[ USA ]

The Big Island, Hawaii – Homecoming and Lava Flows

Foreword (by Kathryn)

Mauruuru becomes Mahalo. Tahitian to Hawaiian. One magic archipelago to another. We are sitting on a plane headed almost due North from Tahiti to Hawaii. English is spoken around us, American English. We understand every single word, we can even eavesdrop if we want. I am wearing a lei made almost completely of tiare and the scent is intoxicating. Is it possible for a person to be happier than this? I really don’t know.

Why so happy smashed into a tiny economy seat barely able to type you ask? Well…

There are moments in life when you know you are exactly where you want to be, and you are filled with unadulterated happiness. This is why we saved, why we scrimped, why we bought our freedom, this feeling right now.

We had a long wait for our flight, about twelve hours in a small airport. Espressos, sandwiches, walks, and lots of reading passed the time. By happenstance we met a wonderfully friendly lady, I never caught her name. She had an issue with her Kindle and we troubleshot together and then started chatting. She and her husband are actually doing what so many say they want to do during retirement, traveling and following long-held dreams. We chatted happily, both thrilled with the other’s adventures. She was blown away by our decision to travel for so long and the idea that I had served in the military as well as Zack. Her reaction to both was a lit-up face of awe and joy for us.

Later, before we boarded we chatted again. We exchanged a WiFi password (from me) and tips on European travel (from her) before a hug and heading to our respective flights. I gave her my email and so hope to hear from her.

When we boarded someone was in our seat. She immediately got up when we arrived; she was waiting for a travel partner. As she did, I caught a whiff of her fragrant white tiare lei. It smelled awesome and I told her so. Zack and I sat and settled in, chatting animatedly about going to Hawaii, feeling as excited as a child on Christmas morning. Then, someone tapped my shoulder. The lady who had been in our seat now put her lei over my head and gave me a kiss on the cheek with a smile. I beamed. This is right where I want to be.

Arriving in Hawaii, USA (by Zack)

Diamond Head passed below us. Its cone stands watch over the gorgeous and inviting water just off the coast. I first turned right on a surfboard there, under the cliffs and lighthouse. Our favorite drive on Oahu faded into the distance – the south side route that we used to take to Hanauma Bay, our special occasion restaurant, a lighthouse hike, and the welcome mountains on the windward side where we lived. We were off to the Big Island after several hours in the Honolulu airport, and we were already home.

Diamond Head
Diamond Head Crater and Honolulu

We hadn’t lived in Hawaii since the summer of 2014, but it is where we called home for the longest stretch of time in our adult lives. Three and a half years on the east side of Oahu, in the idyllic beach town of Kailua, will make a person fall in love with Hawaii. When we learned we could fly through Hawaii en route to Kathryn’s brother’s Mexican wedding it was a no-brainer. A middle of the night phone call changed our plans to two weeks of Aloha, and we could hardly think of much else in the days before our arrival.

After a pleasant customs and immigration experience (is that an oxymoron?) in Honolulu, we made our way to the intra-island terminal. It was our first time flying Island Air; complimentary coffee and WiFi welcomed us to their gate area. The little things go a long way, and these were welcome amenities following our red-eye flight and sunrise arrival.

As the plane climbed and made its way toward the Big Island, the crew provided a mini-tour of the islands. Descriptions of what we could see out the windows filled the time as we sipped our passion-guava-orange juice, a favorite aspect of all our other island weekend getaways. It’s amazing how much time can pass between experiences and yet it feels like it was just last week.

Kona’s airport is a dot of pavement in a field of lava rock. There is so much space! Fifty meters from the gate we gathered our bags and hopped on the rental car shuttle. The ride took ten minutes through the massive rental car parking lot. There is so much space!

Our standard rental choice is a compact car – the low base price and high gas mileage make it the cheapest – but the rental company upgraded us to a midsize (we “earned” frequent renter status for free from one of my credit cards). Our Nissan Altima had less than 1000 miles on it. It was so big! Our bags fit in the truck with no Tetris-ing, we could each put our arms on the middle console, and our legs couldn’t touch the front without moving the seats far forward. We glided down the perfectly paved road in a near silent perfectly climate controlled environment. The island music wafted from the radio. I fought the urge to swerve left and right in the oversized lane, akin to Kramer’s double-wide highway lanes. What? There was so much space! This car was so luxurious!

Memories flooded our minds and conversation. We headed up the hill to Waimea, a Hawaiian cowboy town in the highlands. Temperatures drop and mist often encloses the area, so fireplaces are seen in the food courts. Our appetites were set on a burger, American style, and local at that.

A sprawling parking lot fed the strip mall. The parking space seemed much larger than necessary but wedged between monster trucks, it made sense.

