As a kid I spent parts of many an afternoon perched at the top of trees near the family house in Maine, and days hiking mountains. Though the peaks are relatively small compared to many we have in the West, I felt the need to walk as close to the edge as possible and stare into the abyss. I would often sit down at the edge, legs dangling over, the sound of my fretting parents like a soothing melody. Come to think of it, maybe that act was more a manifestation of my need to rebel than any sign of an intrepid nature, but I digress.
Driving along California’s Big Sur or farther north along the raggedy edges of the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts in later years didn't faze me, nor did trips bombing down narrow winding highways on the many lesser-traveled routes through the Sierra.
I was convinced heights would never faze me. Then I encountered Haleakala.
The island of Maui is dominated by two volcanic mountains with thin coastal strips at the bases, of varying altitude and geography. A small isthmus lies between the volcanoes. The smaller, Mauna Kahalawai, also referred to as the West Maui Mountains, and as Maui Komohana to Hawaiians, is an eroded shield volcano.
Nestled on the eastern, windward side of that mountain is the port city of Kahului, home to the island's main airport, and down the road, adjacent to the lush Iao Valley lies Wailuku, the former plantation town-cum-county seat. On the leeward, western side of the mountain is Lahaina, the former royal capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom turned British whaling port turned overcrowded tourist hotspot.
But Haleakala is, to further appropriate some already co-opted local parlance, the big kahuna on Maui, making up more than three quarters of the island's land mass, from the varied landscape at the base that includes lava fields, rainforests, sandy beaches and grasslands, to the barren landscape at the top.
Translated from Hawaiian as "House of the Sun," Haleakala, though referred to as a crater, is a shield volcano, like Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Shield volcanoes are named for their large size and low profile that resemble a warrior's shield lying on the ground, and are created mostly by fluid magma flows.
In native folklore, the depression was home to the grandmother of the demigod Maui. She helped her grandson capture the sun and slowed its journey across the sky to make the day longer.
Though long thought to have last erupted in 1790, recent advanced dating tests date the last belch from the mythic beast to the century before that.
These days tourists and astrophysicists alike flock to Haleakala.