Big Island, 2017
Well, the years finally caught up to me and finally this year it was my 40th birthday. I never particularly enjoy celebrating it since, after all, it really should be a celebration of my parents, not me. Still, like my 30th, I was determined to spend it happily somewhere out of reach of prying acquaintances and nosy friends showing up to drag me out to somewhere I didn't want to be. I knew I had to get out of town. Finally, Christmas Eve, it dawned on me...I should leave the continent. Perfect guarantee! And so a crazy plan started. A few searches, some topos, some refundable tickets, and a crazy plan. Backpacking in Hawaii.
I told very few people about this crazy plan as, well, it was crazy. Was the weather going to work out? Would I be willing to travel alone? Could I even find fuel for my stove? For weeks things were up in the air. But then I let it slip to one of my best friends, and immediately he said I should go. He told me of some of his great times on the Big Island and that I'd find something to do and gave me a rough checklist of things I must do. A week before I left I poured over the weather and, astonishingly enough, everything looked clear. I booked a car and a few rooms. Soon I found myself tossing my pack and tent into a duffel and out the front door. I was on the way to Hawaii.
It's always fun travelling without a plan. However, backpacking does require some planning. This was my first solo trip without other logistical support. The entire 'plan' depended on whether I could find fuel for my stove. You can't fly with fuel. Since most of the time I drive this hasn't been a problem before. I spent the whole previous week searching online and found no solid leads. So I packed three different stoves hoping to find something to use with one, otherwise I might be stuck.
The plane landed at Kona and, being the only person carrying a pair of heavy boots slung over my shoulder, I didn't think the honeymooners or resort dwellers would be of any help. When the car rental agent asked me what I was doing and said "backpacking" I even got a blank stare. Immediately after hours of waiting for luggage and a car and getting introduced to "island time" I headed to the only lead I had, a Walmart. It looked like any other Walmart one needs to wander through to find anything. Baby clothes, no. Food, no. Liquor, OK bottle you can come. DVDs, no. Snorkel and fins (ok, that's different) got some, no. Finally, sitting on an otherwise empty shelf, a single pair of small propane canisters. Of course they were only sold in a pair. But the last pair. And so finally I had fuel for one of my three stoves, tossed it in the back, and the trip was on!
That first night I stayed in a cottage in an old sugar plantation town just outside the park to give flexibility for whatever weather may come. What was amazing was that I had this wonderful old cottage to myself. The windows were these tall panels with rope counterbalances. The wooden floors were old and had a wonderful old worn stain and creak. This whole five room cottage I had all to myself. Immediately it reminded me of the second place I rented, an older Victorian style cottage. And in the stocked kitchen was ice! With a whiskey on the rocks sitting on the futon in this lovely cottage immediately the Big Island felt like home. The windows, the floors, the moulding along the walls, it was like I was revisiting an old friend.
The next day had a high chance of rain in the afternoon, so I decided to car camp that day. Before I went on my merry way I visited a coffee and macadamia nut farm close to where I stayed. I'd never heard of peaberry coffee before, but boy was it delicious! It was fun to walk around the different trees and have a wide variety of coffee, but that peaberry went with me both in a cup and a bag of beans. The night before I had been reading through a great guidebook my friend had gotten me, so I backtracked a little bit to closeby black sand beach. Since I had driven to here in the dark, finally I got to see just what was in store, adn it was beautiful. All of the trees and the plants looked all different from what I am used to! I've been on lava and lava tubes before, but never anywhere like these where it reaches the ocean itself. When wet the black lava sand glistens in the sunlight almost reflecting like little pieces of glass.
Propane in hand it was time to get the plan in motion. Since the park has no reservations for either the backcountry or the car campground, it was all logistics I stopped off and got my backcountry permit which, for all the fuss mentioned online, was very quick and available. But what about car camping? I hurredly drove to the Kulanaokuaiki campground, hoping one of the nine spots would be open. So used to crowded campgrounds here in the West I expected them to go like gold, but no. When I got there only two were taken. With a nice little walk in following some cairns I found a nice little wind shielded depression and set up my tent. Logistics complete. Now, time for the fun to begin!
