5:30am on Valentine’s day, 5,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Haleakala. We are visiting the island of Maui, named after the demi-god who pulled the islands from the sea and lassoed the sun, and we are staying as guests in the 90-year-old summer estate of a prominent missionary family. I am awake this early to watch the sunrise, leaving both my husband and child asleep in bed. Pulling on sweatpants over long johns, wool socks over cotton ones, zipping a fleece over a two layers of long sleeves, all of these cold-weather clothes smell dusty, only worn once year. I am getting ready by the light of the flashlight on my phone, but the battery is dying, so I turn it off and finish dressing, then I try feeling my way from our room into the kitchen. There is complete darkness in the hallway; even in daytime it’s a dim cave decorated with family photos of strangers. I hit my toe on the stairs and I swallow a curse as I concede complete unfamiliarity with this place and I turn my phone’s light on again.
Around the corner and through the dining room, I find the kitchen and flip the light switch. I fill up a thermos with hot tea, my stomach with a piece of toast, and then look for a flashlight. Instead of such modern convenience, I find empty kerosene lanterns and candlesticks, but no candle and no fuel. At last I discover a candle partially melted in a handmade ceramic lantern, a half jar sort of thing with a small handle at the top. I borrow it from the shelf, then head for the front hall, again switching to my phone’s flashlight, battery icon glowing red and smaller. On my way out, I pocket a box of matches from the fireplace mantle, sling my camera over my shoulder, and then open the front door into the darkness and close it quietly behind me. I feel clumsy and itchy under my layers of clothes, and struggle to pull on my shoes without dropping all the things I’m carrying in my hands and pockets. I feel a growing uneasiness about my place here and apprehension about my reasons for going into the woods under the starlight. But still I go, my own words driving me to obey the simple impulse to get up from the warm and comfortable and to head into the unexpected.
Down the steps, I find my way across the the dew-dampened lawn to the twin totem poles guarding a grassy path up through the eucalyptus forest. I don’t know old they are, how they came to be here, or even from whence they came, but the totem poles seem to be resigned to watching over a foreign land. The house behind me contains many more such Native American souvenirs from an un-named tribe, and only a few, scattered references to Hawaii. Almost everything is imported, including all of us sun-burnt guests. This estate would feel at home in New England, including the rose bushes climbing the walls and the old books written by white men stacked upon the shelves, all of it except for the lauhala mats in the bathrooms, absorbing the water that drips from naked bodies.
I turn off my phone, zip it into a pocket, trading it for matches, and stand holding them, looking up at the stars until I find Orion chasing the Seven Sisters. I bend down to light the candle, balancing the lantern upon a rock; after a few strikes, the match catches, and soon the candle wick flares and burns in return. I stand up, again pocketing the matchbox, and I am conscious of the eyes carved into that ancient wood, waiting for me to say something. I want to offer atonement for their exile, or at least a good reason for my presence, but all I have is something pulling me from my chest up, up into the darkness, and so I follow, ducking my head as I pass between, thinking only of the words hanging framed on the wall by the staircase:
“What I have always longed for, was the privilege of living forever away up on one of the mountains in Sandwich Islands over-looking the sea…” -Mark Twain
Forever away, that is a dream that brought so many of us from far way to here, and after we have arrived, and stayed, we reach the point that “away” becomes “here.” A getaway in paradise, opened to us because of the privilege of who we know and what we can spend to get there, now become a home, sharing uncomfortable quarters with history. I have tried to learn of the history of this place, to try become separate from that history, only to find myself repeating the same story over and again as a visitor, a tourist, lost and not knowing the way, not knowing the words to speak and ask for entrance into a unknown forest.
I blunder upward in my silence, and find that the candle lights my way as well as any flashlight, and also offers a slight warmth to my chilled fingers. I hear a small branch snap to my right side; to my left, something shuffles through the leaves deep in the forest. There are deer and wild boar up here, and who knows what else is loose and roaming. I walk until I reach a fence, the property line for the estate, and follow it until it ends in a corner. I try to walk around, but there is a large woodpile blocking my way, so instead I find a spot sit down to write by the light of the candle and wait for sunrise.
