Travel Story: Life on Mars

a volcano-traversing trip to Maui

Katie Venit, illustrated by Garrett Brunker

Experience has taught me to be wary when my twin sister, Beth, proposes a “trip of a lifetime.” These generally include heights, poisonous reptiles, extreme temperatures, and lots of gear. A few years ago, Beth and my brother Chris hiked into (and then out of) the Grand Canyon in three days. I declined to join them, citing my insane desire to not die from dehydration or flash flooding.

I’m also a really slow hiker. My favorite exercise is walking Harper, my basset hound mix who likes to smell everything. Sometimes we walk so slowly we actually do go backwards. Beth’s idea of a relaxing afternoon is to go for a 10-mile run. 

Despite this, Beth managed to talk me, our two brothers Ed and Chris, and Chris’s fiancée (also named Beth) into hiking through a volcano. This three-day trek took us through Maui’s Haleakala National Park, which has thin air, very little weather, and is populated mostly by hornets and Nene, the majestic but bossy Hawaiian goose that will attack you for your lunch, as Chris found out. The rangers tell visitors not to feed the Nene, but I think most people do it out of self-preservation. 

Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. According to legend, it was there that the demigod Maui, wanting to lengthen the day, lassoed the sun as it moved across the sky. Haleakala isn’t actually a volcano, it’s more of an erosion crater, but it looks like what you would expect from an extinct volcano. There are lots of both kinds of lava rock that you may remember from Reading Rainbow: pahoehoe, the smooth kind; and ‘a’a, the kind with sharp edges like big pieces of pointy coral. 

We started the hike at the summit, which, at 9,700 feet, has absolutely no vegetation. With grey sand and intensely bright sun, it’s like looking out at Mars. For most of the morning we skidded down a path from the summit to the crater valley (along the aptly named Sliding Sands Trail), with me bringing up the rear. I had thought that this part would be colorless and boring, but it was stunning. There were great swaths of red sand that pierced through the steely grey and Technicolor pits with hues I’ve never seen on bare ground before.

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