The geography of the big island is split into two distinct zones – the rainy side, over near Hilo in the east, and the dry side, on the north and west. We’re staying on the dry side, up in Waikoloa, just outside the huge Parker Ranch. The landscape here is an odd mix of the American west and tropical Hawaii. We’re in the midst of scrub land and old lava flows. Where no irrigation or lava beds exists, the land is dry and golden brown, dotted with grasses and rolling hills, rock outcroppings and the occasional scrubby tree. Turn the other way from this straight-from-Montana landscape and you see ocean, incredibly blue, stretching out to the horizon. You can play perception games with this too – Montana. Hawaii. Montana. Hawaii. Fun.
The Montana side:
Around Waikaloa, the homes with irrigation have beautiful gardens – plumeria, bougainvillea, palms and ferns, aloes, and hundreds of other tropical plants. I’ve been reading two books on tropical landscaping that Tenaya’s mother has in the house since I got here, learning to identify a bit of what I see, but the variety is amazing and for the moment I’m too much of a neophyte to identify much beyond plumeria. The homes without irrigation have… well, nice brown grass.
And then there are the lava flows – huge craggy rock beds, dark chocolate brown, extending for miles on end, often bisected only by the road in their passage directly to the sea. Every time I see one, I’m struck by how much they look like freshly tilled earth, but on a giant scale. It’s as if some immense being took a hoe to dark, fertile earth and churned it all up, and we’re the ants wandering around in it. Lovely as that image is, they’re razor sharp and you’d probably break both your ankles trying to hike around in them, or lose your balance and sever all of your fingers trying to break your fall. So far we haven’t really explored them much.
The lava here moves slowly and is very predictable, but does now and then take a town off the charts. We were looking at a map yesterday of the lava flows down by Kona and the botanical gardens and beaches that were lost, along with the town of Kalapana. (Click here for some interesting images of the town begin swallowed.) It’s hard to imagine losing a whole village to the slow, inexorable torrent of lava, but it happens. The lava flows near Kona eminate from a new crater called Pu’u O’o and have been flowing since January 3, 1983. Right now, its sister, Mauna Kea, is about to erupt for the first time in 20 years. Then again, according to this report, so is Mt. St. Helens, back home. (Interestingly, the news about Mt. St. Helens made the local paper here in Kona. The fraternity of volcano-bearing states is apparently strong.)
Random volcano facts, courtesy of our favorite guide book series: “Hawaii, the Big Island, Revealed”:
- 2,900,000,000 cubic yards of lava have erupted from Pu’u O’o since 1983
- Number of dump trucks this would fill: 200 million
- Number of homes destroyed: 182
- Total area covered: 40 square miles
We haven’t been over to the wet side of the island yet – it’s a couple hundred miles over to Hilo, and as with the other Hawaiian islands we’ve visited, there are very few roads that lead straight across the interior to wherever you’re trying to go. (That’s where Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are busy doing their volcanoic best.) We plan to drive around the southern end of the island in a few days to Volcano National Park, but we haven’t relaxed quite enough yet to take on a big road trip right now.
Driving on the islands, as we found out earlier this year on Kauai, can be tough. Yesterday we headed down to Kona, about thirty mails from the house in Waikoloa, hoping to get a quick breakfast. We ended up in one of those amazingly bad traffic jams you get on an island with only one or two main roads which everyone has to take to get anywhere. Turns out there was a diesel spill just south of Kona from a collision between an SUV and a truck, no major injuries but enough to snarl traffic in both directions and on both of the major highways for a good two hours. That about did it for our urge to explore for a while. We eventually did get to Kona, had breakfast (banana French toast) at a place with a mindblowing view of the water, did our grocery shopping, and went home, but we haven’t ventured out of the top half of the island since.
Staying put is pretty pleasant in itself. The house we’re staying in –- loaned to us in an astonishing fit of karma-inducing generosity by the parents of our friends Scott and Tenaya – is just gorgeous, nicer than nearly all of the houses I’ve ever lived in. Huge, cool, and lovely, with ceiling fans in every room to waft a breeze around, it has an immense white-tiled kitchen, and the bedroom is lined in windows. On the back there’s a beautiful screen-enclosed porch (called a lanai) with a large comfy couch that we spend hours lounging around on, reading. It's usually ten degrees cooler out there by the end of the day than it is in the couch. (Brett's asleep there right now.) There are nice beaches close by, and we did go out late yesterday afternoon for an initial dip in the warmest water I’ve ever swam in and some snorkeling, but we’re taking it easy and moving slow.
As an added bonus, somehow, there’s random wireless internet access, for free. I don’t think it’s coming from the house, but it’s somewhere nearby. I discovered it by accident when I pulled the laptop out onto the lanai one morning to write a little and suddenly found myself connected. This lets us upload the pictures from the digital camera and post them. I don't kid myself that I have a ton of readers here -- more like two regular ones that I know of (my sister-in-law Marilyn and my friend Mike) -- but still, it lets me live out my fantasy of travel writing for a while.