‘Cruising’ Down Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii

FROM THE WALL STREET JOURNAL | BY GAIL KING

I’d been bicycling in my basement this winter, watching library tapes of “Our Living Planet” with a snoring clumber spaniel the only living thing in my sight. And so I jumped at the chance to ride a bicycle 10,000 feet down a Hawaiian mountain, through an amazing spectrum of living things.

Spectacular views, sunrises and sunsets entice more than 600,000 visitors up this 38-mile route each year. Some ride up in tourist buses, some drive up, some run (there’s an official excursion calledRun to the Sun), others pedal up Cycle to the Sun). And three companies are raking in tourist bucks vanning people up and “cruising” them down on bicycles.

At 2:55 a.m. bundled in a tennis shirt, a beach cover-up, my husband’s cotton linen blazer, I staggered our of the hotel with Joan and Bill Adams, a Chicago couple, to meet Karl, the “cruise director,” and Mark, the tailgate van driver. We went on to collect a 28thanniversary couple from Altoona, PA, and an Australian family. About halfway up the mountain Karl roused us for a perfunctory, geography lesson (Haleakala rises 10,000 feet above the water and it hasn’t “blown” since 1790; this is the steepest paved road of its length in the world) and a fervent safety lecture (hotdog it and you get put in the van). Fog engulfed us at 8,500 feet but Karl felt optimistic about the sunrise. There is, he said, a 60%-70% chance for a perfect sunrise in the winter and a 80%-90% chance in the summer.

Mark and Karl outfitted us in orange parkas and pants, heavy biking gloves and safety helmets. Swathed in orange or yellow, the bikers glowed among the crowd waiting for sunrise. The non-bikers were dressed in blankets, mostly beige and bearing a hotel logo. The sun, so the ancient Polynesians said, goes its slowest as it crosses Haleakala. I don’t know about that, but I can testify that it takes its time coming up on Haleakala when the temperature is just above freezing, the wind is fierce, and you’ve forgotten your socks. (I fastidiously refuse Mark’s offer of some dirty socks from the back of the van; pride goeth before a freeze). When the sun did not appear on schedule at 7 o’clock, I went to the van to dig out Kleenex and try to revive my feet. Just as I finished blowing my nose the lady from Altoona came back expounding on the beauty of the cloud-crusted sunrise.

Karl put the Australian girl directly behind him and arranged us single file behind her. In thinning fog and howling wind with a death grip on the handbrakes I started down. Apparently my terror beamed through babushka, helmet and glasses because, when we stopped to let cars pass, Karl moved me up front and proceeded to talk me down. For a man who gave the history of Haleakala in three sentences and a safety discourse in a few spurts, he proved amazingly verbose at 9,000 feet weaving downhill, seated sidesaddle backward, one hand on his brakes, the other holding his half of the two-way radio that linked him to Mark.

He pointed out a chukar partridge covey alongside the road and told me that birds cluster there because the roadway stays warm all night. We began to pass tiny clumps of yellow primroses and other bits of greenery springing up from the volcanic cinder. After several curves I relaxed enough to unglue my eyes from the road and looked up directly into the left end of a full rainbow. Karl wasn’t especially impressed—he’s used to seeing double rainbows—but I accepted it as a sign of survival and began to relax my thumbs (carefully and alternately).

Ten miles down, at 7,000 feet, we stopped at the national park ranger station for a quick look at the weather instruments (wind-chill factor 26) and a charming visit with a family of nenes. A half-grown gosling took an awkward tumble down a small bank and landed in the midst of our parked bikes. The fuzzy little creature stared up at us a moment, fluffed up its feathers and toddled off to join the adult nenes. These native geese live protected in the park because immigrants-mongooses, rats and cats-almost annihilated them.

We sailed out of the ranger station into 29 hairpin curve “switchbacks.” Rolling green pastures and a postcard blue sky replaced the moonscape terrain and fog of the top. We stopped for a long look at Maalaea Bay, where humpback whales had arrived for their annual mating months.

The air, muggy with fog (and fear) at the start of the trip, cleared as we coasted down the curves. At about 4,000 feet we came upon a wonderful smell and then its source—a grove of eucalyptus trees. The eucalyptus served as at gateway to the masses of greenery that followed: flaming hibiscus, fence rows of morning glories, budding jacaranda trees, private gardens tucked alongside houses, and farther down, endless acres of sugar and pineapple.

We turned off onto a small country road and stopped to shed several layers. The smells along this patch were not flowerlike and we soon understood why. We were in the midst of a dairy farm. This is cowboy country. Makawao, the first town of any size we rode through, has been a cowboy town since the early 1800’s, when the Hawaiian king imported cowboys to domesticate wild cattle. With horses, pickup trucks and dilapidated storefronts, the town looks like a movie set. Not a cowpoke in sight, but we did see several aging hippies; Makawao has become one of the last outposts for what guidebooks call “those attracted to alternative lifestyles.”

From Makawao on to the end of the bike route at Paia the downhill slop was straight and gradual. We even had to pump our pedals twice. We made it down in several minutes more than the two hours, 32 minute record racing time for biking uphill the same distance. The record downhill time currently stands at 57 minutes, held by a man who must have tremendous thumb control and who, I imagine, never forgets his socks.

Copyright © Dow Jones & Company, Inc.