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Mauna Kea

Ascent

Ascent

Mauna Kea is the Big Island’s highest mountain measured in the conventional fashion, rising to 13,796 feet from sea level to peak. Locals are happy to point out Kea is in fact far higher than Everest when measured from its true base on the sea floor: almost 33,000 feet, besting Everest by 3/4 of a mile. (Earth’s largest mountain by mass is neighbor Mauna Loa. Though its peak is a hundred feet shorter than Kea, Loa’s total volume is about 18,000 cubic miles.) Kea is remarkable in that you can get a standard four-cylinder rental car and drive all the way to the top.

Signs point out the Mauna Kea Observatory access road, with a large sign blaring all visitors must stop at the visitor station six miles ahead. The mountain’s foot is broad and grassy, the road like any two-lane somewhere in the Continental Divide. Fences on the sides attempt to keep the cattle out, and a golden coat of grass covers the land. It takes several miles for the road to get interesting, bucking up the mountain’s shoulders, the road cutting back and forth to handle the grade. Pavement gives way to packed gravel and tourists coming down way too fast.

The visitor station is the Observatory’s public face and very busy, the lots full of rental Jeeps pulling in and out. A sign advises against going any further up the road without four wheel drive, increasing its attractiveness exponentially. The building is too small for the activity and its burgeoning contents: a small presentation area with a big plasma screen and foldup chairs, an info desk, posters and models everywhere, and a store featuring Japanese stargazing guides and bumper stickers warning against the mountain’s famous ghost cows. (Black cows are often made invisible on the road by fog and darkness.) Run entirely by volunteers, the station is supported solely by donations and gift shop sales. It is open every day of the year from 9am to 10pm. What a way to spend Christmas.

Signs and pamphlets describe how visitors should acclimate here for at least an hour before considering going higher. One handout describes in great detail the various species of altitude sickness, all given unwieldy acronyms, their debilitating and life-threatening symptoms described in cool clinical prose. The only remedy is evacuation to sea level, the pamphlet intones. Within about fifteen minutes I feel sick, distant from the queasiness that seems a little behind me. I sit and watch the endless video loop describing the different telescopes and mountain features, my connection to this time and place moving in and out of focus, but in about thirty minutes I realize I feel fine again. Little girls in little girl skirts and flipflops have been clambering over the chairs, making up leapfrog and other games to amuse themselves while their Canadian parents chat with a solo and very bearded Danish man who seems more strung out than me. The place is packed with gaggles of Japanese tourists, mostly late teens who move in sex-segregated blocks, the girls speaking quickly and softly, their hands bundled under their chins like rabbits.

Free observation

Free observation

Star talks and sky tours are held every night, again presented by volunteers. When I arrive mid-day a single telescope is set up to track the sun, the image projected on a screen with the obligatory placard warning to never look directly at the sun. It’s a big telescope and sunspots are easy to see. As night approaches, the staff blocks off the closest parking lot and sets out a phalanx of small to moderate telescopes anyone can operate. That night’s presenters–and the especially committed–bring larger, tricked out telescopes with automatic tracking and night scopes. They are proud to inform that the modest scopes are all bought with donations.

The station provides interesting people watching; the vibe of endless strangers streaming through, wandering, looking and leaving makes the place seem temporary and magical, suffused with that innocence of going to Six Flags as a kid. But the mountain calls. I want to see the Big Science telescopes.

Warnings of the road’s dangers are posted everywhere, to the extent I question how much they are for liability. It’s a gravel road and a steep grade, but no steeper than any in the mountains at home or, say, the road to Pike’s Peak. The problem, an old hand explains, is not the going up, but coming down. People burn out their brakes and lose control, or just lose control. Four-wheel-drive isn’t needed for obstacles but the downhill gearing saves brakes. I think about this and the first Dodge Caliber I’ve been given, with its nifty built-in flashlight. Will they know I’ve been up the mountain so long as it’s not a tangled wreck? Its low gear seems adequate for hills so far. I drink and put on sunblock, put on sweatpants, hiking pants over top, and my red winter jacket packed from home. All are meant to deflect the sun and cold, though the peak is only in the high forties. I fill out a trip slip and put it in the mailbox with the others. Nobody seems especially concerned that I fill one out, but it gives a feeling of having followed the rules.