I went back to the visitor's center, still overrun, but got some advice on how to spend the rest of the afternoon. First I went to see the crater from the Jaggar Museum since the rim drive was closed. Though swamped with bus tours and a haze settling in, it still was amazing to see in the distance the orange glow of actual lava. I've been in many volcanic areas, but never have seen actual lava. It was crowded like the Grand Canyon, but everyone still was pleased to see any and every bit of orange. I then stopped at the fumaroles on the way out which seemed to be much less popular for the tour groups. That struck me odd as from Lassen and Yellowstone everyone crowded among the fumaroles, but here I got to walk among them in relative solitude! Such a change from just the crowds up the road. Next I stopped for a hike around the rim and through the floor of the Kilauea Iki crater. Here was my first introduction to the rain forests of Hawaii. Having been hiking so much in the 48 it really was a mind reset looking at the surrounding trees and plants and not recognizing nearly any of them! And so many birds. The birdsong was almost impossible to escape and even harder to identify; none of the birds sounded the same. On the way back an invasive species phesant crossed the trail and let me get within a few feet of it, it didn't care. On the way out I also went through a short lava tube that again was crawling with bus tours. It was all artifically lit and short and so holds nothing up to Lava Beds, but I'm sure there are many more I was missing. That night back at the campground the haze turned into a fog reminiscient of a marine layer, soon turning into a soft light drizzle. I stayed out a bit watching the mist dance around in front of my headlamp, seeing the pulse width modulation of the LED leave doted contrails as the wind gently whipped around. Even mist gets tiring, so soon I retired to the tent, after waiting for midnight and my birthday, I fell asleep to rest for this day was adventure.
After breaking camp and fixing up my backpack I loaded the car and drove on down the Chain of Craters road to the Puna Coast trailhead. It really is amazing the difference in weather there in the park. While maybe in the high sixties at the car campsite, down by the coast it was nearly 80. The sun in Hawaii is hot, even hotter I think than the Mojave. The lava fields soak up the sun and looking along the ground you can see the heat in the air distorting images like above the hot coals of a barbecue. Maybe it was 100, or even more. But here was adventure! I tossed the pack on my back, heavy with extra water, and hit the Puna Coast trail. Very soon the trail started going over the lava flow. I've hiked on lava flows before, but these were truly massive, stretching all the way to the horizon and up the 2000 foot ridge from which I descended in the car. The sun gleamed off of them like mirrors, at times almost making them look like frozen rivers! Every here and there in the cracks there were signs of ferns and life growing on god-knows-what besides the lava rock itself. The trail itself was marked by cairn rock piles across the lava. It took me probably a good mile of following cairns before I could train my eye to see just where the trail was across the lava, to see the area where it was a bit less shiny. Still, just moving from cairn to cairn kind of made it like a choose your own adventure! After a few miles the trail finally caught up to the sea. Passing old structures and goat corrals finally the ocean was present, waves crashing into cliffs of the lava flows singing angry white noise songs, carving out arches and caves.
But soon on the horizon were the faint outlines of trees. As the trail meandered to the coast the sea was a constant companion, surrounded by stretches of dried out grass and gorgeous green succulents, every now and then a butterfly flapping by. Taking copious breaks it was pushing onwards, enjoying every little new ruin, field and fern that would pass by. Soon I was crossing the aa flow and on a well trampled and flattened trail, the last lava field I knew I needed to cross. The trees on the horizon started to get a bit taller and closer. But suddenly, it seemed like now there was a structure too. Tired after four hours with a heavy pack I kept on along, knowing that the destination was close. As I approched there were a few things, but yes, definitely an above ground structure with a few open walls and a sloped roof. I quickened my pace and went off trail across the lava fields making a beeline to it knowing exactly what it was.
The shitter with the best view in the world.
I'd had to go for miles, but a trowel can't exactly break through hardened lava to dig a cathole. I dropped my pack and frantically dashed ahead. Then I realized someone had floated this thing above ground, like a story and a half high? After minutes finally I found a way to hop up the four foot high lava flow and find relief. And sitting there, looking around, and seeing out one side the gorgeous succulent fields and the tall volcanic ridge, the other the waves and the Pacific, forwards upon a coconut tree, I had reached it. The place I had dreamed I would spend my birthday.