Our meal hit the spot. After a beer at a local brewery that we had previously visited, we stopped by the grocery store. Whatever our hearts desired was in that store. We laughed at the hot dog selection especially. Ten feet of cooler space solely dedicated to the cylindrical animal product. I’m as big a fan of fire roasted dogs as anyone, but you must admit there isn’t much need for so many options! The prices also had us pointing things out and gaping, so cheap! Maybe we should pick up some wine, or shampoo, or fried chicken, I mean look at these deals!

We then coasted down the hill to the only logical spot: Target. Of course, we got a Starbucks before starting the meandering! So much stuff!

The normal American life, even in these islands in the middle of the Pacific, is marvelous, and a bit ridiculous. Our six months in South America and smaller islands trained us to be less picky. Groceries’ selections would frequently determine what we ate, and that was determined by the boat schedule or season. We’ve mentioned this before, but compared to the abundance of standard USA grocery stores the difference is stark. One way isn’t better or worse than the other, but you can’t argue they are different. I think we all know this intuitively; to see it firsthand is eye-opening. Modern air travel makes the transition mind-blowingly rapid.

The options were overwhelming and we left with only toothpaste. Our hotel was one we would visit on our weekend getaways – a beachside Marriott resort that offered a fantastic rate. We drove up the road discussing our many thoughts and feelings on our return to everyday American life. Soon we were ensconced in our comfortable room with views of lava fields and green grass.

Our Lava Adventure

An orange glow dotted the hillside. This wasn’t one of those golden hour moments when a scene is bathed in gorgeous light, though. The hillside was on fire – molten rock was slowly flowing down to the sea. Nothing stood in our way, no fence or guard to stop us. We had waited years to see this. As we picked our way across the desolate landscape that looked as if it had hardened moments ago, our excitement grew with the lava’s heat.

We were both stationed on Oahu, Hawaii from February 2011 until August 2014. Although we visited all the inhabited islands and loved them all, witnessing the active lava flows on the Big Island had eluded us. It was still on our list of must-do Hawaii activities.

The Pu’o’o lava flow is from a vent in the Kilauea volcano. The eruption has been continuous since 1983. Although it doesn’t always reach the ocean, it had been meeting the water with explosive fury for some time when we made the trip. Just a few months before we were there, 22 acres of land that had built up from the lava cooling as it hits the sea broke off and sank to the ocean floor.

It wasn’t floating, of course, it’s just part of the formation process of volcanic islands. A shelf forms as the molten rock quickly cools in the water. This is formed on the island’s underwater slope but becomes weaker as it grows. Eventually, it becomes too big and breaks off to roll down and forms the base of another shelf. This process continues as the island grows.

The Big Island’s Mauna Kea peak is actually the tallest mountain in the world, as measured from its base to its summit. Its base is in a deep trench in the Pacific Ocean, so the total height is over 33,000 feet, although its summit is only 13,802 feet above sea level.

The island of Hawaii, or as it is more commonly known, The Big Island, is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined. It’s huge. You get a sense of its size as you drive across it. There are two main towns, Kona on the west, Hilo on the east. Most hotels are on the west side, which is where we stayed. The 70-mile drive to the trailhead took us past familiar sites and was a happy return to our island weekend trips of old.

Big Island

We arrived at the trailhead in awe of the operation’s size. Several people guided cars to park, multiple stands offered bike rentals, and food vendors lined the road. Just past the gate was a desolate neighborhood with several small houses, mostly on stilts. Unlike raised houses near the sea for protection from floods, this was the simplest way to make a level foundation. This neighborhood had been popular and flourishing until 1990 when an eruption and subsequent lava flow destroyed it all. FEMA paved a gravel road through the area, and several residents returned to build on their previously inaccessible lots with the aid of GPS surveying.

Big Island
A lot reclaimed with a newly built home.
Volcanoes National Park
The plume is in the distance!
Big Island
Coconut trees line the road and will one day provide shade.

A thick plume of white steam (and hydrochloric acid – you really don’t want to walk through that plume!) was soon visible over the horizon. This was our goal, and as we neared it the road was blocked. We joined a couple dozen other people to view the lava ocean entry and were largely disappointed.

Our dreams involved glowing, exploding lava meeting the cool sea. Since we were there in the early afternoon, it rarely was obvious that it was in fact lava creating the billowing cloud. Occasional glimpses of orange would shoot through the scene and garner “oohs” and “aahs.” It was anticlimactic. After a debate on what to do, we set in for the sunset and darkness, knowing it would eventually turn into the glowing, burning scene we wanted.

Big Island Lava
Do you see the boats?
Big Island
At the Water Entry Viewpoint

Shortly after our decision, a park ranger gave a talk about the area. He brought up the flow on the hillside just visible from the viewpoint. He mentioned it takes about 90 minutes to walk there.

