Discovering Hawaii's Savage Big Island

Conde Nast Traveler

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Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

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Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

Away from the Big Island’s perfectly pruned resorts lies a savagely spectacular landscape of forbidden valleys, primal lava fields, and mysterious beaches strewn with gemstones.

I call my forty-three-year-old brother, Mark, in Ohio. I say, “Do you want to go to the Big Island? In three weeks?” He’s thinking. He’s smiling. He’s picturing little paper umbrellas and big icy drinks. I say, “Not the dry side. The wet side, land of geckos and ferns and rain. Black cliffs, green walls, waterfalls, African tulips.

Spotlights of sunshine dropping godlike through platinum clouds.”

He’s quiet. In the background I hear a phone ringing, a file drawer closing.

I say, “And we’re walking. Lots of miles every day. On our feet, dawn to dusk, sleeping outside whenever possible. We’ll get rained on. We could drown. We could fall off a cliff.”

He says, “Let me think about it.”

I say, “It’ll be like we are boys again.”

He calls back fifteen minutes later. “I’m in.”

Three weeks later, we stand at the end of Hawaii Route 240, on the rim of the Valley of the Kings. It’s an hour after dawn and we are jet-lagged and out of cell range. Beyond the rail, cliffs plunge nine hundred feet to a gunpowder beach. Beyond the beach, whitecaps stretch 2,500 miles to the Aleutians.

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The Valley of the Kings, or Waipi‘o (think Y-P-O) Valley, is twenty miles shy of the northern tip of the island. Here, says my guidebook, you’ll find the only place in Hawaii that isn’t friendly. Here, you stay on trail, respect private property. Here, you obey kapu (the ancient Hawaiian system of religious taboos) or else. Here, when drivers wave hello—if they wave at all—they raise only one finger off the steering wheel, as if to say, “Yes, I see you and your big backpack, haole, but let’s not pretend I want you here.”

A sign at the overlook reads, “If not invited, please respect this sacred valley by enjoying its beauty from this lookout here.” Behind it three other signs say, “Falling Rocks!” “Hazardous Cliff!” and “Flash Flood!”—each featuring a cartoon man suffering spine-shattering mishaps.

Mark says, “Were we invited?”

I say, “Depends what you mean by invited. . . .”

We each carry about forty-five pounds of stuff—couscous, water filter, Chips Ahoy, plastic canteen of vodka, Mark Twain’s letters from Hawaii. Below us begins what must be the steepest road in the United States. What to do but go down, as quietly as we can.

It’s a mile-long ribbon of asphalt, twenty-five-percent grade, laid into the cliffside. The two battered trucks that pass us are angled so steeply upward that their drivers look like astronauts strapped into rockets.

We pass a boulder strewn with offerings. The men who built this road supposedly pushed the boulder off the edge one evening, only to find it sitting back at the top in the morning.

On the valley floor, trees grow up through the twisted wrecks of a half-dozen cars. A wild horse canters across puddles. A barefoot, empty-eyed man in a full monk’s cowl—the only other human we see—steps out of the leaves. I try an aloha. No response.

At the fringe of the beach, “Burial Site—Stay Off” signs are nailed to trees. But what’s currently knotting my stomach is not the spooky entrance road or the echoes of ancient spirits, not the heavy rain clouds dragging over the valley walls or even the clear sight of the trail we’re about to climb, its sharp switchbacks scratched like a bent Z on the west wall at the far end of the beach; it’s something more banal: two creeks.

The first is just ahead, Wailoa Stream, a cool, shallow river slashing across the beach and dumping into the waves. After big rains up valley, I’ve read, this creek can become a full-fledged torrent: chest deep and boiling. Its bottom is stacked with algae-slick, ankle-snapping basalt cobbles; the water is quick and cloudy and particularly dislikes visitors from the mainland.

Every hour the previous night, I awoke to sporadic downpours on the roof of our rental house. Every hour I imagined this stream growing, getting deeper, preparing to knock us out before we had barely started.

