Day 6 – The East Coast of the Big Island

An enormous banyan tree shading some parked cars in Hilo

A personable, magenta-haired barista at the Waimea Coffee Company made an açaí bowl and blue smoothie for us shortly after checking out of our motel. Açaí bowls were invented in Brazil, but they came into America through Hawai’i. Despite my love of food and the presence of açaí bowls in U.S. cuisine for over a decade, I had managed never to try one. The bowl was really good and really cold. For others who have never tried this dish, an açaí bowl is a fruit smoothie crowned with various healthy toppings like the traditional combination of granola, bananas, peanut butter, blueberries, and a drizzle of honey.

Along the island’s east coast, we stopped at Laupahoehoe Point and watched the sea crash to shore in white spray against jumbles of jagged black rocks. Whoever named the Pacific didn’t do it in this particular spot. Much of the Big Island of Hawai’i’s coastline, in fact, is anything but peaceful. There is a memorial at Laupahoehoe Point for 25 people who were lost in the 1946 tsunami. Three people survived the event there, all dragged out to sea on debris and later rescued. Near the memorial were some kukui (candlenut trees, Aleurites moluccanus), a fascinating tree with husk-covered, fat-laden fruits that look like pear-shaped macadamia nuts when shelled. The candlenut was named the Hawai’i State Tree in 1959 despite being imported from Polynesia, and the nuts are reportedly toxic raw but edible when cooked.

Further down the coast is ‘Akaka Falls State Park. A driving, soaking rain confronted us when we arrived, so we went back down the road to Hilo Shark’s Coffee in Honomu and enjoyed cups of rich coffee made from beans grown and roasted there on the mountain. After visiting Glass from the Past, an interesting little antique shop next door that specialized in vintage bottles, the rain had let up enough that we tried to hike the falls again. The whole park was so beautiful! There were stands of golden bamboo, an incredibly huge, old banyan tree with notches carved in one of the myriad trunks for climbing, and other plants so dense and healthy that it seemed we were in a botanic garden, but this garden had fresh, cool air and no glass walls. First we got a sidelong glance at Kahuna Falls (kahuna means priest in Hawaiian), which were running strong from the rain, then the trail looped around to the main ‘Akaka falls. The falls were swollen from rain, and several other thin but tall falls ran nearby. Three more waterfalls were waiting for us to admire from the trail on the way back to the car. Even though the trail can be crowded, and there is an entrance fee, which was on the honor system when we visited, this trail was more than worth the stop. It’s also more than worth the entrance fee, which we did not hesitate to pay because the revenue helps support the park.

Later in Hilo, we were hankering for a burger, so we stopped at the “Hilo Burger Joint.” It was somewhat busy, even after 2 p.m. We found the food to be good but not great, but unfortunately the service was terrible. It was our server’s first day on the job. We’re usually very forgiving of this, but the poor lady had obviously not been trained, and nobody was helping her. Our order was wrong, and after we received our food, we were totally on our own. Joseph could have used another cup of coffee, for instance, but nobody came by, and it was hard to find anyone. We waited a really long time for our check before we had to get up and ask for it. On the upside, I was able to try a Hilo Breakwall IPA, which was really good. A lot of talented brewmasters live in Hawai’i, especially on the Big Island.

We rented a cabin at Volcano National Park that would be better for locals, who can bring supplies, than for visitors like us, who have been limited to airline baggage. There was only one electrical outlet, no heat, and access to a single bathroom for the whole campground. Linens were provided as advertised, which fortunately included two big comforters that kept us pretty warm but captured a lot of damp condensation by morning. There were no good hiking trails near the cabin, so I followed a game trail for a while into the ohi’a forest on the outside slope of Kilauea. A series of rock hills sounded hollow like drums when I stepped on them. They were actually underground lava tubes! After about half an hour, I turned around and promptly got lost trying to retrace my steps. Not too lost, really, because I could hear the road in the distance, and I had GPS on my phone, but it was a bushwhack back to the cabin. On the way I saw two kalij pheasant hens, one with a chick, and some gorgeous bamboo orchids (Arundina graminifolia).

Ohi’a forest at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

After dark, we drove to the crater rim and hiked to an overlook to experience the red glow of liquid lava. Earlier in the week, visitors were allowed to the parking lot below the Jaggar Museum, which now sits a lot closer to the Halema’uma’u Crater than it used to. The museum is part of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory. The museum building was damaged and closed during the 2018 eruption and may never reopen. The Jaggar Museum isn’t the only casualty of Kilauea’s recent eruptions. There was once a road that circled the caldera rim. Aerial views show how sections of this road were obliterated as the caldera’s rim began to shift. Pieces of road can be seen still intact below the rim. Tonight, we were only allowed to go as far as the Kilauea Overlook, one parking lot down from the Jagger Museum, but we could see the red glowing gases well as they rose in the light rain, a sight not soon forgotten. We would find out later that an old friend, Lani Lisa, had come to this same caldera rim during the 2018 eruption. This is where she began to embrace her birth name, Lani, which had previously been only a leading initial L. Even a sideways glance into the goddess, Pele’s, home has the power to change a human life.