The main ascent

The main ascent

The road is smooth gravel, dry at this height; dust billows even when moving slowly. Air has a tenuous feel even now, with a sense of caution and periphery. You are approaching the edge, the wind says. The light is tenuous and dazzling here. Light itself is light and the air blows with a vacated strength.

Easy drive

Easy drive

Geologic time reverberates in its aeon silence. Rocks spill out in piles that haven’t moved for millenia, tens of millenia. The blank hills reflect a time before life when there was only dust and physics to act on things. To go up into this place is to enter a time before will.

Better than clouds

Better than clouds (looking across to Mauna Loa)

Kea’s height is what makes it supreme for astronomy. Almost all storms and clouds stop beneath the peak. Visitors are treated to something like flying in a jetliner: we look down at all the dynamism below but are above it, watching with deific remove. Standing on the earth to do this is strange–not quite a reversal but a sense that reality is very different here.

A mile or two of gravel gives way to smooth and impeccably maintained pavement. Snow markers are attached to each guardrail post. Guardrails here are steel cable, not the solid bent metal. Is it to allow snow to blow through? Is the metal too heavy to deal with up here? It holds the sun’s warmth though my hand steals it away quickly, leaving biting winter metal. It all seems tenuous and dreamy.

Another mile or so of tight switchbacks and determined four-cylinder chugging yields a slight valley, the top in view.

First sight

First sight

The telescopes are split between those my age or close to it, and those of a much newer generation. Driving and walking among them gives the giddy sense of science and knowledge I had as a kid. This is where things are known, where in movies the men in the white coats say things and then the special effects fly out of the massive silver spinning Science Machines. Feeling that wonder now is strange, to remember it so clearly, even as I know so much of science is complaining and egos and money.

No one is here. No signs indicate where to park or not, so I stop at the far end by some new-looking silver domes. Car off, the wind is hollow and distant and not very strong. Light is brilliant and clean. There is no sense that it is more powerful with 40% less atmosphere to fall through. The rocks have no special energy from it.

Sleeping watchers

Sleeping watchers

No fences or other obstacles impede me from walking right up to the telescopes, touching the walls and looking in any windows. Some have signs warning to stay away, due to ice unpredictably falling from the domes. It is as summer as summer gets here and the domes are clear. I marvel at them. How were these things built? For they were built, that’s clear: there are bolts and pipes and the kind of tinsnip and duct tape repairs made by maintenance men. They must be in preformed pieces, I think, trucked up here and assembled. There is something strange about picturing a telescope on a truck.

Olde

Olde

This is the oldest telescope of research size here. (There is an older one, but it is a small refractor used by undergrads.) It is 86 days younger than me.

My astro brother

My astro brother

Walking through life I encounter all kinds of plaques and memorials with dates. As a kid they were numbers back in geologic time, like 1950. Now it’s easy to find a brass plate stamped with a number I’ve lived through. I wonder how long brass plaques last.

Movement is not stressful, though there is a sense it could be. I am dressed as if for a winter hike to Mount Rainier. It seems ridiculous with the sun, but I am neither warm nor cold, except for my bare hands, which are a little. The world is dazzling behind polarized sunglasses. Looking without them seems dangerous, like fingering the door handle on an airplane.

The two telescopes where I parked are at the highest cone before the true summit, and looks down at other telescopes. Almost all are visible here except for a handful to the left not visible in this image. The two identical domes are the Keck telescope. The boxy one is Subaru. The upside down silvery colander is a NASA infrared telescope, also one of the older residents. The white patch beneath the right-side Keck dome is snow.

