Experience has taught me to be wary when my twin sister, Beth, proposes a “trip of a lifetime.” These generally include heights, poisonous reptiles, extreme temperatures, and lots of gear. A few years ago, Beth and my brother Chris hiked into and then out of the Grand Canyon in three days. I declined to join them, citing my insane desire to not die from dehydration or flash flooding.
I’m also a really slow hiker. My favorite exercise is walking Harper, my basset hound mix who likes to smell everything. Sometimes we walk so slowly we actually do go backwards. Beth’s idea of a relaxing afternoon is to go for a 10-mile run.
Despite this, Beth managed to talk me, our two brothers Ed and Chris, and Chris’s fiancée (also named Beth) into hiking through a volcano. This three-day trek took us through Maui’s Haleakala National Park, which has thin air, very little weather, and is populated mostly by hornets and Nene, the majestic but bossy Hawaiian goose that will attack you for your lunch, as Chris found out. The rangers tell visitors not to feed the Nene, but I think most people do it out of self-preservation.
Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. According to legend, it was there that the demigod Maui, wanting to lengthen the day, lassoed the sun as it moved across the sky. Haleakala isn’t actually a volcano, it’s more of an erosion crater, but it looks like what you would expect from an extinct volcano. There are lots of both kinds of lava rock that you may remember from Reading Rainbow: pahoehoe, the smooth kind; and ‘a’a, the kind with sharp edges like big pieces of pointy coral.
We started the hike at the summit, which, at 9,700 feet, has absolutely no vegetation. With grey sand and intensely bright sun, it’s like looking out at Mars. For most of the morning we skidded down a path from the summit to the crater valley (along the aptly named Sliding Sands Trail), with me bringing up the rear. I had thought that this part would be colorless and boring, but it was stunning. There were great swaths of red sand that pierced through the steely grey and Technicolor pits with hues I’ve never seen on bare ground before.
When we finally came to some flora — mostly dried silverswords, which look like huge pointy ferns that have been dusted with glitter — the change after so much rock and dirt was surprising. Clouds drifted below us in the distance. We no longer felt like we were on this earth.
Eventually the path brought us below the clouds, and the landscape turned into a verdant rainforest and savanna-like grassland. Our first night’s cabin sat at the base of a cliff dotted with trees, and we fell asleep after watching the brightest moon I have ever seen rise over the edge of the crater.
The next day was like the first but in reverse as we climbed back to higher elevations. On the way to our second cabin, we passed the haunted Bottomless Pit, into which Hawaiians used to put their dead relatives to save them from grave robbers. After struggling to keep up with the pack for the previous two days, I was blown away by the love and dedication that would inspire someone to carry a body all the way to the top of a mountain without the aid of a motorized vehicle.
That evening we watched another unbelievable moonrise and conked out. We needed the rest; the next day was all up, up, up. We finished the hike with a treacherous four-mile switchback trail that took us 1,500 feet out of the crater, while I tried (but failed) to prove that the tortoise wins the race. Whenever we would take a break from concentrating on our footing and glance around, we were treated to stunning views of the crater and the beaches thousands of miles below.
We did eventually get to a luau on our last night in Maui, complete with lei and pineapples. It was considerably easier to enjoy a luau than to traverse a crater as I watched my siblings turn into small dots in the dista nce, but if you ask me what I’ll remember for the rest of my life, it’ll be the few days we spent hiking through Mars.