I know where to start, thanks to David. I have just enough time to drop off my semi-dinner (good bread seems hard to come by) and get to the top before sunset.
The first part of the trip is the first real road I’ve driven, and I’m not sure what the driving culture is like. I use a standard 5 mph speeding cushion, and get passed by a lot of people, which is fine, except I’m in the slow lane on a highway sprinkled with lightly labeled stoplight intersections and I’m eventually going to have to make a left. I consider pulling over to set up the GPS, but instead choose to white-knuckle it. I navigated Bangor without an iPhone, and by God I can make one damn turn off a Hawaiian highway.
I nail the turn, and start up the mountain. The switchbacks start early, which I expected: David told me the road has the greatest elevation change in the US, and maybe the world, going from approximately sea level to 10,000 feet. All the travel articles warn about lightheadedness when ascending.
“I visited with my brother from Los Angeles in 2007, and we decided to stay. Tried Honolulu a few years back, but the life is better in Maui,” said my first cab driver. I was taken aback by how casual he was about moving across an ocean to a foreign country before I remembered that I didn’t have to go through customs and I was not in a foreign country. I think the knowledge that I was still in the US was evicted by seeing that the airport hadn’t bothered installing windows in half the hallways, since it wasn’t likely to drop below 70 in the next hundred thousand years.
I managed to acclimate to still being in America when we drove through a small, mid-highway shopping town, with the actually useful stores for locals, as opposed to the tourist villages selling crustacean homes snapped up via eminent domain. It felt a bit like Pompano, Florida, which feels a bit like Ellsworth, Maine, but with palm trees. Nothing anchors the American experience like a strip mall. After that, we drove along the North coast for about twenty minutes, through a closed tourist village, and on into the interminable night, which really only terminabled five minutes outside the village, but made me realize I should have rented a car.
The cab dropped me off and drove away, and once the headlights vanished around the turn, I stood and waited for my night vision to recover.
It’s easy to forget what “night” means when you live in a city, or even on a country road with periodic streetlights. After a few minutes I switched on my phone flashlight and started trying to figure out where I was staying. It wasn’t too hard: About five minutes to find the building, another minute to find the door, another minute to find the light switch, five seconds to shoo away the hallway lizard, and I was in the apartment.
It was cozy. Actually cozy, not Craigslist-apartment-listing cozy. I dropped my bags, opened the windows, flipped through the folder of closed and too-far-away delivery places, accepted that I was in the jungle and would definitely not be getting a drink or food, poured myself a glass of water, stepped on to the porch, shooed away the porch lizard, and settled into to listen to the sounds of Maui, which turned out to be some invisible birds and the most basic conversation I’ve heard this side of college.
“I’m addicted to weed, I haven’t gone a day without weed in… eight years?” put the happy couple in their early 20s, no older than 24. I thought about going down and asking for a beer, but as the content of their chat sank in, I knew there was no way that encounter could have ended well. The conversation was at least post-makeout, probably post-coital: Comfortable enough to relate the highlight reel of teenage embarrassments in that humblebraggy way because they want to be seem honest and marginally sensitive but need to maintain their cool exterior and it’s all desperately precious.
I wished the guy had said something memorable that wasn’t about the fact that he’d never been addicted to anything and thought getting stoned for eight years qualified as an addiction. Instead, he communicated in tiny affirmatives and subtle suggestions that their discussion would go better in a private room. Fortunately for me, the girl either didn’t notice or didn’t care. She went on to tell a story about her dad finding her cigarette stash after she hid it in a rolled-up stocking inside a laptop bag at the bottom of a backpack filled with CDs and socks in the middle of a pile of bags under a sombrero full of keychains behind her winter coats at the back of her walk-in closet, which I assume was in her summer cottage in Narnia. It sounds impressive, but, though I’m not a parent, that’s the first place I would look. Hide things under the mattress. Parents will cut open a mattress to look inside it before they look under it.
Her other story that wasn’t about getting drunk involved a guy who did something undescribed to one of her friends. So she found him at a bar surrounded by girls, shouted at him, then slapped him and stormed away. She described this as the reason “You do not. Fuck with my friends,” but I’m pretty sure she guaranteed him a blowjob that night. It ain’t right, but it’s so.
Ultimately, they seemed nice enough, despite being basic, and they did save me from going a day without material for catty social commentary. I finished my water, hit the bathroom, and flushed the toilet.
