• Thirty-Eight Miles Down A Volcano



    The Sandwich Islands. Captain Cook, comely raven-haired maidens. Soft, offshore breezes fluttering the coconut palms. A transparent blue ocean, bathwater warm, with gentle sunshine dropping from above. A slower, calmer way of life. Forget cold and dreary February. Jet to the islands in comfort and style. At least that’s what the brochure promised. But now, reality had set in.

    Airline Configuration – Three – Five – Three. I was in the middle seat of the five in a 100% occupied Super Squishier bound for Maui. Four hour out – my knees touching the back of the reclined seat in front, my bladder full from three cans of Coke, legs basically paralyzed. I also suffered internally from eating the airline Cuisine de Jour – Salisbury steak, succotash with two leaves of iceberg lettuce for a salad. The dessert was that old reliable – tapioca pudding cup – a year past the expiration date.

    NFL tackle-sized behemoths on each side restricted any movement – you know of whom I speak –seat belt expansion device mandatory. The two were, of course, hogging the armrests, and occasionally leaning into and onto me on both sides in a dazed, dozing condition. Pure torture. I glanced about me, wondering which side I should disturb on my way to the Loo. While I contemplated this voyage crawling across bodies and up the aisle, my eye caught the Inflight Magazine. The usual junk articles, with full-page ads for Negotiation Seminars and Holistic Weight Loss.

    But I was hooked the moment I spied the ad towards the back. “Downhill Don’s Haleakala Crater Bike Run”. “Descending 10,023 feet from the top of the World’s largest dormant volcano to the Maui Coast”. Definitely something that sounded like a worthwhile adventure. Gliding along with the offshore breeze in my hair, Parrots and Birds of Paradise overhead, the scent of the island flowers wafting through my nostrils, tropical ferns brushing the bike handles, no uphill pedaling – Nirvana. The pictures in the ad guaranteed it.

    When we hit Maui, I got the lowdown from Downhill Don – windbreakers, pants and gloves to ward off freezing cold at the crater top. Safety helmets with tinted Plexiglas visors, backpacks, specially modified bikes, a radio equipped van and an escort leader. Most important, mega brakes to stop a free falling bike.

    These complex preparations and the realization that I’d be part of a super-organized group dampened my enthusiasm, and lowered the chances of talking my unsuspecting friends into joining me. The killing blow was $120 to be laid on Downhill Don for this experience. If I calculated correctly that was about 145 chili-cheese dogs at Der Weinersnitzel (with the right coupon).

    Hell, I thought to myself, surely I can rent some cheap bikes, and a bike rack; then throw everything on the back of the rental car and haul up the mountain. Helmets, windbreakers, gloves – who needed them – all nonsense and added fluff to pump Don’s outrageous price. Cold on top, c’mon, this is the tropics, cooler maybe, but not cold.

    Getting my friends Stan, Mark, Chris and a couple of others to buy in to my scheme was a bit of a problem. Perhaps the remembrance of past injuries and monetary losses on other expeditions. But the serious discount I had figured out was the final hook – I assured them that we could do the whole thing for less than 30 bucks a head.

    But first a Rent-a-car. Before leaving the freezing mainland, I had agreed to attend a four-hour time-share pitch– no pressure of course – in order to get a free rent-a-car for the week. I’m sure that there is a place somewhere below the 10th Ring of Hell for those who try to convince vacationers to buy time share units – in this case an old two story motel about 20 blocks from the beach that had been converted to condos.

    The price was outrageous – $20,000 for one week a year plus cleaning and maintenance fees. Fifty-Two weeks times $20,000 – that made each unit worth $1,040,000 – for six hundred square feet. Of course, that price was for the offseason, if your wanted a holiday week, the price went to $30,000. Naturally these were the one-day, right-now specials. If I decided later, the price went up by $10,000. The salesman tried everything – monetary savings, future value, easily trading the unit for places such as Bora Bora, guilt, disgust, and finally only stopped just short of physical violence at the end of the four hours. I did at one point, to show good faith, offered $1000 for a one-week share.

    He then murmured something that sounded like an ancient curse before reluctantly showing us outside to the car. I vowed right then that I would rather be water boarded during a root canal than to go thru another time-share presentation, no matter what the incentive. I casually inspected the 1984 Nissan, finding four bald tires, massive oil leaks from the engine and transmission and no spare tire. So, no need for the missing jack. “Take it or leave it” was the reply to my complaints.

    On the way back from Downhill Don’s we had passed a service station right out of the 1950’s. On a the side hung a hand lettered sign offering rental equipment – snorkeling gear, surf boards, boogie boards and bicycles – Golconda, I had found our guy. We went back the next day hoping that the rental prices would be in line with the general decay of the place.

