The hike began in a dense rainforest of ferns, ginger plants and 'o'hia trees full of spiky red blossoms. Then, at the bottom, the trees suddenly cleared, and there was no sign of vegetation, just a giant uneven plain of scraggly black rock -- all that remains after the crater shot fountains of hot lava as high as 1,900 feet in 1959.

We hiked past steam floating up through vents in the ground and black rock jutting up violently like asphalt that had buckled during an earthquake; I felt like a misplaced tourist beamed onto a prehistoric planet.

But as we neared the edge of the crater, birds began chirping and flowers peeked from the ground. Another rainforest there offered much-needed shade for the hike up.

Night Vision

After recharging with a spicy Thai dinner in the tiny town of Volcano, we returned to the park's Chain of Craters Road, hoping to see lava pouring into the ocean.

As we drove along the two-lane road with no other car in sight, we heard a park ranger on the radio warn to head for higher ground immediately in the event an earthquake occurred. Sure. My imagination ran wild as I pictured a giant wave washing away our car.

We finally arrived at a mile-long line of parked cars and joined a small parade of people walking to the end of the road, which was crossed by lava in 2003.

After venturing out slightly farther on the rock and sitting down, we resigned ourselves to the idea that all we would see was a fiery red glow somewhere in the distance.

Anticlimactic? Maybe. But it was also strangely tranquil, sitting so far from civilization, with waves crashing just feet away and the full moon studding the night sky.

Next time we come to the Big Island, we'll get closer, I consoled myself, certain that there will be a next time. The pull of Hawaii will compel me to return to explore more of this strange land.



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