Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and the Beating Heart of Mother Earth

The Earth breathes fire.

On my commute to work, I was thinking about the many, many, many blog posts I can still write about Hawaii. If I keep posting them every 4 days, I could easily still go on for 2 ½ months. And then I remembered being forced to watch distant relatives’ home movies while pretending to be interested in their photo albums that were full of people I don’t remember, doing things that I couldn’t care less about. I don’t want my blog to turn into that. (In case you didn’t know, this isn’t meant to be torture for you or for me.)

Keeping that in mind, I’ve decided that my Hawaii posts aren’t going to be a day by day recounting of every little thing I did. I don’t want to drag you, kicking and screaming, through my itinerary. That might cause me to throw my back out. We can’t have that.

Instead, I’ve decided to focus on various adventures, and/or various general topics about my experiences, and do them in no particular order, and space them between non-Hawaii posts. So I apologize in advance if you get whiplash from hopping from Kauai to the Big Island and back again, interspersed with entirely unrelated tangents, as is my wont. I never promised you a smooth ride, but I’ve always hoped to keep it interesting.

Today I’m going to give you an overview of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. I’ll tell you about the park itself, and then allow you to feast your eyes on what I view as the beating heart of our planet. There will be subsequent posts about some of the other experiences we had while there.

The park itself is the 11th national park in our system. It was established in 1916. It consists of 323,431 acres of land. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

But let’s back up a bit. According to this article, the Big Island of Hawaii was created by five volcanoes. One of those, Kohala, is extinct and is, in fact, eroding. Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world if measured from the floor of the ocean to its summit. (I’ll be writing more about this volcano in a subsequent post.) It’s been dormant for the past 4,500 years. Hualālai is the third-most active volcano on the island. In fact, the Kona International Airport is built on one of its hardened lava flows. It’s expected to erupt again within the next hundred years. (Aloha, airport!) The other two, much more active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kīlauea, are both protected within the boundaries of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on earth, because it has erupted in several different directions in the past, thus adding quite a bit to its real estate. It last erupted in 1984. Its next eruption is decades overdue. We didn’t get up close and personal with this particular volcano. Most of that part of the park is only accessible if you’re into vigorous hiking. (Not only has that ship sailed for me, but I find no evidence that it ever docked at my port in the first place.)

There is a one lane road to the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory, but that facility hasn’t been open for its (by-appointment-only) tours since the pandemic. While I’m sure a lot of good science is conducted there by the visiting scientists and the staff of eight, it appears to be a stark and uncomfortable place, at 11,135 altitude-sickness-inducing feet above sea level. I didn’t feel particularly deprived by missing it. The gently sloping peak of this volcano is pretty cool to see on the horizon, though.

Our main focus while visiting this park was Kilauea. It’s one of the most active volcanoes on earth, with a magma system that goes down more than 37 miles below the Earth’s surface. It has been erupting pretty much continuously since 1983, with no end in sight. It has destroyed towns, resorts, and highways, along with a 700-year-old Hawaiian temple. Its caldera expanded significantly in 2018, leaving the Jaggar Museum, with its volcano observatory, teetering on the edge of an extremely unstable cliff. The building itself also experienced severe structural damage during the earthquakes which accompany most eruptions. It’s safe to say it is permanently closed. It has welcomed millions of visitors during its lifetime, so it will be greatly missed. Nature is a formidable force.

I was looking forward to seeing that force up close, in all its glory. During the day, we visited several active steam vents. I can’t even describe to you what the heat blasting from those vents felt like, except to say that the Earth breathes fire. It deserves a lot more respect from us than it gets.

The many hardened lava flows all over the park, and indeed all over the state, were fascinating to behold. I never knew how many different types of lava existed. Some is as smooth as glass, some looks like the dry, crumbling top of a brownie, some is jagged and forbidding, and some is rippled or patterned like coiled rope. Nature is art writ large.

We wondered how many names for lava rock there are in the Hawaiian language, because it is said that Eskimos have a lot of words for snow. (That turns out to be a simplistic conclusion for a lot of reasons, but it’s going to require a blog post. It’s on my to-do list.) Still believing that “fact” at the time (more or less), I was expecting about a dozen words for lava rock. It turns out that there are only two. According to this article, the sharp, rough kind of lava rock is called aʻā, and the smooth, billowy, ropy kind is called pāhoehoe. But I digress. (But then, when don’t I digress?)

That night, we wanted to see bright orange lava on the move. We started by taking a walk after sunset along the caldera’s rim. The park was kind enough to provide glowing raised pavement markers along the nice stable sidewalks. It was amazing seeing the residual orange glow coming from the caldera, but, now that the Jagger Museum’s tower is inaccessible, we couldn’t see the actual lava itself. That would take a little extra effort.

After talking with a park ranger about the best viewpoints, we decided to drive over to the aptly named Devastation Trailhead parking lot, and then walk a mile along Old Crater Rim Drive in the pitch blackness to see the lava at eye level. I don’t know why, but I expected to have the place to ourselves. It was late at night, and I figured it was past most children’s bedtimes, and I’ve never been to a national park at night that wasn’t all but deserted.

