Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Darkest Hour is Just After the Dawn

What’s the exact opposite of “spiritual?” I don’t think we have a word for this in our language. Hawaiian does, though, and the word is Haleakala.

Haleakala is, of course, really the name of a dormant volcano on the island of Maui. The House of the Sun is about 10,000 feet high, and is both Maui’s most conspicuous physical feature and one of its biggest attractions. It’s considered especially auspicious to visit the volcano’s summit at dawn. On a good morning, the sun, visible across a massive crater-like depression, appears to rise out of a cauldron of cloud. On a great morning, the mist turns fiery red and orange and the lunar landscape is illuminated in adobe hues. And a couple of times a year, if some of the more hyperbolic descriptions I’ve read are true, angels actually sing. “Spiritual” is a word I encountered repeatedly while researching the Haleakala sunrise experience, and so I put an early-morning trip to the top on the short list of things we absolutely had to do on Maui.

Pipi and I scheduled the trip for our first full day in Hawaii, reasoning that jet-lag would make the early wake-up call less painful. It did, but 3:45 still felt very early to two people who were supposed to be on vacation. Nothing was open, so we made peanut butter breakfast sandwiches and coffee in our room, and set out on the two-hour drive to the top of Haleakala.

For a volcano, Haleakala is pretty easy to drive on. The road is well paved and wide enough for two cars. It’s very dark and curvy, though, and often choked with bicycle-laden vans ferrying riders to the top for the popular 37-mile sunrise coast down the mountain. On the morning we drove it, there was the added challenge of dense fog, which started at about 5,000 feet of elevation.

It was the kind of fog that is so thick it’s hard to imagine that it’s sunny anywhere. And it may not have been. It certainly wasn’t sunny at the top of Haleakala. In fact, it was about as far from sunny as I’ve ever seen. At a little past 6am, it was dark, with a howling wind blowing and fog swirling. Sleet pinged off the car like buckshot. Visibility was about 50 feet. When I finally gathered the courage to get out of the car, I accidentally started down a hiking trail instead of the path to the observatory, but was luckily turned back by a blast of wind that could have knocked down an eight-year-old. I was wearing what at sea level had seen like a nervous-Nellie number of layers, but the cold still took my breath away. As I scurried back to the car with my head down and my hand on my hat, I had a little epiphany, the closest I came to a spiritual moment that whole morning. “This is how people die on mountains,” I said to myself. (And in my head, it didn’t even sound melodramatic.)

When Pipi and I finally found the visitors’ center, with about 20 minutes to spare before theoretical sunrise, we found it already filled with a rainbow coalition of disappointed people from around the globe. I heard sulking in at least three languages. We all milled around until our watches said the sunrise had occurred. It was lighter now, and the sleet had turned to regular rain. It was barely 7am (although we were already thinking about lunch) and already we’d had a big setback. As we got in the car and prepared ourselves for the long, wet plummet back to the coast, I wondered if there were any way to salvage some crumbs of spirituality from the day.

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