HILO, Hawaii--Highway 130 once served the Kalapana Gardens subdivision, a tidy collection of suburban homes within sight of the black sand beaches of the Big Island's south shore. That was before the eruption of 1986-92, when the Pu'uO'o vent of Kilauea unleashed a lazy torrent of solder-hot goo down the mountain. The subdivision was consumed by lava, each house smoldering, then bursting into flame like the head of a match. It was an anti-sprawlist's dream come true.
A few houses remain, surrounded by a frozen lake of basalt. The island government, in an effort to accommodate these luckless landholders, bulldozed a road--a path, really--across the heaving surface of the lava. Never has a road called to me more.
The Big Island comprises five volcanic mountains, of which only Kilauea is currently active. The current eruption is also the longest in the last 500 years. Lava has been spewing from the volcano since 1983. On the southeast side of the island, vast landscapes of convulsed and twisted black rock follow the land contours to the ocean. Most often, the lava travels in lava tubes, huge conduits under the surface where the magma flows at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. When the flows reach the ocean, they burst out of the smoking embankments, drizzling incandescent matter onto the crashing waves, releasing angry clouds of hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide and other gases.
Kilauea is not the spouting cone sort of volcano, but rather a vast region of pyrotechnic geology centered on the 3-mile wide Kilauea caldera. Inside the gigantic maw of the caldera is the Halema'uma'u crater, the home of the goddess Madam Pele. Until the '20s, this crater seethed with a boiling lake of lava 1,500 feet deep. Today the walls of the crater exhale scalding sulfur steam, which condenses into yellow scabs on the rock face.
Kilauea is a place of wrenching contrasts, a hateful and inexorable force of nature violently paving over some of the most placid rainforests on the planet. Best not get too attached to any particular banyan or palm. There are holes in the cooled lava to mark where such trees were devoured in a flow.
It's also a hell of a place to drive. At the end of Highway 130, we duck around some road barriers and ignore a sign that advises us the road is for residents only. I put the rented Isuzu Rodeo into low gear and climb up onto the mounded black lava--a razor-sharp, pumice-like mineral known as ah'a, possibly by the first Hawaiian who ever walked on it barefoot. In this decade-old flow, the syrupy pahoehoe, a solidified lava, has begun to decompose a little. The fresher the pahoehoe is, the smoother it is and the more silvery its coating.
After a few hundred yards of creeping across the jagged and jarring road, we find the highway again as it reappears from beneath the flow. This is a perfectly ordinary piece of asphalt, marooned between the ramparts of stone. Then, several hundred yards on, the lava abruptly blocks the road. We climb back onto the fearsome gravel and head toward the poisonous cloud of seawater steam in the distance.
This part of Hawaii is the freethinkers' capital of the United States. In nearby Pahoa--famous for dope-growing entreprenurialism during the '80s--body-modification artists and women's studies pagans share the rickety sidewalk with macadamia nut farmers. So it shouldn't be a surprise that out on the forbidding volcanic tarmac, some Hawaiian has set up a camper, complete with a driveway landscaped with palms. Fear is a relative thing, though I can't imagine sleeping with the mountain of boiling magma above my head.
We drive on across the lava flows, between 50-foot bubbles of frozen lava, half-emerged from the landscape. Up the mountain, many miles away but vivid in the cleansed air of Hawaii, the mountain is steaming vigorously, and it seems there is a surface flow of some kind burning the vegetation. It crosses my mind that we could easily be cut off from our escape route by a fresh surface flow, perhaps even a violent eruption, rare as they are.
Finally, we come to the end of the bulldozed road. It hasn't been bad, as four-wheeling adventures go. I am a little concerned about a cut tire or some other kind of puncture leaving us beyond the reach of AAA. I am also a little unnerved by a grinding sound I hear in the transaxle when the suspension flexes. The rear differential has probably been through a lot, serving under a rental SUV in Hawaii.
We stop, and there, glowering in the distance, are hillocks of dull red lava. As we approach, we get a closer, harder look at the terrain: channels and valleys of pillowy lava, upwellings from jagged cracks in older flows. We are now standing on an active lava field. The slight chemical smell is our soles beginning to melt.
Further on, we find the bulbous outlets of lava, radiating heat like a blowtorch. Here the surface designs of intricate stone filigree tinkle, and shards of silica glass pop off as the lava underneath cools. We march down to the shoreline, perilously close to a lava "bench," which can collapse without warning, dumping acres of new land into the sea.
Finally, after an hour of driving and another hour of walking over brimstone, we come face to face with living lava, spouting into the sea. This is the primordial scene, the unromantic and plainly unmetaphysical beginnings of our world. This is a proximity people cannot sustain--the seawater explosions can hurl boulders of semiliquid rock hundreds of yards inland. We're scared, and the ground under our feet moans, grumbles and slurs threats of fiery death. We're ready to leave.
From a mile away, our white SUV seems small and fragile, but we rush toward it as if we were swimming for a lifeboat. Sport-utility vehicles get a bad rap in this world, and with good reason, but on this occasion, thanks to one of them, we have been transported to a rare and wonderful place. We should keep places like this in mind when we talk about banning the terrible ute.