Haleakala: The bucket list road of the other bucket list roads

As I clipped my seatbelt and settled back into my seat, I took a deep breath and let out a long exhale through pursed lips. It felt like the first breath I’d taken in hours. I was, if nothing else, on the plane and headed back to my family. Was my bike in the belly of the plane? I didn’t know, but I knew it would catch up to me sooner or later. It was, at least, packed and now someone else’s responsibility. It was then that the flight attendant on our subcompact jet wandered back to speak to me.

“You looked worried when you got on the place. Were you concerned about your bag? I saw it brought out.”

“No, I was worried about me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was worried about whether or not I’d make it on to the plane.”

“Why’s that?”

“I was running extremely late. I had to run to the gate.”

“Did you have trouble with your rental car return? Sometimes that takes longer than people expect.”

“No, they were completely ace. They certainly weren’t the problem. Two-and-a-half hours ago I was on top of Haleakala.”

“And you made it here in that time? Wow.”

“Well, I was up there on my bike.”

“On your bike?!”

I began to I recount the story of my ride up Haleakala. It was not an effort to impress. I was simply playing back the events of the day. I’d had so little time to try to soak in what was taking place that I was telling the story more for me than I was for her. The sheer impossibility of what I’d managed washed over me with each new detail. I kept thinking to myself that I really should be standing in that parking lot in Paia, bike parts yard-saled around me and struggling to get everything into the case. There would be a certain justice to becoming nervous under the time crunch and my well-practiced disassembly and packing of my bike should become some arcane mystery, a lost art to a future generation. But that had gone with the certain speed of an F1 pit stop. Even as I was disassembling the bike I was figuring out shortcuts to speed packing. I knew that only two, maybe three hands would touch the bike between me and the plane, the same thing coming off. And because I was the last person to board, it was the last bag on the plane; nothing got stacked on top of it. If ever there was an occasion where I could take less care—rather than more—in packing my bike, this was it.

If I believed in pagan gods, this would be just the occasion to say that the gods were smiling on me.

I’m a schemer. I dream up adventures, and plot them, sometimes years in advance. Riding up Haleakala was something I’d been dreaming of for an almost astonishing 19 years. Almost astonishing—not actually astonishing.

In 1993, I was a graduate student honeymooning in Hawaii with my first wife. From our resort on Maui I retrieved a brochure about bike rides down Haleakala. It’s possible that I’d known about this phenomenon even before getting there, but that detail is so buried in the reaches of my grey miscellany that it stands as neither significant nor relevant. I grabbed a bunch of brochures and one operation, Chris’ Bike Adventures, got my attention—because it was different from the others. The standard deal was an o-dark-thirty rendezvous with the van and guides for the two-hour drive from hotel to the top of Haleakala to take in the sunrise. I can’t recall if we actually saw the sunrise or if it was shrouded from view by the layer of cloud cover that seems to eternally skirt the volcano like a gorilla in a tutu. With most operations, following sunrise, clients are then dressed in yellow jumpsuits that look like something stolen from a Devo wardrobe locker and then their heads are encased in fishbowl motorcycle helmets. The guide leads the group. Everyone stays single-file and he keeps the group’s speed to an ever-manageable and never dangerous (multiple deaths notwithstanding) rate of descent. Something south of 25 mph. It was like running a roller coaster at half-speed to my mind. It wasn’t just an insult to fun, it was an abomination. I mean, who plays Led Zeppelin with the volume at whisper?

Chris’ was different. You rode mountain bikes. You went at your own pace. You could wear almost anything you wainted, ‘cept maybe a grass skirt—‘cuz that would get caught in the drivetrain. You wore a normal bike helmet. Okay, so we did have to start outside the national park, which lopped some miles off the descent, but I figured a good descent that was shorter would be better than a tethered—scratch that, leashed—descent even if it was longer, the way a single shot of full-strength whisky is always better than two shots of watered down whisky.

Long before I made it to the end of our ride I knew that someday I wanted to come back and climb up the whole volcano and then descend the whole thing, but on my road bike.

That dream got so back-burnered, I turned the heat off.

Volcano, shmalcano
Haleakala is the perfect metaphor for Hawaii. In its binary existence, its 0 or 1 simplicity, it is a diorama for the two cultures that inhabit it. There are the islanders, the Hawaiians, Japanese and other islanders who make up everything that seems local to our haole eye. And then there is the military, a culture that is everything that Hawaiian culture is not. Where the locals favor island time, a work ethic in which everything happens , though perhaps later than you’d like, the military is ceramic-bearing-precise. Where fast for an islander on the H1 is 50 mph, the only time you see a vehicle speeding it’s motorcycle, Mustang or Ram driven by someone with a haircut executed with clippers.

