I’m wrapped in a blanket that you’d find in any home in Alaska, wearing two long-sleeved T-shirts, trousers, wool socks and a wool stocking hat. I’ve also borrowed a scarf. I can’t remember ever being this cold. I’m standing behind the largest person I can find to try to get a break from the wind.
10,000 feet: There’s no way I’m seeking shelter now because the sun is about to rise, and I’m in the best place on earth to watch it: Maui, an island that normally finds its way into daydreams of tropical paradise. Surely, I can suck it up for a few more minutes – and just in the time it takes me to have that thought, the wind doubles its effort to knock us from the summit of Haleakala, Maui’s House of the Sun, on the island’s east side. As if from the sheer force and pull of the wind, the first fingers of light claw their way over the far edge of the earth. In an instant the cold, the two-hour drive from the hotel and the pure pain of a 3 a.m. wake-up call are all gone as the sky begins to ripple. A deep orange glow changes sky and sea to fire. The clouds and mist coursing over the summit begin to blush. It’s as if we’re spectators to a battle, a final crusade in the struggle between darkness and light. At the front lines, orange and purple and pink and deep blue push against each other as stars watch on, unable to change their fate. All of this is accompanied by the trembling, wailing, delicate and booming orchestral movements of a wind born from the spin of the planet as it screams along on its eternal path through space. Not a single one of the travelers who has made this pilgrimage is speaking. In the crisp air, we have been silenced by the awe of sunrise. And the sun, as it does every day, wins this first skirmish and — one by one – the stars blink out.
On the horizon, the Big Island is barely a bump on the broad expanse of ocean that spreads out below us. With the light also comes an ethereal landscape: no trees, no grass, just a moonscape of volcanic red rocks that tells us we are, in fact, standing on a cinder cone, the very first tip of Maui that erupted from a boiling, primal sea about a million years ago and continued its thrust upward, surpassing 10,000 feet before the rage from which a volcanic island is born was assuaged.
A blanket of mist rises up from the lower slopes, and we are enveloped in its gray hush. The cold returns and we each, one by one, stumble to our cars, buses, mountain bikes, horses or paragliders to descend the mountain toward more familiar surroundings.
My friend and Maui local, David Fleetham, who’d joined me for the sunrise, grabs me by the arm, shivering, and we follow the exodus to the bus that brought us here and that will now take us to the drop-off point for our mountain-bike thrill ride.
10,000 and dropping: Soon I find myself hurtling down the road ostensibly riding my mountain bike. I say “ostensibly” because, if I fall off at this point, I’m sure gravity and a sense-memory will carry the bike right down to the beach like a riderless horse heading back home. But I hold on and hope I can slow down enough at each hairpin turn not to go careening down a grassy canyon into a copse of non-native but fragrant eucalyptus trees that love Maui as much as any other tourist. Or into David, who keeps pedaling faster to put a safety buffer between his hurtling wheeled device and mine. And, as I’m naturally afflicted with severe distraction while riding on or in any moving object, it doesn’t help that the views down the mountain, across Maalaea Bay to West Maui are breathtaking. The jade slopes of the far-off Iao Valley climb into the clouds to the shrouded peak of the nearly 5,800-foot Mt. Puu Kukui. We adjust to the speed, and the thrill of a non-stop downhill screamer sets in. Our bikes wind down the snaky road that runs from the summit to the Maui upcountry where the road intertwines with more roads, all of which, I know, eventually lead to the sea. Thousands of years of geological time pass with each revolution of our wheels. As we descend, the landscape turns from red to olive to pale green to glowing emerald. I glimpse horses grazing under the shade of oaks and blue-flowered morning-glory vines along roadside fences; the temperature seems to rise a degree per foot.
The fragrance of East Maui draws me downward — from the sharp, metallic crispness at the summit to the dew-fresh scent of the grassy slopes; the oily, lingering stands of eucalyptus and Norfolk Island pines; the sudden hint of horse manure; subtle and elegant wafts of lavender and the tingly rise of salt air. Maui, in a rushing, passing, glancing onslaught on my senses, begins to wrap itself through my awareness. Finally, as we pass through the town of Kula, the scent of breakfast causes us to stop.
I’d come to the east side of the island, which encompasses the Haleakala National Park, Hana and the upcountry — where the locals live — to find the voice of Maui, the dreamy, poetic, magical and mythical Maui that exists in the everyday life of work and play and in the mana — the spirit — of the land. I was in a sense tumbling down the mountain from summit to sea, hoping to find a few secrets about the heart of this island. David, an underwater photographer, and his wife, Denise, moved here 20 years ago in search of the Maui no ka oi (“Maui is the best”) — an essence that surges through the island. David has told me many times that the island reveals itself slowly, as if its mana measures you each and every day to see what you’re worthy of discovering. Denise said that these discoveries usually come when you’re not looking, when you’re immersed in something else. So, we distract ourselves with breakfast, hoping for enlightenment.