On the contrary, there were probably 200 people making the trek. Most of them were reverently quiet, and the groups were widely spaced apart. Much of the walk was paved because this used to be a functioning road. You used to be able to drive all the way out to the viewpoint, park, and walk about 100 feet to see nature’s drama. An eruption in 2008 put an end to that. The road is now permanently closed to all but the most determined pedestrians. I’m sure the big hole caused during yet another eruption in 2018, which we had to walk around, had much to do with that permanence.

It takes a lot longer to walk a mile in the chilly, drizzly darkness than you would think. But the ever-increasing orange glow on the horizon was exciting, and it fueled us. The last part of the walk was on dirt that was interspersed with large, embedded trip hazards in the form of aʻā. I was grateful that Dear Husband had thought to pack a flashlight.

We walked all the way out to Keanakākoʻi Crater, which we overlooked in the darkness, and when we unknowingly turned our back on it, just like that, we came upon an awestruck crowd, and then there it was… rivulets of moving, burping, incandescent lava, only about three quarters of a mile away from us. Kīlauea, within the Halema`uma`u crater, where the goddess Pele is said to reside.

We were at a safe distance. We couldn’t feel the heat or smell the sulphur. And yet it still felt as through we were gazing into the beating heart of the earth.

I can’t emphasize that enough. For the first time in my life, I finally got it. We are living in, and desperately dependent upon, a vast, interconnected ecosystem. It’s alive, and it will change regardless of our desire to keep it the same. We are impacting it in horrible ways and must immediately stop doing so if humanity is to survive, but in the end, we are mere gnats that are not even taken into consideration when this planet of ours wants to do its thing. We’re a cancer, we’re a nuisance, we have the great privilege to be tolerated, but that could change in an instant. Not only does the world not revolve around us, but it has the means to flick us off into the oblivion that we deserve if we don’t clean up our collective act. We need to have respect for this gift of life, and take care of the planet that is giving us this gift every day.

We stood there for about a half hour, in awe. What we were experiencing felt sacred. We didn’t want to leave. But in the end, you can only stand in the drizzling rain and gusty wind for so long, even if you are in the presence of something so profound.

Mark Twain also had the opportunity to view Kīlauea at night, in 1866, long before the national park existed. At the time, the volcano was much more active than it is now, and he of course was much more capable of waxing poetic about it than I could ever be.

“The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky”

You can read more of his description here, including a quaint mention of gazing at the view through opera glasses. He also says, “The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.”

Oh, how I love Mark Twain.

Back to the present, I found that the walk back to the car wasn’t nearly as fun. But I was tempted to get volcanically evangelical and tell all the people that were heading in the opposite direction that it was worth it. Keep walking. You’ll be transformed. I know I was.

After experiencing the Earth in all its potent vibrancy, it feels strange to be sitting back here on my drawbridge in Seattle, tapping away on my laptop. Big cities like this one now feel like an unforgivable blight on the landscape. They’re artificial and inauthentic. I’ll never look at the planet in quite the same way again, and I have volcanoes to thank for my new perspective.

I feel a renewed gratitude for having been given the gift of a life that allows me to bear witness to such miracles. Thanks, Universe! Thanks, also, to my newfound friend Pelehonuamea, “she who shapes the sacred land”. I am truly humbled by your power.

I’ll be writing more about our adventures in this beautiful national park, including the petroglyphs, the goddess Pele, the sea arch, and the Thurston Lava Tube in subsequent posts, so watch this space!

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

5 thoughts on “Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and the Beating Heart of Mother Earth”

  1. As much as I’ve always disliked anthropomorphic metaphors, particularly gendered ones, including for supernatural powers, I enjoyed this. We experienced a 3.6 geophysical wakeup here in Skagitropolis, and it gets your attention. Of course, nothing like the 6.8-er we got in ’01.
    I have a cousin who lives on the NE side of the Big Island. He mentions vog sometimes, and now it’s got me even more worried than I was before because he is old and fragile (seems there’s a lot of that going around these days) and needs an oxygen machine, but the one he just got crapped out on him and it was still under warranty and they are in short supply due to the @#$%^&* pandemic and how this winds up no one knows.
    Imagine being in Iceland, and one evening you notice that the sky over those hills is red-orange…

    1. Well, if it’s any comfort, the most deadly, fast moving part of an eruption is pyroclastic flow, and Hawaiian volcanoes are not at all known for that. The rest generally gives you time to get out of the way. And they are so monitored it would be nearly impossible to be taken by surprise. Also, if he’s on the NE side, he’s on the windward side of the island, so the bulk of the vog would blow away from him, not toward. But I hope he gets his oxygen machine worked out, regardless.

  2. Thanks. I have an acquaintance whose daughter witnessed a photographer getting too close and falling thru the crust in a spurt of flame, which caused her to reconsider being a geologist. Me, I am into geology but stick to things that don’t erupt.

    1. What a horrible image to have stuck inside one’s head! I suspect, though, a trained geologist would not have taken the risks that photographer did. If we all stopped doing things because some idiot had mucked it up in the past, we’d all do nothing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: