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.”
“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.
How am I gonna do this?
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, though the descent hadn’t permitted me a chance to verify just how short the supply of my 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?
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.”