The Other Side of the Island

It was time to move on. After 10 days on the “wet” side of the Big Island of Hawaii, lush with its tropical greenery, waterfalls and proximity to the active volcano, we had five days to spend in Kona on the “dry” side. Or as I thought of it, the side with the beaches and water activities.

We took the longer route along the south shore to see some of the sights. As we drove, the landscape changed back and forth between thick greenery and drier brown open land, with some in-between farmland. A visit to Punalu’u black sand beach revealed a beautiful setting with tranquil spots to hang hammocks beneath the palm trees, and lava formations to explore on the shoreline. In contrast, our trip down to the South Point took us through more barren land and a long, unpopulated road. I insisted we walk down to the southernmost point in the US, but other than bragging rights, there was little to see. Rich was far more enthusiastic about a roadside stand we passed.

Continuing up the west side of the island, we had splendid views of the ocean. But the real transformation happened as we neared Kona. We had left behind the quiet environs of the east side and entered the popular center of activity, evidenced by the long stretches of condos intermingled with beaches and parks. Traffic increased as well, as we shared this part of the island with more tourists than we’d seen so far. But it had its payoffs too.

Walking into our condo, I was immediately drawn out onto the deck of our 4th floor unit. The ocean pulsed beneath me as waves crashed on the lava shoreline and a gaggle of surfers floated out in the water awaiting the next big wave. The sun shone down, the palm trees graced the landscape – a picture of perfection! With a quick trip to the grocery store for supplies, we threw together dinner in time to perch on the deck to watch the sunset.

This is the water I had come to see and experience. With our own private viewing spot, we opted for take-out or cooking most nights to enjoy it in unhurried solitude. I spent my breakfast time in the same spot.

I was eager to get in the water and do some snorkeling and kayaking. But Mother Nature had other ideas. High Surf Warnings prevailed throughout our time in Kona, which thrilled the surfers who populated every beach around, and I found highly entertaining. But the big waves precluded more sedate forms of water sport. Even so, the big ocean still dominated our visit.

To date, my attempt to see sea turtles had been unsuccessful. Rich’s research turned up good reports at Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. After a mile long hike through unshaded terrain we reached the ocean. There we found large tidal pools and three lethargic sea turtles snoozing on the opposite side. We were able to get close without disturbing them. While Rich pursued birds, I ventured over to a nice beach, wishing I’d brought my swim suit as it was one of the few times we found quiet water.

We did manage to go snorkeling one time. I was interested in visiting Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, which had the added attraction of a good snorkeling spot right across the road. It is commonly known as Two Step for its relatively easy entry into the water. We carefully placed all our goods in the trunk of the car (theft is common at parking spots) and headed down to the beach with only our towels, car keys and snorkeling gear. We secured the keys in a waterproof pouch which Rich slid into the back pocket of his swimsuit, and closed the velcro tab. The two steps were as easy to navigate as advertised, and soon we were flippering through the water and ogling bright yellow fish in enormous schools. The longer we swam, the more we saw – black and white angelfish and larger fish with bright blue spots. We bounced in mild waves and enjoyed the view below, treasuring our time with the local fish.

When it came time to get out, our luck changed. We must have hit a particularly large swell of waves. As we approached shore, the surf threatened to press us against the rocks. Rich got caught in a crevice and the waves thrashed him about before he could gain hold to hoist himself out of the water. Just as I was struggling to approach the shore safely, he shouted out to me – “Molly, the car keys!” I couldn’t see a thing through my goggles, but grasped the reality that the keys had come out of his pocket and were miraculously floating nearby. With a lucky grab I had them in my hand, and managed to climb out during a lull in the waves. That was a rental car disaster narrowly avoided!

On shore I found Rich covered in blood, and loudly explaining to the shocked observers, “It’s not as bad as it looks!” Due to the blood thinners he takes for his heart, a tiny cut on his elbow bled like crazy, and the water spread it all over his arms and legs. As soon as I could get him a towel, he cleaned up quickly and we nervously laughed over the excitement. The tumble took its toll, however, shaking him up and leaving him bruised and sore. It’s a snorkeling adventure we wouldn’t soon forget!

We still made a visit to the historical park afterwards. A very informative video in an outdoor theater gave us background on this place of refuge. In ancient times, any Hawiian who broke the kapu – sacred laws – faced certain death, unless they could reach a spiritual sanctuary. There they sought absolution from a priest in order to return safely to society. Today it still serves as a special place of refuge. Rich chose to rest in one of the tented shelters while I walked the grounds – his own safe haven it seemed, to come to grips with his recent personal misadventure.