The cabins were a ten minute drive from Volcano House, the only place still open where we could get some warm food and hot drinks. The drinks consisted of weak Swiss Miss hot cocoa mix, but the food was pretty good, especially the hot tomato bisque. Everything was terrifically overpriced, as National Park Service vendors tend to be. COVID precautions meant that dinner was served in styrofoam containers in stapled paper bags, which servers delivered to the front counter for us to pick up. Dining at Volcano House in happier, pre-pandemic days may have been more charming, but styrofoam tends to siphon off a lot of charm for me.

Back at the cabin, I walked to the nearby campground. It was closed to campers during the pandemic but open to walkers. I wasn’t sleepy and wanted to catch a glimpse of stars. Even from the campground, Kilauea’s red glow stretched across a slice of the sky. Later in the night, I would wake up from my dreams, imagining the volcano’s enormous magma chamber churning deep below. Pele’s bodily form is understood to be the volcano itself – the lava, the vents, the fumes. All of it is Pele. Magnified by the darkness, the goddess was even more disconcerting from our tiny cabin, perched on her back.

Day 5 – Return to the Kohala Coast

A panoramic view of Mahai’ula Beach by the historic fishing camp

Driving can get tiresome day after day, so we opted to return to Anaeho’omalu Bay (locally known as A-Bay) rather than explore further south as we’d originally planned. First, we stopped to take a look at the world-class Hapuna beach. The stretch of white sand was extraordinarily beautiful but crowded, so we didn’t stay long. We opted instead for a hike at the less accessible Makalawena Beach, which draws fewer people. Continuing south, we made a couple stops before going to the beach. First was the Malama Trail to the Puako Petroglyph Park near the Mauna Lani Resort. The trail leads to an 800-year-old Native Hawaiian site with thousands of petroglyphs (kii pohaku, meaning “image stone”), mainly of warriors and other human forms. On the way, we saw a vivid red house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and his mate, a pair of tiny buff colored birds with dark backs, and lots of little red-eyed mongooses (Herpestes javanicus) that scampered around the lava rocks like squirrels. After this, we visited the Queens Market near A-Bay, an outdoor mall where we met a friendly lady at Malibu shirts who sold us a new hoodie with a vintage pattern of the Hawai’i Surf Club for Joseph and a tee shirt featuring humu humu nuku nuku a pua’a, the Hawaiian state fish, also known as the reef triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus). On the way out, I spotted a wild goat with a jet black coat posing on a small tower of rock in a lava field near the highway.

The drive out to Mahai’ula Beach was passable but a little rough. It’s not far, but the road crawls over lava rock. Plenty of sedans make their way in, though. Inexplicably, a couple of short stretches of tarmac had been laid down over the lava in the middle of the route, and these came complete with speed bumps and traffic signs warning us to keep the speed down! Mahai’ula Beach is in Kekaha State Park, which also includes beautiful shorebirds, anchialine pools, a historic fishing camp, and our destination, Makalawena Beach. Several young women were working at the anchialine pools, probably part of a restoration effort to return native Hawaiian red shrimp (‘opae’ula, Halocaridina rubra) to the area. Anchialine pools are landlocked freshwater pools with an underground connection to the ocean. These particular pools were flooded with sand from the 2011 tsunami in Japan that damaged the Fukashima Daiichi nuclear power plant and killed thousands of people. The fishing camp at Kekaha State Park has never been accessible by road. It was built in 1880 by a fisherman named John Kaelemakule as his home, and it’s now a state-owned historic landmark. Reaching Makalawena Beach requires a mile-long hike over a jagged, black aa trail. It’s worth it. The hiker is rewarded with white sand dunes, acres of beach morning glory (Convolvulus cneorum), and a gorgeous beach without big crowds. Though the water was choppy, I ventured in, getting a good soak in the surprisingly chilly waters of the South Pacific.

Rather than try an unknown restaurant that may or may not be good, we decided to revisit the Lava Lava Beach Club for dinner. After waiting in line just to talk to the hostess, we were told the wait for a table would be two and a half hours. There are a lot worse places to be than the beach club’s waiting area, with a large green lawn, a vintage Volkswagen bus turned mini bar, and a cheesy, flashing, lighted “Aloha” sign. I enjoyed a Mai Tai while watching the sunset while Joseph enjoyed a nice red wine. The wait turned out to be only an hour and a quarter before we were seated outside listening to live music and I was enjoying ahi with saffron jasmine rice and etouffe sauce, fresh vegetables, and another Big Swell IPA. Joseph had a signature sizzling shrimp dish and an IPA. The music was provided by a young woman who sang and played the guitar, giving us exceptional, bluesy takes on some of my favorite rock songs. Unfortunately, we didn’t get her name. While enjoying dinner, some of the resident wild cats started prowling around in search of ear scratches and handouts. One warmed up to Joseph while another shy kitty hunched up on a surfboard stacked along the fence, watching everything with wary feline eyes.

Eulogy for Lani Lisa

Lani Lisa Lawrence was an old friend and one of the people who followed my blog. I planned to visit her in Tacoma when I visited Seattle in late May, but she died suddenly a week before I arrived. Though I knew she was terminally ill, we all thought she would have more time.

