15 July, 2013

House of the Rising Sun

Today was hiking. Eleven miles along the Sliding Sands Trail through Haleakala Crater in Maui.

This is a yoga blog, but today there was no mat. I decided that this physical feat was sufficient to justify taking a rare day off from class. I don't know if I would have thought to do this hike of my own volition. But when I met Patty Simon, teaching yoga on my first night on Maui, and she mentioned she was going on the hike, I was immediately interested in the prospect of doing it. I am sure, at least partly, this interest came from the opportunity to plan something with someone, when I was contemplating being alone the entire week (which was not even really true, since I had another friend coming to visit me for 3 days in the middle of the trip). But I had always heard it was beautiful up there, so I figured what the hell, why not?

After we initially made the plan, Patty had asked me in a confirmatory tone, "Are you sure you can do it?" I hadn't even thought about whether or not I could do it, and hadn't been particularly concerned. But then she reminded me that it is at altitude, and some people are sensitive. Then I started reading online, and heard a mixed bag, with some people saying it was 5 hours, and not that bad at all, and other people saying it was 8 grueling hours of blisters, and altitude sickness, and suffering. I had a suspicion that I am more fit than the unfittest, but not sure about such things as blisters or perhaps even how my ankles would fare on a sandy trail, given my historical weakness there.

As things turned out, we postponed the hike from Sunday to today because of schedule conflicts for both of us. That provided the added bonus that my friend would already be in town, and he'd be able to join us for the hike too. We met Patty at 6am at a coffee shop down the street (Village Coffee) in Kahana, a short 2 minute drive from my condo. We took separate cars, because the way you do this hike optimally is to have one person park at 8000 feet, where the hike ends, and the other person drive everyone to the summit at 10000 feet, where the hike begins. It took about 90 minutes to get there, with light traffic. We'd brought a bunch of snacks: nuts, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, some fruit, 3 liters of water a piece, some cookies. We started the hike around 9am. The air at the summit was crisp, and the view was beautiful. The temperature was actually close to 60 degrees, which was warm, compared to what it often can be, I am told. As such, I was wearing a long sleeve shirt, shorts, and my sneakers. I had brought a baseball cap, which I foolishly forgot in the car that we left at 8000 feet, much to my later chagrin, when it would turn out that the only part of my body that got sunburned was the top of my head, along my part and in my forehead. The hike starts on a downhill into the crater, through loose sand. It's a wide open landscape, with nearly no vegetation, and the going is rather poor footing because of the loose sand. For me, this was a nightmare. I am bad going downhill anyway. Every 50 feet, I would turn an ankle. Sometimes it was the left, sometimes it was the right. And this was not even keeping good pace with the other two. I was falling back, and still stumbling. This led me to have the initial concerns of either injuring myself, or becoming very fatigued from the added concentration that was required to keep my shit together. I turned my ankles probably about 8 times, and didn't sustain any new injuries, but did a lot of wear and tear, not to mention making all the muscles in my body tight from the attempts to brace myself on this terrain. All the downhill had also cause some of my toes to start to feel like there was a possibility of blisters, which did not seem promising at all. Fortunately, these never blossomed into a problem.

Eventually, after about 2 miles, we plateaued in the crater. There was now a tiny bit of vegetation, beautiful views, and continued trekking through sand, though at least it was now roughly on flat ground. There were only minimal ankle turnings from there onward. We eventually headed up a few slopes, still in sand, and leveled off at another plateau, where the terrain was what might be called sub-alpine scrub. This continued to about the 7 mile mark, where we reached the Holua cabin, which is a good resting spot for lunch. It was probably around 12:30pm at that point. I remember we'd averaged about a half hour per mile, so that would be about right, including our couple of brief stops for water or to shake sand out of our shoes (mostly me, with the sand in shoes). I should note that once we started heading on the first uphill, my friend pulled away from me and Patty, because I think he was content to move at a faster pace and just have his own thoughts or experience or level of intensity. I opted to stay with Patty, partly because I was really enjoying the conversation and didn't want to move ahead of her, but also because I figured it would be much better for my slightly beat-up body to not unnecessarily push. I felt much stronger once those uphills started. I know this about myself. I have great trouble with stability going downhill, but no difficulty cardiovascular-wise going uphill.

At the cabin, we took nearly an hour break, during which time we were joined by a retired French Canadian couple, and two younger women who were hiking together. We all sat at a picnic table, ate our snacks, and made small talk. There was a nene (a Hawaiian descendant of the Canadian Goose that somehow ended up on the islands and evolved its way into a new species). We took a bunch of pictures of it, and it eventually got very bold and approached us, likely hoping for food. We did not feed it.

Eventually, we departed, ahead of the other two couples. The trek started through more of this scrub-like growth, but eventually began climbing, at which point things became very green, and we were headed into never-ending switchbacks, up a mountainside, up, up, up, into, and above the clouds, so that there were intermittently breathtaking views of the landscape below, interspersed with a view of nothing but clouds. I should have been afraid of heights on this part of the trail, because this has historically been the case for me, but this was not the case today. A new piece of information: I am perhaps no longer terrified of heights? We paused often to look at the view. I even leaned over the cliff and looked down, without experiencing any type of vertigo or adrenaline rush. My friend had once again trucked ahead of me and Patty, which was fine. He enjoyed it. We enjoyed it. Patty and I talked for hours about yoga teachers, yoga philosophy, yoga poses, Hawaiian life, her family, my family, really every topic was fair game. I am not sure my friend could have handled that much yoga talk, so it's probably a good thing that he pushed ahead of us! The two girls passed us about two-thirds of the way up the switchbacks, and then the retired couple passed us at the very end of that climb, at which point there was only about a mile remaining, of shallow grade, to the summit, where we ended. There was a little bit of an "Oh My" factor, when we saw the retired couple pass us, but Patty and I can rationalize that they were faster because they had hiking poles to help propel them! Yeah! That's the ticket!

We finished, and we parted ways for the day. We drove back down through heavy fog like pea soup.

It was a lot like a yoga class, actually. There were moments of intensity, there were moments of introspection, there was a Child's Pose in the middle, and a Savasana at the end. There were heart-opening moments of connecting with this new found friend, and there were parts of this "class" where I was pushing my edge, unsure if I would be able to make it to the end, only to realize that going through the discomfort brought the reward of beautiful views and clarity, along with the added bonus of learning that some of my old stories ("I am afraid of heights") maybe aren't true anymore.

I attribute the yoga to helping me approach this hike with a new kind of attitude, with openness, with compassion for myself and others, with patience for myself and others, and with the ability to recognize that Haleakala, like all things in this life, is just a path that will reveal itself to us more through the lens through which we choose to see it, than through any fixed or absolute fashion. I attribute yoga to my ability to recognize that hiking Haleakala is the yoga. And that all things I do have elements of both mat and mountain in them.

On the drive up from 8000 feet to the summit at the start of the day, Patty explained to us that "Hale" means "House" and that "Kala" means "The Sun" and that, loosely translated, "Haleakala" means "House of the Rising Sun."

I kind of like that.

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