The sign at the summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui says, “Walk slowly. You are at 10,000 feet.” I do as I’ve been told, moving deliberately down the Sliding Sands Trail into the crater, in part because I’ve just read the sign and in part because I’ve never been any place quite like this. The trail is soft and deep, causing a sensation on my booted feet that’s both difficult and soothing. Just like the landscape, I think. Startling and disturbing. Slowing me down.
From the overlook at the parking lot, the crater on a clear day looks like a moonscape left in New Mexico for years, taking on the burnt orange, black and brown hues of that Southwest landscape. In places, the crater is smoothed by wind and erosion to look as if it has been sculpted by skilled artistic hands. In varying light, the drama of its shadows and darkness is haunting. It is such a silent looking landscape that, at the same time, appears to still be moving.
On a clear day, the tour buses make the slow climb up the hill, passing the bikers racing down, the occasional cow that has wandered onto the road and the periodic signs warning, “Nene Crossing.” The Nene is a small, gray-brown Hawaiian goose that moves rapidly across the ground like the California quail, and is both protected and serves as the Hawaiian State Bird. Passengers emerge from the tour buses at each of several overlooks and scurry to the rim, cameras in tow, which are quickly raised to capture the view and take it home.
What strikes me on the trail is that only a few foot descent from the overlook, the place turns completely silent. Other than my husband walking behind me, I don’t see another human being. Neither do I see birds, animals or any sort of plant life, just this volcanic land, orange here, black there, and in some areas, green. I stare and stare, listen and breathe, because I’m just not sure about this place. I have traveled my whole life seeking something, I’ve never been exactly clear what — a kind of beauty that will bring me peace, a vista so striking it will hurtle me straight into the present moment so I’ll never be able to leave. But here is something else. Here is the end of the line, where life burst forth and then stopped. Forever. And I haven’t got a clue what to think.
Ten thousand feet down the hill and south, past the last luxury resort and the umpteenth golf course, the landscape alongside the road reverts back to scrub brush. For a time, the ocean disappears from sight. A little further south, the road narrows and starts to twist and turn. Then the water comes back into view. The shore is black, jagged volcanic rock, shiny under the sun from the sprays of surf. The water, a deep, almost blackish blue, curves into graceful coves, bordered by the volcanic rock, weaving in and out in dramatic patterns.
The weathered brown sign indicates that this is the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve and fishing is not allowed. In the Pidgin English spoken throughout the Hawaiian Islands, the sign also instructs visitors, “No Feed Fish.”
The reserve stretches over 2,000 acres of land and ocean bottom. Almost one hundred larval fish species and two dozen types of stony coral have been found here. At one beckoning cove, we step carefully on sharp rocks and slowly wade into the water. Even when the water only reaches the middle of my calves, I can see bright yellow and blue fish, darting in between and around my legs.
Donning flippers, snorkel and mask, I paddle further out and look down. A floor of color lies below me, pale yellow and pink in places, sometimes off-white or green. Here and there, the coral rises into massive walls. There are so many fish I don’t know which direction to point myself. No matter which way I look, fish swim up to meet me, brushing my arm, and running into my face.
I learned to swim when I was only six, in a pool on another Hawaiian island, Oahu. Wearing a red-flowered Hawaiian print suit, my mother stood in the water holding me. Suddenly, she would fling me out in front, open her arms, and urge me to swim back in. The following year, I was good enough to win a second-place ribbon for the breast stroke, in that same pool across the street from my house, and fearless enough to do one and a half flips off the high dive, entering straight as a pencil into the water.
In those same childhood years, my parents used to rent a cabin for vacations on the Windward side of Oahu. Friends of theirs, with children in tow, rented the adjoining cabins. The grownups mostly stayed inside and played cards and drank, while we kids jumped and swam in the surf. I remember floating in the shallow water, watching the waves curl and mount, before they crashed over my head. I would edge myself back until just at the moment when the wave seemed ready to begin its descent, then paddle furiously forward, so I’d be in a position to ride the wave into shore.
Most times, I made it. But when I missed, the water tossed me around like a sock in a washing machine, eventually dumping me onto the sand. Battered and exhausted, I’d stand up, lift the elastic on the bottom of my bathing suit to let the water and sand drain out, then run back in the ocean for more.
Only in recent years have I returned to the water in Hawaii. Unlike the fearless child I used to be, each time I enter the ocean, I feel afraid. The fear stays with me for a time and then, without warning, the fear recedes, replaced by the soothing sensation of floating.
I sometimes think what I am looking for in travel is to immerse myself so completely in a place that all thought of anything else vanishes. Here, suddenly, I am in a special world, a fairy tale place of multicolored coral and fish, and we are all floating, our eyes opened very, very wide.
At the end of the paved road, you cross over the 1790 lava flow, the last volcanic eruption on the island of Maui. On both sides, the landscape is comprised of dark, jagged rock. Facing south, the West Maui Mountains are to the left, green and cloud-covered, keeping rain on the island’s Windward side.
The wind is fearsome here at La Perouse Bay. Sometimes, I feel I might get blown over. The sign indicates one pile of rocks as a heiau, a spiritual place for Hawaiians. I pause there a moment to rest, look and reflect.