Above the clouds

Above the clouds

It’s fun to walk up here. I feel like I’m doing something I shouldn’t be but there’s no one to tell me not to, and I have no intention of harming anything. It feels like I imagine Antarctic research stations feel like, though more deserted. Were the access not so easy it would feel like the world had ended and these telescopes were strange artifacts from a race lost to knowledge.

Final ascent

Final ascent

Back down the road a few paces is this path, leading to a modest rise. No sign announces this is the summit trail but I guess it must be. The guardrail offers no gap to pass through, though signs warning to stay on the path are tied to the cables. I have my pack on like this is a serious hike. It could be, for all I know.

Walking down is easy; gravity seems tenuous and the sun is warm when the wind isn’t blowing. I can’t tell if things sound differently or not: a little hollow, lacking a presence I can’t name.

The way back

The way back

NASA considered training Apollo astronauts here. It was felt the dessicated and lifeless environment best approximated the Moon. I imagine the altitude difficulty made NASA select less exotic deserts. The plains remind me of all the pictures from Mars: rocks peeking out of red dust nests, high thin clouds, a sense that this is a real place deceptively like a place you could belong.

Dry world

Dry world

The walk is easy until this point, when up comes. I have never tried up this high before. Up is massive, impossible, the slightest bit of it draining all strength and energy. Up is exponential, each step taking away ten times the previous. I can’t breathe deeply enough to get any air; I can’t take small enough steps to call it a walk. I am shuffling up the hillside like an emphysemic old man.

The way up

The way up

The rock border is thinner here. How much work was it for someone to pick one up, carry it here, place it? How many rocks could you carry before passing out? I am carrying liters of water, Pop Tarts and myself, which gives an idea. Not many.

Air echoes with its absence. Its cold has a cleanness not like cold air below. Maybe it is dry, or fresher from the height, near the vacuum. Space is so much closer here I can almost hear it. Up there where the clouds skirt with it is a blue not so much a color as the sound of photons scattering and slowing down. This is a place of the primality of forces.

The top is abrupt, even as slow as it was to arrive: suddenly there is no more up and there is the quiet, empty task of realizing this is the end, and that is where you are.

Highest offering

Highest offering

This land is considered sacred. Some groups don’t want the telescopes here, feeling they are a desecration. (My personal sense, based on video of a public hearing shown at the visitor station, is that there is money in allowing telescopes here, and the native insult is played up for bigger payments.) The offering here is shell necklaces, flowers, leaves wrapped around rocks. Only natural substances are allowed, and in this environment I assume they are slowly mummified.

Actual height

Actual height

I wonder how much the height has changed since 1955. Mauna Loa is so massive it is slowly collapsing under its own weight and has lost about 3000′ over the millenia.

Old and new

Old and new

Looking across it’s hard to tell if the peak is much higher than where I parked, but from the road this little hill is a dramatic rise. In other directions, the landscape spreads out in a splendor of Martian desolation.

Toward Hilo

Toward Hilo

Toward Kona

Toward Kona

Another path leads away from the peak, down the spine of the rise. I walk a little way and feel palpable relief that down is so much easier, though after a short distance it becomes clear the trail is opportunistic, lightening and disappearing halfway down. Up is more torturous than before; steps are only inches apart.

Is there any holiness here? There would be more, I am sure, if I had hiked the whole distance, insulated with a coat made of reeds. The ultimate silliness of any simple physical feat–running a mile a little faster, climbing to the top of something–reverberates. Once you are here there isn’t much there, since the act can’t be lived in. I wonder if Hillary wandered the top of Everest looking for something, turning over rocks. Climbing to the top just leaves you stranded.

I feel no pressure to make anything last, to do anything commemorative. I could leave some Pop Tart as an offering but this seems gauche. Sun makes the brass geodetic marker pleasingly warm, and the wind is emphatic but gentle. Luck has put me here on an ideal day.

