In my mind, the three LLBean roller bags by the door are trunks with brass hasps and hinges or leather bound suitcases plastered with vintage luggage labels from vanished hotels and defunct airlines. I’m waiting for the knock on the door that will signal the beginning of the end of our Maui sojourn and the return to the logjam that is modern travel. No blast from a steamship’s horn, no tripping down the gangway, just the endless stop and go of the TSA’s dog and pony followed by the yoga positions of seats 28B and A.
BUT… Before that there is Maui. Warm and moist, with a pervasive wind ranging from breeze to blast on the lose your hat scale. Any shady spot at any beach park on route 30 is crammed with vintage minivans, faded pickups fitted with surfboard racks, and untended fishing poles stuck deep into the sand. Maui waters are a playground; paddle boards and kayaks, snorkelers and surfers, sailers and para-sailers. The ocean teems. Any postcard from Maui begins with a sunset and a beach: we tourists move to the sands as the shadows lengthen, stretching out selfie sticks, choosing an iconic palm tree for a silhouette, or perhaps a passing catamaran, moving toward a mooring before darkness falls. No sunset goes unrecorded! We even witness the apex of all cliches, the sunset beachside proposal. With a party of 50 eating lobster behind them, the happy couple may have been in a world of their own, but it was hardly a private moment.
Aloha, Maui, blazoned across postcards in fiery fonts: aloha and mahalo are courtesies bookending every conversation. The public face of Maui greets visitors graciously, but wander off the well beaten path and every drive is gated and every yard sports a “no trespassing” sign. As a denizen of the rural routes and well acquainted with the stranger stranded where he should never have ventured, I understand. But it is difficult not to feel like we should climb back into our rental and head back to the main drag with its Snorkel Bob’s and surf shops.
And the country roads of Maui are legendary for good reason. Consider the destinations: the switchbacks climbing five hundred feet at a time up the broad shield of Haleakala, the cars pulling around laboring bicyclists doing penance or making a pilgrimage, take your pick, up the 10,000 foot climb to the summit. The landscape is other worldly: red and black cinder cones, cratered sands and boulders pocked with evidence of explosive force. The clouds form below your feet; the trip up wavers between bright sunshine and violet skies on one side of the mountain and running the wiper switch and pulling your windbreaker close to escape the chilling wind and rain. At eight thousand feet, we pull off on the verge to watch two hang gliders prepare to launch. One stands on the brink, in the “set” position, waiting for the clouds to part and present a window of visibility. He gets a running start. “Fast, fast!” he yells, and soon I am zooming my lens to find him riding currents I cannot see. When we reach the sunny slopes below, he is still high, high above us and we wonder how long he will glide and how far away he will land. The caravans of bikes zip down; one rider careens around a curve, hands held high over his head like he’s riding a roller coaster at Worlds of Fun, not hugging the pavement on a cloud strewn cliff. Showboat.
Or wander the western highway north of the manicured lawns of resorts like the Ritz Carlton on Kapalua Bay and the precipitous fairways of championship golf courses like The Plantation. The wind is a wild thing, a poltergeist, knocking balls off the tees, sending drives back like boomerangs, and making the greens act like a fun house mirror. When I can forget my golf game, I am entranced by a landscape that takes turns pretending to be California or is it Italy?
Beyond the resorts, the road empties…fewer cars, no stores or gas stations, few houses, no restaurants. The waves foam white against cliffs of lava; landward, the vertical slopes overhang the road; every curve bears a warning for “Falling Rock.” Gullies are a tangle of shrubbery, and the hills are punctuated with the twenty foot flowering stalks of what appears to be yucca on steroids. We have been dropped into a landscape of prehistory where I expect to confront giant tortoises around the next curve and pterodactyls swooping down to a primeval sea.
Certainly there are no restaurants. We are hungry and beginning to entertain the invitations of the hand lettered signs promising homemade banana bread and organic smoothies (well, maybe not desperate enough for the smoothies…) when one more right angle turn and POOF! The road evaporates…nothing but a golf cart sized track rutted into the hillside. Down in the valley, I can see a guy in a Kawasaki headed our way…hunger pangs vanish and we back and fill and back and fill to make a 180 and avoid a collision. This is Maui…believe it when the sign tells you maintenance ends.
In Kula, we enjoy lobster mac ’n cheese and Hubert’s lemonade for lunch at the Bistro. Every restaurant offers local fish…ono, ahi, monchong. The non-GMO crowd is stridently obvious in bold letters and spray painted signs. Pasture raised eggs from free range tiny chickens are $8.99 a dozen in a grocery selling exotic bouquets of protea with a parking lot visited by vintage Dodge diesels that would feel at home in Westboro.
Next door is the Worcester Glassworks. The glassblower is finishing up his lunch, says his folks are at a show in New York, and he’s been doing some trimming on the tropical shrubbery in the yard. The art glass evokes island life…seashells, spiny tumblers, sandy bottomed juice glasses, fish in all the hues of the rainbow, spun, drawn, twisted as if seen under the ripples of the sea.
Maui is all color from the lavender jacaranda to the golden hibiscus to the popsicle hues of the tropical drinks. The glass artist tells me about the nearby winery: “The wine’s not very good, but the grounds are beautiful!” The same can be said for the fruity drinks: Mai Tai, Lime in the Coconut, Lava Flow, Pina Colada, Coconut Grove. Not every one is good, but you feel obliged to taste them because they’re so pretty!
Obviously, visitors to Maui bring their visions with them. There are more red Mustangs and red Camaros on the road than one sees on I-29. And the tops are down, even on an afternoon evenly divided between muted sunshine and pouring rain. I suppose those red convertibles are all standing in for the Ferrari in Magnum PI. Visitors dream of slashing the top off a coconut and drinking milk with a straw. Reality is the sign on the dumpster at Halfway to Hana, a snack shop…well, halfway to Hana: “Do not dump whole coconuts in here or on this property.” Guess coconuts don’t taste as good as frozen drinks with umbrellas in them.
I am as prone to romance the island as anyone in a convertible. But I bring my essence of Maui home in concentrated form: a tiny scrimshaw tooth and a glass fish the hues of coffee and turquoise. Glass is born of fire and heat, a reminder of the volcanic origins of Maui’s mountains and coast. The scrimshaw is a tooth mounted on wood bearing a tall ship, sails full of wind, and a honu, the Hawaiian sea turtle, swimming up to the surface. The tall ship is history, an emblem of all those who made Maui the melting pot it is and the honu is an symbol of Maui’s legendary origins and good luck. I saw two turtles while hiking off the coast the scrimshaw will always remind me of that walk. Luau or Lahaina, volcano sunrise or beach sunset, sugar cane fields or free range chicks: you will find your own Maui in your memories and souvenirs.
June 8, 2016