Getting Lost in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park | August 10th-13th, 2015

Volcano National Park

Day 1

The sky was still dark. Too dark for 5:30am I thought, after rising to the dreaded sound of an early alarm. I shoveled down breakfast, showered, and headed over to the WWOOFer compound to shoot my fundraising coach video update for Miracle Challenge. By this time, there was enough daylight and aided by the light of the ceiling fan, I stood out in the shot over the somewhat drab background of old shelving. It took about ten minutes of recording to get the speech right on video. Memorization, articulation, and confident, enthused flow of a script someone else wrote aren't easy to achieve. I can really appreciate how smooth actors are. After editing the clip and saving it to my phone so I could send it as we passed through cellular data service, I was on to put the final touches on packing for our trip.


Alex and Tee had both already finished grabbing food. I started with the easy stuff— Pop Tarts, cinnamon raisin bagels, and half a jar of peanut butter. I also put together three quart-sized bags filled to the brim with brown rice, pinto beans, and avocado from a neighbor's roadside tree. All packed and ready to go, I made two gigantic pancakes and scavenged the fridge for anything snack-able. An hour of this went by as “Almost Ready Alex” completed the transition from almost ready to ready.

The back of the truck was hot and muggy with the three of us enclosed in the truck bed's camper top as Bryan drove us down the driveway. Expecting to be dropped off as soon as we hit the highway, we were glad to feel the truck roll onto the smooth asphalt of the highway and continue on up to Pohoa. Bryan is a swell dude, always going the extra mile for his WWOOFers.

He dropped dropped us off on the edge of town and after sending in my fundraising coach update via cell phone, we stuck our thumbs out to hitch. Five minutes later, and old Ford Explorer pulled over. It's funny: the older and worse shape a car is in, the more likely it is to pick you up.

We got a ride ten miles up to Kea'au, exactly what we'd hoped for. After profusely thanking our kind ride givers, we thumbed for another 15 minutes until younger bearded guy picked us up in an old F-250. We cruised another 20 miles in the back of his truck, the wind getting progressively colder as we gained elevation up the side of the volcano.

About a mile from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Entrance, our driver pulled over. We hopped out the back of his truck and had one of those conversations where, everyone skips the fact that they're strangers and talks as friends. Across the highway, he pointed out the back entrance to the park and told us not to worry about paying. Walking past the unmanned entrance, I tried to use the self pay station, but was stumped when there was no pen to fill out the mandatory envelope form. Wallets full, we entered the park.

natural grace

At over 4,000ft in elevation, it was much cooler, heavy clouds hung on the verge of rain. Though the weather conditions weren't prime, we had a great afternoon hiking all over the main section of the park. We walked around a lava tube, across what once was a mile wide boiling lake of lava, and I even convinced Alex (who's other nickname is “Yesman”) to climb down into a gassing sulfur vent to grab a bunch of change that had been thrown in like some kind of tourist driven wishing well. At the Visitors Center, a park ranger convinced us that Halape Beach was the place we should backpack to and pointed Alex and I in the direction of the General Store at the in park military camp. We ate dinner and made some “Poor Man's White Russians” as we called them with milk, coke, and cheap rum from the General Store.

Darkness fell as we walked the two miles to the campground to meet up with Tee. We all have quality cameras and he had decided to go off on his own shooting expedition. After arriving, we all sat around for another hour talking and marveling at the stars before retreating to our tents.

Day 2

The sun was high upon leaving the campground the following morning. We walked back into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and promptly hitched a ride in the back of a pickup to the Visitors Center. The following hitch took a while, though, maybe a half an hour until another pickup stopped and took us all the way, maybe a dozen miles, down to the trailhead. Trucks are the bread and butter of hitchhiking.

From the trailhead, we could see 2800ft in elevation down to the Pacific Ocean. It didn't seem that far away from here, but it was in fact 7.7 miles to Halape, our ultra-remote camping spot on a beautiful white sand beach. As we made our way down the first of many lava flows, the sun beat down hard upon the smooth black lava rock, but an inland wind blew harder, keeping us cool as we walked across what would have otherwise been an oven.

An hour into the hike, a young park ranger caught up with us on the trail. He asked, “You guys got your permits?”

We looked back in silence to which he replied, “Well, you can still day hike, let me take your names, I'll see if I can get you one.”

We gave our names and watched as he briskly took off down the trail. I figured we'd either get a permit or a ticket before our trip was over, but we weren't about to turn around or do a 19 mile day hike. We continued on.

