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Climbing "Earthquake Hill" on Maui

Article by Hiking Poet

The higher one climbs on Puu Olai, the clearer the truth that the sun rules the blue, and if we seek to share the sky, we pay with sweat and effort. Puu Olai, is Hawaiian for "Earthquake Hill." Near Makena Beach and visible anywhere on the south coast of Maui, locals call it "Round Mountain," a 360-foot cinder hill formed millennia ago when molten ejecta forced by gases roaring from a volcanic vent fell to earth in a near-perfect cone. All climbs on the planet should open the eyes, mind, and heart of the one walking, and this one is exactly that rewarding.

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The hike to the top was hot. The soil is red, dusty, and barely hidden by scrub and grass yellowed by the sun. In the parking lot, beachgoers, unable to believe I was going hiking on a perfect day at the beach, grinned as I laced up my boots, swung my pack on, and headed into the kiawe trees and bunchgrass to the slope. Gaining altitude on the hill, I worked my way west. I discovered an ascending trail useful to humans but most likely maintained by goats. The path soon rose above the treeline, but beneath the gaze of the sun, long was the walk to the top.

From the summit, every compass point provides a panorama. On the makai side (closest to the ocean) are the islands of Kahoolawe and Lanai and the tiny isle of Molokini, the eroded crescent edge of a submerged tuff cone formed when seas of the glacial age were lower, now an offshore sanctuary to seabirds and snorkelers.

On the mauka side (closest to the mountain) is Haleakala, the "House of the Sun," named because from the first Hawaiian settlement on Maui, the sun appeared every morning to rise from its crest. Puu Olai, looks out on the gentle slope of Haleakala along the volcano’s southwest rift from summit to La Perouse Bay. North is Oneuli, or Black Sand Beach, with its shadow-colored sand, and south is Ahihi Bay and Oneloa, or Long Sand Beach, known locally as Big Beach, a broad strip of white sand that disappears from view before it runs out to the south, and Cape Kinau. Circumambulating the trail along the rim provides the attentive pilgrim with ever-changing vistas of three islands (including the one I was standing on), sea, coast, and mountain.

But even with astounding mauka and makai views, my eyes were drawn downward, and I decided to hike into the pit, a slope that seemed 45% but most likely was 30%. As I descended into the crater, the illusion of steepness increased as stone and sand shifted underfoot and my horizons slowly contracted in a shrinking circle of blue, giving me the ant’s-eye view of the inner hill. I stopped at a comfortable spot short of the nadir. I halted my descent because I saw the lowest point as a piko, a Hawaiian word of much significance, but here meaning a center, a place of power, a spot where two worlds join or were joined. Such a spot is never to be tread, lightly or otherwise, for a piko is a sacred place, a point of electric contact between earth and sky, where one becomes the other.

As I lay there looking up, I placed my ear on the ground, hoping to hear sounds of what is molten shifting miles beneath the surface. Later, I gazed into a sky circumscribed by earth rising to meet it. As I considered the curving landscape encircling me, I realized that beneath my back was the skyward path that magma had blazed, making a journey toward the light and emerging in an arc of fire that became Puu Olai. I nestled in a piko of the planet, and at that umbilical junction, I contemplated this spot sacred to earth and sky.

At the foot of the trail to the ocean is Little Beach, Maui’s unofficial and barely-kept-secret nude beach. I cast boots and shorts to the sand and plunged into the sea to rinse the dust away. Later, my feet in the surf, sand beneath me, and sun on my skin, I considered my day. I’d actually climbed Puu Olai, twice, once from without and once from within. The views from both sides were spectacular and spiritual. Those who treasure the gifts found between the blue elements of earth and sky will discover on Puu Olai the unquiet silence of the planet working deftly through the changes of every day and eternity.