Editor’s note: The Big Island is, well, a big island, so now Civil Beat has two columnists reporting from there. In addition to Alan McNarie, today we welcome Jason Armstrong, an award-winning journalist who worked a combined 22 years for the Hawaii-Tribune Herald and West Hawaii Today.
KEHENA BEACH, Hawaii Island — Residents of Hawaii Island’s fastest-growing district flock to the beat of a different drummer.
Located along the Big Island’s rugged windward coast and about the size of Oahu, Puna has long been a counter-culture haven for folks desiring to live off-grid, work on organic farms – if at all – and play on an active rift zone.
The unusual is normal here.
Likely the most dramatic example happens each Sunday on a secluded black sand beach where millennial hipsters dance alongside ageless hippies.
For the faithful, the weekly Sunday drum circle can be a spiritual experience.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
Kehena Beach has no restrooms, lifeguards or accessible walkways. There’s also seemingly no trash, attitudes or cops. Bongs and bare breasts outnumber cellphones and cameras.
“I didn’t know what I was walking into,” Karl Woolery, 50, says while departing from his inaugural Sunday gathering at Kehena Beach.
He said he’ll be back.
Last week Woolery was a construction contractor in Spokane, Washington. He now lives on an organic farm in Puna.
“I was just tired of working so hard and wanted to relax.”
Woolery has quickly embraced what makes Kehena so magical for so many.
“Everyone’s in a peaceful atmosphere,” he says. “Part of the reason I left … is everyone is turning into a violent atmosphere, and I now got 3,000 miles between me and the crazies.”
Adding to that natural buffer is the trail down a treacherous, 50-foot cliff. It’s the only route to the beach, and separates the curious from the committed.
The transformative journey starts by passing roadside vendors who make clear we’re not heading into Hanauma Bay: They offer smoking pipes, hand-pressed sugarcane juice and vegan ice cream. Business is good.
Beachgoers who venture onward don’t appear to mind the trek down a lava rock face to the ocean.
That’s where they know clothing will be optional, musical instruments encouraged and marijuana virtually mandatory.
Likely the biggest draw, however, is an impromptu collection of drummers gathered in a ring. A nearby rock ledge enhances their acoustics.
“This is when it’s good. Drums are good. Everyone’s in harmony. It’s good,” says Flip, 39, as he arrives, removes his travel guitar from its case and opens a beer. “For that one moment, everyone has to feel their harmony and balance. That’s what drum circles are about – at least for me anyway.”
Larry Lundy sells coconut openers while another man displays his juggling skills.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
At Kehena, that moment lasts all afternoon.
Flip, who didn’t want to provide his last name, proclaims this to be the best day of his life and that tomorrow will be ever better.
Flip has traded a violent background that’s left him missing one front tooth for a peaceful, spiritual lifestyle. His fingertips are decorated with prints that spell out “L-O-V-E,” but only if you’re looking for it.
“A lot of people here are running away from the world, running away from the past, everything,” he says.
Flip’s here with his partner, Happy, 32, who first sheds her top, then all clothes before entering the hazardous shore break. She also provides no last name.
Flip, remaining clothed, starts explaining his life philosophies while lighting incense.
A man approaches selling coconut openers each complete with a custom, handmade leather sheath. Prices start at $50 apiece.
Flip’s uninterested in the coconut openers, but does buy an original artwork from the cheerful vendor. Larry Lundy is a 46-year-old artisan who looks more like a 35-year-old athlete. He throws in a free bag of fresh fruit and vegetables.
The two touch on Eastern religion before Lundy provides a detailed account of his past and how he discovered Kehena.
“This is a port here. You get it?” he says in explaining Kehena’s attraction, veins bulging in his neck. “This is a port for people who are transitioning in life.”
Lundy says he has transitioned by using his knowledge of hard drugs and hard time to help wayward acquaintances.
Kehena regular Eva Campbell she said didn’t want her children at a nudist beach, which is why she had stopped coming here once she became a mother. That change followed years of frequent visits which started in high school.
“I’m not a nudist, but I love to come down here because I love the ocean,” Campbell says, sounding regretful of her hiatus. “There’s some good vibes down here.”
A few beachgoers, however, don’t embrace all participants.
Ally Amethyst’s “bliss balls” are popular with visitors to Kehena Beach.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
Jasun Sulla, 31, says having a job conflicts with Kehena’s “anti-capitalist mindset, and it frustrates those of us who are employed.”
Sulla, who lives in Hilo, adds that his job is in the mental health field.
“I could point out a bunch of clients,” he says.
Sulla enjoys Kehena. It’s the “lawless” activities that have attracted him for the past decade.
“That’s freedom,” he says.
Kehena Beach is “church” for Ally Amethyst, who is walking around selling “bliss balls.” She uses raw cacao, peanut butter and spinach as ingredients.
“All sorts of people show up here,” she says, noting today’s attendance is low – and explainable.
“A lot of people are on the mainland right now trimming ganja.”
Others also mention participant turnover at Kehena.
David — no last name, please — believes the weekly drum circle is one of the important stops for travelers seeking their own path.
“It’s always nice to come to the ocean and the drum circle,” he says. “Everyone’s on their own journey here – whatever that might be.”
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at email@example.com