We bumped slowly in our rental car across a bed of twisted black lava that 17 years ago wiped out a town right here. To the left, between us and the Pacific Ocean, a half dozen property owners have built new homes on top of the barren lava. To the right, one is for sale.
My wife and I parked where the civil defense people told us to and -- wearing the hiking boots and carrying the flashlights and bottles of drinking water they repeatedly recommended for those staying until dark -- walked a half mile to the sea. Clouds moved in and out, occasionally spitting mist on us, and wind whipped white spray off the waves, but the air was warm.
Yellow stripes painted on the black rock marked the trail, which curved between two stands of brush and lauhala trees spared by a flow. We crossed bare rock shaped into weird black ropes and humps, once liquid and now solid. Carefully we stepped across cracks inches wide and a foot or more deep, where ferns had begun to sprout.
Around a bend, we saw what we had come to the Big Island of Hawaii hoping for: red hot lava pouring into the ocean, spewing glowing globs into the air and billowing steam hundreds of feet high. The sight was a collage of black rock, blue sea, white clouds and a very bright gash of orange.
The island is on fire in several places right now, offering a spectacular show that only highlights the intriguing past of this, the youngest of the Hawaiian islands.
Kilauea, Hawaii's most active volcano, has been erupting since 1983, sending flows of lava from its flanks toward the sea. One of those unpredictable flows wiped out the seacoast village of Kalapana in 1990, destroying homes but killing no one.
Later the flows shifted into the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park nearby and then they stopped reaching the sea altogether.
But on March 6, they again began pouring into the ocean, perfect timing for the repeat visit to the Big Island that we had already planned.
The flows, which are adding steadily to the island's land mass but which also create benches of new rock that can collapse suddenly into the water, draw a steady flow of visitors to a county-run viewing stand. At times, the flow has been within a few hundred feet of the stand. When we visited in late April, that rock was still shimmering with heat waves but the most visible red rock was about a half-mile up the shore.
As daylight faded, the show got better. In the short tropical twilight, the steam started to glow pink with the reflection of the lava, and when darkness fell the orange and black spectacle surpassed July 4th fireworks.
Caldera glows red at night
To really gaze into the gates of hell, we drove the next day up the mountain an hour and a half to Kilauea's summit. It's only 4,000 feet above sea level, far below massive Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the two 13,000-foot-plus volcanoes that dominate the Big Island. On a clear day you can see not only the tops of both from Kilauea, but also the group of observatories on Mauna Kea that make it one of the world's premier sites for astronomers. Kilauea is lower but far more active volcanically.
Kilauea's summit is actually a caldera 2- by 3-miles across and surrounded by a rim that rises as high as 250 feet and offers stunning vantages from which to gaze down on what used to be molten lava. Within that caldera is a pit a half mile across and sunken farther yet. This is the crater known as Halema'uma'u, and in March and April three explosions blasted a 115-foot-wide hole in it that seemed to lead to the center of the earth.
No molten lava has flowed out of the hole yet, but it has spewed pink ash and tiny fragments of glass -- the fine needles of golden lava known as Pele's hair and the small globules of black shiny lava known as Pele's tears, after the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. The vent also exhales tons of smoke and sulfur dioxide every day, sending it billowing across the landscape or, when the trade winds shift, into the heavily visited areas of the park or onto nearby Volcano Village, a town of more than 3,000 residents nestled in the rain forest a few miles away.
A few days after our visit to the summit, park officials would see their sulfur dioxide readers spike into the "red zone" and shoo us and about 2,000 others out of the park for a few days.
But on this day, the winds were blowing away from us, and again, as night fell, that hole in the ground began to glow, the smoke reflecting something very, very hot not far down.
As the world again became a portrait in black and orange, I thought more about Dante than the seismometers and tiltmeters scattered around the mountain, more about the big genie of a smoke cloud blocking out stars than about parts per million of sulfur dioxide.
For these two events -- lava running into the sea from vents low down on the volcano and smoke and ash billowing up from the summit -- to occur at the same time is very unusual. The last time the summit crater exploded like this was in 1924.
Carvings hint at earlier times
I've been to the Big Island three times since 1995, and each time the volcano was erupting in a different place. This changing theater has been performing since long before people found the place, first the Polynesians nearly 2,000 years ago and the Europeans in 1778.
But the most poignant moment of this visit came later, away from the action, as I took a lonely hike across 6 miles of old, hardened lava to a lovely and desolate little peninsula, Apua Point. I crossed lava rock twisted in odd shapes, some fresh and shiny black from relatively recent flows, others weathered brown from perhaps a century or more ago.
A few coconut trees and, several hundred yards off the trail, some low wall ruins marked the remainder of a former Hawaiian fishing settlement. I didn't see another soul, but as I wandered around the ruins I spotted one relatively smooth patch of lava marked with rock carvings laboriously pounded out by Hawaiians of a much earlier day.
There were concentric circles around pits the size of a golf ball, perhaps created to hold the umbilical stump of a newborn (as was the custom in some places), perhaps having something to do with circumnavigating the island.
There were also stick-like figures of people, the torsos represented by open triangles. My favorite was a 15-inch figure of a person whose body was entirely etched into the rock, and whose head appeared to be adorned by a headdress. A chief? A god? A self-portrait? The legs were more muscled than the sticks of other figures, and the entire piece was hacked three-quarters of an inch into the rock, making the carving appear darker than what surrounded it.
Someone had worked hard at this; some artist who, in a land that was so obviously erasing and re-creating itself almost daily, wanted to leave a mark. What that person intended or who the audience was is impossible to know. But for someone like me, who had seen the island change, it was a mark of perseverance, an effort to create something lasting in an impermanent world.
Smoke from the eruption hovered in the air as I plodded back the 6 miles to meet my wife on the Chain of Craters Road, but for now the power and excitement of erupting lava and ash took a back seat in my thoughts to those who had fished here, lived under the palms and etched out a life on a growing rock.
Dave Peters is a Minneapolis resident and longtime Minnesota journalist. Years ago, he developed an incurable case of red rock fever.