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Hawaii on Hoof : Times are changing, but a visitor can still steal a peek at a unique tropical equestrian culture on the upcountry ranches of Maui and the Big Island, where paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys, hang on to tradition.

BACKROADS & BEACHES / HAWAII '93: Last in a series

August 15, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Times Travel Writer

KAMUELA, Hawaii — These were already awkward times for island cowboys. Ranchlands were dwindling. Vegetarianism was ascendant. Even on the islands' largest ranch, only three or four dozen men were needed to keep the cattle where they should be. Watching those leather-skinned men squint and glide on horseback across green hills of premium real estate, a stranger would have to wonder: How long can this go on?

Then last November, 160 years after the first seasoned cowboys arrived on the islands, an era closed.

Richard Smart, owner of the Big Island's Parker Ranch, died of cancer at 79, and the 225,000-acre ranch--largest on the islands and one of the largest in the country--fell from his family's control for the first time.

A final blow to the beloved paniolo ?

Not quite. Their numbers are small, their futures are uncertain and their circumstances are occasionally strange, but a visitor can still find cowboys at work on Parker Ranch and elsewhere around these islands. On a visit to the Big Island and Maui last spring, I nosed around two old and well-known cowboy communities and looked for the people behind the romanticized paniolo image that Hawaii's marketers have been painting for so many years. I found a circle of strong, friendly men who have more trouble imagining the islands without cowboys, I suspect, than the rest of us do. Meeting them, or merely watching them at work, is a peek at an often-overshadowed aspect of Hawaii's hybrid character.

The town of Kamuela, also known as Waimea, sits 2,500 feet above sea level on the low slopes of dormant, 13,796-foot Mauna Kea volcano on the island of Hawaii. Trade winds howl through the trees in the evening and chase clouds so rapidly from horizon to horizon that the sky looks like a large experiment in time-lapse photography. Cattle and horses lounge on green expanses, cloaked in early morning mists.

Highway 19 is the main drag through town. There's a highly regarded restaurant--Merriman's--that specializes in contemporary island cuisine and, more predictably, there are a few steakhouses. Drama and musical performances are staged at the Kahilu Theatre. Locals and ranch hands can often be found hanging out at the Kamuela Deli during the week or Cattleman's Steakhouse on weekends. It's not particularly costly to hang out with them: At the Parker Ranch Lodge, you can get a kitchenette for $78 a night; for a little more, there's the Waimea Gardens Cottage bed and breakfast, where I stayed, just outside of town.

Just a few steps down the street from the Waimea Gardens Cottage--and easily visible from Hawaii 19--is the home of Albert K. and Harriet M. Solomon, who have been running a museum of random old stuff there since the late 1950s. The collection, which 86-year-old Albert Solomon told me he was hoping to sell for $7.5 million, runs from old wooden shark-fishing hooks to a World War I first aid kit. There are several spectacular six-foot-tall Chinese vases, a few 19th-Century hula skirts, a sculpture of the Spanish bullfighter Manolete, a lei of peacock feathers. Admission is $5, and may well lead to a long conversation with Solomon, a retired county employee whose interests range from the Holy Land to estate planning.

The conversation is more sparing at the Mauna Kea Stables, perhaps because there's so much scenery to preoccupy you. For $35 each, manager Frank Loney took Kathleen Hunt, a graduate student from Massachusetts, and me out for an hour's ride across Parker Ranch pastures. With a ranch dog nipping at our heels, we inspected old stone corrals. We paused to shoot the breeze with Lester Buckley, a droopy-moustached Texan who was imported to supervise the breaking pens. We cantered over low hills. (Actually, I and my horse mostly walked; Kathleen Hunt and her horse cantered and galloped fiercely.) We didn't see the snow atop Mauna Kea, although some days you can. But we didn't see any other tourists, either.

The nearest beach is 15 miles away, which keeps the town at arm's length from major tourism. (To the southwest is the sunny, resort-studded Kona Coast; to the southeast, Hilo, the island's largest city.) Kamuela remains essentially a company town, and the Parker Ranch, which accommodates 50,000 cattle in its green fields, is the company in question.

To hear more about that, I corralled veteran paniolo Walter Stevens. Really corralled him. While Stevens sat on horseback, gently leading a horse in tight circles, I sat on the corral fence and heard some brief history.

Stevens is 62, and has worked on the ranch since he finished ninth grade, around 1946. His father drove a tractor for the ranch. When he started dating his wife, he was working in the breaking pens, and he used to look up toward Mauna Kea from there to see the white roof of her family's house. Now the two of them live in a house on the ranch that comes with the job.

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