On a brighter note, we spent my birthday dinner at Magics Beach Grill, nestled oceanside where the sun made a colorful descent and the surfers persisted until dark. Just as the other side of the island should be.

Island Life

Something changed mid-week.  Each morning we had been setting off to see all the fascinating sights this side of the Big Island had to offer.  My guidebook was well thumbed and heavily populated with sticky notes.  I didn’t want to miss a thing!  But as my list dwindled, so did my pace and I felt myself settling into my surroundings.  We had a heavenly retreat right outside our door, and that in itself was a Hawaiian experience.  Soon we developed a new routine, guided by whim and lack of agenda.

Rich happily followed birds around the guesthouse, mornings and late afternoons.  I returned to my favorite ocean road, which just begged me to run through the secluded tunnel of trees and finish to the applause of crashing waves.  By then I had a favorite coffee shop in town, the open-air Tin Shack Bakery and just had to stop to bring home a latte and fresh scones.  Life’s simple pleasures.

One day Rich received a text, alerting us that the next afternoon Kent would be holding band practice in his studio behind our guesthouse.  The implication was that we might want to make ourselves scarce, but instead we embraced the music.  The Lava Tree Band plays all original music that Kent has written since moving to the Big Island, and we sat on the porch of the studio to listen to “The Island of Mis-fit Toys,” much impressed.

Melanie had offered us a tour of the yard and its multitude of plantings, so we took her up on that while the music continued.  She walked us all around the expansive yard, explaining how Kent had cut back the jungle five feet all the way around, an arduous task.  Everywhere we walked, there were trees, bushes and flowers that Melanie has researched, lovingly tended and fostered their growth.  How quickly she has learned about tropical gardening and put her knowledge to work, including a greenhouse full of vegetables and spices to supplement their table.

Melanie’s work inspired me to follow my own aspirations which I’ve been neglecting.  Digging out my drawing paper and pencil, and I returned to a patch of anthurium to see if I could capture the spirit of its brilliant composition.  It was a rusty attempt, as I tried to regain my eye for detail and train my pencil on the paper, but it also felt good.  The next day I spent a delightful morning in the gazebo dabbling with my watercolors to finish the piece.  Time sped by as I labored, and I didn’t care.

I’d been eyeing the community swimming pool for some time, and finally gave in to the urge to swim laps.  There was no entrance fee, and the 50-meter pool was an oasis of blue lanes reflecting the warm sun.  The notice at the front gate told me the water temperature was 74° – most certainly “refreshing” compared to my usual pool.  I braced myself and took the plunge, then doggedly swam back and forth for nearly an hour before the swim team took over the lanes.  By then I was glad for an excuse to head to the warm showers.  But I did so feeling a little more like a local.

We were staying right next to Lava Tree State Park, and I felt it was time I took a leisurely stroll around its half-mile loop. There I could see the lava trees up close, formations that result from lava flows encircling the trees in its path, leaving behind molds of the tree trunks. I happened to bring along my sketchpad, and found a tree near the entrance with eye-catching pink blossoms to draw. As I stood sketching, someone passing by showed me the bananas forming at the stem, miniature compared to the flower. I added that detail.

For our final evening at the guesthouse we decided to take a picnic to Richardson Ocean Park.  Armed with take-out food from the grocery store, we found a picnic table right away with a nice view where we could watch folks snorkeling and enjoying the beach.  It was the usual mix of lava rock and some sand, and was said to be a good place to spot sea turtles, but none made an appearance.  We meandered through the park and settled on a convenient stone wall to watch the sunset – something we hadn’t seen due to being on the east side of the island.  It slithered down the sky with Mauna Kea clearly visible in the distance as the low rays shone across the bay.

When the sun disappeared, Rich was ready to leave, but I was still in the mood to linger and insisted we await the colors of the afterglow.  It was at that moment that Rich saw whales off in the distance!  Blowholes and a fluke appeared above the water, then all went quiet.  Shortly afterwards, they resumed activity at closer range.  Although they were still far away, we were able to see one humpback jump clear out of the water, followed by mama and baby playfully flapping their fins – much to the delight of the children watching next to us.  We had been rewarded for slowing down.

By then it was hard to take leave of our little guesthouse and move on to Kona. We had finally gotten the hang of the place, and even Kent and Melanie had taken notice of our more relaxed approach in those final days. We took that as a compliment, and confirmation that we had successfully adopted Island Life.

From Alaska to Hawaii

The year was 2009.  Our middle child, Carl, had just graduated from college, and our tradition was to take the new graduate on a week-long trip of their choosing.  Just them and us. A final hurrah before they went out into the world on their own.