I went out of my way to dig into web programming I should probably already know in order to present the following sound clip with no indication of time. It’s a story of noise, with third act plot twists that test belief.
Since I’m male, it would take until morning to discover my AirBnB didn’t come with toilet paper, which suggested my temporary landlord was also male, and an idiot. Though since the place was obviously a hotel with no real amenities under the guise of an AirBnB, he’d cracked the system better than I had.
I wish immediately that I had someone along to take pictures, as I almost die twice while snapping my head back and forth to keep the sweeping forests, fields, valleys, and hairpin switchbacks in my field of view. It becomes overcast as I move under the clouds created by the trade winds taking a sudden vertical course correction.
Twenty minutes up, there’s a residential area and a resort. Not sure I would stay in it, but it reminds me a little of Portland, except on the side of a volcano in a tropical paradise instead of the Pacific Northwest, so it has more of a Pacific Deadcenter feel. A left turn out of the town puts me twenty-two miles from the summit.
Coffee and David
After some morning Googling, I located a coffee shop a mere forty-five-minute walk from my not-quite-apartment/not-quite-hotel. The map also showed a walk that may or may not have gone through private property down to a beach. I decided to save the beach for later, because coffee.
When I finally got to the town of Haiku, I discovered it’s not just a coffee shop, it’s actually a whole tenth of Ellsworth, Maine, except warmer. I managed to get coffee, a croissant, toilet paper, and the other basic necessities.
In the coffee shop, I asked if there was a taxi service. The woman behind the counter audibly snickered and I felt like I’d asked for a kitten chariot.
“There’s a guy around, but he’s never around. Oh, some girl dropped this off the other day.” She handed me a Lyft coupon.
I thought I was finally in business and signed up for Lyft, after some confusion over text messages with whomever dropped off the coupon. I booted up the app, put in my location, and waited for a Lyft to arrive.
It’s easy to forget what non-cities are like when you spend most of your life in a city, or even on a country road with periodic streetlights. The lack of infinite public and private transportation wasn’t really a surprise, it just took a little shaking off of my daily assumptions. The lack of ginger ale was weirder. I drained my coffee and walked back to my room, where I flipped through the amenities folder until I found a cab service to take me back to a car rental service at the airport.
The car service connected me directly to the driver to sort out pickup, which was a lot more personable that the Brooklyn dispatchers I’m used to, who just ask for an intersection then say “five minutes” without even trying to sell the lie. David described his cab and told me an honest “thirty minutes” and about thirty minutes later he picked me up at the bottom of the road.
“When did you fly in?” he asked.
“No, I just need to get a rental car. Not that I don’t appreciate the ride.”
“No, that makes sense. I’m David.”
David came to Maui for a year in 1991 and never left. He gestured to some cane fields that the sugar companies abandoned after 180 years of cultivation, and pointed out how some of the fields grew a new crop anyway. He said he hoped the fields got put to new agricultural use, ideally hemp, but assumed at least some of them will go to housing due to a housing shortage, but there also wasn’t enough infrastructure to support too many buildings for too many people. Paradise can’t be for everyone. It would stop being paradise.
We played the now standard game of introducing politics to a conversation.
He opened with a middle pawn: “It’s hard to grow hemp because of its association with marijuana.”
“Well,” I said, moving a knight, for maximum mobility, “we were headed in… the right direction about that. Just have to see what happens now.”
“Yeah.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and decided to call off the game. “Since we put that crazy New Yorker in charge—”
“We all hate him! I didn’t think he’d get a vote out of the city!”
The carefulness of not wanted to get caught in a conversation with the wrong side reminded me of people avoiding the Stasi in Cold War movies.
He pointed to some volcanoes in the distance I could drive up were I so inclined. I asked about the big one to our left while we were stopped at one of the two lights between my AirBnB and the airport.
“Well, turn left here and you’ll be on your way to Haleakala Highway.”
The name Haleakala unearthed a memory from my on-again, off-again freelance career. In 2011, I built a web presence for a law firm working with Public Access Trails Hawaii to help with a class action suit against the Department of Land and Natural Resources. They were trying to prevent the state from allowing the trail to be claimed, or possibly sold, for private ownership. The details are a little rusty and the website is down, but Facebook suggests a successful endeavor, and the trail did eventually reopen to the public. My nihilism kept me from investigating the outcome once the last payment cleared,1 but what’s left of my humanity felt a small swell of pride at knowing I played a part in postponing the inevitable capitalist doomsday when merely uttering the word “public” is a fifty-dollar fine.
