The long promised account of my stay on Maui. Unfortunately I never finished it. I started this after I returned, then got more and more occupied with all the programming left on our telescopes, and the WFC3 testing. But, I promised, so here it is.
There's something alchemical about a flight across the Pacific. Young and old, magazines, in-flight movies, sedatives and five dollar Bloody Marys sealed in an aluminum cauldron fired in a compressed air furnace. Windows remain closed as hours of your life simply vanish below you.
Unlike flying into Honolulu, this time I'm not the youngest person the plane. In fact senior citizens are few and far between. This is a flight of the young. Families on vacation for Memorial Day weekend, lovers, honeymooners. It's at least an hour into the flight before I realize that the flight attendants assume that me the beautiful blonde sleeping next to me are a couple. No, I don't know what she wants to drink. I've never even heard her voice.
I try to sleep. The blonde wakes. We both decide to watch the first movie. Ed Norton and Naomi Watts. How can it possibly be bad? Somehow the filmmakers found a way. She wants to talk. I scan through data on my laptop, looking for another undiscovered planet. Another movie, this bringing both of us nearly to tears. My aloofness is blown. We talk as water and timezones pass below us.
It's her first time in Hawaii. She's going to visit her brother stationed in Honolulu. It's my second. Both have been on business. What do I do? I'm an astronomer. Wow! That's so cool! The typical reaction. The one I despise. I try, with some success, to shift the conversation to other topics. Her brother is trying to talk her into skydiving. No, she's never been snorkeling before. You must be really, really smart! Sigh. Oh well. See that rock sticking out of the clouds? That's where I'm going.
Touchdown. Kahului is more developed than I expected. She's amazed at how rural it is. Other than Honolulu the islands are still agricultural, except for the megaresorts on the beaches and enclaves of the ultra-rich. I help her locate the gate she needs for her flight to Oahu. The trade winds have arrived and are bending the palm trees. I meet up with Peter and Chris and head upcountry.
I don't remember her name.
The Kula Nani retreat is half the lower floor of an old plantation house. Anne, the owner lives upstairs and invites us up for dinner. Originally from San Diego, she made a fortune with ice cream shops in Australia. Two of her Aussie friends are visiting, one of whom is a chef, and makes us all a fantastic dinner. I have a beer, to be polite, but forgo the mango margaritas. We're all anxious to get up to the summit.
The food vanishes and conversation stretches on. The changes Anne's mother seen come to San Diego over fifty years. Selling a vineyard and ranch in western Australia to move to Maui and take up golf full-time. But, of course, it all turns into Ask the Astronomers. From the particulars of what we're doing on Maui, to the usual questions about the universe, the Big Bang, what does it all mean? Do you believe in God?
Night falls and the hours slip away. There'll be no going up the mountain tonight.
The mother of the demi-god Maui was upset. The sun moved so quickly across the sky that her clothes could not get dry before nightfall. So Maui decided he would make the sun slow down. He took his strongest rope and waited at Hana for the sun to rise. When it did he tried to lasso it, but the sun was still too strong for his rope. Next he went to Kahului, and picked all of the coconuts he could find. From their fibers he made an immense rope, and carried it to the top of Haleakala. He hid behind Hanakauhi, overlooking the crater. As the sun rose in the sky he patiently threw his rope around each of its sunbeams, until it was finally too weak to move. He bound it tightly in the crater and told it, "I must kill you for moving so fast." The sun pleaded for its life. "If you let me live I promise I will walk, and not run across the sky!" Maui smiled and set the sun free. Ever since the days have been long enough to dry clothes.
In another version of the tale Maui and his grandmother hold the sun in the crater and hack off sunbeams until it can only crawl across the sky.
Science City sits next to the summit of Haleakala, ten thousand feet above the ocean below. The sunlight is blinding in the thin air, and it reflects off the endless expanse of red rock. Unblemished bright blue above, shimmering red all around, and the brilliant white of the clouds over the Pacific far below you. You feel almost alone in the universe, except for the imposing sight of Mauna Kea, visible one hundred fifty miles away.
This is a place of temples. The ancient Hawaiians built their heiaus overlooking the sacred crater. They're now joined by the white and silver domes of the astronomers. I know the physiological changes caused by the altitude and lack of oxygen. But knowing the cause does not diminish the effect. This is a holy place. You cannot dwell here and not be forever changed.
A cool morning, and I've come down to Maalekalaa harbor. After a week spent in Kula and at the summit the ocean air feels like breathing a briny soup. This is supposedly the windiest harbor in the world, but this morning it is totally calm. The sails on the boats will just be for show.
I'm boarding a large catamaran, the Four Winds II, on a snorkeling trip to Molikini. The remains of an ancient volcano, Molokini sits ten miles from the coast of Maui, it's peak now half eroded away by the relentless ocean. In the open ocean there's no runoff from the shore, so the water is crystal clear. And the crater is now shallow enough that you can reach the bottom without scuba gear. And where else can you swim inside a volcano?
