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Why Aren’t We All Living the Dream on Kauai?

Chefs and cowboys, chickens and mongooses, guitars and King Kong—they’ve all found new lives on Kauai, an island where the only constant is change.

SPORTS CARS, GIGGLING TWENTYSOMETHING companions, getting the band back together: The midlife crisis field is littered with cheap balms unequal to the deep, existential dread they seek to soothe. I know this from my own midlife whatever. Crisis is too sophisticated a term for an embarrassingly banal truth: I work, like most of us do, too much. I’d booked a trip to Kauai because I’d begun to see myself the way my young children must see me—as a man bent over a laptop. And I’d heard things about Kauai.

Of course there are the serene white beaches. But there’s an erratic beauty to the island that places Kauai in its own category. In some stretches you’re in China, the tall, dramatic peaks a haunting Taoist painting. Around the next bend, wide plains of marshland open up: cow here, stream there, pure Vietnam. Then the sheer, Seussian strangeness of the mountain shapes feels like the U.S. Southwest, but with its pokey spires and pinnacles draped in oversaturated, acid-trip green.

My traveling horde—kids, wife, parents, me—rented a place in Hanalei, the quiet town you might remember from The Descendants, and the town you might mistakenly drive right through because it’s the size of a sand dollar. A faded strip mall, a juice stand, some unfussy shops, a tidy green missionary church, and you’ve passed it. An election was coming up, and campaign signs had sprouted up in many of the front yards we passed. This buff, serious-looking guy named Barca was running for mayor of Kauai County. The dude was wearing a T-shirt in his picture. No jacket, no tie. I mean, how do you not think about restarting in a place where politics asks no more of you than a rummage through the underwear drawer?

Bar Acuda's Jim Moffat

Jim Moffat

EVERYONE I KNOW SEEMS TO KNOW SOMEONE WHO LIT OUT FOR KAUAI. It was Jim Moffat’s tale, which I’d overheard some restaurant junkies recount one day, that grabbed me most. It began on the back of a motorcycle, this stubbly-handsome dude from Canada roaring to San Francisco in the early ’80s. He found work as a cook, one of few jobs available to someone without papers. He made his way up the food chain, gig by gig, until one day he was chef at a hip little bistro called the Slow Club. And then he owned the restaurant. And then he opened another, called 42 Degrees.

Restaurants fail, but not Moffat’s. The word “extraordinary” issued from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer—a burger that rivals Zuni Café’s, he wrote, shortcake about which he’d “have dreams all summer.” Food & Wine named Moffat one of America’s 10 best new chefs of 1996. He was the next big thing in the Bay Area food scene. Then he walked away.

When Moffat relocated, he had no real idea what the island would bear. As it happens, it would bear a classy little tapas restaurant. Bar Acuda is an airy, woody place, inside giving way to outside without much fuss, and we met up there on a Monday morning. He wandered out from the kitchen, grabbed a fresh croissant for us to split, and guided us to a table on the deck. To my relief, Moffat displayed neither cheesy white-man’s dreads nor ragged-beach-bum’s pit bull. Nothing against the dreadlocked vagabonds of the world; I respect their lifestyle’s portability. But the older I get, the more I notice that when people heroically rip everything up to start over in some magical place, often there wasn’t that much to rip up in the first place. The rest of us have patiently and boringly spent years building careers, deepening friendships, and slogging through unused Groupons from 2009. We’re anchored.

Bar Acuda’s best-selling item is the cheese and honey plate with honey made by some of Kauai’s millions of bees.

That was Moffat’s appeal to me, the promise that he might illuminate a path for anchorees like me, people for whom the first step is simply seeing that it can be done. The guy left a great career and found a place where he can surf each morning and become a James Beard semifinalist in the afternoon. Now I was sitting across from him, under some rustling palm fronds and boisterous bird shrieks, asking how he became someone who became someone else. For Moffat it required a dark and stormy night.

“I still remember the moment,” he said. “I’d come for a visit, and I was out on this golf course, of all places, out near Princeville, northeast of Hanalei. This crazy rainstorm swept in. It felt like a monsoon, and I just started running across the grass. It was this amazing feeling. I didn’t have the restaurant lined up yet or anything. But I knew I was moving here.”

I sat quietly for a moment, picturing this slender, middle-aged chef bent into the wind, sprinting across a steaming hunk of wet earth. I can’t say I held a firm understanding of why that experience was transformative. But it made sense on a cosmic level, and maybe that’s where these conversions occur. And that was it. Moffat shipped his things from California, found a failing restaurant, and presented Hanalei with its first upscale tapas place. “Topless,” they mocked—there’s a resistance here to carpetbaggers. But he persevered and made incredible food, and the mockers became the regulars, alongside the visiting mainlanders.

