It was 10 p.m. when we began our descent down the enormous Mauna Kea mountain, but my body was still on Utah time, so it felt like 2 a.m. to me. I closed my eyes and let my head nod; I trusted J.R., my guide with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, to drive us safely down the mountain, despite the dangers of "Invisible Cows" and Saddle Road (which is narrow and poorly designed, since it was originally built just to supply a military base--the rental car agencies make you promise not to drive their vehicles there).
But J.R. was in the mood to chat, and so I opened my eyes, lifted my head, and enjoyed a conversation I wouldn't have wanted to miss.
Since I was traveling alone, instead of as part of a couple, I had the privilege of sitting shotgun--right up front with J.R. My seat was right next to the oxygen tank we carried with us, in case anyone in our group of about 12 needed it as a result of altitude sickness at the 13,796 foot summit.
Shotgun had been a great place to sit, because I could ask J.R. questions and converse with him the entire trip, although most of the way up the mountain, he was speaking to the whole group on his microphone, explaining the unique geology of the area, the lives of astronomers who work on top of Mauna Kea, the interesting history of the area, and the sacred nature of the area to Hawaiians (which I blogged about here).
He knew his stuff. I'd been very impressed. He had multiple degrees in Geology, and had worked for the National Park Service. As we descended down the mountain, I asked him how he came to study Geology, and he told me this story.
As a young man, he hadn't been interested in school much. He was a football player, a serious football player, and his life revolved around the game. He went to college for the purpose of playing football. But during his junior year of college, his football career was abruptly ended when he suffered a serious back injury. His physical recovery was difficult, but his emotional recovery was even worse--football, the core of his life, was now gone. He floundered, not sure what to do next or if he'd finish school. His father finally gave him a deadline, telling him that if he didn't pick a major and get serious about school by a certain date, he would be joining the marines.
Desperate to pick a major, a friend suggested he take Geology 101, because it was easy....so easy that it was nicknamed "Rocks for Jocks". So J.R. took it, and was surprised to find that he loved it. The thing he loved most? The field trips. He loved to see and touch and experience the things they were learning about, instead of just reading about them in a book. Experiencing things changed his entire perspective about school, and suddenly he became a very motivated student, eventually earning even a graduate degree in Geology.
That story resonated with me. I always liked school myself, but liked field trips even more. I've noticed that dull topics magically transform into fascinating ones once I get a little real life experience with them. That's one of the reasons I like to travel--it makes me curious about things I never cared about before. Travel makes me realize what a fascinating, beautiful world surrounds us, and introduces me to magnificent strangers with amazing stories to tell. Yes, travel's expensive. Yes, it's inconvenient. Yes, it's work. But, it's also a great way to continue your education and enrich your life. I'm thankful that my life circumstances allow me to make the choice to travel.
Here's a photo of J.R. and me at the Mauna Kea Summit:
Here's some of the unique, foggy landscape that we drove through on our way to the summit. (This is where the invisible cows often like to hang out).
At one point, you drive past an area that NASA scientists use as a testing ground for their Lunar Rover vehicles. I had to laugh as one of the passengers asked "Is that where they faked the moon landing?" Here's what the area looks like:
Here's a shot, taken from about 11,000 feet up the mountain, overlooking the visitors center where you must stop to acclimate to the altitude. The visitors center is in the bottom left quadrant of the image. The large mountain you see in the distance is another of the 5 volcanoes that make up the Big Island: Mauna Loa.
The "cinder cone" mountains around here reminded me of some of the mountains I'd seen near my hometown in Soda Springs. I never expected to be reminded of Idaho while I was in Hawaii, but it made perfect sense that parts of the landscape would be similar, because both areas were formed by the earth's crust moving over a hot spot in the earth's mantle. (Soda Springs is not far from the Yellowstone-related hot spot, and the Hawaiian islands likewise have been formed as the Pacific plate of the earth's crust moves northwest at the pace of 4 inches a year over a hot spot.)
