The Rooster Fountain

Me and James

James and I spent about two years convincing ourselves to take a free flight to Hawaii. I was in the idyllic all-but-dissertation phase of my graduate career, so I had plenty of free time, but James could only get a couple days off from work. With this in mind, we hatched a plan, which was, more-or-less:

  1. Arrive in Hawaii.
  2. Do stuff frantically from the second we arrive until the second we had to return to the airport.
  3. Depart Hawaii.

(This may strike you as a not-at-all relaxing experience, but keep in mind that it is Hawaii. It’s pretty hard to screw up Hawaii.)

James’s employer, U.S. Airways, flies to Kona, Honolulu, and Lihue airports. The Kona and Honolulu flights were almost always booked solid, but we managed to get seats on flights to Lihue. Seat availability is notoriously volatile (we both fly standby), so we just crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. Our plan was to meet at the Phoenix airport.

I arrived in Phoenix before he did. I’ve spent far more time at the Phoenix airport than I ever wanted to, and, as a result, know exactly where the best spots are to sit around when you’ve got to wait for a while. So when James got to Phoenix, he found me sprawled out on my back, inert, my head propped up against my bag, my laptop resting on my chest, some snacks and other stuff strewn all around me. Minimum energy, maximum entropy.

“CHUBBINS!!” I hollered, as he bumbled by.

“Sup,” he said, grinning. We did an exaggerated brotherly-love handshake-and-hug. There’s nothing I love better than lying on a disgusting floor, lurching to my feet, and launching straight into a bear hug. It’s like I always say: the only thing better than wallowing in your own filth is wallowing in your own filth and then hugging some really clean person.

Miraculously, we both got seats to Lihue, not only on the same plane but the same row — and, in fact, had the entire row to ourselves.

We touch down in Kauai in late afternoon, and spend a half hour getting our car rental figured out. The woman at the car rental place asks if we’re ‘hapa’. I laugh and say we are, then explain to James that hapa is slang for ‘half-asian, half-white’; in Hawaii, mixed-race people are very common.

After turning down an overpriced upgrade to a Jeep, the car we end up with is a Dodge Charger. It’s white, sharp outside and cheap inside, and the engine has some respectable oomph. We pull out and onto the highway, eyes agog. We’re in Hawaii! How awesome.

The road system on Kauai isn’t very complicated, so we’re able to find our hotel pretty quickly. We’re extremely jet-lagged by this point, and are desperately trying not to fall asleep and waste our precious time in Hawaii.

Pono Kai Resort

“We at least need to stay up until it gets dark,” James says. I agree, but as soon as we get to the hotel room our energy level drops to zero. We’re staying at an apartment-style hotel called the Pono Kai Resort; one of James’s coworkers hooked him up with a time-share here, so we’re getting a pretty good deal on a room.

“Jet laaaaag,” I moan, trying unsuccessfully to get up from the pull-out bed on which I’ve unaccountably collapsed.

“Yeah…” James says, staring thoughtfully into the bedroom. “I think I’m gonna nap.”

“A ‘nap’? You mean you’re going to go to bed. YOU’RE LAME!”

He thinks about that for a minute, then lets out a nice long “Mehhhh,” shrugs, and wanders into the bedroom.

I manage to stay up another hour or two, wandering up and down the shore, taking pictures. After that, I sit on our porch for a while, savoring the mild evening breezes, and thinking about my wife.

Shore near Pono Kai

By the time I wake up the next morning, James has been up for a while.

“I went to McDonald’s for breakfast,” he announces.

“How nice for you,” I mumble. “How long have you been up?”

“A while. You slept a pretty long time, loser.”

“Shut up. You’re the one who went to bed at like 6 pm!”

After my morning routine, I ask, “So…McDonald’s, huh?”

“Yeah,” he says, looking shifty. “You hungry? We can go back if you want.”

“You’re going to eat there again, aren’t you, Chubbins?”

He continues to look shifty. “MAYBE.”

