Coming Down the Mountain

By Steven Kotler & The Editors
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Maui leads to the vast Pacific
Eventually everything in Maui leads to the vast Pacific, which provides the pulse and catalyst of everyday life.  (courtesy, Ty Sawyer)

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.

Reproduced with permission from Bonnier Corporation. All rights reserved.

Published: 25 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 24 Sep 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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