Revisiting the Land of Pele: Hawaii’s Big Island

Hawaii’s “Big Island” was the first of the Hawaiian islands I ever visited, way back in 1994. That trip began a 25 year love affair with Hawaii, and while Maui remains my favorite island, I have a special place in my soul reserved for the still volcanically active Big Island.

The summit of Mauna Kea from the slopes of Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island

Over the years I’ve witnessed the changes that Kilauea volcano has forged on the island and have had the opportunity to watch new land being created in fiery rivers of lava right in front of me. This year, as I planned my typical summer trip to Hawaii, it occurred to me that it had been four years since I was last on the Big Island. After last year’s eruption, which sent lava into places that had not seen activity in decades, I decided it was time to return and see what Madame Pele, Hawaii’s legendary goddess of the volcano, has been up to.

I always chuckle when I land at the airport in Kona, on the sunny west coast of the Big Island, because it feels like I’ve been transported back to the 1950s. Debarking from the plane on a staircase down to the tarmac, passengers proceed toward a group of what appear to be a series of Polynesian grass huts that house ticketing, security and baggage claim. The airport is built on flat, barren lava flows and the sun is oppressively hot. Thankfully, I was soon in my rental car with the a/c on maximum and heading across the island toward the more tropical eastern side of the island, past the city of Hilo and into the Puna District at the far eastern tip of the island. This is where the most recent flows have occurred.

There are three ways to go from Kona to the Hilo side: you can take the circuitous route around the southern tip of the island, you can skirt the northern coast, or you can brave the Saddle Road, a high elevation road that runs in the “saddle” between Hawaii’s two great volcanoes, Mauna Loa (Long Mountain) on the south and Mauna Kea (White Mountain) on the north. In years past I would brave the two lane, pot-hole ridden Saddle Road, feeling a sense of adventure, as many rental car companies either forbid you to drive it or wash their hands of you should you break down on this remote 50 mile long passage.  There are no services, only fields upon fields of green pastureland at the bottom and fields upon fields of lava at the top. Imagine my surprise as I made the turn onto the Saddle Road, only to discover that it was now a well paved, 3 lane freeway with a 60 mile an hour speed limit, and has been named the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, after the former state senator. Times have changed! It seemed to cut the usual travel time in half.

I stayed in the town of Kea’au, about halfway between Hilo and the most recent lava flows. I rented an adorable one bedroom cottage on a quiet back street. Well, it was mostly quiet. As dusk approached, an ungodly cacophony began. What sounded like high pitched squeals from dozens of exotic birds pierced the night air at intervals of at least 5 or 6 times a minute and sounded like “Ko’KEE! Jo KEE!” I soon learned that these were not birds, but the coqui frog, an invasive species from Puerto Rico that found its way to the Big Island in a shipment of tropical plants several years ago.  Without any predators here in Hawaii, these frogs, only the size of a quarter, have exploded in number and evidently the Puna District is ground zero. Other islands are desperately trying to prevent the spread of this frog to their shores. Residents actually engage in hunting parties to try and get rid of the invaders, and you cannot blame them; the sound is incredible! I swear that if you put a coqui frog beside a delicate champagne flute, the sound the frog makes might just shatter it. At first, I found myself amused; then I tried to answer them back by mimicking the sound. And then I went nuts and got a big glass of water and threw it at one little bugger who’d lodged himself on the porch right by the screen door. He did not budge, and he did not shut up… so I gave up and went to dinner.

I met my old friend, Shawn, who formerly ran a B & B on the island, and now works in construction. As I was approaching the restaurant, Ning’s Thai in Pahoa, a woman stood by the side of the road wearing a flowing red and white dress, her long gray hair flowing over her shoulders, and her thumb extended in a hitchhiking gesture. I could not tell in the darkness if she was Hawaiian or Caucasian, but the thought went through my head that in Hawaiian legend often appears in the form of an old beggar woman and if she is not treated with hospitality and charity, she destroys the offending village in her next eruption. I almost stopped and said, “If you’re Pele, I’m not snubbing you – I’m just going over to that restaurant up ahead on the left!”  When I shared this with Shawn over dinner, he chuckled and said that local women often play on the legend and dress the part when they hitchhike to ensure they get a ride! He even saw one woman who pulled out all the stops and walked around with a white dog on a leash. (Pele is often accompanied by a white dog in legendary sightings). However, he said he wasn’t buying it because, “Pele’s dog wouldn’t be on a leash!”

