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Hawaii Revealed: Maui

February 11, 2009
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In my small rental car, following Tom “Pohaku” Stone up Haleakala Crater to try traditional holua sledding, I read the bumper sticker on his pickup — “No Hawaiians, No Aloha.” The message suggests to me some hostility toward outsiders — like myself — but I have other things to worry about, like my hide.

As riders in helmets descend the winding road on spring-loaded mountain bikes, I think back to walking around a golf course at Keauhou on the Big Island, searching for Kaneka, an ancient holua sledding track. When a maintenance worker finally told me, “You’re standing right on it,” I couldn’t believe how obvious the half-mile run of ragged lava suddenly seemed. And I couldn’t believe I was going down such a run myself. I thought, I’m going to die.

But I have limited time in the Hawaiian Islands, and I want to find those activities and natural wonders that locals who’ve seen and done it all seek out. I ask everyone I meet for their favorites, and the Maui list alone has three months’ worth of options. Setting out, I worry how much I’ll miss. But then Maui teaches me something that applies everywhere: Don’t let what you’re missing ruin what you’re doing. Enjoy what the island offers. Let the wonder in.

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So when Tom offered to take me holua sledding, I couldn’t say no, not even when he described how it was done. Ali’i warriors, the old Hawaiian ruling class, plummeted down lava courses built to emulate volcanic flows, offering themselves to Pele, the volcano goddess, and demonstrating their worthiness to rule. Tom told me a woman holds the modern speed record, going over 70 mph less than a foot off the ground. “We leave some blood on the mountain,” Tom said, showing me a long scar amid his tattoos.

At Ali’i Kula Lavender farm, we unload the sled and hike to the top of the run, a decent grade over 60 feet of carpet-soft grass bordered by meticulous lavender fields. Below, the wide saddle of Maui connects ocean on two sides. The breeze carries scents of lavender and salt. The site of my holua sacrifice looks like a well-made bed. Still, when it’s my turn, my heart rate picks up.

I’m not going to die, but sliding in this beautiful place with Pohaku (the name means stone ) is not re-enactment but cultural practice itself. And practice, Tom believes, sustains traditional culture better than worrying over it. It’s also a lot more fun.

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Tom pours kukui oil, from a Polynesian-introduced nut tree, into my palm. “As the holua’s runners heat up,” he says, “it will move faster.” I rub the oil into the wood, already warm. I put the holua on the ground, move it back and forth in the grass, holding the top braces as instructed, the sled narrower than my shoulders. “Prone on your belly, head first, facing downhill,” he instructs me.

I take a couple running steps and go. Wow! I pick up speed, the lavender bushes a powdery purple blur to left and right, the distant West Maui Mountains zooming toward me. I must get going at least 35 or 40 mph before the lawn flattens out and I slow to a stop. I pop off and pick up the sled, carrying it over my shoulder like a long pair of skis.

“How fast was that!?” I call up, my heart racing. I’ve survived my first holua run, blessed of Pele. “Ten miles an hour,” Tom calls back. “Not a record.”

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Ali’i, one of the owners of the lavender farm, drives up on a four-wheeler to discuss setting up a holua run for tourists. “We’d have to put people in helmets and leather, and pad the landing,” Tom figures aloud just as people paraglide overhead in helmets and harnesses, flying in tandem, student and instructor.

On one run, I roll off the sled and cut my knee, blood mixing with grass stains and dirt. I show the wound to Tom, and he seems pleased that I’m bleeding. As mist rolls through the trees, I start to understand his “No Hawaiians, No Aloha” bumper sticker, especially recast in the positive. As a Hawaiian, Tom does not make replicas. He makes actual holua sleds as close to the old way as his research allows, and he uses them as his ancestors did. Form and purpose coincide, along with a little blood, here on the mountain. Yes Hawaiians, yes aloha. Zoom.

A few days later, wondering how to match holua, I drive along Maui’s eastern coast past Hana to ‘Ohe’o Gulch and the Pipiwai Trail, often referred to as the Seven Sacred Pools trail. And soon I’m hurrying down a root-snarled path to a ledge. Water shoots through a gap in the rocks above, forms a green whirlpool below me then swirls over the lower falls. I stand there for several minutes.

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I need to save time to find Wai’anapanapa State Park on my way back to the north shore, but I stop at the next waterfall and the next. I have to see them all. Maui — really Hawaii as a whole — produces first the feeling that I can’t do anything without losing out on something else. But in what I might call the Hawaii effect, that possibility-induced frenzy gives way in me to simple awe. I forget to hurry because the thing right here amazes me — a single fern, say — and I just stop and see.

It isn’t steep or technical, but the number of tourists willing to trek away from the road winnows to dozens. I walk alone through the ethereal bamboo forest, and at Waimoku Falls, two miles from the road, there are only six of us. A couple, their shoes off, lounges on the rocks just beyond the fringe of mist. Another couple wades through the shallows, ignoring warning signs about flash floods. They climb in behind the falling water and sit shifting like ghosts on the ledge.

“We love waterfalls,” I say aloud, almost without inflection. The couple near me nods. I can’t tell which of the few people here are locals and which visitors, and it doesn’t matter. Awe equalizes our regard. The white water falls hundreds of feet through streams of sunlight, just as it did when the first Polynesian travelers found this place. Hawaii creates a dawning sense of timelessness, producing a pure present. We love waterfalls. And Maui.

**

Check In:** I walk in under the hotel sign and tell the beatific woman at the desk that I have a reservation. “Let go of your reservations,” she says — Maui’s message served with a half-smile — “but this isn’t the hotel.” I’m in Avi Kiriaty Fine Art gallery, and this is Karen B doing her day job. Charmed, I check into the five-room Paia Inn — same building but around back through the gate. Its boutique atmosphere fits the one-wave-at-a-time vibe of Maui’s north shore. Kiriaty art adorns the walls. Avi’s daughter Keytoe (pictured right with Avi), who designed the gallery, says her father’s bold scenes reflect a “nostalgic longing for a simple, loving lifestyle working with the land and ocean” that still colors the lives of Maui residents and visitors. Surf shops dot Baldwin Avenue. Flatbread sells great pizza and microbrew down from the inn. Some Friday nights Karen B sings to hotel guests in the courtyard. Lives and spaces overlap here, and even walking in the wrong door, you come to the right place.

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