The creek riffles in long, hypnotizing undulations as it sweeps into the sea. Mark says, “It doesn’t look so bad,” but I’m thinking of shattered bones and titanium screws; I’m thinking we should dump the Twain, the vodka, the tent—everything but the cookies. Instead, we offer a silent prayer to the spirits of Waipi‘o, unstrap our hip belts, face upstream, and start across.

I harbor two selves. One is the boy I used to be, the boy who grew up in the woods of northeast Ohio, throwing Nerf footballs and hunting fossils and starting fires with a magnifying glass. I used to spend hours catching bluegill and garter snakes and fireflies in the closed traps of my palms. Beneath colossal, buzzing utility towers, my brothers and I would gather blackberries as big as thumbs until our forearms were shredded and our mouths were purple. We raised kittens and winged ants; we kept a wounded mallard in our garage for a month.

Waipi‘o Valley, or the Valley of the Kings, once served as a religious center for the islands’ royal court. Many still consider it sacred and off-limits to outsiders. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

Waipi‘o Valley, or the Valley of the Kings, once served as a religious center for the islands’ royal court. Many still consider it sacred and off-limits to outsiders. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

To be a child then, in that last earthly era before the invention of video games, was to live a life of kick-the-can and bicycle wrecks and daydreams; every day we played outside as long as we could, as hard as we could, and when sleep came, it came like a burlap sack over the head.

But—how did this happen?—now there is this second self, this Grown-Up Me, an insomniac who always awakes for work at the exact same minute; who gets the oil changed every three thousand miles; who fixes the sprinklers and calls the accountant and buys sunscreen with numbers on the bottle that exceed his age. Grown-Up Me has a surgically repaired knee that clicks and creaks. Grown-Up Me stares at backlit screens for nine hours a day. Grown-Up Me forgets how to daydream, how to do nothing, how to see; Grown-Up Me keeps himself up nights worrying about things like stream crossings.

“We look at the world once, in childhood,” wrote the poet Louise Glück. “The rest is memory.”

I’ve been to Hawaiian resorts and found myself hypnotized by the green of the foliage and the impossible white of warm beach towels. But after a few nights, I find myself feeling overfed, sleepy, contained; I catch myself staring longingly through the watered, imported, pruned leaves into the true landscape of the islands, up to where the clouds drag tentacles of rain across the summits of the volcanoes. Grown-Up Me starts mumbling about Wi-Fi and dental appointments; Grown-Up Me takes the kids surfing and spends half the time worrying about the rental-car keys roasting unguarded atop the beach blanket.

So here was my hope: to try, for a week, to leave Grown-Up Me on the mainland. To fly on a burst of petroleum to one of the most isolated landmasses in the world and do three walks: one at the southern tip of the island; another near the planet’s most active volcano; and this one, down from the parking lot of the Waipi‘o overlook, over a dozen drainages and into a place that even the most urgent e-mail cannot penetrate—to find tiny ferns no bigger than a fingernail growing from a vertical wall of frozen lava, to walk out into the solitudes of the backcountry and stare up at the infinity of stars.

To play. To look. To chase wonder. And to do it with my brother, who did it with me when we were young.

The spirits of Waipi‘o are merciful. We wade into Wailoa Stream and start jabbing rocks with the tips of our trekking poles, and in thirty seconds we’re high-fiving on the other side. Then we cross the beach and hike the Muliwai Trail—nine up-and-down miles that constitute one of the most truly wondrous walks I’ve ever walked. We start by switchbacking up the sheer west wall of Waipi‘o, climbing through Java plum and domestic-looking impatiens, through Christmas berry, through maile-scented ferns that make the trail smell, for twenty or thirty paces, as if someone is spritzing fresh vanilla inside a sauna.

The trail winds through realms of massive albizias, trees from Indonesia that grow with unfathomable speed here (some only eighty years old are easily a hundred feet tall and as wide across in their canopies), then through groves of ironwoods that carpet the ground so thickly with needles that the sound of our footsteps disappears.

