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Mauna Loa

The top of the last mountain is six miles and two thousand feet away. At 13,679 feet, it’s not as high as Mauna Kea, but you can drive to the top of that one.

The Observatory

The Observatory

The frequently hair-pinned, one-lane, disintegrating road ends at the Mona Loa Observatory. This is the famed weather station where the atmospheric CO2 concentration has been dependably measured since 1958. The gate is locked and warns trespassers. The asphalt strip marked public parking has room for a half-dozen cars at most. It is not a place that wants company.

The guidebook’s advice to car camp overnight to acclimate to the altitude is sound. The night is very quiet and very dark and I realize I am not afraid of anyone or anything looking in the windows. Fully dressed and under a cover, it gets cold enough I don’t sleep soundly. When I get up the car says the outside temperature is 39, but the brilliant summer sun warms the interior within minutes of dawn.

Some other cars pull up but I’ve decided to go back to sleep. A few minutes after a noisy group departs (or it seems that long from under the covers) I get up, brush my teeth and spit on the lava rock, put on the pack and start. It’s about 8:45.

The Park Service flyer shows 3.1 miles from the Observatory to a fork, with another near-3  miles to either the summit or a cabin with non-potable water. The book says on a good day all the Hawaiian islands can be seen from the summit, so that’s the place to go.

Immediately at pavement’s end a sign announces the end of maintenance, which is the introduction to a giant hole. The road is mostly compact-car-sized holes for several car lengths and then turns to gravel track again. The power line turns into the Observatory and there is just the mountain.

The way up

The way up

Volcano was the same: a Martian surface of curling rock and brilliant reptile-skin stone flakes and shiny volcanic glass reflection in the dust. Cairns too, with a greater need. The trail is indistinguishable from the rock plain.

Sometimes, signs

Sometimes, signs

Mauna Kea rises up in false modesty, the white blocks of the telescopes clearly visible. It doesn’t look like something rising to such height, a giant it would take days to walk up to. I realize I am walking up its twin, making that same journey only a dope would make over there.



If you were to stand at this sign and look around, you would have no idea you were on a trail.

The hike is hard and not hard. I can breathe but yawn constantly, a sign of insufficient air. Wind is constant but not overpowering, a contrast to the powerful sun. I am sweating underneath my pack and leaving my fleece unzipped while my hands are numb from cold.

A guy in lime-green professional hiking duds comes down, and I stop and stare at him a while, unsure something so discordant with the environment is real. He was the first one here,  whose car woke me at sunup. He couldn’t make it to the top with time to get back to his hotel, wife and departing flight. Cool what he saw, though. Am I an NPS peaker?

I need a moment to say no, I’m not going to the top dozen-whatever highest points in the National Park System. I’m in Hawaii taking time off. This is fun, that’s all. He seems a little puzzled. After he goes I can understand. Is this fun? Why am I doing it?

It’s too hard to breathe and I take the pack off, sit. My legs don’t hurt or feel tired, but they only move through a strange willfulness highly attuned to just how heavy legs are. I try holding my breath to counter the rapid breathing and almost black out, then find a place that isn’t panting but isn’t holding either. I am not hungry or thirsty but very tired. It is close to 10. I might have gone over a mile.



Weird amoeba octopus watcher faces, or at least their brows and warts, spread out of old vents. I get the idea I should eat something anyway and have a protein bar and some cookies. Fullness of breath never quite comes, but when I walk again legs move like legs instead of lumber.

Going up has me repeat to myself how hard it is, and it is hard. The incline is never severe visually, but moving to the horizon feels like I am somewhere with much higher gravity. Why are you so drawn to this difficulty? You don’t like the desert, even if it doesn’t frighten you any more. You don’t do hard hikes like this at home.

Some time before the three mile mark I cross the National Park Boundary–Volcano National park claims some of the mountaintop and the southern flank toward that park. The path turns to a coarse sand of roughly crumbled lava, like kid’s cereal made of rock. The sign announcing the boundary is straight and neatly painted.

At the boundary people have left offerings at a large cairn. The most interesting is a Japanese business card.