The guy at the Budget rental desk was a sweetheart and asked me if I was a troublemaker. The question surprised me into honesty: “I used to be.”
“Good. If you’d said no I would have sent you to the back of the line.”
Looking over the car options, I wondered how much the Camaro was, since I was on an island and figured I should be driving a bitchin Camaro. I didn’t get a choice and he gave me a red Ford Fusion, which struck me as a car that would move, so I didn’t complain.
He then gave me a coupon for a free gift at the aquarium in a vowely subtown/resort, and a map with bold red lines indicating where they’d rather I’d not drive my non-Camero rental car. Since some of the places were one-lane dirt roads on cliffs with no guardrails, I told him I got that particular rush out of my system in Venezuela, being driven down similar roads by a bus driver who kept a bottle of wine in his cupholder.
I pointed to a squiggle of a road going up Haleakala. “What about that one?”
“Oh that one’s just fine.”
He mentioned he was born on the island, so I asked him if he’d ever been to the mainland, and he said he tried living in Vegas for three years. “There was no ocean. And it was just,” hand gesture, “I’ve never wanted to go back.”
I wanted to plead with him not to judge the continental U.S. by Nevada, but I settled for, “I’ve never even been to Vegas,” hopefully suggesting it wasn’t worth a mention as I crossed a country and half an ocean.
He wrapped up my paperwork, complimented my rings and gave me a wink. “Go make some trouble.”
I haven’t even pretended to own a car in twelve years, and certainly haven’t driven any modern ones, so I hated the Fusion instantly. I figured out how to turn it on, and the electric seat positioning comes back pretty quickly, and it went downhill from there. I didn’t even try to adjust the side mirrors because nothing looked side-mirror-controly and the last renter seemed to have been about my height. There were fifteen buttons on the steering wheel: the usual random assortment of media controls, plus a bunch labeled only with glyphs. One seemed to be “man shouting at church.”
I truly believe there’s a multi-disciplinary graduate thesis waiting to be written about the fact that it took me less time to connect my phone to the car than it did to figure out how to turn off the hazard lights. To alleviate the suspense: it never occurred to me to look for a manual and I just shouted at the damn technology for the next three days.
I’m driving through clouds, and I’m freaking out. I can feel the pressure changing in my head, and some almost dormant hypochondria asks if I’m going to have an aneurysm, and I’ve superstitiously convinced myself that I get stupid at high elevation, because I never get any of the writing done that I plan to do on planes, and I have just read a book where a character’s brain stops working outside the atmosphere so she can’t be an astronaut. The stupid space car isn’t helping: since they didn’t put the light controls in a normal place, I have to pull into a rare shoulder and figure them out by trial and error, literally spinning or clicking what I think are the light wheels or buttons, then walking around the car to see what happened.
Even after I figure things out, I think about turning back, but, for liver or wurst, once I decide to do something on whim, I tend to push through almost because of the rational and irrational fears they inspire. Conversely, if I’ve agonized through the semi-logic humans call decision-making, I’m much more apt to give up in the face of surprise adversity. If the pros and cons were so close as to demand thoughtful agony, a new con will tip the decision back easily. Once I’ve committed to the fear and tedium required for this kind of semi-adventure, cons are things to conquer.
What’s it like driving through a cloud, you ask? It’s like driving through fog of course. Why the fuck would you ask me such a stupid question when I’m driving through fog and rain on switchbacks over thousand-foot cliffs on the side of a fucking volcano wondering when my brain will stop working?
I stopped in Paia once I got my rental car, and tried to figure out if I’d managed to turn the car off and if I was in a legal parking spot. After ten minutes I gave up on both investigations, locked the doors, and wandered into town, where I was unable to find ginger ale.
I didn’t find any ginger ale in Japan either, though I’m told it’s there. Overall, I went a month without ginger ale.
My whole trip to Hawaii was my second stop on my way to Japan, a stop I only took because the thought of spending sixteen hours in a plane terrified the smoker in me. Every conversation I had about this plan followed the same script:
“I’m going to Japan for a couple of weeks.”
“Cool! How come?”
“Always meant to go, seemed like a good time.”
“Cool! You flying straight there?”
“No, stopping in Maui for a few days first.”
