Moon on Earth

I’m accelerating. I know that I am because the wind is running through my hair a little more and the handlebar feels looser, free on the dark slope beneath my bike’s wheels. I didn’t realize I was approaching a downhill part of the road, but I’d given up on trying to perceive my exact position back at the very beginning of this four a.m. bike ride to the lava’s ocean entry. My only reference points are little blinking lamps, spread out on the sides of the road. Beyond these—darkness.

I had been here twelve hours before, back when the sun fried us on the dark curtains that make up the pahoehoe lava flows. The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before, and it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting. When the word “volcano” entered my mind, I pictured explosive eruptions of red, not the barren fields of black that the slow-moving pahoehoe lava left on the side of Kīlauea. And yet, explosions were not necessary to feel the energy of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. I had not even glimpsed the living, flowing lava, but the youth of the surrounding rock and the shadow of its movement, etched in its curves and ripples, were enough to overwhelm my thoughts.

I look out onto the horizon and begin to see a faint but distinctly orange glow. As I reach the point where bikes are no longer allowed, I tie mine up with a couple of others, and our group heads out to the tip of the viewing area. There is no light coming from the sky, only from the rocks. I am transfixed by the warmth of the image before me, my groggy eyes following the little explosions of lava reacting to the cool waters that welcome it. Seb, one of the post docs with the summer research group, taps on my shoulder and points out glowing spots on the terrain behind us – lava poking out along its long path to the Pacific Ocean. “That’s where we’re heading,” Seb says, his voice clear against the quiet of the morning.

And sure enough, just a few minutes later, we leave the ocean entry and begin walking up the crunchy lava flows towards the spots of lava, their orange color growing less and less visible as the sun begins to overpower our horizon. It’s a cloudy morning, and as our boots carry us up the curves of the young rock, the sky takes on an eerie, milky-blue shade. Rain tumbles onto my half-awake body, soaking the long-sleeve shirt I had put on to protect me from the sun’s rays. Yet my mind washes past the wet clothes sticking to my skin. I’m focused on the lava. I want to see this powerful being spill out and harden at my feet.

After an hour on the flows, I feel weightless, hopping atop the foreign moon they make up. Heat rises before me. I begin to feel a warmth on my cheeks, and my clothes rapidly dry. The stench of rotten eggs fills my nostrils—sulfur coming from the volcano. We’re close. As we approach the GPS coordinates where lava actively flowed the day before, the hunt for the hot rock accelerates. So does my heart. I slide out of my heavy backpack and explore the surrounding terrain. Soon enough, Seb calls us over to a flow he spotted. The magma slowly seeps out under a hardened crust and cascades down a small slope, immediately hardening as it slides, creating a moving, dark-grey crust that rolls over on itself to create the rope-like structures characteristic of pahoehoe flows. Pele is showing us her face. Her fresh exposure reflects the fragility of the volcanic glass covering the older flows, and although my eyes yearn for deeper contact, my toes take me to cooler ground as soon as the heat breaks through my rubber soles and licks them.

After stumbling upon a larger expanse of flowing lava, we unzip our backpacks and pull out the aluminum rolls we’ve each carried up Pele’s land. We take turns slipping on the giant fire-proof gloves and spread the rolls on the warm crust, hot lava slipping just inches below it. Some of the rolls become isolated on private islands, surrounded by the unrelenting and unforeseeable flows. But our lunches can’t be taken from us that easily. We wait for some of the crust to cool and snatch our lava-cooked burritos before we lose them. As we feast, we take turns poking at the flowing lava, watching Pele’s heat engulf the thick sticks we dare to prod her with.

The lava’s warmth now filling my stomach, I approach the base of the mountain, living rock slowly flowing down and creating beautiful formations of pahoehoe, at times collapsing in on itself and changing form from second to second. I am surrounded by warmth on all sides. The earth is glowing, slowly shaping herself and transforming before my eyes. Pele is giving birth. I am here to watch.

Marcelina Kubica is a Canadian-American-Pole, born with a craving for learning new languages, tasting the dishes of the continents, absorbing the wisdom of foreign souls, and dancing to the rhythms of their soils. Email her at marcelina.kubica@yale.edu. 

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