That was a decade ago. Today, Bar Acuda is a bustling, soft-jazz-filled success. The gamble worked. He lives two blocks from work, puts in 20 hours a week instead of 12 a day, and starts each morning on a surfboard or looking for shells with his kids. He volunteers at the local school, has a wardrobe that revolves around three pairs of shorts. “The other day I went to the bank and realized I was barefoot,” he told me. “There’s something really right about that.”

Within an hour I’d carted my family to the beach, a part of the planet where I’ve never, ever been able to work on a laptop.

_DSC7100WATER KEPT GETTING IN MY MASK. I’ve had the thing since the 1700s, roughly. Didn’t matter—all I cared about was this gorgeous, moronic purple fish that kept drifting behind this or that bit of reef. I fluttered after it until my fellow beachgoers were specks.

So it went for the rest of the day, and the next day and the next. The botanical gardens felt like a movie set. The surfboard I rented stayed under my feet for an implausible 10 seconds. The periodic rainstorms were refreshing and dramatic, a commercial for rainstorms. Even the Spam I cooked one day—no, that was just springy and weird. But otherwise we were in the realm of the unreal. At one point I learned that filters on my camera phone actually diminished the pictures I was snapping. Reality in Hanalei is already peak. Improvements degrade it.

One morning we scrambled up the bright green spine of Makana Mountain. As part of the ancient ‘ōahi celebration, native Hawaiians used to hurl burning pāpala spears over the cliffs to our right, into the inky black of a Kauai night. The winds shooting up the cliff walls could carry the flaming wood a mile out to sea. Those watching from canoes would try to catch falling embers. The successful got to scar themselves with the smoldering shards, a searing memento.

The fire flew through the 19th century, then stopped, one of countless traditions to vaporize along with the monarchy. The next king around here was King Kong, who romped around the Honopu Valley during the filming of the 1976 remake. Of course he did. Something new is always arriving in Kauai; some older thing is always going away.

I stood considering this on the mountain, the air humid and thick, pregnant with not just the chance of rain but the chance of anything. Go to the desert and there’s that timelessness; you feel the unchanging eons. But Hawaii itself is change, a pleasant series of arrivals. In a sense, everything is a Jim Moffat in some way. It’s what entices you to research local elementary schools and to picture the sad-happy good-bye party you’d throw.

Kauai_Highres-7327It was only later that I started to consider how atypical the chef ’s story was. Over the next few days, I kept meeting others who, like him, had thrown old lives overboard. Unlike Moffat, most had discovered no magical reprieve from the stresses of life. They loved it here, sure—but they sounded awfully busy. At the Hanalei farmers’ market, among the rambutan, papaya, apple-bananas, longan, noni, and açai, I chatted with the dude selling taro burgers. Twenty- three years ago, Dave McEntee came over from California with two surfboards and $40. Now he’s in taro, and leads horseback rides, and runs the Kauai farm owned by Bill Kreutzmann, longtime Grateful Dead drummer. Two surfboards and $40 doesn’t cut it anymore. “You have to work a lot to live in paradise,” he said.

I bought a shot of berry juice from Vivian, who left Colorado for Kauai two years ago, at 19. She backpacked around until she met a 73-year-old biodynamic farmer who showed her the ropes. Now she’s a farmer herself, so happy that she lured her mother from the mainland, too. I chatted with Melanie Moore, from Houston, who also works for a living, as a housecleaner. As she spoke, my picture of Moffat was transforming a little. In my mind he’d stood for anyone who wished to trade the hectic life for a beautiful, sane one. But in reality he was a mythic figure even here. Life’s a slog wherever you go, no less so in a paradise where everyone must compete for a slot.

And the island is chock-full of competitors, nonnatives who came over and made their way: the first wave of Europeans, of course, but also the ubiquitous and vaguely absurd Kauai chickens, and the gorgeous strawberry guava trees, and the sweet, pig-snouted softshell turtles, and the mongooses, brought to Hawaii to kill rats, which also weren’t native and which, by the way, didn’t die. Even the Polynesians came over at one point, too. Hell, Kauai itself isn’t entirely native. Go back far enough and this was a boringly island-free bit of ocean.

AF0515_KAUAI_09“THAT’S ALWAYS BEEN THE STORY HERE, SINCE FOREVER.” A trim, wispily bearded young guy in shades was talking to me on a broad beach. We were way out by the wild eastern edge of the Na Pali Coast, where even the tiny juice stands disappear and the tin- roofed homes tuck farther into the trees. If you follow pro surfing or MMA fighting, you’d recognize Dustin Barca instantly. The 33-year-old athlete is known around the world. After seeing his face—and T-shirt—on all those campaign signs around Hanalei, I felt like I knew him, too.

