NASA Astronauts. Scientists. And Hawaiian Gods & Goddesses.
We met Hawaii Forest and Trail at the King’s Shops in Waikoloa for a journey to the top of Mauna Kea and some stargazing.
According to Jon, our guide, the night’s plan would have us traverse Waikoloa Road—with a stop at Waikoloa Village to pick up dinner and, “most importantly, cookies”—and continue to Highway 190. We’d take a left, passing through a one-time native forest and now pasturelands, and then a right on Hawaii (Big) Island’s infamous Saddle Road. We’d climb half way up the mountain, stop, eat, acclimatize, don jackets—really warm jackets—and head for the summit, where the temperature was predicted to be “about freezing,” a full 50 degrees colder than when we’d started out at sea level.
The goal: arrive at the summit 20 minutes before sunset. After sunset, we’d drop back down to the visitor center, set up a telescope, sip hot chocolate (two nights in a row; woot), nosh on chocolate chip cookies and watch the star show.
The journey up taking nearly three hours is probably the fastest ascent anywhere from sea level to 14,000 feet, said Jon. We’d pass through a variety of terrain, several microclimates and past the highest elevation pump house in the world; the largest military training facility in the Pacific; evidence of an 1843 and 1935 lava flow; filming location for the most recent Planet of the Apes movie; NASA astronaut training grounds; glacial remains in the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve; and a lone Mauna Kea silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense ssp.sandwicense), a subspecies found only at elevations of 8,500 to 12,500 feet.
We’d stop at the now-defunct Humuula Sheep Station, where a few buildings remained that possibly housed Mark Twain when he visited Hawaii in 1866, and eat veggie and beef stew.
Our 14-passenger, and quite comfortable, 4WD van would travel across smooth asphalt; the old, bumpy and narrow Ala Mauna Saddle Road; the new and smooth Ala Mauna Saddle Road realignment project, over one-lane bridges and across a washboard dirt road en route to the summit.
Mauna Kea rises to 13,796 feet above the sea, centrally located in the middle of Hawaii’s largest island—Hawaii, also known as Big Island. It is the tallest mountain in the Hawaiian archipelago and, measured from its base at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, is the tallest mountain in the world, besting Mt. Everest by a whopping 4,441 feet.
The world’s largest collection of observatories—13—sits atop Mauna Kea like giant and scattered golf balls. Scientists from around the world vie for telescope time to study the night skies here. The mountain’s high altitude, dry air and freedom from light contamination make Mauna Kea an astronomer’s paradise. And while it may seem to us that the discovery of this astronomical Mecca is relatively recent—with the first telescope put into use for scientific research in 1972—that just may be our myopic vision at work.
According to Walter R. Steiger, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, in the book Mauna Kea: A Guide to Hawaii’s Sacred Mountain, “Legend has it that the ancient Polynesian navigators looked upon Mauna Kea as a beacon guiding their voyages of discovery. Today Mauna Kea is again a beacon, guiding modern explorers to discoveries beyond the celestial horizon.”
You could say the early Polynesian navigators were the astronomers of their day. They studied the stars of the night skies and their movement across the seasons and used that knowledge—the science—to guide their voyaging canoes thousands of miles across a vast, seemingly endless ocean to discover and populate these Hawaiian Islands.
In Hawaiian cosmology, Mauna Kea is an actual ancestor to Hawaiian people. (The same has been said of the staple food in Hawaii, called taro in English and kalo in Hawaiian.) Mauna Kea is home to the snow goddess Poliahu. It is the source of healing waters used to treat the sick. It embraces the beginning of life and its end, as the place where some Hawaiians leave the piko (umbilical cord) of babies and carefully stored the bones of Hawaiian ancestors.
Mauna Kea is usually translated as, “white mountain,” referring to the snows that sometimes cover the summit in winter, but other translations put the English at, “the mountain of Wakea,” the god from whom all Hawaiians descend. Mauna Kea’s summit is considered to be wao akua, or the sacred realm of the gods.
For these reasons, it’s important to follow your mother’s advice when staying over at a friend’s house—clean up after yourself. Put another way: Leave no trace. Take nothing except photographs and memories.
After sunset, back at the visitor center, Jupiter made its appearance first, its steady stream of light laser-like. Jon pulled out his own green laser and took us on a tour of the night sky: the North Star; the constellations of Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer and Leo; the constellation of Canis Major and the star Sirius; the constellation Canis Minor and the star Procyon; Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Andromeda and Perseus.
We talked about how to tell the difference between planets and stars,the planetary ecliptic, the number of stars visible to the naked eye, the number of constellations in the sky, the discovery of the expansion and constraction of the universe, and how stories--such as the one of a famed Greek hunter whom Zeus turned into the constellation of Orion and placed in the sky, forever blocking Orion from his love interest by the obstacle of Taurus--help us remember where to find stars and constellatoins, one leading to the next.
Jon set up his 11-inch Celestron telescope, and we looked at Jupiter, the Orion Nebulous and the moon.
It was dark, so I'm not sure how Jon saw my eyes glaze over, because just as they did, he said, "Don't worry about remembering all this. Let your brain fill up and spill over. Catch what you can."
An hour later, I turned back to find the North Star in the sky again. I looked for my zodiacal constellation, Pisces, and the bright star of Sirius, I realized they'd all moved. In fact, I realized, really, that we were moving.
Most vacations and trips, I've found, resonate with a theme, and this one was no different. Although the words of the theme changed from day to day, they always resonated with a kind of wonder and awe at the universe and our place in it. My friends M & W arrived on Big Island by plane. We de-planed parroting the comedian Louis C.K.'s line, "We're sitting in a chair. In the sky." We surfaced from our manta ray dive, exclaiming, "We're sitting on the bottom of the ocean. And we're breathing." Tonight, the refrain shifted to, "We're standing on a planet. And it's moving." Thanks to gravity and some other fascinating scientific concepts of which I know nothing about, we don't feel the earth's rotation. We don't walk through life consciously trying to maintain our balance. And, yet, a short hour gazing at nothing but the night sky and listening to Jon share fascinating astronomical facts, the amazing world in which we live made its presence known to me again. And isn't it something?