Nature is awful. But it’s awful from back when awful meant “full of awe”. To fully appreciate this, you have to imagine what it was like for ancient people to gaze upon some wondrous natural phenomenon, before we had any grounding in science, and have absolutely no idea what caused it.
Imagine coming upon the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, Mount Everest, or the Great Barrier Reef and thinking, how? Our ancestors can’t be blamed for assuming that everything that wasn’t man made must be of a spiritual origin. And while my belief system differs greatly from theirs, I do enjoy hearing the old creation stories and imagining the various deities as living, breathing entities who shaped the earth in ways mankind never could.
That’s what was running through my mind as Dear Husband and I walked down through a rain forest full of fern trees and birdsong. We felt as if we had been transported to prehistoric times.
One such white guy was Lorrin Thurston, a newspaper publisher who “discovered” this tube back in 1913. I’m actually grateful for this man, because he was instrumental in creating Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, where this particular lava tube is located. It’s only because of him that I was able to walk into said tube. But that doesn’t mean he gets to take credit for its very existence, as far as I’m concerned.
Even the National Park Service website makes it seem as though Thurston discovered this lava tube. Poppycock. It is estimated that this tube is 350 to 500 years old, and the Polynesians first arrived in Hawaii at least 1400 years ago. It’s safe to assume that they knew of this tube from the time it formed.
In fact, Nāhuku means “the protuberances” and probably refers to the lava drippings that used to hang down from the ceiling of the tube, until white people started breaking them off for souvenirs. What a shame. I’d have loved to have seen them. People suck. (I tried to find images of these drippings on the internet, but came up empty.)
Lava tubes are created when a river of molten lava with temperatures over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit travels along, and then eventually leaves an empty tube in its wake, as the outer edges cool and harden long before the flowing, orange-hot center does. That’s the scientific explanation. But scientists and ancient people can agree on this: No mere mortal is responsible for creating such an incredible formation.
According to Wikipedia, Ancient Hawaiians believed, and some of their descendants still believe, that the goddess Pele governs the Kilauea volcano, and is responsible for all its lava flows. It is she who shapes the sacred land. She is known for her power, passion, jealousy, and capriciousness. It is said that she lives in the caldera of Kilauea, but her domain is all the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.
I felt quite privileged to explore Nāhuku, which could be described as some of Pele’s most impressive handiwork. I have to say it’s still very cool, literally and figuratively. It’s located about a mile and a half past the park entrance, and there is limited parking, but we happened to luck out on the day. We walked through the 600-foot tube, which was well lit, and has ceilings that are more than 20 feet high in some places.
The site is actually open 24 hours a day, but it’s only lit from 8 am to 8 pm. I think walking through there at night with just a flashlight would have been exceedingly creepy, but it can be done. You used to be able to walk through another 50 yards of the tube which is always unlit, but now that portion is closed off. The whole tube was closed off for a time during the 2018 eruption, and closed again for a year during the height of the COVID 19 pandemic.
This was not my first lava tube, but it is my favorite so far. (Read about the one we visited in Oregon here.) As we wandered through this natural wonder, I thought about colonization and its arrogance, science and its value to our knowledge base, and the goddess Pele, who I will forever associate with the gorgeous painting below, which can be seen at the Volcano Art Center. (Or at least it could be seen there at the time of our visit. I wish I could have been the one to buy it.)
As we neared the other end of the lava tube, you might say that my mind was on fire with history, facts, and mythology, and I was struggling to process it all. I was tempted to turn around and walk back the way we came, just to give myself more time to think. Then a rat ran across my foot.
Nope. It was definitely time to go.
Fun fact: There’s also a “psychedelic, experiment surf instrumental band” called The Thurston Lava Tube. Interestingly, they hail from England. Their music is kind of fascinating, and a lot of it can be found on YouTube. Check out their cover of Bohemian Rhapsody, which gives the song an entirely new vibe.
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Two amazing things to see in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
There is much to see in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. I’ve already written a few posts about it, and plan to do a few more. But for the purpose of this post, the first thing you need to know is that Chain of Craters Road is the main thoroughfare through the eastern portion of the park, and it’s 18 miles long.
Once you go down this twisty bendy road, you’ll have dropped from 4000 feet to sea level, and you’ll have to make a u-turn and go all the way back, because the lava flows over the years have blocked further progress. (There is an emergency access route that goes along the coast, but it’s only opened up if there’s an active eruption that prevents you from returning the way you came. And if that’s the case, here’s hoping you have a 4 wheel drive and plenty of gas.)
Chain of craters is worth traveling on even if you’re not in the mood to check out the many hiking trails along its route. There are a lot of gorgeous overlooks where you can peer down on inactive craters. And you’ll see every type of lava stone imaginable, along with a lot of very determined plant life that has somehow managed to force its roots into the sharp ebony cracks. In many places you’ll get stunning views of old lava flows, and the ocean view is breathtaking, too.
We traveled this road many times during our visit to the Big Island, but on our first journey we decided to go all the way to the end and work our way up in order to see as much as we could and yet be close to our hotel before dark. We did cheat a bit and stop at some overlooks on the way down, because they were too beautiful to pass by. But our initial planned destination was Hōlei Sea Arch, which of course, was at the end of the road.
We parked and walked on a path along the cliff edge, which is a safe enough distance from the crumbling cliff itself. Looking westward we could see along the shoreline, toward a magnificent arch that is still being pummeled by the rough sea and the strong winds to this day.
