Living in Hawaii, we’re constantly asking ourselves, "Is this worth it?" Some days are better than others. Every situation is different.
Huddling around the lava update bulletin board at the bottom of the 20-mile "Chain of Craters Road" at Volcanoes National Park, we mull over the map of the the potential hike that dares us to visit Pele, the volcano goddess, up close and personal.
My friend Jose and I have been up since sunrise, exploring areas of the island we’ve never been to, acting like frenzied tourists trying to see it all in one day. This is my farewell adventure before embarking for Kaua’i, older sister of the Big Island. Naturally, I want to make the most of the small amount of time I have left here. This includes hiking out to see the lava flow, no matter what.
The currently erupting Pu’uO’o Vent smolders inside the massive flank of the Kilauea Volcano, on the southeastern edge of the Big Island. It has been producing a steady flow of lava in some form or another for the past 21 years. Coincidentally, Jose and I are both 21 years old.
Rarely will one be lucky enough to glimpse it from a distant highway overlook. In fact, it can only be accessed by helicopter or by hiking several miles across the recently formed lava desert of several previous eruptions. While a popular hike among tourists, island residents prefer to treat it as a pilgrimage. It is Hawaiian tradition to honor Pele, the creator and destroyer of this isolated isthmus.
It’s a new moon. There is no light to mark the way, and no one else seems to be heading out at this late and very dark hour of 7:30 p.m. The map warns that this is a difficult trail that will take three to five hours round trip. The enthusiasm I solidly felt just hours ago is slowly dwindling, and I begin to question the necessity of attempting such an endeavor.
Swinging around to see a couple returning from the lava field, I ask, "Was it worth it?"
"Absolutely!" they declare.
"It’s the hardest hike I’ve ever done," the woman said, "but I’m glad I did it."
"It might be even harder after dark though," her partner cautions. "Be careful."
Unsure, I idle a bit longer, memorizing the map that charts the current course of lava streaming down the mountain into the ocean below.
A group of English tourists are standing nearby discussing the trail conditions.
"Are you guys just heading out?" I inquire, knowing my confidence would return if others were embarking this late.
"No, no we’re just returning," they reply. "Silly to go out now."
Somehow, I’m not convinced. Something in me feels magnetically tugged toward the flow, as if Pele is summoning me personally to come bear witness to her vibrant presence.
My own feeling
"You know night is really the best time to see the lava pouring into the ocean," Jose reminds me.
Suddenly, I remember the wall of resistance I encountered when resolving to even live in Hawaii on my own at 20 years old. It was well worth it then to follow my own feeling instead of listening to the doubts of others. Something tells me that this might be worth it, too.
"All right, let’s just go a little ways and test it out for a while, so we can see what we’re getting into," I suggest.
Each with our cheap plastic Wal-Mart flashlights in hand, Jose and I take our first timid steps into the void of darkness that blankets the landscape.
The route begins on a paved road. This is, no doubt, the easiest part. Minuscule points of magma boil on the hillside in the distance. The stars twinkle overhead, as if to accompany us on a magical quest. Inhaling, I feel a surge of energy that fills me with renewed zest and propels me confidently into the journey ahead.
A train of lights weaves its way into the distance; a steady stream of hikers is returning from a recent sunset viewing. They look exhausted; a few eye us suspiciously.
"Make sure you have enough battery power for the trip," somebody calls to us.
I realize this is a fair concern, and I make Jose put his flashlight away, so that even if one runs out, we’ll have another. We adjust to the diminished light, and continue.
We’re in the coastal region, hiking parallel to the ocean on an easterly track towards the infamous Pu’uO’o Vent. This road is roughly 100 feet from the ocean. Where earth meets sea, there is no sandy beach, but ragged cliffs dropping suddenly into the surging surf below. Several signs inform us that this is a highly dangerous rift zone; if we feel any tremor in the earth, we should head quickly up the jagged unstable cliff side in case a tsunami should occur. Most people ignore this warning, hoping nothing volatile will occur on the day they choose to venture out.
After about a half-mile, the road is scorched with lumpy black pahoehoe rock, where only a few years ago fire cascaded defiantly over the highway, thereby making it impassible. Ironically, toppled speed limit signs stubbornly protrude from the area on either side of where the road used to be. Small patches of pavement can still be seen in random places. We have to watch our feet carefully now. The recent creation of rock is crunchy and uneven and some of it crumbles beneath us as we walk.
