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Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
By Eva Eldridge

My family and I had the fortune to visit Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawai’i in June.  A light drizzle and unexpected coolness greeted us at the Visitors Center where we acquired park maps and had a quick overview of the park.  

We decided to go directly to the Jaggar Observatory, bypassing the scenic pull-outs complete with steaming vents.  A stop along the side of the road treated us to a landscape filled with strange blooming shrubs, grasses, and Mauna Loa.  This shield volcano rises in the distance and looks like a gentle, if enormous, hill with gently rising slopes.  According to the USGS, Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on earth, rising from the sea floor 56,000 feet.  

We continued to the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum where you can look out over the Kilauea Volcano caldera.   The landscape is stark and harsh like a black and white version of a Mars photo.  Vapor and noxious gases rise from the crater and the lava lake which has sunk 300’ below the rim. I am fascinated by the desolate view and the idea that this place, placid and sleeping now could turn into a nightmare filled with dancing lava demons.  

After the required photo moments, we continued our drive through the park down the Chain of Craters Road, which follows the East Rift Zone, periodically stopping to peer into one of the bowls.  Steam seeps from the bottom of some of the craters belying the vegetation grasping the slopes.  One chasm was completely filled with trees and shrubs and the pit was barely visible.

Suddenly the landscape changed to stark shades of grey and black.  
The hardened lava covered everything in swirls, whorls, in chunks, globs, and fractured ravines where small plants had taken hold.  This would be the place where desolation, hopelessness, and surrender could overcome you just as the lava had overcome the living breathing life that existed before.   Yet life persists and fights to make its way evidenced by a bit of fern peeking from a crack or a patch of grass’s tenuous hold on the lava.  A tree partially destroyed by fire grows lopsidedly stating, “I’m here and you will not remove me from the land.”       

The ribbon of road progressed through the lava then dropped hundreds of feet down the escarpment to the ocean.  When you looked back up you could see the path of the lava, different flows, different types of lava such as pahoehoe a smooth or ropey type or aa which is rough and jagged and imagine what it would be like to have a liquid mountain sliding towards you.  

The road is blocked off a short distance from the bottom of the escarpment and you must walk about a half mile to where lava fingers meet the pavement.  It is a site unlike anything I could imagine.  Huge extensions of pahoehoe lava have engulfed the road and tickled the edges of the pavement on its way to the sea.  It seemed like it wanted us mere humans to know that no matter what we build, the earth can still have its way.     

The ocean was close and it seemed the lava had gently flowed into its final resting place, but when you arrive thinking to touch the water there is a 50 foot drop off and the waves pound mercilessly grinding the lava into black sand.   

It seems nothing is easy in this land of lava, wind, sunshine, and water, but it is so valuable to understand how our earth works and the Volcanoes National Park is doing a fine job of explaining and protecting this unique environment.  This park and the National Park system are a gift to the public that allows everyone to experience the wonders of our nation and the land.

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Eva Eldridge is a part-time traveler, student, writer, and wage slave who enjoys sharing her experiences in the wonderful places she has had the fortune to visit.