Crossing the Saddle at Night

Leaving Hilo I turn towards the shortest path home. It is also my favorite path by far. Not for me the twisting turns, small towns, and driving rains of the Hamakua coast road. I turn towards Saddle Road, to the pass between the enormous volcanoes of Hawaii.

Saddle Road
Saddle Road seen as it was in 2007, before rebuilding
The road is smooth and fast now. The Saddle of legend and rental car prohibition is mostly gone, only fragments remain. While you can still drive bits of the old Saddle, they are no longer the main road, bypassed by the new highway.

Even before the road was re-built this was my favorite route to cross the island. The traffic is far heavier now, the new road no longer offers the challenges and dangers of the old road. Drivers no longer deterred by those dangers now use the new road to cross the island rather than driving around the northern belt road.

Saddle Road Wreck
An overturned Toyota lies just off Saddle Road below Kilohana
The terrifying blind curves and hills are gone, the mountains and the clouds remain, the beauty endures. Beautiful in the daytime, the road becomes an experience at night.

leaving Hilo you climb quickly into the clouds. Fog and mist envelope the vehicle. Above Hilo the trade winds push the clouds against the mountains, resulting in nearly constant fog and rain.

Crossing the lava fields in the fog is surreal, the world contracts into a limited dome of sight with dim shapes hovering on the edge of perception. Old mamane trees and puʻu loom as barely seen spectres in the fog.

As you climb in altitude you climb above the clouds and mist. At first there a glimpse, then a peek, then the stars appear through the shredding fog.

Milky Way Dawn over Mauna Loa
The rising summer Milky Way, Mars and dawn over Mauna Loa
After the surreal world of fog the stunning beauty of the stars overhead is breathtaking. Here in the Saddle there is no artificial light beyond your own headlights, to dim and obscure the universe. The view is unimpeded, unhindered and undimmed.

I pull over and douse the lights. Leaning against the warm vehicle I allow my eyes time to properly adapt in the darkness. Slowly the stars brighten and shimmer across the sky. For a magical moment I simply sit and enjoy the universe above, revealed by the darkness.

I curse the innocent driver who passes by in a blaze of headlights, dimming my vision and shrouding the sky. Reluctantly I too return to the driver’s seat, turn on the headlights and continue my crossing of the island.

After an hour of driving the lights of Waikoloa appear, I am nearly there. I do miss the road of legend, sometimes I turn and drive the old section through Waikiʻi and Kilohana just for the curves and beauty. Not tonight, tired and done, I take the most direct route home.

I know… The road is no longer Saddle Road, it is officially the Daniel K. Inouye Highway. The name change does not sit well with me, for me it will always be Saddle Road.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

One thought on “Crossing the Saddle at Night”

  1. Very nicely written article. Am pleased you have summarized the evolution of the original Saddle Road. (I had been looking for just such details .. hope you can offer some positive comments on the Going Up Mauna Kea tale I have emailed to you). muchos mahalos, Uncle Earl

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