The Trail Hunter: A pathway through history is uncovered
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The Trail Hunter: A pathway through history is uncovered

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Richard Stevens
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KAILUA-KONA >> When Richard Stevens looks at a trail, he doesn’t see a path over rock. Instead, he sees a web of life.

“Think of the people flowing up and down this trail for generations. This is a place where the past is just a thin veil,” said Stevens, a history instructor at the University of Hawaii Center-West Hawaii, who has worked to locate the pathways of the ancients all across North Hawaii.

Stevens was standing in a wide dryland area at Palamanui, where he is leading an effort to uncover and preserve a historic trail that features a cave once inhabited by humans, petroglyphs, cairns and rest caves where Native Hawaiians would stop to take a break from the sun.

A group of volunteers got to see a part of North Kona through Stevens’ eyes Jan. 24 as they worked to bring definition to the overgrown walkway.

“Make the narrow places wide and the rough places smooth,” Stevens told the group of about 50 people, joking that it was biblical language for work that mostly amounted to pulling clumps of fountain grass.

“You can think of yourself as walking in the footsteps of the people of old,” he said. “When we walk out here, it’s going to be like walking through time.”

Trails have wound themselves around Stevens’ life from the beginning. Growing up in the Midwest, he lived in a house along the main Indian trail through the area.

When his parents moved, it was to another house that happened to be along the same trail. A combat veteran of the Vietnam War, Stevens served in the Marines and the U.S. Foreign Service, where he was in charge of 105 ex-Viet Cong who helped him find the Ho Chi Minh Trail and uncover enemy activity along that route.

Twice wounded, Stevens was missing in action for two days before being rescued from a hilltop by helicopter.

He wrote two books about his experiences, ‘Mission On The Ho Chi Minh Trail,’ published in 1995, and another book titled ‘The Trail.”

He worked for five years as a trail hunter documenting North Hawaii trails for the state’s Na Ala Hele system in the early 1990s. Now, Stevens lives along the Kaawaloa Trail to Kealakekua Bay.

“Trails are just my life,” he said.

The workers who accompanied Stevens on Jan. 24 got more than work out of the deal. Stevens shows that history isn’t a dead thing, said Erica Basilio, one of his students.

“I always thought history would be textbooks, memorizing dates,” said Basilio, taking a break from her stooped position twisting clumps of grass out of the ground. “It’s not that way at all. He considers history to be life.”

The group explored a large cave that had flat stones leveled into a rough work area and other signs of very early human habitatation. They puzzled over petrogylphs that Stevens said were likely associated with a series of rest caves just mauka.

“When we were raising kids, we didn’t have time for this kind of thing. Now, we want to get involved as much as we can,” said Don Eller, who put in an afternoon of work with his wife, Rosie. Both are members of the Kona Hiking Club.

Greg Chun, cultural consultant for Palamanui Holdings, the property owners, said that preservation of the trail is part of a cultural resource management plan for the property.

The work days are intended to help document the trail and to make it much more accessible to the community at some point, Chun said. Before climate change, the dryland forest came down much farther than it does now, he said. The property has been documented as kahuna lands, where the ancients gathered traditional herbs.

“We’re laying the foundation for much more preservation as we move forward,” Chun said.

Following the discovery of the trail by archeologists, Stevens came in last June and began locating exactly how it ran. He discovered that the course was laid in a line from the peak of Hualalai to Mahaiula Beach. Archeologists have walked the lower portion to the ocean and Stevens has explored a mauka portion running through a dryland forest preserve. The stretch passing through Palamanui is about two miles long.

Stevens does not know how far mauka the trail eventually goes.

“If it’s not the trail that goes to the top of Hualalai, it connects to the one that does,” he explained.

“All Hawaii trails connect to each other in a giant web. It just pulsates with life.”

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