I’m sitting in a passenger van at 10,000 feet, it’s four in the morning and a bunch of tourists are fumbling through the dark, towards the edge of a cliff. They’re more or less facing the horizon in a sort of jet-lagged excitement, waiting to see the sun, but the ocean is blocking their view. I look at my watch—their mountaintop photo shoot isn’t scheduled to start for another 78 minutes.
I curl up, waiting for my 6 a.m. wake-up call. No, it’s more like a knuckle-tap on the window. That lets me know it’s time to start passing out helmets. Then I’ll start repeating the words, the so very familiar words:
“Pull the strap ‘till it’s tight.”
“You need some help with that?”
Maybe I’ll mutter something about making it down the mountain in one piece, 12 or 13 times, of course.
I do this because I’ve been working as a tour guide helping tourists bike down Haleakala for the past 11 years. It’s a living.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the trip actually goes much faster coming down than going up, but that’s only because there’s just more to distract you on the way down. I mean it’s not that us drivers aren’t paying attention. It’s just we’re busy watching people’s nervous arms make the handlebars twitch. Or, staring through the wing-mirror at the guy in the closer-than-he-appears distance, perched in his lifted one-ton pick-up truck, trying to determine if he’ll fly by into the oncoming lane, putting all those people we’ve just met at risk.
We’ve all heard the stories. Some of the cruise leaders will jolt awake a sleepy 4 a.m. huddle of mainlanders, freshly roused from their carefully bleached and tucked-in-corners hotel bed sheets, by mentioning the double-digit number of two-wheeled fatalities on the mountain.
Talk of broken bones and severed arteries really perks up the teenagers. Rising from the back seats, they pull their white ear-bud headphones out and lean a little closer. Seems their vacation just got interesting.
When I first started, my instructors said injuries were just part of the job. They said that statistically we’re going to see someone from New Jersey or North Dakota or Maine bleeding to death on the side of the road.
In between cigarettes, they said it’s only a matter of time. Pick a day, any day. Or just throw a dart at the calendar—sooner or later, you’ll find yourself standing there, dumbstruck, trying to think of what to say to the fiance, parent or younger brother of that road-stain getting sprinkled with cat litter by the police.
Two hours into the trip we’re all eating breakfast in Makawao. The salty bacon and numb sting of hot-sauce eclipse the flavor of whatever else was on my plate. The burning sensation, combined with the wet-dirt taste of fresh coffee reaffirms my suspicions that I’m actually alive.
I think it’s Tuesday.
My esteemed colleagues and teachers told me a bunch of things when I started, like the fact that I’d be working impossibly long and early hours. And that if I ever get sideswiped by some rusted Toyota roaring by in the wrong lane, my medical insurance won’t even cover the damage to the spatula that the paramedics might use to scrape my face off the boiling radiator. Or that if some asshole who mistakenly thought he could pass a 100-foot caravan of overweight and inexperienced tourists and ends up crippling me, there won’t exactly be a lot of future employment opportunities.
Even if I come through unscathed, after 11 years of being a bicycle tour guide, who’s going to hire me?
“But hey kid,” they said, “look at our office. The top of Haleakala at sunrise. Can’t beat that, right?”
We’re about a half-hour down the road when I hear a colleague say, “And that’s what kind of sugar-cane makes Sweet ‘n Low!” Then a lot of happy, red-shouldered visitors start laughing. I like this part, because it tells me today’s tour of duty is coming to a close. We’re just eight miles from Kahului, then it’s time for the vacuum cleaner and Windex before I can finally make up for lost sleep.
What no one told me when I started working for a bike tour company was that along with the abundance of middle fingers from locals and the friendly pep-talks from the vets, the whole thing’s a lot like getting bitten by a zombie. You learn quickly to communicate in slurs and grunts. And you don’t ever really feel alive unless you’re digesting something.
Finally free of the day’s customers, I sweep all the empty Coke cans and candy bars off the van’s dashboard. They’re my little reminders that I’m in good health and earning money. Other than the greasy fingerprints lining the inside of the van, they’re all I’m really left with at the end of the day. MTW