This comes from my journal of the trip, the first week of August:

Carl chose to go to Alaska, and wanted to stay in rustic places and have an active vacation.  So we lined up an itinerary that included hiking, kayaking and fishing.  We chose accommodations that were primarily cabins with a lodge and B&B thrown in – perhaps a little less primitive than Carl originally had in mind, which was a compromise for traveling with Mom and Dad.

Our trip started out on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage.  We stayed in the very small town of Hope, off the main highway on the Turnagain Arm.  That turned out to be our favorite lodging of the trip, at Bowman’s Bear Creek Lodge.  They had 5 log cabins, which were around a small pond, and ours also had the creek running behind it.  They were very basic cabins, just for sleeping and relaxing, with a bathhouse shared by all the lodgers.  We rather liked that, because it limited the guests to people like us who like things simple but in beautiful surroundings.  They also had a little café, which served fabulous food.  Our first dinner of the trip was on their outdoor deck – at 8:00 at night it was still warm enough and plenty light to eat outside.  Carl and I chose fresh salmon, which was as good as promised.  What a great start to the trip!

Our hosts at the lodge were Kent and Melanie Bowman.  We took to them immediately, and loved their approach to life which was embodied in a “free spirit” canoe that floated in the pond.  “If you can catch it, feel free to paddle around.”  Kent provided us with great advice on renting kayaks, fishing spots and knowledge about the general locale.

We spent three nights at Bowman’s Lodge, keeping active and enjoying our downtime just hanging around, playing cards, reading and lighting a bonfire late at night when it was finally close to dark.

When we left the Kenai Peninsula it felt like we were old friends with Kent and Melanie by then.  They had given us lots of ideas and recommendations – all of it good. 

The remainder of our trip brought additional adventures, sights and places to explore and precious alone time with Carl.  We stayed in other great places, but Bowman’s still stood out as a highlight.

That could have been the end of the story.  But it wasn’t.

Enter FaceBook, that love it or hate it app that connects people everywhere.  I don’t know who friended whom, but Rich and Kent soon became FB Friends and kept in touch.  Tired of hearing news second hand, I too friended Kent.  So it was that I happened on a series of comments that drew my attention.

After working many years on the North Slope in the winters, Kent promised Melanie they would move somewhere warm when he was done with that gig.  He was as good as his word and had posted a photo of the home and extensive land they had bought on the Big Island of Hawaii.  It also included a guesthouse.

It was Rich’s comment below the post that drew my attention, which went something like this:

That looks gorgeous!  We might have to go over and stay there!

Now I’ve always been interested in going to Hawaii, but Rich was not so inclined.  Seizing my opportunity I entered the fray:

I saw that, Rich.  You’re on!

A few years and Covid intervened, but Rich also kept his word.  For our inaugural trip to Hawaii we booked into Bowman’s Big Island Guesthouse for 10 days.

Nestled next to Lava Tree State Park near Pahoa, Bowman’s is a paradise all its own.  Entering through a set of private gates, we drove onto their six-plus acres of land and encountered a private retreat.  Expansive grounds surround their house, outdoor living area and other outbuildings, including the guesthouse and a gazebo for guests’ use.  Dotted with palm trees, flowering plants, gardens, greenhouse and a chicken coop (including an early rising rooster) it feels like an oasis.  It is bordered by thick jungly greenery, enhancing the privacy of the space.

Kent and Melanie greeted us with open arms and our friendship was immediately refreshed.  The change in locale only enhanced their friendly helpful approach to hosting, and we loved catching up on the new climate and lifestyle they have adopted.

The simplicity of the guesthouse is in perfect keeping with island life.  Surrounded by windows, open to the breezes, light fans circling overhead, and enough kitchen amenities to be self-sufficient, it meets all our needs.  The large front porch and gazebo provide extended living spaces.  Dining by tiki light has become a favorite of ours.

We are just a couple of miles from Pahoa, which is a delightful small town that boasts multiple coffee shops, some good restaurants, and even a free 50-meter community pool.  It feels right to be nestled a distance from cities, high-rise hotels and crowds.  This is the Hawaii we came to experience.  Life feels slower here.  There’s no need to rush anywhere. 

Being located on the east side of the island, the wet side, means that we are in the midst of lush greenery, with humid weather and occasional showers.  Okay, and sometimes big downpours. The only sounds in the yard are those provided by nature.  The wind in the trees and the rustling of palm branches is all I hear in the background, accompanied by birdsong and the chickens. Nights are profoundly silent.

