Mark Twain Would Have Loved the Wilderness Act at First Glance

halemaumau crater at kilauea volcano
Halemaumau in Black and White.

It’s appropriate that I’m in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Not that I planned it, which makes the whole thing even better. I’m here researching and writing about Mark Twain’s visit to Hawaii in 1866. He made the long horseback journey to Kilauea Volcano during that visit. This was before the place was a national park. However, Kilauea was already a tourist attraction in Twain’s day. In fact, the first Volcano House was built in 1846. It was a one-room grass shelter. Twain didn’t stay there. He stayed in a more substantial wood-framed four-bedroom structure with a parlor and dining room that was opened in 1866 just before his visit.

“I suppose no man ever saw Niagara for the first time without feeling disappointed,” Twain wrote of his first sighting of Kilauea. “I suppose no man ever saw it the fifth time without wondering how he could ever have been so blind and stupid as to find any excuse for disappointment in the first place. I suppose that any one of nature’s most celebrated wonders will always look rather insignificant to a visitor at first, but on a better acquaintance will swell and stretch out and spread abroad, until it finally grows clear beyond his grasp—becomes too stupendous for his comprehension.”

Here’s what I like about that notion: It encourages the notion of spending time in nature. Real time. Not just drive up, snap the picture, and check it off our list. Rather, get to know a place. My kinda guy. He went on to write, “I also know that a woman who looks criminally homely at a first glance will often so improve upon acquaintance as to become really beautiful before the month is out.”

That’s Twain for you.

The 1964 Wilderness Act protects nearly 110 million acres of wilderness areas—of which there are 750 across the U.S. Land designated as a wilderness area represent the nation’s highest form of land protection. No roads, vehicles, or permanent structures are allowed. Neither are activities like logging or mining. These wilderness areas all exist within our national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management lands–including 130,000+ acres in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

halemaumau crater kilauea volcano
Halemaumau Crater/Kilauea Volcano

When Twain went back to see Kilauea later that evening, he wrote, “After a hearty supper we waited until it was thoroughly dark and then started to the crater. The first glance in that direction revealed a scene of wild beauty. There was a heavy fog over the crater and it was splendidly illuminated by the glare from the fires below. We arrived at the little thatched lookout house, and we rested our elbows on the railing in front and looked abroad over the wide crater and down over the sheer precipice at the seething fires beneath us. The view was a startling improvement on my daylight experience. I turned to see the effect on the balance of the company and found the reddest-faced set of men I almost ever saw. In the strong light every countenance glowed like red-hot iron, every shoulder was suffused with crimson and shaded rearward into dingy, shapeless obscurity! The place below looked like the infernal regions and these men like half-cooled devils just come up on a furlough.”

He goes on.

And on.

Paragraph after paragraph about the striating and exploding lava. Fountains that boiled and coughed. Sprays of stringy red fire. Showers of brilliant white sparks. That’s not quite what I saw tonight. And maybe not exactly what Twain saw either. He is know for his fondness for hyperbole. So, who’s to say?

Earlier today, scientists at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory issued a “volcano warning” for a portion of the Puna District. That means lava is flowing their way. That’s about 25 miles at the crow flies—and downhill—from where I am in Volcano Village. This update appeared on the HVO Kilauea status website earlier. “At the average rate of advancement of 250 m/day (820 ft/day) since July 10, we project that lava could reach the Kaohe Homesteads boundary within 5-7 days should lava resume advancing within the crack system. Kaohe Homesteads is located between the Wao Kele o Puna Forest Reserve and the town of Pāhoa in the Puna District of the County of Hawai`i.”

No, Madame Pele is not quiet these days. Not in the least. She’s still creating land—land that always starts out at as a wilderness area.

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