Atop Mauna Kea, a final Aloha

Mauna Kea’s Lake Waiau, sacred in the Hawaiian culture.

From Dennis Nealon’s blog

HAWAII, THE BIG ISLAND  — Up and up we drive to the top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano 13,800 feet above sea level, where our concentration slips and we become aware of our breathing because the air is so thin. Our ears are popping.

The narrow road twists and turns, bending 90 degrees in spots. At the wheel with six passengers in tow, including my wife and son, two of my sisters, and two extended family members, I try to stare at the blacktop directly in front of me because the bottomless valleys on the side of the road look terrifying. Up here, we are in the clouds, small and exceedingly vulnerable.

Before beginning the drive up, we gather with others who have made the trip, including my brother’s wife, his two daughters, two of his old friends and former bandmates, and one of their wives. Our little convoy stops at a rest point at 9,000 feet to walk around and acclimatize ourselves for the final push to the summit.

We have come here to spread my big brother’s ashes, to commend his spirit if you will to the wind and the sea, and the sun and the sky, beneath the billions of stars that light the night up here where otherwise once the sun sets there must be nothing but darkness and silence. I marvel for a moment over this place where Mike wanted to end up, with its haunting juxtaposition of extreme beauty and utter loneliness.

On the drive, through the grey mist that beads up on the windows, we sense the abyss to our left and then our right. The sister seated next to me white-knuckles the upholstery, urging me to slow down just a little. I don’t like co-pilots, but this time I don’t blame her for saying something.

We get out of our SUVs just below the famous Mauna Kea Observatories and encounter a Mars-scape of lava rock and red dirt that is unusually soft in some spots – as light as the sand on the beaches now thousands of feet below us. It can be frigid up here, but on this sunny July morning the temperature hovers around 45 to 50 degrees, and the wind is gentle and easy apart from a few gusts. The sky is so blue that it looks fake – like a green screen from the movies. You think it can’t be real; nothing’s that beautiful.

The observatories on Mauna Kea.

It’s not a typical day up here, where the temperatures can fall well below freezing, the wind can howl, and the mist and clouds can sometimes totally eclipse the top third of the peak.

This trip is not for the timid, but it’s not the death-defying ordeal that some have depicted, either. It can be done, as our little platoon from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Seattle, Texas, and Hawaii proved, with a willingness to endure the flight to the Big Island, a little reckless abandon, a four wheel-drive vehicle, and a lot of drinking water.

Our group and the path leading to Lake Waiau.

Just below the pinnacle of Mauna Kea (Hawaiian for our sky father, Mauna a Wakea, but sometimes translated as White Mountain for its snowcap), we continue on foot across the desolation to Lake Waiau (Why-ow), a place that is sacred in the Hawaiian culture because it seems magically out of place atop this towering, volcanic mound. Located inside the Pu’u Waiau cinder cone, the lake somehow retains water. Surely the gods must have sited it here.

To reach the lake at about 13,000 feet we set off on a hike that we’re told should take about 10 or 15 minutes. It requires at least 30, though, as our little troop lags into sections and stops several times so we can catch our breath. Early on, one member of the group stumbles and falls butt-first on the rocks, as if to remind us that we’re fools for having committed to this. Bruised but otherwise uninjured, she collects herself and we plod on.

Up ahead a thin dusty trail cuts through the lava rock. It’s only 18 or 24 inches or so wide, and it mocks us, dipping down and then up again, beckoning our party on to one rise and then another. Finally, we reach a high point on the horizon and the lake comes into view. Its waters are still, green, and dark, nothing like the teal and azure sea below. The only sound I can hear is my heartbeat and breathing and that wind rushing over my ears now and again – the gusts coming more frequently now.

One by one, we push a hand into the clear plastic bag of Mike’s ashes and offer them up to the lake. Some of us say a few words. Others are quiet. What we don’t say is that just making it up here is a significant accomplishment. We’ve done it for Mike, and we’re glad for that. Still, knowing that we have to make the hike back to the cars weighs on us.

As we finish our unscripted memorial service for Mike I don’t feel overwhelmed by sadness at this place on top of the world. Looking at the beads and leis and other offerings that others have left behind in their own sorrow, there’s mostly a feeling of wonder and awe. And there is that “closure” thing that people talk about – perhaps a last Aloha to our brother, our father, our friend.