When nuts fall from the tree, they land ... in Hawaii. Something about the islands seems to attract them.

Surely it's not quite normal, for example, to want to paddle a surfboard completely around every island, or kayak around them, or swim. But people have tried to do so, and keep trying.

My urge to drive around every island, on the other hand, does not fall into the same category. It couldn't. After all, any road map of Hawaii shows that the roads are there. So they must be there. Right?

Well, no.

The truth is that the Hawaiian Islands crumble into the Pacific almost as quickly as they pour out of the volcano vent and solidify. They're made of shoddy materials, and nowhere is that as apparent as on the north coast of every island. Each features terrain that hogties the most sophisticated engineers and roadbuilders.

That's one problem.

The other problem is the maps. You can't trust them.

Just take a look at any two maps of any island. The same roads very likely have different names on different maps. And the route numbers are confusing, at least until you break the code, because often a route number that ends with a zero on the map will have no zero on the road signs. So, for example, Route 340 on the map becomes Route 34 on the roadside. At least, you hope that's the explanation, but it nevertheless adds an edge of anxious bafflement to any drive, particularly if it's getting dark fast and you realize you may be nowhere near where you think you are.

Other roads marked on the maps simply aren't there when you get to them, or are navigable only by locals, all of whom have Big Tire Fever. (They have to, in order to get to and from work.)

Such roads bring out the macho in me. For instance, when a map features a little dotted line that will obviously cut hours off my traverse of an island, but admonishes, "Venturing beyond this point will invalidate your rental car contract," a certain stubbornness unveils itself in me. And so it did on Maui.

This is a tale about how I always want to go to the road's end, and about how there's often more road beyond the end of the road. For instance, take the road past Kaanapali, the glittering resort area on Maui's west coast.

We did.

After all, the map of Maui showed the road going completely around the northwest side of the island to Wailuku, Maui's county seat. It looked like a nice drive.

But when we got to Honolua Bay, a local surfer's haven, complete with the obligatory discarded cars rusting on the rocky beach, we stopped at a barricade placed across the right lane, just past the bridge. It said, "Road Closed."

"It's not really closed," I said to my husband. "See how the sign is only on the right half? They just want to keep people out who don't live there." It sounded good to me.

A man in a bright pink shirt sat outside a ramshackle trailer weaving a palm-frond basket. "Is the road closed?" my husband asked.

He shrugged. "That sign's been there a year or so. Road's okay for three or four miles. Then it gets bad. Might need a four-wheel-drive. Hey, here's my friend," he said, as a tall blond haole drove up in a step van. "Maybe he'll sell you a pineapple."

"That sounds good," said my husband. He meandered over and asked, "Got any pineapples to sell?"

"I don't have a {expletive} thing to sell," the man snarled.

Welcome to Hawaii. We got back in the economy rental car and drove around the sign.

We felt a bit of fear, a bit of excitement. One thing was certain, our rental-car contract as well as our insurance would probably be voided if we got into trouble driving on a road clearly marked "closed." There was also the factor of fiercely protective Hawaiians, the ones who glare at haoles with expressions that clearly say, "Can't you leave anything to us?" To be sure, most Hawaiians aren't like that at all. But some are.

And the places they feel especially protective of are the sites that are truly sacred. Even a dense haole such as myself can appreciate the power, the mana, in these hallowed spots. And once you get beyond mainstream Hawaii, you're likely to see stacks of stones here and there, like little snowmen made of rocks. They are said by some to mean "good luck," by others to have been placed by tourists. But I always shiver in my bones and wonder if they mean, Keep Out -- or Else. Sacred. For Hawaiians Only.

The first curves of this perfectly good, but empty road wound around ever more spectacular cliffs sheltering magnificent, isolated bays. Then the piles of rocks began to appear more and more often in the broad green pastures on both sides of the road. From one spot we could see hundreds of them scattered along the bright green hills and poised on the edge of the cliff that bounded the sea.

The potholes grew larger, and I drove more cautiously. We'd seen no other vehicles -- just one long-abandoned road-repair machine. Cows wandered across the road as we went further into the green folds of land, which were swept by light that came and went beneath the heavy winter clouds.

After a good long while, the road began to seriously deteriorate. The pavement was interrupted by long stretches of gravel. The holes were larger, fully formed and self-satisfied potholes with the conscious agenda of reaching out and connecting with others of their kind. Something serious was happening here, something end-of-the-worldish.