Lani Lisa was both fire and water. Her personality was Celtic fire, and her boundless energy consumed everyone around her. It was no surprise that she would become a beautiful fire dancer after she found her long time home in Tacoma, Washington. Lani Lisa was also a water dancer of sorts, skilled with whitewater rafts in the red rock desert and later as a bay keeper on her beloved Puget Sound. I am honored to have had her life touch mine and to have had my young children look up to her like family all those years ago.

Me and Lani Lisa at her home in Tacoma in 2012

Before Lani Lisa’s heart settled on green Washington, she was an itinerant in Utah and western Colorado. The sandstone canyon country was where we met her, when she and my husband, Joseph, worked as park rangers together at Colorado National Monument. They were instantly like brother and sister. She kept a photo of the two of them in full U.S. National Park Service uniforms at her little urban farmhouse in Tacoma. There was little else in her house from her years in the canyon country, prompting her many Tacoma friends to dub Joseph “The Mystery Ranger.” When we visited her in Washington, it was clear how well her life in the nurturing rain suited her and how much she had become a part of the community in Tacoma. When our daughter was in college a couple hours’ drive north in Bellingham, Lani Lisa invited her down for Thanksgiving dinners and showed her the fiery art of glass blowing. Lani Lisa welcomed our son and his wife when they came to visit. Her heart and home were always open to us.

When we met her and for years afterward, she went only by her middle name, Lisa, but an experience on the Big Island of Hawai’i prompted her to embrace her first name, Lani. She was drawn to Pele’s earth-fire in Kilauea, where a native Hawaiian told her Lani was a name of power, meaning “the heavens,” and she was given her name for a reason. She certainly was. The world will miss your power, Lani, and so will we.

Day 4 – Easter on the Kohala Coast

Panoramic view at Anaeho’omalu Bay

Easter breakfast was macadamia nut cookies, fruit, and coffee. I “McGyvered” a coffee maker out of a sawed-off United Airlines water bottle and paper towels. It worked tolerably well until I found a portable coffee cone at a Starbuck’s later in the trip, which was obviously better. Besides, the water bottle shrunk a bit with each pour, so its days were numbered anyway.

We’d booked a whale watching trip online with Hawaii Nautical, so we drove west from Waimea to Anaeho’omalu Bay (locally known as A-Bay) and waited as instructed by an orange sign, taking in the sights. At various times, depending on the cloud cover, we could see six different volcanoes from A-Bay: the active Mauna Loa and Kilauea, dormant Hualalai, Haleakala, and Mauna Kea, and the extinct Kohala. Haleakala peeks above the ocean from the Island of Maui, and Hualalai looks like a classic cinder cone sprouting from the flanks of Mauna Loa. The tour boat was operated by two women: the captain had been touring for just over 20 years, the same time I’ve been doing contract work for the Department of Energy. There were no humpback whales, not surprising because it was the end of their mating season in Hawai’i. I learned that two thirds of the world’s humpbacks come to Hawai’i (the others go to Baja California), and that dolphins and porpoises tend to avoid this coast until all the whales leave. So, no spinner dolphin or porpoise sightings either, but it was a great boat ride, and we did get to see a bunch of honu (Hawaiian sea turtles [Chelonia mydas])! The water was a gorgeous, turquoise-blue near the shore and deep sapphire beyond. It was a sparkly, sunny day and the sea was choppy with plenty of small white caps. There was a lot of refreshing ocean spray in my face coming back. Joseph had the bulk of it going out, so it was only fair.

The “Lava Lava Beach Club” has a name that is so cliche that we almost didn’t try it, but there was a line forming out front when we returned from our boat ride, and that usually means something.  I’m glad we took the chance because it was a classy, breezy, socially distanced pub with excellent food and local brews on tap. I tried the Maui Big Swell IPA, and Joseph had the Kona Kua Bay IPA. Our server, Wyatt, brought ahi poke for me and fish tacos for Joseph. We also ordered beer-battered onion rings to share. Magnificent!

After lunch, we visited nearby Puako Beach, recommended by our whale tour guide. Here, we saw urchins, anemones (all closed up), and various shorebirds. It was not crowded, and while Joseph soaked up some sun, I walked the length of the beach, finding treasure in the form of a large sea turtle doing acrobatic swimming maneuvers beneath the waves. Growing along the beach were Naupaka shrubs with their beautiful little half-flowers.

North of Puako Beach is a National Historic Site called Pu’ukohola Heiau, where the first king of Hawai’i, Kamehameha I (Kamehameha the Great), oversaw the careful building of a temple, or heiau, which helped Kamehameha unify the Hawaiian Islands into one nation. Pu’ukohola means “hill of the whales,” as they can be seen from the hill when in season. Kamehameha’s heiau is high on the hill and about 200 years old. It’s built above Mailekini Heiau, 300 years older. The audio tour (which you can access via your cell phone) advises that as outsiders or commoners, we would have been executed for coming so close to these sacred sites. There is an underwater heiau (Hale o Kapuni Heiau) in the bay below where human sacrifices were once offered to the shark gods. Evidently, sharks still like to come to Pelekane Bay. We looked for their fins for a while, but alas, we saw none.

