Tracking Twain into a Volcano

It’s lunchtime at Volcano House inside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Sitting in a rocking chair, I gaze out a wall of plate glass windows at Halema`uma`u. Two miles across the rocky landscape, lava erupts from a hole in the ground 4,000-feet above sea level. I have to remind myself of that. That below me an opening in the earth’s crust is dispensing a stream of molten rock that’s burbling up little more than a stone’s throw away. New land created right before my eyes. This isn’t something you see every day. Something not many in the world experience.

IMG_5504But I cannot see the red-hot lava. I cannot feel its heat. And the burning smell I detect is not the sulfur given off by the volcano but the smoke from a burning fireplace behind me. The eruption occurs in a crater-within-a-crater kind of thing, and as volcanoes go, this one is fairly well-behaved. That is, it’s not spewing lava hundreds of feet in the air. It’s not streaming down the mountain in a river of orange. At least, not right now. It’s more like a pot of boiling water on a stovetop, steam billowing into the air and mingling with clouds.

FullSizeRender 18And, so, I remind myself: There is an active volcano across from me.

At night, the view changes. The glow from the boiling lava lights up, permeating any lingering clouds in a wash of pinks and reds and oranges.

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Mark Twain stood here, gazing at the same volcano. But was it? The same?

Twain stayed at the Volcano House, writing a humorous tale about his friend Mr. Brown in the guest registry of the Volcano House. But it wasn’t the same Volcano House in which I am sitting. I met with a historian earlier today. He showed me where the building in which Twain stayed once stood. Turns out there have been many renditions of the Volcano House. Just as there have been many renditions—eruptions, if you will—of Kīlauea.

During Twain’s visit, the summit caldera was going off. It wasn’t the self-contained volcano I see today. “The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire!” Twain wrote for the Sacramento Union. “It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it – imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire!”

But there were no rift zone eruptions, no leakages, along the volcano’s flanks like we have today. And Twain just missed a 125-day eruption of nearby Mauna Loa towering over Kīlauea at 13,677 feet elevation.

I’m here meeting with volcanologists, botanists, archivists, historians, and just about anyone who will talk Mark Twain with me. I’m curious what the place may have looked like in 1866 when Twain stood along the crater’s rim less than a half-mile from where I now sit, and how it’s changed. I am seeking anecdotes from descendants of those with whom Twain met. And, of course, I am searching for Twain’s lost notebook.

“What is it with you and Twain?” I am asked again and again. “Why are you writing this book?”

The answer: I don’t know. Do we ever know what feeds our obsessions? Our curiosities? Our hobbies? I do know I’ve been working on this project for nearly the length of time I’ve lived in Hawai‘i–over 17 years. I moved to Hawai‘i from a lifetime of living in and around the state of Missouri, a few hours down the road from Twain’s childhood hometown of Hannibal. I had no idea Twain had beat me to Hawai‘i, had scooped a story about shipwrecked sailors here that he considered his “debut as a literary person,” had made lifetime friends with people in Hawai‘i, had left Hawai‘i to go on and become a famous travel writer and comedic lecturer—all due in great part to his four-month-and-a-day Hawai‘i visit. Ever since I read Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, I’ve been researching his relationship with this place. The more I dig, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more intrigued I become. At some point, I realized it was my responsibility to share what I knew, and in sharing, I would be giving back, leaving some kind of legacy. Hence, the book idea.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, our nation’s 15th national park. The park extends from sea level to the 4,000-foot summit of Kīlauea and beyond to the 13,677-foot summit of neighboring Mauna Loa. There are calderas, pit craters, cinder cones, tree molds, and lava tubes. There are seven ecological zones and 59 endangered species making their home inside the park. There are 66 miles of paved roads, 155 miles of marked trails, and 123,100 acres of legislated wilderness.

During the past three months of tracking Twain’s footsteps around O‘ahu, over to Maui, and now here on Hawai‘i Island, this place feels the least changed since Twain’s visit. After examining a raft of historical photos of old buildings and people in period dress, I wouldn’t be surprised if I hiked down Halema`uma`u trail this afternoon and rounded a corner to see America’s great novelist peering between from the fronds of a hapu`u tree fern and gumming a cigar.

Almost.

Much of the reason the area has remained so unchanged over the century and a half is due to the place itself—Madame Pele, as she’s called. Not many people want to live near an active volcano. But the preservation of the place is also due to the foresight of a group of people who ensured this place was preserved for generations to come as a national park. To them, I say, “Thank you.”

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