Over the years, the East Maui Taro Festival has become an annual mile marker of my island journey. My collection of taro fest T-shirts goes back to the early-'90s. The event is a cross between a party and a pilgrimage, and last Saturday's 20th anniversary made it that much more historic.
Getting there is a bit like the Hana Relays except I don't have to find a team, make a costume, or wonder if I can run the distance. I make it easy on myself: I drive. But still, the road to Hana is what they were talking about when they coined the adage: It's the journey, not the destination.
Despite tourist T-shirts proclaiming the road as something to conquer, local folks know it as a meditation. You can tell the tourists from the locals by the vehicles: They're in the rented Chryslers with the brake lights on; we're in the Toyota pickups with the brake lights off. Without being overly obnoxious or too flagrantly tailgating, it's always just a matter of time before they find a wide spot to pull over on and let us pass.
With its blue-hued ocean panoramas stretching to the horizon, sometimes the road is a ribbon clinging to mountainsides. Other times, it passes through the strobing sunlight of viny jungle forests of ginger, bamboo and guava and who knows what else.
No matter how sunny the day is, you know that before you have crossed all the road's 59 bridges - many one-laned, dating back as far as 1910 - you will have turned your windshield wipers on.
You drive past waterfalls and into epiphanies. Whatever's on the CD player or the radio - hey, you can get KHPR all the way around now - is as essential as an Oscar-winning movie soundtrack.
Last Saturday it was Texas high-school senior Tyler Rhodes playing classical guitar on NPR's showcase of young musicians, "From the Top."
Prior to playing, the 18-year-old talked about himself and how he had found his way to the age-old Chinese belief system of Taoism. This is no mean feat for an 18-year-old in Texas.
He spoke of the Taoist goal of overcoming the ego, of losing the useless self en route to becoming an anonymous part of nature. Then he demonstrated how it's done, disappearing into the soulful alleys of Enrique Granados' "Andaluza," adding his invisible touch to the perfect harmony framed in my windshield.
Parking by Hana Bay, I climbed the hill to the familiar tents, the funky homemade signs and the aromas of things cooking wafting over Hana Ball Park.
It's a throwback to the giddy excitement of a sleepy village coming to life when the carnival came to town. With its information tables and exhibits, the taro fest is part social-studies class, part Americana in the '50s except that Hawaii wasn't part of America for most of the '50s, and the collection of faces around me could be found nowhere else in all the stars on the flag.
Overflowing with kids and families learning ancient skills like poi pounding or lauhala weaving, the taro fest is all about community - although most communities don't have a national park and a magnificent volcano connecting them to the very center of the earth.
Celebrating taro - kalo, in Hawaiian - is a reminder that the ancient Hawaiians didn't place the all-purpose roots, delicate stems and sensuous leaves in the vegetable kingdom. For them, kalo was an ancestor, a venerable member of the family more than a millennium before New Agers started catching on to the interconnectedness of, you know, everything.
Twenty years is one of those round-number anniversaries. Over time, things happen. It was Carl Lindquist who first got me to Hana, where he patiently began teaching a clueless haole its lessons. On my first visit, he introduced me to a young slack key guitarist named Pekelo Cosma.
Carl and Pekelo are both gone now. Even surrounded by such gigantic swirls of natural beauty, living in a fishbowl has its challenges. And natural beauty is, after all, forged by furious forces of nature.
This year's taro fest was dedicated to Pekelo. The tribute was brought home with the refrain of "I Shall Be Released," sung from the taro fest stage.
Back in the truck, feeling nourished for another year, I settled back into the meditation of the road, letting the songs of Maui friends and neighbors - Jeff Peterson's slack key, Gail Swanson singing with Willie Nelson chiming in, and DJ Clifford on 107.5 Island-FM - carry me home.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org