Travel Issue: Revenge of the goddess

Picking up pebbles on the Big Island, and other blasphemies.

THE OLD PAGANS HAD IT RIGHT. To travel is to blaspheme—to tempt the gods. When we stray from familiar paths, we leave behind the powers we know, whose favor we have earned and whose wrath we have propitiated. Like drunks in the temple, we intrude on rites we do not fathom; we affront the local deities when we only mean to take snapshots and work on our tans. Then we blame their retribution on bad luck, bad water, bad food, border guards—anything but the hands of the gods. I didn’t see them working myself—until I trespassed against Pele the fire goddess on her island, Hawaii.

Every tourist hears the stories, about how Pele skipped along the sea, creating the archipelago one volcano at a time—an uncanny anticipation of modern volcanology—always seeking the perfect home and lover and, when one of the latter jilted her, burying him in lava. How many heed them? I’d come here as everyone does—to thaw out, for a spur-of-the-moment escape from January blues and grays. “You going to be camping?” the pony-tailed, aloha-shirted guy at the airport car counter asked, reading me like a book. “You don’t want a little car. You’ll scrape bottom on the beaches.” He gave me an irresistible bargain on a pseudo-SUV called a Geo Tracker, which had higher clearance. I rolled its vinyl top back and set off feeling like a windblown explorer—or at least a car ad.

AT FIRST, CIRCLING THE BIG ISLAND felt like touring paradise—but stranger than paradise, even before I reached its infernal side. At Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, the haunting “City of Refuge” where kapu (taboo) breakers and other fugitives once found safe haven, I played a few games of konane, “Hawaiian checkers,” with black and white pebbles on a grid gouged into a flat-topped lava boulder. I decided konane was a fine game, and I’d make a board for home if I could find the right lava.

Maybe that’s why I took a sample with me. Or maybe I just felt cocky after beating a German tourist at konane. For some reason, I dropped a pebble in my pocket and forgot about it. Pele did not forget.

As I drove, strange and ominous glimmerings crowded in. Cryptic golden streaks darted along the roadside, too fast to discern. (I later learned they were mongooses, which were imported to control the likewise-imported rats but instead preyed on the nene geese and other unsuspecting native birds.) A booklet displayed by one store’s cash register warned of venomous 8-inch centipedes. On a spectacular promontory, perhaps world’s most scenic cow pasture, one cow (yes, it was a cow) stood up and mounted another, and then another. I recognize this now as an omen worthy of Calpurnia, but then the scales still hung before my eyes.

Next stop, Hell: the Volcanoes National Park that is the island’s main attraction, where Pele finds a thousand ways to exit the earth. I stood in the gathering twilight at the rim of the sprawling Kilauea caldera, as steam spewed in the distance and twined, hotter than any Turkish bath, from nearby fumaroles.

The next day, by a parking lot above the moonscape, two of the 200 remaining nene, Hawaii’s splendid, nearly extinct state bird, were nibbling grass. They remained nonchalant even as tourists flocked to snap their pictures. Clearly these geese were sitting ducks for the mongooses.

I BROKE FROM THE CROWDS, down a steep, eerily silent jungle trail. It opened on as unearthly a landscape as I hope ever to see on this earth: a bare, asphalt-colored valley, ringed by sharp cliffs, crackled here and there like an elephant’s skin, flat as though it had been poured—which, in fact, it had, though from below rather than above. This was the Kilauea Iki crater, just 36 years old, filled 390 feet deep with barely cooled lava.

A trail set off across this lunar tarmac. At its start stood scores of rock cairns, many with small bundles (pebbles, I soon learned) wrapped in tough, shiny ti leaves. Offerings? Two white tablets sitting on a cairn. Aspirin, perhaps, to soothe Pele’s hangover after all that gin? I touched one, still damp from the dew, and licked my finger. Not aspirin—a breath mint! That made sense. Sulfur is the stuff of Hell and halitosis. When Pele gets bad breath, the earth shakes.

A young couple emerged from the jungle, the first people I’d seen all day who didn’t chatter stupidly. Chris was a local; Stephanie was visiting from Virginia. He showed her how to build a cairn and wrap an offering, and told me this wasn’t all people did to placate Pele: “During eruptions, they fly over in helicopters and pour gin into the cracks to quiet her. I don’t know where the old Hawaiians got gin, but they believe Pele likes it. Even the scientists I know all prefer to stay on the side of safety when it comes to the old stories.”

They finished their cairn. “How’s it look?” he asked. “The tallest in the valley,” I replied. “Oh, no!” he exclaimed, seriously. “I hope Pele doesn’t punish me for pride.” This was one goddess not to trifle with, he explained—and stealing the rocks she created was especially dangerous: “The curse tales really do come true. People have had accidents. Broken legs after they took rocks. The Honolulu Visitors Bureau has a whole rack of lava rocks that people have taken and then sent back, waiting for someone to bring them back to the crater.” I overheard another hiker likewise warn her mainlander boyfriend not to take rocks: “My friend’s mother did, and she had bad luck and sent it back.” But I didn’t think of the pebble from Pu’uhonua o Honaunau up in my pack.

I trudged on, past steam vents, upended boulders, fault lines and sinkholes jagged as torn paper, and ferns and stubby shrubs that sprouted heroically in every smidgen of blown-in dirt. I edged too near one crevasse, and felt the earth wobble. I met another hiker, a woman in a cowboy hat who said she’d come here to escape the stress of battling a development on the till-now exquisite Maui beach where she lived. “This is such a gorgeous place,” she sighed, scanning the desolation. Hell can be a vacation from paradise.

I exited the calderas on the official Devastation Trail, through ash dunes and scrub thickets. Two big, incongruous Chinese golden pheasants darted by—scrappy immigrants that know to avoid predators. Perhaps they’ll be the next state bird. I stuck out my thumb and caught a ride with a guy who explained that he was a NASA scout, seeking “Mars analogs” on which to test a rover for the upcoming Mars mission. Kilauea was “a good match.” I made a mental note to stop calling it a moonscape.

As I packed up my hiking gear, out rolled out the pebble from the sacred refuge. I felt a moment’s chill, and tossed it toward Kilauea Iki, returning it to Pele. At least I hoped she’d see it that way. Not that I’m superstitious or anything.

I DROVE ON through the Holei Lava Field—a vast expanse of basalt cowpies, where tourists thronged like celebrity-watchers to ogle the dribbling Day-Glo lava. Park rangers ambled about warning these infernal pilgrims to give their goddess a little distance. From funky 1940s Hilo, I took the lonely cross-island Saddle Road—which the rental companies forbid driving on because so many tourists used to drive off it—without mishap. I almost snorkeled in a quiet bay near Puako, until I saw nine large shark fins break the surface. Pele’s curse? Ha! I was living a charmed trip.

Then, as I gathered my traps to head for the airport, I learned otherwise. I’d hidden my ticket, a credit card, and extra cash in the bottom of one bag—the one that had held the purloined pebble. It didn’t take a Sherlock to figure out how the thief had nabbed them; I noticed too late that the concealed Velcro around the Tracker’s rear window flap could be peeled back. I felt like a silly nene myself, and for one paranoid moment imagined a car-rental-and-prowling ring was persuading tourists to take these pushover cars, then cleaning them out.

Then I realized the truth: With divine patience and guile, Pele had gotten me in the end. Her lackey, Hawaiian Airlines, gouged me for a new ticket. Still, I accounted it a cheap lesson in reverence, as such lessons go—and swore never to travel, or otherwise blaspheme, again.


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