Visiting Volcanoes National Park is much like watching a jazz great perform live – what you see will never be replicated, but it will remain vivid in your mind for years to come. Volcanoes are Nature’s great improvisation, moment to moment, day to day. My last visit was in the mid-90’s, and Kilauea’s performance was entrancing. Lava flowed quickly and freely, and park rules were very different – standing 10m from an active vent was commonplace.
But now, two dozen lives lost later, watching from a lookout situated 1/3 mile away is about as close as we were going to get. However disappointing that may have been, we were quick to remind ourselves where we were and the adventures that lay ahead. I’m not sure if our optimism was the kind that is inherent to travel or whether it stemmed from the intense energy pulsating around this natural powerhouse. Regardless of its source, that optimism served us well throughout the day, especially as the weather began to waver between warm sun and bone-chilling rain.
Even though the trail is not terribly strenuous, it took us ages to get down to the crater. The way the sunlight filtered through the trees consumed us immensely as we observed unfamiliar plants – and yes, snapped one too many photos. The light plays between the sun and the trees were stunning, making us feel as though we stepped out of reality and straight into a dream. Greens of every shade glistened, details that would’ve typically alluded the eye were illuminated and the air, still damp from a morning shower, awakened our senses.
Walking through the crater, of course, made for a very different experience. It is a grey, desolate expanse that seems infinite and thus creates a sense of time standing still. Save for a few plants growing up through cracks and steam escaping from random vents in the hardened lava floor, there was little else around us. We passed the odd family or small group of foreigners, but very few people actually chose to linger in the crater as we did.
We hung around this impressively large steam vent situated in the middle of the crater for quite some time. It stands approximately 3-4m above the floor and is apparently a not so old development. The steam was hot, but refreshing, so we perched ourselves on the edge in hopes of getting a free facial. We found plenty of amusement in watching a seemingly more adventurous visitor from Eastern Europe as he crawled effortlessly a 1m into the vent and sat topless for nearly 20 minutes.What I enjoyed most, though, was resting against the slopes of this vent for a while.
Contrary to what one might think, volcanic rock tends to be soothing and gentle on the human body. The pahoehoe – Hawaiian word for the smoother type of rock – was welcoming, and felt as though it were molding itself to the contours of my back. My mind slowly emptied of thought the longer I stayed there, watching the clouds dance by me. Sounds of the odd person passing by and the trade winds howling mixed with a sprinkling of rain lulled me into baby-like sleep.
But with small rain puddles filling the lines of my face and ominous, charcoal-colored clouds beginning to cloak the sky, my nap came to an abrupt end. The following hour had us crossing the more challenging half of the crater floor and up steep trails of mud. Wth each step I could feel myself getting lighter – emotionally, mentally, physically. I found trekking through mud puddles and climbing countless stairs as the scent of rain filled the air to be wonderfully therapeutic and enlivening. So much so that it left me fantasizing about what it would be like starting every day like this.
My thoughts were interrupted, though, by the increasingly loud chatter of people and cell phones up ahead. Back to reality. We reached the car looking like drowned rats, but overwhelmed with an incredible sense of rejuvenation, lightness, peace – and yes, hunger. And it was only a matter of minutes before we had ourselves a table at the Kiawe Kitchen on Old Volcano Road.