If you lived in town, it took an hour to get to the North Shore. First you drove down H-1, then H-2 — our so-called Interstates, although the next nearest state was some 2,500 miles away. (They were built to ferry supplies between military bases.) Then past Wahiawa and the red dirt of old pineapple fields, planted at the end of the 19th century. The fruit came to symbolize Hawaii, but it was a foreigner, originally from South America, passed from one colonized territory to another.
Recipe: Hawaii-Style Garlic Shrimp
If you had visitors, you went the other way, the long way by the ocean, through Waimanalo, Kaneohe and Punaluu. We called this driving around the island, though it was only the eastern, windward side. “It was an event,” says my friend Kathy YL Chan, the writer behind the Onolicious Hawaii blog. “The whole family would go — Grandma, Grandpa, cousins.” The plan was to eat what you could only eat on the North Shore: chocolate-haupia cream pie from Ted’s Bakery by Sunset Beach and shave ice from Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa, at the time just a dusty country store with chickens patrolling the parking lot. (Today it’s big and bright, with an assembly line to manage the hordes.)
But before you reached Sunset, you stopped in Kahuku for shrimp. They came from a truck, a dozen to a plate with two scoops of rice, crackly-shelled and dark with paprika, butter and a rubble of garlic. (When Kathy reverse-engineered the recipe at home, she used two heads, and the leftover sauce over rice was enough for a second meal.) Even after you washed up at the giant sink, the sheen of butter stayed on your fingers all day.
The first of the North Shore shrimp trucks rolled in three decades ago. But in my mind, they have always been there. They belong to that blurry in-between time when I had finished school on the mainland and come home to Honolulu to sort out who I was going to be. Rents were so high, I slept in a corner of a living room with a curtain rigged up for privacy. I worked two jobs, five days at an ad agency downtown and five nights at Sunset Grill on Restaurant Row. (It is now a CVS.)
One night I burned my hair bending too low over a candle, which might have happened because I was distracted by a boy who looked like someone I once loved. I didn’t say a word to him, didn’t even look after that, but when the restaurant emptied out, he came back and knocked on the locked door, asking for me.
He turned out to be Dutch and a skydiver, and on my one day off he took me to the North Shore on the back of his motorcycle: no helmets, barelegged and stupid. I wanted him to see the scenic route, the ocean blue and blinding at our side, but I’d forgotten how long it took. Later, he showed me a page in his journal where he’d written, “She kept saying, ‘It’s around the corner.’”
On the road to Haleiwa, I felt my earnest, watchful self fall away; I imagined I was someone else, free to stop achieving. To squander my life. I was young and rolled my eyes at tourists who treated Hawaii as an exotic playground — and yet I was a tourist, too. My North Shore was not the real North Shore, which has long resisted outsiders and change, where Hawaiian flags hang upside down to protest what is seen as an illegal occupation by the United States.
We pulled over at one of the shrimp trucks and bought a half-pound each, formidable creatures still in armor, dripping butter. Then we drove on, past Haleiwa to the airfield, where he was paid off the books to jump out of planes. He was puzzlingly gentle for a boy who played with death. Afterward, we headed back on the freeway, going 70 in that swarm of cars. I’d never felt so calm, and so certain I was going to die.
We had our time. When he flew home to Amsterdam, he said he’d be back, but after he’d been gone a week I walked into Sunset Grill and found a message from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He’d been flagged at an airport on the mainland for staying in the United States too long. I can’t remember his name now, or even his face, really, just that he was handsome enough for me not to miss him. I knew he’d do fine. We were only tourists in each other’s lives, after all, stories to tell further down the line: the flying Dutchman and the island girl, leaning into the corners, riding toward someplace we’d never reach.