We enter a rhythm: Descend into hot wet gullies, climb to dry wind-cooled ridges. Each time we’re struggling, sweating, laboring the hardest, the Muliwai Trail gives us what we need: a devastating view of the Pacific; or a cluster of strawberry guavas, just within reach, sour and sweet and refreshing; or a cold green pool beneath a little cascade where we can soak our feet.

After six hours of steady grinding, we come out over the only Hawaiian valley that may be more sacred, less accessible, and more beautiful than the Valley of the Kings: Waimanu. We’re 1,100 feet up on the valley’s eastern wall. Below us, the ocean teethes at a black beach. Behind the beach, acre after acre of marsh grass tosses in the wind; above that, 1,080-foot Wai‘ilikahi Falls spills like sifting sugar down the sheer wall opposite us, while three or four larger falls come off the valley’s rear walls beyond that, including Waihilau Falls, which, at 2,600 feet, is the tallest in the United States.

“Wow,” says Mark.

“Wow,” I say.

“Wow,” we say together.

Below us a sightseeing helicopter chucks through the valley like a tiny blue toy. We pick our way along the slick, root-veined descent, passing leaves the size of car doors and prop-rooted trees with fruits that look like psychedelic Circus Peanuts candy.

At the bottom waits our second crossing: Waimanu Stream. Backpacking lore is littered with stories of people who have reached the end of the Muliwai Trail only to find this final stream too high to traverse, a prospect akin to the Griswolds reaching Walley World only to find a plastic moose saying, “Sorry, folks! We’re closed!”

But—joy! relief! gods be thanked!—Waimanu Stream is low, only to our thighs, and we climb out of the tea-colored water dripping and drop our packs at our campsite. For a long moment, we hear only songbirds and surf and the pounding of our own hearts.

That first evening, my plan to ditch Grown-Up Me doesn’t work. He’s there, re­adjusting the rain fly, double-checking the Chips Ahoy supply, powering up the iPhone to see if it might, miraculously, have a signal. “Searching,” it says, which sounds about right.

Just after dusk, we find a centipede as long as a hunting knife sashaying along outside the tent door. I’m kept up half the night imagining the squirmings of its brethren, and by the rain, and the ironwoods hissing over our tent, and the lines I’ve read in Twain just before lights out about being bitten by a scorpion during his first nights in Hawaii, then finding a tarantula “on stilts” beside his bed. Grown-Up Me worries whether he has boiled the drinking water long enough, whether his brother is comfortable, whether he is firmly in control of his sanity.

Dawn comes. We unzip the tent and stagger onto a rain-damp beach. Clouds float like big pink battleships across the horizon. Behind us, the multiple threads of thousand-foot waterfalls slip inaudibly down the valley walls. Mark says, “Let’s try the fishing rod.” So we do, scrabbling around on the slick lava cobbles at the west edge of the beach. We fish, we watch strange caramel-colored ants forage in long streams down the vertical cliffs. In the old and feral groves deeper in the valley we find breadfruit, coconuts, a single lemon; we find behemoth mango trees with trunks as thick as Volkswagens. The smell beneath them is pungent, and the trail is slick from burst mangoes. I’m thinking of the wild pigs that live in Waimanu, and wondering how delicious a pig who eats a diet of squashed mangoes must taste, when I hear a whistle and slap high in the branches above me. I sidestep off the trail just as a mango drops a hundred feet through the leaves and explodes beside me. Mark laughs. “You almost became Mango Head!” Grown-Up Me thinks: concussion, fractured skull, med evac, but I manage to smile. Here I was worried about stream crossings when the real danger is Waimanu trying to give you too much to eat.

In the early afternoon, we take water bottles and a handheld scoop-net and wind past the mango groves through alternating pools of scent: kukui nuts, ferns, the sweet, muddy odor of bogs thrumming with insects. Mark continues to display a special gift for inadvertently wrapping the trail-spanning webs of Asian spiny-backed spiders around his face.

Here and there we find the remnants of walls. How old are they? A hundred years? A thousand? One can almost hear the lost stories of this place spiraling up through the leaves.