Just as Bowman’s Bear Creek Lodge defined its guests by its unique set of amenities, the Big Island Guesthouse will also appeal to a specific type of traveler. For us, it’s the perfect fit. And brought us all the way from Alaska to Hawaii.

Take That, Winter!

While winter rages on at home, we hang out in shorts and t-shirts, eat outdoors, slather on the sunscreen and savor every minute of warm sunshine.  Although we are surrounded by tropical splendor, today we chose to do a deep dive and visit the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens.

We were warned about the steep incline down into the ravine of the gardens.  The advice was superfluous as we descended slowly, progress inhibited by the urge to stop every few feet to admire and photograph the exotic flowers we passed.  That was only the beginning of the two hours we would spend traversing almost two miles of paved trail through the tropics.

Clearly the flowers were the stars of the show, with their brilliant eye-catching colors and unique shapes.  It was easy to keep my eyes moving, constantly looking for the next jaw-dropping display.  There was no way I could keep track of the names, so I just enjoyed them for their beauty and enjoyed trying to capture them with my camera.

But in reality, the whole environment surrounding those blossoms made just as much of an impression on me.  It was just harder to capture.  Palm trees of all kinds hovered overhead, towering banyan trees spread their roots broadly, enormous leaves waved in the breeze.  Everything was meticulously maintained, labeled and groomed.  A humid, green cacophony of plants.

I learned from a display near the entrance that this garden was the labor of love of Dan Lutkenhouse.  He and his wife Pauline purchased the rough parcel of land in 1977, drawn to its beauty and serenity.  Once Dan began exploring it, his dream blossomed – to preserve its beauty forever as a garden for others to enjoy.  For the next seven years Dan and an assistant cleared the jungle by hand, guided only by passion and a love of nature.  It was through the clearing process and laying out the paths that they discovered a three-tier waterfall in the midst of the greenery.  After it opened in 1984, Dan and Pauline collected, cultivated and planted thousands of plants and worked with local horticulturists to develop the foundation for the garden we visited today.

More land was later purchased to extend the garden to the ocean’s shore.  The far reaches of the path took us to a picturesque overlook where we could sit and enjoy more of nature’s beauty.

There is little more I can add.  The photos brag more eloquently than my words can. 

As I climbed back up to surface level, I realized that immersion into tropical splendor was more than eye candy.  It was an opportunity to slow down.  To observe.  To dawdle and gawk. To be impressed by nature.  That same force that blankets our world at home with white.  A beauty all its own, but for today I’ll take this one!

A Blazing Postscript

“What time is it?” I muttered.  Rich had been reading in bed for some time, and I felt certain I was entitled to several more hours sleep.  “4:30” came the answer.  Just as I was turning over, trying to regain my state of unconsciousness, Rich piped up again.  “I have a crazy idea.  You can say ‘no’ if you want.  Let’s get up and go see the volcano now, while it’s still dark!”  While I tried to form the word “no” on my lips, out came a timid “okay.”  Rich leapt out of bed.

I suspect that his great sense of urgency was the on-again, off-again behavior of the Kilauea volcano.  It began erupting late in the fall, then stopped. We were thrilled when it started up again just prior to our visit, but there was no guarantee how long that would last.  Rich was still on a high from seeing the daytime lava dance and hated the thought of missing its nighttime glow.  My muddled brain understood, but still struggled to gain enthusiasm.

Soon we were streaking through the night, roads devoid of traffic, high beams piercing the darkness.  We had each packed warm layers just for this purpose, knowing the night air would be cold up high.  I wore them all, minus a few useful items that I missed in the hurry to leave, and watched the thermometer dip.

As we drew near the park entrance, cars materialized out of nowhere.  We were soon surrounded by folks on the same mission and the sunrise seekers.  The parking lot was more packed than it had been mid-day.  Gathering our things we hustled up to the overlook at the edge of the crater, but nothing prepared us for the view.

Down below, the gray oval we’d seen in daylight was now aglow with fiery lava.  No more was it a black hole with one big fountain of lava and intermittent sprays here and there.  It was a pulsating ring of fire.  Rivers of lava defined its edges and crisscrossed the molten lake, alive with motion.  Smoke and steam rising out of the ubiquitous vents surrounding the spectacle reflected the orange glow.  The vast coverage of the seething lava blew away the impression from our daytime view.  It was a scene that far outstripped our wildest imaginations – this was a real live volcano!  Even my iPhone was able to capture a reasonable facsimile of the spectacle.

