In the rearview mirror, I saw blood spreading across the white of my left eye. A pretty scarlet—by now I was screaming, yelping maybe. And the pain was increasing. We were 8,000 feet above sea level, and as we gained elevation the pressure inside my terribly blocked sinuses increased as the atmospheric pressure decreased. In my panicking mind, there were two foreseeable outcomes: pressurized air would burst from my eye sockets in a spray of red goo, blinding me forever, or my skull would shatter.
My dad continued driving as I sat moaning in the passenger seat. He had given me a decongestant when we were 2,000 feet closer to sea level, but I hadn’t noticed a change. I looked out the window of my blurry, reluctant eyes then out the window of our car. “8500 FEET,” read a sign. We were headed for 10,023 feet, at which point the pressure inside my congested sinuses would increase by a third, and I would feel incalculably more pain.
Then, just as I felt like I would pass out from the pain, a prolonged squeal, similar to that of a frightened mouse, emerged from my right nostril. My congestion had been uncorked. The pressure equalized. The pain was gone. We reached 10,023 feet, parked, scrambled up some rocks and watched as the sun slid into the Pacific Ocean.
We were standing on the summit of Haleakalā (Hah-lay-ahk-ah-lah), the dormant volcano that shapes the east side of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. Haleakalā means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. From its peak, the legend goes, the demigod Maui slowed the sun as it passed overhead to prolong each day, to provide more warmth and to increase fertility. The early Hawaiians who first told this legend left traces of religious ritual sites along Haleakalā’s rim and passed down oral records of sacred places within the volcano’s crater.
Haleakalā is known for its mana, or supernatural power, that exists in the land and in the air around it. By the end of my time on Maui I had found a few places that people had described as possessing strong mana, but Haleakalā was reported to be particularly potent.
At the time, I had been on Maui for only a week. I had left my home in Boston, healthy as a horse, and before my first night’s sleep on the island I was already feeling logy. Sniffling, coughing and exhaustion persisted until that evening when I first went up Haleakalā. My ascent had seemed to wrench the illness from my body. The next day I again felt healthy as a horse.
I was going to be working on a farm for two months. My cousin lived in a town nearby, and I ended up spending a lot of time at his house, hanging out before and after surfing. I met a lot of people through my cousin, and quite often I found myself the minority in a majority of New Agers. I was skeptical of those who—they were quick to share—collected crystals, lit incense and told me about my astrological fate. The skepticism quickly became judgment.
I had just come out of my senior year physics, computer science and calculus classes, and I arrived on Maui with an ardent belief in reason and logic. I made few concessions to the magical and the fantastical. If an idea did not make logical sense, I could not make myself believe it. Some might have called me, and likely did call me, an arrogant little shit. Naively, I always felt that I was being entirely reasonable. Arrogance hadn’t come to mind, since I had never really been exposed to people who lived in ways that did not make sense to me, in what seemed to be absurdity. And, on Maui, without many people with whom I ideologically aligned, I quickly grew frustrated, full of judgment, isolated.
One night a few weeks into my time on Maui, I ate rancid coconut oil and proceeded to vomit until I went to bed. I woke up early, hopped out of my cabin and vomited more in the tall grass. Then I carefully dashed (of course you have to hold the stuff in) the hundred yards to the farm’s hole-in-the-ground outhouse. It was Saturday—a day off—and I had been planning to drive up to the crater to run and explore. I vomited more and figured that was the last of it.
I got in my car and drove up the volcano. I reached the third summit, a cliff that dropped into the bowl of the crater. I climbed up to the lip to look for a path down the slope. Then my intestines started pushing from inside—something needed to escape. I jogged down to the parking lot, headed for the park bathroom, stopped, lurched forward, and pumped out my innards onto the dirt. I stared at the red, brown, yellow and pink and watched the flies gather. I reached the parking lot’s single toilet, sat down, and let the time pass until I fell asleep, my torso pressed to my thighs, my head hanging between my knees. In a dream, I remembered that I was asleep on a public toilet—but the people waiting for it had gone by the time I had woken up.
