It would seem that 2012 is the year of the bicycle, for me at least. After a hiatus of at least twenty-years, I’ve had several travel experiences this year on bikes. In La Rochelle, France I enjoyed a bike tour around town, learning to live like a local. In South Africa I saw the other side of life through a bike ride around a township. On Maui though I experienced a different style of biking on a ride down Haleakala volcano. Turns out that twenty-year hiatus would haunt me after all.
We pulled into Baldwin Beach Park not sure who we were supposed to meet. That morning our agenda innocently instructed us to “Rendezvous with Maui Easy Riders for a bike ride down Haleakala.” That sentence seems so benign at first glance: “easy rider” and no mention of “10,000 feet” or “volcano” appeared anywhere. It was so innocent that I almost believed that instead of a frightening trip hurtling down a mountain we’d be out for a morning jaunt. Almost.
The guys from Maui Easy Riders showed up in their van loaded with a dozen or so chrome Worksman Cycles, each named after a different Phish song. Obscure references to be sure, but I liked that and the names definitely matched the laid-back, Maui lifestyle I’d come to love after only a week. We jumped into the van for the trek up the mountain. Haleakala at its summit towers 10,000 feet over Maui; but that’s not where we started the adventure. Due to National Park regulations, we launched at a much lower altitude, but still significantly high. The road winds up the mostly-dormant volcano in a series of hundreds of hairpin turns and switchbacks, which I took mental note of with dread.
I don’t hate bikes, far from it. But I prefer them on flat land going in a straightish line, none of which would I see that drizzly morning. I was amazed at the weather on Maui and how much it varies and how quickly it changes. Although the sun was shining brightly at the beach near Paia, by the time we got to 6,800 feet and our starting point, wet clouds threatened to unload their burdens at any moment. The fine people at Maui Easy Riders provided everything we needed, including gloves, waterproof jackets and warm pants to counteract the suddenly frigid temperatures at elevation.
I was nervous but excited. The adventure sounded like fun and I received countless assurances that it was all downhill, it was all easy riding and that I could go at whatever speed I was comfortable biking. So with a little coaching I joined the group and set off down mighty Haleakala. At this point I should note that I don’t really like going fast, well not always. I speed a lot when driving, so speed in itself isn’t the issue. It’s when I’m in control of a small vehicle, be it a personal watercraft or a bike that I despise going faster than a snail at full sprint. Turns out this was a problem as the tour began.
I have to say that Maui Easy Riders offers the best safety of the many tour companies operating similar experiences. How do I know? Well, we saw all of the others hurtling down the mountain with us and at points they scared the hell out of me. Easy Riders though has an experienced leader in front and a chase van in back. The two are in constant contact via radio in order to make sure everyone is having a fun and safe time. After a couple of turns though the chase van radioed to the group leader and we had to stop. I had become a liability.
“Are you ok?” asked the guide gingerly. “Yeeees, why?” I replied with no small amount of hesitation. “Well, the chase van says you’re almost coming to a stop at each turn and we really need you to stay with the rest of the group.” Apparently the kind words of “go your own pace” at the start of the tour hadn’t been exactly true. Still, I realized that I was too frightened of careening off the road or into oncoming traffic and that I would have to change my strategy. In the back of my head I heard the tales told to me the day before of bikers who had run into traffic head-on during similar tours and I was scared. The guide moved me to the front of the group where he could watch me and we continued down the mountain.
I did better up front, like a child put in the corner and made to repent his adventure travel sins. I wasn’t the speediest of bikers, but I began to feel more comfortable and gradually held my own. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot about the first half of the ride. The fog was the very definition of pea soup and my eyes were transfixed on the road ahead, trying with every nerve in my body to command the bike to bend to my will. But then we reached a lower altitude, the rain dissipated and I could see the surrounding countryside and it was beautiful.
Maui is so improbably green that there aren’t enough colorful adjectives to describe it. Rolling farms dotted with cows and horses began to sprout up and I started to understand why people fantasize about living on this Hawaiian island. Sure the beaches are nice, but it’s this more tranquil, laid back living in the highlands that is true nirvana.
About three quarters through the tour we came to a stop in the paniolo town of Mankato. It’s a small village with a couple of roads and more artists per capita than I think I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I walked across the street to peek inside a local bakery, drooling at the ‘donuts on a stick’ before jumping back on my Phish inspired transport to finish out the journey.
At this point the hard part of the trek was over and I felt completely in control. The perilous hairpins may have terrified me, but biking along country roads towards Paia and the beach was pure heaven. The wind roared through my helmet as we passed massive sugar cane fields, the tall stalks blowing with the breeze.
As we bid our goodbyes to the gents from Easy Riders I felt bad about how I started the trip. I was scared and then angry with the tour leaders, vowing never to hop on a bike again. Like many travel experiences though, after it was over I felt good about the trip and memories of even the most terrifying corners on Haleakala seemed like misty memories. On the ride back to our condo a familiar sensation began to form, one of pride and confidence at having faced my fears. That’s what I love about adventure travel; pushing the edges of my comfort zone and growing as a traveler and person.
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