The same boiling, jumping hot spot still dominated the view, and the darkness crystalized the flying fire that it spewed.  It looked bigger and more active than ever, particularly through Rich’s binoculars.  Rich himself was on fire with his array of cameras, lenses and tiny tripod.  He was deeply absorbed in his mission to capture still and video shots, in his element with a subject beyond compare.  His resulting images are spectacular.

I left him to his craft while I ambled to a higher viewing spot to catch the sunrise.  While it didn’t line up with the lava lake, the steam vents were still visible below the eastern glow in the sky.

By the time the sun made its appearance, we were both shaking with the cold.  I could no longer hold the binoculars still.  As the sunlight washed out the magical show, we happily headed back to the car and turned the heater up high.  The thermometer read 48-degrees by then.  But we got everything we came for, and more.  It was a blazing postscript to our volcano experience.

A Sudden Change of Plans

Service at the coffee shop was efficient and quick.  But my need for a latte changed the trajectory of our entire day.

We had set out to explore a number of waterfalls, starting with Rainbow Falls just west of Hilo.  When we left our guesthouse, Google informed us it was a 33-minute drive.  But shortly after I emerged with my beloved caffeine, we were informed with a familiar “plunk” that there was now a shorter route, and we were to turn left at the next intersection.  It turns out we had no choice in the matter.  The flashing blue lights and hand directions from the police forced us onto a local street to avoid whatever it was that had transpired on the main road and summoned the emergency vehicles we saw flying by.

Suddenly we were crawling along behind an endless stream of cars, creeping through neighborhoods on a narrow road that lost its center line and bits of its pavement.  Progress was imperceptible, frustration high.  There was no escape, only the inexorable inching forward.  The next 4.5 miles took us an hour and a half, and by then we had a new plan.  When our creeping serpentine of cars turned right hoping to regain the main road, we turned left.  Forget the waterfalls.  We were going to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park!

We felt liberated as we flew down the road toward our new destination, and I desperately thumbed through my guidebook to gain as much knowledge as possible before we arrived.  We had planned to visit the National Park during our stay, it just had not yet come up yet on our loose agenda.  But a quick consultation at the Visitor Center quickly gave us good direction.

Our first destination was the Kilauea Overlook.  “The view is especially good at this time of day,” the young ranger assured us.  The volcano had returned to active status just eight days prior, and although we were eager to see a “live volcano” we were unprepared for the sight.  As soon as we reached the roped off area overlooking the crater, we could see what looked like flames dancing in the oval shaped area of activity.  Thanks to Rich’s binoculars we could see lava bubbling up, flowing over and spilling out.  A real lava flow!  Even with our naked eyes, we spotted other areas of lava that seemed to come and go on the oval floor of the crater.  It was all over the place!  We had no idea that we would be watching a live volcano that day.  The fact that it was far away did little to diminish our fascination, and we made a firm commitment to return in the dark when we could see it glow.

Rich was able to get more detail on the bubbling lava with his telephoto lens.

I wanted to stop and see the Steam Vents on the way back.  Out on the edge of the crater, the cervices pumped out white steam, hot warm humidity.  They were interesting, but even better was the conversation I had with a Park Volunteer who was happily spending 3 months in Hawaii instead of her home in Iceland.  We happily commiserated on the cold and snow back home.  Better yet, she gave me some great tips on where to watch the sunset when we returned for our night viewing.

I was eager to do the 3.5 mile Kilauea Iki Crater hike, reported to be one of the best hikes in the park (and endorsed by our son Erik and his wife Katie from their recent visit).  It was reported to be an “easy, okay maybe moderate” hike in my guidebook.  But Rich would beg to differ.  We started in a shady forest, lush with greenery and a smooth path to follow.  It was easy going at the high elevation far above the crater’s floor and a pleasant walk. 

When we reached the far end of the crater, we began our descent.  Although there were helpful steps to ease the drop, it was undeniably rough and steep, and the forest greenery soon gave way to crusty lava.  I inched my way down, finding some drops a bit long for my short legs while Rich extended a hand to help.  We met some young men making their way up.  They had just crossed the lava lake.  “It’s like a relationship I had,” one told us.  “It just kept going on and on and never ended.”  We had to laugh at their attitude and assured them that better terrain lay ahead for them.

Once down on the floor of the crater, we picked our way across the rough lava, keeping to the rock cairns or “ahu” as the stacked rocks are known here.  In time that gave way to smooth lava flows, the lava lake that formed at the bottom of the crater.  The hot, unprotected sun beat down but was offset by cooling winds.  By the time we reached the other end, the tree coverage felt heavenly.  The ascent is said to be more gentle there due to the switchbacks which keep it to a milder grade. But it is still a formidable vertical distance.  Over 550 feet, as Rich points out.

