It was 3 in the morning when my eager mother knocked on our hotel room door. Needless to say, my teenage brother, sister, and I were not thrilled about waking up early during our vacation, but according to my mother’s guidebook, this experience was essential. Eyelids drooping, we piled into the back of our rental minivan and hit the road.
My mother had a plan. We were going to admire the sunrise from the top of Mount Haleakala, the tallest peak on Maui, standing at more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Then we might take a hike on the active volcano, soak in the sunshine, and photograph the exotic vegetation. My siblings and I had a slightly different agenda. Our only goal was to get back to our hotel in time for the complimentary breakfast buffet. (The endless amounts of pastries and pineapple were too good to miss.)
It was a long car ride, but my reliable mom had rented a GPS for tourists that recited facts and stories about our destination. We learned that Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. Ancient Hawaiian culture says that Maui, a demigod, stood at the summit of Haleakala and lassoed the sun while it traveled across the sky. This slowed the sun down and made the day longer. We learned that native Hawaiians have been visiting the top of the mountain for centuries. It’s been a place to honor the gods and a place to say goodbye to the dead. For Native Hawaiians, Hakleakala is “wao akua” — the wilderness of the Gods. It is a sacred place.
I was skeptical of the legend, to say the least, but I began to change my mind as we approached the summit. A wall of white clouds blocked the road ahead. For the first time that morning, my eyes were wide open, all traces of sleepiness gone with excitement and wonder. As my dad drove the minivan forward, we were engulfed by the white billowy masses. When our little minivan came out on the other side, we were in a different world. The stars twinkled in the night sky, protected by the clouds, untouched by light pollution from the street lamps and brightly lit buildings of the cities below.
Finally, we reached the summit where the temperature was near freezing. Luckily, my mother, with the advice of her vacation guide book, came prepared. Not only did she bring sweatshirts, but also blankets, hotel bathrobes, and towels. We wrapped our bodies in as much fabric as possible, grateful for the dark night sky because we looked absolutely ridiculous. We hadn’t expected the weather on our Hawaiian vacation to drop into the 30ºF range.
The five of us, in our haphazard garb, perched ourselves on a low stone wall and waited. Finally, in a flash of light, the horizon shone gold. The sun was beginning to rise, and every color of the rainbow appeared in the sky. It was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. I sat on the stone wall next to my sister, freezing and huddled together. For 20 minutes, we didn’t feel the biting cold. It was as if all of our other senses had numbed to allow the vision to exceed all expectations.
God was there
Maybe it was simply because we were so close to the sky, but I felt closer to God during that sunrise than ever before. I was surrounded by clouds and the sun as far as the eye could see, untouched by human civilization. We sat above the clouds, the quintessential picture of Heaven. Surrounded by my family and basking in the warm glow of the sun, it certainly felt like Heaven on Earth. Despite the freezing temperature, a warmth rose inside me.
We stayed on the top of Haleakala for at least an hour after the sun rose, looking at the plant life and taking pictures. When we drove through the wall of clouds again, it seemed that we had crossed the threshold into a different world, a world of traffic lights and honking horns — not the same world where we witnessed that gorgeous sunshine.
Every time I see the sun rising or setting, I have the same feeling of warmth and wonder from that morning on Haleakala. Though it feels like a different world, it is the same sun. It’s God’s sun bringing light and life to the world. It is an everyday miracle that sustains us just as God sustains us, brightening our lives and shedding light on all that is important. I cannot look directly at the sun, nor will I ever fully understand it, but it is always there. The experience on Haleakala was worth it, even though we did miss brunch. Seeing the sunrise on Haleakala nourished me more than breakfast pastries ever could.
(Previously published July 2012)