A Search for Lava

Anyone who knows me has heard me “geek-out” about rocks. And 90% of those people have rolled their eyes when I tried to convince them that the absolute best major you can choose in college is to be a geologist. