The State of Aloha

This month I was invited to take part in a longstanding tradition. We gathered under a mango tree in front of the administration building at Lahainaluna High School. Students stood with their parents and teachers. I couldn’t help but notice that some of the boys had their cleats with them. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

After a brief welcome and ceremony, everyone started the hike. The first part was easy enough. We moved off campus toward the mountains through some grass and rocks until we reached a dirt road.

We passed through what were once sugar cane fields. The trail turned up toward the base of the extinct volcano Pu’u Pa’upa’u, also known as Mount Ball. It was a steep climb and we were already far above Lahaina town.

On the steep side of the mountain rising around 2,250 feet above sea level lies a massive shape carved out of the brush. It exposes the red earth that is distinctly part of Lahaina. You can see it from just about anywhere in Lahaina and Kaanapali. It’s a large letter “L” carved out of the mountain face.

The first time students trekked to the L on Pu’u Pa’upa’u was in 1928. They maintained the site and ensured that the surrounding bushes and vegetation would not overtake it. They also laid a fine white lime powder to make it stand out.

The bars within the L represent the interscholastic championships won for the year. The stars represent state championships. These days the boarders — those students who live on campus — are the ones who hike up to the L.

The school opened in 1831 as a seminary for young Hawaiian men. It was run by the missionaries assigned to West Maui. That’s when a bright and promising commoner named David Malo attended the school. He thrived there and became a beloved scholar, historian and preacher.

The Hawaiian government took over the school in 1846 and it has been run by the government since. It became a comprehensive public school in 1961 for both day students and the few boarders who still live on campus.

The boarder program is unique to Hawaii. Boarders do more than simply go to school. They work on campus gardens, yard maintenance, and keep the kitchen and dorms clean. This work experience not only helps them become better adults, but it offsets the cost of housing them.

They even have a dress code. As the application reads, boarders “set the tone of dress for the school.” They must be neatly dressed not only at school, but even when they are off campus on weekends. Another mandatory requirement is joining a boarders’ chorus.

Many boarders come from other parts of Maui. A lot are from remote and rural places like Hana, Keanae, Lanai and Molokai. Many are Native Hawaiian, but not everyone. In short, they are a good cross-section of Maui’s rural youth.

When I got to the base of the mountain a lot of students were already ahead of me. There were a few trucks and volunteers wrapping up sacks of lime powder into plastic garbage bags. I grabbed one and kept it on my back. I figured I didn’t have much farther to go.

I was wrong. The mountain is part of a reserve that is off-limits to visitors. Thick bushes and tall grasses overtook the trail. In some places it was like crawling through a tunnel. The heavy bag on my back didn’t make things easier.

I continued to climb. I lost sight of the others and was alone on the trail. The trail opened up to stunning views of the huge valleys and steep ravines of the verdant West Maui Mountains.

Eventually I found myself on a ridge overlooking Lahaina town, the bypass, and Lanai and Molokai near the horizon. I somehow managed to make a wrong turn and reached the summit without seeing the L.

Overlooking Lahaina town is a solitary grave — David Malo’s final resting place. Malo wanted to be buried far away from sugar cane and rest above “the rising tide of foreign invasion.” He certainly got his wish.

With sweat dripping from every pore, I slowly descended the steep hillside until I found the L. I dropped the bag and sat down exhausted. But that’s when the students got to work.

The boys with their cleats on deftly moved around to spread the fine white lime powder over the L. Near the summit, more students and a few alumni were pulling weeds and cleaning Malo’s grave. Everyone seemed happy to do such hard work and take part in the school’s long tradition.

When I made it down back to campus, I looked toward the mountain. The L looked gorgeous. Another class had made its mark.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”