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Under the Volcano (Part 1)


Hawaii is a multicolored muumuu worn by Pele, the goddess of the volcano, but when I first stepped onto her robe from a plane at the Keyhole Airport on the Kona Coast, the fabric was black and barren. The sun beat down on the rocks and runway tar and caused the horizon to morph into a mirage. The plane taxied to an open-air terminal surrounded by trees.

The Kona Coast is a jewel in the rough. It is a place where tourists come to do the things that tourists do, like shop for generic souvenirs and stay in monster hotels. I wanted more than that: I wanted to see the entire fabric, the real fabric beyond that rolled out for my amusement and pleasure – my tourist dollar.

Riding a black sand beach. © Micha PringleMy cycling companion was a computer consultant and bicycle enthusiast who I had never met, but had planned the trip with. We began by cycling into Kailua and past the many hotels. It was indeed a tourist’s paradise in all sense of the definition, but it was not what we were seeking. The sun had long since set so we pitched camp on a black sand beach under the backdrop of a decrepit, derelict hotel. It was a scene of eerie beauty. We spent the night peacefully listening to the breaking surf while the shadow of tourism sulked behind us.

Morning broke as we climbed a 1000-foot hill back to the highway. Soon authentic Hawaiian towns appeared. These quiet towns are well weathered and have a unique charm.

The place of refuge. © Micha Pringle
The heat was taking its toll so we descended from Captain Cook down to the ocean where we played in the waves before continuing along the coast. We entered the surf fully clothed in our cycling shorts and shirts. They already needed a wash and this was a perfect opportunity. We showered under a cold shower and cycled on. Our clothes dried quickly. The terrain was desolate and cruel. The road narrowed to one lane as it rolled through short brush and intense heat. Only the occasional mongoose wandered into view. We stopped at Puuhonua O Honaunah (the Place of Refuge) to discover where warriors and Kapu breakers (ancient law breakers) fled to escape death. They were a given a second chance at life with the blessings of the priests.

The place of Refuge © Micha Pringle The priests had long gone, but the sea turtles had stayed to play in the sacred bay lined with palm trees.

We climbed back to the highway. The sun was so hot the guardrails expanded in the heat and moaned and complained at being held in place by solid wooden posts. We passed an exquisite painted church and a botanical garden that was way past its prime and hadn't been tended for years. The owners were surprised we wanted to see it. An old dog was our only escort on an unofficial tour. Invigorated by our company, he scratched and sniffed as he ran ahead of us.

Further down the road the aroma of roasting coffee caught my attention in between drafts of fresh ocean air intermingled with the perfume of tropical flowers. We enjoyed a quick guided tour of a coffee plantation while sipping samples of Kona Coffee and eating chocolate-covered Kona coffee beans. Buyers beware: Many tourist shops sell Kona coffee that is guaranteed to contain under 10% Kona beans. Buy from the plantation if you can.

The sun set and we were still 20 miles short of our destination. A kind mother and son who had been into Kona to buy a new pickup truck offered to chauffeur us to a campground of our choice. We gratefully accepted and were dropped off at Whittington Beach Park. The people at Whittington were a friendly bunch. One fat Hawaiian fellow strolled up to us like an official spokesman and declared, "We are not homeless. This is our home. We are merely houseless." The Hawaiian disappeared for a minute and came back with a sample from his dinner. It consisted of freshly dug up sweet potato and fatty pork from a feral pig he had shot in the surrounding forest. It was wrapped in leaves that we examined suspiciously when he told us he has a marijuana plantation. He concluded the night’s conversation with the news that the State of Hawaii has been trying for seven years to evict him from his campground home. He was not your typical homeless person; he even had a car for the long commute into town.

That night one of the homeless wandered around the small park shouting obscenities and kicking things. The others did their best to calm him. They disappeared when he shouted "Violence! You want to see violence?" A beer bottle broke. Undoubtedly someone meant to use it as a weapon. We heard him call, "Where are you? Come out wherever you are." We tried to be inconspicuous inside our bulky, thin-walled tent that crouched in the corner of the small grassy field.

We left early that morning when all was quiet. The few homeless who were awake appeared to be ashamed and did not even attempt to greet us. A 4000-foot climb awaited us. The sun was already taking its toll on my companion. He resigned himself to a slow pace and the occasional roadside nap. I still don’t know how he managed to sleep in a ditch by the side of the road just feet from cars whizzing by. I went ahead and soon hit rain. The temperature had plummeted with the elevation gain. When I found our campground I was soaked to the skin and shivering with cold. I continued on to the Volcano National Park Visitor’s Center, stopping at the occasional volcanic steam vent to warm my violently shivering body.

