Haleakala from Summit to Coast
Yesterday was spent swimming with turtles in the light-blue balmy water in Kihei, now I'm freezing my butt off despite a down parka and long underwear, lugging my backpack into a moonscape of rouge- and charcoal-stained cinder cones — remnants of a fiery undersea hotspot that birthed all the Hawaiian islands.
The sunrise seekers are gone, and I'm alone in the ranger station — watching the wilderness safety video. Permits for tent camping in the national park are first-come, first-serve, but in late February I'm the only customer. Temperatures can range between 30 and 80 degrees, and the ranger quizzes me about gear on my way out. Tent? Check. Rain gear? Check. Sunscreen? Check.
Cascading rocks on the Sliding Sands Trail sound like truckloads of tinkling glass being dumped down a metal slide. The sound makes me happy. I like new experiences, extremes. It's why I like to backpack. And as the blown-out side of the volcano (Kaupo Gap) unfolds in the morning mist, I can see where I'll be in 3 days and about 26 miles — the coast near Hana.
In less than an hour I'm sweating bullets. Down to a T-shirt and second-guessing my choice of sock-less garden clogs as my only footwear, now choked with pumice shards. Quail-like chukars peck invisible seeds in the dust. A single evening primrose here and there, yellowing succulent leaves of the na'ena'e, dot the sweeping lava sands. And the first silver swords appear around the base of the cinder cones like graying stubble in a thin goatee.
I take a hesitant long drink of water; the only source is what I'm carrying in my Nalgene bottle until camp at Holua.
Nestled up against the wet side of the crater, Holua swirled with wind and rain all night. Nene, endangered Hawaiian geese, honked overhead, and a family of them, with little gray fluff balls on wobbly legs, greeted me as I packed up my wet tent and eyed longingly the remote cabin nearby. A couple had come in on horseback, and their wood stove trailed an enviable comfort across the lava fields. Still, I would rather be out here — each to his own. And besides, the cabins get snatched up months in advance.
Hiking now in the upper mouth of the Gap, where centuries ago a giant lava flow broke through the east side of the crater and poured into the sea, cold winds and high-altitude sun play a tug-of-war with ocean mists and clouds, creating microclimates all over the crater. At noon, I'm standing in the sun watching bright-red honey creepers slipping their hooked beaks into the long flowers of Mamane trees to drink nectar. But I can see the rain over the rise, and in 20 minutes, the birds are clinging to branches and I'm drenched.
A high-wind advisory sets in for the island, and big lava rocks in my tent are the only things keeping it from launching over the ridge at Paliku, the second of two camp sites in the crater. Six thousand feet and about 7 miles to go in the morning. Drinking tea and watching the stars fill in the circle of sky, I can see the broken crest guarding the Kipahulu Valley Biological Reserve, off-limits to all but researchers. It's hard to imagine a place more wild than this.
The lava gives way to bunch grasses and ferns. Rare Hawaiian petrels nest in the cliffs above, and pheasants introduced from nearby ranch lands flush and squawk noisily along a thin overgrown trail.
I stop for lunch in a lush, grassy valley dotted with a kind of eucalyptus tree heavy with scythe-shaped leaves. The wind is hushed. And for the first time since I've been on the island, I feel my mind clear. My awareness sharpens to the faint sounds of bees.
This sense of being present, aware in the moment, stays with me along the steep, winding, washed out dirt roads that make up the final miles of the trail. (The focus helps because the loose rock makes every step a gamble.) Native Hawaiians hunt deer and boar up here, sharing a right-of-way with the National Park Service and hikers like me.
In a few hours I'll meet my dad at the Kaupo trailhead and drive the two hours back to Wailea. Ducking under waves at Ulua beach, I'll hear gray whales and their calves singing, and I'll be reminded of the nene's cooing and pinging in a sea of grass and mist thousands of feet above in another truly remarkable place.
--by John Gould