But, yet again, I'm reminded I'm an outsider. At check-in they're alarmed. Passengers are always families or couples. I'm alone. It's finally decided that I'll have to wear a special armband. I take it with good humor, and joke "This is so you can identify my body, right?" The boarding officer isn't as amused. That's exactly what it's for, but they really don't like to talk about it.
It's an hour trip to the crater. I talk a little with the couples around me, but their conversation is mostly where they had their weddings, what resorts they're staying in, and which other tourist activities they've crossed off their list. Chief among them seems to be the drive up the summit of Haleakala. The winding road made everyone sick. And it's so cold! I'm amused, but remain silent.
The ride out goes quickly. The captain keeps up a steady narration of all the sights we see, and jokes around with the children. Mention is made of Haleakala, and the amazing things astronomers are doing up there. I'm more interested in learning about the sea birds I see up ahead.
More than anyplace I've been in the world, Molokini is the closest you can come to swimming in an aquarium. There's not the variety of corals seen elsewhere, but there's plenty of life, and the water clarity is breathtaking. You can see forever. Even my cheap underwater camera took some great pictures. And luckily the boat had a professional dive photographer on board to take pictures of some of the things we saw.
I finally break for lunch, and climb back onboard the boat. As I sit there watching the birds wheel overhead, and the huge fish darting in the crystal blue water below me I'm completely overcome by all I've seen. But it seems so wasted. Being here alone has finally just worn me down. I'm sick of always being an outsider, some sort of weirdo. All these amazing places I've been to, but always by myself. There's never anyone to share any of these experiences.
I stood at the bow, fished my cellphone out of my bag, and called Jen. Hi, honey. Guess where I am? You suck! A complete disconnect. I realized several minutes into the conversation that she was jealous. I wanted her to be here, to see all of these amazing things. In place of that I was trying to share them with her. She wanted to be here... but not with me. A bargain had been made somewhere. I could go to all of these places, and have an amazing life. The cost was I was always going to be alone. I was living on this beautiful island, but I was miserable. I only had two options: mope and be miserable, of simply accept that the family life I always saw in my future was an impossibility. The best I can hope for is to be the eccentric, world traveling bachelor. Like a tribal shaman, or some ancient wizard, I will travel to fantastical places and learn unimaginable things. And I have to do my best to explain them to everyone else. But I will never be "one of them."
I hung up the phone, picked up my fins, and dove into the warm, blue water below me.
Checking back in when it was time to leave. Aha, the Longs are here! No, it's just me. Oh- THE Long is here, the one and only! You said it, cap'n. And what do you do? I'm an astronomer. Oh! So you work up on the mountain? Yes.
The trade winds return in the afternoon. I hold my towel in front of me at the bow, and use it as an air mattress to try and take a nap. "Ladies and gentleman, I was talking to this young man up here at the bow, and he's an astronomer looking for planets up on that mountain over there!" I'm bombarded with questions. While Chris and Peter present our research to the American Astronomical Society meeting up in Honolulu, I'm presenting a simplified account to honeymooners on the deck of a catamaran. I smile and answer all they throw at me. Only the surfacing of the first sea turtle gives me a reprieve.
It's not quite sunset, and I'm hiking over to the rim of the crater. I've been above ten thousand feet for nearly two weeks now, but the half-mile hike is making me a little light headed. It's Sunday evening, and only a few tourist have driven up to the summit. They're already moving towards their cars in the parking lot down below, apparently not staying for the sunset. The wind is picking up quicker than it has since I've been here. Usually it doesn't get gusty until after dark.
As I walk along the rim, away from the departing tourists, I come upon a long outcropping of rock. Sitting behind it I'm sheltered from the worst of the howling wind and have an amazing view over the entire crater, now covered in a sea of clouds. I'm a little alarmed at the dropping temperature, and pull my cellphone from my front pocket to check the time. Still about an hour until sunset, plenty of time to rest and then walk back to the observatory. As I start to put it away again I notice that for the first time I'm getting a signal on top of the volcano. I don't expect it to actually work, but I can't resist. I punch the button to call Jen.
Hi, honey! Hey, I'm on top of a volcano. You've been on top of a volcano for weeks, haven't you? Well, yes, but I haven't been able to call anyone from up here. Oh, right. She's babysitting for her brother, and her niece has gotten in trouble.
In his first public lecture he ever gave, Mark Twain described his view from perhaps this very spot:
Standing on that peak, with all the world shut out by that vast plain of clouds, a feeling of loneliness comes over a man which suggests to his mind the last man at the flood, perched high upon the last rock, with nothing visible on any side but a mournful waste of waters, and the ark departing dimly through the distant mists and leaving him to storm and night and solitude and death!
The contrast between where I am, and the everyday normalcy conveyed by the beautiful voice on the other end of the phone nearly brings me to tears. She has to go, the sounds of a fight can dimly be heard from downstairs. I hang up and look around me, overwhelmed by the vast solitude. Twain was haunted by his visit to Haleakala all his life. Years after his lecture he recalled, "I felt like the last man, neglected of the judgment, and left pinnacled in mid-heaven, a forgotten relic of a vanished world."
