There’s nothing much sexier than sleeping at the edge of a glowing caldera, waking from time to time to watch the constellations wheel and the lava brighten and dim. I parked as close as I could to Halemaʻumaʻu crater and dozed in my car just so I could watch that orange glow all night long. At sunrise, I walked along the edge of Kīlauea’s cliffy summit and entered the steaming rainforest. Trail signs warned about fumes and deep earth cracks. The cool morning turned hot as I wandered among the vents and the native birds. Orchids dripped in the warm breath of the volcano. It all seemed so improbable: this sumptuous ecosystem balanced in the lap of terror.
It was a charismatic introduction to volcanism, but I suspected that I was only experiencing a small measure of the volcanic heritage that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park protects. I knew that the island’s volcanoes witness extremes: from the boat I worked on, I had looked up to see the Big Island’s mountains swathed in snow, and I suspected that where lava poured into the sea to my south, there were no orchids growing out of the raw rock. In my years of guiding in Hawaii, I had often stayed close to the comfortable places: turquoise bays for snorkeling, warm hikes to hidden waterfalls. Even now, near the Visitor’s Center at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I felt that I was seeing the volcano’s marketable face. Kīlauea is sometimes called the world’s only drive-in volcano. I was drawn to see those places that couldn’t be reached by car.
I suppose I approach my mountains like I view my lovers: I want to know their edges. A person can seem perfect at his balancing point: steam and flower, bounty and roughness. But I can’t really love without knowing the whole human—his origins, his outermost limits. Where was he born? What brutality is he capable of? What goodness? I wanted to understand this volcanic island in that way, too. I wanted to find her edges, to love her for more than just her lushness.
Volcanoes, of course, are female. They say that Madame Pele still walks on the Big Island, that she takes up residence wherever the lava bubbles up. She is supposed to be vengeful, quick-tempered, volatile. But isn’t that what they say about all women who hold power? She is the mother of land, and the destroyer of it.
My mother told me that she saw Pele once, long ago. Sometimes, say the Hawaiians, she appears not as the beautiful maiden depicted in paintings, but as an old crone accompanied by a white dog, walking through a place what will soon be dissolved by new lava. This is how my mother met her.
An old, disheveled woman with a limp was walking with her cane near the caldera rim of Kīlauea, and she beckoned to my parents, as if she wanted to talk with them. She spoke with a thick accent. “Are you going to hike in,” she asked, “down to the crater?” My mom and dad looked at each other. This wasn’t something they had considered. “You should do it. I would go myself, but…” she trailed off, and gestured with her cane at her swollen ankles. “But you should go, you really should,” she said with sparkling eyes, as if giving permission.
And so they descended into the sunken caldera, past blackened ʻŌhiʻa lehua trees still flowering red, past pouring steam and orchids, across the cracked rock to the edge of the lava. They returned unscathed. These days, access to the caldera floor is closed, and even if Pele gave me the nod, would I trust her?
Maximum elevation: 13,679 feet
Fifty miles under the earth, Kīlauea’s magma chamber connects to that of its big sister, Mauna Loa: “Long Mountain.” Mauna Loa is older, taller, and less-traveled than Kīlauea. It is the world’s most massive mountain, and the third most massive in our solar system, rising over 30,000 feet from the sea floor. If I was looking for volcanic edges, I was fairly sure I’d find them at the top of Mauna Loa. I started my hike at dawn, at about 11,000 feet along the mountain’s northern slope. The neighboring volcanoes—Mauna Kea, Hualālai—stood purple above a sea of early-morning clouds.
I followed ahu—cairns—the whole way up. All day—twelve hours of hiking—I saw no other human. My feet clattered over loose wreckage and broke through glass-like lava tubes that had hardened into a thin crust. It was less of a hike and more of a balancing act. I moved through different regions: rubbly a’a lava, formed by swiftly moving magma which tumbled and broke apart as it cooled; smooth pahoehoe lava which hardened slowly and rolled out like folds of heavy dough; old orange rock from long-ago lava flows, iron-bright with oxidation; fresh black rock glimmering like a stove surface; patches of minerals that glistened green, purple, blue. As I moved toward the top, I crossed through shadowy spots where ice crystals feathered out along rock edges. I passed across borders of color and texture.
Mauna Loa is a shield volcano, which means that its flanks are long and broad, almost hilly. I must have moved through about fifty false summits before I even hit the crater’s edge. Offerings to the volcano goddess Pele draped the cairn at the summit: dried berry leis, shells. I added a rock to the pile, leaned over the edge, and tried to internalize the vastness of the crater below me.
No life grew here. No blossoms buffeted in the alpine wind; no birds flitted over the caldera. If this mountain were like a human, I had found her cold edge. Is a human more beautiful because she can’t be kept? I felt like a visitor in a place harsher than I could ever be, and I was spellbound by the vastness, by the battering wind, by the glimmering gem tones. I knew I couldn’t stay, and that made me love her more.