Soon enough, we’re both chowing down at the local Mickey D’s. As you can see, James is appropriately ashamed of himself:

James at McDonald's

A word about the local wildlife. Roosters. They’re everywhere. There are literally swarms of roosters running wild all over Kauai, crowing all day and all night. It turns out that roosters were originally brought to Kauai by white settlers, and, because there aren’t any natural predators on the island, eventually some got free and there was a population explosion. (Of course, there are chickens, as well, but it’s the wild, noisy roosters that capture the attention.)


After our lovely excursion to the not-so-lovely McDonald’s, we set about achieving our ambition to do as much stuff as possible. Snorkeling is an activity of choice in Hawaii, and, unlike Scuba, it requires little equipment and no training. So, we rent some snorkels from a shop on the ground floor of Pono Kai. We had initially planned to go to a place nearby the hotel, but the desk worker assures us that it’s really lame, and the place we really should go is on Kauai’s south shore, a place called Poipu.

It takes us about an hour to drive to Poipu. En route, the humidity starts to get to me a bit, so I begin to roll up the windows and turn on the A/C…


Ashamed, I roll the windows back down. We admire the scenery, talk about nothing in particular. My mind wanders. This place seems to be a reasonable approximation of paradise. I wonder why more people don’t come and live here. I wonder why I don’t come and live here.


What’s there to say about Poipu? I think it’s the only place I’ve been to that I would describe, without irony, as a tropical paradise. The sky is blue and dotted with little clouds. The sea is a clear blue-green, and when we wade in, it’s just cool enough to be pleasant. The sea is calm enough for a beginner to snorkel easily, without getting tired. We snorkel for hours, chasing fish and sea turtles around the shallow waters. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.

Oh, and, of course, there are hordes of roosters on the beach. After a minute, I realize what it reminds me of.

I tell James: “It’s like Everquest!”


“The roosters,” I explain, “it’s like the starting area in Everquest or World of Warcraft or something. You know, there’s way too many animals wandering around in a very small space, and they’re moving around completely aimlessly.”

A light dawns in his eyes.

I grin. “I’m half expecting one of the locals to ask me to kill 12 roosters in exchange for a rusty battle axe.”

Chasing a rooster

Poipu is lovely, but, of course, we can’t sit around here all day. We’ve got things to see! A whole island to explore, and only a couple days to explore it. We go west first. Aside from the hordes of level 1 roosters, Kauai resembles an online game in another way: there is an incredible variety of terrain within an extremely short distance of each other. Poipu was a tropical paradise, but only a few miles away, there is the densely forested Kawaikini Mountain, with one of the highest recorded rainfalls on the planet. A short distance to the west is Waimea Canyon, which is described as the Grand Canyon of Hawaii. The east shore of Kauai is rainy and forested and endlessly green; the west shore is dry and rugged.

En route to Waimea Canyon, we stop for a bite to eat. We’re standing on the side of the road, joking around, and an older couple decked out in aloha shirts asks us for directions. They’re surprised when we tell them that we’re just tourists. We encounter this several more times throughout the trip: evidently, we look Hawaiian!

Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon

The road to Waimea Canyon is long, winding, and steep. I’m starting to get a little nauseous from all the twisting by the time we finally reach the lip of the canyon. We hike down a short trail, and the canyon stretches out before us. It really does look like the Grand Canyon. It’s astonishing how epic the canyon is, considering how little the island is. We decide to do a longer hike, and soon, we’re tromping through a dense forest, down into the canyon.

Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon

It’s a long walk. Since we don’t have a 4×4, we have to park on the side of the paved road, and walk down the rutted dirt road that leads down to the proper trailhead. We meet other tourists who ask us if we’re locals, and if we’re twins. We find the trailhead, then continue down it until the trail stops and we don’t see a way to continue on. It’s getting a bit late by this point, so we start back; getting stuck out here after dark might not be too much fun. It rains a bit on the way back, just enough to make things nice and steamy.

Waimea Canyon

We’re exhausted by the time we make it back to the car, and we’re mostly quiet as we drive back to Pono Kai. Once we get back, I collapse into the folding bed. “Man, I’m freakin’ tired,” I whine.

James slumps in a chair, exhales. “I know. Man, I really, really want to just heap out in the room.”

I point accusingly at him. “Heap out in the room?? You’re LAME!!”

He sits up straight, a determined look on his face. “You’re right! Have to resist the urge!”