I can’t walk any more, again. The land is gentle, nothing but the crumbled lava cereal, and I lie down on it. It is surprisingly comfortable, almost soft. It takes my weight and the granules shift and crunch like a beanbag chair. Brilliant sun streams down, flattening the desert.

Two younger people walk by, looking like they’ve walked out of an REI catalog: thin, unsmiling, white, wearing color-coordinated performance clothing, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. They are unstartled by somebody lying down just off the trail. I say the trail is really hard. Yeah, they say. Yeah. I lie perhaps five more minutes and get up when I realize I’m not getting any less tired. I look up the long trail of cairns and don’t see them and can’t believe they have moved that damn fast.

The cereal trail gives out and the land becomes more Martian in a way the land so far hasn’t been. The ascent is gentler, making the light harsh. I am reminded again and again of all those pictures from childhood, still at home in books, of those Viking lander pictures–so bleak and brilliant. Mars is a place, Sagan said thirty years ago, out of the TV. You can go there.

The hard way

The hard way

Someone worked very hard to make this path.

Relief, sort of

Relief, sort of

Someone got stuck carrying this up here too. I appreciate the Park Service’s attempt at amenity. Yes, of course I looked in it. It is kinda full.

The land undulates upward in windy silence. There is no end of blue sky, of rock that crumbles like bits of brick ground together, of gradual up. I am in that time when there is nothing but the time of walking and carrying a pack. There has never been any other time. I have never done anything else. I have always been here, in this place, doing this thing, and memories are someone else’s noise.

Monkey is here but quieter, busy with himself or someone else. He has eased in his persistent demands for shiny things, or I have grown so used to his chattering I don’t notice as much. When you first come to silence it is deafening, the echo its own pressure. Could be Monkey thought he was doing me a favor, deafening me to keep me from going deaf. Now there is time and space to think about things and old thoughts, positive patterns come out. This rock is not fixed, could melt and shift again. The beaches you’ve walked are temporary and eternal, the waves crashing for millions of years before anyone walked them. Go back long enough and the sky was not blue but brown-orange, full of ammonia. I remember staying up late, reading and talking about this, back when everything was mind-blowing.

Then there is the sign. It has taken about four hours to walk the three miles to it.

Straight to the top

Straight to the top

I pass the couple that went ahead. They have dropped out of the plain into a hollowed-out lava tube transformed into a picnic and wind shelter, slabs of rock for tables. The summit is to the right, around the caldera’s vast pit. Midday makes the land blank and forbidding.

I walk and try to think, easier now that the way is level. It’s one now–you might make it to the end by three. You’d have about five hours of light to get back down. It doesn’t feel frightening and impossible like the Halape hike–there is no desperate feeling of mortal challenge, if that’s what it was you felt out there under the Moon. Wind and light are very different here. I feel heavier but the world seems lighter, more rare. It must be what happens at desolate heights.

The massive caldera yawns open to the left, its black surface still cooling from the last eruption, in 1984. It is hard to appreciate its geologic vastness.

Walking the edge

Walking the edge

I pass a group of Japanese tourists, I presume the loud group I heard earlier. They have made fantastic time and aside from their impeccable dress are almost unequipped: they carry more cameras than packs. I stop at a rough spot and let a Japanese girl figure her way across the gulch and rock slabs. She moves like a fawn learning to walk, says thank you in a girl anime voice.

Two older guys bring up the rear. “It’s worth it, right?” Because I really do want to know.

Oh, yes, it is for certain, says the oldest. Maybe only ten more minutes. Well, okay, ten minutes to a rise, then another rise. And then ten minutes. Yes, it is not far, says the younger one.  You want to see.

I thank them and keep going. It is very rough. My knee starts to hurt, the first thing that really grabs Monkey. What if you can’t get down? Nobody’s going to come for you.

The landscape is shattered and undulates between jumbled bricks, frozen foam, melon-sized blocks. The wind changes in that way where clouds can be heard plowing their density.

Not looking down

Not looking down

The trail ends like a punchline. A low wall provides a windbreak and the rocks all around have the powdered look of taking much walking. The picture doesn’t do justice to how immediate the drop is. Standing next to it gives a sense of engorgement…its engorgement in its own space. It echoes with its knowledge that you could fall.

