Hawaii's Big Island

Published April 29, 1997 12:29PM (EDT)

some people drive for the flat-out fun of it, others drive to get from here to there. I fall into the latter category; all I need is a reliable machine that will not break down on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, along with a radio with both AM and FM. The last car I can remember having a crush on was pink, had mini-fins and the Beach Boys sang a song about it ("Fun, Fun, Fun"). Some of us never forget that under all that sleek metal wrapping, beyond all the heavy-breathing advertisements, is a basic machine whose primary purpose is transportation.

I hold true to this fundamental thought except when I set foot on the Big Island of Hawaii, where the preternatural happens more or less regularly. There I undergo an astonishing transformation. Even before I collect my baggage at the Kailua-Kona airport, I march straight to the rental car hut to see if they have saved the lipstick-red Mustang convertible I have requested. This past spring I had to make do with a Neon, its fluorescent red almost making up for the fact that the top doesn't come down.

Those first moments are a ritual. If the convertible cover is up, I put it down, or I roll down all the windows. Then I slip into the seat, wriggle a few times to make sure it fits properly. Move the seat forward. Position the mirror. Touch, ever so lightly, the steering wheel, run my fingertips around the rim of it. Sigh. I turn off the radio, so it doesn't blast out at me and trash the mood. Then I snap on the seat belt, turn on the engine, take one more test wriggle of the seat to make sure it's snug, hitch my skirt over my knees and ease into gear. Together again after all these months, the red car and I slip slowly, as one, out of the parking lot and merge effortlessly into the rim road that will carry us out to the highway and north along the Kohala coast.

My virgin exploration of the Big Island was in 1986. Afterward I wrote that this largest in the Hawaiian chain is "big" in another, more oblique sense: "It is as if the island has surged up from the sea bottom like some gigantic whale, breaking through to the surface rather gently, with you clinging to its broad flank, alone and altogether small in the grand scale of things. I felt it most while driving the two-lane blacktop that cuts straight and true through the lava beds that crust the Kohala Coast, with nothing in the rearview mirror and nothing ahead, mountains on one side and ocean on the other, all windows down and the trade winds blowing: it is a fine, swelling emptiness. Exhilarating. Big."

I remember my hair blowing in the warm wind, my sandaled foot on the gas pedal, the music echoing out over the volcanic wastelands. It was like floating on the rim of the world. On that first trip I drove all around the island on a circular road -- called, in various phases of its stretches, the Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Hawaii Belt Road or Mamalahoa Highway. Someone told me that if I should happen to come across an old woman carrying a child, I should be sure to offer her a ride because it almost certainly would be Pele, the goddess of the Volcano and the most important and powerful deity in Hawaii. (Not so surprising, since she's the one who created all the volcanoes, and it was the volcanoes brewing up from the ocean bed that created the islands.) Several people repeated riveting stories about Pele that they had heard from a cousin of a friend, or someone's uncle's brother-in-law. The stories were variations of a theme: An old woman would appear on the roadside, someone would offer her a ride, the car or the truck would then break down, the old woman would say try again, and the engine would turn over right away and they would drive off.

I drove back roads, always with an eye out for Pele, debating what I really would do should I come upon an old woman walking alongside the empty road.

Happily ensconced in my bright red cars (even when they were gray or blue) I found another Hawaii -- open, empty, full of sky and unending ocean. With the windows down, I could hear the rustle of the trade winds whispering through the cane fields, or smell the freshest of air sweetened with pikaki or ginger. I fell into a rhythm with the car, moving with the lurching of changing gears as we climbed, knowing that soon I would have a view from 1,000 feet or so above the sea.

Every year I returned to the Big Island, and every time I tried out a new road. I remember certain stretches with perfect clarity. The Chain of Craters Road, south from the Kilauea Caldera, cuts through a moonscape that is both terrible and wondrous. The topographic map I always carry with me is marked with volcanic notations (it flowed from 1969 to '74, again in l986-93, etc.). For the past dozen years, Pele has played havoc in this area, cutting off the road. With an almost continuous display of fireworks, she has rearranged the landscape.

i might have been on another planet altogether when I drove up the Kohala Mountain Road in the middle of a perfect morning, blue skies up above filled with billowing clouds and the local Hilo station doing a Beatles retrospective. "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" blasted on; I sang along as I sailed under the lacy shade of the ironwood trees, feeling fine. No reason. Just the car beneath me, the sky above, and the music seeping into me.

Another day, another year, I came down the Belt Road from Waimea and at Saddle Road Junction, turned onto the Saddle Road. Rental cars are not supposed to go on the Saddle Road, a two-lane blacktop that crosses the island and gets progressively rougher as it nears the center before heading down into Hilo. But I was only going about six miles to Waikii Ranch, a calm section of the road. It was a long, slow, easy climb through open fields strewn with boulders, the detritus of old volcanoes and cactuses; here and there cattle grazed. This is, still, ranch country. But it was the sweep of the land that transfixed me. I could imagine myself in the clouds above, watching a lone red automobile moving slowly up the rise of the land, rolling along in perfect synch with the empty road. On that trip I was staying in a bed and breakfast in the mountain town of Waimea; returning that day, the car and I sailed along in sunshine though I could see rain falling in wafting sheets over the town in the distance. Soon rainbows, one and then another, overarching, guided me home.

A couple of years ago, I found out that the section of the Belt Road that runs from Kailua Kona north along the Kohala coast had become crowded at almost any given time of the day, and I realized that I was never going to have it all to myself again. So I headed even farther north to check out Highway 270 (also called Akoni Pule Highway), along the Kawaihae Coast. I went fairly early in the morning, and, to my relief, the road was as empty and as beckoning as it always had been. I was settling into the drive, thinking about nothing in particular, when I spotted it offshore -- an island of some sort. But a crazy island, all patched and put together with what seemed to be metal plates, very weird. Enough to make me pull over to have a closer look. A small boat was nuzzling up to this apparition. Otherwise there seemed to be no activity at all. I puzzled over it all the way to Hawi, had a cup of coffee and then came back, down Highway 250 on the Kohala Mountain Road. I turned on the radio, remembering "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," but instead I got the Makaha Sons -- Moon, John and Jerome -- singing "Ke Alaula." Hawaiian magic; on the road again, and all was still right.

When I returned to my hotel, I stopped to ask the concierge if she knew anything about the strange island I had spotted, and half expected her to offer some mystical explanation. She only laughed. "Hollywood," she said. "Kevin Costner built that island for his movie 'Waterworld.'" When I drove that road again, it was gone.

Next time I go to the Big Island, I have designs on a route that has so far eluded me: the South Point Road leading to Ka Lae, the southernmost spot in the United States. I've been hesitating because nearby, at Mahana Bay, is a green sand beach I ache to see, but to get there I will need a four-wheel drive. This is a move that will take me into another realm, require a leap of faith. Still, I find myself wondering if four-wheel drive vehicles come in lipstick red.

By Shirley Streshinsky

Shirley Streshinsky is a journalist, travel essayist and author of four books. Her most recent work, which she co-wrote with her daughter Maria, is called "Oats! A Book of Whimsy." She lives in Kensington, Calif.

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