Going back is easy; I don’t remember my knee hurting, not yet. The last leg up to the road, maybe a hundred feet, is difficult but manageable. Walking the pavement feels like I am suspended on an icy pond, or walking on cotton candy that has frozen.

Checking out the other telescopes is the same sense of going to work with Dad on a Saturday morning. I am somewhere I shouldn’t be, but so long as nothing is moved or broken no one will know. Wind is stronger across the road, and the Keck visitor viewing area shields the last snow.

Snow

Snow

One of the telescopes has a vestibule and an emergency phone. Wind howls through the metal gaps, whining, a sound I remember from school doors when winter visited.

Phone shelter

Phone shelter

The little space seems lonely and desperate, a thin shield against universal forces. I remember sheltering in them at various times: Interstate rest stops, park buildings, various nooks and crannies at schools. We figure out where the safe and invisible places are, what services we can rely on without anyone noticing. We would all be good homeless people.

Ample smoothed but not necessarily paved space at the top of the world makes driving confusing. The guidebook highlights a unique occurrence is worth a visit, but it’s not clear where to stash the car. I decide on a cleared space where some earthmovers are parked, the front wheels dropping off the asphalt apron from the steep angle.

Lake path

Lake path

Dipping between cinder cones, the path has no clear start but picks up after a tumble of boulders. It meanders up and down and is not a hard walk, at least not now. I can tell the sun is moving, the light changing, but there is no sense of time here on Mars.

Lake Waiau

Lake Waiau

Lake Waiau (wy ow) seems unremarkable but is extraordinary: the only tropical alpine lake on Earth. I gather its existence is still something of a puzzle: not enough snowfall occurs to sustain a lake, and there are no springs or glaciers. Some books assert the lake is generated by melting permafrost in combination with annual snows, while others shrug. It does seem strange. I wonder if a lake like it could exist on the real Mars, if our robots will get stuck in it someday.

Life!

Life!

The water is cloudy and supports algae and slime, at least now in high summer–again an interesting implication for Mars or moons of Jupiter. Sticking a finger in, the water isn’t cold but is hardly warm. Swimming and drinking are prohibited, though I wonder who exactly would be attracted to either. The world’s highest polar bear swim, brought to you by Red Bull. I can see how Hawaiians would be offended.

No path circumnavigates the little pond. In a testament to human goodness, I see no trash anywhere. Little grass tufts rise out of the rocks closest to the lake, and I wonder how grass seed got up here. There are a few bugs too, big black flies that buzz and aren’t interested in me. The place seems far more primal than the summit, like an example of Earth before things could move or see: just water and rocks and chemistry climbing for the sun.

Going back foreshadows the Mauna Loa hike: every step is an operation and I can’t do more than ten in a row. It feels like I’m digging the Panama Canal but the air is cold. I can hear cars on the road and am not envious but marvel at our blindness to the ease provided by machines.

Going back

Going back

Back at the car, I eat my Pop Tarts, sit in the driver’ seat facing into the sun. Sunsets are incredible here, I am told, but I feel it’s too long a wait, and I don’t want to go down in the dark. There is an unpleasant, sinking moment when the car, trapped on the asphalt lip, won’t move backwards. The CVT gear(less)box just spins, but flooring it creeps the car over the edge. Creeping to the stop sign, I am determined to be careful, be slow, take all the time I need. I don’t have to be anywhere. If it takes an hour to go six miles nobody is counting.

First descent

First descent

Immediately I make an unpleasant discovery: the car’s low is not very low. Speed picks up at a ridiculous rate and the brakes must be used. I try pulsing them, bringing the car to a near stop and then letting it freewheel down as opposed to riding the brakes continuously, but this barely works. On a straightaway I get up to 40 and a woman driving a bus up gives me the tsk-tsk finger sign.

