I used to think this was a free country. That's why I got a jolt when I found out that I was forbidden to use certain Hawaiian state highways.
The official word they used was "prohibited," in a red-stamped warning across my Big Island car-rental contract: "Driving the Saddle Road in a rental car is prohibited and is entirely at the driver's risk and expense."
I asked the woman behind the desk why, and she said it was "because the Saddle Road isn't a state highway. Or something like that."
When I said the Saddle Road was Hawaii State Highway 200, she said the reason was that the car-rental insurance doesn't cover the Saddle Road.
But later I found out what may be a better reason--the Saddle Road is haunted.
A hotel desk clerk first volunteered the information, later confirmed by residents all over the Big Island.
A Scary Place
"It's a ghosty, scary place up there. Strange things happen. Some friends told me they've seen night walkers along certain paths up there, wearing old-time clothes . . . and I mean really old-time, like feather capes and helmets and things . . . carrying torches.
"And you know, people see Madame Pele (the ancient Hawaiian volcano goddess) all the time up there. She can change herself in a second. You might see her as a woman walking along the road one minute, then poof, all you see is a dog or a rabbit."
The security guard spoke up next. "That's right. Funny things really do happen up there. Once me and my brother looked up at the sun and began to see things. I asked him, 'Do you see what I see?' 'Yeah. Two planets next to the sun.' We got out of there real quick.
"Then another time my car started slowing down and I couldn't do anything about it. I knew Pele must've been around there somewhere. And I'm not even superstitious."
The next day I decided to see for myself. I drove the Saddle Road both ways and found some good reasons why few tourists take the risk. Besides saving a good hour in cross-island driving time I found that it was an easy way to see the starkly beautiful, seldom-visited lava fields that blanket most of the Big Island's interior.
The middle 20 miles around the saddle-summit is a moonscape of cinder cones and frozen black lava rivers from the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, which jointly form the saddle that gives the road its name.
World's Biggest Mountain
Besides, I got a kick out of seeing the world's biggest mountains close up. Measured from the ocean floor, Mauna Kea--13,796 feet above water--tops 32,000 feet, making it the world's tallest peak.
Mauna Loa, on the other hand, is bigger than many entire mountain ranges. Geologists agree that it is the world's most massive single mountain; it amounts to as much rock as California's entire Sierra Nevada.
From the saddle-summit in mid-island, both peaks loom dark and awesome--Mauna Kea pockmarked with a dozen brown craterlets and, on the opposite side, Mauna Loa sprawling across the horizon like some gigantic slumbering black dinosaur.
Adventurous travelers can follow the branch roads from near the saddle-summit up the slopes of both mountains. They drive up through the eerie jumble of lava tubes, cinder cones and brightly painted miniature volcanoes that decorate each mountain's slope.
The Mauna Kea road ends a few hours' walk from the summit, while the Mauna Loa branch takes a four-wheel-drive vehicle to within a day's hike of the summit shelter (good weather only), where backpackers may camp on a first-come, first-served basis.
It's always winter atop 13,680-foot Mauna Loa, so prepare accordingly; first register at the National Park Visitor Center near Kilauea Crater and heed their handy information sheet.
Narrow, Winding, Bumpy
There are some equally persuasive reasons for not traveling the Saddle Road. It's a very narrow, often winding, bumpy, potholed, sometimes slippery asphalt road with no services for 50 miles. It's not the Hawaii everyone knows; it climbs over the chilly, 7,000-foot lava desert that the Army sometimes uses for an armored warfare training ground. Consequently, the countryside is full of unexploded shells.
Besides all that, I found it to be super-tricky because of the straight portions, where more than once I got fooled into stepping on the gas, only to suddenly hit an unmarked curve. Had it been slippery--well, I don't like to think about it.
So if you want a safe and sane cross-island route, do as most residents do and follow the north shore Highway 19, or Highway 11 around the island's southern tip.
Hire a Driver
But if you decide that the sights are worth the risks, hire a driver or try getting all-inclusive rental-car insurance before you leave home.
The Valley Isle of Maui has its share of forbidden roads; the rental contract stipulates, "Driving on unpaved roads, including unpaved portions of highways, is prohibited and at renter's risk and expense."
Again I asked questions at the airport rental counter.
"Does this 'prohibited' mean illegal according to law?"