Saturday, September 3, 2016

Travel Journal: Kilauea Lava Flow into the Ocean

I was still in California with 7 days until my one-way flight to the Big Island when I heard that the lava from Kilauea had reached the ocean for the first time since 2013. The Kilauea volcano is the most active in the world but still this news made me eager to arrive and see the magic of those two great forces - lava and water - collide. I could not wait to witness the birth of earth's newest land.

Yet when I arrived, I did wait. Weeks went by and I found myself too busy or too tired to journey to the flow. Not to mention, my nanny car wasn't really up for the almost 3 hour journey south so I needed a more reliable ride. Lucky for me I met someone visting from Portland who was just as eager to get there and he had a rental car. Perfect. 

We decided to go in the evening. Instead of heading straight south, we drove accross the island to Hilo and then down so we could approach the lava fields on the side closest to the active flow. We were just searching through #lavaflow on Instagram and seeing where the photos were geo-tagged in order to have a spot to aim for, but we had no idea if the flow had rerouted or what roads got closest to it. Basically our shot in the dark was exactly right though because we ended up where everyone else ended up... at the Greatest Show on Earth.

Seriously, it was a scene! The paved road turned to gravel and we were directed by a man in a reflective orange vest to park at the end of this massive line of vehicles. We parked and walked in the direction everyone else was walking and after a while the cars gave way to tents. There were vendors selling food, water, glowsticks, bikes, etcs.. 

Then we saw the traffic flasher, the message read... 


Of course, we had one small bottle of water and I was wearing sandals. Oops! Everytime. Please send sneakers. 

At least we weren't without resources thanks to all the vendors. We stocked up on water, fruit, and decided at the very last minute to rent bikes. $10 per bike per hour. Not bad. Worth every penny! If you go ask around for Kimball Trump, unfortunate name but he's got the goods: solid, sturdy bikes with big tires and good brakes. He'll tape a flashlight to your handlebars, adjust your seat, and send you off with an extra water bottle and all the good juju for spotting lava. He swears it's better than a Pink Floyd light show.

The gravel road isn't too difficult by bike if you stick to the beaten path. The last mile is a bit looser and you may want to walk it, but we were fine - mostly. The bike ride there was a breeze because we were riding on pure excitement and adrenaline. We knew we were getting close when we could smell the sulfur in the air. We arrived just as the sun's light was beginning to disappear.

We walked to the edge of the jagged black cliff to see the burning molten lava pumping out over the black sand beach and into the crashing waves. It took my breath away. It was chaotic and rhythmic all at the same time. The spurts and gurgles of the lava and the fast rising steam were the chaos; but the ocean waves rolling over the lava, pushing it up and then pulling it out was the rhythm that birthed the new land inch by inch.

At the cliff looking down and ahead at this sight was overwhelming. I needed to sit down, to catch my breath. The ground was made of harden lava but it was still relatively new and unworn. It sparkled like blackened pyrite. It cut like glass. It made a thousand little indentations in my thighs. We spent a while gazing in awe at the magic of it. The sun set and the lava glowed the brightest, purest orange. The stars all peeked out one by one.

It was mesmerizing in a way that called me closer. I wondered if we could access the flow at a point before it came spilling out of the cliffside. While I wanted to be closer to the lava to pay my respects to all its beauty and glory, I was worried how others would behave. Many Hawaiians regard the lava as the physical form of their goddess Pele. Yet still, people will prod the lava with sticks and trash to watch it burn. This would upset me but we ventured closer anyway. It was worth the risk.

Turns out, everyone there that night wanted to respect and admire the lava just as I did. The only risk in getting closer was, of course, the lava and the conditions surrounding it. Imagine a river of molten lava with several layers of hardened black lava surrounding it forming a tube and this tube slopes down and cascades down the side of a cliff into the ocean.

We approached the lava river about 30 yards before it started to plunge downward. The heat rose up around us, we could even feel it through our shoes. Pretty soon we were standing on the lava tube and smoke billowed out from vents all around. The minute I stepped down wind from one of these vents, I felt my throat tighten. I started coughing rapidly and, in a panic, I ran back to breathable air. Every hurried step, I was worried I would step through a soft spot in the lava tube.

It felt like another planet entirely. Yet this magical place is the very essence of our planet earth. The water of the ocean, the fire of the lava, the air of the night sky, and the surrounding black rock of earth. I felt so small.

On the way back, we walked the bikes for a while under the blanket of the milky way. It was so visible against the midnight sky - a milky, star-saturated arm of our spiral galaxy. I barely blinked and my reverence was rewarded by a fantastic shooting star! It streaked downward, a bright white light followed by a glittering orange tail until it burned up and out of sight.

For the rest of the walk back to the car, I saw a warm glowing orb off in the lava field at the exact point where the meteor had fallen. I don't know if it was really a meteorite but they do occur all the time. So in my mind, it will always be.

Because there is no such thing as too much magic for one night.

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