After a solemn handshake, he’d led me down a narrow, sandy path engulfed in bushes. We talked about his dream of wrenching his island away from that other invasive species— development—and bringing it back to the more soulful roots he’d known as a boy. “There’s nothing wrong with [mainlanders] coming here to start new lives,” he said. “I just want to make sure we don’t lose who we are.”

Twenty-five hundred miles from San Francisco, I was having the 2,500th gentrification conversation of my life. On cue, a woman in bright tourist gear wandered by with her two kids. The kids were gathering shells, but the woman . . . I recognized the look in her eyes as she scanned this secluded stretch of coast. It was the how can I keep it? look. I was supposed to see this as part of the problem. But it was impossible not to see, too, all the hours she had worked back home, late to pick up the kids or parking them with a nanny more than she’d like. Of course you want to keep it. You want to keep every last damn shell.

IT HAD BEEN ONE OF OUR TYPICAL AFTERNOONS THAT WEEK, and my wife and our daughter and I snuck away to jump off the historic Hanalei Bay pier. If you’ve gone down the rabbit hole of who-belongs-where in Hawaii, a pier is sweetly democratic. Local kids and tourist kids backed up, got a running start, and leaped into the warm air a good 10 feet above the water. A small epiphany: What’s the opposite of living a life bent over a laptop? Surely it is your own child’s compact, porpoise- like body crashing into you.

_DSC8305When we’d had our fill, we drove through town to a small building on the edge of a taro field. We were late and wet, and we filed in quietly, adding our shoes to the three dozen pairs outside the door. We padded to folding chairs in the back, where the rest of our crew already sat. At the front, a man with a gray beard and a ponytail held an acoustic guitar in his lap. Beside him a peaceful-looking woman with two long gray braids was talking about cows.

She was that soothing kind of person who closes her eyes when she speaks. Then she picked up her ukulele. Slack-key music is sunset music, Sandy McMaster was saying; her husband, Doug, nodded. But what filled the Hanalei Community Center felt more like the warm, gentle water we were in an hour ago—not the jumping-in part but the calmer moments after we’d jump, gently bobbing in the ancient waves, watching the next folks jump, watching the massive green hills spill down to the coast.

Between songs, Sandy told the story behind slack-key. All this started with cows, she said. In the 1790s, Captain George Vancouver gave Hawaii’s King Kamehameha a handful of longhorn cattle. They had the run of the Big Island. By the time they numbered in the thousands, the beasts were trampling the crops. Hawaiians didn’t know much about cattle, so Kamehameha III called California.

In the 1830s, a team of vaqueros made the voyage to Hawaii—seafaring pest control, essentially—determined to restore the island to its unadulterated, no-marauding-cows state. Except you can’t do that. I mean, you can stop marauding cows, but you can’t roll back time. So in dealing with one intruder, they introduced another: When the vaqueros returned to the mainland, some left their guitars behind. The locals kept playing them, and the result was a style of playing based on the slackened-string tunings they’d come up with. They had no formal music theory, so tunings were named for places and feelings; you’d have a “taro patch” tuning, a “wahine” tuning.

_DSC7370Sitting under the swaying ceiling fans, rain drumming on the windows, I realized I didn’t want to leave my life on the mainland. Maybe I wasn’t ready to deal with the guilt I would feel over being another invader. Maybe I thought I was more likely to end up selling taro burgers than achieving some Jim Moffat–like ideal. Maybe at this point in my life, I actually needed the fantasy more than a new reality. When the concert ended, I stopped just short of spending my life savings on slack-key guitar CDs.

That night, the wife and I gussied up as much as vacationers can and made our way to Bar Acuda. We ate everything that would fit: housemade chorizo, local honeycomb with goat cheese, medjool dates with celery salad. We talked about the vaqueros coming after the cows, and slack-key musicians coming after them. We talked about Dustin Barca, who in two months would fail to become Kauai’s mayor. We ate a peach and almond galette.

I hoped Moffat would drift out, in that way chefs drift out. When he didn’t, I realized this was better. In fact, this was the whole point. He wasn’t working. This mythical guy was on the beach, under the moon. Or maybe he was singing to his kids. Or he’d gone for a run on that sweep of grass near Princeville, for old time’s sake, letting that hectic jettisoned life come back to him for a moment before heading home to organize the day’s gathering of shells.

The seven Kauai tastes you must experience on your next trip. 

Photos by Kyle Johnson

This appeared in the May 2015 issue.