Even so, I had to agree with the guidebook.  If you do only one hike in the park, that’s the one to do.  After all, how often do you get to walk across a lava lake?  Not a bad alternative to a waterfall.  Especially when there is a sudden change of plans.

Lava Lessons

Hello Hawaii!  We arrived in the dark, so this morning was our first real view of our surroundings here on the Big Island.  Our guesthouse is in a lush green yard with exotic plants alive with birdsong and surrounded by thick tropical forest, immediately adjacent to Lava Tree State Park.  The peace, seclusion and privacy in addition to the warm climate gave us an immediate feel of laid back island life.  So it was with great surprise, we learned about its near-miss in the 2018 volcano lava flow.

Our hosts, Kent and Melanie, welcomed us with open arms and Melanie immediately brought me into their home to show me aerial photos taken just four days after the eruption.  The juxtaposition of green and black painted a stark picture of the devastation.  Just 1/8 mile away the lava advanced inexorably, crossing roads, changing the landscape forever.  In order to see it for ourselves, Melanie gave us directions for a driving loop which we quickly followed.

We took the main road away from Pahoa, which Google labels with “End of the Road” just a short distance away.  It is literally covered by lava beyond that point. Taking the other fork toward the coast, the road has been rebuilt right through the lava.  Roadside views quickly transition from homes and greenery to solid lava lining both sides of the road.  It is easy to see the lava’s path, what trees and structures were spared and where it all lies buried beneath the black devastation.  A stark reality.

As we neared the end of the lava flow, the road took a sharp left turn and an equally sharp transformation.  Government Beach Road had major portions covered in lava, but was laboriously rebuilt in 2019 despite challenges including encountering still-hot surface temperatures.  The narrow road travels through a green canopy of tropical trees and plants, lending it seclusion as well as serenity with its 15 mph speed limit and the need for pull-outs to allow cars to pass.  When it reached the ocean, gigantic waves crashed against the shoreline.  We spent a long time watching the force of nature pounding against those rocky lava cliffs.

For the afternoon, I chose to drive down to the southern shore of Puna.  Prior to 2018 it would have been a short drive, but the road closure forced me into a round about approach.  However that took me along another narrow drive, paralleling the shore this time in closer proximity to the water.  There I was able to witness the impacts of both new and old lava.

The initial part of the drive was lush and green, as the tropical forest found footholds in old lava flows and reclaimed its dominance.  In some spots, pillars of lava poked up through the plantings, a reminder of the part it played in this geography. Continuing on, the path of the 2018 lava was evident once again.  The road passes through one section, re-emerges then eventually ends at Isaac Hale Park.  There the lava created the island’s newest black sand beach, which I explored.  Smooth fine sand mixed with harsh larger chunks of lava made for tricky walking, but didn’t stop sunbathers from stretching out their towels.  The picnic areas of the park had walkways that wound through flowering plants but often ended abruptly at lava walls.  And the altered layout of the park hindered my search for the warm springs that supposedly were there.  It gave me an eerie sense of life as a path interrupted.

I found myself fascinated by the co-existence of life and volcanoes.  When they choose to erupt, there is no stopping the flow, which follows no rules.  It reshapes the land, changes travel patterns, saves some areas and devastates others.  I can’t wait to explore more of Hawaii’s Big Island over the next two weeks.  I’m sure I will learn many more lava lessons.

Back in the Saddle

I knew right where to find them. There in the hall closet my panniers lay carefully folded on a shelf, surrounded by camping and biking gear. As I pulled them out, memories came flooding back with them, swarming my senses with the sights, sounds, and emotions of bicycle touring. It all felt so long ago. Three years. A lifetime.

What started as a lark in the early days of our retirement, taking a week long trip around the western end of Lake Superior by bicycle, quickly turned into a passion. One that consumed our travel itineraries for the next eight years and over 10,000 miles. One week turned into two months, then became a month-long gig every year, sometimes twice a year. We pedaled coastlines, remote countryside, forests and prairies, followed rivers and snaked through mountain passes. We even ventured abroad, hauling our bikes over to Scotland and trying a self-guided tour in Norway. On a rare occasion we were joined by our son or a friend, but mostly it was just me and Rich. Over time, it defined us. It’s what we did, what we loved to do.

Trans-Superior Tour – our first adventure
Grand Gaspe Tour – our longest tour
Norway’s Lofoten Islands – our last tour

And then it wasn’t.

