Watching the sun set while nursing sunburns, sore feet and mai tais at Huggo’s on the Beach, the only place to be if you HAVE to brave the tourist crowds and beach bars of Kailua-Kona.
Goodbye, Hawaii. It’s been real.
Ka Lae, home to one of the earliest Hawaiian settlements, also has a past only hinted at by the contemporary ruins that dot the savannah landscape.
The point was home to a US Air Force landing strip, Morse Field, during WWII and a host of services – a bar, store, homes and playgrounds and a school. For a year in the 60s, the site tracked space missions, and in 1979, we threatened to launch missiles at our enemies from this southernmost point. It was considered as a possible site for future space missions, but was labeled “too remote.” Left to the devices of nature, the ghost town dares you to enter by military warnings, political graffiti and crumbling concrete blocks.
Past the shortwave radio antennas of World Harvest Radio International, parabolic antenna of the Universal Space Network of the Swedish Space Corporation, small cottages and the Hawaiian savannahs, lie the Kamaoa and Pakini Nui wind farms.
The old windmills have rusted and broken and create more nesting sites for birds than power from the force of the tropical winds.
The scene is eerie, chilling, a snapshot from a post-apocalyptic dimension.
The abandoned blades still creak and moan in the ocean breezes, and the barbed wire warns passers-by in no uncertain terms to stay out.
The day we became the Southernmost People in the entire 50 States.
A lot of driving down long, winding dirt roads, to Ka Lae, until we almost drive right off the edge of the world.
The wind nearly blew our hats sunglasses shirts dresses all off into the ocean as we walked over dunes and grasslands, passing the remnants of the Hawaiian city of Kalalae Heiau, nestled below the light tower. Offerings to the god Ku’ula ensure good fishing for those who come for solemnity.
We walked to the edge and peeked over into the turquoise nothing, imaging giant squids and Captain Nemos and endless ocean prairies of sea monsters below.
And then we noticed a fisherman, lounging next to his cooler of beer, sitting just south of our perch. No! we thought. We must be the southernmost people!
So we hiked and stumbled over the tangle of volcanic jumble, stubbing toes and ruining our good flip-flops, and…. success! We are the southernmost people in the 50 States!
As we made our way back from the World’s End, a body swooshed passed us and slammed into the ocean with a muffled whoop. Along the cliff, a group of adventurous 20-somethings, dressed for underwater success in wet suits and bikinis, gathered to cliff dive, ignoring the currents that could take them all the way to Japan and the swells that could smash them violently against the rocks.
Care for a swim?
At Punalu’u Beach Park on the Island of Hawaii, sea turtles climb onto the black sand beaches to do what it is that everyone does on the beach: relax, have a cocktail or two, sunbath, do some light swimming.
Many of these turtles have returned to the same shores for years and for generations, finding safe haven among the rocks and palm trees for their nesting sites.
People gather to watch and photograph and get frustratingly close to these sensitive animals, and it’s all I can do to fight the Yellowstone ranger in me that wants to smack people for getting just one more inch closer. Unlike elk and grizzly bears, though, sea turtles don’t usually put their tormentors in a hospital. A group of Japanese girls squeal in delight as the turtle moves slowly toward the waves, but thankfully, they keep a respectful distance.
Enjoy these creatures as they swim and waddle and bask in the warm, tropical sun, but please, leave them alone to live and love in peace.
Na’alehu, the volcanic ashes. 1000 people living as far south in the 50 states as possible.
The old theater sits abandoned, a relic of the roaring age of Hawaii Hollywood. The lonely sign, once alight with glamor, drips slivers of tired paint down onto crumbling concrete and worn out construction netting. It’s heyday is forever yesterday as the names fade slowly from the marquis.
Movie posters line the hallways in between graffiti and carved “Tom and Cecelia 4-Eva,” and their edges curl and crunch in the thick air, the artists’ renditions of smiling movie stars crumpled and forgotten.
In a place known for its deadly palm trees and razor-sharp palm fronds…
Maybe its best to stick to the open ocean.
Maybe take shelter in a lava tube, flowing miles and miles from an active volcano until it spews out into the ocean.
Watching as the pier slowly deteriorates under the pressure of the Pacific weather, a pier that contains the fiber-optic secrets of the infant volcano boiling just off shore.
In 1959, this quiet little caldera exploded. The shallow quakes preceding the event gave visitors and rangers only a short three hours to prepare for a full scale eruption that launched lava and rock as much as 1,900 feet into the air in plumes of ash and fire. The fountain that flowed continuously reached regular heights of 290 feet, creating a spectacle that brave visitors could watch from across the way.
The Pu’u Pua’i cinder cone was the mouth of the volcano, heaving and spewing into a lava lake over 400 feet deep. When the lake finally covered the top of the main vent, the force of the eruption created massive waves of 2,200-degree lava that lapped against the sides of the molten lake. The weight of the lake was enormous – 86 million tons, or 235 times heavier than the Empire State Building.
The pressure from above caused the floor of the crater to sink (which it still does by approximately 3/4 of an inch each year), and as the lava cooled and the floor sank, large fissures formed, which today allows piping hot steam to seep from the still-molten depths, and from those depths, new life emerges.
Above, Kat hovers near the mouth of the volcano, the face that once spewed out some of the hottest lava on record.
Through holes bored into the lake’s surface, scientists could tell that the lake remained at least partially molten until the 1990s. Though it is now solid (a plus, considering the very popular day-hike trail that traverses the solid lava flow), the rock that now forms the lake is still extremely hot.
You can find the boreholes on the surface, but be careful: they continue to emit scalding steam as rainwater slips in cracks in the lava and hits hot stone beneath.
Apparently, I’m adverse to following rules, because I stuck my camera right into one. It was hot but not scalding, so I guess I got lucky. But it’s eerie to think that down there, where this steam originated, is a volcano planning a sneak attack on cheerfully oblivious vacationists.
As per an agreement with Native Hawaiians, the National Park Service allows people to leave offerings, conduct religious ceremonies and gather specific natural resources for religious purposes inside park boundaries.
Leaving a little something to Pele is a common activity as the lava rises and flows in the Halema’uma’u crater beyond.
It bubbles and seeps and flows and gurgles and tiptoes to the edge of the crater before dodging away flirtatiously into the depths of the caldera.
At Halemaʻumaʻu crater, inside the Kilauea Caldera, every day provides the thrill of insecurity.
You never know if today it will overflow or sink or explode or just continue to rumble below the surface, waiting.
At night, the crater glows bright in oranges and crimsons and fiery yellows, hinting at the restlessness of Pele below.
During the day, the smoke and tears and noxious gasses close half the roads in the park and warn against joy rides in the convertible. Trails to the craters edge are enticingly empty, and it’s all I can do not to defy the danger signs and sneak in close for an intimate peek into the mouth of a swelling volcano.
Back on the Big Island, we try to wander off the beaten path.
We go down one side…
…and up the other.
A path that takes us straight, straight down into a valley nearly abandoned during years of flooding and tsunamis intertwined with years of severe drought.
The few who still live there are intensely private, preferring to be left along among the palm trees and taro fields of the narrow tropical valley.
The beach is nearly empty in all directions…
…with Maui peaking out coyly from the plains of sweeping blue waves.
We sit and scrinch our toes through the course black sand, an adolescent beach growing up and out.
And we enjoy the time alone before hitching a ride back up the 70-degree incline that serves as the driveway into Waipi’o Valley.
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