Hawaii four-0

Celebrating milestone birthdays with my father on a volcano

A bubbling volcano represents a truly intimidating force of nature. Don’t get too close.

A bubbling volcano represents a truly intimidating force of nature. Don’t get too close.

Photo By Sasha Abramsky

I’ve been getting ready to turn 40 for many months now—psychologically preparing myself for a number that has always seemed intimidatingly large. A few months back, my father turned a far larger number: 70.

How to celebrate the two milestone birthdays?

I decided that we needed an adventure, sans children, sans spouses. And so, in deepest secrecy, I planned a trip: When my parents came to visit me in Sacramento from London, I would take my dad on another journey, far out into the Pacific Ocean, and, away from the cares of daily life, we would celebrate.

And so we did. One early morning in late March, my dad and I headed to San Francisco International Airport. There, further rounding out the surprise I had set in motion, we met up with one of my father’s childhood friends, Andrew—who had moved from London to the Bay Area in the late ’60s, and Andrew’s son Jesse, whom I have known for decades. The four of us boarded a plane for Kona, on Hawaii’s Big Island.

There, for the next six days, we experienced one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Mornings, we all cooked together in the homes we had rented—the first a cabin in Volcano Village, the second a sprawling oceanfront home in the town of Puako. Afternoons, we made cocktails or sat beachside watching the world go by. Evenings, we ate in fancy restaurants and drank mai tais. I hadn’t traveled alone with my dad for more than a decade; Andrew and Jesse hadn’t traveled solo since Jesse was a child. We talked, read, relaxed. Too often, as adults, it’s hard to stay involved in your parents’ lives. There are young children to care for, careers to build and so on. It’s valuable, every so often, to step away from it all, and to simply get to know one’s parents again.

Hawaii is, of course, a destination for sun-and-wave lovers and rum-on-the-beach aficionados. But the Big Island is also home to tropical forests, to a 13,000-foot-tall mountain that one can ski down in winter, to patches of desert, to black-rock coasts and tide pools, within which giant tortoises sun themselves, to ruins and sacrificial sites dating back to the 13th century, and, most spectacularly, to the world’s most active volcano.

Left to right: Writer Sasha Abramsky’s father (who just turned 70) and Sasha (who just turned 40) join Jesse and Andrew for a walk on the scorched earth.

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And it was the volcanic scenery that had drawn me to the island in the first place. On the Big Island, there is always molten lava erupting out of the earth somewhere, adding layers of broken, sharp, barren, black rock to the already munificent amounts that cover large parts of the island.

Volcanoes don’t do things by half-measures. A live volcano is one of the truly intimidating forces of nature. The 150-meter-wide Halema`uma`u Crater on Kilauea volcano has housed a cauldron of molten rock for centuries. Because of the dangerously high level of sulfur dioxide in the air near the crater, one can’t approach it closely enough these days to look into the fires directly; but one can hike on trails through the shattered landscape that surrounds it for many square miles. One can see the huge billowing sulfur clouds rising off of it during the day. And at night, from the observatory that has been built along Crater Rim Drive, one can stand under a sky more filled with stars than any I have ever seen before, and in the bitter cold watch the eerie red glow of the clouds against the darkness.

But if the crater itself is out of bounds, the oozing, pulsating lava eruptions that emanate out of the ground from other volcanoes on the island, oftentimes tens of miles away from the crater itself, are accessible.

Bizarrely, most of the dead lava fields are on private property; houses that once stood atop lush farmland get obliterated by the flowing fire, but the property lines remain. When the rocks cool, some owners rebuild—their small wooden houses rising up on stilts above concrete bases poured over the black rock. Others owners don’t rebuild but retain their landrights. When tourists want to see the lava, these owners charge $100 per person to guide them the many miles over the hard volcanic rocks to the places where the fires are emerging from the earth.

We thought it would be money well spent. So, at 11 a.m. on the Tuesday after we arrived, the four of us set off with a guide across the lava. It was a difficult, unforgiving walk, every step carrying the potential for a dangerous, or at least painful, fall onto the rocks; the weather changed constantly, hot and sunny one minute, the next a chill rain blowing into us near horizontally.

Finally, at about 2 p.m., we approached the lava. It’s something you feel before you see. The lava bubbles up out of the earth at about 2,000 degrees Celsius, creating both an intense heat haze, and also a scorching blast of hot air that traps you in its grip, swells your fingers, makes your hair stand on end. As you get closer, you see the rock color changing. You’re standing on solid black rock, but a few feet away the rock looks silver. You realize its liquid, moving toward you, continually shifting shapes. You hear otherworldly noises, cracking, sizzling sounds, like a gigantic bonfire. And then, you notice these huge welling red maws; holes in the earth that suddenly open up and spit out red lava toward you. They rise up, like supercharged blisters, expel their lava, fall in on themselves, and then new ones spew forth. One minute, you can detect a shape like a giant dragon’s face. The next you see what could be a carbuncled foot. You get close to take photos, and the skin on your face feels like it’s peeling off.

Jesse carried a long wooden walking stick with him. We took it in turns to poke at the red lava and watch the end of the stick flare up like a sparkler. It was terrifying and yet, at the same time, supremely exhilarating.

We ate lunch on the solid lava, then walked back over the desolate world created by the volcanoes. At one point, a giant rainbow spanned the rock field, the colors more defined against the black than those of any rainbow I’ve seen before. It looked like a particularly sadistic, twisted, version of a Summer of Love poster.

We spent the three days after our volcano hike exploring the west side of the island, and relaxing on the beaches with the wondrously blue island waters before us. It was as good a way to turn 40 as any other I can think of.