Enter Covid. Suddenly restaurants shut down, little motels struggled, using host homes was out of the question. While biking itself was a safe activity, the infrastructure for our travels collapsed, and we weren’t game for a 100% camping tour. We were grounded, limited to day rides and the isolation of the pandemic.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

In October of 2020 Rich collapsed while out trail running near home. A genetically misshaped heart valve had deteriorated severely over time, leaving him with a leaky, enlarged and damaged heart. Two weeks later, he emerged from the hospital with a new valve, a zipper seam down the middle of his chest, and a pacemaker/defibrillator. His active lifestyle was the biggest factor in his ability to recover, but was also severely challenged by this new condition with the unfortunate name “heart failure.”

As Covid raged on, so did Rich. With patience and determination over two years, he fought his way back to cycling, trail running and cross-country skiing. All at a new pragmatic pace. Perhaps to quell my nagging, he bought an e-bike this summer and quickly learned that it wasn’t a cop-out, it was an enabler. It has reduce the anxiety and restored his joy in cycling.

But bike touring is still an unknown.

Enter Minnesota Trails Magazine. For years, each summer editor Jan Lasar and I have collaborated on a story about a ride on one of our state’s scenic byways or trails. He takes the photos and I write the story. Usually it’s a one-day affair, but this year we had targeted the contiguous combination of the Central Lakes, Lake Wobegon and Soo Line Trails, a combined mileage of 144 miles. We decided to break this into a 3-day ride, and I smelled a bike tour in the making.

Oh heavenly day!

Three days or two months, packing for a bike tour requires the same amount of clothing and paraphernalia. The only difference is how much hand washing in a motel room sink is required. My handy dandy cycle touring spreadsheet guided me through the process of gathering my gear and stashing it neatly in place.

It wasn’t easy, striking out on a tour without my partner. It wasn’t the same as setting off with Rich with vast expanses ahead of us, tackling it together. While he is grappling with his limitations and celebrating his advances, I still long to challenge my own limits and push myself. We’re both learning to manage through this new normal, which sometimes means letting each other loose.

Our tour started in Fergus Falls and stretched to Waite Park outside St. Cloud, plus another leg from Albany to the Mississippi River dam near Highway 10. We broke the ride with motel stays in Alexandria and Albany, and had shuttle help from Jan’s friend.

Normally when Rich and I bike tour, we avoid bike trails. Too often they are monotonous and skirt the towns which we enjoy exploring. But this combination of trails was an exception to that rule. Following old railroad beds, we rode through towns where old train depots once dispatched passengers. Now instead, we were greeted by tall grain elevators and could stop to investigate the local sights.

Throughout the ride, Jan photographed while I snapped iPhone shots and took mental notes. Nothing stopped Jan from getting a creative vantage point, and re-do’s were common, sometimes raising the eyebrows of curious onlookers.

In the evenings, I felt that familiar fatigue that comes of spending all day on a bike. The satisfying sense of accomplishment, the justification for a hearty dinner, the welcome of a soft bed. And the anticipation of doing it all again the next day.

All too soon, we pulled up to our destination and dismounted our bikes for the last time. We had endured 93-degree heat, a flat tire, a chilling headwind, a 66-mile day and saddle-sores. We enjoyed good pavement, the lack of cars, the rolling farmland, nice parks and caffeinating at a cozy coffee shop. All part of the package when bike touring.

It was a great tour, although it wasn’t the same. I missed Rich and couldn’t help but wish for future tours with him once more. But only time will tell that story. For now, it felt good to be back in the saddle.


Look for the Summer 2023 issue of Minnesota Trails Magazine to read the full story and see Jan’s amazing photographs of this tour. The magazine is published quarterly online as well as free print copies available in Minnestoa parks and outdoor shops.

Grounded below the Light

It never grows old. This was our eighth stint as keepers at Crisp Point Lighthouse, and the experience was as unique as the first.

The first indication that this year would be different were the cables and floating platforms halfway up the lighthouse. On closer inspection we could see the hundreds of bricks that had been replaced, the painstaking work taking place to restore this magnificent tower to its strength and beauty. Restoration professionals who specialize in historic structures were plying their skills, high up in the air.

Over the course of our stay we got to know Bob and Josh, who stayed in a trailer at the edge of the parking lot, sharing our retreat on the edge of Lake Superior. From them we learned about the care and upkeep necessary for a lighthouse built in 1904 and managed by a non-profit historical society. We, as members, are responsible for its good health, and watched as they hung from the tower to ensure it endured for future generations to visit.

While they worked on the tower, our duties continued as usual. We still tended the busy Visitor Center where we sold souvenirs, chatted with visitors and answered their questions. We kept the place clean and well stocked, and directed them to the beach to find agates, Yooperlites and pretty rocks, or just go for a long walk on the sandy beach.