Many turnoffs and oddly isolated parking areas dot the road, so I develop a method of getting to each one and stopping to let the brakes cool off. I don’t know how hot they really get, or if this is really necessary, but there is time for safety with a car that isn’t mine. Licking my finger and touching the rotors the saliva sizzles instantly, and the brakes are toasty but not furiously hot. Is this hot too hot? Wind blows the heat away 40% less effectively than farther down and I have a chance to take pictures.

Down 1

Sky is winter here

Cloud sea

Cloud sea

Hyperbola

Hyperbola

Sunset

Sunset

Blue sunset

Blue sunset

Forty-five minutes or so delivers me back to the visitor station. I am disappointed in that the descent was not that severe, at least when exercising extraordinary care. Never having driven a four-wheel-drive at this point I don’t see what advantage it confers: the road is perfectly smooth. Still, I feel clever. I got up and down without incident, without help, with care.

At the station, the lone solar telescope has been replaced with the many small scopes and several of significant size. One has been set up with a video monitor for easy viewing, and excited volunteers talk through their scopes and the Jewel Box, the Pleiades. Darkness falls swiftly and the stars emerge as a great, smooth mist broken through with bright points. I can take no meaningful photograph of how impressive the sky is, even moreso than deep in the lightless American West. The stars spread out as if exhaled, as if from an eternal mist. The Milky Way is a sinuous, gentle undulation. The Big Dipper shines out as if drawn in electric pencil.

Izzat Saturn?

Izzat Saturn?

The station becomes a bustling hive as darkness abandons the rocks and sky the way dry desert night does: not as a filling but an evacuation. Young people are brought up in buses, and there are tight knots of Japanese tourists brought up in Kanji-labeled minibuses.

The simultaneous fascination and ignorance of science is on display. People have difficulty connecting the image of Saturn projected from a helpful screen to what they imagine is Saturn, and are lost connecting it to a light in the sky. Is it that? No, it’s up here, where the telescope is pointing, the bright star that shines with a steady light. If it’s a planet it doesn’t twinkle. Oh. Is it that?

A true star appears with the man giving the nightly star talk. Nasal and orotund, flat-headed with thick glasses, he reminds me of former Texas Senator Phil Gramm. I don’t remember his name, but he says he started for NASA on the Apollo program, listed a variety of interesting engineering exploits, and is now retired. He is here most every night, guiding a tour of the Hawaiian sky for anyone who wants to listen.

High school and college kids gather around he relays interesting introductory advice, namely that reading your car rental agreement closely will reveal that driving it to the summit is not covered, and if you get stuck up there the going rate for rescue is $1200. Four-wheel-drive is recommended not for the ascent, but to slow the descent. Regardless of the vehicle, a handful of people die every year from burning out their brakes and losing control. So, he says, drawing out the vowel, think carefully before you go.

Mauna Kea is an ideal astronomical site, he explains, for several reasons. The ability to drive from sea level to the very top is not the least practical one. A more scientific reason is Hawaii’s location in the middle of the Pacific: there are no nearby mountain ranges to cause atmospheric turbulence, which allows a relatively uniform atmosphere to look through, and it is also extremely dark. Big Island streetlights are almost all the tubular yellow sodium fog lights not so much for fog but to keep their excess light out of the sky. It is also one of the few locations where the entire Northern hemisphere and about 80% of the Southern hemisphere is visible. There, for instance–he points with his stunningly bright green laser pointer–is the Southern Cross.

No, you cannot buy this laser pointer in the States, he anticipates. Where’d you get it? Dragonlasers.com, he says, a few times.

To the west is the hard-to-see zodiacal light, the reflection of starlight off cosmic dust floating with us in the solar system. It is a subtle, orange-magenta glow I noticed before and confused with sunset, but it’s lingered long after. I thought it was the glow from Kona. I’ve never seen it before.

He runs through the constellations, points out Arcturus, Betelgeuse. The Hawaiian name for Polaris renders as the star that doesn’t move. My memory is incomplete but I remember being utterly engaged, craning my neck, happy as I could be when I was ten and trying to connect the math-homework-workaday universe of astronomy books with what was then more the engaging fantasy of Star Trek, Star Wars and all the rest. Now science is better, more real and more human. People watched and named all those lights.

