KIPAHULU, Maui – Keeping one eye on brewing black clouds and the other on sightseers, the caretaker at Palapala Hoo’mau Congregational Church was racing a storm on her John Deere when she noticed a couple with a tripod.
“It isn’t unusual to use one to take photographs, but then I realized the guy was carrying bagpipes! We don’t see many of those here, so I shut off the mower.”
The overseer’s job description does not include greeting tourists who visit what one described on Trip Advisor as “a tiny church in the middle of nowhere.” But last Dec. 7, the bagpipes were beautiful and she was intrigued, so she walked to the graveyard as the couple read a chiseled headstone:
“If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…”
“The man said, ‘I want to pay tribute to Charles Lindbergh,’ and identified himself as Dennis Duncan,” the caretaker recalled. “He’d grown up in St. Louis and said Lindbergh was his childhood idol and why he’d gotten his pilot’s license.”
Denise Duncan clutched a military magazine. Like her husband, the retired paratrooper was an admirer of the first man to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, and was writing a story for the magazine about Lindbergh’s resting place since his death in 1974.
“They respectfully asked if I could listen as Mr. Duncan played his pipes in honor of his hero – how could you not hear bagpipes? I’d been having a hard day so I stood with them as he piped a beautiful ballad. When it ended I was spontaneously weeping and told them it was my birthday, so he played ‘Happy Birthday.’”
Afterward, she told the Duncans “I typically never say this, but I am very touched by what you have come so far to do. It has been amazing. So I will tell you that I am Erin Lindbergh, and who is really buried in this grave is my grandfather Charles.”
The bagpiper then played “Amazing Grace.”
Months later, she still seems surprised she revealed her identity to the strangers, and regrets they left no contact information when they signed a guest book.
“I saw the bagpipes and needed to come to that spot where I’ve stood countless times,” Erin Lindbergh recalled. “My pregnant Australian friend joined us, and when the song ended there we were – the weeping birthday girl, the soon-to-be mom, the bagpiper, the paratrooper and Grandfather.”
Charles Lindbergh came to Kipahulu in the 1950s to visit Sam Pryor, a retired Pan American World Airways executive. Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, relished the natural beauty and privacy they found in remote East Maui and bought 5 acres from Pryor in 1970. They built a house and writing studio they christened “Argonauta” in honor of the Nautilus about which Mrs. Lindbergh wrote in her 1955 memoir, “Gift From the Sea.”
“I remember the pink diaper pail Granny Mouse (her grandmother) used as a kitchen trash can because it was the only one at the general store,” recalled Erin, who was 11 when her parents first brought her for a visit in 1972.
“It was a big dark A-frame, with blue tiles on the floor, a generator, kerosene lanterns, big rains and cockroaches,” she said. “My love of this place began when I came from minus-30 below zero on our Montana ranch to this balmy trade wind air at Christmastime.
“On the way back to the airport we stopped next to a pasture of waving grass on the (Haleakala) volcano side and pounding winter surf on the other. While my brother Peter was being car sick I promised myself two things – I was never going to grow up to be an adult and I was going to move to Kipahulu.”
Between her childhood and current efforts “trying to get back to being a kid,” the 55-year-old with the lithe frame of her grandfather and natural beauty of her grandmother simultaneously pursued Charles’ outward quest for adventure and Anne’s inward journey of intimate dialogue.
Her history reflects this genetic push-pull of being descended from one of history’s greatest trailblazers, who saw the world with a bird’s-eye view, and a writer who defined mid-20th century American womanhood by exploring her inner self in a book that has sold 3 million copies in 45 languages.
Lindbergh went to a two-room schoolhouse on her Montana ranch through 8th grade, helping her parents raise black Angus cattle. Her 4-H bull, Thor, won the champion weight gain trophy from the local pulp mill at the county fair, then broke her heart when he was sold.
Unhappy at Missoula’s regional high school “because I wasn’t cool,” she transferred to a Massachusetts boarding school with foreign students and multi-cultural Americans. During a semester abroad she studied Islamic history and Arabic in Tangier while living with a Moroccan family. She attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, then went to Paris as an au pair where she got an itch to travel the ancient salt road from Algiers to Lome.
“I met up with a troupe of musicians, we bought an old Peugeot and drove through the Sahara all the way to Togo, where somebody stole my money, passport and clothes,” Lindbergh said. “I wanted to go on to Congo but as a woman alone it was not possible.”
She alternated between Kipahulu and San Francisco in her 20s. On Maui she learned organic gardening and was accepted by neighboring Hawaiian families. She also spent part of every summer visiting her grandmother Anne in Switzerland.
In her 30s she kept the other half of her 11-year-old bargain with herself by moving next door to the deteriorating Argonauta in a house her father bought in 1975.
Five years ago she became full-time caretaker of the church built by Connecticut missionaries in 1864, partially destroyed by a 1940 hurricane, restored by her grandfather and Pryor in 1964, and rehabilitated by the non-profit Palapala Ho’omau Preservation Society in 2016.
Occasional religious services, local reunions and weddings are held in the church. Besides Charles Lindbergh, Sam and Mary Tay Pryor and their six pet gibbons, generations of Native Hawaiians and a Jewish attorney also are buried there.
Nearly a million tourists annually visit Haleakala National Park’s Kipahulu District headquarters nearby, and many make it to the churchyard.
“I come here every day to unlock and lock the church, sweep the floors, change alter flowers and collect donations, but avoid the midday bus traffic,” Erin Lindbergh said. “In my long-sleeve shirt, lauhala hat and garden shoes I look like the char woman I am.”
A respected yoga instructor with an organic garden and a trio of ducks, Lindbergh is adept at trimming trees and unclogging the plumbing.
“I have a lot of encounters here that are completely unexpected. People are mostly respectful and very nice. For some it’s a pilgrimage, for others a touchstone.
“Whether it’s a couple from Ohio or a visitor from Spain or a busload of Asian tourists, the spirit of this place and the spirit of the person brightens and deepens here. The light is refracted uniquely in each person, but it’s a common light.”
The church is “a bridge for me to the local Hawaiian community. This is my home now. I am drawn here for the same reasons my grandparents were. My grandfather was very taken by the dance of the elements – wind, rocks and sea. My grandmother loved the birds and the flowers.
“I have a questing nature, but I have spent a long time here working the land. That grounds me, literally. It’s an honor to touch this earth every day.”
Coming Friday: The shared Maui travails of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her granddaughter.