My mother remembers the hawksbill turtle numbers had decreased so drastically because of an invasive species. Thick brush, she recalls, though she doesn't know the species name or where it came from. All she knows is the turtles wouldn't bury their eggs on Halapē Beach with the land under invasion. But with the help of volunteers like her, my father, and twenty others, the Indigenous Hawai'ians, who happened to be National Park Service employees, cleared the brush and made a safe turtle space, at least for a while.
My parents wanted to show my husband and me Halapē Beach. The turtles would not be nesting, they said, so we could hike in responsibly. My mother told of a place so beautiful it promised to be life-changing. She described it not so much with words but with her hands and a tone full of gratitude, elongating her vowels and widening her eyes as she spoke.
I find backpacking a spiritual experience, carrying everything I need on my body, whittling necessities to underwear, socks, one change of clothes, rain gear, a notebook, a headlamp, a map, a knife, and nail clippers. Most manufactured things behind me. The community of earth—water, plants, rocks, and winged creatures before me.
I remember stopping at the ranger station before setting off. “There’s no water at Halapē Beach,” he said. He was in his early 50s and spoke confidently but casually, a weird combination. It felt dismissive. If we wanted a backcountry hike, he added, we should take the Ka’aha Trail down to the coast and camp at the shelter. I left with the impression there was water at the Ka’aha shelter, and I assumed my parents, husband, and his cousin thought the same thing.
But my mother remembers the hike differently. She and my father, both in their late 70s at the time, my husband and his cousin, were taking things slowly, like turtles. I was in a hurry and to this day, I wonder: why the rush?
“That was the scariest afternoon of hiking I’ve every had, not knowing what had happened to you,” my mother tells me later. "We thought you had fallen into the ocean."
"I can see how you thought that," I say. "No, I was swallowed by the lava."
I no longer recall when I left the group or why.
It may have been the pāhoehoe—ropy and draped, like the folds of a Grecian gown worn by the goddesses Athena Nike at the Acropolis, a fabric of cords, drips, long and sinuous and umbilical but with a metallic sheen that held my attention even as my father’s voice floated above the amazement. The trail wasn't really a trail, like the forest paths we were used to, he'd said. But it was simple. Just follow the cairns.
Or it may have been the rough, fiery ʻaʻā lava, evidence of the Earth turned inside out, like a glimpse into the inner core. All this stuff, this—debris—the Earth spewed out, and the mountain not far from here, Mauna Kea, one of the best places on the planet for scientists to peer into the origins of the universe, a place known for its powers forever ago by Indigenous Hawai’ians.
Or it may have been the ocean, how it crashed against the lava seawall, energetic and frothy. Just before the waves broke they turned bright aqua like the underside of an ice berg. Magic. I recall wanting to capture that with my camera.
Just as my father had said, one cairn appeared, like an ebony altar, and when I reached it, another was on the horizon. I’m short and have a low center of gravity. I found I could hop along these rocks with relative ease. I felt light, almost winged.
Sometime later--was it minutes or hours?--I looked at my water. Four ounces. I'd left with a full eight and somehow had swigged down four without even thinking. A thousand thoughts darted through my mind. So much lava and no water except saltwater. I could see myself dying of thirst, fainting on one of the black slabs, lips scabbed and dry, dehydration. I could see myself choked with heat stroke, arms and legs covered in blisters, pussy and infected. I could see myself lost, wandering in some woozy state, losing my way until I believed I lived there in the lava holes. A feeling ashamed that I hadn't brought more water or hadn't rationed.
Then the image of my aging parents wafted into my vision. Each of them had full bottles of water, but had they stashed extra bottles in their packs? There was no turning back. I had to go forward, reach the shelter, refill my water and bring some to them. I continued hopping along, moving from cairn to cairn. A rise on the distance made it seem as if I was almost there. I’d get to that rise and see nothing but another black field to the horizon. I went on, pushed by my own desperate breath.
When the water dwindled to two ounces, I stopped. To the south, 3000 miles of glistening ocean. North, 2000 feet of cliff in a dramatic sweep. Ahead and behind me: miles and miles lava, like asphalt, clipped and ragged and cracked, heaved and vaulted.
I mentally retraced my route. It was possible my focus had slipped and I was following the wrong cairn path. I couldn’t recall how I had arrived at this point. Had I felt such joy and ease at the rock hopping I forgot to wait for my family? I had an image of looking back and not seeing my parents or my husband and his cousin. Both men are tall, broad-shouldered, hard to miss. I had reasoned they couldn’t have been far behind.
When I pulled myself from my reverie and looked at the path ahead, the ebony stone suddenly seemed too neat. Almost friendly, like a black carpet rolled out for a grisly debut. Above, the sun scorched down on my blistering shoulders. My mind twisted into a kind of panic. What if the sun singed my shoulders so bad they took weeks or months to heal? I lathered on more sunscreen but the bright red bled through. Until it hit me: I could put my pant legs on my shoulders. They were the unzip kind, and I slid them up my shoulders and pinched them under my bra straps.
Later--after hours of reckless hiking I can hardly recall--the shelter appeared and the holding tank. It was full! I stuck my mouth under the faucet spout then filled my bottle and set off immediately to find my parents, my husband, his cousin. I felt weak, but intensely aware of my surroundings, the slant of the grass, the tint of the sky, the thickness of the air. I walked slowly.
A half a mile later, Myron was there. We didn't speak. "Take this water to Mom and Dad," I said. He sipped from the top, dropped his pack, and went to them.
"We had rationed our water, but we were glad to get yours," my mother tells me later.
At camp, after our tents were erected and we were fully hydrated, I marveled at how it felt odd to be sleeping on volcanos. Myron and I pitched our tent too close to the cabin and when I turned into bed early, I could hear everyone talking, making needless small talk. "What did I do with that coffee cup?" "Is it OK if I move your pack over here?" "I need to find that little blue sack." I was out in this brutal and raw wilderness but less alone than ever. The trivial conversation made everything feel so strange.
And my father: “Someone should invent a compact distillery to convert salt water to fresh water” and breaking into his familiar laugh.
How could such talk and such an edge experience exist in the same universe?
When everyone went to bed, I lay there in a quiet feeling ruminating on life’s transience, full of sensitivity to the beauty of decay and the fading of all living and inanimate things but also with an appreciation for the now. When I closed my eyes, I saw my parents in their final approach to the Ka'aha shelter: my father collapsing on the grass and vomiting, me taking off his florescent orange hat, unzipping the legs of his hiking pants and pulling off the pant legs and heavy hiking books. Bringing him water and electrolytes. And not feeling guilty for not rescuing him sooner because I was rescuing him now. Letting the guilt slink slowly away, letting it release into the rock and wash out to the ocean.
“Flat-footed.” That’s the only word that remained from my dream that night, my rich and varied dream. “At least it’s better than the flat-footed,” some voice said. And in my early morning brain, I thought about how flat-footed I had been in my rush.
"The lava taught me to slow down," I tell my mother.