Cowboys with surfboards

How Hanalei, Hawaii, reflects small Western towns.


I live in Hotchkiss, a cowboy town on the Western Slope of Colorado, where I raise hay in the summers and marvel at the mountain-and-desert landscapes that surround our hardscrabble little valley.

Nobody makes much money ranching anymore. We just tell ourselves we do it “for the lifestyle.”

But every winter, while my mostly graying cattlemen buddies hunker down over coffee at the Short Stop to tell tall tales and talk politics, my wife and I head off to another hardscrabble little town — Hanalei, on the North Shore of Kauai. How can the North Shore where Julia Roberts recently sold her beach cottage for $16 million and where Mark Zuckerberg owns a $100 million coastal ranch be hardscrabble? 

The one-lane bridge to Hanalei, Kauai, with its 15-ton capacity, helps keep big development out.
Edmunds Dana/ Getty Images

Hanalei is a tiny town, with a population of about 500 and a world-class beach. Instead of the glistening snow-capped Rockies, it is surrounded by the mountains of the Na Pali Coast, with puffs of dragon mist floating through their summits. The scenery is spectacular, but 25 percent of Hanalei’s residents live below the poverty level. They get by working part-time at restaurants or landscape companies, maybe selling a little Maui Wowie on the side. Not all that different from rural Colorado: You make ends meet any way you can.

We stay with a working-class Hawaiian family on the west side of town. It’s probably the last ungentrified neighborhood on the North Shore, full of laughing and crying children, barking dogs and the clattering sound of dishes being washed after supper. Before doing their homework, kids dart and swoop through the nearby 10-foot turquoise waves as if they were born on surfboards.

Brydan, our host, is a small commercial fisherman, and his wife, Jana, works at the nearby school. Brydan comes home with big ice chests full of fish for the Kauai markets. Jana’s extended family lives in the neighborhood, a rustic collection of funky old houses with badly corroded tin roofs. When not in school, their kids, Brock and Jordyn, roam the beach or buzz around on their little moped. They’re not much different than the ranch kids back in my valley — just replace the surfboards with .22 rifles and the mopeds with four-wheelers.

Hanalei, like Hotchkiss, is facing lots of problems, both cultural and environmental. This Hawaiian village reminds me of Aspen in the ’50s or Telluride in the ’70s — rustic mining towns where the locals scraped by before ski resorts and industrial tourism transformed them into the enclaves of the millionaires and billionaires.

What has saved this Hawaiian town so far, I think, is the creaky one-lane wooden bridge that is the only way into the Hanalei Valley. Surrounded by classic Polynesian taro fields where rice was once grown, the bridge prevents big trucks and heavy equipment from invading Hanalei to build Trump Towers and Hilton resorts..

Kauai’s south shore has been taken over by vacation homes and golf courses, its western shore by a missile base and large test plots of corn raised by multinational companies experimenting with GMOs and new herbicides. Monsanto is a dirty word to many locals concerned about their children’s health. When the Kauaians attempted to regulate the herbicide industry — much as my own county tried to regulate coalbed methane — the state and the courts swept in to nullify the regulations. So far, only the North Shore and Hanalei have avoided the power of big-money corporations and Honolulu-style tourism.

Can these small-town Hawaiians save their little piece of Jurassic Park paradise from the giant corporate wastelands that James Howard Kunstler so eloquently described in The Geography of Nowhere? He foresaw the cars, strip malls and fast-food shacks — the endless sprawl of suburbia and commercial tourism — eventually overrunning the working neighborhoods and locally owned businesses of small-town America.

I’m worried about Hanalei. It reminds me a bit of Carbondale, a small mountain town near me once known for its Hereford cattle and annual Potato Festival. Now it’s known as the posh Mount Sopris village where the millionaires landed after being pushed out of Aspen by the billionaires.

It’s one thing to scrape by on a daily fish catch and occasional landscaping jobs, but when your beach shack is suddenly worth a couple of million dollars, it’s hard to resist gentrification. I’m from the New West, and I know what happens to peaceful, friendly little towns with spectacular landscapes.

I finally find some cowboy-style old codgers complete with tall tales on this visit. They’re 60-something surfers — the kings of the wild waves back in the ’70s and ’80s — and they congregate every day at the end of my street to watch the younger surfers and to try to convince a dubious Coloradan that they’ve conquered 100-foot waves on the Na Pali Coast and survived 50-foot tiger-shark attacks.

It’s all bluster, I’m sure. But I love these guys, as I love all of America’s small Western towns and the magic journeys on which they’ve embarked. I just hope they can survive the trip.

Note: The essay has been updated to clarify the location of Zuckerberg's property, which is on the North Shore of Kauai, and to correct the crop that preceded the Polynesian taro fields. It was rice, not sugarcane. 

Don Olsen is a Colorado rancher who spent much of his life as a political reporter, writing about land-use policies that protect farms and ranchlands.

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