Maui: Monday, December 7, 2009

Today we woke at the crack of dawn – well, 6:30 isn’t so hard I guess when you’re still used to Phoenix time. Being Pearl Harbor Day (and the 2nd consecutive year I’ve spent this official holiday on the Hawaiian Islands) it would be fitting to go visit the Arizona Memorial. However we weren’t staying on Oahu and an expensive day trip there just didn’t seem worth it, so we’ll have to do that on our next visit instead. :)

We jumped in the car and drove up to Haleakala Crater. If you’ve ever made that drive, then you know that it’s lovely. With a lovely drive often comes a nail-biting, cliff-edge-with-no-guardrail experience, and this was no exception. Additionally, the drive was a lengthy 2 hours, though only about 45 minutes of it was so harrowing.

Once we finally arrived at the trail head on top of the volcano (elevation 10,000 feet) we met our guide Ra, who helped us and three others in our group mount our horses. Mine was an appaloosa named Lucy Liu. Terry rode a beautiful and stocky Belgian draft horse named Chuck. We learned from Ra that Chuck is a big fan of beer, which seemed fitting.

Ra, on Flash, led us on the 2-hour ride down the crater wall to the very bottom. At times even our horses didn’t want to step down the rocky ledges and admittedly sometimes I had to close my eyes. Even the smoothest paths were lined on one side by a steep, rocky hill and on the other by a steeper, ashy descent to the crater floor.  Just one slip of a horse’s hoof and both horse and rider would easily plummet down the crater wall with nothing to stop them until they get to the very bottom.

Some of the path was smooth, rocky steps that the horses had to use as a staircase to the next portion of the trail. I could always tell when we were coming to a scary step because Lucy just stopped on the path and made me wonder if she might be part stubborn donkey. Many kicks and sometimes a crack of the reins got her going but it seemed strange to me that I had to coax my horse down a path I myself really didn’t want to go. At one point she even kept looking back at me as if to say, “are you serious?”

Terry was much more fortunate – Chuck was a good horse and seemed to be predisposed to the Hawaiian laid back, take it as it comes philosophy. Didn’t have any qualms about going where he was supposed to, didn’t try to eat any bushes or wander off the trail. The only time he gave Terry any trouble was when Terry forgot the guide’s implicit instructions not to remove his hat. Horses have a 360 degree line of vision and when they can’t immediately identify an object they are “hard wired” as Ra says, to assume it’s a predator. Well Chuck did freak out, causing quite a ruckus, enough for Terry to meet some fortunately soft volcano ash on the crater floor. Lucky Terry, it happened on the softest and widest part of the trail – no sharp lava rocks (which resemble ocean coral) and no endless slope to slide into oblivion as in most of the rest of the trail. Terry was up, unscathed and back on Chuck within minutes with nothing hurt other than maybe his pride.

The scenery from the crater was very strange. Lava rocks were the overall appearance of the moon, but the colors (blacks and deep reds due to iron) were more like what you’d expect on Mars. The mountains were smooth and soft, and puffy white clouds gathered among them in the distance.

Finally, 2500 feet below our starting point, we reached the volcano’s floor and enjoyed a picnic lunch of sandwiches, chips and fresh pineapple. It doesn’t sound like much but we were ravenous and that combined with the atmosphere just made it a lovely experience. We did have to fight off some pesky nene (birds) who greeted us immediately upon our arrival. I had a feeling they knew it was chow time and any time one of us turned our backs on our food there were upon it, ready to feast on whatever they could.

Aside from the birds’ coos and our own chatting the crater floor was nothing but silence until we were just packing up and heard some hikers coming down in the distance. The acoustics were incredible – the shape of the slopes, along with the lack of wind and other noises allowed us to hear them when they were in the far distance.

We packed up our stuff, visited the mens’ and ladies’ bushes and headed back up the long trail for another 2 hour ride. Although it was easier for us going up than down, I think it was harder on some of our horses, especially Lucy who was sluggish and even more stubborn than before. Poor girl. As we neared the top of the trail our guide told us we only had about a mile left to go. It was about then that I started feeling ill, as if I was going to throw up and something else I can’t describe other than I just didn’t feel “right”. That on top of the extreme pain in my ankles, knees, calves and thighs made me very glad that end was near, but that last part of the ride was definitely the longest. At one point I thought I might have to jump off the horse and puke onto the side of the trail, which was really gross because there weren’t any bushes or anything to hide behind.

Finally we made it back to the top but both Lucy and I were more than ready for it to end. I had a hard time dismounting and then immediately felt the need to sit down. I noticed my hands were shaking and had that sick feeling worse than ever. Ra recognized it as elevation sickness, something I never experienced before, but then never had the occasion to. He recommended we leave and get down to some thicker air before it got worse, so we said farewell to Ra and the horses and made our way down the curvy road.

As we descended the volcano mountain, I started feeling better. The view was lovely – we were high above the cloud line and at one point I even saw a jet plane flying lower than us. It was a long drive back to the hotel but we made it, very tired and very sore. We decided there was no way we wanted to get back in the car so we just had dinner at the overpriced hotel restaurant and called it a night.


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