Two winters ago, after 27 years on one island, my wife, Susan, and I moved to another. The first was Manhattan, where the stars that light up the sky are of the showbiz variety. As a freelance culture vulture for publications from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to Vogue and Town & Country, I chalked up frequent close encounters with lots of the very brightest. Now my island is Maui, where our stars hang overhead in deep space, beyond human reach, their numbers astronomical.
From dark summer nights in the Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York, I still recognize a handful of constellations. My mother taught me their names when I was 5 or 6. The great "W" of Cassiopeia's chair. The Pleiades in their snowy spray. The majestic Big Dipper, oriented to Polaris, the North Star, still point of the turning world.
When I was 13 or 14, a Latin teacher in Switzerland told my class that the Romans called the Great Bear — of which our Big Dipper forms the flank and the tail — a "dry" constellation. Why dry? Because from their point of view, though the stars of the Great Bear circle Polaris like sparks on the celestial dome, they never sink below the horizon, into the sea.
When traveling I always look for the few stars I know the way you look for old friends. On the Great Barrier Reef, off Northern Australia, I taught myself to know the Southern Cross, which mariners steer by, from the nearbyDiamond Cross and False Cross, which lead them astray. The name of a fishers' hideaway on sleepy Little Cayman tipped me off to the fact that the Southern Cross also rises well north of the equator. The Aboriginal people of Australia thought of it as the footprint of a sky-borne eagle. Sometimes it shines off the lanai by our bedroom, low over Kahoolawe, due south. Cross or footprint, I like to watch for that one, too.
WE FIRST VISITED the islands in 1991, anxious that if we waited another day, the Hawaii of dreams would have ceased to exist. Our stops that year — the North Shore of Oahu, the Kona Coast, a cottage on the road from Hanalei town to the Na Pali trail head — convinced us our explorations had just begun. Next time out, we took in Molokai, Lanai and Maui. From then on it was Maui every time. When the whales started breaching for us off Poolenalena Beach atsunset one New Year's Eve and wouldn't quit, who needed fireworks? We took it as a sign.
Our escape from New York fell in the dead of one of the mainland's most severe winters on record — lolo timing, but any sooner and our four cats' welcome to the islands would have been up to six months' hard time in quarantine. So we staged our flights like moonshots, building in plenty of safety days for weather. Serial whiteouts on the mainland notwithstanding, the feline ohana — flown separately by O'Brien Animal Transportation & Service of Foster City, Calif. — had blue skies all the way, as did Susan and I.
The movers delivered our portable property five weeks after we got here, before the buzz of roughing it in a practically empty new house had worn off. Whatever the agenda of errands and appointments in those busy days, the first order of business was an hour snorkeling over the South Maui reefs to the eerie, extraterrestrial song of the humpback whales.
Hardly a morning passed without numerous sightings of honu, the green sea turtle. Less dependably, but in surprising abundance, the sea also churned up spotted eagle rays and mantas and, now and then, the odd reef shark, aloof and happily benign. The panorama from our perch 492 feet up the 10,023-footslope of Haleakala held us spellbound, too, as the shifting light kept reshaping Maalaea Harbor and the West Maui Mountains.
After dark I watched ship lanterns dance over the black water, the red blinkers of the wind farm on the ridge above Maalaea, but most of all the moon, the stars and the planets in their dazzling procession. Right away I found Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, Orion.
There were nights when Venus, a tiny crescent, would blaze like a beacon, putting Jupiter to shame. But where was the Big Dipper? After searching for months, I figured it must be hidden from our view by the hulking mass of Haleakala. From a book, I learned its Hawaiian name, Na Hiku, "The Seven," and that of the North Star, Hokupa'a. But I stopped looking for them in the sky, never suspecting how much I missed them.
THEN ONE NIGHT, well into December, I woke up thirsty for a glass of juice. By day, the view from the top of the stairs is nothing special. But on my way to the kitchen, I paused for some reason and glanced into the sky. There, perfectly centered, hung Na Hiku. Off toward the Central Valley, glitteringlike the point of a needle, Hokupa'a pierced through the haystack of a neighbor's kiawe tree. And inside me a subconscious sense of dislocation stirred and lifted away. My inner compass had been off by a disgraceful 60 degrees.
Know your bearings! Once you find them, there's no place like home.