Coming Down the Mountain - Page 2

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3,200 feet
A confusion of mountain bikes sits in the parking lot of the Kula Lodge. We park and try to commit to memory under which branch of the massive jacaranda tree we've left our bikes. The slight, lilac-colored petals rain down on us with each brush of the breeze. And so we arrive, in a regal hailstorm, on a carpet of flowers. The lodge's restaurant commands yet another cinematic view of the wild and raw, yet tamed landscapes that make up what's called the Maui upcountry, here at the 3,200-foot level, a fertile garland of farms and ranches. And Kula is also where color reigns. Flowers almost seem to sprout from the air: lavender, South African proteas and orchids. It's about 8 degrees cooler on these thick, green slopes than at the beach, but about 40 degrees warmer than the frosty summit. Famished, we order banana and macadamia-nut griddle cakes, eggs Benedict, wheat toast, fruit and coffee (it's now all of 8 a.m.). The anticipation of breakfast is potent after our morning adventure, and we sit, staring out the window, watching rainbows come and go in the passing mist.

Sated and a bit sleepy, we ride the bikes a few miles west to the town of Pukalani, which translates to "hole in the heavens." We drop them off, and from there we drive northeast to the upcountry cowboy town of Makawao, where David lives. If you were to cover the streets of Makawao with dirt, you'd have a perfect Hollywood set for a Hawaiian-cowboy spaghetti western. There are still, even today, rails to tie off your horse if you decide to mosey into town to peruse the works of local painters and sculptors or to just stop by the general store. We stop by Komoda Store & Bakery for some malasadas, a kind of cream puff that has made the store world-famous. The paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) and artists line up for these pastries and coffee when the store opens in the morning, and usually the shelves are empty by 9 a.m., David tells me. Komoda doesn't look like much from the outside, more like a warehouse with rickety screen doors with rusty hinges. Inside, it's not much different. No frills: a counter with edges worn by use and time, and a cash register that's probably an antique. We get lucky. They have a few malasada stragglers, so we buy them out. I eat one, the taste of which makes me moan out loud.

2,000 feet
I leave David at Rainbow Ridge Farm, where he lives, and make arrangements to meet him later. Then I head into the hills to the nearby Piiholo Ranch, which has been owned by the Baldwin family since 1888. This is true cowboy country. Horses, cows, boots, chaps, wide-brim hats, sheep, jeans and, of course, that hibiscus-flower-print cowboy shirt. I'm sure all the wranglers who work this ranch probably passed through Komoda at sunrise while I was dive-bombing down the hill.

"What kind of rider are you?" asks Marlene Apuna, one of the ranch hands and my guide for the afternoon.

"Experienced," I reply, which is mostly a fib. Well, entirely a fib.

"Hmmm …" she replies. "We'll give you the wildest horse we have then, yeah?"

"Well, maybe the second wildest," I reply, trying to sound confident but feeling entirely transparent. Truth is, horses frighten me a bit. They're big.

After the blur of the bike, the countryside here at 2,000 feet explodes with life. We take our time roaming the Hawaiian range on horseback. Marlene, who seems most at home on her steed, takes me through the ranch past koa, kukui, and flowering ohia lehua trees alive with the calls of the scarlet apapane and bright reddish-orange iiiwi birds that decorate the trees like moveable ornaments. We ride across streams and through piquant eucalyptus forests to a hilltop. After a while, I'm feeling like a real rider. "Your horse has a real nice disposition," Marlene had told me earlier. I hoped she didn't see my sigh of relief, but now it's like the horse and I have been together for years. The other riders and I circle up and, instead of a Sergio Leone scene of desert, dust and tumbleweed, lush green hills unfurl below us, etched with trails that expose the red volcanic dirt upon which this world thrives. A few cows and sheep graze happily. I watch Marlene, who has probably been to this spot hundreds of times. She looks over the expanse of East Maui with the same sense of awe that I do.

"It's like Shangri-La, yeah?" says Marlene.

I nod.

I'm still feeling the rocking motion of the horse as I drive up to Rainbow Ridge Farm. It's raining when I arrive. The goats baaa from their pens. The fruit trees and birds of paradise glisten with water. Denise, who makes Maui Handmade Soap from goats' milk, hands me a cake of her Ali'i Warrior ("a manly Maui scent"), the fragrance of which is derived from products grown in the red soil of Maui. I know each time I smell this soap, I will be transported to Maui. Over lunch she tells me the story of their house. Twenty years ago, when Denise and David first moved to Maui, they turned an ordinary shoe box into a "wish box" for collecting wishes; words, photos, objects, all representations of wishes were thrown into the box. Over the years the wish box grew lighter and lighter as the spirit of Maui began granting them. When time came for them to buy a home instead of renting, they spent the better part of two years searching for just the right place in the upcountry.

They looked at one house that didn't quite work for them, but the house next door to it seemed familiar. It wasn't, however, for sale. So, Denise found the owner, called her and told her they were interested in the house, which was called Rainbow Ridge. The owner and Denise clicked. The owner, if she sold, wanted someone who felt the way she did about the house and the mana of the land upon which it was built. Denise's bond with the home was palpable; a deal was struck and about a year later, after the Fleethams had moved in, Denise came across their old wish box. Folded inside in a tight wad was a forgotten photo ripped out of a 15-year-old real-estate magazine. It was the house they had bought. Their wish had come true. This is the spiritual sorcery of Maui, the connection between dreams and life.

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