Why had we not thought to ask about this?! Viewing lava up close was our years-long dream! Our whole reason for coming had seemingly slipped our minds upon arrival, and now it was too close to darkness to see it – there was no way we could get there and back before dark. We decided to check with the ranger, just in case.

The area was a national park, which usually brings along plenty of rules, guideposts, and fences for visitors’ protection. However, his advice and guidance were simple and unexpected. Walk towards the silver spot on the hillside, just left of the stand of trees. As you get closer steam will be visible. Go towards it. Get as close to the lava as you can handle.

That’s it?! No closing time for the park?! No trail to follow?! No barriers to stop someone from walking into lava?! That’s crazy! And awesome. We giddily set off across the lava field, unable to grasp how this is the USA. Up to this point, we had noticed how much stricter it seemed compared to Patagonia and the islands.

Several other groups had the same idea and we picked our way towards the steam. The lava appeared to have just recently cooled, moving in its stillness. Cracks were here and there. Some rocks crumbled underfoot when you expected them to be sturdy, others looked so delicate but were unbreakable. The sounds of it all were otherworldly, and we fought the urge to simply sit and enjoy it.

Big Island
A Small Part of the Landscape
Big Island
“Walk just to the left of the clump of trees and soon you’ll see the steam and glow.”
Big Island
Alien Twilight
Big Island
Steam escapes the field.
Big Island
Beginning to see glowing molten rock in the distance.

The sun lowered behind the mountain. Over one hill we stopped. Kathryn pointed, “It’s glowing.” Indeed, far away on the hillside were orange specks, where lava flowed. This is nuts.

Twilight and our arrival were simultaneous. Crackling, popping, slow moving lava was mere feet away. At times, the flow would break free from the hardening outer shell and a bright orange flow would burst forth. The already hardened older flow was breaking and snapping as the hot lava hit it. The heat was like the best bonfire you can imagine, and we were so close to the action. This is what we had waited so long to do, and it was more amazing than our wildest dreams.

So Close
Kathryn taking in the scene.
The outer shell breaks and the molten rock flows forth.
Wild Scene


Stars began to appear and more people arrived. Our spot became filled and we set off toward the sea. Flashlights bobbed through the night. We could only see a few feet ahead of us and didn’t dare look around too much in fear of falling into some molten world. (This fear wasn’t exactly possible, but tripping was just as undesirable as some edges are very sharp.)

The going was much slower in the dark, and my headlamp batteries were dying. Its light was worthless from my head and so I began to carry it in my hands. The small visible world made it even more unnatural. Glittering lava rock, orange hillside, stars above, and the large orange plume ever more visible.

Lava Field
Kathryn’s Visible World

Halfway across the field, we stopped. A full blanket of stars was overhead. We pointed out several constellations and marveled out our place on the earth. Dreams can’t compare to this night.

Lava at Night
What constellation do you see?

Upon our return to the viewpoint we were greeted with our hoped-for scene. The ocean entry was now shooting, glowing, exploding with color. The plume was lit from below. Boats bobbed in the bubbling ocean; we thought they were much too close and imagined their view.

This is what we had imagined! The lava is entering the ocean from an underground lava tube, creating a glowing cloud and making the water steam.
Water Entry from Afar

Although it was certainly a spectacle, we had a long walk and drive home, so we set off down the dark gravel road towards our car. The nighttime walk was much more peaceful, and the moon shone brightly lighting our way. Occasional groups would bike past, a lone van would lumber by, but we were generally alone. The houses were silent sentinels to the visitors and we imagined their daily views. Ocean to one side, steam plume to another, glowing hillside to the back. What other real estate listings could claim all that?!

After a quick stop at the grocery for coffee and snacks, we crossed the island back home. The hour-long drive continued our dream day, passing volcano peaks, grasslands, and white sand beaches. All those years imagining seeing lava firsthand potentially could have built it up too much in our mind. But how can you accurately imagine that experience? We couldn’t, and didn’t. It was what we had come for, and it was an unforgettable experience.


Our four days were a lovely homecoming. Familiar stores, shops, flavors, sights, and sounds filled us with joy. Although we halfway planned a hike up Mauna Kea, it didn’t happen and we mainly relaxed in the Hawaiian way.

Mauna Kea
We didn’t hike to the top, but the drive to Mauna Kea offers expansive Big Island views.
Mauna Kea
Big Island Grasslands

Mauna Kea

It was such a welcome stay for our first time back in the States since the previous December. Hawaii proved yet again why it holds such a special place in our hearts. Soon we were off to Oahu and our previous hometown.

Check out our video for exclusive lava flow footage!

© Cheers Life Partners 2017

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The Cheers Life

We make every day worthy of a toast! We quit our jobs in October 2016 to travel the world full time.


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