3,200 feet: A confusion of mountain bikes sits in the parking lot of the Kula Lodge. We park and try to commit to memory under which branch of the massive jacaranda tree we’ve left our bikes. The slight, lilac-colored petals rain down on us with each brush of the breeze. And so we arrive, in a regal hailstorm, on a carpet of flowers. The lodge’s restaurant commands yet another cinematic view of the wild and raw, yet tamed landscapes that make up what’s called the Maui upcountry, here at the 3,200-foot level, a fertile garland of farms and ranches. And Kula is also where color reigns. Flowers almost seem to sprout from the air: lavender, South African proteas and orchids. It’s about 8 degrees cooler on these thick, green slopes than at the beach, but about 40 degrees warmer than the frosty summit. Famished, we order banana and macadamia-nut griddle cakes, eggs Benedict, wheat toast, fruit and coffee (it’s now all of 8 a.m.). The anticipation of breakfast is potent after our morning adventure, and we sit, staring out the window, watching rainbows come and go in the passing mist.
Sated and a bit sleepy, we ride the bikes a few miles west to the town of Pukalani, which translates to “hole in the heavens.” We drop them off, and from there we drive northeast to the upcountry cowboy town of Makawao, where David lives. If you were to cover the streets of Makawao with dirt, you’d have a perfect Hollywood set for a Hawaiian-cowboy spaghetti western. There are still, even today, rails to tie off your horse if you decide to mosey into town to peruse the works of local painters and sculptors or to just stop by the general store. We stop by Komoda Store & Bakery for some malasadas, a kind of cream puff that has made the store world-famous. The paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) and artists line up for these pastries and coffee when the store opens in the morning, and usually the shelves are empty by 9 a.m., David tells me. Komoda doesn’t look like much from the outside, more like a warehouse with rickety screen doors with rusty hinges. Inside, it’s not much different. No frills: a counter with edges worn by use and time, and a cash register that’s probably an antique. We get lucky. They have a few malasada stragglers, so we buy them out. I eat one, the taste of which makes me moan out loud.
2,000 feet: I leave David at Rainbow Ridge Farm, where he lives, and make arrangements to meet him later. Then I head into the hills to the nearby Piiholo Ranch, which has been owned by the Baldwin family since 1888. This is true cowboy country. Horses, cows, boots, chaps, wide-brim hats, sheep, jeans and, of course, that hibiscus-flower-print cowboy shirt. I’m sure all the wranglers who work this ranch probably passed through Komoda at sunrise while I was dive-bombing down the hill.
“What kind of rider are you?” asks Marlene Apuna, one of the ranch hands and my guide for the afternoon. “Experienced,” I reply, which is mostly a fib. Well, entirely a fib. “Hmmm ” she replies.
“We’ll give you the wildest horse we have then, yeah?” “Well, maybe the second wildest,” I reply, trying to sound confident but feeling entirely transparent. Truth is, horses frighten me a bit. They’re big.
After the blur of the bike, the countryside here at 2,000 feet explodes with life. We take our time roaming the Hawaiian range on horseback. Marlene, who seems most at home on her steed, takes me through the ranch past koa, kukui, and flowering ohia lehua trees alive with the calls of the scarlet apapane and bright reddish-orange iiiwi birds that decorate the trees like moveable ornaments. We ride across streams and through piquant eucalyptus forests to a hilltop. After a while, I’m feeling like a real rider. “Your horse has a real nice disposition,” Marlene had told me earlier. I hoped she didn’t see my sigh of relief, but now it’s like the horse and I have been together for years. The other riders and I circle up and, instead of a Sergio Leone scene of desert, dust and tumbleweed, lush green hills unfurl below us, etched with trails that expose the red volcanic dirt upon which this world thrives. A few cows and sheep graze happily. I watch Marlene, who has probably been to this spot hundreds of times. She looks over the expanse of East Maui with the same sense of awe that I do.
“It’s like Shangri-La, yeah?” says Marlene. I nod.
I’m still feeling the rocking motion of the horse as I drive up to Rainbow Ridge Farm. It’s raining when I arrive. The goats baaa from their pens. The fruit trees and birds of paradise glisten with water. Denise, who makes Maui Handmade Soap from goats’ milk, hands me a cake of her Ali’i Warrior (“a manly Maui scent”), the fragrance of which is derived from products grown in the red soil of Maui. I know each time I smell this soap, I will be transported to Maui. Over lunch she tells me the story of their house. Twenty years ago, when Denise and David first moved to Maui, they turned an ordinary shoe box into a “wish box” for collecting wishes; words, photos, objects, all representations of wishes were thrown into the box. Over the years the wish box grew lighter and lighter as the spirit of Maui began granting them. When time came for them to buy a home instead of renting, they spent the better part of two years searching for just the right place in the upcountry.
