Hawaii: Pahoehoe Desert and Forest Rains

Onomea Bay – Photo by Becca Tarnas
Onomea Bay – Photo by Becca Tarnas

The journey of exploring Hawaii’s Big Island continued as Matt and I made our way in our traveling van home down the Hamakua Coast and eventually into Volcanoes National Park and Puna on the eastern side of the island. We had begun our morning on the heights of Mauna Kea, watching the Sun rise among an ocean of clouds, but we spent our first night of this leg of our adventure right by the water’s edge, back at Laupahoehoe Point where the grandmother banyan tree stands. I mentioned in my last post that my dreams seemed to be shifting depending on where I was sleeping each night, with an array of violent dreams taking place in Waimea, but dreams of majestic mountain-consciousness occurring on Mauna Kea. At Laupahoehoe, where the tsunami took the lives of nearly two dozen people, many of whom were schoolchildren, my dreams were saturated with watery depths, beginning first in a car that was being driven underwater, bloated bodies with white eyes floating past the windows, and then having the experience of floating far out at sea with two other people, debris littering the rough waves, an endless distance between myself and anything that felt safe. When I awoke I finally was beginning to recognize how much the history of each place we were staying was influencing the content of my nightly visions, and it led me to inquire later into the history of violence that took place in Waimea.

Akaka Falls – Photo by Matt Segall
Akaka Falls – Photo by Matt Segall

Once again waking before the dawn, I leapt from inside the van to stand near the crashing waves and watch the Sun emerge in blazing gold from the sea. I have been coming to love these early mornings on the Big Island, the whole day stretching before us filled with the potential of new places to see and explore. We began driving south along Old Mamalahoa Highway (which seems to be the name of half of the roads on the Big Island, at least according to Google maps), going first to Akaka Falls, an exquisite plunging thread of water descending 442 feet into a narrow, circular pool. A trail loop circles through lush rainforest, across a passing stream, and over to first one look-out where Kahuna Falls can be seen in the distance, and then up to a closer look-out where one can see the full length of Akaka Falls. Throughout the rainforest were flowers of almost unimaginable complexity, intricacy, color, demonstrating the sheer creativity of tropical evolution.

We continued along the winding thread of coastal highway until we reached the Onohi Loop, a scenic route through rainforest trees, over streams and small waterfalls, and along the coastal cliffs. At Onomea Bay, which is at the base of Alakahi Stream, Matt and I walked out onto the stony beach, and then onto a jut of land that extended out into the crashing waves. In a playful mood, I walked as far out as I could and stood up on a promontory of rock above the waves crashing all around me. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I started to use my arms to conduct the waves, in synchronized movement pulling the swells up from the sea and raising them until they crashed against the sharp, black lava rocks, splashing me with salty, white foam. It was a dance with the waves, each seeming to respond to me as much as I to them, a dialogue of danger and play. It was like being a child and a god all in one moment. I felt so serious, yet couldn’t stop laughing, playing in shear delight with the rhythms of the world.

Conducting the Ocean Waves – Photo by Matt Segall
Conducting the Ocean Waves – Photo by Matt Segall

After Onomea Bay we drove into Hilo, making many short stops in and around the small city. First we went to Rainbow Falls, a much smaller yet still immensely gorgeous waterfall. Unlike Akaka, it’s possible to climb up above the waterfall and watch it flow past below you, catching the light in arc after arc of misty rainbows. We sat with our feet in the cool pools of rushing water, soaking in the warm sun of the still early morning. After Rainbow Falls we made another quick visit to Boiling Pots, a series of pools that looks like pots of boiling water as they bubble and splash on their way downstream. From there we continued into Hilo itself, walking along Kiawe Street, stopping in shops, picking up some lychee from the farmers market, and eating papayas while looking upstream from the Wailuku Bridge. We ate a picnic lunch in a park full of dozens of enormous banyan trees, and then walked through the Japanese Botanical Gardens over to Coconut Island, a tiny plot of land out in Kuhio Bay.

