I hiked to Halapē beach in Volcano National Park on Tuesday, July 14. Some time had to pass for me to recount this, not because of mishaps (none) or terrors (no real ones), but because I needed time to figure out if this was an accomplishment or not.
This is the jewel of the park’s beaches, the best one on this coast, say the couple I ran into the previous day at Pepeiao Cabin. There are palm trees, a white sand beach, a protected bay where you can swim and a freshwater pool you can rinse in. The pool is extremely rare, its type found only here, on Maui and in Israel, and is home to unique shrimp mysterious to science.
I am faced with a similar, but a little better, situation than the previous hike. I got up at a decent time so am here around 10–not early but not so shameful. I have the same 4 liters of water, a map, and now some idea of what the world is like down there. I stop at the ranger station for my backcountry pass, in case I stay the night. I have no tent or any real ability to do so aside from a survival blanket, but the couple yesterday seemed confident that would be enough.
The rangers agree that Halapē is the destination of choice. The one writing my pass doesn’t seem thrilled with not having a tent, but I’ve worn my pack and have the right clothes, so he relents. I sign multiple papers: I promise not disturb the rare honu’ea turtles. I won’t contaminate the freshwater pools with sunscreen or other human filth. I have adequate water, food, knowledge of tsunami warnings. I initial a box declaring I understand I have three minutes to get out if the sirens go off. The ranger is required to read through a page of warnings, front and back. A Canadian couple next to me listens quietly to understand what they’re getting into.
“Still want to go?” He says it kindly, clear there’s no shame in knowing your limits.
“Yes, I’ve been appropriately intimidated,” I say, and sign the big line.
The rangers advise my itinerary. They disagree with couple’s advice to take the Puna Coast Trail: it’s all exposed, far from the water, black lava. Flat, yes, but hot. They recommend the Keauhou Trail, which connects with the Hilina Pali Trail, and then a short descent to Halapē.
The Puna Coast Trail route would be 11.3 miles one way. The ranger’s route is 7.7. Yesterday was 4.8. Today is almost 40% longer.
The drive down the curving Chain of Craters road becomes what all parks become after you’ve been in them too long: a string of little signs and pullover spots to look at the same thing you’ve already seen. A group of Indians dog me down: friendly people with shining skin who mostly cluster by the minivan while some of the women come to look. I am stopping too, of course, to see what the different craters look like. The women seem both surprised and approving that don’t bother with shoes on these little walks. “You should travel to India next,” one in a pink sari says. “You will find the good fit.”
Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu marks where the trail starts: a black, percussive lava field from 1969. The blackness is something that can be heard, so stark is the change between stunted rainforest and blue sky. Maybe it’s the shimmering, caused by peridot.
Wrangle the pack and sandals on, check the car is locked and I have the key three times, and go. It’s probably close to 10:30 now. A pair of large signs mark the trailhead, which would otherwise be lost in the sundazzled black. Take enough water, it says. Fatalities result annually from visitors without water.
The trail undulates and is smooth, great pillows of hardened lava piling over one another, sometimes relaxing into jutted fans. The Canadians aren’t even behind me yet, futzing with packs and accessories far more serious than mine. It is bright but not hot, and all gentle down.
It’s here I realize I’ve forgotten my knee brace. My left knee bothers me from time to time with shooting pain along the left side, and it seemed a sensible precaution. I stand a moment and then keep going. I’m not giving up the day to it.
The land goes through the same changes as yesterday, though the emphasis is different. Rock is black and a mix of smooth surface and a’a. Trees are fewer but larger and more established. There are fewer flowering things. Long stretches are sand and high thin grass, both very soft to walk through, the sand warm, the grass cool. The forest thins to scrub.
The Ulu lava flow is a massive scar across the scarp’s face.
I’m reminded of Texas summers, trying to find fields and woods to tromp through. There is the sun pressing down, but here there is a cool wind, no insects whirring and strumming, no smell of dust or taste of grit. The air doesn’t seem that clean, but it must be. All the fog I see must be nature’s dirt.
It takes me almost two hours to get to the first turn, the Keauhou trail. It’s been 2.5 miles. It seems too long for an even downward slant. At this rate, I’ll get there by 3:30 or so.
The Keauhou trail is pleasant but unrelenting. Long sandy stretches are a relief, but the longer lava sections are crumbly. The sun keeps shining, the wind keeps blowing. It’s all pretty much the same.
The slope is enough I can almost run, but I don’t. Who will help you if you fall out here? Don’t you want to see something besides where you’re about to step? Monkey is nothing if consistent company.
Monkey isn’t the loudmouth he was yesterday, but he’s still there, talking about carburetors or the Tea Party’s gold standard. I stop to breathe and look around and can ignore him, or fit the view and wind in with him. He may be fighting for notice from the wind more than from me.
