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Driving the Hawaii Belt Road

Mamalahoa Highway on the rainy side (Highway 19) used to pass through all the plantation towns on the Hilo and Hamakua coast: Pepe‘ekeo, Hakalau, Ninole, Pa‘auilo, to name just a few. Also called the Hawaii Belt Road, it follows some of the train tracks that were built to bring sugar to cargo boats at the wharf.

My brothers remember taking the train from Hilo with Apo, our grandmother, to visit her friends in Honomu. Our father was born and grew up in that plantation town, where Kung Kung had a Chinese dry goods store. But the sugar train was gone by the time I arrived, so to get the best coconut pies at Ishigo Bakery, we made the trip by car.

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The Hilo-Hamakua stretch has three notoriously deep gulches. The train used to go over them on high trestles, and you can still get a glimpse of an old tunnel entrance on the makai side. But after the 1946 tidal wave transformed the trestles into fiddlesticks, Mamalahoa was improved to accommodate heavy-duty cane trucks and cars like the Dodge sedan my father drove.

For those unfamiliar, these gulches are dangerous because you can flip over at the bottom if you’re going too fast. But old-timers like me know to slow down when getting close, much to the annoyance of the driver of the car in back that I can see fast approaching in my rearview mirror.

Amateur, I say to myself, because pros know that if we decelerate near the top of the gulch, we can coast down into it, safely gliding around the curve at the bottom before hitting the gas to head up the other side. But, when I’m following a string of cars, I can always tell the uninitiated because of red tail lights blinking on and off as they pump or ride the brakes. Tourists, I figure. If you know how, you can easily cruise down one side then rev up the other.

Here’s more advice when driving that twisty coastal road. No need overtake on dangerous curves because there are several places in both directions with an extra passing lane. Frequent Mamalahoa drivers know where these stretches are and plan ahead. When I get to one of them, I immediately move over to the right, hoping the car that’s riding my back bumper will pass me.

Drivers who know the road will speed up to overtake as soon as we hit the double lanes, but those unfamiliar are often surprised at their good fortune. What, you mean I can finally pass this old lady driver? But instead of doing it right away, they revel in their unexpected luck, wallowing until it’s half over before accelerating, and now, I have to slow down to let the lolo get ahead before merging. Step on it, mister! I hope the babooze can hear old lady eyeballs rolling as he zooms past.

A warning about this well-traveled highway: There are few public bathrooms. People at any age will blanch at the thought of a long drive with hardly any pit stops, made longer by endless tree trimming and road repair. But this is true for all routes around the island. So plan ahead then tough it out.

Hilo Paliku turns into Hamakua near O‘okala. The National Register of Historic Places defines Hamakua as “long corner,” referring to its steep and pointed cliffs.

Some tourist publications say Hamakua means “breath of God.”

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I say drive Hilo-Hamakua with caution unless you want to meet your maker.

Rochelle delaCruz was born in Hilo, graduated from Hilo High School, then left to go to college. After teaching for 30 years in Seattle, Wash., she retired and returned home to Hawaii. She welcomes your comments at rainysideview@gmail.com. Her column appears every other Monday.

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