We had visitors over the holidays, long-time friends from our days living in Georgia. Our first excursion was to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Expectations change everything. When I went to the park with Dianne and Mitch in November (see Living on five volcanoes), we went with the expectation of seeing something happening at the crater. Since we didn’t see any activity, I came away empty. This week, I went with the expectation of showing off the park and experiencing everything again anew, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, it was wonderful.
We all piled into Marlene and Tom’s rental mini-van and headed through Hilo to the park. On the way, I pointed out signs that caught my attention as we climbed to 4000 feet: “Put Christmas into your life with a pit-bull puppy,” and another outside a church with “Soup kitchen closed in December.” Bad time to close.
We stopped in Volcano, the small village outside the park. Given that we didn’t want to feel rushed trying to see everything in one day, we had decided to stay overnight. We checked into Kilauea Lodge, at one of their off-property locations called the Ola’a Plantation House. What a treat – a 1935 plantation house, in pristine (or at least restored) condition.
Some of us decided to rest while others scouted out the Park just five miles up the road. I decided to explore the nearby environment. A fine mist came down, getting me wet more by condensation and settling than by falling rain. I found The Volcano Store, a locally run old-time convenience store. It reminded me of the little corner store on my block where I walked as a kid to get a Fudgsicle whenever I had 6¢. It was with great delight that I found a book for which I’ve been searching, written by a Big Island author (Daughters of Fire by Tom Peek). It seemed odd to find it in this little store, until I remembered he lives in Volcano. I love this intimate little community.
The explorers returned with a concrete plan for our visit to the Park. We piled into the minivan and went to the Halema’uma’u Crater in the Kilauea Caldera. When I was here in November, the sulfur fumes nearly overcame us. Today I could smell nothing! But as on that day in November, the visual entertainment was limited to steam billowing out of the crater. And because the clouds hung below us, it was not even possible to see the gray mud floor or the cliffs surrounding the floor. None-the-less, the whole Jaggar Museum aspect of this visit was much more enjoyable without the fumes.
In fact, I learned something startling. I was trying to nail down the last time the Kohala Volcano (the one close to us) had erupted, having seen figures from 60,000 to 400,000 years. The Park Ranger with whom we were chatting said that it was a toss, but didn’t matter – the volcano ahead of it on the Pacific floor hot spot, Haleakala on Maui, erupted 400 years ago! That means Kohala could erupt again too. Wow – that volcano is too close for comfort.
We headed back to our Plantation Home, had a great home cooked meal, and returned to the park around 8 pm. Staying overnight turned out to be a great decision, as it allowed us to experience the highlight of the trip – the glow of the caldera by night.
As we entered the parking lot near the caldera, we could see the glow bouncing off the rising steam in the distance. The small crowd on the overlook at the museum was subdued and respectful of the physical manifestation of Pele at play. The crater glowed a brilliant orange-pink. What was hidden during the day by gray mud and billowing steam became visible and breath-taking at night.
The sky had cleared to high thin clouds, the moon shone brightly through them, and the temperature dropped, leaving a chill in the damp air. What a surreal sight and feeling.
The billowing of the pinky-orange steam clouds out of the crater was mesmerizing, the color dancing in front of our eyes, perfect for reflection or meditation. The sight and sound was punctuated only by clicking cameras uselessly flashing out as far as the nearest rock. That just added to the feeling of being in the presence of something powerful and imposing, grounded in earth that was substantial and yet, here, tenuous.
Once we all had our fill, we returned to our plantation home, thawed out in front of the fireplace, and finally retired for the night. The next day during breakfast at Kilauea Lodge, and planned our day’s excursion: first the Thurston Lava Tube, then the end of the Chain-of-Craters-Road, and finally the petroglyphs carved by the ancient Hawaiians into the lava rock.
The Thurston Lava Tube, or Nahuku as the ancient Hawaiians called it, is definitely on the must-see list for the park, if you bother to educate yourself on what it is and how it forms. Otherwise it’s just a stroll through a cave with two ends. Given the early morning hour, and the cold, damp overcast sky, it felt like a Lake Michigan morning, and I might have punted except for the enthusiasm of the geologist among us – Tom. He enjoyed the Thurston Lava Tube immensely. And actually, so did I.
Then down the mountain, 4000+ feet to sea level on the Chain-of-Craters-Road. While we did stop occasionally at notable spots along the way, the end of the road is the most spectacular, with large lava formations and the cliffs at ocean’s edge. When BG and I visited in 1995, the lava was active at that site, and we could see the plumes of smoke hissing off the ocean as lava fell into it. The active lava site has long since moved north along the coast, this year finally taking out the last house in the subdivision it engulfed over the last 30 years. Still, the rugged land spoke eloquently of the crashing of two forces. No wonder the Hawaiians talk about Pele fighting things out with her sister who ruled the sea.
The petroglyphs are interesting and culturally and historically important to Hawaiians. They are worth seeing if one has time, but maybe not this particular field. What looks like a quick walk becomes laborious for those of us not in shape to hike over rugged terrain for a total distance of 1.4 miles. I actually lost three sections of my hiking shoes on this walk.
The other thing that surprised me was how I tricked myself into thinking of this section of the park as desert; by this time the day was hot, the lava had very few plants on it. But I forgot it was still on the wet side of the island. So a fine mist started after we passed the point of no return to go back for rain jackets. My wet glasses plus bifocals made negotiating the uneven terrain difficult. If I have to be honest about it, there are other petroglyph fields on the Big Island that have more symbols and are much more interesting. Of the 23,000 symbols in this field, 16,000 are the round holes where the ancient Hawaiians placed the umbilical cords of their babies. I wonder if anyone is studying these symbols from the past and attempting to unravel their messages.
I ruminated over what I experienced on this trip, as we enjoyed a very quiet ride back to Honoka’a. But we tumbled into bed early – tomorrow we had to be ready for the next adventure. It’s exhausting work, playing tour guide across an entire island.
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