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Sue Bruns: The ride down Haleakala: Pure rush

HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii — I adjusted my helmet and hopped onto the rental bike. With just one push on the pedal, I was sailing down the mountain. Gary had taken off just ahead of me; Eric and Jessy were close behind, and it didn’t take them long to fly by me and disappear around a hairpin turn as the four of us sped down Mount Haleakala.

The crash helmet pressed tightly against my ears and the sides of my head, muffling the wind that rushed by and amplifying my own respiration and racing heartbeat. My sports sunglasses fit snugly between the chin guard and the top of the face of the helmet.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” our guide Remy had emphasized, and I was not about to disregard his advice. I had enjoyed the scenery and the running commentary on the way up the mountain: the ride down would be a speedy tour through the various ecosystems Haleakala offers.

On the way up the mountain, the nine of us bikers (including myself, husband Gary, our son Eric and daughter Jessy) had listened as Remy shared stories and facts about the history and geography of the island and the mountain. He told us about the mountain itself, about the crater that isn’t really a crater but rather a huge erosion, large enough for Manhattan to fit neatly inside.  

As we climbed to the 10,000-foot summit, Remy had told us about the various ecosystems of the mountain: the dry forest zone on the leeward side; the rain forest on the windward slopes, the subalpine shrub land and the seemingly barren alpine zone at the top.

After a brief visit to the summit, Remy drove us back down the mountain to 6,500 feet where he unloaded nine bikes from the top of the van. I was happy that my bike fit me well. Its mountain bike tires wouldn’t slow me down much on the 27-mile descent, and the single gear wouldn’t matter, since pedaling was only required on a single short hill near the bottom.

This was a self-paced ride, so once we got on our bikes, we were on our own. I had selected the Maui Sunriders Bike Co. for that very reason (and for their safety record), knowing my family would not want to have to stay with a group.

With an average grade of a 5 percent incline, the road had many switchbacks and a few tight hairpins.

Bikers shared the road with the motor traffic but had a wide shoulder most of the route.

The speed limit on the road varied from 15 to 30 mph, and the drivers were quite observant of bikers on the road.

I clutched the handlebars, my hands outstretched, always poised to break and often doing so, lightly. My arthritic thumbs would thank me when this was over.

At open stretches on the mountain, the wind tugged at me and I held fast.

With my family out of sight ahead of me, I fell into my own pace, riding without the brakes as much as possible.

I was glad to be here on a day without rain. Slick roads could make this descent dangerous.

Once I settled into a rhythm, my body relaxed and I focused solely on the road.

About five miles into the ride, I became aware of a muscle strain in my face and realized that I was smiling as widely and unconsciously as I ever had.

This was it! This was Gary’s and my final ride in my quest to bike in all 50 states, and what a final ride it was — in Hawaii, on Maui, on Haleakala, with my family on a perfect day in May, with no real effort other than what it took to concentrate and keep my rental bike moving smoothly down the serpentine road.

A flash of eucalyptus scent wafted past me, followed by a hint of moist air.

“Two forks. Go right each time.” Remy had drilled us well on our way up the mountain so that we knew the way down.

 “Always turn or veer right when a choice appears until you see the ranch sign; then go left,” he said.

As I approached the ranch sign, I saw my family, bunched up, waiting for me to join them for the final stretch into Paia. After a brief pause, we sped down the last few miles to the bike shop. We were the first from our group to arrive.

Should we have ridden more slowly? Stopped to enjoy the sights along the way? Maybe, but the thrill of the 27-mile descent, the freshness of the moist mountain air, and the smile affixed to my face said no.

We had savored the view from the van on the way up Haleakala and from the summit near the crater. The ride down was pure rush.