BY KIM STEUTERMANN ROGERS
Outside the glass wall of our restaurant, a plume of sulfuric gas rose from a churning lava lake. There was no ocean view at the Rim Restaurant, but who needs an ocean when you’ve got a living, breathing volcano right outside your window?
As the sun set and the lava lake started to glow in the darkness at Kilauea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, I pulled out my camera; my traveling companion, D, hardly gave the volcano a second glance, preferring instead to study the restaurant’s menu. She debated between a skirt steak served over locally grown arugula and vegetables, and a pasta dish with the same locally grown vegetables.
In D’s defense, I’d dragged her here. Besides, this wasn’t the first time for either of us. This visit was supposed to be purely for writing, holed up in a cabin in nearby Volcano Village. I hadn’t planned to slip away and poke into Mark Twain trivia, but earlier in the day I’d read about Twain’s “crimson waves” and “grand jets of molten lava” and decided I had to see the volcano again—to see if it looked the same as Twain described it during his four-month tour of the Hawaiian Islands in 1866 as a travel correspondent for the Sacramento Union.
Our waitress, Cassie, appeared. “What’s cavatappi pasta?” D asked, and Cassie twirled her finger in the air as an explanation. “So it’s corkscrew pasta?” D simplified for us all. Then D wanted to know about the vegetables. “Which local farm?” she asked, and when Cassie answered, I could have sworn D rolled her eyes. “I drove two hours to the other side of the island to eat vegetables from my neighbor’s garden?”
D and I met up earlier in the day at her home in Waimea and drove halfway around the island to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Of course, the volcano wasn’t a national park in Twain’s day—that act would take place in 1916. However, Kilauea was already a tourist attraction, with a one-room grass shelter to host visitors. But Twain stayed in a wood-framed, four-bedroom structure that opened just before his visit. In his last dispatch for the Union, Twain wrote, “Neat, roomy, well furnished and a well kept hotel. The surprise of finding a good hotel at such an outlandish spot startled me, considerably more than the volcano did.”
While we waited for our entrees, I took more photos. I heard D mutter, “How many times can you look at steam vent?”
Thing was, back in his day, Twain tapped into D’s very attitude.
“I was disappointed when I saw the great volcano of Kilauea (Ke-low way-ah) today for the first time,” he wrote. “Only a considerable hole in the ground—nothing to Haleakala [on Maui]—a wide, level, black plain in the bottom of it, and a few little sputtering jets of fire occupying a place about as large as an ordinary potato-patch up in one corner—no smoke to amount to any thing. And these ‘tremendous’ perpendicular walls they talk about, that inclose the crater! They don’t amount to a great deal, either; it is a large cellar—nothing more—and precious little fire in it, too.”
Apart from the lava, which is mostly hidden from view as it flows through an underground plumbing system, Kilauea is a pretty inconspicuous volcano. The volcanic summits of Mauna Kea—which I could see gleaming in the sun from D’s house on the north side of the island earlier that morning—and Haleakala on Maui, both of which are dormant, feel and look different. At elevations two and three times that of Kilauea, temperatures are much cooler, the drives to their summits more taxing on a car’s engine, and the landscapes desolate.
With Kilauea, you don’t quite know when you’ve arrived, except for the National Park entrance cut out amongst a profusion of greenery. Indeed, less than a mile away, an enclave of artists had settled in. A good belch from Kilauea could cough up a hot rock into their backyard.
Thing was, Kilauea was just not that scary.
On a second viewing of the volcano, Twain, however, changed his mind: “I suppose no man ever saw Niagara for the first time without feeling disappointed. I suppose no man ever saw it the fifth time without wondering how he could ever have been so blind and stupid as to find any excuse for disappointment in the first place. I suppose that any one of nature’s most celebrated wonders will always look rather insignificant to a visitor at first, but on a better acquaintance will swell and stretch out and spread abroad, until it finally grows clear beyond his grasp—becomes too stupendous for his comprehension.”
After numerous visits to Kilauea myself, I think it’s the idea of it. The idea that you’re a few hundred feet away from hot, roiling, lava—and maybe it’s just a few feet below your own two feet.
No matter how big or how spewing (or not), it’s the novelty of the place that gets to me. How many places can you go in the world and see an active volcano without getting out of your car? Or stepping away from your dinner table?
When Twain went back to see Kilauea of an evening, he wrote, “The first glance in that direction revealed a scene of wild beauty. There was a heavy fog over the crater and it was splendidly illuminated by the glare from the fires below. We arrived at the little thatched lookout house, and we rested our elbows on the railing in front and looked abroad over the wide crater and down over the sheer precipice at the seething fires beneath us. The view was a startling improvement on my daylight experience.”
He went on.
Paragraph after paragraph about the striating and exploding lava. Fountains that boiled and coughed. Sprays of stringy red fire. Showers of brilliant white sparks. Lava streaking across the caldera floor. Cataracts of lava.
Twain’s descriptive powers ran for six pages as he painted a picture of the volcano, turning to imagery when needed, as in, “Some of the streams preferred to mingle together in a tangle of fantastic circles, and then they looked something like the confusion of ropes one sees on a ship’s deck when she had just taken in sail and dropped anchor—provided one can imagine those ropes on fire.”
That’s not quite what I saw. I think of the volcano caldera of Kilauea as a sunken bathtub drained of lava, except for one pit at the far end known as Halemaumau.
But I wasn’t entirely convinced Twain saw ropes of fire either. He was prone to hyperbole. Was he exaggerating?
According to Richard W. Hazlett, geology professor, Hawaii Volcano Observatory research technician, and interpretive ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, just two years after Twain’s visit, a tremendous earthquake hit the area. The caldera floor collapsed as magma escaped through a weak spot on the southwest flank of the volcano.
By 1871 lava had refilled the caldera to its previous levels, but in 1894 Halemaumau collapsed, creating today’s world-famous funnel-shaped pit crater. In 1912 the Hawaii Volcano Observatory was established on the grounds of the current Volcano House hotel.
Since then, Halemaumau has emptied and refilled again and again and, on occasion, when ground water penetrates the crater walls, dramatic fountains of steam and explosions of rock result. Lava has paved the entire caldera floor dozens of times since Twain’s visit—raising it several hundred feet—and the whole thing has even cooled and solidified throughout this period.
So, no, I suppose Twain wasn’t exaggerating, and yes, my view of Kilauea caldera differed from Twain’s. But thanks to his words, if I squinted my eyes just so, I could still see his.
When our waitress reappeared asking about dessert, now I was the one studying the menu. I wanted strawberries. In Twain’s letters to the Union, he mentions food, but I wouldn’t call him a foodie. His food notations were just that. Notes.
“One could not easily starve here even if the meats and groceries were to give out,” Twain wrote about the Kilauea area. “For large tracts of land in the vicinity are well paved with excellent strawberries. One can have as abundant a supply as he chooses to call for.”
Everyone except me, apparently. I examined the menu up-and-down and front-and-back, and I found raspberry and lilikoi and pineapple and banana and mango and coconut. But no strawberries.
D pointed out there were strawberries two hours away by car in Waimea, her hometown.
Kim Steutermann Rogers lives on Kauai, where she’s researching a book about “place attachment”; in particular, Mark Twain’s for Hawaii. Rogers holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the Missouri School of Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from Antioch University Los Angeles. No disrespect to her alma maters, but her three chickens, two dogs, and one husband hold a closer place in her heart. Rogers blogs about life and Hawaii at www.kimsrogers.com.