“Well then go fuck yourself.”
Japan as a destination for an upper-middle-class city boy means I’m going to expand my horizons or learn about cultures or spiritualize my chi bone or bone foreigners with unusually healthy skin. Maui means I’m going to the only non-Florida tropical paradise I can get to without a passport, because I can. Going to Japan is leveraging my privilege; going to Maui is flexing it.
Privilege blinks under unusual stars, but I didn’t expect ginger ale to be something I’d have to give up to bounce between a few first-world cities. I also didn’t expect to be barred from a Tokyo restaurant for being white, but that’s another story, and more of a “so that’s what that’s like” than any noticeable impediment to my trip. The lack of ginger ale was just a minor constant annoyance that didn’t seem to deserve the attention of even my boundless capacity to whine about things, but it was so odd and unexpected I couldn’t get it out of my head.
But before I lose my license to gripe, when I found the wine opener the night after I drove up a volcano, it felt like an indictment of human technology. All the parts that are supposed to be on sticky hinges that you have to pry open with a 10 percent chance of flesh wound, instead swung in the breeze, which reduced flesh wounds but demonstrated that you only barely have enough fingers to keep three loosely connected machine parts in a useful position.
Beyond the rust, and whatever it is that’s supposed to keep a wine opener together almost completely failing to do its job, the actual corkscrew part was the worst bit. Let’s get a close up:
This is how applied math tells you to go fuck yourself. Here’s a perfect spiral of wine-opening. Nothing wrong here. Well, something. Just the tip. Just the part that’s supposed dig into the cork, not tear it apart and gouge glass on the way down.
Still, I once opened a bottle of wine with a number 2 pencil, when I was too lazy to walk to the store and too ADD to give up. The most important thing was I had wine to offer the hallway lizard, because he cool.
The clouds start to break periodically. This part is weird. It’s like a horror movie on a distant planet. Cloudlets and vines of mist drift over rocky hills and ever sparser trees. It has a Silent Hill feel to it, which is—fittingly—hauntingly beautiful when nothing’s trying to kill you, but you can’t quite shake the feeling that something’s going to try to kill you. The occasional resemblance to a Lord of the Rings landscape doesn’t help. Blue sky dips in and out, features appear and vanish, sometimes because I’m moving, sometimes because the clouds are moving, so my sense of velocity becomes unmoored, and the world becomes a dream landscape, half-formed and only pulled together to provide the road ahead.
I wasn’t going for Hana. I was going for black sand. When I was a child playing lots of Dungeons & Dragons, I dreamed of making a chalice2 of melted sands from the four corners of the Earth3 and filling it with ice from the seven seas4 and filling it with a Bordeaux.5 My glassblower friends have since informed me that this is not how anything works, at least sandwise, but I figured I might as well see some black sand. The Google said it was only forty miles away, barely an afternoon jaunt, really, and I was apparently staying just around the bend from the Hana Highway.
A tiny part of me knew I’d heard this name before. Something something dark, something long, something fight, something something divorce, etc. The story I put together in my head suggested my uncle decided to drive out somewhere and it was late and took a little longer than usual. Since I could very much believe my uncle driving blood relatives through an unexpected detour to their frustration, my memory just filed it under “043 Uncles; Subsection: Car” and skipped the storied magnitude of his error.
There are some winding gravel roads in Maine, and we drive them at unsafe speeds and feel plaid with ourselves. When faced with ostensibly traversable things resembling Hana Highway, we call them “trails” and put up warning signs and shake our heads when the summer hikers fall off them. To its credit, it was paved, making it only the third or fourth most dangerous road on Maui, and I spent a lot of the drive marveling at the notion that somebody built it at all. Unsurprisingly, it came into existence in stages for the purpose of getting water to and crops out of Hana, and most of the hard parts were done by prisoners shipped into Keanae. Seems like a roundabout approach to the death penalty, but whatever gets the job done.
I can’t put it much better than the opening paragraph of the website I should have read before setting off:
Those who are unfamiliar with the Hana Highway (aka: the “Road to Hana”) will look at their map and say, “Oh, it’s only 52 miles. We can make it to Hana in about an hour.” Well, not unless you’re flying … literally. Aptly dubbed “The Divorce Highway,”6 the Road to Hana has an exhausting, and many times harrowing, 617 hairpin curves and 59 unforgiving one-lane bridges, not to mention an incredible number of blind spots along the way. And, since the speed limit is 25 mph or less the entire way, that puts the drive time, (with few to no stops), averaging about 2.5 hours—and that’s without encountering any traffic or other diversions.
