Go some distance beyond the beaches and resorts of Maui, a little past the golf courses that edge the condominiums like a tramp stamp above a bikini bottom, and you will find the wild landscape of the island. I say ‘wild’ because I don’t know if it is ‘native;’ the Hawaiian Islands have been farmed and cultivated and planted for centuries and a vast array of plants from all over the world thrive there–I only know that if it’s on the other side of the golf courses, it is largely untended land. Upcountry on the slopes of the Haleakala Crater, you will find rangeland and what looks like desert scrub, complete with paddle-type cacti. On the Road to Hana, verdant jungle. Up around Kaanipali, I wouldn’t know, because I can’t afford to go there.
Heading toward Wailuku, the oldest settled part of Maui, we take a left toward the I’ao Valley. As we gain elevation the trees become grand, the shade dense. Temperatures fall from the 80’s to the 60’s. Mist hangs in the air and shifts around the steep valley walls. Occasional raindrops fall from an invisible sky. Here and there we gain a glimpse of the I’ao Needle, an immense volcanic spire that juts to over 2,ooo feet above the Pacific, which is just a few minutes away by car, but an eon away in progress.
This is a strange, and beautiful, and terrible place. Lush and green, carpeted in moss and ferns, I feel at once completely at home and extremely out of place. Lilikoi trees litter the ground with the sweet, rotting shells of overripe passionfruit, the fruit still on the trees frustratingly just out of reach. A tumbling stream of clear water rushes over smooth stones. Tiny ferns that must be maidenhair, they look so alike the ferns in my own yard; I could easily be at home in the Cascade Mountain foothills, but were I to magically wake up here I would know I was not. The I’ao Valley is gorgeous, as beautiful a place as I have ever been: but it is a place as much of feel and sense as it is of sight, for I am on sacred ground.
The warriors of Maui made their last stand here in the war to unify the islands under one ruler. The high ground and the narrow valley may have given tactical advantage, but the superior forces and leadership of Kamehameha the Great were overwhelming (as were the firearms he had purchased and traded for). The warriors of Maui were slaughtered to a man and the dead were thrown into the river, known as ‘the place where waters run red.’ The message was not lost to the Island of Maui, which immediately offered its allegiance to Kamehameha; he honored the ferocity of the dead by making offerings to the Maui war god. The slain warriors, unappeased, are believed to still wander the misty forests of I’ao at night.
My daughter takes off at a run into the rainforest undergrowth at streamside, looking for ghost warriors; I am certain she thinks they can be unmasked, their nefarious intent revealed by a Scooby-Doo-esque trap. For myself, I would not be the least surprised to come upon a spectral warrior, tongue protruding fearsomely from his tattooed face, ears distended with whalebone plugs and wooden disks…but if I saw the same guy in Seattle, I’d probably just assume he was headed to work at Starbucks.
A vacation on Maui could easily be whiled away poolside with periodic forays into the ocean, or vice-versa; not for me, necessarily, because while I am quite reflective for the first fifteen minutes in the equatorial sun, I am a giant solar collector thereafter without frequent shallackings of SPF dodecawhiteguy. That, and if I lay down on the sand, the local chapter of Greenpeace is likely to call a press conference and then try to roll me back into the water. But Maui is more than beaches and golf, snorkeling and swimming pools, however. Topographically and agriculturally diverse, you can find a goat dairy with nearly miraculous goat cheese; a number of thriving cattle ranches; public gardens and a world-renowned aquarium; even a winery with surprising Merlot, a very good sparkling rose’, and sparkling wine from pineapples they ought to call ‘Morning Spent Supine at the Pool.’ We were richly rewarded to have gone just a bit farther, to have seen just a bit more.
I’ao Valley State Park sends a shiver down my spine, partly because of the cooling mist, partly because of unease; and partly because this land so revered by Hawaiians is also largely untended by the state which owns it: the walkways cracked and uneven, restrooms chained shut, the Native Botanical garden unmaintained. Five dollars to park in the pothole-y lot for the day, I saw no one but us put their bill in while we were there. This is a place where warriors condemned by Kamehameha eternally mourn their land. I put another fiver in the slot as we left, an offering to the unquiet dead, a plea to maintain this sacred ground.