Find Your Snack: All You Need is Lava

The National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016, and dirtbags nationwide are finding creative ways to commemorate the NPS Centennial. (My favorite so far is the Dirtbag Diaries’ Milepost series.) I, on the other hand, lack artistic sensibilities, and am thus marking the occasion in the same way I celebrate everything else: by eating. Without further ado, then, I present the next installment in this series about things I’ve eaten in national parks—or, in this sort-of-a-stretch-on-the-theme case, things I flew all the way to Hawaii to see/eat.

By the time our plane touched down at the tiny Kona Airport in the middle of October, I’d been closely monitoring the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park webcams for a month. I had recently learned that there is such a thing as a lava lake, which struck me as even more awesome, somehow, than a lava cake. I spent the next several weeks eagerly refreshing the webcam feed several times a day and feeling glad to live in a world where “spattering” is a word used to describe volcanic activity.

Fortunately, my family has found that it’s easier to just humor me when I get this excited about something than it is to listen to me recite trivia and say a lot of “Actually…” and “Did you know?” The park was at the top of our to-do list; we drove straight there from the airport. (Wait, that’s not entirely true. We stopped at the condo my parents had generously rented for all of us and I tossed my bag in the living room and then resumed tapping my foot impatiently until everyone gave up and got back in the car.)

We drove from Kona to the Hilo side of the island over the infamous Saddle Road, which runs between behemoths Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Incredibly, the road reaches 6,632 feet, which seems almost unbelievably high for a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. (This pales in comparison to Mauna Kea’s 13,796 feet above sea level, which turns into 33,500 feet—taller than Mount Everest—if you count from the ocean floor.) Three hours after we’d landed, we paused to pay the entrance fee on the way into the park. I leaned up from the backseat to snatch the map from my dad as the ranger handed it through the open window, along with instructions to enjoy our visit.

“We will!” I shouted, already engrossed in the map. “Dad! We have to go right at the fork.”

(Yep, I’m basically twelve. Don’t care. Got to see lava.)

Bix had a hard time convincing me to leave the steam vents and this view of Halema’uma’u Crater behind, but things only. Got. Cooler.

I’d had a hard time believing it’d be cold anywhere in Hawaii, but Bix had talked me into bringing something with long sleeves specifically for this high-altitude outing. I was secretly very glad to have listened to him, especially when I insisted we pull over to look at a bunch of steam vents.

The vents overlook provided a decent view of the steam rising from Kīluea Caldera. I was psyched. We piled back in and made for the Jaggar Museum, site of my now-familiar webcam footage.

It was exactly as cool as I’d hoped, and I want some kind of affirmation for having resisted the urge to push small children and elderly people out of my way to get as close as humanly possible to the edge of the overlook, because there, in all its glory, was a God Damn Lava Lake.

Not just, like, Oh-wow-it’s-glowing-a-little. Not like “I can see the steam from way over here!” No. You guys, it was Mordor. When I say I hate, say, steamed broccoli with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, this is what I’m imagining. Quick, draw a picture of a volcano. See that lava-y stuff at the top? Yeah. It was like that.

Halema’uma’u Crater, home of Madame Pele, Hawaiian goddess of fire. The barrier is for people like me, who just want to get a liiiiiittle closer.

We all stood at the overlook for more than an hour. The sun set at a very equatorial 6:15 PM, and as the sky grew darker, the lava lake sprang to life, its spatterings suddenly fiery bright and somehow warmer than before. It was, truly, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever gotten to see with my own two eyeballs.

Speaking of things we don’t get much of in land-locked Colorado—volcanic eruptions and all that—fresh fish. Which is a shame, because I love fish. (Bix has a shellfish allergy that’ll send him into anaphylactic shock. It is the only thing I don’t like about him.)  But you know where they have tons and tons of fresh fish? That’s right: an island in the middle of the Pacific.

