A hike up the mountain Hawaiians refer to as the House of the Sun. By Lara Dunning
The signs on Kuihelani highway said “U Turn OK.” It was almost as if Paka‘a was warning us six early morning risers that he’d be sure to display his power of winds at the summit of Haleakalā. But, we couldn’t turn back now. We’d all gone to bed early in preparation for our long drive to the mountain known to Hawai‘ians as the “House of the Sun.” Sleepy-eyed and coffee fueled we could see Haleakalā shrouded in clouds in front of us. Up there, at 10,023 feet above sea level, we’d be the first on the island to lay eyes on the glowing orb we all worshipped during the day. A sight, Mark Twain said was “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.”
The sun, we’d basked in it every day since our arrival to Maui. It penetrated the sun tan lotion we slathered on our bodies. It created freckles and golden hues on our skin. We lay on Kaanapali beaches, snorkeled in Molokini Crater, watched humpback whales and breathtaking sunsets all under the watchful eye this powerful sphere. Now, at three a.m. the sun lay beyond the black blanket of the ocean that stretched to the horizon. Off in the distance the big island of Hawai‘i blended in with the dark waters that surrounded it. It’s from there, Hawai‘ian legend says, the demi-god Maui traveled to the top of Haleakalā to lasso the sun so his mother’s bark clothing, called kapa, would dry faster. At the top he braved the frigid air and waited for the first rays of sunlight to appear. Then, he lassoed the orb with a twisted coconut fiber rope and made the sun promise to “move more slowly across the sky.” The sun agreed and from that day forward Maui’s mother’s kapa dried in one day.
The road to the Pu‘u‘ula‘ula summit parking lot consists of twenty-nine switchbacks; the signage for most of the curves warns drivers to take them at fifteen mph. Once visitors enter the park no food or gas is available. Right before the turn onto Crater Road we stopped at a coffee shop rightly named “Last Chance.” Here, we filled our stomachs with another kind of fuel, hot chocolate for me, and coffee for everyone else. I, the only person to suffer from motion sickness, became the designated driver. After paying our ten dollar entrance fee we began our hour long ascent on a two lane road with no shoulders, no guard rails and a 5 to 6 percent grade. Our car would be one of a millions that drove the road this year, one of twenty thousand that came for the sunrise this month, and one of one hundred and thirty that would visit the park for sunrise today.
Besides steep turns, the hazards on the road included grazing cows, rocks, bicyclists, large buses, and unpredictable weather conditions. Curve after curve, the landscape remained shrouded in darkness, only the reflectors lit the way. The further up we went, the more silent we became as we pondered what lay beyond the glare of the headlights. I gripped the steering wheel thinking if I made one wrong move we’d all plummet into the abyss and roll down the mountain. In our tumble we might trample over a Nene, a rare Hawai‘ian Goose that was on the verge of extinction in 1951 or a Peuo, a Hawai‘ian owl which many Hawai‘ians refer to as aumakua, or guardian spirit. I knew one thing for sure, we were driving up the side of a dormant volcano and for every 1000 feet in elevation the temperature would drop about 3°F. In Kahului, the temperature in the early morning was around 55° F. Using this calculation the summit would be around 25° F and that didn’t account for any snow or wind we might encounter at the top. We’d all worn heavier garments and layers, but would it be enough?
In the summit parking lot we easily found a place to park. Paka‘a shook the car and darkness veiled everything within several feet. With the elevation gain and wind the temperature it had to be in the upper teens. We pressed our faces to the car windows and gazed upwards. Thousands of stars twinkled in the clearest sky I’ve ever seen. It didn’t surprise me later to find out that The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy has been conducting research here for over four decades. With their powerful telescopes I can only imagine the solar sights they’ve seen.
As liquids pressed against our bladders the first one went out to search for a bathroom in the darkness. He returned quickly saying there was none within sight. No bathrooms? Surely, at least, there had to be a designated place to view the dawn. The clock said 5:15 a.m. and sunrise according to the “Last Chance” coffee guy was at 6:33 a.m. We had about 45 minutes. Minutes passed and the sky became a lighter shade of blue. With cell phone in hand and flannel buttoned all the way up my partner went to search for a path and found one. He returned several minutes later and between chattering teeth said, “Lordy, lordy, it’s cold out there.”
What the park map doesn’t tell you is that next to the parking lot is short path that leads to a small stone building that faces east with windows that stretch mid-floor to ceiling. In this protected space, sun gazers are the first to lay eyes on the sun rising out of the east. In perfect weather conditions one could see 115 miles out to sea and all five Hawai‘ian Islands. For now, the only thing we could see clearly was stars and the other sunrisers searching inside their cars for warmer clothing. Something, we now wished we’d packed more of.
Paka‘a dissuaded any attempt to go outside until we absolutely had to so I perused the park map. It explained that the park consists of several different ecosystems; coastal, pastoral, rain forest, dry forest, subalpine shrubland and alpine/Aeolian and many plant life and wildlife are endemic to the Hawai‘ian Islands. I was surprised to find out that approximately one third are on the Federal Endangered Species List. ‘Āhinahina, also known as Silversword, is one of these plants and has been on the endangered species list since 1986. Its shallow root system and dagger-like leaves with silvery hairs have adapted to high altitudes and intense sun conditions. These plants live up to 50 years, can grow up to six feet tall and right before they die dozens of purple sunflower-like flowers bloom up the center stalk. In the growing light behind our car I could see a cluster of them standing about four feet tall. As the minutes passed, the sky brightened. I zipped up my sweater, tied the hood together with a hair clip and exited the car. The moment my eyes landed eastward shades of pink painted the sky. Sunrise had begun.