The place clears out after the talk, though this man and some others remain until closing time. The star talk star has a night vision eyepiece, back from the days before terrorists prevented you from buying such toys, and he shows off the Jewel Box and a few other things. Someone asks him about extraterrestrial life and he says current theory is that they would look something like us, in terms of sensory organs and basic shape. I asked him something and had a good conversation with him, but don’t remember what about. I realize he is a perfect specimen of that post-war doer technophile, where all problems can be reduced, understood, and rebuilt to match human wiles. He is the IBM man in his white shirt and black tie, the guy with the slide rule. He is the man who knows a great many discrete things.

Station at night

Station at night

Only a few people remain when I leave at 9:30. It is refreshing up here, so cool, clean and bugless, but I have been out too long and need to get some sleep. The road down is darker than up high, and at the highway the clouds smother with their drizzle.

In a week, I am back. Volunteer-led tours of the summit, and most importantly the Keck telescope, are held every weekend at one o’clock. I make a point of juggling what schedule I have to be there early to acclimate and find a ride: only four-wheel-drives are allowed, and I’ll have to rely on someone’s charity. I ask the volunteer staff about a ride, but the question makes them confused and defensive. I announce to the assembled that I’m looking for a ride, and nobody looks at me. After a tense minute a guy in the door behind me comes up and says in a soft Southern voice he has a rented pickup and I’m welcome to sit in the bed. I shake his hand. I say: perfect.

The volunteers make us watch a video, I assume as much to make us acclimate first and see if anyone passes out before even starting. Long warnings are read, including invocations against those with health problems or younger than 16 going. The unpronounceable acronyms of high altitude syndromes are read: if you have any of these, let us know. We have oxygen and can get you down quickly.

The caravan assembles, the volunteers checking every driver to be sure four-wheel-drive is on, are you comfortable driving, stay in line. The volunteer girl says nothing about me being in the back of the white Ford Ranger. We drive close to the lead and there is little dust, and I realize I have an excellent view.

Driven up

Driven up

The severe angle of the mountain’s flank is evident from outside.

Mountain flank

Mountain flank

Rockfalls seem primed, though it looks as if all the rocks fell long ago. The truck revs high and I can hear the line of identical soft-top rental Jeeps struggling up too.

We start where I began a week ago, the volunteers leading us to the overlook in front of the two telescopes. They have sheets they read from and get in over their heads trying to extemporaneously respond to questions. They relate funny stories about dealing with the altitude: a work crew was persuaded to come down when a pole was too short, and no matter how many times they cut it they couldn’t get it long enough.

Second leg

Second leg

Everyone piles back in and drives over to the Keck domes, easing up to them to keep the dust down. People are assembled outside and then led into the vestibule. There is a bathroom with the world’s highest working flush toilet. I guess some use it to claim that flag.

Keck tour entry

Keck tour entry

Through a small, glass-walled room we are able to view Keck 1. The temperature is far colder than outside, even with the wind and altitude. The telescope is refrigerated to nighttime temperatures during the day, in order allow for more observing time; the telescopes can start work as soon as it’s dark. The refrigeration demand makes the Keck telescopes the largest electricity consumers on the Big Island.

Keck from side

Keck from side

The telescopes are controlled remotely from Waimea, and we watch them rotating on their geared tracks as techs prepare them for the upcoming night. People lose interest quickly, or are driven out by the cold, and I make the most of what can be seen through the small greenhouse-like viewing room. The view above is equivalent to looking at a telescope from the side, the tube oriented perpendicular to your line of sight. The white box is the primary mirror edge-on.

Keck secondary

Keck secondary

The secondary mirror reflects the primary’s light back to the telescope’s light gathering device. If it had an eyepiece, it would be directed at this. The Keck has no eyepiece. All modern telescopes capture images digitally. Nobody looks through a serious telescope.