    I stooped down through a dark glassless entrance. Behind the counter loomed an immense Polynesian Gentleman, who I would best describe as a burnt amber, grease covered, overweight Sumo wrestler – absolutely no neck was discernable – 400 pounds minimum. When I entered he was exploring his upper naval cavities with a six-inch screwdriver. Most disturbing was a very large, very Frightening Tattoo of one person apparently dining on another on his naked chest – below this bloody artwork was scrolled: SOLOMAN ISLANDS CANNIBAL. Only a bone through Mr. One Ton’s nose would have completed the picture. He licked his lips in a manner that made me extremely nervous. I looked in vain to see if any of his teeth were filed to a point.

    He was well acquainted with personal hygiene since the deodorant used was the impressive “Eau de Dead Cat. As I got closer his breath hit me – a combination of Kim Chi, rotting garlic, and 1600’s underarm. My eyes watered and several nose hairs fell out before I could stir myself back to visual concentration. His narrow set eyes looked up through a haze of sweat and he slobbered out, “What you want?” I felt that asking for some derivative of opium would not be out of the question. But I said I needed five bikes and a bike rack.

    Before we went any further, he pointed to the sign on the wall that said: “Not Responsible for Theft”, “Not Responsible for Damage”, Not Responsible for Hurt”. The meaning was clear – if any of the bikes were missing or broken, then it was big cash and “Hell To Pay”. Mr. Neanderthal would be glad to collect. I was glad none of the girls were with us; he might have substituted a “Not Responsible for Rape” sign.

    “Bikes in da back – $20 piece”. I walked around the station, kicking my way through worn out tires, leaking oilcans and rusty engine parts. The eight by eight shed was dark inside. Eventually my night vision kicked in and I could see heaps of dirty rags, a gigantic pile of old newspapers and a tangle of bikes – old bikes. Three speed antiques in various stages of disrepair. I immediately discounted the one with a missing spoke majority and another with no seat. That left just five sets of wheels. But it was destiny, since that was our magic number.

    One had only a front brake, another just one gear, a third with two different sized tires, the next, a girl’s bike that had been pink at one time – well equipped with a flower basket in front and multi colored streamers from the handlebar grips – and small fourteen inch tires. The last had a bent frame and brakes that rubbed every rotation. We drew lots as to who would use the girl’s rig – it turned out to be the best. Then there was a bike carrier, the kind you strap to a bumper and the top of the trunk, but it only had room for three bikes. I ask Mr. Moto if he would throw in the bike rack since we were volume purchasers – Fifteen Dollars, was his guttural reply. I can tell you I was none too comfortable signing a blank American Express Credit Card Voucher.

    We dragged the bikes out and tried some test rides. Mistake. Should have waited until later. My own steed, number three, was afflicted with flat tires, a hair trigger front brake that threatened to throw you over the handlebars if you so much as touched it. This magnificent chariot was also afflicted with “Slip Cog” – a bicycle malady that causes the pedals to rotate freely when real pressure is exerted. The rider is then thrown violently on the crossbar with results normally obtained only by a Eunuch operation. The final blow was that the front tire – four inches larger than the back, was an inch or so out of round, giving the pedovelocipy a jackhammer shimmy. I decided at that point to name my bike “Old Faithful”. Three of the other four bikes – believe it or not, were worse. None had fenders. It took a few well-honed impassioned pleas, including, look, “it’s all downhill, you can drag your feet or just throw the bike on the back of the car if there is any trouble”. The usual skeptical looks were exchanged along with some muttering, but everyone agreed to go along.

    Ok, now it was time to get the bikes loaded on the back of the car. What can I say? Five bikes don’t fit on a three-bike rack. But first we had to fasten the rusted rack to the bumper of the Nissan – 238,000 miles from new.

    Next was hiding from our bike rental agent. Not wanting Beanie Belly Boy to see us cram the five bikes on the bike carrier, I waited until he had gone back to his lair and then fastened on the rack with two bungee cords, and a frayed rope. We had to pound a clip onto the Nissan’s trunk top. By pound I mean whack it with a rock until secure. The whole apparatus hung down a bit – the rearmost bike was mainly held on by a red neckerchief – four inches above the road.

    We finally tooled down the highway about 1:00 PM. To Paia on the Hana Highway at max Senta speed – somewhat crowded with six of us in the car. We looked like Homie’s out of South Central LA – the vehicle sitting right down on its axles.

    About 15 minutes out we were astounded to see a car pull along side and honk vigorously. Rolling down the window we heard the disappointing words – “Bike fall off rack”. Hmmm, not good. Pulling over we found that indeed the fifth bike was gone. We immediately turned around, retracing our path for the last five miles. No bike – gobbled up no doubt by an Entrepreneurial Mauian. Damn – I could see trying to explain to the Pillsbury Dough Boy about the loss – but how much could it be for such a broken down steed?