“It’s starting,” I called out. Everyone piled out of the car and took the path up to the overlook.
At the top of the path dozens of people gathered inside or huddled outside of the small circular observation building. My eyes roved over bodies, large and small, wrapped in sleeping bags, hotel blankets and beach towels. Inside, bodies pressed close to the windows refusing to give up their view. No matter where we stood, all eyes turned one direction, east. I was amazed that every single one of us had gotten up in the wee hours of the morning to come here. In our group the reasons intertwined with one another. We’d wanted to experience a sunrise at 10,000 feet; a third of the way up to Mt. Everest. We wanted to share it with friends and family; our group consisted of sisters, couples and friends. We wanted to experience an event we’d heard so much about and see if the Haleakalā sunrise should really be on your “bucket list.” But, what drew everyone else here? Was it because Twain thought it sublime?
As these thoughts crossed my mind the display of light and color created a mesmerizing effect over everyone. It painted our skin, like a Monet painting. Whispers filled the room and families and friends huddled close together as this sacred moment took hold of us. Native Hawai‘ians call this place wao akua which means “wilderness of the gods.” Purplish-grey clouds hovered over the lunar-like landscape and rays of orange-pink sunshine bended across the sky. Seeing that I could believe the gods resided here and they had something to tell me. What were they saying? In this moment, this sunrise, anything felt possible. Maybe here, at the top of the world, I could hear them. Twain hadn’t been wrong.
My friend with her cinched white windbreaker came inside and told us about an almost wind-free spot to the left of the building. I headed out to investigate. She was right; this spot was the place to be outside. Six steps to the left or right and the fierce wind chilled your bones, but where we stood it blew gently. Out here, the vibe was jollier. People knew they were freezing, but laughed about it. Four young girls huddled under a hotel blanket, lovers kept each other warm with layers of beach towels and mothers and fathers nestled their children close to them. Everyone took pictures and two young Asian men filmed it all. In anticipation we all watched the colors of the sky began to change and glimmers of green and bright orange hit the clouds. All of us awaited the rising of the sun from this very spot; 3,055 miles above sea level on the coldest and one of the most beautiful spots on Maui. My partner and I huddled against each other shoving hands under each other’s armpits to warm our fingers. Every few minutes we checked the time. The sun was coming.
Within moments the colors became more intense. Then, a pulsating ball of light glared into our eyes almost blinding us. Shades of pinks, oranges, yellows, and greens burst across the clouds and onto the clouded crater landscape. Outside, we all gasped at the ceremonial display of light, snapping pictures and smiling at the barren beauty we had come up to experience first-hand. In that moment, my chest swelled with pride. I had made the journey up here. I belonged to this place and it deserved my admiration.
It wasn’t until after sunrise I noticed Park Ranger Keith inside the summit observation building. He wore a floppy eared fur hat, long pants and a winter coat. I chuckled to myself thinking this guy knew how to dress for sunrise. His smooth face bore an expression of serenity as he answered questions about the park. Haleakalā consists of 30,000 acres of public lands with three separate visitor centers and offers camping, hike-in cabins, ranger programs and approximately twenty-seven miles of hiking trails. On any given day there are two to three rangers stationed at sunrise overlooks. Ranger Keith sees at least ten sunrises a month. Each year staff sees hundreds of thousands of people from countries all over the world who come to see the sun rise and explore the park; a number that seems just as vast as fish in the ocean that surrounds Maui.
Almost 300 feet below us at the Visitor Center, Park Ranger Nan, whose seen many sunrises over her twenty-five years at the park, sang a traditional Hawai‘ian prayer. As a Native Hawai‘ian, the moment of sunrise is “extremely special” and in the prayer Nan asks for “the knowledge of the environment to come and sit with her so she may learn its knowledge and use it correctly.” Nan told me that seeking earthly wisdom and protecting the planet, especially for those generations yet to come, are part of Hawai‘ian philosophy and this idea reverberates throughout different cultures and peoples all over the world. Now I wondered if that been the inaudible whispers I’d heard earlier? Had I missed my chance to listen? Really listen.
A few like me, despite frozen noses and hands were determined to stay as long as we could muster. In the valley, the sunlight transformed the clouds from light purple to blue. With each passing moment the veil of darkness lifted to reveal the astral like wonder of this divine place. At the top, with the ocean thousands of feet below and nothing but sky above, it truly felt like I was standing at the top of the world. Afterwards, I decided next time I do this I’ll be better prepared. I’ll put on a layer of clothes, and then another until I could pass for the abominable snowman. I’ll use the detached restrooms at the Haleakalā Visitor Center and bring a chair and a blanket so I can be comfortable. Then I’ll ask and listen. Really listen.
Later, I found out that Park Ranger Keith likes the sunrise because it gives us “a moment outside our rushed world to appreciate and study the environment” and “reflect on the possibilities of a new day.” I thought back to look of contentment on his face and wondered if over the years Haleakalā had shared its knowledge with him. Inside, when the sun’s glimmer rose above the clouds he thanked everyone for “starting their day at Haleakalā National Park on March 8th, 2013.” When my friend said his heart-felt declaration made her teary-eyed, I knew for sure, that even to someone who’s seen the dawn hundreds of times, this wasn’t just another sunrise, some might even call it “sublime.”