By Rick Carroll, excerpted from Madame Pele: True Encounters With Hawaii’s Fire Goddess
My day full of strange encounters began in Honolulu at the airport, when a security guard asked to inspect my carry-on. “Oh, I love your books,” she said, finding several spooky titles in my bag. I handed her one, and she gave me a big Mahalo (Hawaiian for “hello” and “thank you”) and waved me onward.
In line at Starbucks, a Charles Manson look-alike, one of the terminals homeless denizens, hit me up for three bucks. He wanted “a wet, double tall, French-vanilla latte.” His outrageous request made me laugh. I gave him a buck.
While waiting for my coffee I was paged repeatedly: “. . . please return to the security gate.” It turned out I’d dropped my ticket to Kona International during the security check. I ran to the gate only to find my plane was late, and then arrived at the Keahole airport to learn Budget was out of cars.
“We have a ten-passenger van,” the clerk said. “You can have it for the same price as an economy sedan.”
“It’s only me,” I said.
“It’s all we have,” the clerk said.
That’s how I came to be all alone driving an air-conditioned, ten-passenger van on the Big Island’s Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway on what felt like the hottest day of the year. My destination was Waimea School, where I’d been invited to read to children as part of the Marriott Waikoloa Outrigger’s annual spooky “talk story” event.
Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway is unique in Hawaii. The two-lane black asphalt not only runs through twenty miles of black lava landscape, it crosses over several layers of historic lava flows and under four of the island’s five volcanoes: Kohala, Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea. Pele, goddess of fire, land if there ever was.
I saw the hitchhiker on the highway just after leaving the airport. Since it was just me, all alone in the air-conditioned ten-passenger van, I stopped. She got in. Immediately something was wrong. The chilled van seemed warmer with her aboard.
“Where’re you going?”
“Waimea,” she said.
“Me, too. Do you live there?”
“No,” she replied, “just visiting.”
She was neither young nor old but somewhere in between. Her caramel skin, charcoal dreadlocks, bright clear eyes, and soft voice entranced me, but there was about her a distinct flammable odor. I thought for a moment the ten-passenger rental van had a gas leak.
As we crossed what looked like a bleak charcoal expanse, my fervid passenger knew and identified each and every lava flow with evident pride, as if each flow were an object of art in her private collection.
“Ka’upulehu flowed to the sea in 1801,” she said as we passed under Hualalai volcano. “It filled Kiholo Bay . . . and the 1859 Mauna Loa flow ran from nine thousand feet near the summit to the sea . . . the Kaniku flow covered Waikoloa and ran into the fishponds at Ansaeho’omalu . . . “
Her keen recitation startled me. “How do you know all this?” I asked.
“Just do,” she said. “It’s my hobby.”
We rode in silence for a mile or so. I half expected her to ask for a cigarette – a common request of Pele, the fire goddess.
“Don’t you want to ask me for a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke,” she said, smiling
We rode in silence
“Are you sure you’re not Madame Pele?” I finally asked. I couldn’t help it.
“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m not Madame Pele.”
“How do I know?”
“Believe me.” She laughed.
“I’m not sure I do,” I said.
In misty rain, we approached Waimea town. She said good-bye and thanks at the T intersection.
“I’ll get out here,” she said at the stoplight, opening the door and jumping out. She cut across the corner gas station, walking fast. I half expected the gas pumps to burst into flames.
That never happened, but something just as startling did. As I watched her walk away, she vanished in thin air. One minute she was there, the next she was gone – li’dat! I asked the gas station attendant if he’d seen the woman in white.
“No, brah, see nothing.”
It suddenly felt real chilly inside my air-conditioned ten-passenger van.
I found the Waimea School library full of kids that Friday afternoon. The library was cool and quiet. I, by contrast, was hot and sweaty.
“Are you okay?” a librarian asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I’m not really sure,” I told her, “but I think I just gave a ride to woman who may have been Madame Pele.”
The librarian had a sympathetic smile. “I know,” she said. “It happens a lot here.”
That night at a dinner party, I asked the other guests if they had ever seen that woman hitchhiking along the Queen’s Highway or walking about their town. Now, Waimea is a very small town, and surely someone would have noticed a woman in a white dress with charcoal dreadlocks who knew a little too much about old volcanoes. Nobody ever had. At least that’s what they told me.
Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway is located in the northwestern corner of the Big Island of Hawaii.