With several hours still left in the afternoon, Matt and I went over to Richardson Ocean Park to see how snorkeling on the east coast of the Big Island compared to what we had seen on the western side. I pushed myself to face my fears of the water and set off from the black sand beach closely tailing Matt. The corals and fish at this particular location were gorgeous; purples, yellows, brain corals, rainbow-colored fish. No eels. We went out for a ways until the water got deeper, and then turned back in to where the water was shallower and rougher, which seemed to house an even greater diversity of fish and corals. Just as we decided to head back to shore, we had a deeply profound encounter. At the base of one of the larger rocks was a dark cave; gazing out from that cave was the head of a turtle. The turtle watched us swim nearby, and then slowly swam up to meet us. Not wanting to disturb this majestic creature we backed away, but the turtle followed. Each time we retreated, she came closer, floating gently in the water, gazing at the two of us. How old must this being be? What is her consciousness like? What does she think of the world around her, what changes has she noticed in the decades she has spent beneath the waves? After some time the moment of connection came to an end, and the turtle swam back into her cave. Matt and I both felt blessed to have had such an encounter.

We ended our day in Hilo by going to a tiny sushi restaurant, Hime Bar Sushi, that had only three tables and was run by an elderly Japanese couple: he made all the sushi behind the counter while she served at the tables, a quiet dance between two people who seemed to have been practicing the steps for many years. It was some of the best sushi I have ever had, somehow at half the price of most other sushi restaurants I have been to.

As night descended we left Hilo, and drove in the dark to Volcanoes National Park, where we awoke to the sound of two little birds tapping on the windows of the van. What did they want? Perhaps tapping at their own reflections, or perhaps offering a needed reflection for us at that moment, I do not know. This was our fullest day yet, beginning with a short walk through the Thurston Lava Tubes. The lava tube we walked inside was enormous, lit up with warm yellow torches that gave the sense of entering an underground dwarvish kingdom. Mosses and other plants grew around the entrances, and in places throughout the tube a tree root broke through the outer layer of rock.

Not far from the lava tubes was a path along the top edge of the Kilauea Iki crater, which is close to the main summit caldera of Kilauea. A trail runs across the crater and we could see tiny figures far below walking it. I recalled making the same trek a decade ago with my cousins. But today we had a different adventure in mind, so after a brief look out over the edge we returned to the van and drove to the parking lot where our real hike would begin.

Matt had chosen the Napau Trail for us to hike that day, a trail which crosses a vast field of forty-year-old pahoehoe flows from the Mauna Ulu eruption that eventually leads to the Makaopuhi Crater, the largest crater on the Big Island. We decided to walk about eight miles of the trail, four miles in to the crater’s edge and then the return journey. This trail leads all the way to the Pu’u O’o vent, but the end of the trail has been closed due to volcanic activity at Pu’u O’o. At the start of the trail we had to self-register at the hiker’s check-in station so that we would be accounted for if anything were to go wrong. I felt very tentative about this hike, seeing the immense stretch of lava desert before me. It was not a hospitable environment, and at times I couldn’t help but see our two little figures crossing this bleak landscape as something akin to crossing the plain of Gorgoroth in Mordor. It was absolutely fitting for the Sun-opposite-Pluto transit in the sky.

Rainbow Sun – Photo by Matt Segall
Rainbow Sun – Photo by Matt Segall

About a mile into the hike we reached Pu’u Huluhulu, a rainforest-covered cinder cone which provided an amazing view in all directions from its top. A circular rainbow happened to be surrounding the Sun at the time we reached the summit of the cinder cone, casting enchanted colors across the stark landscape. Leaving the minimal shade of the rainforest, which felt stuffy and close compared to the open air over the lava flows, the landscape of the hike unfolded like waves that had been frozen into crystalline structures. Each step was precarious, the path uncertain, yet all the better for it. Nothing could be taken for granted. An orchid in the middle of this desert appeared a small miracle. Golden ferns adorned the landscape here and there. Eventually we began to approach a crater, which at first we thought was the Makaopuhi, but soon realized that it was but a small chasm in the Earth compared to what we were about to encounter. The colors of the lava all around this smaller crater were amazing to behold though, rusted reds and yellows that seemed to be a product of the intense heat arising from this part of the ground.