We also had to deliver the bad news. “The tower is currently closed, due to the restoration work.” I’ve always been amazed that visiting this lighthouse is completely free (although the 18-mile rough dirt road to reach it might be considered the price of admission). And visitors are normally allowed to go up inside the tower and out onto the catwalk at the top unaccompanied. There they may linger as long as they like, enjoying the view, taking in the long beaches and huge expanse of Lake Superior. I worried that visitors might be angry, denied the pleasure after that long drive. But mostly we met with good humor. People were just happy to be there, to see the lighthouse, to spend time on the beach, to soak it all in.

It also meant that the lighthouse was off limits to us as keepers. No reading out on the catwalk in the early morning sunshine before visitors arrive. No fancy photos through the windows, across the lens. No feeling the wind in my face as it whipped around the curved structure. No need to sweep out the circular staircase to remove the collection of sand from all the feet either. But I know it will be all the sweeter next year when we can do it again.

The restoration didn’t prevent me from admiring the lighthouse from all angles, lifting my eyes to take in its full height. And at sunrise and sunset, it was as majestic as ever. Silhouetted against the red, orange and pink colors in the sky, the cables, platform and unpainted new bricks on its face faded.

During our evening campfires, the beacon still pulsed above our heads while intense stars filled the sky.

Some things don’t change from year to year. We still had our private campsite on the beach, slept on the sand in our pup-tent, listened to the waves crash, cooked out and scoured the shore for Yooperlites at night. Beth spoiled me with French press coffee each morning, and I took restorative beach walks after sunrise. Rich found birds to photograph and Jon delighted in blowing sand off the boardwalk.

Next year we will return to a gleaming whitewashed lighthouse, and dash up the stairs to admire the view from the catwalk. No longer grounded.

Promises Kept

Friendship doesn’t come easily. It takes work to continue the bonds, to nurture the relationships and overcome time and distance. Especially when 49 years and thousands of miles stretch between us. But we’ve done it, three times now.

The six of us entered Knox College in the fall of 1973, all living in the same antiquated dorm with even more ancient rules and traditions. We swapped roommates over our four years, and as our finale we all lived in the same “suite” with a few more senior girls. Bonding over our shared experiences.

Nine years ago, we instituted our first mini-reunion, which we now dub our Knox ReUn. We gathered for a weekend in the Twin Cities where three of us lived at the time, sharing the hosting duties. We followed that four years later, renting a condo in Chicago where two more members lived. It resembled dorm life, sharing bedrooms, communal cooking and assigned clean-up duties.

That left one locale – New York state, where Barb lives and better yet has a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains where she spent her summers since she was six years old. Promises were made, plans set in motion, airline tickets purchased and dozens of emails flew back and forth. Despite being delayed by Covid, five of us finally convened on Long Lake for the week.

It felt different this time. Sequestered in a beautiful setting, surrounded by water and mountains and myriad options for outdoor adventure was liberating. We found ourselves mixing and matching in little groups for kayaking, swimming, hiking or just lounging in a hammock. There was an air of leisure, a lack of schedule and a shared feeling of relaxation. An ability to take life as it came – a far cry from our self-imposed rigid study regimes of yore.

For the first time, all of us are retired, save one. No one felt any pressure to make the most of every minute. It was enough to just be there. Together. Conversation flowed easily. We no longer had a need to talk work, to air the stress and pressure we felt or bemoan the challenges we navigated. Instead, we could savor this freedom and the ability to enjoy our retirement from the careers we earned with that college degree.

Silliness and fun was not only allowed but encouraged. Barb booked us on a Rail Biking adventure where we pedaled alongside the Hudson River. We floated in the water, buoyed by noodles. We slurped ice cream cones mid-afternoon. We roasted marshmallows and consumed s’mores by the campfire on the beach. We attempted stand-up paddle boarding, some with greater degrees of success than others! It was college antics all over again. Only better.

For me, the best part of the week was the true immersion. All that mattered was what was happening right around me. The rest of the world faded into the background, inconsequential for the moment. Responsibilities would wait, deadlines could be elastic, duties were avoided. Spending time with friends trumped all.

When I entered Knox and forged these friendships, I never foresaw the longevity of these ties. I never dreamed that 49 years later I would be sitting around a table sharing morning coffee, or piling into a speed boat together. It took a lot of dedication and persistence to make this happen. But we’re not done yet. We’ve already decided to reconvene in three years for a destination vacation. I can already see it happening. Because this group keeps its promises.