Volcanic steam vent. Courtesy of Hawaiiís National Park Service.My companion hitchhiked the remaining distance and wasn't cold at all.

The Visitor’s Center was at the edge of a fairytale forest filled with giant tree ferns. We spent the night in a hostel in the town of Volcano. The weather was too miserable to camp. The rain bouncing off the roof of the hostel was deafening. It had rained here continuously for the last week and the adjacent district had posted flood warnings. The scorching heat of the morning seemed to be as distant as a dream.

No trip to Volcano is complete without a drive (or in our case, ride) around Crater Rim Drive. Our first stop was the Thurston Lava Tube. I was eager to get out of the rainy forest and enter a relatively dry cave system. It seemed to rain harder in the lava tube as water seeped out from beneath the forest. We rode on around the rim. Not a tourist was in sight. It rained so hard the road appeared to be flowing. The wind created patterns on the asphalt like ripples on a lake. The forest soon gave way to terrain more fitting for the moon. The landscape was pockmarked with old craters and active steam vents. The smell of sulfur filled the air and warm steam blew with the wind. A tourist briefly opened his car window to give us directions, but when the rain blew in he closed it quickly and drove away without saying a word. We were a strange sight peddling about in such foul weather that car-driving tourists were in their lodges huddled beside a raging fire.

The descent to Pahoa was cold, rainy and mercifully quick. The Pahoa triangle is regarded by some as a dangerous and absurd place to live. You can pick up the cheapest real estate in Hawaii here. In return, you have to brave frequent earthquakes and the occasional lava flow. This area is described as "shady". Apparently the word doesn't refer to the beautiful tree-lined lanes that our bikes bumped and bounced over. Only last month a lone hitchhiker was kidnapped and never returned. Locals suspect some of the marijuana growers.

The Pahoa triangle was formed when Pele sent lava to destroy the black sand beach at Kaimu. Hotels and restaurants that were once beachfront establishments were spared by mere meters. A new beach is forming a kilometer out, in what use to be the sea. The food at Verna V, a local restaurant, is simple but excellent. In true Hawaiian spirit the owners of the establishment let us spend the night in the safety and comfort of their open-air restaurant. We were unnerved by the sight of a dog dripping crimson drops of blood from his snout on to the cold cement as he walked past. Our apprehension dissolved when a friendly puppy appeared. His playfulness and love of life quickly rid us of the tension the crimson drops had created.

My sleep interrupted. © Micha Pringle I slept well except for the puppy that insisted on sleeping with me in my sleeping bag. I soon moved to sleep on the table and the puppy was content to sleep on my shoes before he was called home.

In the morning the temptation was high to cross the lava flats to an island of vegetation in a sea of hardened destruction. All that remained of the Royal Garden subdivision was a bed and breakfast and a few houses nestled in this island of forest. Beyond, the lava still flows to the sea. The Goddess Pele is still hard at work. To approach these flows can be suicidal. The recently cooled lava is often thin and unstable. The weight of a human can break through this layer and send him plummeting into an empty, or worse, an active lava tube.

Cycling towards Hilo we noticed many shady looking hitchhikers thumbing their way to Pahoa. Although there were few cars on the road not one failed to stop for a hitchhiker in need. In Pahoa these exact same shady hitchhikers lined the streets and gave the town a Wild West look. Curious about why they were there, I struck up a conversation with a rough looking middle aged man we had early seen climbing into a car. He appeared to be waiting and watching. He assured me politely, "I am going nowhere." He appeared quite comfortable leaning on a post in front of the general store, but his shady darting eyes suggested a deeper purpose. Perhaps my suspicions were unwarranted. Maybe his sole purpose in life was to hitchhike into town, adapt a meaningful demeanor for the few tourists who showed up at 7 am, and hitchhike home. I will never know what he and his friends were really up to. We had to continue. Soon we would be in the capital of Hilo to witness the flooding firsthand.

For more information on Hawaii visit the Hawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau at www.gohawaii.com or call 800-464-2924.

Visit the Hawaii Volcano National Park Service at www.nps.gov/havo/

That night one of the homeless wandered around the small park shouting obscenities and kicking things. The others did their best to calm him. They disappeared when he shouted "Violence! You want to see violence?" A beer bottle broke. Undoubtedly someone meant to use it as a weapon. We heard him call, "Where are you? Come out wherever you are." We tried to be inconspicuous inside our bulky, thin-walled tent that crouched in the corner of the small grassy field.

