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Danger! Falling Rocks: A Journey Back from Hana

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They told us not to do it.

They told us and they told us and they told us, "Whatever you do, do not take the back road from Hana."

If you've been to Maui, you know that the first thing people tell you is, "You have to take the road to Hana. You have to." They tell you this with a knowing look; then proceed to warn you solemnly that the curvy, narrow road to the far side of the island will likely make you violently carsick. "But it's totally worth it," they add cheerfully.

However, the same people who tell you that you have to take the road to Hana are vehement that you not take the other road, the "back side" as it's often described. Highway 31.

I had escaped to Maui for four glorious days with my friends Arianne and COL-e -- a girls' trip, though as moms to youngish children, this was the first in years. We had each been going through some personal challenges, and had come on vacation to relax and unwind -- but mostly to laugh.

But back to the road.

Even the car rental folks told us not to take the back road -- in fact, they made us sign a piece of paper to that effect. The leather-skinned agent had given me a map of the island when I asked about Hana. "Hey, look, you guys," I said, pointing to a squiggly line on the map. "It's seems much shorter to come back from Hana this back way. We could just do a loop."

The agent's ears perked up. "Absolutely not," she said. "It's against policy to take the rental car over there. It's not even paved. No one drives on that road."

Now she had my attention. The road less traveled? Sign me up.

No, sign here. She shoved the agreement towards COL-e, none too pleased that we were passing on her generous offer to upgrade to a Hummer for an additional $100 a day. Nah, we're fine with our Nissan Vibe, thank you very much.

I could go on about the sunrise from Haleakala, the Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, the Cucumber Green Tea Martinis at the Four Seasons Maui, the Standup Paddleboarding with our new friend Blaze at Maui Undersea Adventures, and our spectacular sailing-snorkeling trip on the Ali'i Nui Catamaran, but let's get right to it. You know where this story is headed.

I'll save the details of the road to Hana for another time -- and yes, the winding road through lush rainforest with panoramic views was worth it. In fact, the Road To Hana is a breeze if you've ever driven the PCH to Big Sur. We took our time, popping by the Hotel Hana-Maui for a quick hit of island elegance infused with magic. By the time we made it to Oheo Gulch (the Seven Sacred Pools, as the tourists call it), it was dusk.

"You can only go as far the first waterfall," the ranger quipped. We hadn't realized that the sun was about to set. We quickly hiked the ankle-breaking path to the first waterfall, wondering aloud how long it would take us to get back to the other side of the island. Overhearing us, a couple hiking near us informed us that the back road was much faster -- and that the locals always take it. "It's totally paved now," they assured us. That's all we needed. So as the sun sank into the ocean, we headed down the backside of Hana, defying our rental car agreement and all the naysayers.

For the first few minutes, we were mesmerized by the exotic terrain and otherworldly views. Then, suddenly, we found ourselves on a narrow dirt and lava rock road, literally hugging a cliff along a sheer drop -- with no guardrails. We went silent with the knowledge that heading down this road in the dark was probably not a good idea. The bad news was that there was no place to turn around.

Every hairpin curve was blind, but it didn't matter, because I'm not sure how an oncoming car could have passed us anyway. Signs reading "Danger, Falling Rocks" reminded us that there were boulders just inches away, waiting to crush us, and crosses memorializing those who had plummeted to their deaths dotted the highway. "And those are just the ones that are marked," muttered Arianne from the back seat.

Nerves rattled, I squeaked out the obvious, "This isn't paved." Arianne and I closed our eyes, shutting out the view down the mountainside, and at some point, I had tearful catharsis about how this road was like our lives... "We have no idea what's ahead of us, but we can't turn back." I was melting down. COL-e, on the other hand, was cool as a cucumber; she was driving, after all, and at least had the illusion of control.

Finally, after another hour of dark and desolate road, where the only living beings we encountered were cows (in the middle of the road, mind you) -- and where just one small patch of the road was actually paved -- we found our way back to civilization. More importantly, we found our way to Bev Gannon's Hali'imaile General Store, a restaurant in the middle of nowhere we had heard about.

Thrilled to be alive, I savored every bite. Butternut squash soup with coconut milk and ginger... Roasted beet, Marcona almond and goat cheese salad... Macadamia nut crusted mahi-mahi... And plenty of wine... I think it was a Sancerre, but who cares? Forget the amuse buche - there's nothing like fear to awaken the taste buds. As I polished off the caramelized pineapple upside-down cake, I told our server about our adventure. She looked at us blankly - "My husband drives that road twice a day," she said, shutting us down. Fine, lady, but in the dark?

All through dinner -- and the way home -- we talked about that road. We especially relish mocking the couple from the trail. "It's totally paved," we intone, before breaking into laughter again. And again. Which was just what the doctor ordered.