This morning I woke up at 5 am to the eerie glow of the Kilauea crater outside my window.  After years of traveling to Hawaii for work, I finally found myself with a weekend between business meetings that let me explore beyond a project site.

Volcanoes National Park

Image credit National Park Service

I opted for a night at Volcano House, which sits in Volcanoes National Park on the Rim of the Kilauea Crater.   According to legend, this is the place where Pele – the goddess of fire and volcanoes – came to rest after checking out all other islands of the Hawaiian chain and determining this was the place to be.

My journey was less legendary, smooth and painless, flying into Hilo after meetings in Honolulu. Arriving at 8 pm and driving Highway 11 to the National Park, I pulled up to Volcano House about 10 pm. The lodge was comfortable but not overly self-conscious or precious, even though it only has 33 rooms.  It had that great ‘park smell’ and the simple gestures that are the signature of that wonderful era when we built National Park lodges – stone fireplaces, simple honest finishes and a well sited building with big windows to unfold the great view. While comfortable and grounded it was restrained in its recent renovation, eschewing the faux lodge offerings that too often mask the fact you are now immersed in a unique piece of human and natural history.

The lodge’s common areas reminded me of the class I taught recently in mixed use. To paraphrase Alan Mark talking about the shrinking size of apartments, my $300 room ‘was where I slept, but the common area was where I lived’.   The lobby and sitting rooms – replete with a plenty of volcano school oil painting reproductions (that are still worthy of viewing) and plenty of seating  – created the third place at the volcano as we all directed our eyes toward the money shot – the smoldering crater.

Checking in, I made my way to Room 27, a simple but delightful corner room on the second floor with a small bath and king bed.  Looking out the window I found what I had come for, the eerie orange glow emanating from crater through the night darkness.  Close enough that I felt I could reach out and touch it, I awoke many times just to make sure it was still there and to see if something dramatic had changed.  By morning light I was well awake and enjoying the unfolding day as the crater became increasingly illuminated, making its stark and foreboding beauty more visible.

After sunrise the glow was no longer visible, washed out by morning light, but still primal and captivating as one stares at this big hole in the earth wondering what is below.  It reminds us of the complex science that formed this area, and how fragile and temporal this place is.  The landscape continued to change as the light brightened throughout my incredible breakfast – with kudos to the management for working really hard to feature locally produced goods.

What had appeared to be a sea of black and brown at first light now gave way to a much richer tableau of greens, yellows, ochers, blues and lavender.

It was amazing to learn the lodge has been here since 1846, a decade before the civil war.   What had taken me less than an hour to traverse required early visitors to endure a weeks travel by boat, a 14 hour horseback ride and a several day hike.  But even though the modes of transportation have changed, the significance of what I saw has not.

As I’ve come to learn through my years working in Hawaii, the connectedness of the Hawaiian people to their land – the aina – is a force to be reckoned with, and one we mainlanders cannot begin to comprehend.  But when you live in the shadow of a volcano, on the world’s most distant archipelago, it’s hard not to develop a deep sense of respect and connection to the land beneath you.  We should all be so lucky.