The smell of the fireplace at historic Volcano House permeated the air, threatening to give me a headache, while a motor roared to life behind us. “I’m just going to do a fast vacuum,” a housekeeper said. “You guys can stay.” My traveling companion—we’ll call her D—and I sat in wicker rocking chairs facing a wall of glass. On the other side of the window, a bright sun threw shadows of puffy clouds on the slopes of Mauna Loa.
“Its not always like this,” D said. “Nice.”
She was referring to what was going on outside. The past two days had started under blue skies, but the color slowly evaporated as the day wore on. Sunny at breakfast. Grey by lunch. Rain by nightfall. That’s because the summit of active the volcano, Kilauea, situated at 4,000-foot elevation, is a rain forest where ferns grow to the size of trees.
Two bear-like men in t-shirts stepped up to the window and took a few pictures.
A couple speaking Japanese followed. He riffled through his brown leather bag—what Seinfeld stubbornly called a European carryall—and after much digging, pulled out a camera. D gestured in the universal language of, “Would you like me to take your picture,” and they smiled and nodded their heads many times. The woman grasped the man’s arm with both hands and tucked her head into the pocket of his shoulder. Then, she was holding her phone out to D, and they re-posed and re-smiled and re-shot. D is a generous nice person, no matter how much she denies it.
Hawaiian music bled through the wall from the lounge next door.
“Eighty degrees and sunny. That’s unusual up here.” It was a park guide leading hotel guests on Hawaiian cultural tour.
“See,” D said.
A man in khaki cargo shorts and suspenders and wearing a soft felt hat approached the window, his nose inches from the glass. He carried an ukulele in one hand, its body made from a gourd and its neck trimmed in raffia. After a time, the man took a seat in a rocker.
Another couple sat in a pair of rockers at the far end of the room. “Is this all?” the man said. “Well, I’m glad we came anyway,” she said, and I was reminded of the words I’d read the night before about first impressions by Mark Twain. Outside the window, a volunteer walked the paved path. Of retirement age, he wore Park Service green, a broad-brimmed, stiff hat, big belt buckle, long pants, and serious hiking boots. Near him, a sign read, “Warning: Trail below. Do not throw objects into the volcano.” Another sign read, “Behold the home of Pelehonuamea.”
Pele: the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, creator of new earth. As the Hawaiian story goes, she pounded her digging stick into the ground, issuing forth lava, and claimed the mountain of Kilauea as her home.
Pele was the reason we were all here. Well, maybe all except me—and by extension, D. I didn’t have to drag D kicking and screaming here, but I did hear her utter, “How many times can you look at steam vent?”
For some reason I cannot entirely articulate, I want to see Hawaii as Mark Twain saw it in 1866. I want to follow in his footsteps around the Islands—and I don’t mean metaphorically walk in his footsteps. I want to stand in the very spots he stood. What I would give to find molds of his boots made in lava rocks. I’m not even sure what I hope to see or feel or experience if I am really able to stand in his very footsteps. And how will I know I am? Will some lightning bolt of literary inspiration strike me? A sudden understanding of the real Hawaii overcome me? Will I ascend to literary heaven?
What I do know is that Twain’s relationship with Hawaii fascinates me. Maybe because through Twain, I get to know Hawaii. Or through Hawaii, I get to know Twain. I suppose both are true.
Beyond the window, beyond the sidewalk, beyond the sign, and low lava rock wall that I used as a tripod the night before, the ground falls straight away some 425 feet. It looked to me like someone used a giant cookie cutter to create the roundish hole, its bottom nearly perfectly flat.
Twain stood somewhere along this very same rim looking into this very same crater within the summit caldera of Kilauea Volcano. Its Hawaiian name is Halema`uma`u; however, the irreverent Twain called it a cellar. He was in Hawaii on assignment, sending dispatches about the place to the Sacramento Union in California. Twain also hiked down into the crater.
I looked at D in the rocking chair next to me. She wore athletic shoes. “Not because I might go for a hike,” she said as she’d laced them up earlier. So, a walk into the crater chasing Twain was out.
“I tapped into the hotel’s wi-fi,” D said, an impish smile spreading across her face.
“How many tries did it take?” I asked.
I needed to make a physical connection with Twain, so I took a walk. I stopped to read every sign along the rim. I browsed two gift shops. I read every historical sign on the hotel lobby’s walls. I found only one mention of Mark Twain—a throw-away line. He was chunked into a group of visiting notables that included some of Hawaii’s royalty, Isabella Bird, Louis Pasteur, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I couldn’t even scour up a pocket paperback of the book, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii that’s perennially stocked at every ABC store, grocery store, airport gift shop, and bookstore across the state. Kilauea Volcano is certainly not Hannibal, Missouri—Twain’s hometown. You won’t find a lick of lava in Hannibal and here, in a volcano, it’s all about the lava. Even with their red hair in common, Pele trumps Twain at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
When I returned from my walkabout, I found D had procured a cup of coffee. I looked to a side table where I had previously seen two mugs just like the one she held in her hands—glazed with the Volcano House logo. They were gone.
According to the sign by the self-serve coffee station in the lobby, hotel guests could help themselves to all the coffee they wanted. All they needed was their coffee mugs from their rooms. But we weren’t hotel guests.
And idea came to me then. D could be the reincarnation of Twain’s traveling companion Mr. Brown. Maybe that explains why she was so interested in him. When I told D the truth about Twain’s travel buddy who was the braver of the two, crossing boundaries, collecting bones from a battlefield, and lifting a copper plate at a monument about Captain Cook for a memento—and that he was a controversial character, cleverly crafted by Twain to play his literary sidekick—she wanted to know all about him. Was Mr. Brown a pseudonym for someone in real life? Did he appear in later Twain travel stories? When I couldn’t answer her litany of questions sufficiently, she Googled him.
Before I abandoned my rocking chair for good last week, I gazed across Twain’s cellar and watched a pillar of blue-tinged smoke billow into the air and mix with the white clouds. The view didn’t change much. I had to watch for several minutes before I could detect movement in the lazy plume rising from Halema`uma`u. I watched the plume grow opaque and thin again. I watched until five tiny birds broke my trance. They appeared from below the rim, zipped left and right, flashing red, and disappeared into the crater again.
“Look. `Apapane,” I said to D of the native forest bird found in Hawaii and nowhere else in the world, its colorful feathers once used in the lei of Hawaiian ali`i, royalty.
“Ah, what?” D asked.
Maybe the reason I am trekking Twain around Hawaii is this: He’s teaching me writing tricks. Last week’s was on the importance of literary sidekicks.
“So, D?” I asked. “Are you interested in joining me on Maui? You know, Mark Twain spent five weeks there. Mr. Brown went, too.”
[Note: As of last night’s news report, lava continues to march through a thick forest, engulfing trees and other vegetation. It is estimated to breach the western border of Kaohe Homesteads in a day-and-a-half. 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. This lava eruption is located along the Kilauea’s East Rift Zone and is NOT located inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which remains open. Hawaii Volcano Observatory provides timely updates and reports, if you’re interested.]