The other empty way

The other empty way

Others have clearly walked right up to the edge. I can’t do this. I don’t even want to crawl and peer over. The deceptive height is like being on the Moon, where astronauts could not tell how far away or how deep landforms were. They suffered from not having atmospheric haze to unconsciously judge by. It must be the same here.

End of things

End of things

People leave offerings at the terminal cairn. The small orange and yellow thing midway on the right is a Japanese alien-doll-cute-monster thing. It smiles from a very small chair.

I arrive at 2:45 and stay about 45 minutes, eating protein bars, peanut butter sandwiches, and Gatorade. There is no place comfortable to lie down but I lie down anyway and feel every atom pulled by gravity. It feels luxurious to lie back, but sitting up proves no rest has accrued. There is a dreamy but sharp quality to reality, a sense that only this eternal present exists. My hands don’t work so well. It is a strange sensation of being hot from the sun and the cold wind pulling the heat away.

I give myself until 3:30 and then put the pack back on. Clouds have been building all day, vigorous enough to reach over both mountains; the ones opposite the caldera are grey, apparently dumping rain. I have rain gear but have never been in rain that looks that hard this high with nothing that could be called shelter. One last picture means to show the whole valley but instead shows how easy it is to walk over the edge.

Just a little more

Just a little more

I don’t know how far down it is. This website says 600 feet, more than believable.

Down is always faster, a law of the universe for which I am always grateful, even in this strange glassy time in which I now move. Knee hurts, a lot. Walking becomes strategic, using the left leg to absorb steps down, hops, small leaps. I start making prehistoric noises, anticipating.

Nothing looks the same when reversed. Distances are shorter but expanded from the angle. Now I see more ground, the shadows to the right of rocks, instead of sky and clouds. It’s not like Volcano. Monkey doesn’t dog me. What stream of consciousness comes is like a grocery list, with the same emotional tenor: don’t forget, don’t go too fast, don’t worry, don’t fall.

Several times I lose the trail. I realize I do not have a flashlight when I pass the summit trail sign. I don’t stop as often, though I do once on a flat rock some time after the summit trail sign. It is not luxurious but filling, as if stuffed, as if in a bed you will never get up from again. It is the kind of supine yielding that the deathbed must feel like. I think that is the thought I have, or Monkey has. When I get up there has again been no rest, and my knee hurts, and that is what reality is.

Time does not have the fleeting, atomic sense it does when attached to clocks, or how I perceived it when I was panicked first coming here. There was some point, maybe in college, where time shifted from being a nebulous endlessness to a finite quantity, the quanta both painful and discrete. I remember talking to Matt about it, how time felt loosed from some shackled weight when I got that first real job, and how the shackles went back on when I went back to college for that last bonus semester. But after that job we knew time was waiting to race again.

I am stumbling through a crumpled field when I realize that first job was twenty years ago this month. Twenty years is a long time to worry about jobs: looking, keeping, losing, being afraid of, being afraid of being without. That is the fear of the false clock time. There is plenty of time out here and not a single clock.

Coming up I realize I took the wrong way, off through some other cairns and service roads that made the trip up longer. Following signs the descent is faster, harder on the knee, but shorter.

When I see the observatory buildings I am not as happy as I was to see the car at Volcano, but still pretty happy. Here is the rear view, showing the anti-lava barrier intended to save the place–the grey V shape of piled rock pointing right.

Lava diverter

Lava wall

Walking off the trail to the service road and its giant holes I realize the sign was there, but wasn’t clear. I took the road because it was a road and didn’t see the cairns just to the left, because the sign didn’t point.

I can see the car. I have a strange, overpowering premonition that I don’t know what’s going to happen between here and it. Not even the observatory is like it and me. We are the only things here that are things. Everything else is something else.

When I reach it I continue to breathe. I have the doors open and the pack off and am walking around it before I realize I am laughing in little single puffs. I do not understand the depth and quality of this fatigue–one that comes from strength and exertion instead of having strength stolen by something invisible.

I put my hands on the big blue Escape and realize that it really is there, and that I can stop walking. It feels funny to stop and then to realize that I have stopped.

Mauna Loa Observatory


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