I open my thermos and smell my peach tea, but it’s too hot to drink, so I leave it open and steaming in the cool air, aware that this scent, like so much else, is foreign and manufactured. This fence was erected, the trees around me planted and crowding out what was here before, and everything I carry with me, all the woven fleece I wear, shipped and flown in from far away. After awhile, I check the time on my phone, then look up at the sky to realize most of the stars have already faded, and it is bright enough now to maneuver my way around the wood pile to an open area overlooking a small valley.
One star still shines, or rather, a planet: I assume it is Venus, cradled in the branches of a distant rise, suspended and beckoning upwards, up the slopes of Haleakala, up to the peak of a sacred mountain filled with telescopes and hordes of tourists staring into the sunrise, all following the same call heavenward. I hear it too, and go as far as I can, which is only about thirty feet, before coming across a few thin wires stretched between two fences; barely visible, I had almost walked straight into them. Down on the side of the valley I see a farmhouse emerging from the dim light, and I back up until I no longer feel I am trespassing on their land, although the truth is that I have felt a bit like an intruder since the plane landed two days ago. I realize the candlelight, which had shined so glaringly an hour ago, is now being swallowed by the dawn. I place the lantern down on the grass, turn on my camera and kneel to take a few pictures of the tiny flame, then blow it out and turn my lens toward the forest.
The trees are silhouettes now against the sky, color beginning to return with a pastel hue, but this spot is not picturesque in the way I had imagined when I had planned my excursion the day before. Nothing that I value here can be captured with my camera. It is special in the way that I feel, and so I put the lens cap back on, wishing I hadn’t brought it at all. I think of the framed photographs hanging in the front room of the house I am visiting, beautiful scenes of snowy mountains and indigenous people, taken and brought here as decoration. People and places reduced to subjects to be captured and mounted, like the sheep’s head above the fireplace. For all my self-conscious concern, there is little left in this valley that is native, not many who had arrived before the written word but the sunlight and the land itself, patient above and enduring below.
A donkey brays, its voice echoing up from the barn below and shattering the air, then sighs back into quiet. The first birds are awake now, one more voice joining at a time, growing together until I am surrounded by song. I turn to the direction I think the sun will rise, and try to memorize the whisper of leaves as a soft wind builds. I open my thermos again and the tea is still so hot it burns my tongue, but I breathe in the steam, warming my nose and cheeks. I find it hard to simply be still and watch, especially when I feel so awake and new, aware of my toes and fingers in the way you only feel in the cold.
The sky brighter still, it is past 7:02am, the official time of sunrise, so I walk back along the fence line, back over the woodpile and around the corner. I stand at the top of the wide path and I can easily see the house at the bottom. I am disappointed; it felt like I had traveled much further in the darkness, but it was only my own fear that made it feel like a journey instead of the short stroll that it was. I follow an animal trail worn in the undergrowth down the other side of the valley, examining hoof prints in the red dirt until I am cut short: the path continues only through a low tunnel under a thorn filled bush. I back up, find another way around, then continue downwards on my own, crashing and large and noisy, until I find a fallen tree in a small clearing. The sky to the east is already blue, fading to pink only at the far edge. I stop to sit on the wide trunk, and I write again, and try making a few sketches, trying to understand this beauty and the disconnect I’m feeling. I try to be still, and quiet, and give up after a minute, stand and return back up the path to the main trail.
My arrival causes a commotion on the other edge of the forest, followed by a steady yelping. Is it an animal calling out in warning or in pain? I freeze, feeling vulnerable in the open air, then see the white tails of two pairs of deer running away in opposite directions. I relax, and at the edge of my vision I see the topmost branches of the trees begin to glow. The sun is truly rising now, having taken this long to make it up over the lip of Haleakala and arrive in this place. It spills golden down the trees, and I turn around to see it is rising up directly below where I had seen Venus, further south than I had been expecting. It is already too bright to look at directly for more than a second, so I turn away to instead watch it caress each branch and leaf with warmth, bringing shadow and vivid color back to a muted world. The sun rises further still, reaching down the mountain slope until I feel the warmth of morning upon my back and see my own shadow stretch across the ground, tall as any tree. My discomfort melts away, and I feel the universal reverence at the arrival of a newday.
I walk the short distance back down the slope, smiling, and this time, as I pass between the totem poles, I offer the one thing I have gained: gratitude. Maybe I did not deserve this, maybe this beauty was not intended for me, but I am thankful to have been a witness.
I return to the house, leave my camera and outer layers in our bedroom, then enter a noisy kitchen filled with children eating pancakes, my tea finally cool enough to drink.