On our first night on Hawaii, Don Smith and I followed the Pahoa Kalapana Road (aka, Highway 130) to the temporary parking area hastily established about one mile from where the advancing lava had crossed the road and obliterated the previous temporary parking area. Not knowing how many people to expect (but fearing the worst), we arrived more than two hours before sunset. Our foresight was rewarded with a vantage point right at the barricade, less than 100 yards from the lava and a position that not only offered a great view, it also gave us easy access to the chatty officials and their interesting Kilauea info, anecdotes, and updates.
Waiting for for dark, I was quite content to simply monitor the lava's advance (about a foot per minute) and observe the reaction of the rapidly expanding throng of gawkers, some more impressed than others ("Grandma, why don't they just pour water on it and be done with it?"). During our wait a scruffy, young Kilauea eruption "expert" (I thought he might be a graduate student but learned later he was merely a well-informed enthusiast) started addressing the masses with Kilauea facts and history, and fielding questions--picture Jeff Goldbloom in "Jurassic Park." All in all, the atmosphere was most festive.
When night fell the real pyrotechnics began. Glowing lava churned against the dark sky, its fiery tendrils stretching skyward. Occasionally an exploding tree or shrub would issue effervescent sparks, illuminating the entire scene. I quickly switched from observer to photographer, capturing a few frames at the barricade before venturing off the road and onto the recently solidified volcanic surface deposited by the previous lava flow. In the light of a waxing gibbous moon the shiny new basalt beneath my feet came alive. From this new location I could see all the way up the mountain and follow most of the lava's path down the slope to our current point. I was close enough to the lava that the frequent subsurface methane explosions (lava-ignited gas from foliage trapped beneath previous flows) bathed me in waves of warmth.
Soon I made my way to a relatively remote location where I could just sit and appreciate what was happening before me. Wearing shorts and flip-flops, it took a bit of maneuvering to find a comfortable position on the glass-like basalt. Once I settled in I alternated between photography (my exposure was pretty consistent, so I just needed to compose and shoot) and awe.
Memories of my May visit to the Grand Canyon, photographing rock that is over a billion years old in places, put this moment in perspective: the age of rock I was sitting on could be measured in months, and the age of the rock forming before my eyes could be measured in minutes or seconds. Then my gaze drifted skyward and I tried to comprehend the formation of matter that makes the stars shine, the extraterrestrial light that originated hundreds or thousands of years ago, traveling unfathomable distances to decorate my terrestrial world that night. I don't think I've ever felt more insignificant (at least not until the next night).
* Website: Eloquent Images
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