My knee starts to hurt. Monkey loves hurt. Do you want to turn around? What if you damage it permanently? What if that’s already happened? You don’t have real insurance. You’ll look pretty stupid down there, unable to get up.
I walk with care. It only hurts on down, fine on flat or up. You’ll have hours there to rest and swim. It’ll be fine, fine.
The trail winds down sharp gulleys, low jumbles of stone blocks. The wind blows hard like yesterday but doesn’t howl. The path is easy to miss in spots, even in daylight, the little stone cairns blown over. I reset some of them. The lava rock has an eerie, almost phony sound. I am reminded of the scene in The Blues Brothers where Carrie Fischer fires a rocket at the brothers and the cops come to bag them. As the brothers stir out of the foam prop bricks the sound is exactly the same as the lava I build into little piles.
More miles winding down the scarp. It’s very bright but the wind is too strong to tell if it’s hot. Then a little ridge and a sense the land is changing.
The land opens as it falls, and a little down now goes a long way.
Those little tufts of green at the water’s edge are the palm trees. I can hear the ocean now. Down eases and doesn’t hurt.
The beach is as above. It’s not much of a beach, but this isn’t the island for beaches, and this isn’t the side for beaches. There is some white coarse sand, most like aquarium gravel. The palm trees seem like sentinels placed long ago, their purpose forgotten. The waves are rough but stopped by the natural breakwater, all pure blue. I can see why people like it here.
There are other couples here: two in their early twenties and a pair of women. All keep to themselves but say hello, provide guidance when I ask. There is another beach a short distance away, and the freshwater pools are behind us, in a cut stone gulley that looks made of jumbled Legos. I stand at the shore a while. I lay the landlady’s towels on sunbaked rocks in hopes of irradiating the odor out. I eat my peanut butter sandwiches under a palm tree.
For the first time I swim in the ocean. It’s cold–not really, but about as warm as a heat-turned-up day at a Seattle pool. I left my goggles in my pack but can see brain coral beneath me. I am hesitant but keep watching the waves broken up by the rocks and leaving me only gentle swell. The water feels clean. The sun dries without being harsh.
Are you staying? Are you going? Knee hurts, huh?
My knee doesn’t hurt. It’s close to five. I have a couple protein bars and plenty of water, as well as iodine tablets, but I’m not prepared to stay. Time to check out the freshwater pool and go.
One of the young women is in the freshwater pond, looking in a shrimp trap. She says the water is warmer than the ocean, but I have sunblock on and don’t touch it. The shrimp are deep lusterless purple, with long, narrow pincers. She and the other three young people work at a rehab center where teens dry out. A week on, not quite a week off lets them travel. She has mean scratches all along her wrists, which I remark on; the other woman also has a bandage taped to her calf. She says she was spotting her friend up in a coconut tree and he fell on her. Seems like you get hurt every day on this island, she says.
My first iodine-in-wilderness-water experience is today, too.
Little pills the size of baby aspirin claim to make two liters of water safe. Sorry, no activity against cryptosporidium. Hopefully that’s one thing that doesn’t live here. I fill the green bottle and drop tablets in. In a couple miles I drink it without adding the neutralizer tablets, and it tastes fine.
The hike up goes quickly in time but not in distance. The sun races down and I’m hardly back to the narrow trail picture earlier.
Numeracy has often presented problems for me, though here figuring the time was more a matter of it being so nice lying in the sun. It will be well dark by the time I get back. No, I really can’t stay. I have enough of everything to make it to the car.
Didn’t the guy say people die out here?
Monkey is ever helpful.
There is no pace to pick up. I am not going as fast as I can but I can’t go any faster, either. Each step is sure and I look at it, the light ample. The world has that richness that comes with dusk where the extra dimensions emerge. It takes me several minutes to realize the wind has stopped, and there is only the slightest strum of grasshoppers louder and distant surf.
The drained, spent feeling of not being in trouble but being too tired to go on comes. I take the pack off, find a protein bar, eat it and drink a week’s worth of iodine. High soft grass is here and I lie in it and look upwards and breathe. Monkey is quiet as I run through numbers, times, and then let go of that. The car is where it is. I am where I am. Look at the color.
I take a long time there not thinking. People have told me I need to loosen the valve, to relax into things. I don’t think they intended me to do it with one protein bar and who knows how many miles to the car, but this is where it comes and this is where it is.
I really don’t want to wear the sandals any more, but I don’t want to step on the razor blades Pele inevitably dropped in the dark. The pack is lighter, having less water. Light has that liquid quality where objects are visible but boundaries are not.
