She walks ahead of me down the boat ramp barefoot, her dog George by her side. “These damn rocks aren’t always here,” she calls back to me, pointing out yet another consequence of Tropical Storm Iselle two weeks ago.
The Pohoiki Bay parking lot has been cleared of the lava rocks and rubble that washed ashore, but not the boat ramp, which is also the access for surfers and us swimmers. One of the very few such places in Puna, whose coast is mainly 20 foot lava cliffs.
It’s 8:30am and I am walking directly into the Pacific Ocean for the first time since moving to Hawaii almost five months ago. NeNe (Nay-Nay), a friend from the community farm we stayed at for two months when we first arrived, invited me when we saw each other at a farmer’s market. “Are you a good swimmer?” she’d asked. NeNe means goose and is the official bird of Hawaii, plus my new swimming buddy reminds me of Momma Goose back in Washington — knowledgeable, generous with her knowledge, she loves to dance, and she gets right to the point.
“Yes, I am,” I say. I am a good swimmer, having grown up with a community swimming pool in Texas (I was on the Afton Village Swim Team)
and vacations to rivers with treacherous and wonderful rapids. But even His Majesty warned me about swimming in the ocean, how exhausting it is. The Bearded One doesn’t enjoy swimming as much as I do. I would like to start swimming regularly.
“It’s perfect!” NeNe sings out and George swims nearby, his black poodle nostrils snorting.
The Bearded One and I go to the ocean every night now. It’s a mile walk, which I don’t want, so the Bearded One leaves and I follow in the truck 15 minutes later, park and then we walk the trail along the cliffs and drive home together.
I love the ocean. Most every place on Earth has something remarkable about it, something beautiful, something that defines it as a place. Here it is the Pacific Ocean. You breathe the salty air day in and day out, taste it on your tongue. You feel the trade winds, the sultry doldrums, the fierce hurricanes.
There are no boats to see, no other land. Puffy, colorful clouds layer out to the horizon for 30 miles, pinks and purples and orange, so that across the entire 180 degrees you can detect the curvature of the Earth.
We live on a speck of volcanic mountain sticking up out of these vast waters. It’s a good thing I can swim.
I sink down into the blue-green saltwater, a warm spot, then a cool spot, then a cooler spot. All kinds of forces swirl. The surface rises up around me and I ride the swell. I dog paddle. I sidestroke. Progress is slow. Surfers paddle by on their boards. My spine relaxes, I take a breath and go under.
Two days ago the Bearded One and I saw a humpback whale fluke. The tail. Out of that vast view, standing on the cliffs, the two of us were looking at the same spot at the same time and saw the enormous tail flip out of the water a hundred yards out.
And months early. A super-rare sighting right now. The earliest whales are said to come in September, most in October and November. “It’s an amazing fluke,” said the Bearded One, and we laughed.
NeNe and I tread water and keep an eye on George. We swim out to the boat breakwater and back. We talk a bit, but mainly we let the water wash through us. And then we are tired. There is an outdoor shower by the ramp, and I rinse off in my twenty-five-year-old black one-piece swimsuit with skirt.
NeNe and I chat for a bit, declare our intent to do this again soon, and say goodbye. I drive onto the Red Road and the route His Majesty ran last week in his epic trek to our house.
When I get home, the Bearded One is working on the post-storm cleanup, cutting up fallen trees and pruning others. He’s creating a playground for kids and someday grandkids — spots for swings and zip lines and he just now got an idea for the 20 foot long cedar tree skeleton, once he lops off the leaves and twigs and thin branches. A jungle gym. He gestures grandly as I approach for a look, grins and just says, “Moby Dick.”