“But…but…” I continue heaping out in the bed. “It DOES feel really nice in the bed…”

He glares at me. “Lying in bed all day?? You’re LAME!!”

Suitably ashamed, I sit up, and we both go to walk around town. We find a nice Thai place to sit down for dinner at, and, like all the non-McDonald’s food on the island so far, the food is delicious.

The next morning, we map out an ambitious day for ourselves. First, we’ll head into the island’s interior, and hike up (at least part of) Kawaikini. Then, having gotten in some good exercise from the hike, we’ll hop back in the car and head up to the north shore and do some snorkeling up that way.

Before we head out, we decide to do a quick workout on the shore. As many regular pushups as you can do in 30 seconds, then diamond pushups, then decline pushups, then wide pushups. Repeat 3x, with lots of whining interspersed.

“Wide pushups, huh? I bet you’re good at those.” I smile, extremely pleased with my own cleverness.

“You’re so funny. How do you do it?”

“Shut up,” I say sourly, very slowly continuing to do pushups.

As we’re working out, a rooster hops out of some tall bushes nearby. It looks like it just bounced off of a trampoline — that sucker has some velocity. A second later, another rooster follows. Then another. Then another. On exactly the same trajectory.

“Dude, look at the roosters,” James says, laughing. “They just keep coming!”

“How many of them are there?” I stare at the bushes. The roosters keep coming — they bounce out of the bushes, then land, then stalk forward hurriedly without breaking stride. “It’s like a fountain of roosters!”

“Looks like breakfast to me.”

“I’m sure no one will mind if we just butcher a couple roosters here on the beach and eat them raw.”

“They probably wouldn’t. I mean, there’s like infinite roosters here. I bet tourists are always butchering roosters and getting some free food.”

“That’s how they know you’re a tourist. Always slaughtering roosters and devouring them raw, while the locals look on with disgust.”

Road to Kawaikini

The road to Kawaikini is evidently not too well-traversed, as it quickly dwindles down to a narrow, cracked one-lane road, winding through decidedly non-touristy residential areas. Eventually, the road ends at a small spillway. We stop the car and stare out across the shallow water.

James points. “It looks like there’s a parking lot on the other side of this little waterfall.”

“Wait…are we really supposed to drive across the water? That sounds extremely dim. Are we in the right place?”


We decide that we are in the right place, and, in a moment of foolish enthusiasm, gun the engine and trundle across the top of the spillway. We park on the other side and go for a short hike up the mountain. In spite of being the rainiest place on Earth, it isn’t actively raining at the moment. Clearly, it rained just a short while ago, however, since the air has the consistency of a hot, moist towel placed over your face. We walk for about a half-mile, up a rutted, rocky dirt road halfway turned to mud. By the time we reach level ground again, we’re both drenched in sweat and feeling generally wretched.

“Can’t…believe…it’s so…humid!” I gasp, panting.

“Shitty luck!” James says, shaking his head at our terrible misfortune. “I can’t believe it would be humid in the rainiest mountain on Earth!”

“We should probably go back to the car and crank up the A/C.”


Kawaikini Mountain

We hike up an even steeper trail for a short ways, swatting away swarms of bugs all the while. “Too bad we didn’t get that Jeep,” I remark. “We could be off-roading right now.”

James laughs hollowly. “It’s probably a good thing that we didn’t. You know we’d end up busting our radiator or something and get stuck out here.”

“I wonder if there are any meth labs out here in the woods?”

“Or axe murderers?”

“Nothing like busting your radiator, then getting axe murdered by meth dealers.”

“I wonder if Todd’s out here?”

It doesn’t take too long before we’ve had enough of the sauna experience, and we wander back down. The base of the mountain is astonishingly green. The moisture in the air shouldn’t make a place less beautiful, and I guess it didn’t, but what I remember from Kawaikini Mountain is mostly the sensation of sweat.

Kawaikini Mountain

Back on Highway 56 again, headed north towards Princeville.

I remember when I was a kid, I always wondered why people would ever live in a place that wasn’t a tropical paradise. After all, once you’re an adult, you can go pretty much wherever you want, right? Wherever you can afford. And a one-way ticket to Hawaii or Tahiti or Fiji might be expensive, but you’d only have to pay it once, so what’s the big deal?

