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Lost on Maui

At 10,000 feet, there was a very un-Hawaiian chill in the air, and walking uphill was more breathless than it should have been. Fortunately, the trail dropped quickly, stringing around a rank of tall red cinder cones, each silhouetted against an azure Pacific sky, some with their tops blown empty by some prehistoric upheaval or another. Mile by mile, we walked down into the world's largest dormant volcano.

In the distance, I could see a party of horsemen crossing the crater floor at a walk, like a Saharan trading party, pulling a low contrail of hoof dust across the plain. Well above them, we spread out and the only noise above our boot steps was the slow hiss of silence rebounding off the cliffs, the eternal exhale of geology.

In Hawaii, sometimes you just need a break from paradise. For those times, visitors can hike around the moonscape of Haleakala National Park in Maui, and even spend the night in a cabin in the crater. (Ron Dahlquist/Maui Visitors Bureau)

When my blonde surfer-girl niece Annie Hiller gave a cry, I looked around to see her pointing off the trail.

"Silversword," she called. Twenty yards from the end of her finger rose a plant that Dr. Seuss could have proudly drafted: a low clump of shimmery light green spears, like an agave covered in hoar frost, with an elaborate spindly and dry trunk soaring five feet high out of its middle. A few days earlier we might have seen the last of the purple flowers that covered the trunk like the great feather standards that Hawaiian royalty were so fond of. The silversword, endemic to Haleakala, is one of the plants that extreme botanists come here to see. Carve an isolated, high-altitude enclave into a tropical latitude and the resident flora and fauna get up to all sorts of evolutionary high jinks.

The crater, for example, is crawling with Hawaii's signature endangered species, the nene goose. I'd been all over the islands but had only once before seen the nene (and then only on a private preserve near Hilo). But when we reached our cabin -- a plain and sturdy bunkhouse affair on a lush grassy field in the rain shadow of a cliff wall -- it was surrounded by nene. At first there were only two of them, but by the time we'd cooked supper on the wood stove and strolled out to watch the sunset, a proper flock of them were scratching around the yard. They are handsome birds, with their Audrey Hepburn necks and marbled black-and-white bodies. But they are opportunistic little scavengers, too, fearless and clearly accustomed to crumbs and other offerings from cabin tenants. By the next day, as they pecked our fingers at the standpipe of water in the yard or tailed us to the outhouse, we had stopped marveling at our luck.

Lava Tube Blackout

There's another cool Hawaiian touchstone in Haleakala: the lava tube. A big one opens up about a thousand yards from the cabin. And, unlike Thurston Lava Tube -- that sanitized, paved, crowded and lighted edition at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island -- this one is a lava tube unplugged. You're invited -- implicitly, since the place is all but unmarked -- to risk your ankles on the dark and craggy footing and your scalp on the devious outcroppings.

After we scrambled down into a spooky cave, flashlights in hand, it became downright spelunkle-ish. The tunnel was wide, echo-laden and, once we got a hundred yards in and doused our lights, absolutely black black. No amount of time brought a glimmer as we stood thrilled and immobile amid the perils, our hands waving frantically in front of useless eyes.

Lights back on, we picked our way through. Huge chambers appeared on either side and, for the bravest climbers, alternate routes opened through overhead chutes. Where cherry-hot rock had once flowed as a molten underground river, only freaky shapes remained: frozen swirls, lacerating spikes. Here and there, a sort of dripping limestone mold formed with excruciating slowness, the tiny pale buds that would become the stalactites of a future eon.

The grand finale appeared just around the last bend, where the tunnel widened into a grand chamber with a hole blasted through the roof. In the very center of the room, decades of visitors had tossed pebbles and stones, turning a pile of rubble into an informal Himalayan-style shrine to the glory of it all. Through the opening, sunlight poured into the gloom, bathing the shrine in a shaft of white -- an enchanted altar in some once-and-future cathedral.

We climbed out, after our subterranean walk, in time for a sunset spectacle that reminded us that we were, after all, in tropical latitudes. And after another wood-fired dinner, we went back out -- in search of moonlit silverswords, this time -- to stand under a star-stippled sky that made it obvious why there is a major astronomical observatory on the rim of this hole, and why there are plans for a possible second one.

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