Our encounter with the ranger was forgotten as as lava flows gave way to dry, prairie-like, wind blown grass. We could see Halape, it's beach and coconut trees off in the distance. Our progress felt significant, but our destination still looked far away. It was the height of the afternoon. The sun was harsh on my neck. I fished my spare shirt out of my pack and stuck it under my hat, draping down over my neck for highly-unfashionable sun protection.


The trail snaked it's way down through golden grasslands overlooking miles of untouched coastline. The coconut trees lining Halape grew closer and closer. I dropped my backpack into thick white sand, directly under one. Halape was a sort of cove, with waves making their way in from two directions. Half a dozen locals were under a tree grove, cooking up fish and laying around in hammocks. We immediately shed our shoes, shirts, and headed for a protected inlet of tranquil, perfectly clear ocean water.

Halape Beach

Wandering the beach, I found the perfect spot to set camp, a wind sheltered area with a couple coconut trees for Alex to hang a hammock and plenty of space for Tee and I to pitch our tents.

Walking around in search of a good coconut or two, we ran into the same young park ranger we'd met coming down the trail... Crap.

I imagined we were about to receive some hefty fines. With a big smile and as polite of a tone of voice as I could muster, I asked the park ranger how his hike down had been. He told us that he decided not to radio our names in, as we'd probably have gotten tickets upon our return tomorrow. What a guy! We thanked him profusely.

He was with another guy, who turned out to be a scientist researching the Hawksbill Sea Turtle, an endangered species that was known to lay eggs on this very beach.

After a dinner of my rice, bean, and avocado concoction, we all broke out our cameras to capture the our ultra-remote beach scene as day slowly faded to night. Later, Alex was over with the scientists and park ranger, cooking ramen on their propane burner stove. I decided to follow with the remainder of our bottle of rum to share with them, and more specifically, the park ranger who had so kindly spared us from hundreds of dollars in fines. We all hung out in the researchers compound for a while finishing the bottle and discussing our inability to get our friends to come out and experience these incredible places.

volcano national park

The three WWOOFing amigos spent the next hour gazing at the Milky Way as it stretched all the way across the sky from directly overhead to down below the horizon.

Day 3

The morning air was cool as I unzipped my tent and crawled out to catch sunrise. Alex was already sitting on one of these wonderfully comfortable smooth rock chairs someone must have spent all assembling sometime passed. It was soul soothing, watching waves roll in and out, as the morning light grew progressively brighter. I ate two cinnamon raisin bagels with peanut butter for breakfast, then proceeded to play with the new morning light with my camera. It's remarkable how much the position of the sun affects photography.

Yesterday, the sea turtle researchers took us to a nearby pool of brackish water. The water was unbelievably clear, with this golden hue derived from algae growing on the rock bottom. Nestled twenty feet down in a large volcanic crack in the earth, the water didn't receive much direct sunlight, making it an extra refreshing dip before heading out to hike the eleven mile coastal route back to civilization.

The sun was high when we left Halape. Tee, wearing a watch, said it was nearly 11am. We'd seen those local campers leaving as the sun rose and knew we were in for a scorching return hike. I left camp with a sea-soaked spare shirt covering my neck for evaporation cooling purposes and a bagel in hand, which I ate slowly, making the first mile quite enjoyable.

Time and place blurred as we crossed vast seas of lava flow. Though flows all took distinct shapes, we couldn't tell one flow apart from another. There was no way to judge the progress we made. Hiking, we were often separate, hundreds of yards apart at times, each deep in our own thoughts. Periodically we'd stop for a water break or someone would stop to take a photo causing us to bunch back up, but those hours spent crossing the hot, windswept, eleven miles were different, personal experiences for each of us.

volcano lava

It had been over two hours since I first spotted the road coming down the mountainside in the distance. I couldn't tell where we were going to meet with it, but I knew I was close. Alex and Tee were a good half mile back probably, but nearing the end of the trail drew me in. Those last couple twists and turns through the landscape always seem to take the longest as you anticipate the relief of dropping your pack and relaxing just around the next corner. Spotting the end of the trail gives immense satisfaction, not because you want it to end, but more as a sense of accomplishment and success. As with all backcountry adventures, society's safety net doesn't reach out into the wild. A small victory it always is, venturing out and successfully returning from a place most don't dare go.

I'd been sitting around the small parking lot about twenty minutes, giddily eating the remainder of my food when Alex and Tee finally came into view. We all relished in post-hike bliss for a while, then got to trying to hitchhike the sixteen miles back to the entrance of the park.