    We continued on our way, with a half hour detour for engine and transmission oil, water, and addition air – car and bikes. The Sentra had a manual transmission and so as we climbed it was at a speed of 30 MPH in second gear at best. May have been a bit overweight. We could see low dark clouds at about the 7000-foot level, but I explained in my role as an amateur meteorologist, that was normal for this time of day and that it would be clear on the summit.

    We did pass one of Downhill Don’s groups – they looked like identical green lemmings headed for the sea. Clad in uniform helmets and windbreakers, riding specially equipped bikes with orange danger flags on whip antennas. We snorted disdainfully as these commercial jug heads passed – we were purists, independents, glad we weren’t part of a shepherd’s group.

    We passed from steamy tropical sugar cane and pineapples, then through sea pines and bamboo. There was grass for cattle and then stunted shrubbery – everything a beautiful rolling green. We reached the first downpour around 8,000 feet. “Don’t worry”, I said again, “Its always clear on top” in the afternoons. (Or maybe it’s the other way around, remembering that all of old Downhill Don’s tours were in the earlier hours.)

    Finally the vegetation ceased as the iron rich basalt from long ago lava flows choked out the growth. The rain had now turned into a thin sleet, a minor annoyance I assured everyone, even though I found the windshield wipers were one more thing that didn’t work properly. At about 9,000 we encountered serious snow and high winds; some of the snow drifting against the roadsides. Perhaps it would have been wise to bring something besides t-shirts and shorts.

    We finally crested after spinning our way the last 500 feet in about 2 inches of snow. Whoa, the wind was horizontal at about 50 MPH – it drove the snow very nicely in front of it. I’d say the wind chill was around zero. The moment of decision was here. “Hey, a couple of minutes and we’ll be down in the warmer areas”, I encouraged. A chorus of fairly nasty curse words was the reply. “Its just a little adventure, you’re not going to freeze to death or anything close to it, lets go”. After shaming, guilt tripping and calling them Candy Asses, Chris got out of the car with me. We almost got blown off the top. You could stand at a 30-degree angle and the wind would hold you up. Looking down the road you couldn’t see much, just our faintly visible car tracks – not a complete whiteout, but close.

    I made an executive decision right then to forget the whole mess and get back in the car – on attempting this, I found my companions had locked all the doors and were shrieking with laughter. I yelled and threatened, the only result of which was they took off down the road leaving us beating our arms on our sides. Chris and I ran into the unheated shelter at the top, but after shivering uncontrollably for five minutes, we had no other choice than to start down. Mounting our fenderless bikes we pushed off. I immediately fell over since the bike went nowhere in the now 4” snow. Pumping DOWN Haleakela, how’s that supposed to work?

    We had socks (off our own feet) wrapped around our hands and rain gear – okay it was the kind that you buy in a packet the size of a deck of cards – Saran Wrap thin. We each had gone about 100 feet when we found that non-fendered bikes had a certain disadvantage. The snow from the front wheel came up to hit us directly in the face; the throw from the back started at your rear and traced a path upward. I found also that the vinyl hood on my rain gear trapped the snow so it would melt and run down my back. Blind, freezing, sock-covered hands in a death grip on the bars, we began pedaling downward. I had stuffed toilet paper in my ears in lue of a hat and it trailed out behind giving a certain debonair appearance. What rocks I could see out of my snow coated glasses looked like serrated daggers awaiting any head over heels fall.

    Our jolly companions in the car let us pass on the first switchback, but then kept pressing right behind, leaning on the horn, no doubt, to encourage us. Any fall here and they would slide right over the top of us. Or, since there was no guardrail, we could plunge over the side. There were only 38 more switchbacks to go, so no problem.

    Finally we got down to the fifth switchback and I pulled over. I rapidly went from vertical to horizontal as I found both my hands and feet were immobilized due to rigor mortis. As I crashed down, I was confident the snow would cushion my fall, and I was right, other than spraining my elbow and cracking my helmetless head on a potato sized lava chunk hidden by the snow. Didn’t bleed much though, too cold.

    Now the road was really just wet, but being soaked didn’t help the wind chill factor. Stan and Mark eventually took pity, stopped, and pulled the other bikes off the rack. Chris decided a turn in front of the car heater was needed. Since I wasn’t yet dead I refused to give up “Old Faithful”. The clouds had begun to clear, giving magnificent views all the way to the ocean. The wind was drying my frozen hair, my rusty chariot hell bent as we rushed along between the lava walls. Adrenalin pumped through my system as the cloud wisps hit me in the face. I felt like I was leading the Tour-de-France as I leaned into the curves and hit 25 MPH on the straight-a-ways. As we continued down through the “up country”, we passed the Kulu Lodge, protea farms, and small vegetable gardens.