A fateful turn in the road revealed just what it was: The pavement was coming to an end.

The road looked like a giant's haphazard quilt rumpled after a restless night's sleep, then solidified with powerful car-threatening agents, easily strong enough to suspend us by the chassis.

In a spectacular demonstration of extraordinary skill, I negotiated the 50-odd feet of mountain madness, only to be presented with the next level of difficulty in the Nintendo of Island Circumnavigation.

A one-lane (or less, in some spots) dirt road had made up its mind to get to sea level from a thousand feet above, at a pitch that made my stomach churn. Not to mention the accompanying sheer drop on the left into a bay guaranteed to be flanked by sharp-toothed, car-smashing ledges. The goal was a little town below, Kahakuloa on our topo map, that I was flat-out curious to see, hoping it might remind me of the pre-statehood Hawaii of my childhood, when my hula records were on the 49th State label and the main road on the Big Island was dirt and washed out after a hard rain.

I eyed the road, imagining ruts that could send us tumbling end over end into the ocean, then took a deep breath and, trembling, shifted into low gear.

Images of dead, rusting hulks below the old Kaena Point road on Oahu, around which my family had driven when I was a child, filled my vision. I know now that they were most likely deposited there by car thieves, but when I was small they seemed like harbingers of doom as I stared out the window of the little Mercury Comet while my mom repeated breathlessly, "Tom, be careful! We almost drove off the cliff!"

This drive was a little more serious. A notch above. A thousand feet above, to be exact.

And -- oh, no -- could that be a car heading toward us?

It was. I dodged into a lucky foot-wide alcove in the face of the cliff and watched in horror as the oncoming car did not check its speed. Instead, a placid old man actually removed his hand from the steering wheel and waved, smiling. His tires couldn't have been more than an inch from the edge of the cliff.

"You can go now," my husband said, as the other driver's trail of dust settled.

"Ah. Yes," I said, and started up again, this time a little faster, across the bridge at sea level and up the other side of the cliff.

It was with great relief that I pulled into the little town of Kahakuloa.

The little, empty town of Kahakuloa. No stores, no visible people. I heard the sound of a TV coming from behind the pulled shades of a green shack. Well, at least we were in town. Good roads at last.

Ha.

This was by far the worst of all, the mighty Rut From Hell, a gaping, car-devouring abyss three feet deep, ending 20 feet away in an enormous hole. Clearly, we weren't wanted here.

I got out and leapt from rut to rut, trying to see if the road got any better ahead. In the first quarter mile, it got worse by the inch. And we had eight more miles to go.

I ignominiously turned the car around and went back past the little, well-kept church, back into the awful wilderness.

I made it up the cliff, and down, and back up again, feeling oddly comforted by having the mountain next to me rather than open air. At the top, I sighed with relief and got out of the car to take one last picture of the bay and the town.

Suddenly I spotted a little yellow school bus, tooling down the road on the opposite side of the bay at a very good clip.

"I'm going back," I said, to my husband's amazement. "They wouldn't send their kids down a road as bad as this."

Courage renewed, I hustled down the cliff road like an old-timer. At the bottom, the driver of a big-tire truck did an amazed double take as I came barreling around the curve in my little rental car.

A van was approaching down the other side of the Rut From Hell, negotiating with ease.

I studied the van driver's route, each little schlip and schlup of the wheels as they veered up on the narrow grassy rim of the road and stayed determinedly on top of the ruts. The driver waved as he passed us.

I set my jaw, stepped on the gas ... and made it. Around the next bend, even more amazingly, was paved road. Narrow paved road, to be sure -- no line in the middle, still no guard rails -- but paved nevertheless. We left this slice of '30s Hawaii and continued up the other side of the bay.

The rest of the trip was beautiful, if anticlimactic. The road to Wailuku was single-lane paved for the next 10 miles, and actually had a few well-deserved stretches of guard rail. We passed shady waterfall grottoes, with their pink and white impatiens, and curve after curve of gorgeous views.

Back in our funky abode, the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina, and invigorated by our victory over nature, we went right to the bar. We ordered large, dark, draft beers, the bitter kind adventurers drink after a long day of kayaking or surfing around islands.

We deserved it.

Kathleen Ann Goonan is a freelance writer in Centreville, Va.