The last tourist left some time ago. I'm alone, lacking the words to describe the gods-only sight of my surroundings. I open my phone again and snap Jen a picture, then rise from behind my rock shelter to begin the trek back. The temperature has continued to fall, and the clouds are now boiling out of the crater, the highest I've yet seen.
Just before I lose the signal there's a reply. How cool is that!
Nightfall, an hour or so before moonrise. We're hoping to get the last fine adjustments made to the telescopes tonight, but Chris has been watching Meese Observatories weather page, and is alarmed by the rising humidity. Peter continues to fiddle with his custom alarm clock program on his laptop, planning to get some sleep after we finish the alignments and start fine-tuning the camera focuses (I have to drive to Hana in the morning, and Chris can't sleep at altitude for medical reasons). I step outside to check for any clouds.
The stars look like fiery jewels in the thin air. Things that are only names to us now, Milky Way, the Zodiacal Light (A diffuse light passing through the constellations of the Zodiac, caused by dust from comets and colliding asteroids reflecting sunlight) are obvious and awe inspiring in the moonless sky. And not a cloud to be seen... except, as I stand there scanning the sky I feel cold water collecting on the exposed skin of my face and hands. I look around me, and can faintly make out a fog rising up to just below the height of my shoulders. The clouds I saw rising from the crater have continued to rise.
I'm standing in the upper level of a rainstorm.
I walk back into the observatory, laughing, and tell Chris to start packing his stuff. There's still no clouds in the sky, but you can go outside and stargaze in a rain shower. It's heavier than fog, more like being surrounded by invisible people with handheld misters. As we descend it turns into obvious rain before we even reach the main summit road. Long before we arrive in Kula it's a full blown tropical deluge. The clouds and humidity linger long enough at the summit to prevent Peter from getting any focusing done, but clear in time for him to go out and watch hundreds of tourists in shorts and t-shirts huddled under blankets wait to see the sunrise.
Driving to Hana is one of the most famous tourist activities on all the Hawaiian islands. The highway follows the northern shore and passes amazing beaches and lush tropical valleys hiding waterfalls out of a dream. Most honeymooners continue past Hana to the Seven Sacred Pools of 'Ohe'o Gulch. I'm stopping before the town at the old Hana Airport for an afternoon flight lesson with Armin Engert. My GPS says it's thirty miles, and will take three and a half hours. That can't be right...
I pass the first beach I've seen since arriving, and decide to stop and walk out to listen to the waves for a few minutes and get some pictures of scenery that's not clouds and red rock. I stop in the little bohemian town of Pa'ia to look for a tank top and get gas. I don't find the tank top, but get a bikini instead and flirt with the shop girl.
Just pass pa'ia I come to Ho'okipa beach. I've heard this is the best spot for windsurfing on the planet, and even from the road I can see an armada of small sails shooting through the waves. When I was a grad student the chairman of the department would always take summer students windsurfing on Lake Erie. I figure he'd want to see this, so I turn into the second parking lot and get out to take a picture. Both spaces next to me are immediately occupied by cars, and out of each of them come surfer chicks that look more like strippers in their micro g-strings. I watch them walk over and start retrieving their boards from their friend's pickup. Hm, do I really need to go flying today?
I soon discover why the trip takes three hours. The countless valleys are spanned by one lane bridges. Having to stop and wait for oncoming cars forces me to slow down and not feel that I'm in a rush to get to the other end. I take advantage to stop and take pictures of the ocean and some waterfalls along the way.
What I'm not prepared for are the one lane corners on the winding highway. At least with a bridge you can see if there's someone coming. With curves around cliffs all you can do is hope that anyone on the other side also saw the sign.
And there I leave you. I made it to the small airfield safely, and met the legendary flight instructor Armin Engert. And for the first time in a long time I wasn't the freaky-smart astronomy guy. Armin moved to Maui from Germany to build the first hang gliding launch on top of Haleakala. Everybody thought he was crazy. Now everybody uses it. Eventually the restrictions on giving hang gliding lessons from the crater moved him to switch to teaching ultralight flying from the airport on the coast. We were just two guys crazy about flying. He was glad to swap stories with me about our different experiences working on top of Haleakala.
I'm not going to even attempt to describe flying above the north coast of Maui. But at one point we left the stunning views of the waterfalls plunging into the valleys thousands of feet below us, and moved into a cloud bank further inland. Over the headset Armin told me we should see our rainbow soon. We were surrounded by water drops on an otherwise sunny day. Of course we could see a rainbow, if we looked in the right direction. And, to be honest, after a week living among the clouds rainbows were really old hat. But then I saw it- where the surrounding cloud became thick enough to see the shadow of the ultralight (the optical depth, in science guy terms) it was surrounded by concentric rings of color. Our very own rainbow, that lasted as long as our shadow was still visible. It may be the most amazing thing I've ever seen.
There was much more that happened on the island. But my account ends here. And there will be more trips in the future.