Over the next couple of days I explored the Puna district to assess what the REAL Pele had been up to, and as always, was astounded by the way a volcano is able to totally reshape the environment. For at least the last 25 years or so, lava has been winding its way down from Kilauea’s summit through a vent called Pu’u O’o, and emptying into the ocean near the former village of Kalapana. The road that used to connect Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to Kalapana was severed, Kalapana was destroyed, and visitors to the islands could hike to the most active flows from either side to view the spectacle.

Around 2015 this pattern came to an end, and the 2018 eruption abruptly opened up fissures of molten lava in a housing subdivision southeast of Pahoa. From there it spread down slope, cutting off the beautiful, lushly green and winding coastal road from Kalapana to Kapoho, and covering up many famous landmarks, including several B & B’s and vacation rentals I’d stayed at over the years.

Isaac Hale State Park and its boat dock, from which boat excursions departed to explore the active lava flows entering the ocean, was one of the casualties. What’s left of the boat dock is now landlocked and surrounded by flows and a new black sand beach. Further east along the coast was Ahalanui Park, which featured a huge, walled swimming pool that was open to the ocean and fed by volcanically heated fresh spring water, resulting in 90 degree water temperatures. Ahalanui is now completely covered by lava flows; not a trace exists. Still farther along the coast, Kapoho was an area of amazing tidal pools frequented by swimmers and snorkelers, as well as a few hundred homes. The entire area is now completed covered by lava flows and is no longer even reachable by road. There are now no areas of active lava flows anywhere on the island, only mountains of chunky black lava that block roads and starkly contrast with green forests that were not wiped out by the lava.

After exploring this ravaged coastline, I headed west and passed the Kalapana area, heading across an expanse of hardened lava flows through which a road has now been cut. Because of fears that new eruptions might cut off Pahoa from Hilo, leaving residents no way to evacuate, the state has carved a road across the flows that leads back into the National Park. The road is now open for public use, but will provide an emergency escape route. Still, I drove as far as I could along the road until I reached the locked gates. To my amazement, this area, where just a few years ago rivers of lava flowed to the sea and produced gigantic steam clouds, and where it was possible to hike to active lava flows is now eerily quiet, and makeshift houses are going up, some built on stilts and looking quite lavish, others looking like mere tin shacks built from scrap metal. There is no electricity and no water down here, so people are living “off the grid”, using generators for power and rain catchment systems for water. The land is so transformed that it is impossible to know prior property boundary lines, but former residents are building as close to where they once lived as they can. I can’t decide whether this is a testament to human resilience – or human to human foolishness. A mere shift in the volcano looming above them could bring active flows right back into this area at any time. It is a complete gamble to build here again.

Among these makeshift houses was a “driveway” with a sign for Hotfoot Photography, offering maps, photos and tourist information. It was getting late, but I decided to venture down the circuitous road bulldozed through lava rock to the small house of Gary, owner of Hotfoot Photography. Gary is from Wisconsin, but has lived on the Big Island for many years. He has a home in this area and lived within sight of glowing lava fields for several years. He showed me an extensive set of amazing photos he’d taken over the years and talked about 2015 when his house was slowly but surely surrounded by lava, forcing him to leave. He had amazing photos of the destruction of his home, where under a full moon the flows slowly approached the structure, set it afire, and destroyed it all in the course of an hour. Gary say at a picnic table on his property, drinking a bottle of champagne and memorializing the even on film. After a few years elsewhere, he is back and has built a small home. He missed the quiet and solitude that the volcano provided and has decided to risk coming back. He has a water catchment system, is raising food in a garden that with water is thriving in the rich, volcanic soil, and seems totally content. I have to say, I felt a bit envious of him. As I drove back toward Pahoa, I noted several “real estate for sale” signs along the new road, comical given that there is nothing but barren lava fields for miles.

Aside from my volcanic adventures I frequented Pele’s Kitchen, a charming breakfast place in Pahoa specializing in omelets made from organic eggs, cheeses and vegetables, and fluffy pancakes topped with fresh mango and went back to Ning’s Thai for another helping of some of the best Pad Thai I have ever had. And I never saw any more hitchhiking Pele lookalikes along the roads near Pahoa.