For a while, a fluorescent yellow road guides us in a relatively straight line toward our destination. That soon ends, however, and we are left alone in the middle of a vast and incongruous lava field with only our instincts to guide us.
Stumbling and fumbling
It feels like we’ve been hiking forever, and in fact, it does take about two delirious hours of stumbling, fumbling and backtracking before the incandescent embers begin to look close. We are constantly fooled by the illusion that the flow is "just another 10 minutes away," and we keep telling each other, "We must be almost there by now." Finally, at a point of pure exhaustion, I feel like quitting and going back. Our water supply is dwindling, and I don’t want to imagine what it would be like to run out. Sitting for a moment to regain strength, it dawns on me that we have passed the point of no return; it would be unbearable to hike all that way back without resting a while first. At the same time, to turn back now would be blasphemy, a wasted effort, a lost cause.
"Let’s keep going," Jose urges. "We’re probably almost there."
"Just a little farther," I reluctantly agree, picking myself up and starting forward once more.
After about 20 minutes, we stumble up to a mesa that reveals a roaring red-hot landslide occurring immediately before us. A feeling of joy revives me. I whoop and holler, enthralled to be so close after coming so far. We’ve made it, and I can just sit and gawk for a while. A sign warns "Do not attempt to hike any farther; the mountainside is highly unstable." After the exhausting journey, I don’t have enough energy to even think about going any further.
Considering the view, I don’t want to. Fatigued, I recline on the rocks and gaze sleepily at the fire pouring out into the ocean
Watching molten lava stream dramatically into the ocean can be addictive. At midnight,
the vivid contrast of color is unbelievable; darkness creates the perfect canvas for Pele to paint upon.
Vibrant and elegant, the drama engulfs our attention. At times it seems as if the entire mountain is on fire. Streams and pockets of lava startlingly bulldoze the mountain open, giving the impression that the rock is merely a thin malleable substance that is temporarily covering a boiling cauldron.
I watch how the lava creates black shrouds of venomous smoke when it meets the sea. This is a downfall of living on the leeward side of the island. The winds consistently push the heavy sulfuric gas into the still inlets of the Kona Coast, where there is no breeze to circulate or usher it along. It merely sits in the area, stagnating, causing numerous symptoms including irritation of asthma, sore throats and splitting headaches. The air quality, while pristine and luminous on clear days, can be comparable to L.A. in the level of pollution the volcano generates. Now, I am witness to the actual moment of creation of the gas I so despise and have learned to live with in the last year. Somehow, it consoles me to see the raw beauty it stems from and the utter aliveness of its source. It almost seems tolerable with the knowledge that it is the byproduct of new land being formed.
Mesmerized, I can’t pull my eyes away from the inferno. I fluctuate between closing my eyes and hearing the ocean pounding and the crackling of lava in the distance, and opening them and seeing the steady flow of bright orange and red pillaging the mountainside. At one point an entire section of the mountain gives way as lava picks up the outer ridge and thrusts it into the ocean. It seems to be in constant pursuit for more, more and more space.
I realize that I have forgotten completely about time and its implications. A part of me is even tempted to sleep here and watch the sun rise over the lava flow in the morning. I am torn between comfort and sheer glory. Curled up on the stiff uneven pahoehoe, I choose not to make a decision and begin to drift somewhere in the recesses of sleep. It welcomes me into the depths of slumber where I am seduced to stay by Pele’s intense and spellbinding grip. Sometime later, I turn to shift position on the rock; looking upward, I notice lava slowly creeping towards me. This inspires decisiveness. I feel I have gathered enough strength for the trek back to the car, and try to not even think about the driving part for now.
Jose has been wandering this entire time; now he reappears. "I was hiking down there," he mentions, pointing to an area that looks much too close to ground zero for comfort.
"No, you weren’t!" I exclaim disbelievingly. I had, perhaps out of the ungrounded belief that one part of this crazy mountain cliff was safer than another, listened to the sign that warned it was dangerous to hike further. Yawning, I realize that volcanoes are completely unpredictable, and magma could break free from any of the surrounding area at any given moment.
This seems to be a reoccurring theme of living on an active volcano. Even when in your mind you may believe you are safe, there is always potential for disaster, or in this case, creation. It’s humbling to realize the smallness of our humanity in the face of the awesome power of nature.
"What do you think, Jose?" I ask after a while, meaning should we head back now or should we stay a little longer?