The park’s information placard describes how these arches are made. First, of course, the lava flows down to the sea. The ocean starts beating against it even before it has had time to cool. Over time, a sea cave is worn into the cliff face, and then the splash back from hitting the cave’s back wall starts carving the arch. Once it’s an arch, there’s no more cave. And eventually there will be no more arch, as it collapses into the sea, most likely leaving a column of rocks called a sea stack. Over time, that column will disappear as well. It’s sort of the life cycle of shoreline lava. Fascinating.
It was a sunny, humid, windy day, so we didn’t linger long. The next part of our plan was to head up to see the Pu‘uloa Petroglyphs, but when we got to the parking area and read the sign, it made us realize that to get to them, we’d have to take a 0.7 mile hike, over jet black, uneven, undulating rock, in the glaring sun, as the wind, which felt like dragon’s breath, tried to knock us down. So, maybe not.
I was disappointed, though, because I had read that this was the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the state. And if you have read my post entitled, “Rock Art Rocks!” about my visit to some stunning displays in the Moab, Utah area, then you know that petroglyphs are some of my favorite things. But not dying of heat stroke is right up there on the list, too. So we left.
But three days later, we found enough space in our itinerary to return. The weather was different that day. It was overcast, drizzly, and the breezes were cool. We’re from the Pacific Northwest, so a little drizzle isn’t going to deter us. We could see heavier rain on the horizon, but we hoped we’d be back to the car long before it got bad.
We set out on the 0.7 mile trail, which, I assure you, is not wheelchair accessible at all. Often, we were unsure of the exact path. There was nothing for it but to keep your eye out for the next cairn and then try to take the straightest, most level route we could in order to get to it, and then look for the next cairn.
A few times, the cairns seemed to blend in with the surrounding rock, and once we were out of sight of the road, that caused a little bit of panic within me. I was having visions of being forced to spend the night in my shorts and thin shirt as the sun went down and the temperature dropped. That would have definitely made sh** get real rather quickly.
And then, to make things more interesting, we suddenly found ourselves in a downpour. Thank goodness Dear Husband had a hooded windbreaker for me. Even so, we were drenched in less than a minute. On this gigantic plain of lava with no trees to speak of, I tried not to think of lightning or flash floods. The sky was boiling, angry, and as black as lava rock, and I knew this rain wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Oddly enough, though, we decided to press on, because, well… petroglyphs. And Hawaiian rain is usually nice and warm, and today’s was no exception. The warm rain may have been coursing down my spine and pooling in my shoes, but… petroglyphs.
Just to cover my bases in the face of this fearsome rain, I had a little chat with Madame Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire. I wanted to assure her that we were approaching this sacred site with nothing but honor and respect in our hearts. We would not damage anything, nor would we take souvenirs. It felt important to say that, and I hoped it was obvious that I was sincere.
Eventually, we saw a raised boardwalk and some signage amongst the wet black stone. It seemed like a foreign invader, much like we were, but I was glad to see it. We knew we were there, and that the park service is doing its best to preserve these petroglyphs, which were most likely very old before the first white man, a missionary (of course), saw them and wrote about it in 1823. The lava field itself is at least 550 years old.
We stayed on the boardwalk the whole time so as not to damage this wonderous place. Some of our photos are below, but if you really want to see some truly amazing ones, check them out here, on the park’s website. Looking at this work made me feel reverent.
Many of the petroglyphs consisted of round holes pecked into the lava. These were used to store umbilical cords for many generations. It is said that they would place the cord in the hole, cover it with a rock, and the next day it would be gone. This would ensure the long life of the child.
At one point I was surrounded by a thousand such holes, each one representing someone who was born on this island centuries ago. I wondered how much DNA has been deposited in this place. This was like gazing back on generations of people who belonged here and knew it. A legacy in lava. It must be wonderful to have such a strong sense of your roots.
I became so engrossed in the scene that I nearly forgot about the rain. Eventually, though, we had to go, and as per usual, the walk back was not nearly as much fun as the walk in. I already knew what I was up against. I was struggling to not roll my ankles on the uneven ground, and my old arthritic hips already felt like they had burning coals in the sockets. At least the rain was starting to slow down. A little. And after all, it’s not like we could have gotten any wetter. And that made me start thinking about hypothermia. But truly, I didn’t feel cold. Just soggy.
If you’d like to watch me trudge/waddle through this rainy landscape, check out this time lapse video of me walking from the petroglyphs to the car. I had no idea that dear husband was even taking it at the time. I’m glad he waited until we were away from the sacred site, though. A video there would have felt disrespectful.
So, trudge, trudge, waddle, waddle, and then finally we saw the road. I wanted to whoop for joy. But it’s a good thing that I was still watching where I was going, because I went around a rock and came upon this poor waterlogged lizard, the first creature we had encountered during this trek. He was still alive and moving, but he looked cold and miserable. I wanted to rescue him, but I had no idea how to pull that off, and so we decided to let nature take its course. I hope he made it.
When we got to the car, there was no one around for miles, so we stripped off as much of our wet clothing as we reasonably could. Still, when we sat down we made squelching sounds. We turned on the heat and it felt like heaven.
We were too tired to contemplate seeing anything else, even though we had planned to visit the active lava after dark once again. But walking two miles in the cold darkness in wet clothes and shoes didn’t hold much appeal.
We knew that this day was still going to be a lifelong memory of an insane adventure, and we therefore had no regrets. It was a day well-spent. So we just went to the hotel, had a nice hot shower and a nap, and looked forward to whatever the next day would bring us in this unpredictable paradise.
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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!
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