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Lost In a Hole
The walls were collapsing inward. The ground shook and red hot lava burst out of widening fissures. Suddenly, the shifting rocks beneath my feet disappeared and I was falling into a pit of magma. I quickly opened my eyes, panting. My heart beat sounded like a bass drum. Don’t worry, this volcano hasn’t erupted in 500 years, I told myself. Trying to calm myself I went to take a drink but I got a mouthful of nothing. I ripped opened my backpack. What? That can’t be. I thought to myself, panic setting in again. I counted: two empty bottles and one full. Oh God, only a measly half litter left, they are going to half to carry me out – if they can find me. There I was, lost – in a hole.
Okay- well it wasn’t exactly a “hole” - crater is a more accurate description. The crater, 10,000 feet in the air and eight miles across, was atop Mount Haleakal? (for those who don’t know Hawaiian, it’s pronounced “hall ie a kala”), the long dormant volcano that makes up three quarters of Maui, Hawaii.
We set out from our hotel at 5:00 am for the two plus hour winding drive to the top of the volcano. Of course, I slept for most of the ride. Other than the occasional exotic plant or sweeping valley view hidden in the hazy dawn light, there wasn’t anything interesting for my twelve-year-old eyes. Even when we reached the summit, the view was mundane. Clouds obscured the land below and the dull blue ocean stretched to infinity. Disappointingly, the clouds also filled the crater, like a giant cotton ball swimming pool, preventing us from hiking in. So we waited. “Waited” is a euphemism for “everyone but me and my sister slept in the cars.” I wandered around the visitor’s center, learning about the rare Silversword plant and the geological history of Haleakal? while my sister enjoyed the brisk morning air.
And just when it seemed that the trip would be a wash, my sister called out, “The clouds are clearing!” We all rushed, stumbling out of cars, tripping over curbs, and up stairs, to the observation post perched about the crater. The clouds were flowing over the black ridge that defined the hole, spilling onto the green mountainside below and leaving the crater floor uncovered. Not wanting to waste this good fortune, we hastily grabbed our backpacks and set out for the trailhead. My mother gave us the directions: hike for about a mile and a half into the crater to a cinder cone, sort of a volcano within a volcano. It was fairly simple. The cinder cone was called “Ka Lu’u o ko ‘O’o” (pronounced ka lu oo o co o) and it was just off of the Sliding Sands Trail. Great, I thought checking my watch, one hour in, one hour out, back by 11:30 – in time for lunch.
As we started hiking our group of eight split into two groups. Me, my sister Li-Ming, her fiancé Dave, my friend Matt, and Matt’s father David were in the first group. My mom, dad, and Matt’s mother Vikki, were bringing up the rear. Our group quickly got far ahead and by the time we stopped to rest we could just barely pick out my dad’s bright red windbreaker among the rust stained rocks. While we sat, recovering from the effects of the altitude, greedily inhaling the thin air and drinking water, I started to look around. In my haste to keep up with the group and stay on the crumbling trail, I had scarcely noticed the landscape around me.
I have never been to Mars, but I imagine that crater was close to what it looks like. Soaring promontories of solid rock formed the crater walls. The crater floor was completely covered by small jagged rocks, dyed brownish-red and black after centuries of oxidization. A dozen cinder cones protruded from the basin, each one marking a separate eruption. The occasional Silversword dotted the landscape, which was otherwise devoid of vegetation. Rich hues of blue and white starkly contrasted the sky with the ancient landscape. As I gazed at the scene before me I was awe struck by its austere beauty. Unfortunately, just as I started to relax, the group started to move. Once again I was concentrating on keeping up and on the trail, unable to fully appreciate the landscape around me.
Our trek continued. The sun was now high in the sky and relentlessly beating down on us. My twelve-year-old legs were starting to feel the first signs of fatigue but I was determined to keep up. Eventually we reached a split in the trail. A faded sign pointed in two different directions, to the left it said “Ka Lu’u o ko ‘O’o crater: 0.5 miles” and to the right it read “Sliding Sands Trail.” We stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do. Stupidly, in our excitement to descend into the crater we hadn’t paid close attention to the directions my mom gave and none of us thought to grab a map.
“Which way?” I asked.
“To the right, I think,” David replied.
“Yeah, ‘sliding sands’ sounds familiar,” added Dave.
My sister briefly protested, saying, “I think it’s the crater one because we have definitely walked a mile already.” But Dave and David assured her that it wasn’t a mile yet, it was just the effect of the altitude. Before she could reply David was already moving down the Sliding Sands Trail, descending further into the crater.
The next half an hour passed uneventfully. We would occasionally stop to look for my parents and Vikki but we couldn’t spot them because of bends in the trail. I wasn’t overly concerned at that point because ahead of us I could see five cinder cones that were near the trail and I was happy to be in such a beautiful place. However as the hike progressed, I started worrying. As we drew near, we could see that the cinder cones that I spotted earlier showed no signs of having a connecting trail and we had definitely been hiking for over a mile and a half. Finally, at about 11:30, an hour after we had taken what as clearly the wrong trail, we stopped.
My sister said, in a told-ya-so kind of tone, “We’re lost, aren’t we?”
“We’re not lost, I know exactly where we are,” replied David. “We’re at the spot where we are supposed to turn around.”
We all laughed at his humor but I was secretly scared. My mind flashed to a book my dad had just bought called Death in the Grand Canyon. It was filled with tales of hikers who died horrible deaths after they made seemingly innocuous mistakes - like taking the wrong trail. I wondered to myself, Would they have to write a new book called Death on Haleakal?? – I hope not.
Step, crunch, step, crunch. My shoes pounded against the shifting rocks as we started to work our way up. I looked up. The sun was unbearably hot; I half expected to see vultures circling above us, waiting for one of us to drop. I couldn’t distinguish any landmarks. The rocks all look the same, red and craggy. A myriad of thoughts were battling over control of my brain, Where were we? How many miles had we walked? Were we still on the right trail – we had to be, right? I mean- there is only one big trail. I glanced up again and saw that the trail snaked upward until it disappeared behind a large black mound 300 yards later. Then, just around the bend, I saw the sign - that god forsaken sign, Almost there.
1:30 pm, I made it to the sign and finished the last of my water.
Five hours and seven miles after we set out on our “short” hike we finally made it back to the summit. My fears had proven to be the preposterous fears of an exhausted and possibly dehydrated twelve-year-old. My relieved parents had met us halfway between the trailhead and the sign, bringing much needed water and snacks (it’s amazing what chocolate can do for the spirits). Before we left, I struggled up to the observation post to get one last glimpse of the crater. The incredible beauty stretched out before me, and as if inviting me to try again, the Ka Lu’u o ko ‘O’o crater stood out among the undulating landscape of reds and blacks. I narrowed my eyes and glared at it then I turned around to walk away, but I stopped. Spinning on my heels I turned to face the crater. I told it, “Next time, I’ll bring a map.”