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Driving Maui’s Wild Highway

On the road east of Kapalua, in Maui.

Photo: Joe Schmelzer

With Lahaina in my rearview mirror, I am swallowed in Kaanapali, created in the 1960’s as Hawaii’s first planned resort area. Its beautiful stretch of beach is blanketed with one hotel and condominium after the next. Many never venture beyond the grounds, but what I’ve come to see isn’t drawing much of a crowd. Tucked deep into the back corner of a shopping mall, past the Tommy Bahama and Coach shops, sits the tiny, well-laid-out Whalers Village Museum. The history of whaling is both a testament to American can-do and a shame worn uneasily. As I wander through, reading the young sailors’ stories—many were teenagers who couldn’t even swim—and looking at the harpoons and killing irons, a mother awkwardly tries to explain to her young daughter (they are the only other visitors) exactly what the point was, and why the leviathans were driven to near extinction before whaling played itself out in the Pacific by the 1870’s.

Farther up the coast, the insular island of Molokai, famous for its leper colony, hovers close offshore. Inland, tall ironwood trees announce Kapalua, 23,000 acres of Maui’s most well-thought-out resort development, which includes a recently renovated Ritz-Carlton hotel.

And then it all stops.

No more resorts, no more condos, no more shops, no more houses. The island reasserts itself and the road is forced to narrow. Trees are bent and twisted from wind that seems unimaginable on this still day. The baking sun, coupled with the lunar-like lava beginning to dominate the terrain, starts to addle my mind. I pull off and hustle down a lava-rock path. A quick swim in secluded Honolua Bay, a close encounter with a very large sea turtle, and I am refreshed and back on the road.

On this back side of the island, the West Maui Mountains exert themselves and push the road around like a piece of string, tight switchbacks yield to long swooping arcs that bring me deep into valleys and then shove me back out toward the coast. My radio is filled with static. My phone has no reception. I pass a sign that reads narrow winding road. “No shit,” I say aloud, and turn the wheel hard, left hand over right. I pull off and look out into the endless Pacific—no more islands in view here, just open sea for thousands of miles. I breathe deeply. Probably the cleanest air I have tasted in … ever.

The double yellow line that has been my guide is gone now, replaced by a faded, intermittent dash in a road that has withered even further. The pavement has begun to buckle under in spots. Highway 30 has morphed into County Road 340. Up ahead, at the apex of a switchback, I see a young man sitting alone in a folding chair, miles from anywhere. I approach and he smiles loosely and calls out, “Buds … Maui buds.” He gestures—forefinger and thumb pinched together, rising to his mouth. I drive on. The road becomes so narrow that leaves brush my car on both sides. A sign tells me the speed limit is 25 mph—that is wildly optimistic. If someone comes around this bend in the road, one of us is going to have to do some fancy reversing for some distance.


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