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Kilauea Caldera’s Boiling Pot

19 Jun 2015, Posted by P.J. Oswald in Places
A nighttime photograph of the Kilauea Caldera from the Jaggar Museum at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

After several days of beaching it up on the igneous shores of Hawai’i’s Big Island, we were ready to explore some new terrain. So we packed the rental van with three kids (and not nearly enough snacks) and set off in the direction of the Kilauea caldera.

Note to self: Next time, start adventures before dinnertime.

Hawai’i’s Volcanoes National Park makes up a large part of an already large island. Though there are five volcanoes on the island, only Kilauea continues to bubble and churn with activity. It turns out that the surface area of the United States grows every year thanks to Kilauea’s continuous eruptions. Tourists can travel by helicopter for an overhead view of the caldera, or take a boat to watch the tumultuous spots where the lava meets the ocean and cools. They can also drive to an observation deck to see the great cauldron that holds the lava. And hey, all this geological drama is conveniently located within this park.

I say conveniently, though my hungry kids would probably tell you that the 2.5 hour drive to reach the park was anything but convenient. That’s practically an eternity when you can scarcely see up and out the car windows. We played a movie on our Surface for the kids to watch, but the drive outlasted the movie. We tried to appease them with frosted mini-wheats and a bag of chips, and even vain promises of finding a McDonald’s somewhere in this remote part of the island. As the lights of civilization grew dimmer in the rear view mirror, so did our hopes of finding food.

Despite the growing appetites, my wife and I relished the drive. The west side of the island that we had explored over the preceding week was quite dry, covered in many places by the rocky remnants of “recent” lava flows. The west delivered on great beaches and otherworldly scenery. But when we drove along toward the volcano, we were surprised to see the island offer up lush, green forests and coffee plantations thousands of feet above sea level. The shift was a welcome one, and made for plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs” along the way. And then we saw it.

At first we figured that the glow was the light of a nearby city, a city that we hoped would host the rumored McDonald’s. But as we wheeled our way closer to the light, we noticed that the glow was uniformly red … and the closest city on our map was even further away. We drove on past the “Welcome To Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park” sign. It began to rain.

We turned into the wet parking lot with sinking spirits as we noticed the darkened windows of the visitor center and shops. And yet the parking lot was full of cars. I asked a fellow nearby if anything was open in the park. He offered us a lifeline: the Volcano House was open just about five minutes’ walk from where we were. We dragged the kids faster than they could walk to see if indeed there was food available here.

We sighed with relief as we walked through automatic doors into the well-illuminated Volcano House. At least a couple hundred people milled about the halls. Evidently, we weren’t the only folks with the crazy idea of visiting the park at night. Some perused the gift shop, while others sipped coffee on a back patio or ate in the local restaurant. That’s right, restaurant. It didn’t matter that the kid’s meal cost twelve dollars – we could eat! And eat we did.

With new strength, we pushed further on into the park to yet another parking lot. Only this time, we knew just where to go. The ember-red we had seen earlier had grown from a luminous red glow to a rising tower of steam and light, with its source not far from the parking lot. We took the kids from the van and walked along a dark path to an observation deck. When we reached that path we peered out over the rail. Hundreds of yards away, a hole in the Earth’s surface was visible, like some sort of lethal well offering access to churning lava down below. The Kilauea caldera e offered us a view to the strange and dramatic meeting of our world and the world below. I snapped more than a few photos to in an attempt to capture the angry and simmering beauty of this Kilauea’s boiling pot. Indeed, it was this fire and smoke that lit up the night with red during our earlier drive.

We returned to the car after my family obliged my photo-taking, wiping rain off our faces and preparing for the long drive home. We wouldn’t make it back before midnight, and I wondered if the kids would throw a fit at the prospect of another long drive. And how had they made sense of what they saw?

“Thank you for taking us to volcanoes, and not go in,” said two-year-old William, relieved.

“Yeah mommy and daddy, thanks!” said Kali.

Beautiful and dangerous, the Kilauea caldera was a spectacle worth driving for.

“Thanks for letting us come on the adventure, guys.” I responded with sincerity. Though it was too late. The kids were already asleep.

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What powerful natural forces have you experienced up close and personal? Tell us your story in the comments below.

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