Atop the Volcano
Soon, as we drive toward Kilauea ourselves, Becky and I pass the Kurtistown Samoan Seventh-Day Adventist Church, where the stained glass shows a dark-skinned Jesus standing before what looks like a volcano. I’m still fixated on the description of the park as desolate. Granted, there are plains of skin-ripping rock. But the ground is alive. Steam pours from vents and fissures, while in some areas molten lava bubbles barely 300 feet below where we hike. Geologic time is real time here: When I traverse the caldera on the four-mile Kilauea Iki Loop, the park’s best day hike, I’m walking on rock that’s the same age as I am.
At Volcano Village Lodge near the park, tree ferns on the edge of stands of native ohia envelop our room. The cedar space, with its expansive beamed ceiling, seems like an extension of the forest, and opening the windows, we hear calls of apapane birds singing from the high branches. The night is cool at 4,000 feet, chilly enough that we bring in soup and curry from Thai Thai, one of Volcano’s few restaurants, then dine on our deck as a delicate patter of rain drips from the ohia.
The best time to experience Kilauea’s ongoing eruption is before sunrise, hours ahead of the tour coaches from Kona, when you can witness an undulating orange glow and hear boulders banging around in the molten lava. So I make the quick drive into the park amid the early-morning darkness to the overlook of Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater, said to be the dwelling place of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Halemaumau has been erupting since 2008, sending a huge plume of steam, ash, and gas into the air.
On this morning it’s just me and Pele for about 20 minutes, until a trio of kids runs up shouting, “LAVA LAVA LAVA!”
To South Point
Beyond the national park, Highway 11 descends from Kilauea and through Ka’u, a remote region with coffees that rival Kona’s best. In the far distance at the end of an arrowhead-shaped peninsula, we catch glimpses of South Point, the southernmost spot in the United States.
In Na’alehu we pass the country’s southernmost bakery, restaurant, and bar as well as the wreck of the 1940 Na’alehu Theater, which I hope will become America’s southernmost zigzag moderne theater restoration project. We lunch with the geckos that hang out on the lanai at Hana Hou, a bakery and restaurant that cooks up surprisingly tasty macadamia-crusted chicken with papaya chutney and a fabled mac-nut-cream pie.
Then, having detoured into the tin-roofed shack that houses the Once Upon a Story Community Book Store (presumably the country’s southernmost bookstore), we reach South Point Road in a mile. The road runs for 12 miles through gusty grasslands, where scattered trees grow lopsided and parallel to the ground.
With no photo op marker at South Point, tourists pose before a tower that survives from an old navy facility. Meanwhile we set out on two-and-a-half miles of deeply rutted Jeep roads to the rare green sand beach at Papakolea. The beach sits in an amphitheater formed by a collapsed cinder cone. Technically Papakolea may not be where the country’s destiny is fully manifest, but it is land’s end as land’s end should be, roiling and romantic, with the next landfall thousands of miles to the south in Antarctica.
NEXT: Into Coffee Country