Not much happened though.

For the next hour, cars and SUV's filled with tourists passed, but not a single car stopped. I was getting a bit worried, essentially every car driving by was a rental (on the Big Island, you can tell) and I'd never been picked up by a rental car in over two months of hitchhiking.

One of the obvious laws of hitching is the larger the group, the harder it is to get a ride. Most cars don't have room for three guys and their backpacks. So I volunteered to start walking the sixteen miles back to the park entrance and hitch along the way.

I'd been walking and unsuccessfully thumbing with the occasional car passing for about twenty minutes when I rounded a bend to find the perfect empty pull out for someone to stop at. It had now been nearly an hour and a half since we first put our thumbs out. I told myself I was going to passionately wave down the next car to come around the bend, into this perfectly ideal spot to grab me—the tired, food-less, and on the verge of water-less backpacker who could really use a lift.

A black four door sedan rounded the bend. I thrust my thumb out high and waved with my other hand, an expression of desperation on my face. As the full car passed, everyone was smiling, laughing, and waving back at me. Everyone, including Alex and Tee...

Two minutes later, another car rounded the bend and I repeated my desperate motions. The car pulled right in, a young Swedish family of three.

Most dismiss those on the Big Island for a week's vacation as “tourists,” a not so highly regarded label that puts an individual somewhere in the hierarchy below other humans, yet still above most animals. I was intrigued by these "tourists" though. They were on a three month long expedition across the continental United States, up to Alaska, Oahu, the Big Island, Fuji, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Dubai... All in one fell swoop. To make them even more legit, they were camping the majority of their trip and most impressive: they had a five month old baby.

Impossible is nothing.

As the shinny rental car wound its way back up towards the park entrance, we discussed travel, the varying points we're at in our lives, and our plans for the future. As most people do who hear the abbreviated version of the past couple years of my life, they heavily encouraged me to move on into medical school and become a doctor.

I sometimes envision society's worn path with steep slippery banks on each side. Like trying to climb a nearly vertical dirt wall. No matter how high you climb away from where you're supposed to be, lose your grip for a second, and gravity will pull you right back down. One either has to make no slip ups or mistakes when deviating from the path of life most traveled, or be stubborn enough to hold onto the progress they've made when something goes wrong. The gravity of social expectation pulls on every sane person who deviates from society's norm.

I'm getting off topic though. This was a great couple, doing great things. They dropped me off at the Visitors Center, where Alex unsuccessfully attempted to fake steal my backpack as I had my back turned refilling my water bottle. All back together, we returned to the General Store a mile down road for a dinner of $1.39 microwavable burritos. After a long day of backpacking, one's ability to resist cheap, crappy, delicious foods is diminished.

Walking back towards our campsite from the first day, we couldn't help but notice an orange glow permeating the night sky on our left. Coupled with hundreds of other tourists all heading for the same overlook, we decided to have a look ourselves. The innermost crater of Kilauea glowed brightly as we (along with 200 others) got what might be the closest look at molten lava in our lives. Hundreds of camera flashes were going off per minute, making long exposure photography of the crater in the night difficult, I was still happy to come up with this:

Volcano National Park

After losing the half mile trail back to the campsite in darkness, we found ourselves bushwhacking through a dry desert landscape. The Big Island has over 1000 micro-climates on it. In one place it can could rain all day, while a mile away it might not rain a drop. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is no exception.

Day 4

We were all in high spirits, reveling in the luck and success of our trip and ready to hitch back to the farm for a shower and all those other first world amenities. After breakfast, we decided to each leave 15 minutes apart in a hitchhiking race back to the farm.

Volcano National Park

Long story short, I got home last. Tee abandoned the race after realizing he'd have to wait 30 minutes to leave, as he was the last to go. Coincidentally, Tee and I ended up in the same pickup truck. We decided to just hitch back together since he wasn't in the race, but then a public bus picked us up as we hitched on the side of the highway and we were given the grand tour of everywhere besides where we were trying to go. Ages later, when the bus finally made it to Pohoa (still 10 miles from our farm) I gave up on the race too, since I figured Alex had already won and I needed groceries.

That night, I laid on my comfy queen sized bed, recounting the trip in my head. I thought of all the unknowns that added up into great adventure. We'd hitched further than we ever had, evaded national park tickets by befriending a backcountry ranger, experienced ultra-remote edges of Hawaii few have the privilege of seeing, and along with countless other memorable moments, wove quite a story over the past four days.

I clicked my lamp back on and started to write.