I can show you nothing but my two flashlights’ glowing heads. The darkness is too much for the feeble iPhone. Coolness doesn’t matter here.
Nāhuku, or the Thurston Lava Tube, is a broad channel carved by molten rock from one of Kīlauea’s long-ago eruptions. As lava flows the edges cool, and a closed channel with a solid roof can form while the hot center courses through in a flood of glowing rock. Superheated gases course through the top of the channel. The Park Service displays, ever helpful in their respect for nature’s power, explain the torrent of gas is soundless. All you would hear is the gentle purring of the boiling rock.
Part of the lava tube is accessible to anyone, and has been prepared for the average tourist in his or her flipflops. A broad approach would allow wheelchairs and the floor appears to have been smoothed slightly so petulant adolescents, focused on their phones, don’t trip badly. That part looks like this:
The ceiling is high, run through with narrow cracks and ominous missing pyramidal lumps. The entire surface is smooth and undulating, covered with a thick damp. Some cracks are big enough to stick your fist in. I do not do this.
After a fair walk stairs lead to the surface some twenty or so feet above. Chainlink blocks the space beyond, but a gate is open. A sign explains that this space is unaltered tube available for exploration. No, the Park Service does not provide flashlights. Please be careful.
I have a flashlight. One that didn’t come with the car.
A jumble of rock steps leads down to the floor, after which light from above and the lit tunnel drops to nothing. Light from behind can be sensed but illuminates nothing. Two steps in and there is the deep vertigo of a cave’s blackness.
I’m exploring this at night, coming back after everyone has gone. I didn’t want to fumble around others, and didn’t want to become a leader because I’m the only person with a light.
Both flashlights together synergize: the little Maglite provides a broad beam with the trademark center dead spot, and the car’s flashlight fills it in with technical LED light. The two together illuminate the whole passage, not brightly but plenty well enough to see.
Air hangs heavier here, but is no different in temperature or humidity than the popular tube. The floor is smooth but undulates more, with deeper ridges. Chunks of jagged, sharp-edged rock lie beneath the ceiling’s triangular holes: big as my head, big as a kitchen sink. Inside the ceiling holes there are bands of concentric color: brown, black, tan. All the edges are very sharp, very new.
Silence hangs in a rich pall. I breathe a while. The tunnel keeps going. For some reason, I have the thought to turn the lights out.
It must have been in middle school when I was over at Matt’s house, during summer. I remember summer as it was a weeknight but there was no worry of school, of needing to be anywhere to prove something. Everyone was gone, the street was quiet, the blinds were drawn. We had been talking and, because he could, Matt turned out the light.
Darkness is total and rich, the kind where you hear the walls breathe. I know I am in a room with walls, beds, a long desk he shares with his brother, model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. I reach out to them with my ears but I do not know where they are, not really, and the world begins to tip over. No disorientation, just floating, or lying on your side in warm air that holds you.
“I can’t see a difference when I close my eyes,” Matt laughs. I can’t either. The world tips more and we laugh, because we are in a suburban nowhere room in a nowhere town and we aren’t going anywhere with or without the dark.
This place is darker.
Darkness is total and pumps out vertigo. I am nowhere. I leave the lights off, gripping them, listening. Nothing speaks or moves. Closing my eyes is not even wrong, as the scientists say: the darkness is not accessible to knowing. This is not primal darkness, the darkness of the soul. It is far, far deeper, from a time before gravity. This is what is in the Earth, beneath us, all the time.
Is anybody in here? The closeness weighs down even though it is very far away. It is oppressive because I know it is in a cave, but I could be between galaxies in that great dark for all the difference it makes.
A rock could fall, you could get lost. More lost. The monkey in my mind won’t stop chattering everything that could go wrong, reminding what has gone wrong already.
If you were to fall, if you were to lose the lights–
The lights come on. I hold them in both hands and walk up the steps and out.
Silence and blindness in the Earth. We are not in the past, ever.