THE BLOG
05/19/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

I'm With Stupid: Popping Tiny Bubbles of Volcanic Ignorance

I grew up in the East, so everything I know about Hawaii I learned from TV. Think Magnum, P.I.; Hawaii Five-0; The Brady Bunch: that kind of stuff.

Here's what I thought I knew about America's 50th state: There's hula dancers, surfers and ukulele players, people eat poi and pigs at luaus, girls throw leis around your neck the moment you step off the plane, and if you have a moustache or a cool theme song, you can solve crimes and pick up bikini-clad girls there. Those were the ridiculous stereotypes burned into my head as a child.

Here's something I thought I knew about islands in general: They're generally island-sized. I know that sounds stupid, but it'll make sense when I make my next point, which is even stupider.

I realize that the island of Hawaii is called the Big Island, but I just thought that meant it was bigger than the other Hawaiian islands. Apparently, I didn't understand what people meant by big. Oh. My. Friggin. God. That place isn't an island; it's a continent. What the hell is going on down there? How could a place like that come to be? (I mean that in the best way, by the way.)

If you've never been there, which I hadn't before last week, no words can do the Big Island justice. It's insane. It's bigger than Delaware, if that means anything, and probably 90 percent of it is uninhabited wilderness.

There are two volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, that rise more than 13,600 feet just a few miles from the ocean. There are two other huge ones, Hualalai and Kohala, that are over a mile high. And there's a fifth one, Kilauea, that is, along with Mauna Loa, among the most active volcanoes in the world.

Kilauea is at the heart of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a place I've always wanted to go. I stayed at a resort on the northwest coast of Hawaii last week, and I didn't go to Kilauea because it was too far away. That's how big the freaking island is. It would have taken me three hours to drive there.

But back to my original point, which was the racist stereotypes of Hawaii and my determination not to partake in any hokey activities that perpetuated said stereotypes, save possibly surfing, which I had little chance of succeeding at anyway.

I didn't want some canned, artificial experience that someone decided tourists should see. I didn't want to watch a hula dance, go to a luau, listen to Don Ho songs or get lei'd, although had an island girl thrown flowers around my neck, I don't think I would have complained.

It turns out I needn't have worried. I experienced almost none of that stuff in my week on the island. To convey what I did experience, let me put it thus: I chose as reading material for the trip a ridiculous horror novel called "Weaveworld," by Clive Barker. It's about a guy who falls into a carpet that's actually a magical wonderland. That's kind of how I felt, only without all the horror.

One day I got in a car next to the ocean. An hour and a half later, having driven over barren plains, through vast banks of thick vog -- volcano fog -- and up treacherous mountain roads, I arrived at the summit of what is, measured from its base on the ocean floor, the tallest mountain in the world.

Another day I played golf at the Mauna Kea Golf Course, the third hole of which -- across a small bay with crashing waves and steep bluffs of tumbled black lava -- may be the most spectacular hole I've ever played. After golf, I went boogieboarding (as predicted, surfing wasn't in the cards for me) at a jungle beach where I had to be careful not to step on all the sea turtles, which were everywhere.

The piece de resistance, though, was definitely the night I went snorkeling with manta rays. They were doing big, graceful backflips so close to my face that I had to make an effort not to brush against them. The sight of nearly a dozen rays gliding through the columns of light and bubbles from all the scuba tanks was as Weaveworldesque a sight as I could ever imagine. I still can't believe it was real.

But then I suppose I could say that about the entire island. It's ever so much more amazing than "The Brady Bunch" led me to expect, and man, is it big.

Todd Hartley hasn't felt so much like Aquaman since he last sported Underoos some five or six years ago. To read more or leave a comment, please visit zerobudget.net.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.