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  Field Notes From
Hawai'i Volcanoes

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Hawaii Volcanoes On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Jennifer S. Holland

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Brian Strauss


Hawaii Volcanoes On Assignment Author Hawaii Volcanoes On Assignment Author
Hawai'i Volcanoes

Field Notes From Author
Jennifer S. Holland

Best Worst Quirkiest
    One day I took a long drive with photographer Frans Lanting up to the summit of the dormant volcano Mauna Kea for a special look back at Mauna Loa, a still-active volcano inside the park. Mauna Kea's smooth, barren volcanic cones thinly frosted in snow were breathtaking; the snow itself was so soft and white, rippled by the wind in perfect waves up and down the slopes. It was truly otherworldly. And then, as the sun moved toward setting, the entire summit glowed, a shifting palette of pinks and oranges. The clouds, in a band below us, seemed afire. Though the air was dangerously thin and numbingly cold (we were above 13,000 feet [3,900 meters]), it was hard to leave those summit views behind. But the trip down the mountain brought another wonderful moment—at the W. M. Keck Observatory. I got to glimpse Saturn through a telescope so powerful I could see the planet's individual rings. That just clinched the day.

    Camping out below the active vent on Kilauea volcano was in and of itself a fantastic experience, but not everything was perfect. A colleague had loaned me an old one-man tent that, unfortunately, had been put away damp at one time. So it stunk pretty badly of mildew despite my valiant attempts to clean it out. Still, it was tolerable (I could unzip vents on the sides for air) and better than sleeping out in the open. But there were worse odors to come.
    That night the wind just wouldn't cooperate, and sulfuric gas fumes from the volcanic vent poured into camp. This is bad stuff. It burns your eyes and puts a horrible sour taste in your throat, not to mention it's a health hazard. So there I was, fully zipped inside a coffin-size, mold-laden tent with a gas mask strapped to my face, trying to lie still enough that the mask would stay put and trying, also in vain, to sleep. If that weren't enough, it began to pour rain, ceaselessly. The sound was like truckloads of Skittles candy being dumped on the tent roof. Sleep, needless to say, eluded me that night.

    I decided one day to visit Kalapana, a town that had been wiped out by an eruption of nearby Kilauea in 1990. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I guess I thought there would be a village of sorts still rising up from the lava-striped landscape. Instead, the road simply ended. There was nothing beyond but a black, frozen sea stretching for miles in three directions. A memorial to the volcanic event—bulletin boards of photos and articles—was propped up beneath a makeshift roof erected at the end of a driveway on the road running parallel to the lava field. In search of life, I wandered up that driveway—which was lined with household items, car parts, and general clutter—and found Uncle Robert, one of the few Kalapana residents whose house was spared and who stayed after his neighbors moved away. This soft-spoken elder with massive, brown, rough hands invited me inside and told me stories of the old days, including the day the lava came and took away his town. I felt as if I'd stumbled on a world far, far away, like something in a dream.


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