Mountains in the rain

The north shore is beautiful, although we’re a bit too rushed to properly appreciate it. The houses are more sprawling and fancy the farther we go, and by the time we get to Princeville, the road is narrow and twisting. The mountains are much more sheer on this side of the island, and there’s hardly space for even a small highway on the small level pieces of land between the mountains and ocean. Highways 56 and 50 go about three fourths of the way around the edge of the island, except for the rugged northwest corner of the island, which is all forest preserves and parks. Before long, the road terminates at a place called Haena State Park. It looks like it would be scenic, except, for some reason, there place is absolutely mobbed with people — mostly well-to-do older people.

“Why are there so many people here?” James asks.

“It’s an absorbing boundary condition,” I explain. “People drive here, the road ends, and they’re like ‘Oh shit now I’m trapped what am I going to dooooo??'”

“Pretty sure that’s it, loser.”

“And then they’re forced to butcher roosters and eat them raw just to survive.”

“Some turn to murder and cannibalism,” James adds, his eyes growing wide at the enormity of it all.

“We should probably get out of here before we get murdered and stuffed.”

North Shore

As we drive, it begins pouring rain. It’s a warm rain; it might be November here, but anywhere else in the world this is as warm as summer. As the rain starts, James begins to roll up the windows.

“ROLLING UP THE WINDOWS?” I roar. “YOU’RE LAME!!!” I’m driving, so I lock the windows and we drive along as the rain pours down.

James sighs, getting wet. “You’re so dim.”

I was going to roll up the windows, but after a minute, we realize that the rain actually feels really good, so we’re happy to keep them down. I miss warm rain. I never thought about it until getting rained on in Hawaii, but it’s been years since I experienced warm rain, and it’s a surprisingly alien sensation. The rains come to San Francisco in the winter, and it’s always cold. Oregon’s the same way — it rains a lot in the Willamette Valley, but it’s never warmer than about 50 degrees when it rains. I haven’t felt warm rain since I left Georgia, almost four and a half years ago now.

North Shore breaker

On the way back, we finally take a short break from our lightning tour of the north shore, and stop at a beach to go snorkeling. We park, get out of the car, put on our swim gear and get our snorkels. As we’re wandering out to the shore, a lifeguard stops us.

“No snorkeling here,” he says. “Sorry guys.”

We’re dumbfounded, so he adds, “The waves break really close to shore. See? It’s too dangerous to snorkel on the north shore this time of year. If you want to snorkel, I’d recommend going down to the south shore. Poipu’s amazing, if you guys haven’t been there.”

Part of the reason our tour of Kauai is so frenetic is that this is James’s last day here. He’s flying out tomorrow morning, so, although by this point we’d both be quite happy just collapsing into bed for about three days, we continue our dead run around the island. By this point, though, we’ve come as close to circumnavigating the island as you can without a helicopter, so some of the pressure to SEE EVERYTHING has abated. One thing we do have to do is switch hotels. At the last minute, James got an extra day off (originally, he was going to fly back today, which would have been a pitifully short stay), but our room at Pono Kai wasn’t available for the extra night. We haul our stuff to the new hotel. By the time we’ve gotten all moved in, we’re both really tempted to just heap out in the room.

Hotel number 2

James lies in one of the large, extremely soft beds and lets out an impressive ‘mehhhhhhh’.

“You look pretty comfortable, loser,” I remark, trying to deflect attention from my own extremely-low-energy configuration.


“You know what you are?” I ask. “You’re LAME.”

“I hate you.” He glares at me accusingly. “You’re also heaping out in bed!”

I stare at the ceiling. “Darn.”

At length, we muster the energy to return to Poipu. We figure that snorkeling at Poipu is probably just about as good as it gets, and what could be better than chilling on a beautiful tropical beach as the sun goes down?

As we drive, I suggest: “Later on, we can go on a canoe ride. Just to make sure we’re making good use of 100% of our time here.”

“How about midnight? A midnight canoe ride sounds awesome.”

“I love romantic midnight canoe rides. I’m not sure we have enough dudes, though. We should at least invite Todd.”

