It’s September 20th, my birthday, a day I typically spend somewhere other than Minnesota.   Today, Tom and I have decided to go to Volcanoes National Park to see Kilauea.  I’m told the very best way to see Kilauea is by an evening helicopter tour, since even during inactive periods, you can see the lake of lava in the crater.  ve checked the National Park Service to see if there is any lava to be seen, and I discover that it’s a period of somewhat limited activity.

That’s upsetting to some tourists, because they think that the Pele is somehow insulting them by not spewing hot lava in a place they can conveniently see by road.  A few months ago, I read there was a nice lava flow that terminated into the sea.  The best way to see this lava flow was by boat, but a review of recent boat tours suggested that the ride was overpriced without active lava.

To get from Kailua-Kona to Kilauea, you drive south along the hills of the Kona region.  A drive away from the seashore, it’s mainly coffee plantations.  The region is poor, and there is precious little commerce besides the coffee plantation tasting rooms.  Once we were deep into the region, I opened the car window, and it really did smell like coffee.   I’m not a big coffee drinker, but even I like Kona coffee.  It’s rich and, when roasted properly, is more nutty than earthy, without even a hint of bitterness.  It’s really amazing stuff.  Too bad it retails for about $30 a pound.

We got to the park about 10:30.  Tom forgot his senior pass, so we paid another $10 for a National Park senior pass.  Given that we go to about two or three national parks a year, it’s an amazing deal.  We hit up the Visitor Center after we gassed up in Volcano Village (where Tom got this prepackaged bread pudding that he is still raving about).  Then, we headed to the crater.

On the way, we stopped on a very windy ridge to see some steam vents.   One steam vent was located in the parking area, and the Japanese tourists took advantage of the proximity of the steam for photo opportunities.

That’s okay.  One of my favorite categories of tourism photography is taking pictures of people getting their picture taken.  Besides, I like the guide’s hat and shirt.

A short walk away, there was an entire hillside of steam.  It was really windy, and the steam was traveling away from the hill as if it were smoke.  From here, you could see the surprisingly desolate area that makes the crater.  It looks like a moonscape, with steam coming from the ground.  It’s not particularly dramatic. Somehow, I’d imagined that you could see lava spitting out of the crater.  Although I’m told this does happen at night, during the day, the crater’s output looks more like the output from my clothes dryer.  See what I mean?  From here, we went to see a museum, where I learned the difference between a’a and pahoehoe lava.  A’a is a smooth; pahoehoe is rough.  Of course, I got it wrong, despite the fact that the museum’s displays were very clear.

After, we drove towards the Thurston Lava Tube, which I am told is an amazing site.  Unfortunately, it was cruise ship Tuesday, and there was no parking within a reasonable walk from the Tube.  Instead, we drove along the Chain of Craters Road, and were awed by the view of a 1,000 years of lava flows.  The hardscape is resistant to life, so much so that you see only the smallest amount of green in the landscape.  The ground is so hard that trail markers are made from piles of rocks.

Despite the lack of vegetation, the terrain is quite difficult to walk across.  It is hilly and rough, and even though I wore shoes designed for a tropical hike, I found myself somewhat uncertain.  There were also warnings for CO2, which can be quite hazardous to breathe.

For miles, we drove downhill, stopping at dormant craters and fields of lava.  Suddenly, the vista emptied into the sea.  The clouds marking the lava beach, just as if it were freshly minted lava.  From the top of the hill to the sea shore, it must have been a good four miles, down a winding road.  I’m told that the road originally led to a town called Kalapana, which was mostly destroyed by a lava flow in 1990.

When we got to the end of the road, I noticed a small trail leading to the edge of a cliff.  I cautiously took the trail and came upon a lava arch, which had been formed by the violent surf that forms Hilo-side of the island.

I wondered about the people who live in the volcano’s path.   What kind of house do you build if you know it could be destroyed by lava?  Do you think about it?  One of the residents of Kalapana told a reporter that “it’s very easy to outrun lava.”  But, it can’t be that easy to watch your house be consumed by it.

Maybe that’s why so much of the architecture on the Big Island seems so transient.  Here, in Minnesota, we build big houses out of brick and stone (okay, so most of our modern architecture is stick-built, but it’s meant to last, right?).   We protect ourselves from the elements, from the harshness of winter and the very real threats of tornado and lightning.   In hurricane regions, houses are built on stilts.  In Hawaii, it’s almost as if they know that no building code will protect against a volcano.  The houses are low to the ground, and they are almost featureless.  I even noticed that Big Island houses didn’t even seem to feature lanais, although it is certainly true that when you travel someplace for the first time, you tend not to see the residential neighborhoods.

That evening, Tom and I went to the Island Breeze Luau.  The Luau is a right of passage for every tourist.  I’m told there are much bigger luaus on Oahu, but I’m not sure that would translate to a better experience.  Let’s face it, the Luau is an opportunity to show tourists something about Hawaiian culture.  It’s an opportunity to see hula dancing, eat poi and drink Mai Tais (which were really tasty).  I skipped the poi, because the MC of the luau wouldn’t endorse it, but I did have some really good imu pork (a pig roasted in an earth oven), and some amazing salmon poke (raw marinated salmon).  Before the entertainment began, it began to rain, so the entire evening’s activities were accelerated.  It was hard to concentrate on the show, which seemed to be an all-Polynesian dance review that would have been equally at home on a cruise ship or a Reno casino.   We learned a few Hawaiian words, and I enjoyed listening to the newlyweds next to us tell us about their wedding.   By the end of the show, we were drenched.  But it was kind of a nice, Hawaiian drenched.  Warm.  And there was a rainbow.