The sun dipped below the horizon through the clouds in pale colors of yellow and orange. I stood alone amongst the crowd, watching the marvel that I had seen so many times before. The commonness of the sunset made the experience no less special, though, since I was standing atop the largest mountain in the world, witnessing the spectacle spread across the giant panorama before me like an artist’s canvas.
Hawaii’s Mauna Kea rises over 33,000 feet from the sea floor, making it, when measured in such a fashion, approximately 4,000 feet taller than the crown of the world – Mount Everest. The great volcano began forming about a million years ago. Today it is dormant, having last erupted 4,600 years ago; scientists believe it will erupt again. And those people in the huge telescopes perched on the moutain’s top, high above the clouds, will likely be the first to notice.
I was a pawn amongst the telescopic castles, awaiting what I had heard was one of the most fantastic sunsets in the world – and that was no lie. I was on a Hawaii Forest and Trail tour. The company leads groups, among other places, to the top of Mauna Kea to witness spectacular sunsets and then later, on the way back down, to do some stargazing.
Our tour began in the Kona area on the Big Island with just under twenty people crowding into the tour van; a second van lead the way. We stopped briefly at an abandoned cabin – once used for a night’s rest by the likes of Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson on their travels between Kona and Hilo, but now claimed only by a hive of bees – to dine on a watery beef stew and to help acclimate ourselves to the increasing elevation. The farm that now occupies the land was a lush green pasture dotted with a copse of trees; with the mist hanging in the air, I was reminded of Ireland.
Shortly after dinner, we made the summit; we were 13,796 feet above sea level in a few short hours. I hopped out of the bus, zipped up my provided jacket, and bounced around the parking area enjoying the views from all sides. The inner astronomy geek in me did a backflip, too, since I was so excited to be amongst several telecopes; Mauna Kea is a perfect spot, so close to the equator, to get magnificient views of both the northern and southern hemispheres. I found it difficult not to knock on any of the doors, which we were instructed not to do, since it was a dream of mine to gaze through such a machine to infinity and beyond.
Instead, I claimed my little patch of earth and settled in to witness a sunset unlike any I would ever see again – save for a possible return journey to the summit.
I moved to the other side of the small bus, away from tour guide Jon and the rest of the group. We were on our return journey and I wanted to witness the darkened sky on my own – complete with the Southern Cross and Centaurus – in it’s infiniteness; or at least as much as I could gain on a tour. Through the use of a portable telescope, seeing stars exploding and galaxies colliding to create black holes had hit a mark inside and I needed time away from everyone else to contemplate my small part in the universe.
A rush of emotion poured through my chest and I had a difficult time holding anything back. I had no patience to hear people chatter – ooh’ing and ahh’ing – over the sites they were witnessing and would likely never see again. They were stunning images sparkling with a rainbow of colors on a blackened background that is as dark as the infiniteness of space allows.
The experience was amazing on a level I had never before known; I wanted to scream out in ecstacy and weep in saddness all at the same time. And so I secluded myself by moving away from the group. I needed time to breathe and digest exactly what I was seeing – the universe in the making thousands of years before I was even another twinkle, one in my parent’s eyes.
Before I had time to become too introspective, contemplating too much of the universe, the call was made to return to the bus. It was welcome and annoying at the same time; I wanted to continue to gaze at the sky, but I desired to return to what was comfortable and secure at the same time. The latter seemed like the best idea, since this was supposed to be a fun tour and not some sort of a spiritual journey amongst the stars. And so, without hesitation, I climbed into the bus and seated myself for our return trip.
I gazed through the windows for several hours, occasionally making conversation with my seat-mate. When I would ever see the Southern Cross again, I did not know. But, I wanted to make sure it would remain engrained in my memory, just like other such familiar shapes – Orion and the Big Dipper to name two. I wanted to make sure I savored every moment I had with the cross, knowing each one would mean one less opportunity I’d have to see it again.
The end came just as quickly as the disappearance of the sun. In a flash the tour was done and I was back at my hotel attempting to digest what I had experienced; it was unlike anything I had yet done during my Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau-sponsored trip. And while I did not want it to end, both the tour and trip, it was done and the next day I would be flying back to Denver.
But at least I was going out with a bang, a big bang even.
NOTE: Most photos provided by Hawaii Forest and Trail, because I, quite frankly, do not have an awesome enough camera or the filters to get such shots – plus, I forgot my tripod in Denver.