Elevation: 10,023 feet
Days earlier, in the wee hours of another inky pre-dawn, I feel my way up Highway 378, to the crown of Maui, the summit called Haleakala. The road is as steep as any I have ever traveled, rising from sea level to more than 10,000 feet in just thirty-seven miles. The switchbacks would be more dizzying if I could see beyond the shoulder, but there is only vast, empty blackness every time I peek. So I stay glued to the yellow lines on the asphalt, flicking my high beams wherever I can, until I have caught up to the queue ahead of me and joined an unbroken chain of rental cars snaking to the lip of the world’s largest dormant volcano.
Although it is a high-altitude wilderness, remote and hard on the lungs, Haleakala is the most accessible of Hawaii’s summits, preserved and promoted by a national park. I have to stop at a guard shack and hand over ten bucks—no complaints, but it does add to the impression that I am heading to a show. Haleakala means “House of the Sun,” a name derived from a feat of the trickster demigod Maui. When his mother complained of the sun’s hasty passage across the sky, leaving no time for her kapa cloth to dry, Maui climbed to the top of the great volcano and waited for the first rays of daylight. With a lasso, he snared the sun and held it captive, letting go only after the sun, chastened, agreed to linger over the island. A version of this continues: Sunrise at Haleakala is an institution, part spectacle and part prayer, at once the definitive photo op and an occasion for reflection and renewal.
“Things we don’t understand we create a lot of stories for,” says Jordan Jokiel, program manager for the East Maui Watershed Partnership, which protects 100,000 acres of native forest on Haleakala’s windward slopes. “Wherever there’s a peak, there’s always myths and lore—yeah?—the ghosts, the spirits. These are humbling, humbling places.” He is standing at the rim of the crater, which is still submerged in night, watching as plumes of tangerine and lavender ripple across the horizon. A carpet of clouds unfurls below us, covering the ocean in wall-to-wall meringue. A few more minutes and a curtain of blue starts to rise. Then, at 6:57 a.m., the first blinding glint of sun. It is astoundingly gorgeous and yet less than serene. A hundred people, most of them huddled in blankets and towels lifted from hotel rooms, are oohing and aahing and blinding us with flashbulbs. “Maybe there’s something selfish, too, about being at the top,” adds Jokiel with a snort. “There’s a bravado. Like, ‘I was there, man.’ King of the hill. There’s no getting around that.”
As soon as the sun is whole, the crowd disperses: show over. With Jokiel and his wife, Abigail Romanchak, as my guides, I hike into Haleakala’s crater, now revealed as a deeply eroded, rust-striped punchbowl. Our boots slide and crunch on the ferrous trails, as if we are trudging over a long-extinguished campfire. I am already aware of the dryness in my throat, the shortness of my breath, but I am happy to be on foot plunging into this strange volcanic desert rather than admiring it from a parking lot.