The House of the Sun

by Linda Pascatore and Juan Wilson

© 2000 The Gobbler: Winter Crystal

This Solstice my husband and I shared a spiritual experience at the House of the Sun. Since the Winter Solstice is called "The Return of the Sun", it seemed an appropriate place at this particular time. It is the longest night and the shortest day of the year, and from this point on, the sun will shine longer, bringing warmth and light, and lengthening the days till Summer Solstice.

We are currently living on Maui, where there is not that much difference between winter and summer. However, we are from Western New York, where the difference is much more drastic. So we have a tradition of celebrating the cusp of the year on the Solstice.

We figured the place to do it was the ten thousand foot volcanic crater of Haleakala. It is the physical and spiritual Heart of Maui, and is world famous for it's sunrises. We moved here in August, but had not yet braved awakening at 3 AM to drive two hours to the summit.

In the Hour of the Wolf on December 21st, we got up in the darkness and began the ascent to the summit. The drive becomes a twisting adventure through the dark as the jackknifing switchbacks take you up 10,000 feet in the shortest distance of any road in the world. Soon it is not only dark but cloudy. Most of the road has no barriers so any miscalculation would be a serious mistake. The temperature dropped as we climbed, from a balmy nighttime 70 degrees in South Maui to a wintry 35 degrees at the top.

We arrived near the summit an hour before dawn, and before the crowd. At the lower base camp there were several adventuresome bikers in parkas ready to coast down the mountain when the sun arose. A park ranger in a four-wheel drive SUV told us that the clouds were closing in and that he was about to close the road up to the summit. We left the restrooms and heated observatory behind, and headed up the last segment of pavement to get to the top.

In less than a mile the road forked. Scientists go left, tourists go right. The scientists would be heading to what's called Science City; a cluster of high tech observatories that are only outdone by the observatories up top of Mauna Kea, nearby on the Big Island. Hawaii is Earth's connecting point to the rest of the Universe.

The summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii hosts the world's largest astronomical observatory, with telescopes operated by astronomers from eleven countries. The combined light-gathering power of the telescopes on Mauna Kea is fifteen times greater than that of the Palomar telescope in California -- for many years the world's largest -- and fifty times greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

We got to the summit and reached the moon. We picked a spot facing east and set up--two camping chairs, a thermos of Irish coffee, quiche and scones for breakfast, two African Ashika drums, cameras and tripods. The darkness and finger numbing cold would be the closest thing to winter we would experience this year, and it seemed fitting that we did on the first day of the season. At our backs were the white geodesic domes and polished stainless steel of the observatories.

As we played our Ashikas in the darkness, we felt we were "Drumming up the Sun". The sky slowly blushed with colors before sunrise: purples, oranges, yellows, rosy reds. The sun finally peeked over the horizon. Then we saw where we were--above the clouds, on top of the island with the ocean beyond--on top of the world!

View from the summit of Haleakela looking east towards access road

From our vantage point, we could see the smaller islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe, and miles of ocean in all directions out to the horizon. All of Maui lie spread before us, the sloping valley, the green mountains of the West, towns and beaches. It was a "God's Eye" view.

One can almost imagine the God Maui, the "Hawaiian Superman", on this peak when he captured the sun. Maui was a mischievous god who was a bit of a trickster. It was he who fished the Hawaiian islands out of the sea with his trademark fishhook. Hawaiian men still wear carved fishhooks around their necks to honor Maui.

According to legend, Maui's mother Hina was having trouble drying her tapa cloth because the days were too short. So Maui went up to Haleakala, to ask the sun to slow its journey across the sky. The sun refused, so Maui took his fishing line, hooked into the sun, and lassoed his line around it. He held the sun until it agreed to slow down and make the days longer. The mountain became known as the "House of the Sun", and there are fifteen more minutes of daylight at the summit than on the coast below.

The summit of Haleakala looks more like the house of the moon than the "House of the Sun". The floor of the crater is gray volcanic rock and truly resembles a moonscape. The only living thing we saw on the summit was a Silversword, which is a large plant shaped like a sphere of silvery spikes. It is endangered and blooms once after seven years, then "pau", the plant dies.

This sunrise was the most spiritual experience we have had since we arrived in Maui last summer. It seems that every time we take the time and make the effort to commune closely with nature, it is utterly fantastic and we wonder why we don't do so more often.

So our advice to you is: watch a sunrise, a sunset or a moonrise, lay on the ground next summer during the Perseid meteor showers or just go out in the evening and look at the stars. Take a camping trip or just build a campfire in your backyard,. Go hiking, cross country skiing or swimming in the ocean, a pond or a lake. Just get out and BE with nature, and you'll be a happier and better person for it!