We left early that morning when all was quiet. The few homeless who were awake appeared to be ashamed and did not even attempt to greet us. A 4000-foot climb awaited us. The sun was already taking its toll on my companion. He resigned himself to a slow pace and the occasional roadside nap. I still donít know how he managed to sleep in a ditch by the side of the road just feet from cars whizzing by. I went ahead and soon hit rain. The temperature had plummeted with the elevation gain. When I found our campground I was soaked to the skin and shivering with cold. I continued on to the Volcano National Park Visitorís Center, stopping at the occasional volcanic steam vent to warm my violently shivering body.

Volcanic steam vent. Courtesy of Hawaiiís National Park Service.My companion hitchhiked the remaining distance and wasn't cold at all.

The Visitorís Center was at the edge of a fairytale forest filled with giant tree ferns. We spent the night in a hostel in the town of Volcano. The weather was too miserable to camp. The rain bouncing off the roof of the hostel was deafening. It had rained here continuously for the last week and the adjacent district had posted flood warnings. The scorching heat of the morning seemed to be as distant as a dream.

No trip to Volcano is complete without a drive (or in our case, ride) around Crater Rim Drive. Our first stop was the Thurston Lava Tube. I was eager to get out of the rainy forest and enter a relatively dry cave system. It seemed to rain harder in the lava tube as water seeped out from beneath the forest. We rode on around the rim. Not a tourist was in sight. It rained so hard the road appeared to be flowing. The wind created patterns on the asphalt like ripples on a lake. The forest soon gave way to terrain more fitting for the moon. The landscape was pockmarked with old craters and active steam vents. The smell of sulfur filled the air and warm steam blew with the wind. A tourist briefly opened his car window to give us directions, but when the rain blew in he closed it quickly and drove away without saying a word. We were a strange sight peddling about in such foul weather that car-driving tourists were in their lodges huddled beside a raging fire.

The descent to Pahoa was cold, rainy and mercifully quick. The Pahoa triangle is regarded by some as a dangerous and absurd place to live. You can pick up the cheapest real estate in Hawaii here. In return, you have to brave frequent earthquakes and the occasional lava flow. This area is described as "shady". Apparently the word doesn't refer to the beautiful tree-lined lanes that our bikes bumped and bounced over. Only last month a lone hitchhiker was kidnapped and never returned. Locals suspect some of the marijuana growers.

The Pahoa triangle was formed when Pele sent lava to destroy the black sand beach at Kaimu. Hotels and restaurants that were once beachfront establishments were spared by mere meters. A new beach is forming a kilometer out, in what use to be the sea. The food at Verna V, a local restaurant, is simple but excellent. In true Hawaiian spirit the owners of the establishment let us spend the night in the safety and comfort of their open-air restaurant. We were unnerved by the sight of a dog dripping crimson drops of blood from his snout on to the cold cement as he walked past. Our apprehension dissolved when a friendly puppy appeared. His playfulness and love of life quickly rid us of the tension the crimson drops had created.

My sleep interrupted. © Micha Pringle I slept well except for the puppy that insisted on sleeping with me in my sleeping bag. I soon moved to sleep on the table and the puppy was content to sleep on my shoes before he was called home.

In the morning the temptation was high to cross the lava flats to an island of vegetation in a sea of hardened destruction. All that remained of the Royal Garden subdivision was a bed and breakfast and a few houses nestled in this island of forest. Beyond, the lava still flows to the sea. The Goddess Pele is still hard at work. To approach these flows can be suicidal. The recently cooled lava is often thin and unstable. The weight of a human can break through this layer and send him plummeting into an empty, or worse, an active lava tube.

Cycling towards Hilo we noticed many shady looking hitchhikers thumbing their way to Pahoa. Although there were few cars on the road not one failed to stop for a hitchhiker in need. In Pahoa these exact same shady hitchhikers lined the streets and gave the town a Wild West look. Curious about why they were there, I struck up a conversation with a rough looking middle aged man we had early seen climbing into a car. He appeared to be waiting and watching. He assured me politely, "I am going nowhere." He appeared quite comfortable leaning on a post in front of the general store, but his shady darting eyes suggested a deeper purpose. Perhaps my suspicions were unwarranted. Maybe his sole purpose in life was to hitchhike into town, adapt a meaningful demeanor for the few tourists who showed up at 7 am, and hitchhike home. I will never know what he and his friends were really up to. We had to continue. Soon we would be in the capital of Hilo to witness the flooding firsthand.

For more information on Hawaii visit the Hawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau at www.gohawaii.com or call 800-464-2924.

Visit the Hawaii Volcano National Park Service at www.nps.gov/havo/