As we push toward the back of the valley, maybe a mile and a half from our tent, where the trail becomes more of a bushwhack, the air cools and the sounds ahead become like the sounds of the ocean behind: moving water, lots of it. We push through a last stand of tall grasses, and there is the bottom of Wai‘ilikahi Falls, the lowermost of its three huge plunges, this one dropping maybe four hundred feet into a pool made absolutely turbulent by the force of what’s happening to it.

From such a height, water does not fall in a steady stream but rather billows and smokes as wind and gravity throw it down the face of the cliff. Huge shock waves unload into the pool; when we finally summon the courage to swim out, we cannot turn our faces toward it. It feels as if my eyeballs are being pressure washed.

Trekking across the alien world of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the ultimate geology lesson. Here, steam escapes from a crack in the rim of Kilauea caldera and catches the light. Plant life can sometimes sprout up on lava flows that are just a few months old. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

Trekking across the alien world of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the ultimate geology lesson. Here, steam escapes from a crack in the rim of Kilauea caldera and catches the light. Plant life can sometimes sprout up on lava flows that are just a few months old. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

In the plunge pool beneath Wai‘ilikahi Falls—two miles from our tent, fifteen miles from our rented Hyundai, somewhere around ten bazillion miles from our lawn-mowing, bill-paying, snow-shoveling lives—I finally stop worrying. I stop thinking at all. With a stick and the scoop net, we hunt prawns in the creek below the falls. The prawns are quick and not, ultimately, like the crayfish we used to hunt in Ohio, but soon the act of stalking them strips away all other thought: You become a pair of eyes, scanning, scanning. In what might be one hour—or three?—we capture enough for an appetizer and hike back to our campsite. Mark assembles “thrones” for us out of big cobbles of lava—stone recliners with armrests and footrests—and we sit on them and steam the prawns and stare at the waves hammering the beach. The sun comes out and starts lighting patches of forest willy-nilly in a green so intense that it’s as if we can watch the photosynthesis happening.

We eat; we squeeze wild lemon into our vodka. Grown-Up Me evaporates. The waves come in, the falls come down, the forces at work in this valley are larger than we will ever understand.

Two days later, we’re seventy miles southeast, riding in a Honda Pilot with two geologists from a guiding outfit called Volcano Discovery. We’re driving on top of Kalapana, a town of swank beach homes that was partially engulfed—houses, swing sets, black sand beach, a legendary surfing break—by lava from Kilauea in 1990 and 1991.

This might as well be a different continent from Waimanu’s. The Big Island, after all, is the craziest and most colorful natural history museum ever constructed, an entire planet in miniature. In a single day here you could—if you were insane—swim in a tropical waterfall, cross a snowfield, lie on a powder-sand beach, and dodge Cadillacs in the Walmart parking lot in Hilo. You can cross from rain forest to desert in the time it takes to listen to a couple of Beatles tunes. And now there’s this: billowy, tangled pavements of arrested pahoehoe lava, square mile after square mile.

We step out into an alien world. “Cheapest real estate in Hawaii,” jokes Arthur ­Wierzchos, one of our guides, but in my mind I’m hearing Faulkner: The only alternative to change is death.

We ask, “How long is the trail?”

Arthur and our principal guide, a speed-talking geophysical encyclopedia named Philip Ong, smile at each other.

Philip says, “There is no trail.”

We start across the buckled, ropy, warped, veined, shining, treeless, extraterrestrial world that is the coastal plain west of Kalapana. It’s so black it shines; it stretches for miles like some terrible black, iridescent cake frosting. Over the former gardens of Kalapana, Philip explains, the lava averages about thirty feet deep.

Kalapana, a Big Island beach town, was engulfed by lava in the early 1990s, destroying hundreds of homes. “Cheapest real estate in Hawaii,” jokes one guide. Today, new developments are popping up on the lava fields. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

Kalapana, a Big Island beach town, was engulfed by lava in the early 1990s, destroying hundreds of homes. “Cheapest real estate in Hawaii,” jokes one guide. Today, new developments are popping up on the lava fields. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

Geology is a science that demands imagination. The time scales of rocks are huge, and human lives are appallingly brief. See the hanging valleys of Yosemite and the mind has to labor to conjure the ancient glaciers that carved them. But here on the Big Island, change happens fast enough for the mind to readily appreciate: Year to year new species take up occupancy, year to year the volcano adds new acreage, year to year the sea bashes it away. Every part of this island—even Waimanu Valley, with its two-thousand-foot walls and greenery sprouting from every surface—once looked like where we now walk.

