Camping at a West Hawai‘i shoreline public park recently, I was stunned at how rundown and dangerous the place was. Knife wielding goons demanded money from campers. Public workers sleep through their shift. Pavilions are filthy and littered with broken glass.
Each morning, park workers drove right up to my breakfast table in a pickup truck and grunted “permit?” Public work crews spent hours each day lounging and napping in the shade well away from the stink of rubbish bins.
Had they been working, there was plenty to be done. Walls, floors, and benches in the pavilion were covered in thick dust. Dozens of feral cats left droppings creating swarms of flies. Broken glass was everywhere. The bathroom had no doors. Shower walls were covered by patches of mold.
I found myself trying to see past the condition. After some practice and a good deal of positive thinking I actually managed to relax and enjoy the warm weather and beautiful setting. As it happened I had the pleasure to meet and make new friends. Some were tourists from other countries, others were Hawai‘i residents on vacation, and two were resort workers.
The tourists were grateful for help setting up their tents and for the few tips I gave them about tides and getting in and out of the ocean. Overall they were generally happy about being in Hawai‘i during their winter.
Two brothers from Canada who had competed in the Honolulu triathlon a few days earlier were interrupted several times in the middle of the night by the nearby parking lot drinkers and several park grounds flood lights that failed to turn off at 11pm. They considered moving their tent further from the parking lot the second night but feared that their rental car would be vandalized as retaliation for asking the revelers to quiet down the night before. They packed up about 1AM and drove off looking for a hotel.
There was a honeymoon couple from Europe who spent the day touring and arrived back to their tent with takeout for a sunset dinner. Their picnic table was too dilapidated to sit at and the fire ants made sitting on a blanket painful so they retreated to the pavilion and watched the sunset with three intoxicated loudmouths who were smoking pot.
The resort workers were from East Hawai‘i. Some sleep in park pavilions because their weekly schedules assign them ‘back to backs’ with only eight hours off between shifts. For others the drive home is three hours each way so they had no alternative but to sleep rough.
I spoke to one resort worker in detail about the conditions he was dealing with just to keep his job. At first he would make the drive no matter what. One night driving home he dozed off and had a near miss with an oncoming car. He said he was making good money but his car payments and mortgage left his wife with barely enough to maintain household expenses and keep up with the needs of his four young children.
He swallowed his pride bought a sleeping bag and air mattress and started sleeping a few days a week in a park pavilions. Some nights he was asked to leave because he had no permit to camp. When he got to know the park workers and security, with $5 he was able to bribe his way out of eviction. He tries to quit the park early before they show up.
Over the last two years he has learned the mechanism of the underworld of our state and county parks. He described to me the dangerous line he must walk to be able to get along with the other ‘illegal’ campers and the state and county workers who run the facilities like a protection racket.
The first night we sat alone in the pavilion he mostly talked about the impossibility of working for the resorts while raising a family on one income. The stress of a five hour round trip commute to his house in East Hawai‘i every day was wrecking his marriage, relationship with his young children, health and finances. Days off at home are spent catching up on his sleep. He tried to get a second job but his schedule is not steady. He has been working long hours since leaving high years ago and doesn’t know how much longer he can last. He said something has to change because plenty of guys are in the same boat and it is sinking fast.
He knows of several Kona rentals with two bedrooms and up to ten resort workers sharing the place for $500 dollars a month each. The landlord, the property manager, and the guy who has the lease in his name all get a cut of the cash. He prays that the layoff coming this summer will leave him with a few days on the schedule. He wants to get a job with the County but he knows that the few times the police took his name for sleeping in his car will show up and not look good.
The second night I met my new friend in the pavilion, he was straight off work and said he was on early start the next morning. Several men came into the pavilion drunk and irate complaining about something they said happened in Hilo. My friend looked uncomfortable. Soon it became evident that they were working the parks along the coast shaking down campers. My friend told them I was from the island and was camping with a permit. I declined offers of beer and hits on a joint.
Two of the men had strapped on their legs large knives which they removed and wielded while narrating their ability to cause grievous bodily harm. The honeymoon couple packed up their dinner and went to their tent. I soon discovered that they were not interested in me but rather the few dollars my friend was required to give them. I returned to my camp site. Sometime around midnight they finally left.
Hawai‘i has beautiful parks. We have ruined them. Local workers trying to get some sleep between shifts and families paying $100 for a three night permit should not fear broken glass, disease, or midnight visits from knife-wielding thugs.
I spoke to several state and county officials and learned their focus is on developing new tourism markets not on the actual experience. We are overlooking the impact this economy is having on island residents. With the recent loss of tourist dollars due to the reduction in cruise ships and the collapse of Aloha and ATA, Hawai‘i should be working to improve the experience, not just the image. Our parks are also for Hawai‘i residents who should be able to use them without fear.
There was once a time when supervisors and park management did their jobs. The solution for our parks is not a multi-million dollar payout to contractors for a facilities upgrade. The solution is for employees be held accountable and for police to patrol.
Tourism officials should spend a few nights with their family in a park. Bring rubber gloves and a large friend for protection.
Patrick Walsh may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org