Apua Point is stunningly beautiful. Waves crash into the point from the Pacific from both sides. One side is a rough aa flow. The other side has some pahahoe flows with a gentler slope where the waves have managed to make a few beaches. A few shallow tidal pools provide refuge for crabs and other critters, gorgeous succulents abound, and a handful of coconut trees make a small grove just hanging on to provide some desperately needed patches of shade. It's also a nesting ground for endangered hawksbill turtles, so the researchers have an observing station there as well. I set up my campsite in one of the windbreak rings right underneath a coconut tree and got to meander around. The sound of the waves was rhythmic and wonderful, at some rocky points breaking into splashes nearly 10 feet high coming into shore. The ridge loomed thousands of feet high behind, questioning when it would move forward again. And this entire beautiful place I had all to myself. No one else came, no one else even passed through, just me, my tent, and my own private birthday enraptured in beauty. I put on my five fingers and went out wading in the tidal pool and saw some wonderful little fish, maybe babies. Some ones were a few inches longer, clear with vertical black stripes, and they would dash along close to the surface to catch some insects making waves you could see as they darted for their food. Others looked like small black guppies or maybe even angelfish. For maybe a full hour I waded there watching the little fish battles, crab scurryings and seeing life in its minature. Soon it was time for dinner as the sun went down, but I still was not tired. I sat up watching the moonrise and seeing the planets start to glow in the sky, mesmerised for hours taking moonlight walks along the beach seeing the whitecaps break and splash reflecting the moonlight. I sat listening to the sea remembering all the great travels I've taken and the great places I've been, and how fittingly great an adventure I was on. Soon, the planet I thought was Mars had set, so reluctantly I left the sitting rock underneath the coconut tree to climb into the tent and fall asleep to the neverending song of the breaking waves.
When I woke up the clouds and haze of the night before had broken, treating me to a gorgeous island sunrise with the orange glowing ball slowly rising through the coconut grove. The succulents seemed even more green than the day before. I wish I could have stayed, but I knew I had more adventure ahead. Wanting to hike out in the cool morning before the lava flows had absorbed and radiated the heat of the midday sun, I inhaled a granola bar, packed up, and hit the trail back. Still obscenely gorgeous, the temperature certainly made a difference as it only took me 3/4 of the amount of time to hike out! Maybe about a mile from the car I finally met the first people I'd interact with during these whole two days, Allison and Andy. They had stayed at another of the backcountry campgrounds where, unfortunately, the water had ran out, so they took a flat hike out and were hoping to hitch a ride. They moved much faster than me, but they waited so I had a great time talking with them, sharing various backpacking stories of places we'd all been to, places we wanted to go. I think they also didn't mind that another backpacker was giving them a ride since we all had a good rind going on, although I think mine was the worst. While on the hike out they told me of a trip they had taken to see lava flowing into the sea and how to get there, so excited that they were thinking about doing it again. Naturally, they made my new plans. Time to see more lava!
I immediately drove to Kalapana as they had told to get there at 1 only to find that the lava viewing only opened at 3! As I wanted to see the lava at night, now I had to fill some time. Thankfully due to the excellent guide book my other friend had gotten me I saw what seemed like an interesting little side trip. Lava Tree State Monument is a place where a lava flow passed through a living forest. The trees themselves were wet, so the lava actually encased them and would leave hardened stumps around the base of the trees. Almost like the reverse of a petrified tree these were casts of the forest as the lava flowed through it. Some had fallen sideways to make it easy to trace the hollow openings straight on horizontally. What amazed me was just how lush the forests and trees were here. I was now on the wet side of the island, the Hilo side. I had decided to stay here for the final day after seeing the weather report saying no rain, but it was just as thick as some of the rain forest areas I had seen in the park. I took some more time and drove out to the coast through one of the forest preserves on a one lane road, loving the ferns and tall trees. But at an intersection right on the coast on one of the only straight stretches of two lane road, suddenly it seemed I had happened upon a party. For nearly half a mile cars were lined on the side of the road, people milling about, people jostling for parking spots. I hadn't seen anything on the map about a stellar beach, great snorkeling or the second coming of Jesus so kept on driving slowly as they waved me through. Then, towards the end of the gauntlet, I saw the clue...a slammed Civic with a spoiler and tons of decals and rims with so much chrome LA would be proud...it was an organized street race! As I kept driving away more of the racers came along with some sport bikes, part of me was interested, but I knew I had somewhere else I wanted to be. Maybe some other Saturday night in the future with a supercharged Prowler, hey, you never know.
