Bill, Willie, and I had spent four days and three nights in Haleakala last July and were so taken with our experience that we knew we'd have to return. Well, now we'd have our chance.
After arriving on separate early morning flights and picking up a few last minute supplies, we are bound for Haleakala National Park. Once there, we secure our camping permit, spend an hour exploring the nature trail at Hosmer Grove, and then are off for the 10,000-plus foot summit where we amble around a bit with throngs of tourists before securing our packs and hitting the trail.
At 12:30, we begin our descent into the "crater" via the Sliding Sands (Keonehe'he'e) Trail, so named because of the cindery, sand-like texture of the terrain underfoot most of the way. The trail isn't treacherous at all; in fact, the repetitious crunching sound and feel of boot on gravel have a soothing, massage-like effect on feet and mind.
And so it went, Bill, Willie, and I, crackling and crunching our way down the undulating switchbacks of Sliding Sands toward the lowest reaches of Haleakala's interior. Ahead of us are handfuls of dayhikers, most who descend the trail for an hour or so, traverse a side trail to a cinder cone called Ka Lu'u o ka O'o ("the dip of the digging stick"), and then return to the top.
The scenery during our downward march is simply superb, for spread before us is all of Haleakala from nearby dots of silversword to distant Paliku at the house of the sun's furthest reaches. Huge cones, the biggest, Pu'u o Maui (8,133 feet), occupy promiment places in the landscape.
One thing that amazes me is how distorted my size and distance perspectives are while trying to register what I'm experiencing. For example, features like mounds, rock upswellings, and the aforementioned cones seem near and small. Suddenly, though, a faroff hiker appears, and upon realizing this ant-like thing is a human, my mind grasps the massive majesty of the scene in my visual horizon. Accordingly, these little hills and mounds and undulations I see are actually gigantic geological features stationed a goodly distance away. And all this grandeur is framed by a gentle, cloudless sky whose blueness is heightened by the contrasting red, brown, gold, and black of the land forms below it.
We pause in awe.
With heavy packs on our backs and plenty of time to cover the 7.5 miles to our intended destination, we trudge along slowly, the ever-present crunching underfoot always with us. At 2:30, two hours after setting out, we reach a junction on the crater floor where we leave Sliding Sands and head northeast on a connecting trail that ascends the flank of cone called Ka Moa o Pele ("the moa (chicken) of Pele"). This climb, done in the heat of the day (although only about 70 degrees, we still sweat and puff), is the toughest part of our journey.
One thing I'm disappointed about is my inability to identify the various kinds of flora along the trail. Silversword, as I mentioned earlier, is easy to pick out. I also spot what I believe is pukiawe, whose leaves bear a likeness to liko lehua, at least to my neophyte eyes. Where is Sam Gon, a friend and expert in Hawaiian flora, when I need him?
After climbing Ka Moa o Pele, we follow a trail that leads northwest toward Holua ("sled") cabin and campground. On the way, we stride past a side trail called the Silversword Loop, where impressive specimens of native `ahinahina thrive. We skip this interlude because we had hiked it on our last visit and are tired and eager to get to our destination today.
Steadily, we hike along, our pace accelerating as Holua cabin comes into view in the distance. We complete our hike for the day, reaching the cabin at 5:00 pm. After filling up some empty water bottles at a faucet next to the cabin, we trudge up a steep hill to search for a tent site where we'll set up camp.
Along the fenceline of the horseless horse corral, we find a fairly level 10- by 20-foot clearing, the same one we had camped at during our last visit to the site. Amazingly, no other campers are present, which seems unusual since it's a late Friday afternoon at the most easily accessible campsite of the three in Haleakala. What's more, the weather folks have forecast great conditions for the weekend. So where is everybody else? Will we have the camping area all to ourselves?
As it is, we don't complain about the absence of others and, as battalions of whitish-grey clouds begin to march up the Koolau gap to the northeast, begin the business of shelter construction.
Thanks to advances in tent design and plenty of practice on other camping outings, setting up house takes only 5 to 10 minutes. Next on the agenda is dinner, and we fire up our propane stove to boil water for our Haleakala luau entrees of ramen and stew gobbled down with muffins, rolls, and hot cocoa. As we enjoy the kaukau, a mid-20-ish haole couple appear and begin reconnoitering for a clear spot in the pukiawe and grass to set up their tent. We exchange greetings.
My watch says it is 6:30, and the clouds from the gap have now reached us, turning our camp into a eerie milieu of white and gray. The air also cools noticeably, the thermometer on my compass indicating temps in the low 50s, quite cold for three Oahuans used to 70 degree nights. Fortunately, the parade of white sweeps by and disappears before long, and when it does, we can again see down the Koolau gap and the sherbert orange reflection of the setting sun on distant cloudtops.
Much to Bill's delight, the temperature continues to plummet (he says he sleeps best bundled up when it's cold). In fact, by 7:30, the sun gone now, it becomes so chilly, easily into the 40s, that we each slither into our sleeping bags and lay back on the grass meadow next to our tents to talk story and enjoy the star parade above.
Though astronomically unadept and though the heavens are dimmed a bit by an almost mahealani moon, we quickly spot the Big Dipper and Orion's Belt. Also moving by are a couple of satellites, pinpoints of light visibly inching across the sky. Unfortunately, comet Hale-Bopp is hidden from us by the Leleiwi Pali which rises up 1,500 feet directly to the northwest. Come to find out, if we had walked about 100 yards east where the haole couple had set up camp, we could have easily seen Hale-Bopp just above the top of the pali. Alas, we miss out.