Soon we’re stepping on ground younger than our children—raw country, ankle-turning country, nothing alive in sight—headed toward a seam of smoke maybe two miles farther on, backlit in the afternoon sun, rising as if from a tear on Kilauea’s shoulder. Gradually we crunch over newer and newer lava. Out over the sea, a patch of rainbow shows itself in the evening like a stained glass window. Mark and I sweat. Ahead, a long line of heat shimmers at the horizon. Just before the sun dips, the surface of all this cold lava turns a magical gold.

We walk just shy of three miles. Then we stop on earth that is only weeks, days, hours, minutes old.

“Gentlemen,” whispers Philip, “meet Pele.”

Hawaii’s goddess of fire is right in front of us: wet, bright-orange lava. It oozes in brilliant veins, in little slow-motion cataracts, in big eerie scallops. Deep inside the glowing crimson heart of it, as the day turns to night, we can see ultra-fine threads of black, something like the complex neuronal networks inside a magnified cross-section of the brain. It is the very matrix of creation.

And listen, lava makes noise. It pops and tinkles and creaks and crackles; it is the sound of thin glass ornaments being crushed over and over, something like a campfire with an alien edge to it, and holds a similar power over the eye: You stare, you go mute, you are transfixed.

Even Philip, who all day has been speaking approximately sixty words per second, teaching us enthusiastically about “seismic swarms” and “hazard maps” and “magma chambers,” who has spent thousands of hours out here watching Kilauea effuse lava onto his island, goes silent and lets the magic of the place work on us.

Here is a scale beyond scales: Here is the measure of the world. If you want to understand, right in your gut, that your credit card bill is ultimately unimportant, come here. If you want to understand what amazement is, kneel in front of a slowly expanding rivulet of lava and feel the intensity of its heat touch your cheeks, your eyebrows, the moisture in your eyes.

For hours we watch the world make itself. It’s 9:30 p.m. when we start back to the truck to drive the forty miles to Volcano Village, where we’ll spend the night. A headwind is coming up, rain is making a silver spray in our headlamps; we become a little pilgrimage of four lights amid all that immensity, picking our way through the folds and upheavals and depressions, leaving behind the flows to do their steady, relentless, inhuman work.

Mark says nothing. We are both drained.

A mile or so before the road, we begin to see little Asiatic sword ferns again, tiny bits of green in our headlamps, incredibly verdant against the black. We stop before a first ōhi‘a sapling. The beads of nectar in its vermilion pom-pom–shaped blossoms glisten in the light of our headlamps: the very first step in the hundred-thousand-year journey toward transforming all this lava into something that looks like Waimanu Valley. “Within three or four months sometimes,” says Arthur, “we find plant life starting on a flow.”

By the end of the week, my right knee is twice the size of my left and Mark has to turn sideways to go down steps, but we are in the groove now, we are waking at dawn and walking miles every day. I have not looked at my e-mail in four days, a personal record. Our final morning finds us as far south as the United States gets: South Point. It’s just after dawn and the sun is low and the wind is high and no one else is out as we start our last walk: the wind-scoured braids of a rutted four-wheel-drive road.

Mongooses cross the road here and there; we startle up from the grass little songbirds that go keening off into the wind. We keep a five-strand barbed wire fence on our left. Ahead looms a big, raw, desolate mound: the tops of the cliffs above Papakolea Beach. The pleasure on this particular walk is color. There are no trees, no shade, but everywhere is color: pitch-black basalt piled up at the shore, sepia-colored dust blowing in our eyes, ivory sea foam exploding to our right, and of course the turquoise sea, cut by twenty thousand whitecaps. It heaves; it surges; it stretches 6,500 unbroken miles to Antarctica. There’s one more color too. Here, at what feels like the end of the world, the sand of a half-dozen little beaches is green.

