This must be Everest, I thought. The Asian tourists were in full down orange mountaineering suits. They were ready for -60F with insane wind. But it was only 30F near the summit of Mauna Kea, at the top of Hawaii. Windy, yes, but about as far from Everest conditions as you could get. How’d I get there, to the top of Hawaii? A deal.
The family agreed to go winter hiking and climbing with me in the Great White North months earlier, and in exchange, I’d take them on a Hawaiian vacation. So there we were.
A few notes leading up to the approach to Mauna Kea:
The Big Island of Hawaii wasn’t very touristy. Which was awesome. It was very easy to take a road or a curve and be totally surrounded by locals with Polynesian roots and tribal tattoos. But if you were pale and Caucasian, you stuck out, and perhaps wouldn’t receive the warmest of welcome from the natives.
The family and I flew into the cute little airport of Hilo, where the window frames were free of both glass and screen. It’s not just the lush green atmosphere that smacks you in the face, but the dramatic difference in plants and trees. You ever stare at a Banyan tree that in girth and width would shame a Redwood? All the fruit of my Ohio grocery store—you could see their origin, dangling from the palms above you.
From Hilo, we drove the rented white Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport south and stopped at Volcano National Park, which was interesting from a historical and geological perspective. If you wanted to see lava and you had young kids, it took a little effort and there were things to consider.
Lava flow switches constantly, so while it moves slowly enough that there is no immediate danger from an evacuation standpoint, you need to think about your lungs. Not a good idea to take young children into charcoal air laced with sulfuric acid. An older gentleman would later tell me, “There’s nothing harmful in volcano smoke; I’ve been breathing it my whole life.” Who knows? But either way, let’s not get science involved.
There are hiking options to see the lava, but you’re looking at 8 miles roundtrip. They rent bikes, too, so there’s that option. But no easy way to pull up and view. Which is great—I’m glad most of the true gems within our National Park system take effort to experience. All the overweight Americans rolling in with their giant campers will only see the outline of the beauty, but never the image itself. Very few truly amazing things in this existence can be experienced, simply. Wait, why am I ranting? Back to the tropical island paradise.
After the volcanoes, we drove down to the southern tip of the United States. You ain’t got shit, Florida! Well, except for the fountain of youth, which, it appears, none of your residents have located.
When you hit the sea, there is an option to go west, along a 4x4-only rocky/dirty/exposed/sandy trail for 3 miles. It leads to one of only four green sand beaches in the entire world. After going for like a minute, I was like, this road is too rough, I don’t have the off-road experience, my family is with me, better turn around. Pulling to the side, a gray jeep passed me and a female head popped out of the driver’s side window.
“You trying to go to Green Sand Beach?” she asked.
“Yes, but I’m too scared and don’t know the road,” I said.
“Follow me; we are going there and you can drive behind us,” she said, confidently.
Screw it, if some local that knew the route was going to help me actualize paradise, then it’s fate, and I can’t do nutin’ about that.
My wife was not a fan of the uncertainty—she wondered if the car would break, if there would be rental car damages to pay, if we would be stranded, if we would wreck and possibly hurt ourselves beyond a scrape.
It is hard to describe how amazingly easy our Jeeps conquered giant rocks, dips in terrain where only one of the three tires would sink, yet still leaving the cab level. Oh no, that is too steep on one side, I thought numerous times, we might flip—only to be shown the definition of smooth independent suspension with tires working flawlessly without the use of each other. Now I understand “Jeep Heads.” Terrain could be killed by your vehicle. (Hiking will always be superior, but why not off-road to a trailhead or to the start of a new route?)
On our way back, we learned we took a pretty difficult approach to Green Sand (stay on the upper pathways—the further you go down, the bigger the trenches become). But I can’t thank our guides enough for pushing us, stopping to put a thumb out of the window to ensure we were good and for some awesome video they would send weeks later. Also, with a bit of irony, we learned that they in fact weren’t locals, but fellow tourists from Washington.
The parking area was above Green Sand Beach, so when you got out, you were looking down at paradise from a cliff edge. This shell-rock cove of pale green sand, perfectly hidden below, with fast breaking waves close to shore as the tide was coming in. We hiked down. Swam, played, got re-accustomed to the power of the current and how you could be standing with your ankles in the water, and a second later, your waist.
Late that evening, we finally arrived at our condo in Kona. If you were old and white, Kona was the place for you. Do you appreciate dinner at 4 p.m., bed shortly after, hate kids, have lost the will to experience life and want nothing “Hawaiian” except for their climate? Then go to Kona, immediately. Of course it was gorgeous, but it was crowded and full of shops selling all the nonsense you will never need: starfish smelling of rotten bacteria, real life pictures with parrots whose clipped wings were the antithesis of the free and ever-flowing ocean behind them, necklaces/trinkets/souvenirs made from real lava, remade artifacts illuminating all the stereotypical native things we mainlanders have come to expect—coconut bras, grass skirts, leis, t-shirts with catchy slogans above images of this coast or beach and how you’d care more if you weren’t totally engrossed in paradise, just ask your shirt! The Hawaiian shave ice was good, though, how they put a scope of Lave Flow (strawberry and pina colada) ice cream in the middle of my rootbeer/cottoncandy/banana shave ice. You don’t appreciate my flavor combo? You sound like my cellmate, but I don’t blame you—wasn’t that good.
