A Barren - and Bubbling - Lunar Landscape nTC

A Letter from A Volcano

November 29, 1992|By ANN LOLORDO

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK — Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. -- At the start of Chain of Craters Road, the distant lights evoked a city, sprawling across a hillside and twinkling orange at night.

The road turned through a barren landscape, where under the glare of a full moon, the earth churned in a rocky, craggy mass. Down and down, the land flattened, and that lunar face, grease-paint white, rose higher and higher in the blue-black sky. And in the descent, the air, once alpine crisp, warmed like breath in my ear.

I was driving to see the volcano, the Kilauea Crater, birthing bed of goddess Pele. Unlike a movie cameraman who, after a helicopter crash last week, had to be rescued from a volcanic vent inside the crater, visitors to the national park can only view Pele's spit and fire from the base of the crater, along the coast, some 24 miles away from the park entrance.

And that's where I was headed this November night.

By the time the car snaked its way south, past tree ferns and ohia, lava remnants glistening like wet tar, sulfur banks and steam vents, I realized the glittering orange city on the hillside was in fact molten lava flowing down the crater's south-eastern flank. Although a great distance away, the flow reminded me of Pele's power -- running red, rumbling and boiling, raking the land with fiery claws. I had come to see the volcano.

Dozens of others were doing the same.

Unlike the eerie stillness at the start of my journey, the Chain of Craters Road, about 20 miles later, resembled the access route to an outdoor concert featuring U2 or Bruce Springsteen. Cars were parked or stopped on both sides of the two-lane road, forcing the traffic to move in single file. Ahead, blue lights flashed.

A silhouetted figure walked from car to car. The park ranger leaned into the front window. Be patient, she said, there's parking further down. But already people were jumping out of their cars, drawn by the orange glow, the warm wind and the scent of sulfur.

I drove ahead until I could drive no more. A roadblock.

There was only one way into Pele's front yard. My husband and I walked the mile, following packs of plodding teen-agers, parents with children straddling their shoulders, women and their dogs. Their voices sounded eager, curious, anxious.

My shadow was shockingly distinct -- the moon was that bright.

And yet, as the air thickened, my skin crawled in the dank heat. The heat pressed in on me. I peeled off my long-sleeve cotton shirt and walked the rest of the way in a tank-top and shorts. I felt uneasy. The moon seemed less bright, my vision hazy.

The crowd on Chain of Craters Road was beginning to disperse, lured by the steam and smoke rising from a small ridge. At the 22-mile marker, youngsters scrambled up the crusty lava rock with their parents in tow. Flashlights clicked on and the small spotlights searched for possible rifts.

My husband offered his hand. As I climbed up the hillside, my eyes fixed on the desolate landscape stretched before me. The earth was burning from the inside out.

Small jets of fire flared from cracks in the land. Scorched vegetation smoldered in the wavering heat. The land hissed and popped. Was that the muffled sound of cannon fire?

The ground underneath the newest stretch of pahoehoe -- lava flows that coil and swirl in a hardened shell as it cools -- glowed orange, evidence of Pele's incessant boil. A teen-ager poked a stick into the orange ooze as though he was roasting a marshmallow. I turned away. Children leaped across cracks in the earth to reach the next simmering spot. I took small steps.

In the distance, a curtain of smoke hung above the rim of God knew what. The edge beckoned, but the mind's eye envisioned a seething molten mass, a nightmarish gulch.

I could hardly move, fearful that the ground might give way under me.

Voices "oooooohhhhhed" and "aaaaaaaaaaahhhhed" and one boy gushed, "Isn't this cool?"

My throat was dry. What I saw before me was a scene from The Twilight Zone, a scruffy set of smoke and fire and steam. It was an other-worldly place, a child's imagined purgatory.

I was witness to one of the world's natural wonders, and I felt only a sense of trespass, of intrusion. This was a hallowed place, the abode of one of Hawaii's most revered deities who creates as she destroys. The power of an unknown presence was supremely felt as I recalled the accounts of the 1989 lava flow, which destroyed the park's visitor center and mysteriously skirted the adjacent heiau, a 12th century temple grounds scared to Hawaiians.

I wanted to leave. But the two-hour drive down forced me to the asphalt pavement where I quickly followed the crowd.

"Stay to the road," a park ranger advised as others roamed freely to investigate a glow here, a spit of fire there.

The sulfur-laden air was suffocating. I shielded my mouth and nose with the cotton shirt I thought I might need to ward off the night chill. I rubbed my eyes as though from sleep.

The closer we could get to the edge of the coast, my husband told me, the better we could see the bulbous clouds of steam rising from the ocean, the effect of molten lava pouring into the sea. Up ahead, another road barrier. A park ranger stood guard. We could go no further.

Beyond the barrier lay the remnants of the previous night's activity -- a lava flow had swept across the road, its exterior hardened into a writhing, twisting mass of rock.

More than ever, I felt as though I was standing on the back of a sleeping dragon.

Ann LoLordo is a national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.