Sunday, October 29, 2006

Inactive volcano has a history of its own!

Why would any sane person get up during their Hawaiian honeymoon and start the day at 2:45 a.m.?

It's worth the effort if you are anticipating the sunrise of a lifetime and a horseback riding adventure in Haleakala National Park.

During its 15- to 50-year life span, the silversword plant blooms with purple or pink flowers, then dies. The silversword is found above elevations of 6,500 feet. Its silver leaves reflect the sun's rays and its large taproot allows it to withstand harsh winds. It can grow as high as 9 feet.Click photo for larger image.

The inactive volcano Haleakala is one of two volcanoes that formed this young Hawaiian island, and its astonishing natural beauty attracts millions of visitors each year, keeping a few companies in business, including The Pony Express. We planned this unforgettable vacation by reading Andrew Doughty's popular travel guide, "Maui Revealed."

But it was M.M. -- that's Mister Mensch -- who booked this ride and led me on it. ("Mensch" is a Yiddish word that means a decent, responsible person, a description that fits my husband, Mark.)
Mister Mensch roused me gently in our room at the Maui Prince Hotel, a quiet resort with a wide, long beach, helpful staff and sumptuous breakfasts.

This was not a day to linger over fresh pineapple, waffles and a fourth cup of coffee. We dressed for cold weather, ate a blueberry breakfast bar, checked our backpack one last time for essentials such as water, sunscreen and aspirin, and headed north from the town of Makena. While I dozed in the passenger seat, moaning from caffeine withdrawal like an addict on her first day in rehab, Mark drove across the island and up the 10,023-foot-high mountain.

As Mister Mensch navigated serpentine roads that lack guard rails, a huge glorious moon lit our path.

"That moon looks like the moon in 'Moonstruck,' said Mark, an ardent movie buff who recalls the names of character actors, cinematographers, directors and the details of how chase scenes were filmed.

"La bella luna," I cried in my best Italian accent, recalling that scene from the movie where the grandfather walks his dogs in Manhattan late at night.

That luminous moon was merely the opening act; the sun is the undisputed star at Haleakala, which, in the lyrical Hawaiian language, means "house of the sun."

According to Hawaiian legend, the demigod Maui used a twisted coconut fiber to lasso the sun as it rose over Haleakala. In this way, Maui persuaded the sun to move more slowly across the sky for six months of the year. That way, Maui's mother, Hina, could dry her handmade kapa cloth in just one day.

For those of us who have never given birth to a child, watching the sun rise over Haleakala may be the closest we will ever feel to being present at the mystical moment of creation.

The air was cold enough to warrant a fleece jacket over several layers and a pair of jeans. At the summit, tourists wrapped in blankets huddled together. Just below the summit, in the visitor center parking lot, more tourists jockeyed for the best vantage point for taking pictures.

If you go:Haleakala Crater

We booked our horseback ride by calling Pony Express Tours at 1-808-667-2200. Our ride cost $169 per person plus tax. Remember that Hawaii is six hours behind Pittsburgh clocks.You can also book this trip on line at Web site also outlines other trips available through the company.

-- Marylynne PitzAs the sun glided slowly over the horizon, cheers and gasps arose from the crowd. The sky turned from a sea of black and orange to a pumpkin gold as the morning star rose overhead, pierced the blanket of clouds and warmed our dazzled faces. It was 5:56 a.m.
In the morning light, we climbed to the summit to admire the West Maui mountains. Then, we descended the path and returned to the visitors center, where a volunteer told us that that morning's light show was a 7.5 out of 10 because the air and sky were so clear.

Many visitors to Maui ride a bike down Haleakala, and several people suggested we do the same. But we opted for a slower pace on horseback that allowed us to savor sights we are not likely to see again. Besides, I told my husband, how could we miss out on our Roy Rogers and Dale Evans moment?

By 9 a.m., our guide, Byron Gardner, arrived with 10 horses. Tall, lean and friendly, he looked like a Frederic Remington bronze come to life. He grew up on a ranch in western Colorado where his family raised Morgan horses. A trained wildlife biologist who had studied pumas, Byron moved to Maui after his wife said she could not stand another Colorado winter.

He asked each of us how much experience we had in riding a horse, then devoted a good half-hour to teaching our group the basics to ensure our safety. After learning that my husband is a lawyer, Byron put him on a horse named Buck.

"It's a noun, not a verb," Byron said with a reassuring smile.

My mount, a beautiful chestnut-colored animal, was named Kai, which means "ocean" in Hawaiian. We waited as Byron instructed the rest of the riders.

The island of Manhattan would fit in Haleakala Crater, which is technically known among geologists as an erosional depression. The crater is 7.5 miles long, 2.5 miles deep and 3,000 feet deep.

After countless eruptions, the two volcanoes that formed Maui emerged from the water. Eventually, erosion, wind and rain connected the valleys between the two volcanoes, creating this huge crater.
We began our descent on the Sliding Sands Trail, going 2,500 feet to the crater floor. Round-trip, we rode four hours in a Western saddle and covered 7.6 miles.

It seemed as if we were riding through a series of Georgia O'Keeffe paintings. Iron deposits streaked the crater's soil red; manganese left purple striations in the earth. The thin air was clear and the sun shone brightly. Waves of clouds that looked like undulating giant comforters rolled overhead, as thick as the surf we had seen on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

Our party rode single file and nose to tail on the trail, which zigzagged into the crater. The horses, which would probably know this trail even in pitch dark, stepped carefully around rocks that dot the steep terrain.

The ever-changing vistas of jagged, black mountains, blue skies and a palette of desert colors such as dusty red, gold, gray and green unfolded at each turn in the trail. Occasionally, Kai cantered to catch up with horses up ahead, and I did my best to keep my balance.

Around noon, we dismounted. Lunch on the crater floor consisted of juice, water, sandwiches and Maui potato chips. We swatted a bevy of swarming bees. After nearly two hours in the saddle, a single white chocolate macadamia nut cookie is a scrumptious dessert.

With its open craters and cinder cones, Haleakala's landscape, Byron told us, looks similar to the surface of Mars.

On our return trip, Byron pointed out the blooming silversword plant, a perennial that lives for up to 50 years, blooms once, then dies. A blooming silversword looks like the desert's hardy version of a Christmas tree. The silver leaves serve as a tree skirt while the blooms make gorgeous ornaments.

Byron also pointed out the volcano Mauna Kea, which was visible in the crystalline air even though it was 80 miles away on the island of Hawaii.

As we drove back down the mountain, I envied the residents of Hawaii even though the cost of living is high. A team of Harvard researchers reported this year that Hawaiians have the highest life expectancy among U.S. citizens because they typically live to the age of 80.

And no wonder. They eat fish, soak up vitamin D from the sun and are surrounded by beauty every day of their lives.

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