When he had just started dating the Ohio girl who would become his fiancée, Kolten Wong invited Alissa Noll home to Hilo, Hawaii, for Thanksgiving with his family so she could see his roots in paradise. To know him, he has said, is to know his world.
So he took her to the top of it.
Mauna Kea, the highest peak in Hawaii and a spiritual height for its natives, was the first place Wong showed his then-girlfriend. They drove the mountain pass, and while there wasn’t much snow, there was something more breathtaking: the view. “The mountain,” as Wong calls it, didn’t just get them closer to the sky. They felt in it.
“You look down to see the clouds,” the Cardinals second baseman recalls. “She was blown away. I’ve never been anywhere else where I can stand and say I’m above the clouds.”
That view, so high and so clear, has brought the mountain down into a controversy on Wong’s island home. Protests have halted the construction of the northern hemisphere’s largest telescope. The $1.4-billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project is supposed to give astronomers the lens needed to peer deeper than ever into the universe and 13 billion years into its past. What draws scientists to the peak of Mauna Kea is the same reason native Hawaiians have cherished it and worshipped there for centuries: its proximity to the heavens.
In early April, activists blocked 15 vehicles making their way to the construction site and argued that building the telescope would be a desecrating of the peak. Within a couple days, protests led to 31 arrests, according to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. “Protect Mauna Kea” has more than 14,000 followers on Facebook. Social media became a vehicle for critics, with Hawaiians around the world and celebrities posting photos of themselves with four words of support written on their hands, their forearms, faces, or chests. Actor Jason Momoa, Aquaman in the forthcoming “Batman v. Superman” film, has used Instagram to make or share these photos, including one of San Francisco pitcher Madison Bumgarner with the words of support written in marker on his bat.
Wong took inspiration from the cause and ordered a new batch of Model MA32-M Marucci, 33 ½-inch bats, all with this phrase branded into the barrel: “We Are Mauna Kea.”
He takes the mountain and the message with him into every at-bat.
“If people see it on TV or people see it somewhere, it brings awareness to what’s going on,” Wong says. “My intention is not to fight somebody or fight anything. I want to bring attention to what is going on, that’s all, and what I think will desecrate a really beautiful, beautiful thing that is part of Hawaii. Maybe somebody looks up what’s happening. I truly believe that seeing that mountain with snow on it is one of the most beautiful things in the world. It means so much to all of Hawaii. That mountain resembles what Hawaii is about. The beauty. The strength.”
Wong, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2011 out of the University of Hawaii, is swinging that bat closer to a bigger stage for its message. The 24-year-old infielder has a .310 average, a .363 on-base percentage, and a burgeoning case to be an All-Star. His five home runs lead all NL second basemen, as do his 21 RBIs from the position. Only Miami’s Dee Gordon and the Dodgers’ Howie Kendrick stand above his production at second.
Now into his second full season with the Cardinals, Wong has often been described by manager Mike Matheny as a momentum player, one whose emotions are tied to and responsible for how much success he’s having. In Wong’s words, he “wears things on my sleeve.”
Wong wants to carry things with him.
Covering his right chest and right arm are a series of tattoos that are inspired by tribal symbols in Hawaii. There is a tattoo of woven palms, and another with arrow points. Both symbolize protection, Wong has said. When he wanted to extend the tattoo beyond his right elbow he called the Cardinals front office for permission.
Near his left ribcage is a Chinese scroll, for his ancestors from that side of the family. On the soft side of his right forearm he has a cancer ribbon stenciled into the mix to represent his mother, who died late in 2013 of cancer. All last season he had her signature, “Karen Keala Wong,” branded onto the barrel of his bat. On the knob of his bat earlier this season he had a decal with his jersey number (16) and a silhouette of the Hawaiian island chain. Stitched into his glove is, “Proverbs 3: 5-6.” It’s a verse his grandmother read to him that instructs to “Trust in the Lord” and “He shall direct thy path.”
All of these symbols — the tattoos, the bats, the verse — Wong considers a tie to the Hawaii he loves and a compass to guide him toward the Hawaiian he wants to be.
“Everything I do on and off the field, I always have that in mind,” Wong says. “It’s going to be good if what I’m doing I ask — would my family be proud of this? Would Hawaii be proud of this? It’s something that I always think about. That’s a good thing. It keeps you on a straight path and these are questions that won’t allow you to drift off.”
The mountain that he considers its own symbol loomed over his childhood. His family’s home in Hilo was on stilts, and he could see Mauna Kea from his bedroom window. As a boy, he and his friends could repurpose their bodyboards as sleds and ride the snow on Mauna Kea in the morning yet still hit the waves of the ocean with the same bodyboards that afternoon.
The summits of Hawaii’s mountains are sacred to the island’s natives, and at 13,796 feet above sea level Mauna Kea is the highest and most-revered. Mauna Kea, in one of Hawaii’s origin legends, is the first-born son of gods who gave rise to the chain of islands. Life teems on the mountain and water streams to regions from the mountain. At one of a series of meetings to discuss the conflict between the TMT’s advocates and the protestors, a Hawaiian studies professor said, according to Tribune-Herald, “the mountain is sacred (because) that’s where akua dwell. That’s where the elements that bring us life dwell.”
“Mauna Kea calls us to be faithful to our ancestral connections to her, to defend our beliefs, values and practices and to demonstrate aloha ‘aina,” Jon Osorio, a professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii told Wired.com.
Aloha ‘aina means “love of the land.”
Mauna Kea is such a coveted lookout point to the stars that at least a dozen telescopes already dot its ridges and share the landscape with shrines. The TMT would dwarf most of them and offer views into the universe and its origins never before possible. Located on land owned by the state and leased to the University of Hawaii, the TMT is being built by a cooperative effort of universities, like California Institute of Technology, and nations. Set to open in 2024, it would be positioned hundreds of feet below the summit but have a height of 18 stories. At 30 meters, the TMT’s diameter will be nearly four times the size of a standard telescope and the larger mirror means it can gather more light faster and detect fainter images. The telescope’s range of 13 billion light years will allow astronomers and astrophysicists a sharper mapping of galaxies and, according to its web site, the exploration of when the first sources of light appeared in the universe. The atmosphere and height of Mauna Kea makes this possible and opens up what Wired.com writer Sophia V. Schweitzer called “a portal to infinity.”
Protestors have stressed they don’t object to the science, just the location.
This past offseason, Wong and his fiancée returned to Hilo and did something each day to experience the Big Island. Different places to swim. Different hikes. Wong took Noll, a track athlete at Hawaii, on his favorite offseason running route. It weaves through the Lili’uakoalani Gardens, and after one blind curve — aloha! There’s the city of Hilo, the ocean, and rising to greet them, Mauna Kea. It’s a view Wong wants to have painted so he can always see it.
And that’s the thing about the beloved mountain. As protests and conversations will persist and even if construction should begin, it’s all about the view and the spirit it offers, whether it’s gazing into the clouds below or pulling back the curtain above.
That is Mauna Kea.
“Here’s what it represents to me,” Wong says. “That mountain represents Hawaii to me. And Hawaii represents who I am as a person. It represents everything about me. When I think about where I’m from and what that means, I think of that mountain.”