Living large on the Big Island, Part 2

By Reade Brower | Dec 14, 2017

Last week, reliving our exchange semester of college 1976, I shared Part 1 of my 41st anniversary voyage to Hilo, Hawaii, with friend and fellow student Joe.

Part 2 is about the day we almost died.

Let’s start with the notion of plan B; in life, I don’t believe in plan B’s, for the simple reason that they set you up for failure. Having a backup plan allows you to quit and allows for self-doubt by creating a back door.

Instead, adapt as destiny unfolds; allow for only one option -- success.

Adapting becomes plan B; in the case of the day we almost died, the original plan would need altering.

Our 1976 plan had been to show up at the visitor center at Mauna Kea at mid-morning, and hike to the top and back before heading 27 miles back to Hilo. At the bottom, the temperature was in the 80’s; shorts and a shirt were all we had, with only a flask to provide nourishment on the climb.

At almost 30,000 feet, Mauna Kea is the largest mountain in the world, when measured from the depths of the ocean to its crest. This time, leaving our hotel, the Hilo Seaside, we drove from sea level to 9,000 feet; an altitude that tested our Nissan Versa rental.

Parking at the visitor center, the sign read “open at noon,” and we remembered part of the reason we were so ill-prepared; there was nobody there to advise us.

Our goal in 2017 was to get to the top on our own power; in 1976 we had made it about two-thirds of the way when dusk came and we knew we were in trouble. Shortly thereafter, a four-wheel drive vehicle came chugging up the side of the mountain in the distance; using my fingers to form a “V” I used my best loud, shrill whistle. On the third whistle, the vehicle came to a stop and we ran over; it was on a special road that allowed it to get to the top, where an observatory existed, owned by four countries: France, Japan, the United States and China, the country of the driver and our new best friend.

He was not happy; he knew he needed to stop, but he didn’t want to. He did not speak English well, and we did not know Chinese. We got into a silent Jeep and off to the top we went, where he put us on oxygen and left us in a cold room overnight, explaining in broken English that the equipment needed to be kept at 32 degrees.

We were in a world-class observatory, with an astronomer who would soften a little in the middle of the night and bring us a blanket and ask us if we wanted to look out his telescope. In the morning, he brought us down to the visitor center and my station wagon.

With a headache never again matched, and a car running on fumes (we had driven to the visitor center never thinking there would be no gas along the way); it had taken all our fuel to go from sea level to 9,000 feet. We ran out of gas after hitting the highway, but managed to coast back to the city limits of Hilo; almost 20 miles before a stoplight ended our “luck”. We walked into town, bought gas and hitchhiked back to the car.

Then teenagers, now 61 and 59, respectively, we knew better and started out with a plan. This time, a backpack with some clothes -- a better plan than just the clothes on our back.

This time a safety net, staying on the gravel and paved road, traversing the eight miles to the top would be grueling.

This time we had wate,r instead of whiskey. We made ourselves some first-rate gorp, stopping to buy granola, macadamia nuts, raisins and M&Ms.

The climb itself was arduous; it would take us to almost 14,000 feet, with the altitude again pushing our limits. Near the top, a truck stopped and asked if we wanted a ride; a quick “no” was followed by “we’ll take a ride down, though.”

The mountain peak was climactic; it felt like going up thousands of stairs, straight up, then turning a corner and seeing heaven.

This time the plan was to walk around the observatory, not stay overnight, and then drive down. When the driver of the pickup pulled over to motion us in, the two people in the back began to squish together before she said to her passengers; “Don’t worry, they can ride in the back, they’re beasts!”

We took that as a compliment, jumping into the back bed for the cold 25-minute ride; it was 34 degrees at the top and the evidence of skiing was prevalent; the road had just reopened after almost a foot of snow had fallen earlier in the week.

Resting against our day packs, we had the most amazing views of the sun beginning to set against the backdrop of mountains and pristine landscape; the brisk air and bumpy ride would heighten the experience.

At the bottom, we sat in our warm car for 15 minutes, nursing a headache from the altitude, making plans for a celebratory steak dinner in Hilo. We would coast back to town again, this time on purpose. We would successfully make it to the outskirts of town where the red light would again foil our glide; though this time we were not nervous, as we had a plan -- gasoline still in the tank.

The dinner overlooking Hilo Bay ended the conquest; almost 30,000 steps on my fitbit was not my only proof. After not taking even one photo on the trip, I broke out my phone at the top for a picture of me and Joe.

***

We learned a lot on this trip; we went in trying to remember and left grateful and fulfilled with old memories reinforced, along with new memories.

***

“My wish for you is that you continue to let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer.”

--- Maya Angelou; American poet, memoirist, civil rights activist (1928-2014)

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