Anyway, the wind had picked up significantly enough in our hour at Jaggar that I was finally ready to do my second bucket-list-in-Hawaii item: poke.

That’s right. I flew 3,300 miles to see volcanoes and eat raw tuna. Maybe a few other things.

Ahi poke (not “poke,” like my dad really wanted it to be. If you know what’s up, like I do, you say “po-kay” in two very awkward syllables and then look around to make sure no one heard you because you’re still pretty sure you’re pronouncing it wrong) is one of my most favorite things. Even in sleepy little Golden, Colorado, it’s delicious, so you can imagine how much better it is when it literally could have been swimming that morning, which I try not to think about because I’m a little scared of fish (more scared of bigger fish). It is basically the most Hawaiian thing you can eat, which is great, because every time I had a chance to order it, I really and truly ate until I felt like I might be sick.

After the Jaggar trip, we took a volcano break—as much as you can on an island that’s actually just a big volcano, anyway—for a few days. We ran a Ragnar relay with my parents and some friends. We backpacked through the jungle and forded chest-high rivers, at which point I couldn’t believe we were within a few miles, as the crow flies, of your standard-issue supervillain volcanic lair. I attempted to lay on the beach and read a book, my relaxation punctuated at regular intervals by Bix, snorkel firmly attached to his face, emerging from the sea with urgent instructions to come look at this or are you ready to come back out now and we’ll just swim out a little farther this time to see that.

By the second-to-last day of the trip, I could stay away no longer.

First stop on our Chain of Craters tour: hike through a lava tube, formed by actual lava.

“I would very much like to see lava flow into the ocean,” I announced over Kona coffee that morning, “Bonus points if I can get too close for comfort to actual flowing lava.” Bix immediately set to work on the guidebook, scanning for places where we could melt the tread on our shoes.

“Okay, boat tours will get you right up there, but they’re, like, $250 a person,” Bix sighed, “But! If you drive the road all the way to the end, you can hike out to the lava flows.”

Because I am extremely bossy and everyone else is very agreeable—I’m something like 85% certain everyone else wanted to see this, though, because why wouldn’t you—we piled back into the rental and set sail, a second time, for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The plume was visible from miles up the road, but a plume wouldn’t cut it: I wanted some liquid-hot magma, as I kept reminding everyone in the Dr. Evil voice and with accompanying hand gesture.

A sign at the end of the Chain of Craters road warned of a 10-mile round-trip hike and admonished hikers, in all caps, to bring “AT LEAST THREE” liters of water per person. This public service announcement proved to be quite accurate, in terms of distance, and my only justification for not having brought enough water was that it felt more like an adventure that way.

“We’ll probably be able to see it before we’ve gotten five miles out,” I kept insisting, but at some point, we’d all silently resigned ourselves to finishing what we’d started.

THERE IS ACTUAL LAVA DOWN THERE. Also, lots of Buffy/Hellmouth references.

It’s amazing how much hotter it feels when you’re hiking across lava flows. Tens of degrees, really. (To my delight, it actually did melt the tread on our shoes, at least a little.) A ranger stopped us on what passed for a trail in the middle of the lava field, instructing us to look carefully a half-mile out for a “skylight,” which is what it’s called when a lava tube collapses and you can peer directly into the Gates of Hell. It was as spectacular as I’d fantasized. You could see the heat waves rising from the hole like so many sulfurous cartoon stink lines.

We’d been able to see the plume of smoke (steam? I guess it’s steam) since the trailhead, but despite my volcanic fervor, I hadn’t given much thought to what seeing lava flow into the sea would actually feel like. I mean, scientifically speaking, it’s unbelievably cool. But it’s more than that. There was something so surreal, in this decidedly otherworldly landscape, about watching new earth being born.

We all stood silently, watching the island get bigger, for a few moments. And then, with five miles between us and the car, we started back. We had dinner reservations, after all, and there was still so much poke left to eat.

This is what it looks like when actual new land is formed. Very meta. Very cool.

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