As it turns out, riding the volcano is no different. It is an almost diurnal experience, beginning with the long night of the climb. Daybreak is the experience of arriving at the top and marveling at a view of the archipelago that even the island-hopper jets don’t offer; they’re never in the air long enough to reach that altitude. Unlike most places on Earth where to do a big climb you have to do a prologue climb or two just to reach the base of the main ascent, riding Haleakala means you’re either going up the volcano or coming down it. With it or again’ it. Hatfield or McCoy.

The time from when I got off the plane, picked up the rental, drove to Paia, found a place to park that seemed unlikely to result in the car being either ticketed or towed, then assembled the bike and changed was less than an hour-and-a-half. I didn’t actually calculate exactly how long the whole process took. At the time, it seemed that all that was necessary was that I be speedy. I rolled out and hit start on the Garmin. Though I’d ridden the day before and my flight had been all of 32 minutes, my legs still didn’t really feel ready for the 4 percent grade that began the ride. I mean, shouldn’t there be some sort of introduction, a period in which to warm up?

No, is the short answer.

Part of the beauty of climbing Haleakala from Paia is that the town is the one location on the island where climbing the volcano becomes one seamless ascent. It is nearly unbroken in its up. And for the Strava set, this is the ascent of record.

Almost there
The ranger at the visitor center where I re-filled my bottles told me as I walked back to my bike, “You’re almost there. Just 10 miles to go.”

That seemed good, just 10 miles. I was at 7000 feet of elevation and I’m going to lay some blame for my optimism on that little detail. Hypoxia can’t be all that serious at that elevation, but I really don’t have a better explanation for what happened next. I thought to myself, “Hey, 10 miles, that’s not so bad. I can knock that out in an hour.”

Where I came up with that idea I’m still trying to work out. I’d been riding at between 6 and 8 mph for the last hour. Somehow I had been thinking that riding at 5 mph would deliver me the 10 miles in question in an hour. I think the root of my error may have had something to do with my attempts to calculate how long it was taking me to ascend 500 vertical feet. Turns out it was routinely about 40 minutes, but I couldn’t seem to keep track of that until I’d done it so many times, and forgot it so many times, that finally a pattern emerged.

But like I say, the real root of my problem can’t be the altitude, otherwise the dimming of my math skills would have only gotten progressively worse. I’d never have had the stomach-pitted eureka in which I realized that, at best, I’d be lucky to make the top of the volcano by 3 o’clock.

Three o’clock was the time I’d set myself for a worst-case scenario turnaround. While I’d welcome anything quicker than that, I knew that an arrival any later than three would cut into my changing and packing time. How did I ever think I’d get up there by 2:00? The idea of hanging out and having a late lunch in Paia evaporated hours before, like so much fog in morning sunlight.

Despite stressing on the outcome of my exploit, I kept my wits about me enough to marvel as I rode out of the band of fog that had begun at roughly 7500 feet. Gradually, the trees had gotten progressively smaller in response to the reduced oxygen in the air and signs of livestock—either the cattle themselves or their droppings—had ceased completely. The clumps of cypress trees, which had guarded the road at certain points, had long since disappeared.

I finally crossed 9000 feet at about 10 minutes to three and I began struggling with the idea of whether I should abandon the full descent and the accompanying story in favor of getting back to my rental car with what was a safer margin for sure boarding of the plane. Even then I knew I was late enough that if anything went wrong, if I flatted, if there was a traffic jam getting into Kahului, if there was a delay returning my rental car or getting through security—God forbid, if I should crash—I’d be spending the night in a hotel and buying a one-way ticket in the morning. How I convinced myself to stick with the climb and see it through to completion had to do with belief, more my belief that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity than the belief that I really would succeed in reaching the aircraft on time. That part was a gamble, a gamble for which I suspect any bookmaker in Vegas would gladly have taken the action.

This last admission is also embarrassing. I’ve always thought the Alpine climbers who die because they didn’t turn back on time were selfishly idiotic. My only defense here is that while I’m guilty of doing exactly the same thing, I can at least claim that what I risked was far less dire. Unless I crashed, I was looking at $300.

