Poli Poli: Maui's Mystical Forest

I’ve found the cure for island fever, and it’s a passage through a mystical land of death and life.

It all started sitting in the parking lot for Haleakala National Park with Andrew, my partner in crime. T minus eight hours until our flight left Maui to fly home to Oahu. We had finished all our photo shoots, and we had time to kill. It began as a simple question, and quickly escalated into a debate of mature complexity.

“What do you want to do?

“I don’t know, what do YOU want to do?”

“I asked you first.”

“I asked you second. I’m down for anything.”

“Me too. What do you feel like?”

I fidgeted, and the folds of the car seat sucked my frame into their sweaty leather grip. After so many years, all of Hawaii's beaches and volcanic rock features can start to look the same. In the absence of a grand jury, I summoned an arbitrator with my fingertips. Google had a few suggestions - one stood out. Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area. The name was fun and jolly. It was downright roly-poly dandy.

Polipoli State Recreational Park is located halfway up the backside of Haleakala crater, 6,200 feet above sea-level. A thick girdle of fog wraps around the midline of the swelling crater. Cool air floats through fresh green foliage and mixes with the fragrance of rich red dirt. It lends an autumn-like ambience to the place, which befits the towering redwoods, cypress, sugi, and ash trees.

The gavel descended on the dashboard with resolve. Polipoli, we find you --- WORTHY OF ADVENTURE. We began the drive with the alacrity of two kids clutching a treasure map.

The trailhead for the redwood forest is about an hour drive from the entrance to Haleakala park. Within the first five minutes, Andrew was passed out, snoring softly from the passenger seat.

Textbook case of a chocolate-chip-cookie overdose.

I woke him up when the pavement melted into puddles of sticky mud. The sign was clear: four wheel drive required.  The trailhead was still miles away. We analyzed our arsenal against the texture of our opponent ahead. Smooth is a subjective term when pitting a two wheel drive rental against a backcountry road.

Fight? Flight? Fight? Flight?

hile we deliberated, an archaic Lexus passed and charged ahead.


I was all too happy to let Andrew drive. On a scale of zero to slamming-on-imaginary-passenger-side-brakes-and-swearing, it was a manageable six. We made it to the trailhead with only a few insignificant hairs on my arms standing at attention.

The hairs still at rest quickly joined in a standing ovation as I stepped outside the car.

Cold wisps of fog slithered between the stark spines of lifeless trees. The spindly remains of those that had fallen were strewn across the forest floor in a Paul Bunyan sized game of pick-up-sticks. I had an unsettling feeling that I had pranced into a morgue.

We learned the forest had been massacred in 2007 by a fire of epic proportions. The flames raged through 2,300 acres for days on end. Restoration has been ongoing for the past eight years, but complete restoration on that level takes decades. The remains serve as a poignant memorial to the 100-foot fallen giants.

We later met a man at the airport who claimed his cousin had started the fire in a camping accident. "Drinking too many beers and lit one campfire. Hah!" He chuckled, happy to contribute his piece to the puzzle. However it began, there's no question how things ended.

A couple exiting the trail wagged their heads. “Not much to see there, it’s all dead.”

We were drawn into the murky depths by a combination of wistful hope and macabre allure. Inside the trail, the ashen branches of trees extended like spiny white skeletal rib cages. Rotting carcasses lined the side of the trail. The only signs of life were the trails of hoofprints that crisscrossed with the path; marks of the famed bounty of feral pigs and goats that attracts hunters from across the state.

But there were survivors. Further down the trail, glimmers of hope emerged from the remains. Green branches waved from atop scarred trunks, and little sprigs of life sprouted from their sides. Sunlight filtered through the new life and warmed a fuzzy carpet of viridescent moss.

We stopped to take in the feels. It was something different. Refreshing. You might say even more refreshing than a diet pepsi.

As the wind shifted, a blanket of fog crept in and caressed us with its cool and slippery touch.

The light was fading, so we turned and headed back toward the car.

As we drove back, we pulled off to the side of the road to savor the last moments of sunset and watched the clouds roll in over the city.

We climbed back in the car, and Andrew began winding down the narrow road towards the airport at a moderate speed of three-and-a-half.

“We still two hours before our plane leaves. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t care, what do you want to do?”