They looked at one house that didn’t quite work for them, but the house next door to it seemed familiar. It wasn’t, however, for sale. So, Denise found the owner, called her and told her they were interested in the house, which was called Rainbow Ridge. The owner and Denise clicked. The owner, if she sold, wanted someone who felt the way she did about the house and the mana of the land upon which it was built. Denise’s bond with the home was palpable; a deal was struck and about a year later, after the Fleethams had moved in, Denise came across their old wish box. Folded inside in a tight wad was a forgotten photo ripped out of a 15-year-old real-estate magazine. It was the house they had bought. Their wish had come true. This is the spiritual sorcery of Maui, the connection between dreams and life.
Sea level: David had told me about a hole in a certain fence off the Road to Hana that I needed to go through to get to a place few people visit. So I drive through the seaside town of Paia, past Mama’s Fish House and Hookipa Beach, and soon I’m winding along the coast on the twisty path that is called the Road to Hana. I’ve come to sea level, and the air is thick with oxygen. The road is choked by tropical forest and connected by 54 bridges; the roadside is riddled with waterfalls. It’s magical. But it’s the secret path I’ve come to find. It appears just where David told me: “Look for a car or cars parked on the side of the road for what seems like no reason.”
I pull over to the side of the road and see a hole in the chain-link and a dark path leading into a thicket of bamboo. I step in. At first it’s confusing. The path is narrow. I can’t really tell which way I’m going. I have to brush aside thin branches with my arm. After a few hundred feet the path suddenly opens up, and I’m in a cathedral of bamboo — hundreds of acres of bamboo that creak and crack with the wind. The sunlight comes through this world in shades of green. Everything is straight and vertical. I walk on. The path takes me over rivers and streams, and I see no other person. The deep hush is my only companion. It’s almost as if I’ve popped through to a parallel Maui. The path leads deeper to a big pool and a secret waterfall. It’s hot and humid, and I’ve got a good sweat going by this time. Clearly alone, I strip down and wade into the water. The transforming coolness wraps itself around me like silk. I float on my back, looking up at the thousand shades of green that define the canopy.
When I close my eyes, I imagine the island as a being, curled atop the vast ocean. I feel like I am floating in the arms of the island, embraced, if only for this fleeting time. If I didn’t follow a path to this place, I’d swear I was the only human to ever discover it. The only urgent movement comes from the waterfall rushing over its drop to find the calm of the pool, and I can’t imagine another place I’d rather be. Later, I sit by the pool to dry off and let the Maui breeze carry away each drop of water from my body before I get dressed and leave. When I finally make it back to the car, it’s dark and, looking back at the fence, I can’t see the hole. I wonder if it only opens for travelers it wants to allow to enter. As I drive away, I think of the hundreds of cars a day that pass by this bamboo portal without blinking, looking straight ahead for the next roadside waterfall. And just like that, I’ve joined them.
I awake the next morning at the Hotel Hana-Maui in the village of Hana, on Maui’s far eastern shore. The sun has not yet risen, and I imagine the travelers atop Haleakala, wrapped in their blankets. I put on my shorts and walk down to a red sand beach. Waves lighten the shore, and it’s about 10 minutes before I notice that there’s another person on the beach. He’s like a ghost. He’s wearing leaves from a local bush on his ankles, wrists and head. He’s standing on a black volcanic rock and, occasionally, a crashing wave sends foam washing over his feet. When it does this, it looks as if the surf rises from out of the volcanic rock like a breath exhaled, then slips away in the same manner.
He looks out over the ocean as if he’s willing the sun to rise, but I don’t know. He could be doing anything. He doesn’t acknowledge me and, almost imperceptibly, he lifts his chin. I look out over the ocean and, as I blink, the sun has lifted itself from the dark. One by one the stars flicker out, and the eternal battle begins again.
Only then do I realize why David and Denise and the others who have come to call Maui home have only penetrated the surface of Maui’s magic — why, after more than a dozen trips to this island, I have only begun my journey.
I have only just been given the privilege of feeling Maui, like soft, lingering touches from a first love — the kind that hang in the memory, pure, genuine and unforgettable for a lifetime. And with each rise and fall of the sun that occurs while I’m away, I’ll sit at home, lost in thought, wondering if one day the surf will rise from the rocks for me.