I thought I was cleared out, so I went out, wrapped myself in my dashboard sun-reflector and lay down on the rocks in the sun to regain some vitality. Flies swarmed to my new odor, so I couldn’t rest much with them walking on my face. I headed back to my car and decided to go home.
On the way down I passed under a cloud, so I put my headlights on. My intestines urged me to stop at the next parking lot down, so I parked, hobbled to the lot’s bathroom, and hung out there a while. I was dehydrated to the point of exhaustion, and I fell asleep again—almost giving up. I was in the mood to regain some dignity, however, so I woke myself up, went back to my car and napped. When I awoke, I stuck my key in the ignition, turned it, and found that the car would not start. I had left my headlights on; the battery was dead. I panicked for nine seconds and then called the number for the park ranger that I found in a National Parks brochure on the floor of my car. Eventually the ranger came and jumpstarted my car.
I drove home, back to the farm, and sat on a pile of eucalyptus logs and watched the sun pass behind West Maui. I felt at peace. My body had been purged, purified. I was content just sitting.
The third time I went to Haleakalā, I was still feeling pretty gung-ho. I was going to hike nine miles, sleep, and then hike 11 more miles out a different route. The moon was going to be full. The sky was going to be clear. I had three carrots, granola, some nuts. I was going to use my school backpack, since I had no real hiking pack. I was going to borrow my cousin’s tent and rainfly just in case. It was going to be great.
The journey started off well. I got my camping permit, which required watching an educational video about nēnē (nay-nay), endangered Hawaiian geese, that are among the world’s rarest geese. I parked in a lower lot and hitchhiked up past “Nēnē Crossing” signs to the trailhead near the summit. I walked down the sliding volcanic rock trail, past big-as-buildings cinder cones and fridge-to-car-sized chunky, porous rocks. I walked through dry, rocky pseudo-desert, through ground-hugging shrubs and wet greenery before I reached the misty campsite.
I pitched my tent, ate, stretched and read. The sun was on its way down. Stars started poking through the indigo sky. I felt like I was settling into my seat at a movie. The constellations were forming as dew collected on the grass and my long-john-clad legs. Then clouds spilled over the lip formed by the mountains to the northeast, directly behind me, and hid the stars. It started raining, and I flopped into my tent to read Ulysses. I really was programmed by high school to love all that academic stuff. I passed out, dropping my book aside.
I woke up first to growling, gurgling sounds. A mountain lion? Tiger? I momentarily forgot that Maui had no big land-dwelling predators. The sounds got closer, louder. I unzipped my tent an inch, expecting to gaze into the jaws of death, and saw nothing. Another inch. By the light of my headlamp, I saw a flock of nēnē flapping their wings on my tent, growling a strangely predatory-sounding growl. The rare geese lingered within arm’s reach of my tent, and for a few moments I wondered why. But I was tired, and I couldn’t stay up watching the nēnē. I went back to sleep.
I woke up a few hours later when my foot slipped into the corner of my tent and into a puddle. It was raining and my entire tent had flooded—but I was on my inch-tall sleeping pad, so my body remained mostly dry. I felt slightly assaulted by nature. Unwilling and effectively unable to change anything, I went back to sleep again and continued cyclically waking and sleeping until I gave up on trying to sleep more. I got out of my tent, and it was misty and warm. My 700-something pages of book, my boots, sleeping bag, clothes, backpack—all were soaked. I decided I had to get out. I wanted to be back somewhere—my car, cabin, home. I ate my snacks, packed my tent, and started on the 11-mile trail out of the volcano.
By mile two, I had ping-pong-ball blisters on both heels from my squishy socks and boots. I took to overthinking, as I do when it seems the world is working against me. Nine miles more … I wanted to leave. My rainfly was supposed to work… why didn’t it? No, no, no, no, no—toxic thoughts sprang up. I started thinking “Left, right” to my footsteps, hoping I would trance out and arrive already. Each mileage sign seemed to take longer to come by. I finally reached a five-mile marker and saw what lay ahead: a long expanse of rocky plain and then a thousand-foot cliff thrashed with switchbacks.
