Last week, on April 15th, flags across America flew at half-staff. No, not in grief over the taxes I owed the government—in fact, this year, for the first time in quite a while, I am due a refund.
One of my duties as a park ranger at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is to raise and lower the flag outside the head lighthouse keeper’s home that now serves as our offices. Honestly, sometimes, I forget. Like the proverbial snake that my mother threatened would strike my father when he couldn’t find something right in front of his face, I walk by that flag pole, a mere half-dozen steps off the sidewalk, multiple times a day and don’t see it. No one’s ever asked me about the flag, so I assumed others reacted to it the same way I did.
Until it was lowered.
Then, everyone stopped to ask me about the flag. Instead of, “What are those white birds in the trees on the cliff over there?” (Red-footed boobies.) Or, “Are the whales still here?” (A few.) Or, “Can we go inside the lighthouse?” (Only on Wednesdays and Thursdays when we do tours.) Or, perhaps, the most popular question I get asked, “Are there bathrooms here?” (Straight ahead. Men on the right; women on the left.)
Instead of these questions, I was asked, “What’s up with the flag?”
Luckily, I knew the answer.
Turns out April 15, 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the death of President Abraham Lincoln.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015, is the 105th anniversary of the death of Mark Twain, the man William Dean Howells, editor at The Atlantic Monthly, called, “The Lincoln of our Literature.” We won’t lower the flag (I don’t think) in his remembrance, but people took notice recently when a plaque at Twain’s gravesite went missing.
These two events make me wonder about the legacy of people. How we get attached to people and the dates and places associated with them.
For some reason I cannot entirely articulate, I want to see Hawaii as Mark Twain saw it in 1866. I want to follow in his footsteps around the Islands—and I don’t mean metaphorically walk in his footsteps. I want to stand in the very spots he stood. What I wouldn’t give to find molds of his boots made in lava rocks. I’m not even sure what I hope to see or feel or experience if I am really able to stand in his very footsteps. And how will I know I am? Will some lightning bolt of literary inspiration strike me? A sudden understanding of the real Hawaii overcome me? Will I ascend to literary heaven?
Last fall, I followed Twain to Volcanoes National Park. Of course, the active volcano, Kilauea, wasn’t part of a national park in Twain’s day—that act wouldn’t take place until 1916, fifty years after Twain’s visit. However, Kilauea was already a tourist attraction in 1866. In fact, the first Volcano House to host visitors there to see the volcano was built in 1846. It was a one-room grass shelter. Twain didn’t stay there. He slept in a wood-framed four-bedroom structure with a parlor and dining room that was opened in 1866 just before his visit. In his last dispatch for the Sacramento Union, Twain wrote of Volcano House, “Neat, roomy, well furnished and a well kept hotel. The surprise of finding a good hotel at such an outlandish spot startled me, considerably more than the volcano did.”
Just over a decade after Twain’s visit, in 1877, the Volcano House in which he slept was replaced by the first Western-styled building on Kilauea, so there was no retiring to the same bed as Twain for me. No great insights of any kind, either.
Today, I think Twain’s relationship with Hawaii fascinates me, because through Twain, I get to know Hawaii. But there’s more. Something about the importance of place, how place can infect a person greater than the monstrous mosquitoes in Hawaii of which Twain wrote. Something about how we form relationships with certain places, much the same way we form relationships with other people.
Twenty-three years after his visit, Twain spoke at a dinner, saying this about Hawaii:
No alien land in all the earth has any deep, strong charm for me but that one; no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. …For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud-rack; I can feel the spirit of its woody solitudes, I hear the plashing of the brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.
Twain traveled the world throughout his life—including Bermuda, Egypt, England, France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Syria, and Turkey.
So, why Hawaii? Why was Hawaii the land that held such a deep, strong charm for Twain? What happened to him in Hawaii? That’s something I’m trying to resolve in this obsession of mine that has me tramping around Hawaii in Twain’s footsteps. And it’s what I’ll be thinking when I raise the flag to its full height on April 21, 2015.
What about you? Is there a place that haunts you? A place that makes your senses come alive?