“I think a midnight canoe ride would be perfect with Todd and like 15 other dudes.”

“15 sweaty dudes.”

Our conversations tend to degenerate quickly.

After Poipu, we swing by the local McDonald’s for dinner. It’s pouring rain by the time we get back to the hotel. It’s twilight by now, but I go ahead and start the laundry — James is headed back tomorrow, but I’m planning to hop over to the Big Island to continue my wandering for several days. One thing about the warm, humid weather is that you go through clean clothes fast.

In the morning, we make one last shameful trip to McDonald’s for breakfast:

Last trip to McDonald's

Then it’s off to the Lihue airport. We return the car, then take the shuttle up to the airport entrance. I’ve got a ticket to Kona, on the Big Island, stopping for a couple hours in Honolulu. James has…nothing. His airline has an arrangement with a number of other airlines to allow their employees to fly standby on one another’s flights for free. This arrangement takes the form of something called ‘ZED tickets’. (I have no idea what ‘ZED’ stands for.) James discovered the previous night that it didn’t seem to be possible to purchase a ZED ticket online, and when he called the airline, they confirmed that it was still a paper system.

“It’s such a stupid system,” he says, quietly raging. “Why wouldn’t it be computerized? I actually have to go to the ticket counter? It doesn’t make sense!”

“Yeah, it’s just so inconvenient. You mean they’re actually making you physically go to the ticket counter to get your free ticket? How could they!! Those assholes!!”

He looks chagrined. “Well…I’m just sayin’. It’s dumb that it isn’t computerized.”

“You should probably whine about it.”


But it turns out he really does have something to complain about, since when we arrive at Lihue, it turns out the U.S. Airways counter is closed…and, in fact, they’re only open on the weekends. Since he needs a physical ticket to board the United flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, this is kind of a show-stopper.

“You can always hop over to the Big Island with me,” I point out. “Fly back from Kona. If you can get the time off work.”

But he can’t get the time off work, so what he ends up doing is paying out-of-pocket for a ticket on Hawaiian Air to Honolulu, in the hopes that he can get something figured out once he’s there. He gets on the earliest flight he can find, and we say our farewells, although I’m pretty sure we’ll end up meeting in Honolulu. My flight’s not for a couple hours, so I hang out in the terminal, playing on my computer.

When I arrive in Honolulu, I call James’s cell phone, and, unsurprisingly, he picks up.

“Did you fail?” I ask, tactfully.

“Yeah. I might be able to get a paper ticket from United, but I have to wait until 7 pm when they show up to the ticket counter.”

“7 pm?” I repeat. “It’s noon. What are you going to do for seven hours?”

James in Honolulu

We meet up and have lunch together at the Honolulu airport food court, make use of the automated massage chairs. James is on his phone half the time, raging at various people, trying to figure out how the hell he can get back to Charlotte in time for work. Soon enough, it’s time for me to depart for Kona.

“You sure you don’t want to come to Kona?” I ask. “It’ll be fun. The Big Island’s supposed to be amazing. And it’s, like, big.”

He shakes his head. “I’d like to. But I gotta get back. Unlike some people, my job is not infinitely flexible.”

“It pays you infinitely well, though,” I point out.

“It is nice having infinite money,” he admits.

The flight to Kona is uneventful. When I land, it’s immediately clear that the Big Island might as well be on a different planet from Kauai. The landscape around Kona is barren and blasted, sharp volcanic rocks ending abruptly at the ocean. After the lushness of Kauai, the desolation seems all the more striking. I rent a car, which, oddly, ends up being a Charger identical to the one we just returned on Kauai. It’s twilight by the time I’m on the road to Kona, and I set out to find a campsite and/or hotel.

I don’t see any campsites on the barren rocky shore between the airport and the town of Kona, so I drive into town, looking for a hotel. (The problem with camping is that you really need to find a place to camp before it gets dark.) The first hotel I try is full. The next place has the unpromising name of Uncle Billy’s Kona Bay Hotel, but I’m in no position to be choosy, so I wait in line at the front desk.