The journey back to Waimea first took us north to the end of Highway 270, where we tried to hike down to a cove from the Pololu Valley lookout. However, it was raining, and the trail was slick and steep, so we didn’t get far. It was an amazing place, though, with tall, dark cliffs plunging straight to the shoreline and mist settling in over deep rainforests above.  The drive back to Waimea wound through magical country where little black and white cattle grazed on steep, impossibly green, grassy slopes, surrounded by flocks of white cattle egrets and the occasional, enormous prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). Near the town of Hawi were native, wiliwili trees (Erythrina sandwicensis) that look like they came out of a science fiction landscape. I spotted a white tern (Gygis alba) flying along the north coast. They’re the cutest little birds. Look one up. You’ll see what I mean.

Day 3 – The Slopes of Mauna Kea

Saturday April 3, 2021

It was cold outside and fresh from a long rain when we woke up at 6:00 at the Volcano Inn. That early, I was the only one who decided to try the hot tub, and it was beautifully peaceful. The water was a toasty 104 degrees, and I wilt easily, so I didn’t stay long. Afterward, Joseph and I went to the main house for breakfast, which included fresh papaya boats (papaya halves with lemon juice, stuffed with fresh pineapple, banana slices, yogurt, and almond slivers), home-made banana bread, tropical fruit juice, and Kona coffee. I would recommend the friendly Volcano Inn to anyone!

The morning’s route took us back through Hilo and over the Saddle Road between the world’s most massive mountain, Mauna Loa, and its tallest, Mauna Kea. We stopped for a hike at the Pu’u O’o Trail, named for an extinct native Hawaiian bird species. The o’o flaunted fluffy yellow feathers that were prized for making Hawaiian royal capes. Cape making didn’t drive it extinction, but instead it was the introduction of invasive species (especially mosquitoes carrying avian malaria; native birds have no immunity). Along the trail, we heard lots of lovely songs and saw lots of lovely dark blobs darting across the sky. Unfortunately, we couldn’t identify anything because the birds were far away and very active, not liking to perch long, and avoiding visible places like treetops. We didn’t recognize any of the songs, but they were sweet. Some of the little dark blobs were likely native ‘elepaio (Monarch flycatchers, [Chasiempis sandwichensis]), but nobody held still long enough for us to be sure.

The Pu’u O’o Trail was rough in places with “aa” and easier in places with “pahoehoe.” (Aa is the sound you make when you try to walk across this sharp, rough rock. Pahoehoe is smooth and flows, like its name.) Along the trail were ohi’a trees, ‘ae ferns (Polypodium pellucidum), and kukaenene (Coprosma ernodeoides). The ‘ae are tough little plants with only one to two fronds that grow straight out of lava rock. Native Hawaiian Island geese, or nene (Brantus sandvicensis), like kukaenene, and they also like to eat ohelo (Vaccinium arborea), with little red, crowned berries. Said to be edible, I sampled one or two ohelo berries, but they were kind of bland, at least when raw. Along the trail were also pukiawe shrubs (Leptecophylla tameiameaie), with small red, pink, or white berries and no crown. Nene like these too, but they’re not edible to humans.

Ferns on Mauna Kea that are probably ‘ae, growing among kukaenene

At the top of the saddle, we drove the six-mile spur to the visitor center on Mauna Kea. At 9000 feet, the center was only about 1000 feet below the alpine zone. A four-wheel drive vehicle was needed to go further, but there was a happy surprise for a plant geek like me waiting behind the visitor center: a tiny forest preserve with threatened ahinahina (Mauna Kea silversword, Argyroxiphium sandwicense ssp. sandwicense). This species and others in “the silversword alliance” descended from a single species of California tarweed (Centromadia or Madia spp.) that adaptively radiated several million years ago into widely different forms across the Hawaiian Islands.

The slopes of Mauna Kea are striped with different ecological zones. These are some of the species I’m pretty sure I identified correctly. Many resemble plants I know back home in arid western Colorado, making me think that the climate on parts of the mountain is similar in some ways.

  • Mamane (Sephora chrysophylla) – a tree-shrub that reminds me of Scotch broom, a friend from California
  • Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – the flower spike looks different than that of the same invasive species back home
  • Aheahea (Chenopodium oahuense) – its leaves look a lot like desert species of the same family growing back home
  • Lots and lots of grasses including nodding needle grass (Nassella cernua)
  • Conifers – plenty of pine species grow on the Big Island. All are introduced, as are other conifers like cypress, redwood, and Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris). Cook pine isn’t really a pine; it resembles “Norfolk Island Pine,” which only appears in potted form back home

At the base of the Mauna Kea road were the remains of a Native Hawaiian camp where people were protesting a new telescope at the summit. The telescope was proposed without consulting Native Hawaiians. In fact, the existing Mauna Kea telescopes were built without their consultation. I am a scientist, and I highly value what the scientists are discovering there, but the telescopes should not have been built in this way. I have heard that Native Hawaiians have an adaptable culture. They essentially journeyed from the stone age to the modern age in a generation, after all. Their belief in Mauna Kea as an umbilical cord between earth and sky may mesh well with the study of the universe, if only their concerns had not been ignored. The camp looked unoccupied, but there was a sign reading, “Tourist Go Home!” This was the only sign of hostility we saw during our whole visit, and the sentiment is certainly justified, especially to those who bolt to conquer the mountain’s sacred summit without a second thought.