It sneaks up on you unless you know what you’re in for. Having no idea, I cruised down a fairly normal road, with a gradually increasing frequency of thoughts like, “Well that was a sharp turn,” and “I sure hope nobody’s coming around the other side of that bend,” and “I should stop in front of that bridge so that jeep doesn’t kill me.”
At least with the bridges, you learn quickly that they’re all one-lane death traps. The rest of the road also periodically loses a lane, evidenced by the dividing line vanishing, often right before yet another hairpin turn above around a hundred-foot cliff. Even when it does have two lanes it’s a near thing, and I had to roll up the passenger window because I was driving three inches from the companion cliff faces and catching leaves.
I briefly wished I was an instafluencer, so I could have thought of it as a job opportunity to take carefully composed selfies about how much fun I was having, so desk workers would click hearts hoping for I don’t know what. Maybe they think sparing one of the thousands of daily spasmodic twitch-clicks for a picture of a tree will bring them closer to nirvana. Maybe it’s automatic since we’ve been trained by market engines trading in eyeballs and fingertips, and the only things in between they care about are evolved compulsions and addiction potential. But, hey, at least I could assuage my cynicism with an implausibly attractive mate to objectify. Fake lives have perks.
As it was, I was having the classic responses to unexpected adventure, namely fear and boredom with a pinch of rage, so this was my only live post:
There were a lot of food and local art stops along the way, all of them not quite enticing enough to make me pull over over in the two seconds I had to decide between stopping and getting to the end of the road as quickly as possible, so I missed all of them. I’m not much of a food tourist anyway.
I made a real effort to enjoy the perfect views, breathtaking waterfalls, and sweeping jungle, but I was constantly interrupted. Once, after screeching to a halt, I literally thought “Why the fuck is that chicken crossing the road?” Later, a hippy couple was walking down the side of the road, and the male half had lashed a tree branch to his backpack in such a way that it stuck out halfway across the lane. I didn’t hit them, but I did consider pulling over, sitting the male down, and explaining to him that all of the decisions he’d made so far in his life were wrong, and if he couldn’t find a tree branch a little closer to his AirBnB on a tropical fucking island, he should seek psychological help, and then, when he truly understood the error of his ways and was ready and eager to turn his life around, pushing him off the cliff. But again, only two seconds to make these decisions, so I just swerved and wished divorce on them.
I stopped twice to take in the view. Early on—before I fully comprehended what I’d gotten myself into—I stopped at an outlook, and walked up a muddy trail, to the extreme displeasure of my loafers, because they never signed up for this wormshit, and of my knees, because once my loafers noped out I had no traction. I managed to take 62 bad pictures of trees, and this one:
At the other stop I was smoking a cigarette to calm my nerves after nearly mistiming the thirty-fourth bridge, and an older couple were awkwardly straddling the barrier between the road and the down-cliff. A woman drove out of her driveway in one of the few practical vehicles on the road, rolled down her window, and shouted, “Be careful! Stay off there! People die there every year.” Her tone was what I now recognize as the tone of someone jaded to the fact that people die at the end of her driveway every year.
After almost three hours, I hit the turn to the black sand beach, found parking, unclenched my fingers, and left a half-finished can of Sprite in the cupholder. One of these things was a mistake, but I wasn’t thinking too hard about it because I was happy to be back in a walking portion of paradise.
The sand was black:
The view would definitely have made me believe in some gods if I hadn’t thought about it before:
And some asshole couldn’t get out of the middle of the path and decided running into my shoulder was just fine with him. I didn’t kill him either, because I have the patience of fucking Buddha.
On the way to the shore paths, a wave hit me at about ankle height, and I realized my shoes were not going to make it back to the continental forty-eight. I didn’t care because I was so struck by the warmth of the water. Eight years in Maine teaches you two things: adding more nature does not cure depression, and the ocean is cold. It is always cold, and you will die if you spend too long in it. Feeling ocean water that didn’t feel like icy death was almost as shocking as feeling water that feels like icy death.