The guy in front of me is a heavy-set Hawaiian with a squashed-in face and a pugnacious air about him. He’s about my height, 5’10” or so, but he’s one of those guys that looks as wide as he is tall. Not fat, or muscular — just big. He’s raging at the desk clerk. Evidently he was out on his balcony when the balcony door swung shut behind him, locking him out there. To make matters worse, his key was still in his room. He’d had to climb down from the second floor, and by the time he made it back to the front desk, he was brimming with fury.

“There’s a lot of cats here,” he confides in me, as the desk clerk scurries off to fetch his room key.

I’m confused. “Cats?”

“Yeah, cats,” he says, impatiently. “I fuckin’ hate cats. Every time I see a cat I want to get my truck and run the little fucker over.”

“Uh…yeah. I’m, uh, allergic to cats,” I say, wondering if this guy is dangerously psycho or just regular psycho. Trying to change the topic, I say, “Hey, do you know if there’s any good camping in this area? It’s really nice out.”

He shakes his head, a grim look in his beady eyes. “I wouldn’t. There’s bands of goons patrolling the shores here. You could get messed up out there.”

The desk clerk returns in time to rescue me from this weirdly intense conversation, and hands the guy a room key. He looms over her threateningly for a moment, then lumbers off.

“He’s from Honolulu,” the clerk says, gesturing meaningfully in a generally westward direction, as if that explained everything. This made me not want to visit Honolulu.

That night, I go for a long run through the town, then, sufficiently exhausted, go to sleep, my dreams only briefly troubled by roving bands of goons who want to mess me up. I’m starting to wonder if I’m even going to use the little backpacking tent I have in my rucksack.

Coffee shop near Kona

I don’t have any firm plans for my grand tour of the Big Island, aside from a general desire to drive all the way around the island. In the morning, I drive up the steep hillside from Kona, in search of the famous Kona coffee. It takes me a surprisingly long time to find a coffee shop, but by the time I do find one, I’m pretty far out into the hills, and I find a nice local place. I stop, take pictures, buy some coffee for a “Coffee and Art Stroll” hoodie for Fox. Then I’m off again, this time towards the southernmost point in the U.S.

Barren shore near Kona

Green slowly filters into the broken rocky landscape as I head south. Especially compared to Kauai, the southwest of the Big Island conveys a sensation of emptiness. There are just a few houses and the occasional ramshackle shop or restaurant on the side of the road. I’m on Hawaii Belt Road, a winding catenary across the south half of the island, connecting Kona to Hilo on the east shore. Once I exit onto South Point Road, it becomes even emptier, and the road condition deteriorates. There is a long line of windmills in the distance, and I’m surrounded by dry brown grass. There are horses in the fields.

Headed to South Point

Headed to South Point

South Point is on a high promontory overlooking the sea. The way the cliffs drop directly into the ocean reminds me of San Francisco. There’s a fruit vendor selling fresh papaya, so I stay for a while, eating papaya, watching the sea. It’s sharp blue. The air is very dry, so that the horizons are far away on land, too. Standing at South Point, you feel like you’re staring off the edge of the world.

South Point

South Point

Afterward, I stopped for lunch at a place called Shaka Restaurant, which billed itself as the ‘Most Southern Bar in U.S.A.’:

Shaka Restaurant

My next stop was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I figured, being a national park, it probably would have a decent campsite where I could spend the night. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only did they have a campsite, but that it was actually free. I happily pitched my tent, then set off to explore the rim of Kilauea.

Camped at Volanoes NP

The last eruption in the Kilauea caldera was in 2008, and I wasn’t sure whether I should hope for (at least a small) eruption during my visit. Even without an eruption taking place, the caldera was one of the most epic, otherworldly places I’ve ever visited. Most of the caldera’s floor is a barren, rocky plain, dotted with cracks venting sulfur dioxide. Visually, the plain is dominated by Halema’uma’u, a pit crater that was responsible for the 2008 eruption. There is an active lava flow deep in the pit crater, which vents a billowing cloud of steam into the atmosphere.

Kilauea caldera

Kilauea caldera

There are trails winding around Kilauea’s rim, and along the trails are deep fissures belching sulfur dioxide. After a few miles, it begins to rain, the steam mingling with the sulfur dioxide gas. I wander up to the visitor’s center, but it is closed by the time I get there, so I walk back as it begins to get dark. The rain stops, then starts, then stops again. The terrain changes from rugged wasteland to steamy jungle, then back.