Rainbow at the Waimea Country Lodge

We drove down the other side of the saddle road toward Waimea. The ecology continued to change as we approached Waimea. Here are some of the life forms we saw there:

  • Jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia) – a South American native with bright purple blossoms
  • Chickens (Gallus callus domesticus) – in particular, there was a colorful rooster who was a bit of a character scratching and crowing with his flock behind the motel. It was hard to tell if the fowl were domesticated or wild
  • Saffron finch (Sicalis flaviola) – native to South America, with brilliant yellow and yellow-green feathers and an orange head
  • Zebra dove (Geopelia striata) – a cute little bird native to Southeast Asia
  • Red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronata) – a striking South American who is actually a tanager
  • Strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) – an invasive weed in Hawai’i, but at least it has the grace to bear sweet, edible fruit
  • Blue morning glory (Ipomaea indica) – with big blue blossoms, it also grows wild in the grasslands surrounding Waimea
  • Lots of grasses – it’s drier here than in other parts of the Big Island, making grasslands abundant, so Waimea is a cattle ranching community

Some rooms at the Waimea Country Lodge were still being remodeled, but ours was finished nicely, and it had a full kitchen (aside from the very obvious omission of a coffee maker). We went shopping at Foodtown, a grocery chain from Honolulu, and found some local sweet potatoes, Asian greens, shutome (Hawaiian swordfish), and ahi (tuna) along with Kona Brewing Company Hanalei Island IPA. At the motel, a full-arc rainbow stretched across the sky. We would come to learn that rainbows are common in Waimea, so much so that the locals don’t seem to notice them. Unfortunately, we needed a key to access a grill to cook the fish, but there was nobody at the front desk, and nobody could be reached. So rather than settling for sushi, we pan-fried.

Day 2 – Volcano

Friday, April 2, 2021

We tried to sleep in, but the local time is four hours faster than Mountain Time, so it was a tall order. Before breakfast, we took a short walk around Lili’uokalani Park near the hotel. (Lili’uokalani was the Kingdom of Hawai’i’s last queen. Popular with her people, she instituted programs to give them more power. She ruled from 1891 to 1893, until the United States overthrew the government of Hawai’i and made it into a territory.) There was a nice swimming beach with tan sand and black rock outcrops. In Hawai’i, black or green sand comes from pounded volcanic glass and rock, and white sand comes from sea life, mainly corals and shells. Tan beaches are a mixture. At the edge of an algae-filled tide pool, we admired a pair of kolea (Pacific golden plovers, Pluvialis fula). These small shorebirds are one of Hawai’i’s few migrant species and make a marathon 3000-mile journey between Hawai’i and Alaska each year, with three or four solid days of flying each way.

Steam vents along the crater rim trail at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Ken’s House of Pancakes, a Hilo landmark diner, has been “jammin’ since 1971.” For breakfast, I enjoyed my first authentic Hawaiian loco moco (Loco moco is a hamburger patty over a bed of rice, topped with mushroom gravy.), and Joseph had crab cake eggs Benedict. The coffee at Ken’s was weak, and we’re self-confessed coffee snobs, so we tried a nearby kiosk called Just Crusin’ Coffee. Their brew was no stronger, but the dirty chai was tasty. We visited the Hilo Farmers Market, where we bought some longan fruit, apple bananas, and an enormous Hawai’i avocado. Every color of produce filled this classic tropical market. Before leaving town, we stopped by “Two Ladies Mochi,” where I ordered some ginger mochi, only made on Fridays. I also ordered a signature strawberry mochi, crafted with adzuki bean paste, and fresh pear mochi, made with green tea. All were excellent! Photos below, Jammin’ since 1971 and the colorful Hilo Farmers Market

Though we traveled less than thirty miles from Hilo to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we rose in elevation nearly four thousand feet. The ecological changes were obvious as we climbed the the slopes of Kilauea. Hilo is a true tropical rainforest, but the town of Volcano is more temperate with a mixture of native trees and tree ferns. The Volcano Inn, a bed and breakfast, was a lucky find. We stayed on the second floor of the annex in the “Lava Room,” with big picture windows that overlooked the rainforest. The room was welcoming with fresh anthurium flowers and orchids on the table. 

After settling in our room, we left to visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. First, we stopped at a small store in Volcano Village for some snacks, including peppered tuna jerky (yum), Maui style onion potato chips (yummier), and Kona Brewing Company Castaway IPA (yummiest). The photos below, left to right: fiddlehead from a tree fern in the rainforest, flamingo flower, uluhe (false staghorn fern), and a tiny Brahminy blind snake.

