Going with the Lava Flow Navigating the treacheries and discovering new land at one of Earth’s fieriest national parks
By Dale Patrick Myers
A towering plume of sulfur-smelling smoke explodes from the crater of this desert landscape as a tepid breeze blows the sweet scent of jasmine and pushes the sinewy smoke over the devastated plateau that tumbles down into an abyss worthy of Mordor. However, this isn’t fictitious Middle Earth, and this smoke-filled scene is not the cause of Mt. Doom. This is Hawai’i, and this smoke is belching forth from one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
Having been plagued since childhood with reoccurring nightmares of running from erupting volcanoes and being engulfed by lava, which stem from watching “Krakatoa, East of Java” with my parents and further compounded and solidified by being repeatedly subjected to footage of the Mount St. Helens eruption while in grammar school, I want to experience the freedom from fear of free-flowing lava, pit craters and steam vents. What better place to eradicate this fear than at Kilauea, a volcano that has been continuously erupting since Jan. 3, 1983? However, 4,000-foot-plus Kilauea isn’t the only monarch of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, as its majestic and imposing cousin Mauna Loa is also active. Mauna Loa, which last erupted in 1984, looms over the fuming and immensely sprawling park and casts an ominous shadow as it is at the beck and call of unpredictable Pele, the volcano goddess, and is the most dangerous volcano in Hawai’i. Mauna Loa is still, silent and snow-capped on this October day, but looks like it could literally blow its top at any moment depending on the mood of Pele. Conversely, there is a seemingly infinite emission of volcanic gas escaping from the mythological home of Pele, Halemaumau crater, an angry pit where after dark the glow from the cavernous crater looks like a downed, simmering meteor that has just rent the earth.
At night, Halemaumau, which is part of the Kilauea caldera, illuminates its eerily beautiful immediate surroundings; however, witnessing this frenetic spectacle in the daytime, I am awarded sweeping vistas of immense and contrasting beauty: from a stripped lava-rock plateau that spills down to endlessly blue and shimmering Pacific waters to rainforest as lush as any found in the tropics. Leaving Halemaumau emboldened by having stood near the rim of the smoldering crater, one of two current eruption sites in the park, I set out on the Chain of Craters Road with the idea of seeing as much volcanism as possible before ultimately reaching the end of the road where lava has literally crossed it, making it impassable except on foot. I choose a pit crater first and hike to the floor of Kilauea Iki, which in 1959 after a series of earthquakes literally turned into a lake of fire. But I didn’t encounter what in 1959 must have seemed like a circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno, but rather a dense, vertiginous tropical trail on the rim of the crater that occasionally opened up to reveal lofty views of the park and the 400-foot crater below. Once reaching the floor, instead of a lake of fire I find a black-sand lava bed that I can roam in any direction.
Traversing the crater, I can imagine molten lava bubbling and gurgling with flaming lava fountains exploding almost 2,000 feet in the air and a shower of lava raining down, which it did in 1959 in this mile-long, 3,000-foot wide pit crater. On this day, however, it is a tranquil sojourn across a soft, opaque floor dotted with ohi’a trees with sanguine flowers and steam vents that hiss like cappuccino makers while trade winds ruffle the tops of the Koa and fern trees 400 feet above on the rim of the crater. Getting back in the car and checking the odometer, I realize there are miles to go and not enough time to see everything along this fiery freeway so I tear off down the road anxious to see where the active crimson lava flows into the sapphire Pacific. A crowd gathers on the serrated sea cliff where the road ends (due to layers of hardened lava that crossed at this point when molten) at the Holei Sea Arch – a medieval-looking natural arch that was caused by surf and erosion that will eventually crumble into the ocean.
From the arch, I set off across seemingly solidified lava but see a posted warning that states “Collapse of lava bench occurs without warning, causing violent steam explosions…” Still determined, I gingerly trek across the potentially perilous ground and spy the smoke rising from where the lava is introducing itself to the sea. I am literally witnessing earth being born, and I know my dreams that night will be of an island that is alive and pulsating whose fiery lungs are breathing new life into it at every moment, and I won’t be running from lava but toward it.
About the Author: Dale Patrick Myers is a travel writer, journalist, editor and novelist from Ventura, CA. He was the editor of MotorHome magazine and is a frequent contributor to Global Road Warrior and The Circumference.
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