We talk of spending the night under the stars, and we could have because it remained clear and windless for the duration, but Bill and Willie retreat to their tent and I to mine when the temp dips to the low 40s. The occasional sigh of an 'ua'u, a species of seabird that nests in the cinders and whose call sounds just like its name, penetrates the otherwise silent evening. By 9pm, three tired and content hikers are asleep in the arms of Haleakala.
After a restful night, I am awake at 5am and one of my initial thoughts is how glad I am to have such a comfortable and efficient sleeping bag to protect me from the cold. Without it, I probably would have slept little if any. I then wonder if clouds had enveloped us while we slept, but when I pop my head out of my tent, the only "cloud" I see is the massive array of stars that compose the Milky Way.
Bill hears my tent unzip. "What's up, brah?"
"Whoa, unreal," is my reply. "You gotta check this out."
And he does, and he rouses Willie so he too can see the now moonless, star-filled sky. In minutes, the three of us are laying in the meadow bundled up in our sleeping bags, enjoying the celestial reverie. And over the next hour, we remain there, ogling the stars above and then the transition of the eastern sky from black, to gray, to pale orange. Before 6, the sun peeps over the top of 8,900-foot Hanakauhi to the east, causing the facing slopes of the crater to glow. Particularly beautiful is the area of Sliding Sands, easily visible in an orange-red sheen from our camp. For the umpteenth time in less than a day, we are spellbound and offer thanks for our good fortune.
We eat breakfast (more ramen, rolls, and cocoa) and then begin the task of dismantling our tents and packing our gear and trash for the hike out of the crater. We depart Holua by 8am, each of us giving this special place a shaka sign farewell.
Our plan is to ascend to the park road via the Halemau'u trail and its infamous 20 switchbacks. Since our rental car is parked in the visitor's center parking lot near the summit, and we'll come out at a point further down the mountain, we plan to hitch a ride up to the top after completing the hike. The other option is to hike six miles up the road from an elevation of 8,000 feet to 10,000 feet. Uhh, no thanks.
The trail from Holua initially winds its way through a hilly lava field before dropping to a wide expanse of native bunchgrasses. The distance from the cabin to the base of the pali where the switchbacks commence is about a mile. We hike together to this point, and while Bill and Willie rest at the base of the mountainside, I push on up the switchbacks. My intention is to reach the road well ahead of them, hitch a ride to the top, and drive back down to pick them up.
The hike up the 1,300 foot pali is taxing but simultaneously delightful because of the views into the bosom of Haleakala, and as I ascend higher, down the Koolau gap. As I climb on, I catch glimpses of Bill and Willie hiking on lower switchbacks. Upon seeing them, I wail out a yodel-like yelp we use to acknowledge each other when we are hiking. In response, Bill and Willie offer yodels of their own. I press on, sweat rolling down my brow and dampening my trademark orange mesh shirt.
At 9:45, I reach the park road and begin my hitchiking campaign, skeptical yet hopeful about my chances of getting a lift. By appearances (I'm 6-4, 250 lbs), I realize most folks heading to the summit will give zero thought to stopping for someone as imposing looking as me. Add to the mix some trail dust, sweat, a day's worth of whiskers, sunglasses, and a military boony hat and now I look downright menancing. So after a handful of cars go by without stopping (a couple even accelerate while approaching me), I decide some appearance manipulation is called for.
Off come the boony hat and sun glasses. I try to pat down my disheveled hair and dust off my togs. Can't do anything about the beard or sweat. I even throw my pack onto my back again so folks can see I'm a hiker and not some deranged lunatic. More cars go by, probably 30 or so during the half hour I stand roadside.
No one stops. A'ole. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Zero.
I'm disheartened by this but, as I tell Bill later, can't hold a grudge against any of the folks who drive by. After all, I have never picked up a hitchhiker in all my 20-plus years of driving, so how can I harbor ill feelings against someone who doesn't give me a lift? But I still have hope that some kind soul will have room and sympathy for me.
At around 10:20, my attempt to land a ride is waylaid by a passing park ranger who stops to tell me that hitchhiking on the park road isn't allowed. He suggests I wait in the parking lot by the Halemau'u trailhead and try to obtain a ride there. He also informs me he'll cite me if he returns and sees me thumbing rides on the road. Ouch, don't want that.
So, after 40 minutes of striking out, back to the trailhead parking lot I head. As luck would have it, Bill and Willie have arrived there minutes before as do the haole couple who had spent the night at Holua. The couple, who introduce themselves as Bob and Andrea from Atlanta, agree without hesitation to give me a lift to the top. Much aloha to them.
I get to the top courtesy of our new acquaintances from Georgia, bid them farewell, and promptly discover that all the doors on the rental car are unlocked. Had Bill left them unlocked on purpose? Hmmm. Nothing seems to be missing from the interior or trunk.
I drive six-miles down the mountain to where Willie and Bill are waiting and find out that before we began the hike, Bill had checked all the car doors. All were locked--he was sure of it. He had left his cell phone under the front passenger seat. That is still there, as is some change in the cupholder between the driver's and passenger seat. Some items we left in the trunk are also unmolested, and the door locks show no signs of tampering. If someone had broken into the car, the would-be thief took nothing.
We again count our blessings.
Down the mountain we head, stopping at the park headquarters to use the restroom and tidy up before our return flight to Oahu, and then at Pukalani where we scarf down plate lunches at an eatery near Foodland. We are then airport-bound and by mid-afternoon, in flight back to Oahu.
As the plane gains altitude, I have a parting glimpse of the beautiful mountain we had ventured into. Although clouds cover its highest reaches, I know Haleakala is there, as it will be when we return to it once again.
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