Our first week on the Big Island of Hawai’i was based around Waimea, with daily excursions to the beach or on a day hike. The second week I have come to think of as the week of the van: my uncle was kind of enough to lend Matt and I his van to travel in around the island, so we took out the back two rows of seats, put in a futon and created a little traveling home for the next week. We had a handful of my uncle’s family’s CDs for entertainment—the I Am Sam soundtrack with its Beatles covers became our theme music for the trip—as well as the exquisite changing scenery all around us and rich conversation throughout.
Our first day with our travel van was a day trip, heading down the west coast toward Kona. After checking out the small city briefly, and stopping at a painting exhibition detailing the life and conquerings of King Kamehameha, we drove further down the coast to Kealakekua Bay, a dark blue bay with deep waters where spinner dolphins often come to rest during the day. We first walked along the rough lava rocks on the shore before finding a grassy beach area where we could lie in the sun. Although we did not encounter any dolphins we did go for a short snorkel in part of the bay, seeing a whole school of bright yellow fish among the coral. We also hiked a little ways along the shore, exploring tide pools filled with little fish, crabs, and sea anemones. On our drive back up toward Waimea we stopped off at Da Poke Shack, a tiny little storefront south of Kailua-Kona, where we got the last of the day’s catch of fresh poke served with steamed rice and seaweed salad—hands down one of the most delicious meals I’ve had on the island.
The following day Matt and I decided to head out from Waimea in the opposite direction, going east toward the Hamakua Coast. Our first stop was about 45 minutes away at Laupahoehoe Point, a leaf of lava jutting out into the more turbulent ocean crashing along the east coast. A school had been operating on this point during the first half of the 20th century, and it had been tragically impacted by the 1946 tsunami which killed 23 people, mostly young students, on this one part of the island. Further destruction hit both Hilo in the south and Waipio Valley up north. One of the most beautiful aspects of Laupahoehoe is the enormous banyan tree growing there, that was planted by the third grade class in 1916. The tree survived the incoming waters of the tsunami and still thrives today. We spent a good amount of time with this majestic goddess of a tree, climbing barefoot into her branches where whole rooms were created by the braided ropes of ascending branches and descending roots.
As we made our way back up the coast we drove into the hills above the ocean towards Kalopa Native Forest State Park, a tropical forest mired in mist where red birds flitted around us and mongooses scurried mischievously through the grass. We ate our lunch among the trees before going back toward the coast and driving up into the little town of Honaka’a, which is essentially one road with an array of little shops and cafés. The crystal store boasts the largest crystal on Hawai’i (although it actually originated in Brazil), and the woman running the shop offers free mini massages with a rounded crystal as you sit on a geode-encrusted stool named the “chair of adventure.” From Honaka’a we went several miles further down the road to the Waipio Valley lookout. Much like Pololu, which is two valleys further north, Waipio is a deep rift between steep forested ridges with a black sand beach stretching between the enclosing cliffs. Waipio is privately owned, although it is possible to hike or ride horses down into the valley itself. From the lookout we could see forest and grassland, and a few small cultivated plots with an occasional building here or there. A heavy mist hung over the valley, and rain was pouring in distant sheets over the ocean, catching the wan sunlight between watery veils.
On the road back to Honaka’a the roadside was littered with bright yellow fallen guava fruits. I was determined to stop and pick some, but by the time I convinced Matt to stop by a guava tree we had passed all the ones whose branches were within reach. Alas, all the fruit available to me was past its prime rotting on the ground. Next time, I suppose. Very much craving dinner as we rolled back into Waimea, we chose to stop at the Red Water Café, recommended to us by several different family members. We arrived under an epic rainbow, the second we had seen so far on the trip. Red Water was delicious but a little expensive—arriving just in time for happy hour we shared Negihama sushi and a lilikoi yellow curry. The décor seemed to be a cross between Western saloon and sushi bar: truly a fusion, and fitting of the culture in Waimea.
Matt, my cousin, and I spent the next day completely melting into the sand at Mauna Lani Beach, known for its excellent snorkeling in its small protected bay. It’s a short walk in to the beach through a field of rough a’a lava with the openings to some lava tubes here and there. The path then winds around some brackish ponds with trees growing right out of the water and with moray eels peering eerily out from their rock homes. I recalled a startling encounter I had with a moray eleven years ago while snorkeling at this same beach and felt a little reluctant to enter the water again. The inverted teeth are less than friendly looking.
That evening Matt and I set off for an adventure we had both particularly been looking forward to: a night spent up on Mauna Kea at the Visitor Information Center, located at 9,200 feet elevation above the cloud line. The observatories at the summit are at 14,000 feet but it requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to manage the road so we settled for the lower station. We soon learned that 9,000 feet is actually the best elevation for humans to view stars because while the atmosphere is thinner at that height than lower elevations, any higher there is not enough oxygen for the human eye to function optimally.
Our plan was to arrive in time for sunset, but by the time we climbed the nearest hill with a view of the western horizon the Sun had just passed below the ocean rim. The colors were still spectacular, vermillion and rose bleeding into a darkening indigo sky. The crescent Moon hung high in the western sky, a clear white arc lit up on the edge of a darkened orb. As night descended stars emerged everywhere one turned, more clear and bright than I have seen anywhere else. Down by the visitor’s center a young student from the University of Hawaii guided us through a tour of the constellations, beginning with the Southern Cross, which cannot be viewed anywhere else in the United States except on the Big Island of Hawai’i. She then pointed out the constellation of Leo, descending toward the horizon. Near where the Sun had set a glow was still in the sky, although it was now long past sunset. We were told this was indeed the Sun’s light as it reflected on the accretion disc of our solar system, the remaining particles of dust that lie on the plane of the ecliptic.
We were led through all the constellations of the zodiac visible above the horizon in the summer sky, as well as several particularly prominent stars. Polaris, the north star, is visible at 19.5° above the horizon, indicating the latitude of the Big Island. We could see the bright blue-silver star Vega, and were told that due to the procession of the equinoxes Vega will be Earth’s north star in about 12,000 years. I recognized then that knowing the constellations of the night sky at a glance is something I would like to master. While it is not as easy to see the constellations while living in San Francisco, there are still places I can go that are not too far away where the stars are clearly visible. But it is difficult to find a stargazing platform that can rival the heights of Mauna Kea.
Because we just missed the sunset I had the thought we could sleep in our van right at the visitor’s center, and wake up in time to see the sunrise. So we spent the night at 9,000 feet, our first evening where the temperature was actually cool, awaiting the dawn. I’ve had an interesting experience with my dreams since coming to Hawai’i: each night we stayed in Waimea my dreams were incredibly violent in content, but when we slept on Mauna Kea my dreams changed completely. There was a majestic stillness; I dreamt mountain-consciousness and starlight. The experience was far beyond human. It was grandness, height, vastness. Stillness. Without an alarm I awoke as the sky was getting light, and woke Matt up so we could climb back up the nearby hill to see the Sun complete its night journey as it passed back above the horizon. The sky lightened slowly, reds and salmon-orange clouds streaking the yellowing sky. Behind us the shadow of Mauna Kea stretched over the plane below. The wind picked up in the moment before the Sun seemed to melt as fiery gold over the horizon. Awe. No wonder we are drawn to worship this life-giving orb of fire. The landscape all around awakened, golden light hitting the edges of the pu’us, the cinder cones, down the slopes of the mountain. At long last we left, having seen the Sun at last from the heights of Mauna Kea.