The group of lightly clad tourists climbed the steps to the Sandalwood, the first restaurant on the road from the summit of Haleakala. They were hugging themselves. Their sunrise visit to the top had been marked by a low temperature of 34 degrees.
They opened the door to a much warmer room, spotted the wood-burning stove in the far corner. "Is that real?" one exclaimed. Reassured it was, he and the others headed for a table near the glowing fire.
James, the proprietor, had been building fires in the stove for several weeks. At one point, he ran out of newspapers to get the blaze going and was forced to use pages from old telephone books. One of the regulars began bringing in bundles of The Maui News to be recycled for comfort's sake.
The tourists were amazed to hear fireplaces and stoves were a common feature of houses at 3,000-foot altitudes and higher. Conversations with regulars at the restaurant always began with a discussion of temperatures.
There are two reasons for heat in Kula homes. The obvious one is warmth. The other is to combat the chill generated by wet ground. The latter has been a rare need of late. The charm of an open fire is treasured by some, even when higher temperatures and modern heating devices make it unnecessary. Staring into flames likely was mankind's first psychedelic experience. Try it some time. It's legal and non-addictive.
Despite a yearly average low temperature in the mid-70s, Maui is no stranger to cold. Hawaiians have two seasons. There is the warm, mostly dry months of kau or kau wela, and the colder, wetter months of ho'oilo. They also knew the higher you go on the mountain, the colder it gets - usually 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet of altitude.
The months of kau often brought stormy seas that would keep canoes on the beach. Faced with a needed journey to and from East Maui, a Keiki o ka 'aina could take a short cut via the summit. Old trails led from the crater to Keanae and Kaupo and probably over Paliku to Hana. There was at least one flint-working site high on the mountain, but maybe it was used only during kau wela. They had a description for bone-chilling temperatures - make anu (pronounced mah-kay ah-new). Today, the term is often preceded by "auwe!"
As a matter of record, the all-time lowest temperature on the coast was 48 degrees in 1969. Kihei was just 1 degree warmer. In the distant past there was anecdotal evidence of ice forming here and there.
In the last week, official National Weather Service temperatures on Maui have ranged down into the 50s at higher elevations and low 60s along the coast. Those readings would be intolerable on a tropical island except for the sun. Low temperatures always come in the hours before dawn. Come the sun, thermometers climb.
Tourists and residents suffering chilblains need only travel down to the coast where the sun will goose temperatures into the 70s and even low 80s this time of year. West-facing houses up where thermometers droop before dawn often warm to the mid-80s from no more than sunshine through windows.
Observations made during motorcycle rides across the face of Kula prove cold air can flow downward in gulches. The phenomenon can also be experienced on the coast in spots where gulches have their heads on the mountain and their feet in the ocean.
Tourists from much-colder climes - clad in swimsuits and shorts - are often amused by islanders walking around in heavy sweatshirts and jackets. Visitors aren't aware Maui's timid temperature changes leave residents capable of feeling a 5-degree change. Anything below 70 is cold and anything above 90 is wela wela, or extremely hot.
The day the temperature up top fell to 34 degrees and along the coast down to around 60, the highs were around 80. Bless the sun and sea level.
With highs dependent on the sun, there is another factor involved in Maui's temperatures - clouds. Cloudy conditions at night mean higher readings; cloudy conditions during the day mean lower readings. Daytime clouds block the warming rays of the sun. Nighttime clouds hold the day's heat. Winds lower temperatures day and night. There's nothing simple about the island's weather.
Why all this palaver about temperatures at this time of year? Skinny old-timers are acutely conscious of temperature drops. Doubt that? Trust a guy who fits the description. For more than a month, it's been auwe make anu.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.