When I got back to the car, I reached for my Sprite found it covered with ants, as was the console, the steering wheel, and my seat. I meditated on what my brother-in-patience Buddha would do in such a situation, and proceeded to do the exact opposite. Let’s be honest: If they were reincarnated as ants I was probably doing them a favor. After twenty minutes of soaking my journal with the blood of insects, I had not won the war, but they didn’t seem eager for the next battle, and were few enough that I felt confident I could swat the survivors while driving.
On the way back, fear was finally beaten off the field by annoyance. The afternoon jaunt had become my whole day, and I was driving back over wet asphalt into a setting sun. I wasn’t driving exactly like a teenager with something to prove in the backwoods of Maine, but I sparked a few old memories as I hit 40mph on some of the intensely ephemeral straightaways whenever I wasn’t blinded.
The problem with this strategy, aside from tempting an especially stupid kind of death-by-impatience at every corner, was that I kept catching up to other cars. It’s nice to have a canary for blind corners, and my rapid approach to others’ bumpers seemed to convey that I was volunteering to be that canary, so they inevitably pulled over, let me pass, then tailgated me until I pulled over for a smoke and let them all go by so we could start the next round of hopscotch. By the time I made it to a road with a speed limit that couldn’t be exceeded by a bicycle, I was trailing seven rental cars, all of whom had been matching my unsafe speed via lemming logic, thus ensuring that if I’d made a(nother) mistake on the last five miles I would have met a very flat end.
Fortunately, I got home and drunk. I played with hallway lizard until it was sufficiently terrified of the giant hairless monkey that was making cat noises at it, and went to bed.
The fog breaks, because I’m above the clouds. It’s like breaking the clouds in a plane, because it’s mostly the same thing, but in flight you’re in the plane before you’re in the clouds, and a plane is its own world of lights and tiny windows: One more environmental frame between cognition and object.
Standing in the air on the edge of the road, the clouds were an ocean frozen in violence. I had to resist the vertiginous urge to dive into the gray scape fifty feet below me. With the sun just dipping below it, a featureless dome encircled my island of rock in the sea of cloud, and it did not feel like Earth.
On my last day, I tried to get to a submarine tour that sails (or sinks, I guess) out of Lahaina. It looked like about forty miles of non-Hana highway, so I left with two hours to spare, forgetting that other people with jobs lived on the island. That traffic would have been manageable, but I also didn’t realize that Lahaina, HI is Bar Harbor, ME in the land of eternal summer. Stop and crawl traffic got me to the docks five minutes before the sub left and twenty-five minutes after the last chance to board.
In retrospect, this was probably for the best. I’m not sure how bad it is to go forty meters underwater fourteen hours before going ten thousand meters over it, but it doesn’t sound like an awesome idea. I’m certain there was something about this in the third season of House. I parked my car half a mile from the town center and walked back to do some tourist shopping in Bar Harbor: Maui Edition. I found a sufficiently shiny Koa wood ring and added it to my horde, because there are tattoo people and there are ring people and I’ve seen too many of my opinions change too quickly to risk a lifelong commitment.7 I got some decent Chinese food and thought about going to a movie.
I’ve never quite figured out how to properly tour. I’m not antisocial, but I’m not prosocial either, so I don’t meet many people. I try to hit the slightly off-brand tourist go-tos: Places that are unique to the destination, and important ingredients in the exported cultural flavor, but not on the back of any currency. I’m always a little shy around alien public transport, and “properly experiencing” rural or wild areas is always some variation of hiking, so no matter where I’m going, it comes down to a lot of walking and spending more money than usual.
This usually works out, but having no real plan or set of things to achieve in a new place pumps an odd amount of ambivalence into the question “Do I see a movie?” Is it a waste of precious time that should be spent gathering tourist cred? Does anybody actually want tourist cred? Have I taken enough pictures? Should I be swimming or something? I think I want to see a movie, but will my enjoyment be marred by knowing I’m sitting in a theater in Maui? Should I be sleeping in a hammock next to the ocean like all those people I drove past on my way here? I should definitely be sleeping in a hammock next to the ocean.
I didn’t see a movie. Instead I fought traffic for an hour to spend a disappointing twenty minutes walking through the Maui Ocean Center. It was disappointing because I had planned to spend an hour in a kickass submarine, and confused fish don’t stir the soul once you graduate high school.
Also, I grew up near Baltimore, and the Baltimore aquarium sets a pretty high standard.
I hit the gift store redeemed my car rental coupon for what I believe is the tackiest thing I’ve ever accepted from another person, and the only reason I didn’t refuse it was to take pictures of it and write about how tacky it was.
