On Hawaii, Ambition, and the People We’ve Been Before

“What was wrong with you?” she said. “All you guys. You didn’t have to do that to all those people you didn’t know.”

Is it overly cynical to say we don’t improve with age? That the longer we know someone the less grace we afford them? People see us not as we are but as they want us to be. We expect people to conform to our ideas of behavior, when in fact we all enjoy the opposite. I have to believe we change, that we improve, if for nothing more than my own sake. I have been a lot of people that I don’t want around anymore. It’s why people move, travel, and make friends with people that speak other languages. I could move to a place like Maui and all my friends would be from somewhere else.

Hawaii is still a lot of people it used to be. If you go to the right places they’ll give you a contrived culture/history lesson for a price. The Royal Lahaina hotel lines them up for luaus at $67 a head at 250 heads the night I stopped and tried not to sound condescending with my questions. All you can eat and drink, hula contests and lava-rock roasted pigs. Tourists with their Maui bodies drinking mai tais and eating coconut shrimp. The voice of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to remind them they aren’t in Wisconsin or Kentucky, in case they start checking their Blackberries and thinking about work again.

It happened to me just as it happened to my friend at the campsite: Hawaii captures the imagination of westward-looking Midwesterners. A place without winter, of swimsuits, palm trees and sailboats. As an idea, Hawaii counteracts the depression of a long winter, serves as an antidote against cold and barren plains, and the most seasonally moody of us think of it as the one American place that could draw out the poison from a geographically unfortunate upbringing. It wouldn’t matter what job you did or how you lived—on Maui there is no winter and no winter means no cold and the sun is always shining. Moving west has always seemed like going downhill, following the sun, and in the imagination of a kid from the Great Plains the end of the rainbow was a place known for its rainbows.

I used to tell people I didn’t want to visit, I wanted only to live there. That leaving it for anywhere else would be a flight of depression. The walk back to your friends after you’ve bought a shot for the unattainable girl, who was appreciative and smiling, because everything beautiful can support a small amount of tourism, can be a small death. That was before I decided to move to New York, an equally impossible place, and perhaps the only other place in America that draws, at that level, the geographically ambitious. What Hawaii promises in weather New York beckons with culture.

Learning in my mid-20s that seasons no longer impacted my well-being as they once did liberated me to choose places not based upon climate. I came to Hawaii this time because I knew I could leave it. (Plus, I had a free round-trip plane ticket.) I had lived in San Diego long enough to see what the weather, the sun, the beaches, did to the energy of the culture. I saw of lot of technically good paintings of surf and sunsets, but what I didn’t see were people being challenged by their environment to find comfort and warmth internally, from personal expression and exploration. Tolstoy would not have been Tolstoy if he grew up on the Waikiki beachfront.

Trite or not, the idea of moving somewhere to become successful, a place like New York or Maui, and to have the place defeat you, can be terrifying. When you want nothing more than to make it as a writer it’s easy to procrastinate the move to New York—once you exhaust that option where else is there? There’s Obscurity, an alternate career field, teaching English abroad, writing at night and on the weekends until your family life and age overcomes your ambition. There’s giving up. You live long enough you see people you know fail. You see what trying to make it somewhere impossible can do to a face, a voice, an identity. You hear cautionary tales learned from firsthand experience.

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