I was pissed. Thankfully, moments of “Holy shit, that’s so beautiful!” interwove with moments of “Get me out. I’m miserable.” Still, the negativity became more analytical as the sharp pains wore off and the exhaustion set in. I wanted to figure out why I was feeling so miserable. The chain of unfortunate events was wearing on me. And what caused those events? The volcano. It was obvious. Well maybe I caused them. Maybe I wasn’t “vibing” with the volcano, and this was its attempt to make me think, to make me realize I was my own problem. Something to do with “getting over yourself.”
The night after my hike, I got back to my cabin and wrote in my journal: “I think Haleakalā is trying to purify me… This third time maybe it’s the demon inside me—the over-thinker, the troublemaker, the negative side. Maybe.” And I still think that could be true. My first time to the crater I had my sinuses cleared, and, the second time, I had my intestines cleared. My third time, I may have had a problem that was tougher to cleanse. But what elicited that urge to escape? Was it my self-imposed placebo effect? Probably. But I was beginning to get the feeling that all the talk of Haleakalā’s mana was true.
I thought that my fast, logic-based way of life, of thinking, of working was the only reasonable way out there to live. I had never really encountered people who embodied the aloha spirit—a kindness, a gentleness, a slow, time-steeped appreciation of the way things are and will be. I was surprised to meet many people who hadn’t gone to college and kids my age who had dropped out of high school, many people intentionally, and some less intentionally, living as vagabonds.
By the end of high school I fed off stress to keep me chugging through my work. On Maui I met a woman, my friend’s aunt, who told me she lived in a “stress economy,” so if seeing me the next week would make her have to rush from an appointment, thereby causing her stress, we would have to reschedule. These radical differences in priorities left me a bit stunned, and sometimes frustrated—no one really shared my self-perceived discipline, my skepticism, my interests. And when I brought my self-perceived hardassness to Haleakalā, the volcano slapped me right in the face, telling me to change or leave. This idea, that maybe I ought to change something of my mentality, stuck.
I visited my friend’s aunt again and saw how her belief in a low-stress life seemed to work for her. It didn’t seem quite as absurd as I got to know her a bit better. She’s really quite satisfied with life. I thought that stress was imperative for me to know that I was working my hardest, drinking life to the lees, and that worked for me because I believed in it with each bit of my body. Then this woman believed with every bit of her body that stress works against her happiness and, by reducing stress, she could evidently be very happy.
With this thought, I left her to return to the farm. I ran into my coworkers who, I had come to learn, fully believed that their priorities, their low-stress, fairly minimalist lives served them best, or at least better than my way of life would.
In my last two weeks on Maui I started experimenting with how to live. As an easily impressionable youth, I found myself quick to try out seemingly enjoyable ways of thinking and of living. So I believed in the power of belief. I recognized that I could believe in the opposite of all the judgment and negativity and frustration and impatience. I could believe that the people around me genuinely believed in things that I would have otherwise found absurd—because they were living evidence that those beliefs yielded positive effects, that those beliefs worked almost logically. And if the people around me could embrace belief and reap its fruits, so could I.
With that I found myself feeling more positive effects, picking things I could believe, wanted to believe… or believe in … and letting that belief carry me.
* * *
I ended up back on Maui this spring with a good friend. We went to Haleakalā, hiked down the same trail I had hiked, camped at the same spot I had camped. On the first sloping trail I was thinking about rationing our food and where else we would hike. I thought about how happy I was to be back, but I did not physically feel happy. I was still thinking more than I was feeling.
We walked for an hour and continued on a flat stretch along the floor of the crater. Now we were really inside the volcano. My thoughts gradually quieted down and I felt surprisingly tranquil, a pulsing in my body, physical happiness.
Two hours into the hike we took a break, sat down and ate our snacks as we lay ourselves over our hiking packs. A nēnē poked its head out of a shrub and walked towards us. It stepped out of the bush, up to our boots at the ends of our outstretched legs and started circling us, seemingly sniffing our packs. It sat down five feet away and appeared to go to sleep. We watched it for a while and then got up, put on our packs and continued down the trail.
Part of the Ritual Issue