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Dangerous Driving And Frightening Geology On Hawaii's Big Island (PHOTOS)

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As the van inched down the 25 percent grade, I gripped my unbuckled shoulder belt and leaned precariously out the open side door. Far below was an almost empty curving black sand beach pounded by wild surf. A lush, flat V-shaped valley tapered back from the beach, encased on both sides by sheer, emerald green cliffs. Waterfalls cascaded down from the heights.

We were descending into the legendary, if largely unknown, Waipio Valley on the "Big Island" of Hawaii. The valley is a hidden tropical paradise on an island known more for stark volcanic landscapes. It is as deep, dramatic and lush as anything that can be found on the more popular "Garden Island" of Kauia, the Big Island's version of the Na Pali Coast.

Waipio also has an interesting social and cultural history. It is home to a curious mix of old Hawaiian families, aging hippies, veterans, plus at least a sprinkling of survivalists and pot growers. Many of its estimated sixty residents live without electricity, phone and other services. I can't think of a more beautiful place to get off the grid.

My adventure here began with the drive up the mile-long, steep, rough, single lane farm road to the Aloha Guest House Bed and Breakfast, our host for our three night visit to the island. The Aloha is located near the town of Captain Cook on the western side of the island, about 1500 feet up the slope of Mauna Loa, one of the five volcanoes that form the island. On my first drive up the road I clenched the steering wheel with white knuckles, but with each successive foray up or down I got better and more confident, dodging huge potholes, even bigger rocks and wild chickens and turkeys like a veteran European rally car driver.

The destination at the end of the road is worth the drive. Stunning sunset views can be seen from the many rooms, lanais and porches facing the ocean. The entire house is wrapped in screens so that guests can enjoy the breezes and views and use their hands to hold wine glasses rather than swat bugs. The nights were cool and quiet. I slept with a comforter and heard nothing during the night except for an occasional bird.

There is a good reason why Hawaii is called the Big Island. It takes a long drive to get pretty much anywhere. At least the drives are interesting, mostly moonscapes formed from old lava flows dotted with splashes of color from flowering bushes. Since the island is essentially barren volcanic slope, there are spectacular ocean views from almost anywhere on the road. The two hour drive to the Waipio Valley showcased a diversity of climates and landscapes with a color palate that ranged from lava black to golf course green, from sky blue to foggy grey as we drove through the clouds nestled around the sides of the volcanoes.

The day after our Waipio Valley excursion we drove one and a half hours in the other direction to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at the southern end of the island. It's an easy drive on a two lane highway with little traffic and views of the slope of Mauna Loa on one side and lava fields and ocean on the other.

The highlight of the day was the four-mile hike that took us across the floor of the Kilauea Ike crater. The loop trail begins with a mile and a half section through the forest along the rim of the crater, then descends 400' to the floor, essentially a cooled down and solidified pool of lava, and crosses the floor before ascending back up to the rim on the other side. For two to three hours, we wandered through jumbled blocks of fractured lava and past wisps of steam curling from numerous vents, hints of the powerful forces that created and are still creating this place.

It also reminded us that red hot lava was still boiling and gurgling several hundred beneath our feet and could erupt and consume us pretty much at any time. Not likely though. The US Geological Service is pretty good at giving at least a couple of days warning that something is about to happen. That didn't stop us from imagining a cataclysmic eruption and, since we live in Los Angeles where everyone is a screenwriter, about the great disaster movie this would make.

After our hike we took a drive to Jagger Museum a few miles away to watch the gas rise from the main crater embedded in the moonlike landscape, once again reminding us that this is for real. The road passing by the rim of the crater was closed because of the poisonous gases escaping from the crater.

Sufficiently reminded of our mortality, we headed back to our guesthouse, where a sunset dinner on the porch awaited.

The Big Island Is A Chemistry Set
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