Finally in the distance we could see the green of trees growing along the edge of the Makaopuhi Crater. At first it was difficult to even begin to take in just how enormous this crater was. We weren’t able to see it fully before the path plunged into the trees, which provided a welcome relief from the hot sun. The path wove between soft green grasses under a canopy of tall trees. Suddenly there was an opening in the trees to my left, and I dared to walk off the path for the first time since starting this hike. Just a few yards from the path was an open ledge, and beyond that—nothing. The cliff before our feet went down and down, hundreds of feet. The bottom of the crater was a lifetime away, and nothing was between us and that precarious edge. It was almost too much to behold. One side of the crater was covered in the multiple shades of the green rainforest, the other side the deep purple-browns of lava flows that spilled over its edge and obliterated the living forest. Life and new land were intermingled in a flow of colors, the life of the rainforest an older presence on this land than the seemingly dead flow of lava. Standing on that cliff edge, and the conversation that took place there between me and Matt, will remain one of the most precious moments of my life.

At magic hour we turned back toward home, walking with the Sun before us, casting ever-longer shadows behind. The return journey felt shorter than setting out, with familiar features of the landscape making themselves apparent. At long last we returned to the van, and then to the campsite where we had spent the previous night. Although we never saw the sunset, the sky was a myriad display of fuchsia and tangerine, tangled in a spiderweb of clouds.

Makaopuhi Crater – Photo by Matt Segall
Makaopuhi Crater – Photo by Matt Segall

The following two days were a series of adventures all around Puna. We went first to the town of Pahoa and breakfasted at Pele’s Kitchen, before going to Lava Trees National Park to see the eerie towering remains of a forest covered over by lava flows. Our next stop was to Hedonesia, a little hostel and intentional community located in a lush pocket of forest overflowing with coconut trees and raspberries. The funky rooms are all open to the landscape, with screens as walls and tall grasses already seeming to swallow the structures back into the Earth. After being given a tour of the work they are doing on the land there, Matt and I headed out again, this time to Kehena Beach. It happened to be a Sunday, the day when many of the local Punatics descend on this rocky black sand beach after Ecstatic Dance at Kalani Retreat Center to bodysurf nude, play drums, dance, smoke, converse, laugh. It made both of us want to join the community here, to have the rhythm of Sundays at Kehena be a part of the rhythm of our own lives.

We returned to Pahoa for dinner at Kaleo’s Bar and Grill, and then had a slightly trying night attempting to find somewhere to park our van to sleep. First we had to leave from Isaac Hale Beach Park, only to later be kicked out by police from Alahanui. At last we found a place where we would not be troubling anyone, and got a few hours of sleep before waking to a lush, rainy morning. For lunch Matt and I decided to go to Kalani, the local retreat center where my Dad has come to give workshops at times. Kalani reminded me of a tropical version of Hollyhock in British Columbia, with flowering trees and gardens, open lawns, small rustic yet beautiful buildings set up for guests and workers. We enjoyed the abundance of the kitchen while seated on the Lanai, and imagined what it might be like to be able to teach workshops there one day.

After a return visit to Kehena Beach and a quick dip in the waves, Matt and I returned to Hilo to meet a fellow scholar of Alfred North Whitehead at a local burger joint. Over a series of pints we dove into process philosophy and archetypal reality, exchanging ideas that may come up next year in the International Whitehead Conference being held at Claremont for which Matt is the organizer of the track “Late Modernity and Its Reductive Monism.” To my surprise much of what we were discussing was extremely pertinent to the paper I was working on at the time on the nature of archetypes and if it is possible to have an experience beyond the patterning of one’s birth chart and transits. That paper was deeply influenced and shaped by the different places I wrote it in, with each new landscape and experience offering different perspectives on the material.

Much later that night we made it back to Waimea, and spent a few hours doing laundry and repacking all of our gear in preparation for our early flight to Maui the next morning. Sleep was such a relief after all our adventures, and yet we still had so many more awaiting us.

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