On Hawaii's Big Island, a Road to Nowhere

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 16, 2013

BIG ISLAND, HAWAII—Our guide, Justin from Hawaii Forest and Trail, said his grandmother described lava fields as looking like her burned brownies, and once you’ve heard that description it’s impossible to get it out of your head. Lava looks just like that.

This section of Chain of Craters Road is all that remains after a big lava flow. (Jim Motavalli photo) We were riding along the 19-mile Chain of Craters Road, which runs through the Big Island’s East Rift near Volcanoes National Park. The road was built in 1928, but it no longer follows its original route because, well, it has been buried in lava flows more than once.
Justin stopped the van and pointed to something that looks very weird in modern America—a 30-foot section of road, going nowhere, with thick burnt dough lava encroaching on either side. I went and stood on it and filmed this video:

All day we’d been talking about molten magma pushing up through the earth’s crust. We even made sacrifices to the female volcano god, Pele, offering her berries before we dared to eat some of her favorite food. There is an active volcano at Kilauea, and I stood at the overlook at the Thomas Jaggar Museum and took pictures of the flowing lava lake in the Halema’uma’u Crater. It’s erupted 67 times since 1790.
Listen to this description of lava flows, from a roadside marker detailing a 1950s eruption:

“Torrents of molten rock cascaded into the 800-foot crater, igniting the forest. Flames of burning trees flashed like giant sparklers, forming dots of bright light in the lava as it flowed across the floor of the crater.”

In 1984, a scientist recording lava flow, in the steps of the aforementioned Thomas Jaggar, found himself knee deep in molten lava. A runner before the accident, he survived and was soon back on the crater.
 Hawaii's active volcano has been erupting since 2008. (Jim Motavalli photo)It’s kind of unnerving. Nothing lasts forever, but in Hawaii it’s not a question of if the volcano will erupt, but when. Pele gets angry a lot, and time hasn’t mellowed her. When people build roads, they expect them to last, but in Hawaii they don’t count on anything. Somewhere in geographic time, Kona is going to be buried in lava.
Another great marker on the island is on Highway 270 on the Kohala Coast, where you literally come to the road’s abrupt end, thanks to lava flows. This being America, there’s a gift shop there. And a sign warning you not to feed the rare native Nene geese.

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