Biking Down a Volcano, Hawaii
by Candyce H. Stapen
In Hawaiian Haleakala means "house of the sun." At 10,000 feet Maui's dormant volcano looms as a moonscape of brown and red craters. My son Matt and I biked down the mountain, a four hour trip, to celebrate his high school graduation.
Our bike company picked us up before sunrise to make the drive to Haleakala's promontory. After a few practice turns in the empty parking lot at the top, our guide Rob lined us up against the mountainside, single file. Remembering the hairpin roads and sheer cliff drops we passed on the way up in the van Matt and I jockeyed for position, each insisting the other go first. The second rider will know immediately if the other falls, becomes winded, or needs to rest in the back up van.
When Rob gives the signal, Matt refused to move. I stood firm too. Only after Rob's frantic demand did Matt start the descent. I followed him, concentrating on the 38.2 miles of twisting pathways. It was cold despite my three layers of clothes and the wind resistance kept me too many lengths from the pack. Worried, Matt kept looking back as the distance between us widened. Rob advised me to hunch up and pedal faster.
As we cycled, we admired the silver sword with its shooting tendrils, a sunflower that only grows in the high dry lava beds of volcanic peaks. Nearby two rare nene geese, the Hawaiian state bird, peered at us suspiciously, their brown tipped feathers poised for flight.
Weather moves mysteriously here. The sun coddled us, then around a bend the clouds that lace Haleakala's ridges cut our visibility to 3 feet. For moments I saw nothing except the yellow dividing line, and the rain, which created a slippery path for 300 feet. Like a bad dream, the fog swallowed up Matt and the group. But around the next ridge the sun shot out and a rainbow arced across a distant valley.
After lunch of sandwiches at 7000 feet, Rob warned us that the most difficult part lies just ahead: twenty nine ,100 degree turns all in a row. Matt demanded we change positions. As caretaker Mom, I insisted he ride first.
Because of the sharp turns, we biked blind around corners, listening for buses and the carloads of tourists coming up the road. The heady succession of sharp rights and lefts both scared and energized me. I kept a watchful but helpless eye on Matt who negotiated the turns with an ease born of athleticism.
Halfway through, I felt a kinship with this mountain that transforms itself. Soon the green of the native koa trees replaced the red and brown ash. The wind rippled the yellow gold grass that covered the hillsides. Cactus dotted the blacktop. The last turn took us through a eucalyptus grove, the air pungent with the minty smell.
After the turns, four hills challenged us. By now, Matt, a triple varsity athlete, had become Rob's friend and assistant. Along with Rob, Matt rode against the traffic, checking the group. And between checks, just like Rob, Matt wove in and out of the yellow, raised road markers, just to make the descent more challenging.
After nearly 8000 feet and 29 turns, even I realized that Matt is a man who can take care of himself. Near Kula, a small town of golden rolling hills set at 2500 feet, we curved around one pasture just after a cow had given birth. Rob signaled us off the bikes to watch the new born foal, all wobbly legged and sticky white, amble to her feet.
For the last 1500 feet the sun burnt steamy hot as we pedaled through the sugar cane and pineapple fields on Haleakala's flanks. By the time Matt and I cooled off with ice slush, a native Paia treat, I became humbled and cognizant and proud of Haleakala's gift.