Seriously, it’s a rarified class of free gifts that would disappoint a three-year-old. I can’t get my goddamn cat to play with this thing.
When approaching the ineffable, there is always the temptation to hint at its mystery then dance away, leaving a David-Lynch-shaped hole in the narrative, hoping the audience will insert their own experience of rapture.
As annoyed as I am with summaries like “indescribable joy,” “close to God,” and “I felt, you know, connected,” there isn’t always another option. Descriptions are anchored in the concrete, but there is no neutral choice of words, no perfect atomic communication that transcribes experience from one brain to another, so stories are littered with hints, hoping to coax a stranger’s mind toward a feeling, and take them on the same journey.
But the crux of an indescribable moment remains stubbornly indescribable. Words must fail, because the mind drops away at the experience, yet words cannot fail, because the protagonist must bring back some forbidden truth to those who could not follow.
Fortunately, even at 10,000 feet, my brain still works well enough to not be able to shut up, so this exact problem continues to bounce back and forth in my head the way it usually does. Behind me are high clouds above a dark and cratered landscape. The sun lights the clouds ahead of me, making silhouettes of the children wandering across the ridge. It is a sight stranger by far than most of the alien landscapes I see in movies, which ultimately boil down to desert, lower Manhattan, or rave.
In the northwest curve of the peak is the Haleakala Observatory, and I consider driving up and asking for a look, to see stars a little closer and hang out with fellow data-obsessed nerds. The road to it is long, with some intimidating gates covered in signs suggesting lethal deterrents, so I stay in the tourist loop and watch the sky darken.
The clouds become black, then blue, then white as the stars climb over the craters behind me, and I stay in my oscillation between empty-minded awe, and the full-minded attempt to finally find a way to describe what empty-minded awe is like. Physically, it’s like going over the top of a rollercoaster, with a sensation of altered gravity. It creates the cognitive illusion of real phenomenon being connected through suddenly visible invisibles; the electromagnetic spectrum merging with acoustics until the world becomes a mumbling jumble of input, nonsensical yet soothing.
That’s all I’ve got. It’s not especially different from the states I achieve to deal with my commute, which I always feel is an ironic use of Zen practice at the exact moment my trance fails because I’m thinking about irony and that’s not very Zen.
I walk over to the tourist gazebo and read some popular science paragraphs I immediately forget: something about elevation, volcano, and moisture. On the way there I meet my first8 and second-to-last9 asshole, who is a large, Nordic-looking teenager, who stares me down and makes absolutely no effort to correct his path as it arcs directly into me, forcing me to correct my path three times. I don’t even think of other subway riders as humans and I show more deference to their pathfinding. I shoulder a sigh, glance at the science, and go to smoke a cigarette beside the space car before heading back down. The people in the car across the lot are definitely having sex.
The last trip I took was to Kanaha Beach Park, northwest of Kahului. It was my third attempt at visiting the beach because I kept missing the turn and deciding not to pursue the issue when I realized I was already halfway to Haiku.
It was, of course, more paradise, but especially postcardy.
I took my shoes off to save them a final insult, but alas. I put them down to take a picture of a receding wave, and the next wave seemed to have some insecurities to work out, because it shot eighteen feet past the previous wave and hauled my shoes out to sea. After a lot of splashing, I managed to save them from outright drowning, but it was clear that a mercy killing wasn’t far off.
I snapped some bad pictures of the windsurfers and the sunset, like every other yuppie mainlander since 1913, then sat and spent some time thinking about the distance to the mainland. My knowledge of wayfinding comes entirely from Moana, and I hadn’t even seen it yet. It took a lot to get me to board a plane and watch a satellite track it for nine hours. Twenty-five hundredish years ago, some people got on boats and didn’t give up after the first fifteen hundred miles of water. It was either the kind of wunderlust that might get us to Mars, or the most epic breakup in history.
I took a cab to an airport, walked through the airport, took a bridge to a flying tube, avoided the food, then walked to a cab and another cab and a rental car. I walked a little and sat a lot, and though I’m not rich, I have just enough money to turn my life into a holodeck, with admittedly atrocious loading times. I would say that’s why I can’t lose myself to a spiritual revelation while sitting on a beach that could be the template for the evolutionary pressure that defined the human definition of beauty, but I can’t, because I grew up in Maine, surrounded by another set of beauty templates, with all the same unfulfilled wistfulness. I think it’s me. I also think it’s everyone, because wouldn’t an experience sound like something worth seeking if nobody could communicate it to you? It’s the easiest sales job in the world to sell subjective experience: All subjective experiences are incommunicable, and it’s hard not to notice that the most popular ones involve a lot of money or time, while the most revered involve suffering nobody wants to do.
