Whenever I tell my friends that I’m going on a snorkel, surf, or hike with my grandparents, I’m always met with with a head tilt and “Your grandparents?”
Yeah. My grandparents. Despite being in their 70s, my grandparents have capitalized on their retirement days by hiking, surfing, snorkeling, swimming, organizing social events, dancing, traveling, and complaining that their bodies just aren’t as agile as they used to be. Over a decade ago, they bid the state of California goodbye and bought a plot of land on the Island of Hawaii. Their house is located on the foothills of Mauna Loa, the island’s largest volcano, in an area that’s known as “Lava Zone 2.” Lava zones are the rankings of a hazard assessment made by the U.S. Geological Survey that basically states how likely your home is to be crushed by lava. Needless to say, homeowners insurance in these zones is expensive and hard to come by.
In 2018, another of the island’s volcanoes, Kilauea volcano, erupted and destroyed 700 homes–most of them located in “Lava Zone 2.”
When you view much of the Island of Hawaii’s coastline from Google Earth, a large part of it is streaked with lava. My grandparents live in between a cinder cone, formed by a volcanic vent, and a pathway made of lava that stretches into the sea.
“To live on the Island of Hawaii, you have to love lava.”
Though it’s easy to hate lava when you’ve stubbed a toe on its glass-shard surface, the jet-black and iridescent formations quickly grow on you. When lava hits the water, it can explode into smithereens, creating a black sand beach in its wake. On the island of Hawaii, you can walk through lava tubes, scuba dive inside volcanic caves, and trek across craters that were once tubs of boiling magma. You quickly appreciate the resilience that life can have when you see a small fern sprouting from a crevice in pahoehoe lava.
Going to the Source: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
After the 2018 Kilauea eruption, many of the main areas of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park closed. The park is home to Mauna Loa and Kilauea. It was once possible to see a lake made of lava inside of the Halema’uma’u crater, though this has disappeared. However, you can still get your volcanic fix by walking the Kilauea Iki Crater trail, a four-mile loop that takes you along the edge of the crater rim and along the crater floor.
The beginning of the trail starts off steep and zig-zags through dense foliage of ferns and foliage of which 90% of is endemic to Hawaii, found nowhere else on earth. Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, has a red pom-pom flower called the ohi’a lehua, accenting the green wall of plant life along the trail. Legend states that Pele once fell in love with a handsome chief named Ohi’a. Though she had eyes for him, Ohi’a was already enchanted by another women called Lehua. In a rage of jealousy, Pele cursed Ohi’a, turning him into a shrub. Lehua, distraught, turned herself into a red flower–uniting herself with Ohi’a for eternity and becoming the ohi’a lehua.
The trail then opens out to a barren landscape that looks outerworldly and is a stark contrast to the forest of its surrounds. Flat lava spans in all directions until it’s met with the steep and crumbling walls of the crater rim. A walk across is unique, an experience that is so simple but one found nowhere else in the world. At the outer edge of the crater we’re met with another steep trail that leads uphill until we’re back at the crater rim.
When you see a stretch of lava, it’s often hard to tell whether it’s been there for five years of fifty. One telltale sign though is the ohi’a lehua, one of the first plants to grow and thrive in the inhospitable path of a lava flow. Like my grandparents, the ohi’a lehua has to love lava.