On my last day on the Big Island, I decided to return to Kona via the Saddle Road/Inouye Highway again, but I made a detour to drive the 17 mile long Mauna Loa Observatory Road, which climbs from 6,000 to 11,500 feet to the volcanic observatory that lies 2,000 feet below the mountain’s summit. As I approached the turn-off for Mauna Loa, I became immersed in a local controversy. Evidently three telescopes atop adjacent Mauna Kea have aged to the point where they are unusable, and the University of Hawaii intends to install a brand new one that is far advanced. The problem is that they’ve decided to leave the three old ones where they stand and basically, let them rot on the summit. This, of course, is offensive to native Hawaiians and a protest began. However, according to Shawn, people from around the island and even internationally who are simply “always in search of something to protest for the sake of protesting” have descended on the area and created an enormous tent city in the saddle between the two mountains. Periodically they have blocked traffic on the highway, causing it to be shut down, and a stoplight has had to be installed up here in the middle of nowhere to channel pedestrian traffic across the road. There had to be several hundred cars parked along the Saddle Road for almost a mile, and it was unnerving trying to pass through the crowds of people lingering along the highway, many of them young children with a penchant for running into the road.

Thankfully, I maneuvered through this and started the ascent up Mauna Loa. It was a picture postcard day, clear as a bell, and the summit of Mauna Loa, often shrouded in cloud cover, was completely clear. The first few miles of the road traverse a barren landscape of lava flows, however, because these flows are hundreds of years old, plants, flowers and even small trees have begun to re-assert themselves. The incredible variety of flowers up there was amazing, and likely because they have had to adapt to very harsh conditions, they came in all sorts of bizarre shapes and sizes.

Looking down slope was a stunning panorama as clouds skirted across the base of Mauna Kea. Periodically along the road the altitude level had been painted: 7,000 feet, 8,000 feet, 8,500 feet. Stopping to take pictures I noticed I was feeling the altitude, finding it a little hard to get a deep breath and feeling a little dizzy. But the road was so amazing and the views becoming more and more other-worldly that I had to keep going. By the time I was at 9,500 feet, clouds were gathering off to the west and I realized I was now quite a bit higher than they were. Fantastic!  I passed maybe 3 other vehicles the entire time, but when I finally reached the observatory parking area at 11,500 feet there were a handful of cars there, likely owned by people who were doing the hike to the summit, another 2,000 feet up and evidently very difficult given altitude sickness and the lack of any cover from the sun or the elements. The white domed observatory was located up a considerable hill that I was not prepared to scale, but I simply stood there and tried to take it all in. The view was incomparable, the air was decidedly chilly, but what impressed me even more was the absolute silence up there. It was quieter than the most remote deserts I have visited in Utah or California. I would not have missed this experience for the world.

As I made my descent, a bizarre cloud formation gathered directly behind Mauna Loa’s summit and it really resembled a steam cloud. It did give me a moment’s pause because just last week, the volcanic threat alert level for Mauna Loa went from 1 to 2 on a four point scale. The mountain is the largest volcano in the world in terms of its sheer mass, and it’s also one of the most active. During its last eruption in 1984, it sent lava to within 4 miles of Hilo. Given its sheer size, a major eruption of Mauna Loa would make Kilauea’s recent outbursts look like a tranquil campfire by comparison. I kept my eye carefully on the cloud formation until I was safely down the slope and on my way into Kona.

Kailua-Kona seemed to have grown a bit since my last visit, and in fact I stayed at a relatively new Holiday Inn, which actually felt a bit out of place. It was raining when I arrived, very unusual for the drier side of the island, but it stopped at sunset and allowed me to get in a quick swim before dinner. The next I would be heading over to Maui for a more relaxing part of the vacation, but I am glad I got back to the Big Island again. I’ve always felt that each of the islands has its own personality and the Big Island has always struck me as a somewhat mysterious, almost ominous place: beautiful, exciting, fascinating, but with an edge. There is an energy on the island that I definitely feel when I visit, and it’s both invigorating and a little jarring.  It feels radically different from the other islands, simply because it is a work in progress, still being forged by Pele, with both its residents and its flora and fauna trying to keep up with her whims.

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