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Lava and stars 
28th-Dec-2002 11:51 am
Me: O'ahu mountains

*Sigh* So much for keeping a daily log of my fabulous trip in Hawai'i. I just remembered yesterday about this journal. I guess that's a sign that I've been having fun and keeping busy, though. Maybe I'll go back and add entries for earlier parts of my trip later. For now, though, I want to get yesterday down while it's fresh in my mind.

So yesterday afternoon, Tom and I drove to the fresh lava flow from Kîlauea (I'm too lazy to look up the Unicode number for lowercase-i-with-macron, just as I was too lazy to look up turned-comma-as-glottal-stop up above :-), arriving around dark. The drive itself was quite spectacular. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is (very) roughly a 2½-hour drive from Kona where Tom and Tigris live, and much of it is stunningly gorgeous (well, that's true for most of this island). Lovely vistas of the sun on the ocean a couple thousand feet below us on our right, and wooded or cultivated mountainside up the mountain on our left, punctuated increasingly frequently by broken lava fields as we approached the volcanoes.

Most of the ride was sunny, but as we approached the edge of the national park, we were driving into rain. For quite a while, although most of the sky was clear and we were in bright sunlight, there was a grey raincloud ahead of us blanketing the horizon, with the end of a rainbow almost right ahead of us. For much of the time there was just that one fifteen-or-so-degree arc (because the rest of the sky was clear, but it was very bright and intense. Tom and I stopped and tried to get some pictures of it; perhaps they'll come out. As we entered the park, we hit rain (although we were still in sunlight), and the rainbow-end in front of us turned into a spectacular full rainbow (double in places).

By the time we got back down the mountain to the fresh lava flow, the sun had set and the stars were beginning to come out, with Orion clear and low on the horizon and the Pleiades just starting to be visible. There was a long row of cars parked along the road, so we parked, and started hiking with our flashlights (along with lots of other people, mostly returning). As we walked along the road, the sky got darker and more stars came out, and soon it was much better than anything I can see from the Boston area, a riot of stars. To our left in the distance we could see the red lava flowing down from Kîlauea as a broken orange-red line of dots and squiggles. We passed the place where the road was closed to traffic and kept walking, as the sky got darker and more stunning. Eventually we got to the spot where the lava field had flowed over the road. When Tom and Tigris went to see the lava (in the summer, I think, when it was fresh), some of the cracks and crevices in the lava right by the road were still glowing red. (Tigris took a picture of Tom standing there, which I'll try to put up somewhere and link to when I get back.) But now that's all cooled, and we had a 45-minute hike over the lava field towards where the lava hits the ocean - which point we'd been able to see for quite some time in the car as a huge plume of steam driven by the tradewinds, and lit bright orange-red at its base by the lava. (Incidentally, there was no sulphur smell here, although up closer to the caldera the sulphur was very intense and was enough to give me trouble breathing.)

The old lava fields I was familiar closer to Kona (as at Pu'uhonua Ô Honaunau, a beach and national historical site which is one of Tigris' and my favourite haunts in Kona because we can take Hamlet there) are dull-black and porous-looking, and of course weathered so that while they're rough, they're not sharp. This lava, a few months old, looked a lot different. It had a very glossy, shiny, thin "skin" on it where it hadn't been disturbed that looked black under our flashlights. But that crumbled off fairly easily into tiny flakes a bit larger (but sharper and more jagged) than sand, which filled many of the cracks, leaving duller rough patches that looked white or grey under our flashlights. (Since we were following a path along with several thousand other people just that day, most of the lava we were walking on had the skin broken off.) Along with the big organic-looking lobes and the ripples called "Pele's hair" were lots of patches of broken rubble, small (and sometimes large) lava boulders and gravel. At Pu'uhonua we can assume that what we step on will stay there; that was not so here, especially after the end of the trail. It didn't seem very dangerous (especially where the trail was still blazed) in terms of serious injury, but it sure would be an easy place to twist your ankle or cut your hands; definitely terrain worth respect.

Some of the trail ran along the rope barrier the park service had put up to mark the dangerous part of the lava field, where bits were still likely to collapse, and eventually we came to a sign that said "END OF TRAIL" and the little reflective markers the trail was blazed with stopped. The line of people with flashlights didn't stop, though, and we continued on for another fifteen minutes or so. We stopped at a big mound, taller than Tom (and that's saying something), which we climbed up on (checking carefully for stability as we stepped) and spent quite a while on the little mound. (We didn't feel safe going further in the dark, although some people were doing so, because of the terrain.) At this point we still couldn't directly see the red lava as it entered the ocean ahead of us, but the roiling red-lit steam plume, blown away along the ocean and the new shoreline, was quite impressive, and through binoculars it looked like a mediaeval Christian image of Hell. There was also the line of red dots and dashes down the mountain to our left, and Tom got his (film) camera out and took some long exposures hoping to capture that. (I got my digital camera out long enough to confirm that it couldn't make out a thing, but didn't bother trying to take pictures.)

I forgot to mention one thing about this hike, which was the tradewind. We were hiking into the wind on our way down towards the plume, and with it on the way back to the car. I don't know how to estimate wind strength, but it was constant and strong, as it had been when we had hiked near South Point a few days before. (Unlike near South Point, though, this wind didn't drive fine red dust into our faces; none of the stuff on the ground was light enough to be blown.) I don't know why, but I love the wind; I just love being in it and the feel and sound of it. And parts of Hawai'i have it all the time, which makes the vegetation grow lopsided.

Anyway, by the time we decided to stop and climb up on the mound, the sky was truly dark and the Milky Way was a lovely diaphanous arc all the way across the sky, a larger and subtler echo of the rainbow we'd seen earlier, with dust lanes clearly visible. So we interspersed lava-watching with stargazing before we headed back. (Tom also gave Tigris a quick call to let her know our timeframe and maybe share a bit of the experience with her.)

Since on the way down the sky in front of me had been familiar, I was hoping I might see some distinctly southern features on the way back to the car, but the Magellanic clouds weren't up (I'm pretty sure), and since I'm not familiar with the southern sky there wasn't anything distinctive I could make out. (I might have had a chance of recognizing the Southern Cross thanks to the Australian and New Zealand flags. :-)

Tom had driven all the way there. He got us back to Highway 11 (which runs straight to Kona, and off of which is their street), and then I took over the driving, since he had to go to work early Saturday morning saving lives and stamping out disease, so I got to get a nice little drive in. We got home around 11.

So it was quite a marvellous evening.

29th-Dec-2002 07:54 pm (UTC) - Yay
Very cool! I'm a big fan of both good starfields and destructive activities of nature...

I learned in Chet Raymo's _The Soul of the Night_ that the Milky Way was visible in such detail to people before the rise of cities that some cultures named constellations comprising entirely of dustlanes therein.

Good to hear from you!
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