Story by Tom Stevens | Illustration by Guy Junker
The phone beeped. It was my friend Big Otis, nailing down confirmations for a planned three-cabin Haleakala Crater circuit.
“You’re still coming, right?”
“Big O, that’s six weeks away.”
“I know, but I like to be prepared,” he said. “These are modern times.”
I couldn’t argue. These days, crater-cabin stays require more preparation. Thirty years ago, you’d just call the park service number and request “any cabin, any night.”
Now there are dates to be chosen far in advance, reservation requests to be made, a nail-biting lottery to survive, even an orientation to attend.
“Orientation?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Otis said. “We meet at park headquarters in the early afternoon for that. Then we’ll get the keys and hike to Kapalaoa.” He paused, and I could almost hear him smiling. “Remember the duct tape this time.”
On a solo crater trek last year, the soles had peeled off my boots about five miles down the trail. I tried reattaching them, but Band-Aids were my only adhesive. I had to hike back out in rubber slippers. They don’t build boots like they used to.
Otis was right, of course. It’s always wise to prepare for the crater. You’re just never sure what to prepare for. Those who trek into Maui’s dormant volcano endure a strenuous hike, rarified atmosphere, and weather that can turn in an hour from sun-kissed balmy to Force Nine gale. Yet the reward is an adventure that those who remain at the rim can’t begin to comprehend. In ten miles, hikers descend through a silent moonscape of cliffs and cinder cones to a lush cloud forest populated by rare Hawaiian birds.
It’s a transcendent experience—but an unpredictable one. And once you’re down on the crater floor, you’re not going to get back out any time soon.
Crunching across the crater floor over the years, I’ve often met blissed-out hikers carrying tiny daypacks and wearing t-shirts, shorts and gym shoes. “Did you bring rain gear?” I ask. “Mittens? Ski caps? Parkas?”
They laugh. “We’re on Maui, Dude.”
I remember hiking down Sliding Sands trail by starlight one clear March night to join friends camping at Paliku. It was an impromptu trip, so I brought no tent; just a parka and a plastic groundsheet to roll up in.
Everything went splendidly until the next afternoon, when I said goodbye and headed back out. When I was a couple of miles up the trail, the sky suddenly darkened, the wind roared to life, and an icy, stinging rain pelted in like buckshot. Within minutes, all crater landmarks had vanished, and the trail was underwater. All I could see was black lava splashing past beneath my boots.
Battling through the storm, I recalled tales of flying saucers frequenting the crater in the early 1970s. Back then, Maui was known in psychedelic circles as “the Lost Continent of Mu,” and Haleakala was one of Earth’s “Seven Power Centers.” It was not uncommon to pick up shiny-eyed hitchhikers who swore they’d just flown in from the Pleiades.
Where were those saucers now, when I needed one?
I wrapped the plastic groundsheet around my parka, leaned lower into the gale, and staggered onward. When I finally reached the summit eight hours later, the groundsheet was in tatters, my parka was a sponge, and my hands were too numb to turn the key in the car door. I hadn’t prepared for that.
Older and wiser, I never hike into the crater any more without mittens, a wool cap and a full rain suit.
And now, of course . . . duct tape.