Whether the telescope spins for our benefit or for a serious purpose, the famous Keck primary mirror comes into view.

Keck primary

Keck primary

The Keck is the first instance of a then-radical late 1980s design: a primary mirror composed of smaller, individual mirrors, each hexagonal mirror connected to computer-controlled actuators. The design overcomes two telescope bottlenecks: limits to the size of the primary mirror, and compensation for atmospheric distortion.

You may dimly remember the hullabaloo over the Hubble Space Telescope’s deformed mirror, and the blurry images that resulted when it was first launched in 1990. The Hubble couldn’t see well because its primary mirror was not perfectly flat by a tiny sliver of a hair. This common problem with a large single mirror is overcome with the multiple little mirrors: they are much easier to make and more likely to be made correctly. With little mirrors, the primary mirror could be massive. In addition, each little mirror can be selectively and very slightly bent by actuators dozens of times a second. A sophisticated feedback system figures out lumpiness in the atmosphere, which we perceive as twinkling as starlight passes through areas of different air density, and cancels it out. The resulting pictures rival those from space-based telescopes but from the more convenient ground.

I can’t touch or interact with anything, and the telescope is as aware of us as we are of atoms. A volunteer tries to explain to a man my age whose hyperactivity seems natural to him how the mirrors are made. She has nothing on her info sheet for this but tries very hard. I offer an explanation on how solar cells or videotape is made, and a similar process (sputtering) is probably used with these mirrors. He doesn’t get it, and that’s okay.

Outside, people mill around in the bright light and thin air and take pictures of themselves. I am offered several cameras and capture images of couples and families, working in backgrounds, a telescope for composition. Just press this button, they usually offer, but I at least find the zoom and play around.

People watching

People watching

The guides describe the nearby lake, an ancient adze quarry native Hawaiians apparently used for tools, and the summit, though they are returning now. They do not remain for the spectacular sunsets. A guy with a Jeep offers me a ride, apparently horrified that I’m out in the open, but I prefer the old Southern couple.

The couple is like me, though they have no work to go back to now. Retired or at least not driven to work, they are traveling now that he no longer needs work as a Park Ranger. I think his park was Great Smoky Mountain, but I don’t remember. We talk story a little on how we got here and what we’re doing. His wife is solid, not thin but not overweight, sunny and open-faced in that happy Southern woman way. Sounds like you’re doing the right thing by you, she says. He asks if I have anything to eat and offers me a pack of Lance cheese and peanut butter crackers.

Going down, he uses my technique, though he is more interested in taking pictures than safety. The caravan passes as we stop and he walks the lonely road like someone’s grandfather looking for deer.

The ride man

The ride man

Beyond this pause is a short path to a flat area. People must gather here on weekends, based on the beer bottles. I gather them up and carry them back up the hill. He shakes his head. They had that all the time at the park, and worse. Native Americans leaving chopped up shells of cars, starting fires, cooking meth. It’s a dangerous job being a Park Ranger, he says. He loved the work, though.

At the visitor station they say it was great to meet me, that they hope my time here continues to be good and what I need it to be. I marvel at the kindness of strangers, the obvious truth that people are by nature helpful and trusting and build community, that we do not default to fear. They seem happy, and happy together, and the little white truck rattles them away, out of the gaggling tourist throng.

Who were they, that kind couple whose names I don’t remember now? How was it they appeared at the moment I needed them, he quiet without pretense, she his bright balance? There is no instrument to look back into time and space to see how the universe would be so ordered. Telescopes are brilliant artifacts but all of science only answers how, not why. People get confused on this point.

I feel the crackers in my pocket. I wonder if the people at the cracker factory think about where their little packages will go, how they may save some soul lost in a bus station down to his last seventy-five cents. I don’t know, and I will never know, but I am grateful someone makes Lance crackers and that this man gave them to me.

Three whole sky

Three whole sky

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One comment on “Mauna Kea

  1. I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

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