Sometimes when volcanoes spit out their lava, the lava cools before it hits the ground, and that's what causes the little rocks called cinders to be created, often being spit out into cone shaped piles. J.R. taught me that you can estimate the age of a cinder cone by looking at its color: it starts out black, but because it contains iron, it "rusts", turning more and more red as it ages. Some cinder cones, like the one you see in the distance here, are very, very red, because they have lots of manganese in them.
When I visited the ladies restroom at the visitors center, I was surprised to see pink lights! I commented on them to the Japanese tourists next to me in line (yes, there's always a line at the women's restroom--even at Mauna Kea), and was very impressed by the tourists' command of the English language. If I were learning Japanese, I suspect learning the vocabulary that would allow me to have a conversation about pink lights in the ladies' restroom would be pretty low on my priority list, but those ladies could do it.
Later, I asked J.R. about the lights, and he explained that they are pink to avoid ruining your night vision, like white lights would do. All the street lights on the island are yellow, not white, and are all pointed downward, in order to provide the best possible conditions for the 11 observatories at the top of Mauna Kea.
Which reminds me: because of the expense of getting materials, workers, and equipment up Mauna Kea, most of the road to the summit is unpaved. The exception is the last two miles, which were worth the expense to pave in order to avoid vehicles stirring up dust, which would ruin the world-class view of the cosmos available here. Here's a photo where you can see the paved road leading up to the observatories.
The scientists who work there normally stay at dormitories near the 9200 foot level. If they go down to sea level, then they must spend at least a day at 9200 feet before their bodies are adjusted enough to spend a three-day shift at the summit.
There are often severe winds at the summit, reaching up to 200 miles an hour occasionally, so the signs have holes in them to avoid being blown down by the wind:
We first stopped just below some of the observatories, where JR told us about each one of them. If you'd like to learn more about them, check out this website. Here's a photo where you can see 6 of them together, under the rising moon:
This is a favorite sledding spot, and is often covered with snow:
We moved to the area at the base of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in order to watch the sunset:
Typically, because the scientists are working, you cannot go inside the telescopes, unless you make special arrangements for a private tour. Even without going inside, we enjoyed being there to see a magnificent sunset:
J.R. pointed out that we could see three other Hawaiian islands from our 13,796 foot vantage point. In this photo, you can see the northern Kohala coast of the Big Island. The mountains you see in the distance are the island of Maui.
As we watched the beautiful sunset, we also saw the telescopes open and their domes rotate to prepare for the night's work. One of the telescopes that was moving most actively was the Gemini one, shown open here:
We spent about 30 minutes at the summit, enjoying the sunset. I definitely noticed the thin air there--the atmospheric pressure on your body is about half of what it is at sea level. I felt a little short of breath and moved a little slowly, but it wasn't too bad (not like when I traveled to La Paz, Bolivia and woke up in the middle of the night, gasping for air). I was interested to learn that if you are pregnant, under 16, have been scuba diving recently, or have high blood pressure, heart, or respiratory conditions, they advise you to NOT go to the summit of Mauna Kea. So, I felt thankful to have the opportunity to have the experience at this point in my life.
After the sun went down, we went back down the mountain to a spot near the visitors center, where JR setup a smaller telescope and showed us the night sky.
One of reasons we went back down to a lower elevation is because one of the symptoms of being at a high elevation is that your vision can become somewhat impaired, especially if you haven't taken enough time to acclimate (which we didn't do). I was happy to be down at a lower elevation, because not only was it easier to breathe there, but it was also slightly warmer.
That night didn't have ideal star gazing conditions, because of the full moon, but we did get to see Saturn, a great close up on the moon, twin stars in the big dipper's handle, and some of the other bright parts of the night sky.
I loved the experience, and was thankful that many years ago, J.R. decided to take "Rocks for Jocks", which started him down the path that brought him to be my fabulous guide to the summit of Mauna Kea.