A Photo Essay
I was seeking a hiking partner, someone to accompany me onto the lava flow at the bottom of the Chain of Craters road, Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawai’i. Just outside the Visitor Center main doors, I noted a fit man intensely studying the maps posted on the wall. His fingers traced a path to the current position of the surface flows. I asked if he intended to go there, Jeroen responded, and within a half hour we were off on our adventure.
This is my third time to the Big Island, and my fifth or sixth time onto the active lava flows. It is an experience I recommend for all who desire to witness the birth of stone, but only for those who have the capacity to walk for several miles over some of the most challenging and potentially deadly terrain on Earth. Even a minor fall, a surface abrasion will bleed for hours for the solidified lava is in all respects a form of glass. Jeroen and I are strong hikers, moving at a fast clip, but by the end of our journey we were exhausted, almost stumbling. When we finally returned to our truck, an estimated twelve or fourteen miles later, we laughed at the sensation of pavement beneath our feet again.
Bring 2-3 liters water, food, flashlight with extra batteries, and first aide kit (we depleted Jeroen of his bandages). At night, under a storming sky, you cannot differentiate black rock from black sky from black sea and will need a compass to find your way back again if the beacons are not visible.
Our first effort was to hike to the base of the pali where we could see an obvious plume of white. We arrived at dusk. The sulfur in the air and waves of heat beneath our feet were confirmed as signs of a recent flow when the sun set and we noted a red glow in the cracks all around us.
We headed back toward the Forest Service beacons but a mile in retreat noticed a much larger surface flow over our shoulder, a mile down hill, toward the ocean. Jeroen encouraged us to turn back, and I am pleased we did, for what we discovered was incredible.
While I have been here before, both alone and with friends, I have never experienced the intimacy with the lava that transpired last night. I am not claiming a spiritual experience nor divine intervention, rather, a sort of trance, a call of the heat which drew me in.
In the science fiction film “Sunshine” a space station orbits close to the sun, to observe and to predict. In the station is a viewing port where crew members may dial-in the computer controlled filter of the sun’s intensity. One character experiments with the intensity of the heat, increasing it beyond the recommendation which causes him to gasp for his breath. But he returns for more, increasing the intensity each time. He is more than addicted for he experiences some form of communication which ultimately leads to the film’s (typical Hollywood–disappointing) conclusion.
Last night, I felt something like this. Not a voice of intent, nor an intelligent communication, rather, a challenge, a request to come close, to reach out and touch that which is giving birth to the Earth itself.
In 1991 and again in 2006, I recall the incredible sound made by pressing a stick into the flow, into the belly of the dragon. Once pierced, it hissed and breathed fire and my stick was consumed. Last night, without a stick, I knelt on the ground with my camera just in front of me. I recorded the molten rock which had already traveled miles to arrive where I stood, less than a mile, should gravity give permission, to the edge of the ocean.
As the cooler shell of the lava tore open, it ripped, exposing a red, silver, and black scar which gave way to red, yellow, and white inside. Of its own volition, it moved steadily toward my feet. At twenty feet the heat was that of Phoenix in the summer. At ten feet it was difficult to maintain eye contact. At six feet I had to look down in order that the rim of my hat would shield my face. At three feet my whole body was consumed for I felt I was nearly on fire.
Even now, as I write, I am moved to tears for I do not know now to describe the sensation. I did not want to move. I wanted to stay there and wait for the lava to come to me, to roll over me and envelop my whole body. I wanted to join it on its journey, to move slowly, crackling, tearing, ripping, enveloping everything in its path. I was intoxicated.
When I replay the video I recorded, I hear myself saying, “Oh my god! This is incredible. But it’s so hot … my pants are melting… my legs are burning–oh! My face, it hurts. But just a little closer … just a little more … I can wait, it’s so close now.” And then, out of concern for my camera more than my skin or clothes, I stood, turned, and took a few steps back.
I did this again and again. I could not get enough. I pressed my feet onto the thick skin of the flow, causing it to bulge momentarily, but by no means distracted from its intended course. Only when the camera’s battery died was I awaken from my spell. Jeroen and I needed to start back, our journey far slower by night compounded by the availability of just one headlamp to share, his bulb burnt-out just a few minutes earlier.
How do I explain this? I don’t know. I do not desire to. It is the birthplace of stone and in that place, I desired to be consumed and then reborn.
(video footage of the flowing lava is showcased in A Study in Motion)