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a crack in the stillness

Volcano Village is a mossy little town nestled in the Ohi’a rainforests of Hawaii island, 3,500 ft in elevation on the edge of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The rain comes in every day, getting caught in the forests, sweeping across the desolate volcanic craters, and slowly smoothing the expansive lava fields nearby. Often, it feels as quiet and surreal as an alien planet.

Most days you’ll only hear the birds, the wind, and a passing car or two. Not so long ago, we had as many tourists coming as raindrops hitting our roof. The lava was flowing, BnBs were the town’s economic powerhouse, the National Park was one of the most popular in the country, and every night you could see a giant plume of glowing orange volcanic smog rise from Halema’uma’u crater and into the sky in awe-inspiring god-like form.

Nowadays, the lava has long since been emptied from the crater. It’s such a small sleepy town that even in the Covid era of 2020 nothing here changed except the busiest place in town (the post office) got more boxes coming in, and the weekly farmers market has one or two fewer stands. The boom of the volcanic plume is gone and all you see now are the quiet tufts of smoke coming out from our chimneys as the rain slowly passes through empty streets.

But if you know this place as I do, you know that beneath the quiet wet canopy of trees there is a pulse that moves this town, this island, and an entire chunk of the world. Kilauea. You may have heard of it in the news over the last few decades as tourists flocked to see the lava flow go into the Pacific, or perhaps when locals fled as the path of lava neared their homes. For most of the world, Kilauea is a volcano, tourist attraction, or natural wonder. For me and the people of Hawaii, Kilauea- specifically Halema’uma’u crater is so much more than land growing and lava flowing- it’s the home of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of Volcanoes and fire- the creator of the Hawaiian islands. It’s thanks to Pele I had a beautiful place to grow up in, and an incredible trip over this past weekend hiking through lava fields to find a quiet coastal oasis.

I know better than to mistake the dormancy of the volcano and quiet solitude of this place with inaction. I know nature well enough to know there is always something happening beneath the surface. I grew up practicing tsunami and earthquake drills, watching coconut trees get toppled by hurricanes, and people getting lost at sea because of invisible currents. I have known for as long as I remember that silence and inaction do not equate to stagnancy.

This weekend I slept on the shores of my secret little spot on the edge of the national park, where fresh and saltwater meet in a quiet little bay that always soothes my soul. Peacefully living there for a weekend, it never left my mind that an earthquake at any moment would mean running miles over lava rock to get to high ground and avoid a tsunami- a difficult run that probably wouldn’t be fast enough to save me anyway. But like most trips there, nothing happened except a lot of joyful sweating, a few cuts on my feet from the coral, and a very funky sock tan from my hiking boots. I trekked out yesterday with an ache in my heart, wishing I could spend one more night there in honor of one of my favorite days of the year- Winter Solstice. This year especially, doing something special to honor the coming of longer brighter days felt so needed.

sara swimming in wilderness. hawaii. adventure
last dip before heading up the mountain

But I did my 10 miles through wind and sun, drove home, and while my body fell into bed my heart was still resting on the shore with sand in my hair and the ocean sighing at my feet.

It was still dark when I woke with a startle. “We gotta go! Mom said there was an earthquake. Kilauea’s going”.

An earthquake happened less than 12 hours since we left the trail, and Halema’uma’u once more was cracked open. We drove to our little volcano viewing spot like storm chasers and began seeing others doing the same. There were just a few other cars on the road- but around here that means something big is happening.

We pulled up to our little spot shocked to see the parking lot full. The sun was rising but it wasn’t strong enough to outshine the fantastic orange glow I had come to know so well over the years. There it was like an old friend, just like it had been for years, calling me home, reminding me of the unique beauty and mana (power) of the place I call home. She was awake again, Pele is still here with us.

I stood in awe and joy with my sister and mom by my side. Around us were people who arrived at 3 am wrapped in blankets, people who had already come to give their ho’okupu (offerings) at the crater’s edge for Pele, and people like me who were simply there to stand in love and gratitude as we witnessed Pele waking up from her slumber. We all watched the first plume grow from a single puff from the base of the crater into that endless plume so many have seen over the years. A yellow ray peaked from behind the clouds and ran across the periwinkle sky to meet the deep orange glow crawling up from the pit of the earth, as the sun began rising over Hawai’i.

The sun above warmed my face as the fire of the earth radiated and illuminated the ground beneath my feet. I stood in the stillness of the cold mountain air and watched the vapor from my mouth escape as I whispered “happy solstice”.

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