It's 7 a.m. on Haleakala's summit, Maui's 10,000-foot volcano, and I can't get the car door open in the wind.
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.