“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.’
I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
When the wheels of my plane touched down in Hilo on May 2nd, I had no idea the adventure I was in for. I was meeting up with old friends from Maui for a little getaway. We were to stay in a small ohana, off the grid on a farm in the countryside outside Hilo, nearest Pahoa town, a few miles away from Leilani Estates (estates being a generous use of the word). I stepped out of the airport and was greeted by warmth and humidity and the coqui frogs ribbiting their little hearts out. I smiled and inhaled deeply. My skin and hair, felt like they were re-inflating like a dry sponge immersed in water once again. Stepping down to the curb I narrowly missed stepping on one of the little guys who was making his way up into the airport via the stairs. Frog on a mission.
Our ohana was quite out-of-the-way, unlikely to be found by taxi, so our host Laurie came to the airport to pick me up. She seemed a bit frazzled and laughed as she said, “Well, let’s see if we can get home.” I was confused. Is the traffic really that bad here? Had they had a lot of rain and mudslides? Laurie clarified. There had been earthquakes all night long, nearly every ten minutes and there were fissures opening in some of the roads. The Pu’u o’o mound had collapsed creating a smoking crater. Oh! As we got away from town and closer to the farm we encountered government trucks and workers with instruments and headlamps. We stopped to get the news and realized we were stopped directly on top of an inch wide fissure that had split the road open. Oh! They assured us it was ok to go home for the night. We turned off the pavement and bumped and lurched over rocks and through mud puddles down a series of roads bordered by lava rock walls, fields, horses, and crops on the other side. Pulling up to the little ohana, glowing in the night with its solar powered lights, I felt a flush of happiness for the friends and lau lau dinner waiting inside.
The next morning there was concern that our helicopter tour would be cancelled due to the new volcanic activity. What if there were eruptions of lava or toxic gases as our helicopter flew over the newly active Pu’u o’o crater? Nope, come on in. We were treated to the ride of our lives. It was a rare sunny day and with the new crater having just formed the day before, the pilot was just as excited as we were. The “wop wop” of the blades as they rotored up, the crackle of the pilot talking over the headphones, the ground dropping away, leant such an air of super cool adventure that I wanted to squeal and clap, but I maintained my composure. Like, “Yeah, I do this all the time.” We all looked at each other with ear to ear grins. We soared out over the ocean. Being the rainiest city in the US, Hilo side is lush and emerald. So the stark lava flow that wiped out an entire community back in the 90’s, was a sobering contrast and reminder of the potential just beneath the surface. People have returned and built their homes right back again.
We turned inland away from the sapphire water, away from the greenery and traveled across lava flow, and headed towards the crater. A cloud of red smoke and dust rose up and trailed off the crater like a flag. As we got closer and closer, I mouthed “Wow, wow, wow!” at Mary and she just shook her head in amazement. We were able to fly around and around the perimeter of the rim and look right down into its depths. You could not see the bottom. Nearby was an area termed a “skylight” where the crust of the earth has caved in and you can see the glowing red lava just beneath. I suddenly felt myself becoming unexpectedly emotional. Mary was crying. I couldn’t see Ken or Nicole in the seats behind us but felt certain they were equally overcome. It’s hard to say why exactly. It reminded me of my reaction the first time I saw the Himalayas. I burst out crying totally unexpectedly then too. The scene before me was as old as time. Primal, powerful. Untouched and untouchable by humans. It had, I don’t know…a presence? I felt as if I was in the presence of something much greater than myself. We were watching the cycle of life unfold in fast forward. Birth, life, death, all in moments. It’s easy to see why the ancient ones ascribed the persona of Tutu Pele to the volcano. It does not seem like a lifeless thing. Far too soon we had to turn back towards the airport. I could have circled in wonder all day long.
Over lunch we chattered like parakeets about the experience. It was hard to find adequate words for such an experience. Every time we would turn to Mary she would start to speak, then put her hand to her heart, and shake her head, still overcome. To me, that says it best.
We still had half a day left and so decided to drive to the summit of Volcano National Park, the place to see Kilauea, the home of Pele as told in the legends. Again, this felt like a place of wonder, a holy place. Much like Yellowstone, steam issued forth across the landscape. We hiked through a lava tube and walked through the smoking fields.
Unable to tear ourselves away, we stayed well into the evening. We watched Kilauea change from smoking to glowing as night fell. Such a cauldron inspires wonder, respect, and fear, even today.