Papakolea Beach—nowadays most folks call it simply Green Sand Beach—is the most famous of them. We crest a last rise, come out over a ledge, then half-slide, half-stumble down a plunging gray-green slope and take off our shoes.

It’s the green of a wet Ionian olive, and it comes from the semi-precious stone olivine, a crystal born deep in magma chambers on Mauna Loa long ago, then carried out to sea by lava flows, and slowly beaten off the cliffs by the waves. The lightweight black lava gets dragged away; the heavier crystals remain.

Guidebooks often say to skip this place. It’s too exposed, they argue, too hard to get to. Old-timers in Hilo say the sand here used to be more green—emerald green, Slytherin green—but that weathering and tourists have hauled too much away.

I think it’s dazzling. Especially if you get up early enough to be alone on it: The tide erases the previous day’s footprints; you feel like a discoverer. When you run your hands through the sand, it’s like watching ten thousand infinitesimal gemstones spill between your fingers, each sparkling individually.

Few places are better suited to boyish escapades than Waimanu Valley, miles from the nearest town. Bring a tent, and a sense of adventure. Photograph via Conde Nast Travler

Few places are better suited to boyish escapades than Waimanu Valley, miles from the nearest town. Bring a tent, and a sense of adventure. Photograph via Conde Nast Travler

I sit on the beach and daydream about the mangoes of Waimanu Valley; I hear the crackle of molten lava on the coastal plains; I think of the oldest Hawaiians, the first Polynesians who crossed the seas in flotillas of sailing canoes carrying wayfinders, navigators who had been training since birth to read the humidity of the skies, the direction of the waves, and the pattern of birds, who could detect the presence of islands beyond the horizon by watching swells pass the bow of a canoe. Those were such elemental people, more deeply engaged with the physical world than I could ever hope to be. And yet could they have imagined, in their most outlandish visions, an island where a person could hike up into snow and peer down into smoldering lakes of lava, a place where waterfalls drop two thousand feet and beaches are paved with green jewels?

Within an hour the first trucks start making their way out to the beach, locals in battered pickups who charge thirty dollars a head to bounce tourists two miles through the dust. But to walk the walk, I think, that’s the real thing. To come into a place at the proper speed, and with the proper effort: to remind yourself that, like everything, this too will someday be gone. That’s a kind of respect, isn’t it?

In a week my brother and I saw the rose-colored plume atop Kilauea caldera rising into a trillion stars. We pulled on a hardware store utility glove and caressed the red-hot skin of Pele. We floated over sofa-size coral heads in the unsettling, magical blue of the sea. We spread peanut butter with a machete. We ate Chips Ahoy for breakfast. We set these things in memory, layering new flows down atop older ones, so that when we got back to our families, to landscapes where the ground does not open to show the raw, crimson heart of the world beneath, to 451 new e-mails and a broken dishwasher, to our grown-up selves, those visions would still be there, whole and glowing, ready for us to draw them back up.

“If the house would only burn down,” Mark Twain wrote to a friend in 1881, pining for his months in Hawaii, “we would pack up the cubs and fly to the isles of the blest, and shut ourselves up in the healing solitudes of Haleakala and get a good rest; for the mails do not intrude there, nor yet the telephone and the telegraph.”

Isn’t that ultimately why we travel? To escape from the tyrannies of the familiar? To see the places we go to—and the places we left behind—with new eyes?

We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory. Even now, weeks later, I think back to a moment in Waimanu, when I was rinsing the dishes knee-deep in the surf, a full ten minutes during which I stopped doing anything except looking: the enclosing arms of the cliffs around me, the cobbles piled up in their millions, the tourist helicopters gone, the ocean empty of lights, and behind me our tent lit from within by my brother’s headlamp as he read, a tiny cradle of light against the huge, darkening backdrop of the valley.

I stood and watched Waimanu go dark, a light rain starting to fall, until all I could see were the white slashes of the waterfalls on the back wall, and then I climbed into my sleeping bag beside my brother and slept the sleep of a very tired boy.

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