Spent some days at Mauna Kea Beach and Hapuna Beach State Park—the two best white sand beaches on the island. Kids loved it. If found myself becoming more and more bored. I know, I know, I sound like a spoiled, petulant beach elitist. The waves were massively amazing, as they are in the Hawaiian winter, but aren’t all white sand beaches essentially the same? Wonderful, yes, yes, yes, and I do love the ocean. But the event is basically repeated no matter if you are in Ft. Lauderdale, San Diego or the south of France—I’ve been to all three—and you swim or sit on sand and that’s it. Again, it is a great experience, but it is so limiting. Green Sand Beach felt like I was involved with the ocean on an entirely different level. Plus, the traditional sand beaches in Hawaii are full of rich white people—the grossest breed.
On the morning of day 4, we departed Kona forever, stopping at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park to play with sea turtles. Off the coast and into the high mountains, where we saw a familiar site—farms. Who knew that cattle was big business on the Big Island?
The elevation changed by a few thousand feet, and after the hills and turns and cows that seemed to defy gravity on the side of greened-over volcanoes, we made it to the cliffs overlooking the Waipi’o Valley. Now that was some amazing shit right there.
Coastal cliffs with waterfalls spilling down their throats, a clear view of Maui off in the distance and not a single neighbor to see. Isolation in paradise—“it’s got what plants crave!”
That night I had a nightmare. It was the last day of the Hawaii trip, and I had yet to hike Mauna Kea! I was out of time. I woke up at 4 a.m. and immediately packed: headlamp, first aid, sunscreen, shades, water purifying tabs, warm up pants, wind and water proof shell bottom and top, running shoes, wool socks, trail map, watch, water, snacks and two more top layers. The moon was still out (robbing me of star gazing!) when I left at 4:30 a.m., family still asleep. Took me about an hour and a half to turn onto Saddle road and make my way up to the visitors center. The orange line on the horizon was telling me dawn was around the corner, so I needed to get moving if I wanted to see the sunrise.
It was chilly at 9,000 feet and I was happy to gear up with my layers, everything except my top shell. From the center, I drove up a bit more to an established turnoff, parked, pissed and started hiking. Made good time, but the route was too close to the road, so the busses carrying the Everest-ready tourists ruined any illusion I had about being alone on a mountain or hiking in a desolate area. The final cone below the summit was all hard, packed-down snow, ice-like. Luckily it wasn’t steep, but it wasn’t for running shoes, that’s for sure. Slow and cautious was my approach, not wanting to slide back down. More fearful of making it on Japan’s Funniest Home Videos than an actual injury. The sun was already up, but the sky was still set in orange and black contrast. I did a little Facebook live of the view, paid my respects to the mountain, thanked the Hawaiian gods and headed back down. Sad how quickly my endurance had dropped since climbing Granite Peak last summer. When I got back to the house, the family was just finishing breakfast and we still had a couple more days around the Waipi’o Valley.
Couple of ways you could get down to the Waipio’o Valley, to experience jungles, streams leading into the ocean and a secluded black sand beach with mountain columns forming its beginning and end. One, hike down the Valley Road, which is extremely dangerous as it is basically a one-lane road so you have to dodge cars, but there’s nowhere to go, cliff drop off on one side, mountain wall on the other. Two, you can drive down the steepest road in America. Well, technically, it can’t be called a road, but if it were, it would be labeled as such with a 42% grade.
Foolishly, I didn’t put the Jeep in 4 Low, just used the slapstick to put ‘er in first and relied on the brakes. You had to yield to oncoming traffic coming up, as once you started up, you didn’t want to have to hit the brakes. Our windows down to smell the brake pads that had been worn to dust.
Since our rental house was right beside the Valley Road, we were first ones descending and had the black sand beach all to ourselves, as the steam rolled out of the jungle behind us with the temperatures rising, eventually evaporating out over the Pacific Ocean.
Green Sand and Black Sand beaches were the highlights of my trip. The isolation, geology like nothing I’d ever seen, the JRR Tolkien-esque landscapes. I could live down in that valley, forever. It’s called the Valley of the Kings, because it was the old stomping ground of many rulers and the great Hawaiian king, Kamehameha. As the story goes, when he was born, he had to be hidden from the current king, as he was the destined to take the thrown. They hid Kamehameha in the Waipi’o Valley until he was a teen. And when he emerged, he was a total badass. Rolled the King’s Stone up a massive hill, moved the Naha Stone (which is located outside the public library in Hilo—I tried to move it to no avail), excelled in combat and in leadership. Kamehameha would later be the first to unite all the islands of Hawaii into one state.
Was going to try to squeeze Katahdin in at the end of winter, but a man just died on the Abol slide, the route I was looking at, so maybe just save that for next year. Maybe sneak in Delaware and I'm eyeing Gannett this summer if my Achilles can hold up…