Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hawaiian desert, Hawaiian snow

Geoff's and my first reaction after arriving in Kona on the Big Island was startled sense of relief. We had spent five days plunged into the heat and crowds and traffic and HURT 100 race fanfare of Oahu. All the clamor and noise and Mai Tai-flavored, manicured beaches had come to define Hawaii for me, my first time in the state. So the sound of rustling palms in an otherwise quiet breeze over the open Kona airport was almost startling. The town rested on an open hillside, swept in dry grass and desert-like vegetation. "Wow," Geoff said. "This place is like, normal."

We drove out to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and set up camp beside a rust-colored lava flow, speckled with dry-climate plants that could have easily stood in for salt brush and juniper. I felt like I was in Utah, camped on the sandstone with only the endless ocean horizon 3,000 feet below us to suggest otherwise. Geoff was recovering from his 100-mile race and the purpose of our Big Island vacation was to take it easy. Geoff napped while I unpacked the car, chatting with this habituated nene - a Hawaiian goose - who even honked back.

We headed down the coast to get out of the smog that was seeping along the volcano's cone - sweet-smelling like antifreeze and abrasive in my throat and lungs. Geoff and I called it "vog." It was nasty stuff. Geoff was more than a little creeped out by the idea of a National Park straddling a 13,500-foot volcano.

We came to the end of the road, cut short by lava flow. "Shouldn't this be evidence enough that this is not a place where people should be hanging out?" Geoff said.

But I felt at ease among it, much more so than I had endlessly fighting the human lava flow of Honolulu. After that experience, I had decided I wasn't going to bother renting a bike on the Big Island. It didn't take long to realize that I had just picked the wrong island to rent a bike.

Volcanic activity billowed in the distance. I felt close enough to reach out and touch it - a plume more than seven miles away. The open space was baffling - and real distance very hard to gauge.

The next morning, I followed a trail near our campsite down to the coast, dropping 2,500 vertical feet in a thick cloud of vog. I ran when I could to make distance in limited time. The sweet-smelling pollution irritated my eyes and scratched my throat. The heat of day trickled ceaselessly down my neck and back. I was trying to get a good workout, sweating buckets, thinking there was nothing remotely healthy about hiking through vog in the heat with minimal water (50 ounces, the rest we had at our dry camp site, and gone amazingly quickly.) But I was so happy to be out and alive, jogging through jagged lava flows and visible heat waves, surrounded by beautiful devastation.

The next day we moved camp to a spot on the coast near Hilo, back in the rainforest with its towering bonsai trees and thick spruce-like needles. We soaked in a thermal hot pond amid fruit orchards and farmland. "The diversity on this island is amazing," Geoff said.

Time seemed to always crunch in, but we found enough of it to head up the backside of the big volcano, Mauna Loa. Back in the desert, with its lava-speckled tundra and rolling yellow grasslands, could have easily been a scene in the early winter in central Utah or Nevada. I felt happy and at ease again, and I wondered if this was what I was looking for in the new places I visit all along - familiar pieces of home. I looked across the valley to the snow-capped peak of Mauna Kea. "I want to see that," I thought. "I want to find some Hawaiian snow."

Geoff set up a comfortable resting point by the Volcano Observatory and I went for another time-crunched jog up Mauna Loa. The jagged lava rocks ripped at my shoes and scratched my shins. I quickly ran out of breath, and soon thereafter became dizzy and had to slow to a walk. The bright blue sky and black rock spun around in misshapen circles. "Am I really this out of shape after four days off the bike?" I wondered. But a glance at my GPS revealed the root of my problem. I was quickly ascending to 12,000 feet, after too many years spent living at sea level, with no acclimation to speak of. I smiled at the harsh elevation and harsher sun, and kept climbing.

I found my way to the snow fields and sat down to catch my gasping, raspy, volcano-ash-scratched breath on a petrified piece of ice at 19 degrees North. It was a beautiful way to spend my last day in Hawaii, and my favorite part of the whole trip. We're back in Anchorage now and just waiting for our final flight to Juneau, home, and I'm excited to go back. But a big part of me is going to miss that harsher side of Hawaii, the side that doesn't taste like Mai Tai, the side that few ever talk about.

Tomorrow I'll talk about Geoff's Hurt 100 race. It was actually a lot of fun - even for him.


  1. Glad you found the real Hawaii. You didn't try to beat Lance's time on Kona-disappointed.

  2. Sounds like you had a nice vacation. Your pictures are amazing!

  3. The Big Island is one of my absolute favorite places in the world. There used to be a mountain bike adventure trip from the top of Mauna Kea to sea-level. It was like 60 miles down hill decending 11 or 12,000 feet. Amazing. Thanks for the pix, Minnesota is way too cold right now.

  4. Aww the duck is so cute lol. Such pretty pictures of Hawaii.

    I didnt even know Hawaii got snow! But leave it to Jill to find the little patch of snow that exists there. Good to hear you enjoyed your trip.

  5. Thanks for posting these pics Jill. My first "real" MTB experience was in Kona about 16-17 years ago. Your pics brought back some fond memories.

  6. I read somewhere the Big Island of Hawaii has a huge majority of the possible climates on earth. Pretty cool when you think about it.

  7. You look happy like me when I find a BBQ joint in an unexpected location.

  8. Awesome shots...can't believe that lava flow across the road. Somehow it seems more sinister in its hardened form.

  9. Hey, you need a break! I don't know how you do it all, but it's amazing. Love the pics as usual.

  10. Jill:

    This is Mark A, your bike-loan friend in LA. My family has a timeshare on the Big Island, just a bit north of Kona-Kailua. We love all the things you talked about on the island, it is a remarkable and beautiful place, and very different from Oahu. One minor correction you might make to your post...the Observatory is near the summit of Mauna Kea ("The White Mountain"), not Mauna Loa ("The Long Mountain"). I've never been to the summit when there is snow, that would be a delicious treat.

    Stay well,

  11. Mark,

    That's awesome that you can spend so much time on the Big Island! I'm curious what that structure is called. Our map called it a volacano observatory, I think, but I don't exactly recall its official name. It's at 11,000 feet on Mauna Loa - a good 2,500 feet below the peak. Looking out, we could see the telescopes and other large structures on top of Mauna Kea.

  12. Vog is the real terminology. It's used frequently in science, news, and medicine in Hawaii. It has been particularly bad in the past year, causing all sorts of asthma problems on the Big Island and Oahu (when the Kona-south winds- blow) and crop growing issues on the Big Island. The Big Island is truly an amazing place with so much diversity on one island.

  13. Great pics of course, but the real question is did your pasty white legs get any color?

  14. Slow Rider ...

    I'm one of those people whose skin can be only one of two colors: Pasty white and lobster red. As you can see from that top picture, which I took during my last day on the island, a constant coating of SPF 50 pretty much left me closer to the "pasty white" region of my color range.

  15. I think you are fantastic. Keep on riding. You are a babe with thighs of steel. If you adventure to the motherland (Great Britain) it would be my great pleasure to show you and your significant other around the the beautiful Yorkshere moors. I tremble in your tyre tracks. Keep on keeping on.
    Yours admiringly,

    I Howard

  16. The pictures seems to explain like these - your being adventurous is synonymous to being environment-friendly because you took the time to explore the places-seldom-seen by people. It's no joke to be in a volcano-crater, clad only in a simple athletic "costume". ha ha, lucky you, the volcano is still "sleeping."


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