City Girl Gone Wandering

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

On the mainland, a volcano seems like little more than the figment of some novelist’s imagination–a mythological beast of nature that came to life in a particularly vivid dream. But, in Hawaii, the highways are littered with signs that constantly remind you of said concept’s reality: Volcano 90 miles, Volcano 60 miles, Volcano 30 miles. I live on an island with a town called Volcano (Volcano Village, actually) and, oh yeah, real-life active volcanoes.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was at the top of my list of things I wanted to do when I got to Big Island. After a few weeks of living here, my chance to visit the park finally arrived–courtesy of my friend Melanie and her access to wheels. All of the credit for this entry goes to her.

Mel picked me up at the B&B and we made our way down Highway 11, past the beaches I have come to know and love, and further south than I had yet to have gone. I glanced out the passenger window and watched as we passed signs for places I have come to know by name alone (South Point, Green Sand Beach). I vowed to one day have seen them all–to know this island the way that I know the streets of New York City, or the flecks of green in my mother’s eyes.

The Road to Volcano

The Road to Volcano

The landscape, as always, was magnificent. Fields of sharp chocolate-colored lava rock gave way to green rolling hills. The quiet blue of the ocean perpetually flowed alongside the highway. It is these visions of grandeur that make long drives here feel like quick jaunts around the block. There is always something beautiful to get lost in, always a shift or a change that makes you ponder this place’s very existence.

After a detour to jump in the ocean, we arrived in Volcano to find pouring rain and cloudy skies. Unfazed by the weather, we popped into the Volcano Art Center to pass some time. The south of Hawaii island is home to numerous art collectives, and their work ranges from good to great to utterly phenomenal. I could have spent the entire day getting lost in the paintings of Pele, or the abstract sculptures of lava flow, but the rain let up and it was time to hike!

Volcano Hike

We traversed our way past the sign warning against the potential hazards to our health, and down the path swerving through the sulfur steam vents. The scent of sulfur pounded into my nostrils like a hammer lined with salt crystals. Smoke billowed toward the overcast sky from mounds of yellow and lime earth. For such a “hazardous” space, it was pristine and marvelous.

Our next hike was down a trail that looked like it had been plucked directly out of a fairytale. I imagined myself running down it in medieval dress, searching for grog and a turkey leg. I may have unintentionally started speaking in a British accent and discussing tea and crumpets. It felt appropriate for a path that seemed to move you more through time than through space.

The Enchanted Forest

The Enchanted Forest

After wandering for a while, we found ourselves accidentally hiking along the vast, barren, cracked earth that makes up the crater floor. It reminded me of the deserts in which I have spent time. Such places have a mind-boggling ability to embody everything and nothing simultaneously. It is their very emptiness that creates the fullness of infinite possibility. I love deserts for that, just as I loved this crater floor.

The Crater Floor

The Crater Floor

By the time we made it back to the car it was getting dark, so we scrapped the idea of an additional hike and made our way to the lava tube. It was dark and dusty, with the smell and tingle of a cool winter morning permeating the air. The glow of the lanterns cast shadows that danced along the walls. We danced among them, gallivanting and goofing off. At the end of the tube, we settled down momentarily, and Melanie offered up a Hawaiian song/prayer to the great Madame Pele.

Next on the agenda was an excursion to the Jaggar Museum and the lava pit overlook. The overlook was crowded with tourists speaking an assortment of different languages, but we found our way to the front and marveled at the psychedelic light pulsating beneath us. The sky sparkeled in shades of fiery red and soothing orange. Steam flowed upward like the hissing engine of a locomotive.

The space felt sacred and awe-inspiring. The magic of Hawaii is that it exists in a constant state of flow and change–the land perpetually evolving from the life force of the volcano. To stand above a lava pit, watching the heat of the earth spray out beneath you, is a spiritual experience. After all, how many times in life does one get to witness the actual creation of the earth? To glance out a glow and recognize that this is the source of all life?

I was overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude for that moment, and for all of the moments I have enjoyed on this island that I fall more in love with every day.

Eventually, it was time to go. We rolled out of the park the same way that we had rolled in: rocking out to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. The lyrics of that song have never in history been so appropriate to a particular experience.

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”

Indeed, Mr. Joel. Indeed.


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