MT. HALEAKALA, Hawaii — As vanloads of sleepy tourists reach this dormant volcano's summit shortly before 6 a.m., the Milky Way still stretches across the sky above Maui. A satellite or two glide among the stars, and the first hint of light appears in the east.
Gratefully, the travelers sip coffee and finish the pastries they've nibbled during the 90-minute ride up from Paia, vaguely aware that instructions are being given and they should listen.
"The key to safety is common sense," guide Tom Moore is saying. "We don't want any rolling pictures on the way down. No passing. If you're heavier, you'll go down a lot faster. OK, grab your helmets and let's go."
With that, the adventure begins.
Sights, Sounds, Smells
By noon, the intrepid vacationers will be back at sea level after a 38-mile bicycle ride through the island's fragrant upcountry ranching area. They will have seen, smelled and felt the stark, enchanting contrast between the frosty, near-barren moonscape at the summit and the lush fields of sugar cane and pineapple more than 10,000 feet below.
For those who like the wind in their faces and who long to take in some stunning scenery in a way that motorists cannot, the 3 1/2- to 4-hour bike ride down Haleakala's western slope is just the ticket.
Reaching the top of Haleakala, some are surprised to find that it is cold. We are not talking throw a sweat shirt over your tank top and shorts here. We are talking tank undershirt, long-john shirt, T-shirt, cotton sweater, down vest, heavy nylon jacket and gloves with liners--the last two supplied, in this case, by Cruiser Bob's Haleakala Downhill.
Cruiser Bob's, owned by Los Angeles refugees Rich Goodenough and Bob Kiger, is one of four outfitters licensed by the National Park Service to lead bicycle tours down the mountain.
From Haleakala's summit at 10,023 feet you can see six of Hawaii's eight main islands. Haleakala, "House of the Sun," is so named because from some parts of the valley below, the sun appeared to the early Hawaiians to rise out of the volcano.
It was here, according to legend, that the demigod Maui ambushed the sun, lassoing it to slow its dash across the sky and make the days longer. Haleakala last erupted around 1790.
Now part of the national parks system, Haleakala hosts stargazers, sunrise chasers, hikers, bikers, bird watchers and equestrians. All travel the single, winding but well-paved road to the top.
The morning's first task for prospective cyclists is to find the best spot for watching one of Maui's spectacles: sunrise over the crater rim. That's why folks in this group climbed out of bed as early as 2 a.m.; some came all the way from Lahaina, about 30 miles from Paia.
And for all that, there is no guarantee that they'll see the sunrise: The summit is sometimes so enshrouded in fog that you can't tell there's a crater there, much less see the sun. And blustery winds can nearly knock you over.
Jupiter Fades Into Sky
On this crystal-clear morning, though, Jupiter fades into the brightening eastern sky, the sun bursts between layers of cloud, touching off a camera-clicking frenzy. Shutters snap. Flashes, believe it or not, flash.
The first horizontal rays give texture to the crater's rocky, reddish-brown surface and glint off the snow atop the Big Island's 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, which pokes out of the cloud blanket about 60 miles to the southeast.
Satisfied with the cosmic performance, the cyclists pull on their hefty helmets, select bikes and hit the winding two-lane road down, with a guide leading the line and a van behind to block traffic. Every mile or so the caravan pulls over to allow downhill traffic to pass.
Not for the Tender
Although tour companies give careful attention to the safety and comfort of riders, it's not a trip for the faint of heart nor the tender of seat. The gently banked switchback curves can be harrowing, and the heavy mountain cruiser bicycles don't handle as easily as 10-speeds.
Except for a very few short stretches, the entire 38-mile trip requires no pedaling on the low-low-geared bikes. Heavy-duty Megabrakes are all you need for speed control. After a curve or two you've got the feel for leaning into it and ripping around. Now you can just drink in the view as you would a sweet, tangy Maui mai tai.
On the other side of the island's broad isthmus, the smaller mountains of west Maui rise into thick gray clouds. To the left is the island of Lanai and beyond, Molokai lurks, a faint shadow in the misty distance.
Around the 7,000-foot elevation level, the group stops at the visitor center, where the riders get a lesson in Hawaiian superstition.
Besides the fact that federal law forbids taking anything from the park, legend has it that Pele, goddess of the volcanoes, puts a curse on all who dare to carry rocks away from her domain. Guilt-ridden letters of repentence in the rangers' office testify to the power of Pele's wrath.