Atop Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the big island of Hawaii. Its last eruption was 4600 years ago.
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Tourists like me don't happen to stumble upon the summit of Mauna Kea on a whim. Standing on the top requires planning - phone calls and arrangements are required.
There's only one road up. The general public isn't allowed to proceed past the visitors center at 9000 ft.
Tour companies with 4x4 vans only. The pavement ends eventually leaving passengers to deal with a rough ride to the summit.
It's a barren and quiet spec of earth up there. That is until our van explodes with tourists, me included.
Shock! Cold! Dry air! Wow, I don't remember this in the brochure.
We spread out like fingers in a creeping flood, finding the path of least resistance for the best view - while shivering away the cold and squinting away the sun.
The outlines of the peaks are rounded and wind scoured. Frozen volcanic earth in smooth piles.
Mauna Kea
Their flow is broken by shiny cylindrical barns. The stalls inside hold giant telescopes, radio scopes and other observatory equipment.
They sit in the cold and silence, no sign of activity. Padlocks securely in place. Weather beaten Warning! signs riveted into their sides.
A sentry of metal structures, facing outward. Perhaps in homage to the stone-giants of Easter Island, pondering the offerings of the horizon.
The sun lowers towards the ocean and the temperatures start to drop. It was cold-as-hell when we arrived. Now it's getting to frozen-as-all-hell territory. We're not used to fridged afternoons.
Down at sea level, we've been spending many days and many miles pushing our bikes and working our psyche to deal with the sun, the heat and the dripping humidity.
We complain about the cold but to be 13800 feet above the sea feels quite exciting - and the sights are astounding.
To the north, across 30 miles of open ocean, another volcano pushes through the mist. It's Haleakala summit on the island of Maui. If you squint, you can see it has its own cylinder on the peak reflecting the final sparks of afternoon light across to us.
Cumulus clouds are below us. They drift to their own invisible current, not bothering to commit to the heights of ether summit.
They often gather in a large mass at the top blocking the view for van people like me.
Not today, though. Somehow, we've appeased them. They give a wide birth and stay down in the Alenuihaha channel.
The feeling hits me (again) of how remote a place we're all standing at this moment. So high above the sea. So far from any continent.
Mauna Kea
Facing east, a dark pyramid is forming. The shadow of our summit is cast far and wide as the sun dips further. Its apex pushes towards Hilo and into the open Pacific. The influence of Mauna Kea is not dormant.
A few hours later, it's dark and much colder now. I'm not sure of the exact reading, but I'd rather not know at this point. But we're still up here and the black sky is bursting with stars and planets.
Our van driver is an expert on all things related to the summit, the telescopes and the night sky. He helps us get reacquainted with the basic constellations. They're hidden in plain sight among the billions of other sparkles that aren't part of the sky down in suburbia.
There are few other places on earth that offer such a pure view without local light pollution. The Milky Way is amazing. I've never seen it like this, not even from deep in the Sierra Nevada. A starry blanket tossed across the expanse for good measure.
This night sky is the very reason all the observatory buildings and roads are here. But their construction was not without a clash with the local and native Hawaiians. They hold that these summits are sacred, only to be accessed by the shamans and elders for prayer and other ceremonies.
The conflict exists across all the islands in their most beautiful and sought after coves, beaches, waterfalls and bluffs.
A single peak up here has been reserved as a religious and cultural site. The rest have been overtaken in the name of scientific discovery. This one is the actual high point of Mauna Kea.
There is no monument, or flag or stone shrine. A small sign declaring "no hiking" is posted. But of course, restraint and respect are not a common trait among the shallow minded masses.
Our driver has stories of the ignorant who have been caught trapsing the distance across the ridge to the sacred mound. A braided network of footprints will remain in view for months, if not years. A calling card from The Mainland Dufus Society.
Mauna Kea
Later that evening we are all huddled in the van heading down. Our sitting positions are all identical - both hands firmly grasping the seat-back in front of us.
Our driver has been very good about enlightening us about Mauna Kea. Not so good at driving the rough road in the dark. We exchange looks of "WTF?", but no one says anything. We lurch and thrash in unison on every rut.
Eventually warm air finds its way in. A reminder that tomorrow we'll be back on two wheels in the heat and the sweat ticking off the miles down at beach level.
This layover in Hilo has been magnificent. But it never takes long for the itch of the road to track you down. It's all part of the momentum that builds during adventure travel.
I relax as the van turns onto the paved road back to town.
I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep and to get on with it - to fall back into the flow of life-by-bike.
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Have you been to Hawaii or the summit of one of its volcanos?
Thoughts, stories and comments are encouraged, use the comment form below. The comment password is - life is good.

Comments (1) -


Great post. What a drastic difference from the top with freezing temperatures, and the 80 degree beach weather! Been to the big island but not up there. That selfie is fantastic. Tell me again why you're not a writer?! You're damn good at it.

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