After a thoughtful silence, he grins. "I think that everything is perfect exactly as it is." He pauses for a moment, sighing. "Even everything that seems imperfect to us right now is actually perfect in the way that it is happening." I can feel gladness emanating from him and find myself smiling, as well.
Just as we’re about to leave, a whole family of hikers arrive, children included.
"You made it!" We congratulate them, and they seem to be very relieved.
"We almost turned back so many times," one of the girls admits, and I nod compassionately. Part of me is inwardly satisfied that we weren’t the only ones to hike out this late. The family’s fascination with the lava is contagious, and we end up staying a little longer to view it with them. Then we all head back together. It seems much easier now, having done it once already, and it’s a comfort to have others around.
At one point we realize the ocean is much louder than it was on our way out. As we head inland, we encounter a sheer cliff that traps us. It’s necessary to backtrack in order to get around it. We opt instead to take a shortcut of going straight up the incline. It’s crumbly and sharp and as I reach for a handhold, my finger is sliced instantly from its razor-like edges. When we make it to the top we see caution tape lining the cliffside. We had been hiking on the wrong side of it for the past half an hour, on ground that had high potential of suddenly giving way into the sea.
The family feels like they need to stop and rest a while, so Jose and I venture on alone. We have to guess which angle will guide us back to the paved road we started on, as there is no beacon of light anywhere to direct us.
It feels like we’ve been hiking for miles. Feeling hot, sweaty and dehydrated, I’m ready to be back at the car where I can sit for a while, to absorb the beauty and drama of all I have just seen. I’ve already drunk all of my water, and most of Jose’s, although he doesn’t know this yet. Up ahead, I see a signpost glimmering. Hoping it marks the beginning of the guided trail, I begin to feel better and encouraged about how far we’ve come already. The back is blank, so we have to pass it and look back to see what it says. The flashlight reveals that up ahead (where we just came from) hazardous conditions prevail. These include unstable rock formations, strong ocean surges and unpredictable lava flow. We are advised to hike at our own risk.
Laughing at the absurdity of the situation, I continue searching for the little yellow glimmers of the trail that means we are not going out of our way, we will not wander into the ocean and we will get home safely. Squinting around, I begin to feel dizzy and experience a sudden need to rest for a moment. We turn the light off to conserve batteries and sit in silence for a while to recollect our energy.
Out here in the middle of countless lava flows, there is no visible vegetation of any kind. There are no birds, and the infamous chirp of the gecko that is everywhere in Hawaii, invading kitchen cupboards and bathroom showers, cannot be heard. I have not even see a spider yet, which is rare when hiking anywhere on the island. All that can be heard is the roar of the ocean as it crashes into the cliff beneath us. All that can be seen is the magnificent glimmer of stars above. A lingering smell of sulfur permeates the air while behind us the red glow of magma silently lingers on the mountainside.
Life between life
"It’s almost like that feeling of no time, no space," Jose remarks, scaring me.
"Yeah," I offer, recovering. "It kind of feels like that place where souls go to rest between lifetimes. It kind of feels like nothingness."
We reflect on this for a while, soaking up the beauty of this great stillness. Then I turn the flashlight back on, eager to hike the rest of the way back. I still have a long drive ahead, and I’ll never make it at this pace. Finally, Jose spots the glimmers of yellow, and I’m thankful, because I would have never seen them. On a gentle incline angled away from the direction we were hiking, is the barely distinguishable path.
When we arrive, it’s gratifying in a small way to realize the growth that has occurred. Before the path had seemed necessary, and comforting. Now I ignore most of it and start carving my own way through the lava instead.
The last half-mile is paved road, the part of the original road that hasn’t yet been covered by lava rock. Flashlights seem unnecessary for this. After a few moments I am witness to several falling stars.
"A meteor shower!" I exclaim, completely overcome with appreciation for the moment. Making wish after wish, I begin to realize more and more strongly how satisfied I am with what I have, and who I am, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem by American standards.
Living on this island has been hard, but rich with reward, and I can declare with all my heart that it was worth it. I have learned by watching nature; new land is formed by fire. Seemingly destructive magma is the most primal creative force, offering life to an earth that has been desecrated.
Looking back, I bid Pele, the volcano goddess, farewell. I am ever so grateful to have been called to live on her most recent and ever-changing creation, the Big Island of Hawai’i. I feel tired, yet inwardly energized by the power of this "hot spot" and ready for the drive home.