    Now of course, everyone wanted to trade off and I obliged since I was still shaking. The next event was Chris heading cross-country between two switchbacks that looked gently sloping and velvety green. In reality it was foliage about a foot deep which covered a variety of sleeping lava stones and depressions. Crash, over the handlebars as he struck a rock. Tire blew but he landed in a non-lava flora patch. He whined a bit about a dislocated shoulder, but he was loose shouldered anyway and three of us shoved it back in, albeit with some intense screaming. But now we had a bike out of action. Down to three.

    I traded back on again, and the temperature reached mid sixties – I doffed my shirt – even took off my soaked shoes – nothing like riding a completely unreliable bike barefoot. Dense growth appeared and the lava looked less threatening. I realized that not one car had passed and I renamed “Old Rusty”, Pegasus. But the biped was not without some small problems. The seat loosened and threatened to perform a proctoscopic exam. I hit the hair trigger front brake and went over the bars with abrasions to my arms, legs and feet – I was grateful that it wasn’t a full-face plant. A migraine was starting from the front wheel shimmy.

    Stan went down in a blaze of glory when a cattle guard ate his front wheel – actually bent it – now we were down to two bikes from the original five. The cattle on the road were not impressed with us and moved only when encouraged with army basic training profanity and rock throwing. We went through Makawao (Cowboy) Town, now cluttered with boutiques and gift shops.

    The landscape began to flatten and we began to encounter Sugar Cane Trucks, each about the side of a medium Post Office – on their way to and from the Paia Sugar Mill. After one three-inch miss, I pulled to the side of the road, immediately running through a pile of horse dropping which gave an interesting sheen to my bare feet. Now it was a case of dodging beer cans, rotting sugar cane and an occasional piece of barbed wire as I stayed off the asphalt – pineapple fields on both sides of the road.

    Old Faithful did not free wheel any longer – something to do with bent wheels and /or frame and additional damage. If the slope was above five percent then she would go, otherwise it was stand up and pump. I pumped the last five miles in second gear – sweat pouring down my face. I was determined not to quit until the front tire was in the surf. I finally reached the sand and dragged my bike into the water – just kept wading in, shorts and all and did a Surf Angel in the waves. Mark, on the girl’s bike kept riding down a boat ramp until he was completely submerged. We had done it, thirty-eight miles from the 10,000 ft. summit to sea level in five hours.

    I though maybe we should just get the other bikes and toss them all in the ocean – a few parting words for a burial at sea. But the vision of Barnaby Bumbleberry in possession of that blank signed Credit Card Voucher stimulated us to load the bikes back on the Sentra. The sun was just start to sink into the ocean as we examined our wounds.

    Talking over strategy on the way to settle up with Warthog Boy, we really couldn’t think of any story that would help. We were missing one bike, one had a flat, two had bent wheels and/or frames. The girls bike had crashed several times, and what little paint there was, had disappeared along with the flower basket. We, all fellows of the highest integrity, did not want to take advantage of our bike landlord. We wanted to do the right thing – be stand up guys. But by now we rightly decided that most of our afflictions were caused by inferior overpriced equipment, so anything we could get away with was justified, rationalized and finalized.

    I strolled into the Black Hole of Calcutta with my head high and chest stuck out. I briefly complained about the fluttering seat and lack of brakes, but I mentioned that it must still be a pretty good old bike since I had just ridden down Haleakala. I cunningly informed him that we had put all of the bikes neatly away in the back. As he came to consciousness, I did confess that we had lost one bike because of the faulty rack. His face turned from its normal bright red to purple. He sputtered while spraying me with saliva – I told you: “ Bike very Spensive.” “How expensive”, was my enquiry, “Maybe $50 bucks”? “It was old, worn out, and ready to be retired from the fleet”, I explained. “Three Ninety-Nine” was the answer. “Everything very spensive Maui.”

    I was about to go to a Defcon Five argument, but being a well-known World Class Coward when it comes to Dust Ups, I just hung my head. Well Hell, I thought, maybe its worth it if he doesn’t look at the other bikes. I said I appreciated his understanding and if he could give me any discount I would be most grateful. “Give you $5 off rack”, he said as if he had just granted me absolution from all my sins. I didn’t even argue, figuring that if he looked at the other bikes, he’d rack a $1500 on the credit card after beating me senseless with a tire iron and picking through my gray matter a la Solomon Islander.

    Once I got the receipt firmly in hand, I told the guys to rush for the car as he headed out back, but I did wish Jabba the Hut a terminal case of Hemorrhoids, although in a diminished voice. We sped off praying that the car would not falter.

    A pretty good outing all and all. No insurance claims other than possible frostbite. No one killed, no one permanently injured – okay, later on Chris did have shoulder surgery, but I’m sure it was a pre-existing condition. I vowed to everyone that we should do it again, but be more selective about our rental equipment. And try to avoid anyone with a Cannibal Tattoo.

    January 2011

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