Rubbernecking at Kilauea Volcano

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Rubbernecking at Kilauea Volcano

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island
Oct 26, 2012

In 1959, the line of cars waiting to enter Volcanoes National Park snaked east and around to Hilo and west and down toward Kona. At times, the bumper-to-bumper line of cars measured 10 miles long. The wait took hours. And, then, once you entered the park, you were allotted a whopping 10 minutes at the viewing platform overlooking Kilauea Iki. Some 20,000 people a day turned out to witness fiery fountains of lava jetting into the air as high as 1,900 feet during this five-week-long explosive eruption. 

I missed the 1959 excitement, because I wasn’t born yet. However, since moving to Hawaii in 1999, I’ve visited Volcanoes National Park many times. I’ve hiked through the now hardened lava lake that makes up the floor of Kilauea Iki. I’ve trekked Halemaumau Crater, from Volcano House clear through to the other end, broiling on the barren lava rock floor, wondering whether I had enough water to sustain me and wishing the crater wasn’t so dang wide.

On each of my visits, Madame Pele must have been sleeping. Sure, I saw distant views of surface lava taking its sweet, meandering time down the slopes of Kilauea volcano. I saw a speck of molten lava through a “skylight” in the surface crust from a thousand-foot view of an airplane. From the relative safety of a boat, I even felt the heat and smelled the sulfurous scent of liquid rock as it oozed into the ocean. (The last ranks as one of my all-time favorite adventures in Hawaii.)

On my last visit a few weeks ago, Halemaumau Trail was closed at the seam where the trail’s descent through a shady rainforest meets up with the desolate crater floor, a demarcation line as distinct as blue and red in this upcoming election. A few years ago a lava lake at the southeastern end of Halemaumau Crater started to generate excitement when it split open the crater floor. Since then, it has grown to nearly 500 feet in diameter and more than 600 feet deep. This “pit within a pit” is the reason for the glow that is visible after sunset from the Jagger Museum. A few days ago, I read that the level of this lava lake was rising quickly and threatened to flood the floor of Halemaumau Crater.

When my literary friends Mark Twain and Isabelle Bird visited in 1866 and 1873, respectively, they witnessed this lava lake. They wrote about the lava lake of Halemaumau Crater, and I have always wished that I could have seen what they saw. That, somehow, Kilauea was a much more active, more thrilling, more dangerous and flat-out more entertaining volcano in their day than in mine.

In Twain’s 25th letter to the Sacramento Union, he wrote: 

“The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightening on a midnight sky. Imagine it—imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fry!”
Isabella Bird was even more dramatic. She wrote:

“I write thunder, and one speaks of the lashing of waves; but these are words pertaining to the familiar earth, and have no place in connection with Kilauea. The breaking lava has a voice all its own, full of compressed fury. Its sound, motion and aspect are all infernal. Hellish is the only fitting term.”

So, when I heard the news about Kilauea Volcano's turn of events, I went on alert. Sat up straighter. Cocked my head. Checked Hawaiian Air flights. And refreshed the web cam for Halemaumau Crater every few minutes. 

I wondered if the lava should breach its rim and pour forth into its encompassing basin, would it do so with fountains of fire? Would it set off crackling fireworks of the few lehua ohia trees and hapuu tree ferns growing inside the crater? Or, would it just ooze in the traditional, easy-going, pahoehoe way?

The combination of Twain’s and Birds’ prose and the potential of nature’s grandeur has turned me into a wannabe volcano rubbernecker.

I suspect, like the 20,000 people who daily flocked to see the eruption of Kilauea Iki in 1959, that I am not alone. I suspect the flights on the airlines will be tight. The lines to enter the park long. The crowds large and full of elbows. But I don’t care. If an explosive eruption starts, I am ready. I’ll go. It’s worth it. Don’t you think?


[This page provides daily updates on the status of Kilauea volcano.]

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