I descended. The sun rolled slowly down from noon and my steps ticked out like a lagging clock. In all of my time alone on mountains, I’ve never felt so accompanied as I did on that solo hike. The wind moved chiming pieces of rock like footfall. It curled through hollow shafts like a faraway voice. Cairn shadows caught me off-guard, as if sentinels loomed along the way, waiting to see if I’d misstep, if I’d make it out alive or slip and stay for always.
Maximum elevation: sea level
At night, I walked with my light switched off along the flat gravel path to the lava flow. This is the one spot on the island where Kīlauea’s magma falls directly into the sea. It’s a 10-mile hike, although it’s hard to track distance by starlight, where the horizon is a question at the edge of vision. The flashlights of other visitors blinded me from time to time as they trailed back toward their cars while I strode into the dark. I thought of Hawaii’s night marchers: ghosts of ancient warriors who roam the islands with drums and torches, and I focused on my own steps.
Where the road ended, the gravel gave way to a mile of fresh rock—rippled pahoehoe, twisted like a ship’s cable and crisp underfoot. I turned on my headlamp and followed a rope fenceline, dodging deep cracks that were warm in the night.
At one point, my light caught the eyes of a small animal, rat-sized, which watched me with glinting attentiveness until turning suddenly, and scampering glassily into a rift in the rock. How was he making a life here? Or was he alive at all, or a mineral creature, swift and soulless, born out of the lava? When you have been walking for a long time alone, anything seems possible in Pele’s domain.
The moon rose and I came to the edge of the land. From a roped-off perch, I could watch fresh lava cascade into the dark surf. The air was thick with steam, bright with orange light, spattered with flying magma and crisp stars. I watched a new mountainside being born that midnight, and I thought about the lava in my own body: iron, oxygen, calcium.
Maximum elevation: 10,035 feet
The following day, any tenderness I’d felt for the glowing heart of the volcano dissolved as I pushed through the middle-elevation desolation of Mauna Loa. I had seen her origins and had scaled her ancient roof, and one last march would carry me through her middle regions: the boundary where life gave way to rock.
It was only seven and a half miles and less than a 4,000 feet elevation gain from the end of road on Mauna Loa’s south side to the Red Hill Cabin at 10,035 feet. But it was the longest seven and a half miles I’ve ever walked. My feet were already blistered from my long night hike, and I paused to re-tape and re-sock them every now and then. The elevation signs seemed to come grotesquely slowly and served less as rewards than as reminders of my slow progress.
I had nonchalantly waited till mid-afternoon to make the climb, hoping that the sun would be less intense, but as it sank in front of me I had to squint and avert my eyes from its sidelong glare.
By the time I hit 9,000 feet, I was hiking in the dark. I used my headlight to try to make out the sparse cairns. A couple of times I clattered off-track and with quiet, hollow panic I’d had to retrace my steps till I found the route. In other places, the track shone clearly in the starlight, where a faint raceway had been worn into slabs of lava by many feet over many years.
Far below me, Halemaʻumaʻu flared like a smoking torch. Way out, I would see the occasional glint of orange where I imagined I had stood the night before watching lava pour into the sea. The constellations were brighter than ever. It was black and starry by the time I reached the backcountry cabin.
I gave a surly greeting to the honeymooners who were sharing the cabin with me, slept fitfully, and woke up in time to watch the sun rise and turn everything red. I was sore and moody, but it really did feel like the world was being born in front of me.
Mid-morning, I descended. The climb down hurt just as much as the ascent had. The sun blazed and my pace slackened. My thoughts turned hateful. Somewhere between the 8,000 and 7,000-foot markers, I sat down, then I lay down. My failures circled me like vultures. I spread out, carcass-like, under the shadowless noon, and wondered if it would be easier just to die.
And in time, I picked up and I hobbled on, because there’s no way to go but forward. That’s not an aphorism, it’s a fact.
As I limped down through the tinkling lava rock, I smiled a little, reluctantly. I’d found what I’d come for—not the lush abundance of the steam vents or the poetic elegance of the gemlike summit, but the real deal. This part of the volcano was vaster than I was comfortable with, muscular, merciless. I had been brought to my knees.
The night after I descended from Red Hill, I napped again at the edge of Halemaʻumaʻu. I walked again in the morning through the steam vents. I closed my eyes and let the hot, wet air purge the red dirt out of my face. Two endemic nene geese flew overhead. The red ʻŌhiʻa lehua trees still caught light in the beaded moisture along their brushy blossoms, just like they had the first day I woke up in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. And early that morning, before the sun had risen, I awoke to the sound of chanting.
A flock of women dressed in draped fabric trailed past my car. They carried ho’okupu, traditional Hawaiian offerings wrapped in ti leaves. I followed after them at a slight distance. They marched single file to the edge of Kīlauea. Halemaʻumaʻu Crater still flickered, huge and orange in the dawn. The lady at the front of the line chanted something melodic and harsh to the goddess Pele, and one by one, the women threw their ho’okupu over the edge of the caldera. Gifts for the destroyer.
Everything was illuminated: the leafy green of the gifts sailing into the new light of the day, the red plume of steam rising out of the crater, the bodies of the women as the sun rose up between their bodies like a starburst.
At the edge of the land of fire—where ruin and renewal heave against each other like wrestlers—my own crusty soul lit up a little, too.