Sulfur vents

Crater rim

As the sun goes down, the pit crater begins to glow a soft pink, brightening to an eerie red as twilight sets in. A small crowd of people has gathered at the overlook by the time it is dark, and I stand there for a long while with them, watching the lava glow.

Pit crater's glow

Unfortunately, because I stood around staring at the lava for so long, it’s completely dark by the time I leave the overlook, and my campsite is about a mile from there. There’s a trail that leads to the campsite, and the moon is bright enough that I’m able to walk briskly all the way back.

I arrive at the campsite, wondering if it’s going to rain. I breath deep. It feels like it will rain. Not that I have any idea what it-will-rain feels like in Hawaii. I hang out for a while, walk around the campground, brush my teeth. After a while, I’m pretty tired, and the rain hasn’t started again, so I think maybe I’m in luck. I had the good sense to put my rain fly up, so the tent’s still pretty dry by the time I crawl in. It’s not perfect, though — if it actually starts raining again, I (and my down sleeping bag) will get soaked.

I doze off for a couple hours, and wake up to a soft patter outside, and drops of water running down my face. I sit up blearily, yawning, peering outside the tent as the rain picks up outside. After a minute or two, it’s clear that the rain isn’t going to stop, so I disspiritedly bundle up my sleeping pad and bag and plod over to the car.

At least I’m by myself, I remind myself, sighing. Could be worse. Imagine if I was camping with four other dudes right now.

It’s hard to sleep, balled up in the back of a car, so I just lie there, listening to the rain pound on the car. I sleep for a bit, then wake up, shift uncomfortably, then sleep another little bit… At about 2 in the morning, a van pulls up next to my car, blasting extraordinarily loud, extraordinarily bad techno music. I go through the short routine of pretending this isn’t happening, then trying without success to tune it out, then pretending that it’s funny, then finally giving up the ghost and sitting up, fully awake and miserable. There’s a nerdy-looking Asian guy at the van’s wheel, bouncing enthusiastically in his seat to the thumping techno music. As far as I can tell, he’s by himself. I wonder if he’s stoned. I wonder if he’s a psycho. After a while, he drives off into the darkness, techno music still blaring.

Hilo Coffee Mill

I wake up early with terrible cramps and a headache, probably from a night of doing contortions in the backseat. I slowly break apart the tent and stow it, wash my hands and face, then begin driving again. My first stop is a coffee shop, and after I get a bit of caffeine in me, I start to feel almost human again. I buy a ‘coffee bear’ souvenir for Fox from the coffee shop, which is called the Hilo Coffee Mill. The lady who works there compliments my Kauai-souvenir shirt, rumpled from sleeping in it. I’m amused when she offers me a ‘locals-only’ discount, which I’m not sure is from me looking Hawaiian, or my shirt saying Kauai, or both.

Beach at Hilo

Beach at Hilo

I make a quick tour of the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus, which is…well, it’s like every other college campus, I guess. The east shore around Hilo is much different than the west shore: it is extremely humid and rainy, and there is dense vegetation everywhere. It isn’t actually raining when I arrive, but the air feels damp. There’s a wet wind blowing; it feels like it will rain again soon. Before it does, I make my way down to the beach, and spend some time wandering down it aimlessly, admiring the black sand. Black sand sounds like it would be jarring to look at, but it’s not at all — it actually was a nice complement to the overcast sky.

Hilo in the rain

As I drive out of Hilo, it begins raining again. There are again sharp changes in the landscape as I continue north — first the low city-scape of Hilo, squatting by the ocean, then a dense forest, then the rain stops and the trees open up into brilliant green grass.

The Charger

North of Hilo

To my right, gently sloping grasslands roll down to the sea. I’m not sure what the right word for it is — beautiful, certainly. Idyllic. Bucolic. It is peaceful and green, and it seems like a wonderful place to live. I stop on the side of the road and pee all over it.

Mauna Kea

My flight out of Kona is tonight, so I try and make the most of my last day on the island. I stop by the Keck Observatory, and chat for a while with one of the people who works there. His name is Jack, too.

