10,023 feet high, that is.
What better way to greet the sun than jet-lagged, well-caffeinated, half-frozen, and accompanied by someone you love? My husband allowed me to tag along on his business trip to Maui. It would be his second trip to Hawaii, and my fourth. His, all business, had been just nine years ago. Mine, all for fun, had been thirty years ago. While planning to play tour guide on the first of only two free days together, I was warned by the locals to expect changes – not all of them good. The reality? Maui is still small, laid back, and drop-dead gorgeous by comparison to sprawling, urban Houston. Four-to-six lane highways with top speeds of 45 mph don’t scare me; they’ve got nothin’ on Houston’s 610 Loop.
We arrived at Kahului at about 6:30 PM on Saturday, checked into our spacious room at the Courtyard by Marriott, and walked to Da Kitchen. We had to pass Krispy Kreme Doughnuts on the way (it’s literally a stone’s throw from both the hotel and the Costco), and I was sad that there was so much food at dinner we had to skip dessert on the way back to our hotel. JJ promised we’d be back, and sure enough, we had pineapple fritters and fresh hot glazed donuts before returning the rental car on our way home at the end of the week.
We shared the Fried Spam Musubi and some kimchi, and I had the Hawaiian Plate:
Way too much food, even for a hungry traveler! I saved about half, stuck it in the hotel fridge, and ate it cold for breakfast the next morning before we headed up to Haleakalā Summit for sunrise.
Haleakalā is still considered an “active” volcano, and several people mentioned that it’s not a matter of “if” it will erupt again, but “when.” It’s hard to imagine, when looking over its barren, moon-like surface, that it might one day erupt with ash and lava flowing down its majestic sides. I do not think this will happen in my lifetime. What’s not hard to imagine is tales it has inspired.
Hawaiians named the mountain Haleakala, ‘House of the Sun’ because of a legend from the lore of Polynesia. Maui, the legendary demigod who gave the island its name, was a mystical, magical, mischievous creature known throughout the Pacific islands. According to this myth, the sun god La was fond of sleeping in, as a result of which it had to race across the sky thereby shortening the days so much that Maui’s mother, Hina, was unable to complete her work in the daylight hours.
Maui decided to do something about this. Early one day he lay in wait on the summit where La appeared each morning. As its dazzling rays first peaked above the rim of the crater, Maui using a rope he had woven from coconut fibres, lassooed La and secured the rope to a wiliwili tree. La begged to be freed to which Maui agreed providing the sun god slowed its passage through the sky. La assented and ever since it has saunterd across the summit lest Maui stike again. Hence the name Haleakala.
You can take a tour bus, and most include breakfast. But if you have a rental car and you’re comfortable driving windy mountain roads with hairpin turns in the dark, drive on up. Our rental car agent gave us a good tip: put the car in overdrive on the way back down and avoid riding the brakes. Leave about 2.5 hours for the drive, if coming from Kahului. Stop for hot coffee, bottled water, and a bathroom break first (there are no facilities at the summit – just a small, enclosed viewing area that gets you out of the bracing wind), and plan to arrive about an hour before sunrise in order to find easy parking. Be sure to make your reservations online before you head up. They do check that and ID, and will turn you away if you’re not on the list! It’s only $1 per car, but also $25 (per car, not per person) at the gate to get in. Don’t stop at the first parking area – keep going until you reach the summit. And dress warmly – in December, the temperature is close to freezing at 10,023 feet! In summer, it’s easily 40 degrees below whatever the temperature is at sea level, so a warm jacket, gloves, and hat are important year round.
The first thing that struck me is this: there are still stars in the sky. I know, that sounds crazy – what a thing to marvel at! Where else would they go? But we’re so used to light pollution, it’s easy to forget that the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye, and it is easy to forget how utterly breathtaking it is. There’s something reassuring about seeing it first-hand, knowing that above all the lights of the city, the sulfurous glow of parking lot floodlights, that the darkness of the night sky is still lit by stars we can no longer easily see, unless we travel far from urban and suburban spaces. I longed to visit the Observatory, but it is not open to the public. I wished that my cameras had been up to the task of capturing the brilliant night sky; take a tripod, if you have decent camera equipment and room to carry it. I stood guard over equipment for a photographer named Abhishek, while he ran off to get his wife and their child – I do hope he hasn’t forgotten he promised to send me links to his time-lapse photos of the stars and the sunrise! I told him that I would give him this as his profile photo for National Geographic, if he remembered (and I do have a larger, high-res version):
Anyway, here’s the sort of treat you’re in for, if you go:
I wonder how many people noticed the shadow of Haleakalā stretching out past Māʻalaea Harbor? That’s not a distant, geometrically perfect, volcanic summit you see in this photo – it’s a shadow.
Standing there on top of the world, early in the chilly morning, it’s easy to see the colors that might have inspired the famous tropical Mai Tai. It’s hard to say which views of Haleakalā are my favorites, but it’s only fair to pass along an important tip: don’t allow yourself to become distracted by the grandeur of nature, as every cloud is suddenly lit from behind by the sunrise and the crater of a giant – and still active! – volcano is revealed in all its glory. Be careful you don’t stare directly into the bright sun as its light hits your face and warms the air around you.
It’ll be hard to drive off the mountain safely if you burn your retinas.
And while the road is extremely well-maintained, those hairpin turns are no joke.
There is a plant that grows nowhere else on earth: the Haleakalā Silversword. There are not very many of them; they bloom once, then die. It was good to see them with fresh eyes, and not the eyes of a teenager, eager to get to the warm, sandy beach, and not so interested in a rare and fragile plant that could only be seen at the summit of a single volcanic crater on our tiny, blue planet.
The cinder cones that dot the inner crater hold new meaning for me, too. About ten years ago, I hiked Lassen’s Cinder Cone with friends, and my son, who was just twelve at the time. I have such sweet memories of that trip, but the climb up Cinder Cone isn’t exactly one of them, except for watching my son climb out of the center of a dormant volcano as I finally reached the summit. Each of those little mounds looks like a grueling climb – a daunting gravel pit of despair.
Of course I’d do it again. In a heartbeat.
After chuckling at chuckars and chasing rainbows downhill, we stopped for lunch at the Tasty Crust diner. Apparently, we sat at a booth right across from the counter seat where Anthony Bourdain once sat. And I just now watched this video, but I had pancakes and saimin, too – just like the guy from Living808 in this video! Must’ve been feeling that Maui vibe already!
Maui just leaves itself wide open to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes. They are everywhere. This guy was looking for leftovers in the parking lot at the Tasty Crust. We left in search of a misty, mythical valley on the other side of the island. I’ll take you there in my next post.
Till then, aloha!