Curmudgeonly comments notwithstanding, he is an excellent backpacking partner, appreciative, careful and capable in the outdoors. When we reached Kapalaoa cabin, beneath the southern rim of the crater, he stoked up the stove and did the cooking (using an impressive array of mangled pots left in the cabinets and purifying water from the faucet in the kitchen sink). Meanwhile, I lighted candles and read aloud from a booklet by Arthur C. Medeiros and Lloyd L. Loope called "Rare Animals and Plants of Haleakala National Park." I'd organized the food, but none too well, as it turned out. Though I'd brought freeze-dried dinners, with desserts, and omelets for breakfast and a handful of energy bars, I'd somehow forgotten provisions for lunch. After dinner that night, we divvied up the energy bars for midday meals.
Early to bed, early to rise is the backpacker's rule, chiefly because there's nothing to do after the sun sets. I slept rockily. The bunk was comfortable enough, but across the room, it was my snoring brother who sounded like the Tet Offensive. So I got up around 5:45 a.m. to follow a puffy little bird, called a chukar, around a nearby cinder cone. John was awake when I got back, giving me the perfect opportunity to go back to sleep, which is why we didn't set off for Paliku until after 11 a.m.
It's just 3.4 miles from Kapalaoa to Paliku cabin, which is as pretty a spot as I've seen. The fiddlehead ferns at the front door and acres upon acres of bushy native raspberries, bearing inky fruit, made it seem like the Hawaiian version of "Little House on the Prairie." Several hundred yards beyond, there's a second cabin, for rangers only, and a fenced pasture with horses, used for packing in supplies. There, half a dozen zebra-striped nenes posed complacently while we took pictures.
In this little corner of heaven, we also found manna: a box of oatmeal on a shelf in our cabin, with just enough left for lunch, topped by raspberries. The tap was dry, and we couldn't find water near the ranger cabin, so I climbed the ladder propped against the tank behind Paliku, where several inches of water remained at the bottom. Using a bottle with a line tied around its neck, I did the dipping, while John carried the pots I filled and put them on the stove. There was mint around the tank to perk up tea and sunshine all afternoon, inviting me to nap on the front lawn while birds piped in the tops of nearby trees.
Later, a group of bedraggled tent campers turned up, without water and unaware that the tanks at Paliku could have been dry.
John and I set out for Kaupo the next morning just after dawn, aiming straight for the lip of the gap. The first few miles, over a tree-lined trail built in the '30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, were surprisingly easy. We reached the park boundary at the 3.7-mile mark, where the trail yields to a jeep road crossing hot, dry Kaupo Ranch. The national park is working to acquire property adjacent to the ranch and hopes to reroute the Kaupo Gap trail through a rain forest valley to the east. But for the time being, you must descend the gap on the jeep road.
I cannot overstate its brutality. Rocky and gouged, it heads straight downhill for five miles at an alarming pitch, with no cover from the sun. When we finally dragged ourselves onto the porch at the Kaupo General Store, we must have looked a sight: drenched with sweat, eyes glazed and feet screaming to be released from boots. The taxi driver, who was there to meet us, couldn't believe we'd walked all the way down from the top, and he wanted to know how old we were, which I took as a compliment on the long drive home.
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The Lowdown on the Crater
Getting there: American, American Trans Air, Delta, Hawaiian and United airlines fly nonstop from L.A. to Kahului Airport on Maui. Round-trip fares start at $622.
Hiking Haleakala: For information and updates on ranger-led Kaupo Gap trips, contact Haleakala National Park, P.O. Box 369, Makawao, HI 96768, telephone (808) 572-4400. Monthly lottery is held for use of cabins; write to address above. Park must receive request by mail two months before first day of month you want to visit. Price is $40 for one to six people, $80 for seven to 12. Cabin cancellations calls, 1 to 3 p.m.
Occasionally park rangers lead three-day trips ($15) across the crater and down Kaupo Gap, with a day spent weeding alien plant species around Paliku cabin. You must enter a lottery to get one of the 12 spots available. The next trip is April 21-23; entries must be submitted by April 1. Apply to the address above and write "Attention: Hike Kaupo Gap." Send your name, address, phone and number of people. Winners are notified by telephone.
Pickup at trail's end: La Bella Taxi, tel. (808) 242-8011.