I walk on a rocky volcanic path and gaze southward, to deserted beaches, palm trees and deep blue water that appears as close to paradise as one can get. I’m relieved that no one has built anything here, that the land is protected, and the wind blows so crazy a golf ball would go flying off, never to be seen again.
A fellow traveler has told me he saw a giant turtle in one of these small coves but warned me to be careful, because the tide is coming in. I stand next to a blow hole waiting for it to erupt, so I can safely walk past. Then I head onto the slippery black rock that juts out into the water. Before I make much progress, a fierce gust of water-laced wind puts me back in my place.
La Perouse Bay is one of several places in Maui where you come to the end of the paved road. At the summit of Haleakala, the road also ends, and the only way into the rest of Haleakala National Park is on foot. If you walk far enough, you will eventually come to the Kipahulu Valley Biological Reserve, where entry is prohibited. This is one of the last intact native rain forests in the Hawaiian Islands and scientists are struggling to preserve it.
It’s easy to miss seeing the short gray Nene as they move leisurely across the road, since the color of their feathers blends so easily with the pavement. On the island of Kauai, you have to watch out for wild chickens, oftentimes walking with several baby chicks in tow. Across the sweeping green hills of the golf courses that blanket these islands like blackberry bushes cover parts of Washington State, cattle egrets stroll in search of food. They are small, about the size of the snowy egrets we have where I live in Northern California. But unlike the snowy and the larger, more majestic great egrets, they are not impeccably white. Their feathers are smudged with red dirt, for which these islands are famous.
When I was a child, my Air Force father flew all over the globe. When he returned home, he regaled us with stories of those far-off places. I grew up believing that movement and change and the next best place would make me happy. So much of my life, I have traveled in search of the extraordinary, believing that in finding it, I would discover some missing part of myself. I also tried drugs and dropped in and out of various Eastern religions and practices, all the while moving from place to place, overlook to overlook, hoping for a glimpse of the divine.
Here in Maui, I realize that the divine is complex, flawed and oftentimes impenetrable. I also understand that it just might be sitting right in front of me. The divine is the complicated mess of too much development and a twisting, turning, frequently one-lane road to Hana that keeps your nerves on edge. It is the need to slow down and pay attention to a small plain bird, who in certain light resembles the oft-despised pigeon. It is having to take care of the last best places right now, before it has become too late.
A few months before this visit, during a routine exam, my gynecologist suddenly said, “What’s that?” She assured me it was probably a cyst and that it would most likely go away on its own. To be safe, she suggested I come in for an ultrasound several months down the road. In the following weeks, as much as I tried to tell myself there was probably nothing wrong, I felt a persistent ache, just to the left of my right hip, the presence of which seemed to suggest a diagnosis much less benign.
As I worried my way through the waiting period until my scheduled test, I realized how hard I had worked my entire life to shield myself from thoughts about death, dying and illness, especially the big one, cancer. I scrupulously avoided reading first-person accounts of cancer survivors. At the same time, I gobbled up articles on the latest studies showing what foods were likely to provide another ounce of prevention and felt safer when I added them to my diet.
One morning, when I was suffering from a particularly bad anxiety attack over my fears I had cancer and that it was in an advanced stage, I decided to draw, since I knew this would quiet my nerves. I put on a nice CD of cello solos, arranged some flowers in a vase on the table and got to work.
As expected, I instantly calmed down, lost in the music, the flowers and the movement of my hand on the page. Then I suddenly had the most comforting thought. Surrendering to illness would make everything all right.
A few days before my ultrasound appointment, the low ache suddenly went away. And the results of the ultrasound were as my gynecologist had predicted. The technician saw nothing to be concerned about there.
Coming up the Sliding Sands Trail, I walk more slowly than I think I ever have before. This time, I am not thinking about my pace. The pace is being dictated to me, because in this thin air, it’s as fast as I can go. I have hiked for years on many steep trails and always enjoyed the uphill climb. I like to go fast, usually leaving whoever happens to be my companion behind in the dust, endorphins pumping through me.
As I slowly put one foot in front of the other, a smooth orange slope of wind-sculpted rock on my left, I wonder if perhaps I am supposed to go slow in this dead place, to think about all the years I furiously pumped my legs just to get somewhere. Getting older, at a time when the planet is increasingly endangered, maybe I need to walk slowly, as if the air is always this thin, making the act of breathing and life itself, what I have always taken for granted, so fragile. I can’t help but be conscious of my breath here, as I try to do as meditation practice but so often fail, because my monkey mind is leaping from branch to branch, in an endless forest of worry, plans and regret. I have read that this volcano is still thought to be active, the last eruption in 1790 considered quite recent in geological time. But the greatest changes have occurred from weather. If I were able to come back several thousand years from now, all of what I am seeing today might be gone.
At this slow place, it is easy to think about my feet walking on the earth and my breath traveling in and out of my nostrils, as a walking meditation I know asks me to consider. It’s also easy to walk just to be walking, as the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh instructs meditation students to do. It’s not hard to see that the extraordinary exists right here, at the spot where I set my dusty boot down on the ground. And right there. Where I pick my dusty boot up and get ready to put it back down again.
Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Her second book, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), was a Finalist in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2016 International Book Awards. Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, and WomenArts Quarterly, and numerous anthologies. She has two forthcoming books: a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Find her at http://www.pattysomlo.com, on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Patty-Somlo/e/B006T340US, or follow on Twitter @PattySomlo.