In late June of 1995 a hiker disappeared in the dense tropical forest of Maunawili on the windward side of the island of O`ahu. The hiker was a young man from the mainland named Tim Pantaleoni. He was traveling alone, staying in a small bed and breakfast owned and operated by the mother of my friend and colleague, the writer Robert Onopa. When the young man failed to return twenty-four hours after announcing his intention to hike the trail cut through the forest along the base of the curving jagged green cliffs of the Ko`olau Mountains, Bob and a number of other volunteers set out to look for him. The forest of Maunawili is the wettest, most densely foliated area on O`ahu. It is not to be trifled with. Do not leave the trail, the guidebooks warn. Do not set off on your own. When the hiker's rusty 10-speed bike was found leaning against a chain-link fence surrounding a water tank near one of the trailheads, the Honolulu County Search and Rescue Team was contacted. Within an hour, a yellow helicopter began to spiral in an ever-widening circle above the deep green bowl of Maunawili.
My wife and our three boys watched the helicopter from the backyard of our comfortable four-bedroom house on a quiet street at the edge of the forest. The geography of our life had changed, and was about to change again. I had just finished my semester as Visiting Writer at the state university on the other side of the mountains, and we were staying on through the summer before returning to Kansas. The chain-link fence behind our house appeared to restrain the wilderness, holding back the grasping branches of koa, monkeypod, Hawaiian mountain apple trees, and uluhe ferns. But this view was an illusion. The opposite was actually true: The Maunawili subdivision advances further into the forest each year, giant earth-moving machines eating their way through the lush greenery toward the looming mountains. For the present, though, the forest remains large and dangerous. This was the fourth time in six months we had watched the same search copter circle the valley. The boys were used to it now.
Why do those fools have to leave the trail? David, our oldest, asked as we watched the copter make another slow loop toward the mountains.
You know haoles, our middle son Michael, the cynical wit, replied. You can't teach 'em anything.
Everyone laughed except our first grader, Daniel, whose attention remained fixed on the copter inching away from us across the blue ceiling of the valley, the nick-nick-nick of its rotating blades growing fainter by the inch. Beneath the nicking sound I could feel the forest breathing. They're not gonna find him, Daniel said, and the rest of us fell silent.
Three days later the copter was still circling overhead. Our neighbors advised me against joining the daily group of volunteer ground searchers. You'll just get in the way, the shopkeeper who lived across the street informed me. He's obviously not on the trail, and if you leave the trail to look for him, they'll just have to come look for you. Nevertheless, shortly after sunrise that same morning I joined a small group at the trailhead at the top of Lopaka Street, where Tim Pantaleoni's bike had been found. By the middle of the afternoon, I was trudging back down from the trailhead through the streets of Maunawili subdivision. The shopkeeper was right: I was useless.