THE PAST PRESSES CLOSE TO THE SURFACE ON THE island of Hawaii, the southernmost in the archipelago, the one they call the Big Island. In 1985, during the first of what would be many trips to this massive volcanic isle, I toured its wild northern coast in a tiny bubble of a helicopter. On what seemed a whim, but probably had to do with the calm clarity of the day, the pilot decided to swing out to sea and fly alongside the pali, a stretch of vertical cliffs that rise 2,000 feet above the surf. Pointing to a hole in the face of the sheer wall, he shouted, "I can't hang here long, so look sharp." Inside, stark white against the tropical red earth, I saw a pile of skulls and rib bones, a burial cave untouched by the centuries. That kind of abrupt historical jolt, I have since learned, is to be expected on the geologically youngest, but very likely the historically oldest, of the Hawaiian chain.
The first East Polynesians, possibly from the Marquesas Islands, traveling in canoes and navigating by the stars, reached the Hawaiian Islands between A.D. 400 and 600. A second wave, this time from Tahiti, arrived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in canoes big enough to carry 50 people and all their supplies across 2,000 miles of open ocean. The population had stabilized by the mid-fifteenth century; for 300 years after that, the people of the islands lived in splendid isolation, evolving into what the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology calls "the largest and perhaps most complex and politically sophisticated societies in the Pacific." They built great stone temples where they worshiped the gods that governed their lives. Their chiefs divided the land into pie-shaped wedges called ahupuaa, each of which provided all the necessities of life: inland valleys for farming taro and sweet potatoes and beaches for fishing. Usually an ahupuaa was peopled by an ohana, or very loose family group.
These early Hawaiians raised fish in oceanside ponds, dug underground ovens to cook dogs and pigs, created the hula, and recorded their genealogies in chants memorized by members of each generation. They played checkerslike games on boards carved into large, smooth rocks, rode wooden boards on the surf, and spoke in a language so lyrical it seemed a song.
Hawaii's first people pounded out trails on the great lava-encrusted island that would endure for centuries in the hot, dry climate. One path followed the shoreline, weaving in and out of coves; another provided a more direct route across the middle. Still others, called mauka-makai (for "mountain-sea"), climbed up and down the mountainsides. Farmers on the upland slopes would walk down to the sea to make gifts of sweet potatoes and taro to their fishermen relatives and receive in return some of the ocean's bounty.
Hawaiians have always liked to "talk story," as they put it. One story they still tell today on the dry, western side of the Big Island is about the night walkers, a column of ghostly figures led by warriors wearing gourds as helmets and carrying torches. The night walkers are said to march along the ancient trail that parallels the ocean, just behind a string of luxury resorts along the beaches of the leeward coast.
Remnants of the old footpath combine with other paths to form a newly created National Historic Trail named Ala Kahakai, which translates to "Trail by the Sea." It winds 200 miles from Upolu Point on the far northern coast, south along the leeward shore, and all the way around the southern tip to Volcanoes National Park, on the windward side of the island. Sections of the trail are marked and easy to follow for several miles; elsewhere it fades into the glowing green of golf courses or meanders through somebody's front yard or a parking lot.
The Big Island is laced with old trails, many of them dating from what Hawaiians refer to as "pre-contact," before 1778, when the British explorer Capt. James Cook first came upon the islands, named them the Sandwich Islands in honor of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and opened them to Western influences. …