I don’t go very far and have to stop again. I don’t eat, just rest, breathe, look out at the water, the fatigue going to that hollow shakiness of too much coffee. A thin static of electricity drapes over everything, like starlight.
I take this picture. Tall grass is here, a little dry, and the sky is half-cloud chasing the Moon. I lie there a long time breathing and watching the grass sway and the clouds pull themselves by. The air is light. I am lost in time. I could be seven years old back in Canada, lying in one of the fields near our house, one that hadn’t been bulldozed to more houses. I remember something about the Charlie Brown Halloween special and kids running through autumn fields. It could be the fields in middle school behind my friend’s house as we compared Star Trek to Space: 1999, glad to not have school to worry about for for once. It could be somewhere else, somewhere I don’t remember but know I have been. It is powerful to be so freefloating. I lie there far longer than I realize in a place that vibrates with sixth grade wonder. When I get up it takes a minute for the world to be solid again.
Wind starts back up slowly and within a minute is almost too strong to stand. The car’s flashlight is no longer bright enough to pick out the cairns, and each step threatens to blow me over. Monkey likes describing how land and sea breezes work while I become increasingly afraid.
The fear isn’t a mortal fear, or even a fear like a bad review at work, or the oven was left on and the house burned down. It’s the tissuepaper, brittle fear of the world suddenly become your determined adversary.
I search out the next cairn from the current one’s safety, now with both flashlights. I come to a fence I didn’t see before, lava rock stretching down to the sea and back up the mountain out of sight, two high cairns marking the passage. I walk a little ways and back several times. I can only move by bending forward into the wind. I can’t hear my own swearing. I can’t find a cairn.
This is not a place to stop and think, though I am thinking and realizing there are no thoughts. I need a cairn and can’t find one. Monkey is gone. The lava and trees are black outline without surface.
In the dark and howling wind the Moon is very far away. Searching clockwise across the tumbled lava I don’t see a cairn. I walk where the trail seems to go, over the rock. I turn the Maglite beam a little tighter and at least can see the fence portal, back there. I’ve walked this way three times.
I remember times being stuck like this before, and they seem irrelevant and distant. In one of those dry but howling winter storms that occasionally roll through Fort Worth, the wind blows closed the door of my still-running car. I am riding Boston’s subway and don’t know where I am. I am driving back from graduate school in January and drive around a closed gate, where the Interstate has been closed for blowing snow and I manage to stop at the last pancake house before whiteout.
Those times I called my dad, found a map, just kept going. Something was there. It doesn’t seem true here.
What happens next is not extraordinary, or mundane, or good luck. I don’t know what it is. The wind almost knocks me down again and I see the cairn, low and flat on a lava pillow like a plank frog.
“There it is.” Also, probably: “Fucker.” I walk to it.
That is the link to each cairn in the pummeling dark: there it is. Next one. There it is. Some are close and pop right out, and others require more hunting. I am becoming skilled at finding the trail where there isn’t one visible. It just feels like trail, and there it is.
Hours go like this. There are gullies where the wind relents, but it blows like in Melville everywhere else. After a while it just becomes there, there.
How afraid am I? Sitting with the bay open before me in the brilliant tropical sun, it’s hard to say now. Was it as frightening as being grabbed by the ocean? No. Being in the middle of nowhere with the gas light on? Maybe. Hiding in the hall closet under long-outdated clothes while tornado sirens go off and the lights go out? Pretty close.
Each cairn appears in turn and the wind blows to keep me from it. I start swearing. I just want it to stop.
There have been several times in life where I have just wanted it to stop. At one point, I would have done anything to stop everything. But that was a long time ago.
When the puffy treeless lava plain appears I know there is an end. A rain is falling, horizontally, but there aren’t any clouds for rain. A thin, lukewarm mist blows over the plain and the Moon keeps shining. Seeing each cairn just makes me move toward it. I wander a few times, backing up, then finding the next one.
I can keep going. I don’t know what time it is. I only know I love that car more than anything. When something goes wrong with the horizon and I realize it’s the road with cars parked, I walk no faster. It would be too typical to jam my ankle with the car right there. The relief is not a positive feeling but the release of every imagined doomed outcome.
Wind hurls the doors open. The gate flies up when wind gets under it, and I crawl in and struggle to close it until the wind notices, and slams.
One of my favorite Bradbury stories from middle school takes place on Mercury. A ship from Earth had crashed millennia ago. The descendants now lived out entire lives in a few seconds, sped up by the great heat. Two manage to get inside the ancient ship and collapse into cool slow time.
The car is total shelter. Wind is so strong it rocks the car, but can’t get in. I lie in the back a long time. It is as good as I imagined.