Kilauea has, in my estimation, the second best volcano name in the world (surpassed only by Iceland’s “Grimsvotn.”) Kilauea’s last eruption was 35 years long and manifested mainly as reliable lava flows from the Pu’u O’o Crater on the East Rift Zone. All that ended with a big eruption at the summit crater (Halema’uma’u) in 2018. There was no lava in the park until December 2020, when the Halema’uma’u Crater began to ooze lava. However, the crater had become so deep that no lava was visible from publicly accessible areas when we were there. The National Park Service did not widely advertise this or they may have risked losing visitors until the end of 2021, when the crater’s lava lake is expected to fill up and become visible from the caldera’s rim. The caldera was formed around 500 years ago, and it houses the crater, which rises and collapses, and fills with lava and drains, over time. Though the crater was over 1200 feet deep, and we couldn’t see lava, we could see and smell clouds of volcanic fumes and admire sulfur cliffs, fissures, and steaming vents from the rim trail. Photos of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, below, left to right: sulfur cliffs, tiny sedges and other plants growing near the summit, the edge of the Halema’uma’u Crater from the caldera rim, and a native ohi’a lehua tree in bloom.

Ohi’a lehua is a native Hawaiian tree with red flowers favored by birds like honeycreepers. It’s an early colonizer of lava flows. Legend says that the volcano goddess, Pele, became infatuated with the warrior, Ohi’a, but he was already pledged to Lehua, his love. Pele angrily turned him into a twisted tree for refusing her. But later, she felt sorry for the grieving Lehua, so she turned her into the tree’s beautiful blossoms. If you pick a blossom, it’s said it will rain that day, symbolizing Lehua’s tears. (I say if you’re near Hilo, rain is a fair bet anyway because it’s said to be the rainiest city in the United States.)

In a light rain, we hiked three or four miles around the edge of the caldera, enjoying the native ohi’a forest. There were several beautiful birds, including a bright red ‘apapane (crimson honeycreeper, Vestiaria coccinea), and we heard the calls of many others. We saw a tiny bird that was possibly a Hawaiian ‘amakihi (common honeycreeper, Hemiagnathus virens) that tumbled onto the trail and flew away in about half a second. The forest near the crater rim was a striking sight with the ohi’a’s bright green leaves, scarlet flowers, and dark bark adorned all over with tufts of light green lichens. Back at the Volcano Inn, we enjoyed our snacks and beer, relaxing in our cozy room until darkness and silence swallowed everything. 

Vapor mixed with volcanic fumes at Kilauea’s caldera

Day 1 – The Trip to Hilo

April 1, 2021

Dawn from our balcony at the Hilo Reed’s Bay Hotel

The journey to Hilo lasted about eighteen hours and included two long layovers. Hilo’s airport had the flavor of a World War II-era military base, even though predates the war by two decades. Apparently, the U.S. military assumed control during the 1940s and named it after General Albert Kuali’i Brickwood Lyman, the first U.S. brigadier general with indigenous Hawaiian blood. It has since been renamed Hilo International Airport. Our flight from Denver to Los Angeles was on an infamous 737 Max (The 737 Max was grounded for nearly two years due to design flaws. The month before our trip, the model was briefly grounded again for possible electrical problems.). I felt more at risk from this aircraft than from the coronavirus, but the flight was thankfully uneventful. Los Angeles International Airport was practically a ghost town. The worst part was being the captive audience of a public address system blaring seventies rock ballads on a loop. When a pub, “Rolling Stone,” eventually opened, we discovered an Angel City IPA on tap, and this mitigated the ballad-induced ear-worm torture a little bit.

Before any passengers could leave the terminal in Hilo, we had to wait in line for more COVID-19 testing, but we were happily surprised at the end to find we could bypass the test because of our vaccines. It was also nice to discover our rental car waiting, even though it was late at night and well past the advertised hours. The rental car agent said, “of course we’ll take care of you!” There would be other experiences like this on our trip. Despite profiteers who long ago made “Aloha” into an adage, Aloha is a real thing. In Hawai’i, being considerate of others seems to be more important than rigid rules, and Hawaiians seem reluctant to tell others that they’re on their own unless there is no other way.

We found our hotel easily despite an array of “No Trespassing” signs lined up like security guards across the entrance. Some even sported a handwritten, “THIS MEANS YOU!” When he saw our gestures of confusion, one of the owners came out to the parking lot and explained that they had reopened that day for business after the pandemic shutdown. He seemed surprised by our confusion. When we pointed to the “No Trespassing” signs, he vaguely said,“Yeah, I guess it’d probably be a good idea to take those down now,” but the signs were still up the next day when we checked out, waiting for the next guests.

The Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel takes a visitor back in time. It was nicely vintage, with real keys, and the rooms had no phones. The hotel was clean and quiet except for the peeping of coqui frogs outside at night. Native to Puerto Rico, these tree frogs apparently arrived in the late 1980s as hitchhikers on nursery plants, and they came to stay. We didn’t see the tiny critters, but we surely heard their loud little voices. In between waves of frog-song, we could hear ocean waves outside through the room’s jalousie windows. In the morning, we saw the waves swirling around jagged black rocks not far below our window. Surrounded by colorful tropical vegetation, the hotel was in a nice little spot on Banyan Drive. Banyan Drive was named for huge banyan trees planted by celebrities since the 1930s, many with commemorative plaques. The trees were covered in all manner of epiphytes that created little ecosystems and frog homes on the branches. The oldest banyans survived several tsunamis, the largest from earthquakes in the Aleutian Islands in 1946, the coast of Chile in 1960, and a quake off the coast of Hawai’i in 1975.

Banyan tree outside the Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel

The Land of Rainbows and Volcanic Glow

Prologue

Native Hawaiian ohi’a lehua forest along the Kilauea caldera on the Big Island of Hawai’i

At the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean are the Aleutian Islands. They sparkle like jewels under mist in a slate-colored sea. Shallow and turbulent is the ocean that surrounds them. The Aleutian archipelago arches down toward the southwest from the Alaskan mainland like a strand of black basalt beads adorned with low, deep-green plants and tall white waterfalls. Far to the south are their counterparts, the Hawaiian Islands. They spread to the northwest from the middle of the Pacific Plate, where a rip in the earth’s crust spews lava from the core, making land. Far from any mainland, Hawai’i is surrounded by some of the deepest waters on the planet. A chain of ancient, underwater seamounts complete Hawai’i’s long, arched archipelago, with the oldest Hawaiian seamount not far from the most distant Aleutian island. Hawai’i, too, is crafted of black, green, and white. It is the yin to Alaska’s yang.

We visited the Big Island of Hawai’i in April 2021. Vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we’d become adept at masking for over a year, and we’ve always been naturals at social distancing, so we didn’t pose much of a risk to ourselves or others. The State of Hawai’i was taking public health precautions more seriously than anyone at home, requiring a negative COVID-19 test before we even boarded the plane. So we navigated the constantly changing web of state requirements and planned our visit with a confusing array of online options and outdated websites. It was challenging to find a State-of-Hawai’i-approved lab in Western Colorado that could promise results back in time, but it all worked out, and we were soon off to the land of rainbows and volcanic glow.

What I Didn’t Get to Say at My Mom’s Funeral

Linda and MomOf her three children, I am probably most like her. I’m proud to be hers, proud to be like her, proud of the spun silver hair I inherited from her, proud of the big, warm heart that I got from her that many people can’t see in me. I am proud to have attended her funeral and honor her even though I was not acknowledged during the service as one of hers. Neither were her grandchildren or my sister, Julie. Mom would have acknowledged us if she could, if only with a squeeze of her small, gnarled hand.

Mom nurtured me, valued me, embraced me even when she didn’t really understand the unconventional thing that was her middle child. She was the last of my protectors, and now she is gone. The whole world is diminished, and it hardly realizes it. I miss her deeply.

Mom taught me how to sew, what a selvage is, and a bolt, and a seam. She stitched her love into my childhood shirts and shorts and dresses. She stitched love into my children’s beautiful costumes every Halloween when they were little. These costumes held such love and creative power that her granddaughter became a costume designer, and her grandson became a builder of worlds.

Mom taught me how to cook and how the power of food, lovingly prepared, could care for people and heal them. She taught me how to wrap hamburger in a ring of bacon and make it as wonderful as any filet mignon. We, her children, dubbed these little creations “gorilla ears.” It made her smile. On rare occasions, her steaks were tough, and my brother would pretend his steak knife was a chain saw. She laughed right along with him. I laughed too — he was and still is really funny — but I remember also feeling a little bit sad because I could sense what was underneath that tough steak.

When Mom patiently showed me embroidery stitches — lazy daisies, backstitches, French knots — she encouraged me to turn each piece over. You want the back to look as neat as the front, she’d say. Even though nobody can see the back, you’d know that there was a knotted mess back there, and you wouldn’t want that. She taught me that the underneath matters. I’ve been able to see it ever since, often to my peril. I later realized, with children of my own, how much of her went into those dinners, even when the steaks were tough.

I knew that before she met my Dad, she played the piano and composed award-winning poetry in high school. I never got to read any of her poems because she didn’t think enough of them to keep them, but I did get to cherish the little notes she’d send in my lunchboxes and inside greeting cards after I had moved far away. The curve of her handwriting was full of love.

Mom had an eye for good art. She came from poverty but was more cultured than those who were bred to it. I treasure memories of her and me at the Denver Art Museum, discussing French Impressionists, what she liked about certain pieces, what was just too weird. I am no Picasso, but I offered her a choice of my oil paintings once, and a little grin broke out on her face as she chose what we both knew was the best one.

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She was musical and literary and creative and brilliant, but she was content to defer to the light of lesser people. She was content to let them take the stage and the credit, content to cover her light with the proverbial bushel basket. Because I could see underneath, I could see that light. I would have been nothing but another arrogant narcissist without her. She made me into a human being. She gets all the credit.

Her light was bright like a supernova, but it never burned because she never shoved it at anyone, never allowed it to blaze except through the slats of that bushel basket. I didn’t always let her know that I saw her light. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t show her often enough how precious she was and how much I recognized and valued her.

