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.