The shore near the airport

After a long while, I find myself back on the outskirts of Kona. I’ve got a few hours to kill before going to the airport, so I park the car along the barren shore and go for a run. It feels wonderful, and so does rinsing off afterwards in the open-air shower. I think that a good hard sweat can substitute for a bar of soap in a pinch.

The shore near the airport

I sit outside the airport for a while, lying in the grass, reading. A sudden thunderstorm blows through, briefly knocking out the airport’s power. Soon enough, I’m out on the tarmac, boarding the plane that will take me to Phoenix, then to Portland. The plane’s almost empty. I sleep the whole way back.

Mt. Hood

How does external mortality affect aging rate?

A long-standing prediction for the effect of external mortality factors on aging rate was (I think) first made by Williams, in the context of his ‘antagonistic pleiotropy’ theory of aging.  The reasoning is alluringly simple: organisms which tend to die young (for example, from high predation rates) also reproduce while they’re young.  Therefore, the protection against aging afforded by natural selection disappears more quickly, and so these organisms age faster.  The prediction from this idea is simply that external mortality pressure and aging rate should be positively correlated.

It turns out not to be that simple, however.  (Somewhat) recent data on aging rates in fish have found that, in at least some cases, the opposite occurs: fish which have been exposed to higher predation rates actually age more slowly.  I just read a paper from Mitteldorf and Pepper (Theory Biosci. 2007, 126:3-8) which attempts to square this circle by arguing for a role for group selection in evolution.  Their argument is that population-level events can contribute to individual survival chances, for example in epidemics, where a high population density can negatively impact an individual’s chance of survival.  Another example they give is starvation, which could be triggered by an excessively large population; aging may be an adaptation to keep populations in check.

As the authors note, however, group selection is not a generally-accepted mechanism of evolution.  The physical mechanisms underlying evolution certainly act on the individual level.  However, viewed in game-theory terms, I can imagine a group selection mechanism: suppose two genotypes exist, one of which confers maximal individual reproductive success, and the second which is reduced on an individual level but decreases the probability that a population-wide calamity will occur.  On short time-scales, individual selection would certainly predominate, and the maximal individual reproductive success would be the driving factor.  However, certainly some subpopulations will end up with the second option, just by random chance — especially if it is a reasonably good fitness, even if not absolutely optimal.  On a longer time-scale, the re-occurence of the aforementioned calamity would tend to indirectly select for the second (apparently less fit) genotype.  So it seems like the important variables would be (1) the difference in fitness between the two genotypes, and (2) the rate at which population-wide catastrophes occur.  I’ll have to tinker with this a bit…might be possible to construct a neat little model for this.

Although, stepping back for a moment, I wonder if this argument is necessary — could the observed effects in fish (and several other organisms) be the result of genetic drift affecting isolated subpopulations?  Recent experimental evidence indicates that neutral evolution could be a much more important driving force than previously thought.

Another caveat arises from a short review by Bronikowski and Promislow (TRENDS Ecol. Evol., 2005, 20).  Evidently the conclusions for the empirical fish data (from Reznick) were obtained by fitting an exponential curve to the mortality rate versus age.  One issue is that there is a substantial amount of scatter on the plot.  I should look up the confidence intervals from the original paper.  Also I need to check how they did their fits; in B&P it looks suspiciously like a linear regression to a semi-log plot, although hopefully that isn’t actually the case!  But, given the amount of scatter in the data, I wonder if the conclusions from Reznick are solid.  Another interesting point raised by B&P is that not all forms of mortality are equivalent, from an evolutionary standpoint — it matters whether the extrinsic factor being examined is independent from previous occurrences.  The example they give is that while the probability of getting eaten (or not) by a predator today is likely the same as it will be tomorrow, due to acquired immunity, the situation is quite different with regard to death by infection.  So this adds another (potential) dimension to the analysis of mortality rates — you may need separate curves, one for causes of death which are (approximately) condition-independent, and one for condition-dependent causes.

Downloaded a pile o’ papers on this topic, and clearly, I’m going to have to plow into these a bit before I try and get my hands (too) dirty with trying to construct a model from scratch…