Volcanic rock began to show through the grass and within another mile all the grass gave way to rock, which was years from decomposing into the rich red soil out of which everything below grew. The scene reminded me of the upper slopes of Mont Ventoux, but in only the barest of similarity— Mont Ventoux is to Haleakala what your grade school bully is to Mike Tyson. The rock here is the terrestrial answer to the coral carpeting the bottom of Hawaii’s best surf—sharp, haphazard in its arrangement, certainly not suited to walking, memorials or leisurely picnics. Hell, I didn’t even see the birds landing on the stuff.

There comes a point in nearly every climb when you reach a kind of saddle, a place where the gradient drops and the mountain opens up before you. On mountains of modest elevation it can be difficult to tell just when this point has come because the top of the peak is blanketed in forest, the trees obscuring the contours before you. But on those higher peaks, those mountains that rise enough that the road emerges from the treeline and you can see the ridgeline, that saddle will often spell out disappointment. This was one of those familiar occasions; before me, just as it seemed I should be within sight of the top itself I was able to see a sequence of fresh switchbacks before the road curled around the peak and out of view.

I was stunned, if not silent. I think my exact words to myself were, “Fuck me sideways.”

Not so fast
In the final meters before pulling into the parking lot at the top of Haleakala you pass a sign marking your arrival at 10,000-feet elevation. It’s a simple sign, quite like the others you pass on the ascent. Were this sign the product of some Las Vegas casino, it would be accompanied by 30,000 watts of lighting, six lasers, two acrobats and a tiger. Here at the top of the world you pass the sign just before you enter a parking lot composed of a simple loop of road; really, nothing else needs to be said. You can’t not get the point.

In my memory, as I play the moment back in which I roll into the parking lot and circle it only the once and immediately drop into the descent, it still feels present-tense to me. I can still see the family of three ascending the steps to the rim of the peak. I can feel the dread about just how little time I must have. I can still feel the sinking feeling of looking down at the Garmin and seeing 3:36. I was 36 minutes past my absolute worst-case scenario for when I should begin my descent.

The toughest single portion of the climb comes in the final kilometer when the grade ticks upward of 10 percent. There were moments, brief ones, when I saw 13 and even 15 percent. The upshot here is that I rolled into the descent and was up to bombing speed well before my brain was adjusted to the new pace. After five hours of 7 mph, suddenly going 40 locked down my vision.

This was the moment I had been waiting for; this was the thing I’d wanted, the beginning of the dream and when presented with it, my reaction was to think, “Hang on, I need a minute to adjust.” The sensation was as if I was playing a Beatles album at 45—amusing, but crazily wrong.

Wrong, that is, until the first big left-hander. At that point my choices were to turn chicken and clamp down on the brakes or get my knee out, drop my shoulder and allow the world to blur by me. This was my big chance to pick up momentum I’d need.

Drop I did. A few turns later I found myself catching a flatbed truck. Despite the double yellow lines, I swung left, looked down the road and dropped into a tuck to overtake the truck. Then I heard the driver shift and accelerate. No problem; I was moving a good bit faster than he was, but then he edged left into my lane, an effort to intimidate me into not passing. I’m not sure what I devoted more energy to, hitting the brakes or cussing like I’d been bitten by a shark.

With a high gear of 50×12, I didn’t have much meat to gain top speed. It was the first time in years I’d found myself on a descent with such long, straight-ish stretches that I was wishing for an 11. I dropped behind the truck, let a gap open and then accelerated in the saddle until I couldn’t get the chain to bite any further. I was passing the cab by the time he saw me coming by and he began honking his horn. I’m guessing it was at me, though I’ve no idea what that was meant to accomplish.

The next several miles passed quickly; I was going nearly 50 mph, too quick to pedal, but the road was composed of such gentle bends I remained in my tuck, hands on the bar top, hugging the stem. I passed several cars, but I’m only certain one of the drivers saw me; we met eyes just as I passed.

Back to the jungle
The moonscape gave way to scrub and bushes, then actual soil with grass and small trees. The humidity returned and with it, the taste of the ocean. I could smell the sweetness of fruit, though I couldn’t have told you which ones. Much of my brain was shut down, focused only on the road ahead.