When we finally left the summit and made the trek back to the farm where we were staying, we were not terribly surprised to see the road block as we had been hearing that more fissures were opening up in the ground. We told a teeny white lie, that we were going to help auntie evacuate her farm. With some hesitation, the police let us pass. We went to bed, bags mostly packed, for worst case scenario.
The earthquakes started up sometime in the night. Just before 2 it started to rain like you’ve never seen before. It sounded like a roar that just got louder and louder until you just couldn’t believe the house wasn’t falling down around your ears. At 2am, the first evacuation siren sounded as the rain subsided. The cell phones buzzed warnings, “Sulfur dioxide levels at toxic level. Imminent threat.” We stepped outside to assess our surroundings. A fissure had opened up about a mile and a half away. There was a sound like a jet plane taking off only there was no plane. It was the lava and gasses rumbling and roaring. A cloud in the night sky, directly above the fissure, glowed red. It may sound unbelievable, but we chose to go back to bed. The thought of driving around in the dark in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go sounded worse than staying put and taking our chances. I actually fell back asleep. The second set of sirens went off at 4am. I heard annoyed mumbles from the others and this time we didn’t even get up, but just went back to sleep.
At sun-up, we were having coffee and packing up as after last night it was clear we would not be able to stay. The owner of the farm came striding into the yard yelling, “ALOHA!” to announce her presence. She told us the threat really was an emergency at this point and we needed to evacuate. Unfortunately, we had rented a car from a worker on the farm, but she needed her car to evacuate herself and her belongings so we found ourselves without transport. We ended up getting a ride in a van with a hippie named Mars. She was clad in running shorts, cowboy boots, and dreadlocks. You can’t make this stuff up. My palms were sweating the entire ride to Hilo as she seemed more interested in DJ’ing than watching the road. We did make it without incident (almost, close enough) to the airport where we secured a Jeep for the remainder of our trip.
We needed to sit and regroup and it was high time for a taco so we went to Hilo town for some lunch and to plan out our next steps since we now had no place to stay. As we were finishing lunch and had settled on a plan to move the rest of our trip to Kona, a sharp jolt struck the building. Then another. This wasn’t the little waves we had been riding out earlier. This earthquake had a different feel to it (5.4) and I didn’t like it one bit. “Outside, outside!” I yelled, and everyone rushed to exit the old cinder block building. There were no injuries, and no evidence other than swinging lamps, but we had all lost our appetites and decided to high tail it to the other side of the island, to safer waters. So, we did not feel the even bigger earthquake (6.9) that hit an hour later as we were driving.
Upon arrival to the other side of the island we were able to secure an Air B&B whose guest decided to forego their vacation due to all the volcanic activity. We reached out to a friend of mine who had recently relocated to Kona. We met up at the fittingly named, “Place of Refuge” which is exactly what we were needing at that moment. A walk along the shore and a swim into the cool silent water with darting, colorful fish was a balm to the soul. I emerged refreshed. Well, refreshed enough to eat a giant plate of pulled pork, bbq jackfruit, and coconut rice and then collapse into bed where I slept like the dead.
The next morning we met up with Kona Brian again and spent the morning swimming, snorkeling, and just hanging out talking story. This is what it’s all about. relaxing, soaking up the sun, enjoying the beauty of nature and connecting with people you care about. That evening we headed down to Ali’i Drive. We meandered and window shopped and tried to resume a “normal” vacation though none of us was one bit sorry for all the excitement we’d had. We came across a henna shop and it was shortly decided that we all needed to get Pele tattoos to commemorate the experience.
Our last morning, the plan was to go to the farmer’s market. As we were having coffee and getting ready, Nicole exclaimed from her place at the kitchen window, “A hawk!” I thought she must be mistaken as the i’o or Hawaiian hawk is an endangered species. We all rushed outside to see and she was right! This seemed like a good sign, a token of good will from Tutu Pele. A lucky sighting indeed.
As we wrapped up our trip and headed towards the airport, we discussed how we had heard that Pele was angry. It did not feel like that to us. To me it was just nature being nature, Pele being Pele. To me she was just stretching in her sleep. An arm overhead and a deep sigh causes Kilauea to glow. A stretch of the legs and a wiggle of the toes and fissures split at the other end of the island, letting lava seep out. If a human walks across a field it must feel like the end of the world to an ant in the grass. But the human isn’t angry. Pele is big and we are small and we just happened to be there the day she rolled over in her sleep. I’m so glad.