There was a fierceness to her that can only be called purely Irish. Growing up, we all believed that there was a streak of English blood in her father, from whom she inherited the Mudd name. But when her sister discovered in a search for ancestry that every drop of Mom’s blood was Irish, I was not surprised, and neither was she. At her funeral, I wore a pin she gave me years ago: Erin Go Bragh! (Long Live Ireland!). Few knew it was there.

Mom once told me that she could see what her soul looked like. It was a small, clean little room, simple and well swept, bright and quiet and well cared for. My first painting was of such a room. It hung in her house for a long time. When she died, I didn’t have the heart to keep it.

Linda's painting (first good painting)

Mom knew how to love people, not in spite of their flaws but because of them. If she liked someone, she was warm like a cup of hot cocoa. If she didn’t, she could be colder than space. She was never loud about it, never obvious, but if you were spaced, you knew it. Mom was a Grand Master of passive aggression.

She was tiny and beautiful and held a universe of marvelous, hidden things inside her. She deserved a host of angels singing at her funeral, the best choir in the world, a crowd of thousands grieving her loss. But she would have been content with the single, beautiful voice and piano, and the COVID-exhausted priest’s simple prayers and eulogies that she had.

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A Balance Between Dark and Light

Gothic Christmas Ornament
My daughter made my new favorite Christmas ornament, a balance of light and dark.

In the cold, starry darkness of Winter Solstice, life’s breath becomes visible, vaporous music. The body’s tropical warmth pushes back against the chill, sustaining life. Fingers’ frigid ache is a reminder of their worth. It’s both the longest night of the year and the promise of returning light, completely both, without contradiction — my favorite day.

Why is Winter Solstice my favorite day of the year? Why the longest night, not our other solstice that bears the longest day? Maybe it’s because I was raised with an overabundance of light. Maybe I didn’t have enough opportunity to celebrate the sacred darkness. I’ve noticed that many of us were brought up on a steady diet of light-stories and were taught to avoid, exclude, or even fear the dark. Seeking a better balance, many of us begin to search out dark things, especially in the winter. Take Krampus, for example.

Krampus is a Christmas demon celebrated in parts of Europe, the dark counterpart to bright Saint Nicholas. In Austria, on Krampusnacht (December 5), people dress up as the part-goat, part-human creature, romping with horns and long tongues among crowds of people, whipping them with little birch switches. Krampus is rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. 

The origins of Krampus are thought to be a Pagan ritual designed to dispel the ghosts of winter. In old Scandinavia, Yule was the solstice time when the ghosts of the dead were believed to return, so people left out food and drinks for them overnight. Yule ghosts evolved into one Yule Ghost, and eventually into Krampus. The American Santa Claus comes mostly from St. Nicholas, but not completely. There’s a little Krampus in Santa, too. Krampus bells, which announce his arrival, bear an uncanny resemblance to sleigh bells. Does the custom of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa come from feeding the ghosts of Yule? 

Consider that Santa is said to put coal into the stockings of naughty children, while Krampus leaves birch sticks. Why do we have such dark customs at Christmastime? Is it to frighten children into acceptable behavior? Is it to teach them that there are scary things out there? It’s hard to navigate through a world that’s too safe because we can’t learn what to be wary of. Or is it to remind us that life isn’t fair? After all, if you’re out on Krampusnacht, you might get smacked with a switch, even if you’ve done your best to be good. But there could be a balance here, too. Coal and sticks are both fuels. Both can be transformed, with a spark of will, into light.

There is a hazard in dwelling too much on dark things. Those of us susceptible to depression can vouch for this. But there’s also a hazard in dwelling too much on the light. Light is beautiful, but only when it’s real and not a veneer that comes out of desperately avoiding the dark. As a child, I heard a lot of light-stories, most of which aren’t even true. At Thanksgiving, we were fed turkey and cranberries along with light-stories about how there was nothing but joyous feasting between the Pilgrims and the Indians. The light-stories left out Europe’s disrespect and disease, genocide and grave-robbing, ungratefulness and self-righteous destruction. Light-stories remind us to chin up, always look on the bright side. Everything will (magically) be alright. With this steady diet of light-stories, no wonder there’s so much violence, so many dark-stories howling to be heard. The more we deny the darkness, the more it grows out of control and crushes in around us. And how are we told to respond? By looking on the bright side, of course.

I recently heard a podcast by Sam Yang on feeding the “gray wolf.” He tells a parable where a Cherokee elder describes two wolves inside him — a light one and a dark one — and the wolf that “wins” is the one he feeds. Sam points out how this was a bit of cultural appropriation. The actual Indigenous story was about feeding both wolves, not just the black or white one. If a person only feeds light or the darkness, there will always be a war between them. They are two sides of the same thing, and you need to feed them both so neither wolf gets hungry.

On this Winter Solstice, I invite you to embrace both bright Saint Nicholas and dark Krampus. I invite you to honor the holiday gifts and lights as well as the loneliness and want that always swirl around with them. And I wish for you the gift of the Winter Solstice: that beautiful balance between the dark and the light.

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