Not long before I exited the national park the road passed through a stand of Rainbow Eucalyptus and the air filled with the wet of the forest and the beguiling aroma of those trees. I entered a left-hand switchback a bit hot and thought I felt both tires push a few millimeters. Instinctively, I stood the bike up a bit and then told myself to relax, that it was all in my head, that I was needlessly worrying, that there was no way I’d picked up on such a small slide and, of course, had this entire internal conversation between the systole and diastole of a single heartbeat. As I leaned the bike, I slid, again, and this time there was no mistaking the fact that my bike was, to use a car enthusiast’s term, shoveling.

I wasn’t nervous. And while it wasn’t a conscious decision, I just knew I didn’t need to be. There was plenty of road to my right and as I was already exiting the turn, I knew I could stay off the brakes. The car I’d passed only a minute before wasn’t going to catch me, either, not with the road that slick.

Traffic increased substantially on the Kula Highway. Where the road through the park had been largely car-free, I was now being passed by semi after semi. The draft wasn’t worth the discomfort of having them pass so closely. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the way I’d encounter traffic that would slow me down on the way into Makawao. And everyone seemed to be on island time. Oh, the irony to be in Hawaii, on vacation, and yet wish for Los Angeles-style drivers. While I could still get by the traffic on the right, more than two decades of experience was telling me not to pass the cars too quickly, no matter how late I might be running.

Just how late that I was, I had no idea. I wasn’t looking down at the GPS. I was going as fast as I dared, so nothing the GPS might tell me would change what I was already doing.

The final slightly downhill run into Paia allowed me to take the lane between two cars and I pedaled the 50×12 like I was in the final 5k of a race. I wasn’t quite motorpacing the car ahead of me, but without its draft there was no way I’d have been pedaling at 35 mph on a 3 percent slope. Sweat was dripping off my nose and onto the GPS. Given what was at stake—a night on Maui and a very pissed family in Honolulu—this was the closest to racing I’d experienced in some time.

Rush hour
As I rolled past the Paia Post Office I began picking up traffic once again, slowed and then started shooting between cars paused to my left and parked to my right. Any other day and I might have held back and waited, but I knew I was short on time. Just as the cars came to a complete stop the exit to the parking lot where I’d left my rental rolled within reach; I dove in, fortunate not to have any cars trying to exit. I hit the stop on my GPS and then stared with stunned disbelief for a moment at the time: 7:50. My GPS, for reasons I’ve never been able to figure, remains stubbornly tied to Pacific Daylight Time, despite the persistent time zone of any locale where I might ride. I lopped off three hours and voila—it was 4:50. Holy cow. That left me exactly one hour and ten minutes to disassemble my bike, change, drive back to the rental car office, take the shuttle to the airport, check in for my flight, convince the agent to accept what was clearly a very late piece of luggage (my bike), try not to arouse any suspicion about the nature of the piece of luggage and then turbo to my gate.

To me, the math seemed hopeless, but I couldn’t not try. It would be the tourist equivalent of the Hail Mary pass. Go long.

With the bike in its case and stowed in the trunk, I pulled out, pausing for a moment to look at my feet—somewhere along the line I’d manage to trade my cycling shoes for my sneakers. I made the right turn out of the parking lot and proceeded to come to a complete halt.

I won’t bonk, will I?

How I got everything into the case I’m still not sure. I didn’t remove the stem from the bar, something I’ve done every other time I packed the bike. I left both pedals on both crankarms—just removed the cranks. I think I used my shoe to bang the spindle out. Once the case was shut I realized there might be time to get the car dropped off and back to the airport. It was conceivable the way establishing peace in the Middle East is conceivable. Possible on paper, but very, very unlikely.

I rubbed the salt from my temples as I told the flight attendant my story. She asked if I wanted something to drink and quickly brought me a Coke and peanuts. I was the only passenger for whom she did this. Telling her the story gave me a chance to imprint the events; saying it out loud proved it was real, proved I’d pulled it off. Though I admit I never told her how I drove down Hana Highway naked, pulling shorts on in between bursts of accelerator pedal. I knew I could be arrested for indecent exposure, but if ever multitasking was necessary, this was the occasion. To keep me in motion I kept asking myself, “What are the chances this is the first time someone has driven naked in Hawaii?”

Illustration by Kenton Hoppas

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Join the conversation
  1. TominAlbany says

    I remember your original telling of the story over at RKP. This version is at least as entertaining!

  2. khal spencer says

    Sounds like fun. I still kick myself for never having done the Haleakala ride when I lived in Honolulu. Guess I will have settle for the Santa Fe Ski Basin three times in one day!

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