Hawaii is paradise because it’s meteorologically optimal for human biology. It’s Paradise because it’s hard to visit, so we aspire to it and have trouble shipping in equipment to pave it, but we got enough there to provide first world convenience if you can afford it. You can also live there, but home and paradise are incompatible notions.
On the way back, I bought a new pair of shoes and stopped myself from hitting an asshole in the street. This guy was full barefoot hippy, and hopefully on drugs, since that’s what I told myself as part of the moral argument I used to avoid running him over. He was walking in the middle of the street, forcing all traffic to navigate around him, and after I spared his life—against a very strict New York City code of honor—he went out of his way to give me the finger after he caught up to me at a streetlight. He then walked through the middle of the intersection, variously distributing fingers and thumbs ups to passing cars. I assume the thumbs were for hybrids, because I can’t think of any other logical reason for the reactions and assume everybody knows more about cars than I do. I bottled up a little more rage and tried to reconcile his existence with his attitude. Perhaps he was sticking it to the ecological invaders gradually roping off the beaches he can sleep on. Perhaps he was defensibly judgmental of the technocracy. Perhaps he was indefensibly judgmental of whatever it is he cares about. Perhaps he was really, really stoned. Perhaps he should have gotten his dumb ass out of the fucking road in case a Yankee with anger issues was driving by.10
I got home and consigned my shoes to the trashcan, after cutting off their buckles because I’m psychotically sentimental.
The Way Down
On the way down I stop for a bathroom break and to catch some stars. It turns out to be difficult because there’s a guy with a headlamp sifting through his photography equipment. It takes him a very, very long time. I spend it trying to pick out the occasional German word from the chatter coming from somewhere in the parking lot. I never figure out where, because they leave before my night vision recovers from the periodic blinding as the headlamp guy glances at me and wonders why there’s a man glaring at him.
The stars are about as breathtaking as a clear country night in Maine, which is to say quite, but no strange #nofilter colors from airglow or auroras. It works for me though, since I only see good stars once or twice a year. City stars are bad stars and we don’t let them out at night.
The tourist cars pile up behind me in a preview of what I’ll be going through the next afternoon. It’s for the best, because it keeps my attention on the traffic instead of the view, where city starscapes are competing with the sky across a horizon of inky ocean. A line of blinking red lights seems to be reaching up from the ground at an impossible angle until I realize they’re blinking from the ridges of the volcanoes on the other side of the island, hidden by the moonless dark.
I get home and sleep early, because I’m taking a quick trip to Hana in the morning.
1 At least until I needed a segue in an article.
2 Maybe goblet, not sure what my vocabulary was back then.
3 Because the poetic license has a whole section addressing topology.
4 Also cartography.
5 I was young, and not French.
6 This is my hypothesis for why traveling causes so much hardship in relationships: Traveling puts people in unfamiliar situations and forces them to deal with problems they can’t make better, and there are two common ways of dealing with this which happen to be intensely irritating to each other. I call their respective practioners Activists and Monks. Activists complain. They complain a lot about things that nobody can do anything about, and expect others to listen and be as upset as they are. Monks try to ignore problems and make do, sometimes to the point of catatonia. Monks hate Activists because Activists actually become a problem the Monk assumes they can’t do anything about, so an Activist companion turns into something the Monk is trying to ignore, which obviously makes the Activist hate the Monk. Activists also hate Monks because a Monk’s smug serenity deludes them into thinking they can’t do things that actually would improve the situation, and when the Activist tries to point this out the Monk is already trying to ignore them. A pair of Monks can calmly glide through whatever happens, but will probably miss out on things because they couldn’t be bothered to overcome minor obstacles. A pair of Activists will piss off a bunch of strangers, but will also get everything done. A Monk and an Activist will get divorced.
7 I have toyed with the idea of getting a “Salty Bitch” tramp stamp, but wouldn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, since half the people I meet think I’m gay already, and I hate disappointing suitors.
10 I’m going to find you, dickwad. I’m going to find you and push you off the Hana Highway.