Finally it was approaching dusk and I arrived at the east side of the road at Kalapana, grabbed my camera and water, put on my pack, and started walking along the dirt road to the lava. I had heard that a few days before there was a big fall and that it might not even still be visible, but I had seen the steam from my hike out from Apua so was confident. After maybe 30 minutes in I wound up striking up a conversation with Keith, a wonderful educated fellow from New York out on his own journey. A "lava buddy&quo;t;, we hiked in together sharing stories of the city, griping about jobs, pointing out little things in the trail. At the end of the road where the park service roped the approach off we were able to see it in the sunset and into the gloaming. There it was, the lava flow pouring over into the sea. Steam constantly billowed up, but the wind would sometimes separate so we could see the lava itself, From time to time some inconsistency would cause the lava to explode as it hit the water leaving embers flying away like fireworks from the base. The collapse had moved the flow into an alcove, but that alcove focused it like a lantern. As the skies grew darker the lava in the alcove cast a beam of light stretching out upon the surface of the ocean like a lighthouse. We stood there for at least an hour amazed at the explosions and the dancing light of the lava and the steam. The hike back was long, a trudge along the dirt road in the dark. If I hadn't had a lava buddy and great conversation it would have been a grueling end to an already long 13 mile plus day. For a day that started basking in such great solitude I was certainly grateful to end it with a friend and conversation! To end everything, ironically, we had even parked our cars next to one another in the lot. What can I say, a great frienship at a time when company is needed is pretty cool. He went off back to his work and life and I to mine, following a GPS in the dark to a random east island hotel I had booked as a waystation for a shower prior to leaving. In the dark I followed its directions, drove through Hilo, then through some winding single lane roads to the inn. The office was empty, but after a call Jasmine came on down, oreinted me to my place, then I showered up and went toed.
It didn't strike me where exactly I had been staying until I woke up the next morning. I thought I had been hearing wind through the night through the window to help me sleep, but actually it turns out it was a 200 foot private waterfall! When looking at the weather I had been planning on taking Sunday to see some falls on the Hilo side, so maybe I saw some picture that drew me to book this particular room? Regardless, it is a little slice of paradise. They have a set of wonderful private trails leading down to the base of those falls and a private swimming area at its base, plus more sets of falls downstream. In addition the owners have lovely meditation areas and a bamboo garden with over a dozen different species of bamboo, some of them rare, some of them over fifty feet tall. I spent over an hour hiking the pretty trails and had so much fun. Definitely a place I'd easily stay again and, next time, take an extra day and enjoy a swim!
When I called my mother on my birthday she was wondering if I had seen any orchids. I hadn't seen any in the park, but if there was a place I would see some I'm sure the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens would be it. So I made a stop off and yup, orchids, and a whole lot more! They have a wonderful series of paved trails running through all different types of tropical areas with ferns, flowers, trees, orchids, and other things I can't even remember their names. Everything looked so different from anything I'd ever seen in an arranged garden. There were birds of paradise, but the entire flower was a single color. All kinds of different lilies and palms, very pretty.
After a brief stop off at Akaka Falls, I still had time to kill so drove on up to the Kohala area on my way to Lapakahi historical park. It really is amazing to see this shift from an area so lush and green to the other side of the island where the grass is all dry and "southern cali-like". Such a stark difference in just under an hour's drive. Driving down the belt drive into the Kohala area, though, the color of the ocean is just striking. I don't know whether the appropriate word is turquoise or aquamarine, but it is just memorable. Right along this beautful coast was the Lapakahi historical park, the ruins of an old native Hawaiian fishing village. I've loved ruins and learning more about old cultures over the years and this was a great stop. The brochure was killer to learning the significance of the various outlines and other floor patterns there. I just wonder if they found the same coastline to be beautiful or saw the waves as the enemy, preventing them from launching to go fishing and sustain their families. Even here, again, we have the same tale of lost history and all we can do is piece together bits of their daily lives and loves.
After a final nice mountain drive over Kohala, my time on the Big Island was coming to an end. Just about every restaurant was closed for the Super Bowl or had outrageous cover charges, so after the fifth closed restaurant made my way to the airport to make some more friends waiting in line for the gate agents working on "island time" and nice old ladies remembering their wartime loves at the airport bars, loving that at least in Kona the demographic isn't yet swamped by young people at airport bars staring into their phones as if phones were the prophetic instruments of revelation. Instead, I heard a delightful story about an army man that somehow would buy groceries from a certain lady cashier and wind up in her line every day, but never say a thing. And eventually that cashier bribed a bagger to ask her out to a dance on the base just hoping that might prompt the solider to strike up a conversation with her. And that her ploy worked, and they went to that dance, but the soldier couldn't dance. But she got him out for a slow dance, and there it all started. Eventually he would take dance lessons and they would have great times and memories. And here, in an airport bar in Kona, she would relive them in the company of an unlikely group of temporary friends before returning to Kansas.
I too am still reliving memories. So quickly after landing would life suck me back into work that it seems almost like it all was a short waking dream. But then I feel the sand under my feet in the moonlight walking on Apua point and I remember. The world is riveting. It's calling us. Don't ignore it.
I've fallen in love with the Big Island just like I've fallen in love with the West. I know I shall be visiting again.
Picutres were from the a900 system with the 24-70 lens, 16-24 lens, and 70-300 lens.
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