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Driving Maui’s Wild Highway

On the road east of Kapalua, in Maui.

Photo: Joe Schmelzer

For 10 years I lived on the Hawaiian island of Maui. I had a complex relationship with paradise.

When I stood in my backyard and looked off across Maalaea Bay, the West Maui Mountains dominated my view. The mountains, carved from half of the volcanic doublet that comprises the island, are encircled by a road embracing two sides of Maui that live in sometimes uneasy alliance: the tourist-bloated Maui for which I have both a snobbish aversion and an abiding affection, and the more local island—the almost “underground” island I love and yet would never be fully a part of. Highway 30 plunges me into the paradox of Maui. It lets me know I’m back.

Since 30 is a 60-mile loop (with a treacherous section still named County Road 340), you can pick it up anywhere along the line, and I slide into its quick-moving flow just before Maalaea, a small community on the isthmus between Haleakala, the 10,000-foot cone that presides over Maui, and the shield volcano that created the West Maui Mountains.

The road begins to climb, and Maalaea Bay, home to humpback whales during the birthing season of November through May, sits off to my left. The Pacific will hug my shoulder, while the West Mauis—which at this point appear dry and brown, more large hills than sacred mountains—will weigh heavily on my right for my entire trip as I move clockwise around the island.

Offshore, Kahoolawe, the uninhabited island that was used until 1990 for target practice by the Navy, rises up. The road swoops on. The island of Lanai, once devoted almost entirely to pineapple production and now home to a few posh resorts, slips into view. The ever-changing perspective of the neighboring islands informs a sense of distance traveled that might otherwise go undetected by simply gazing out onto a vast expanse of ocean.

I pass into a tunnel blasted through rock and honk my horn, this being a local superstition that is said to ward off evil spirits (who knows, but I’d never consider not honking, and neither would the several cars I pass inside—the sounds reverberate). The road settles down to sea level, and a small sign catches my eye: the valley isle sport shooters club. I double back.

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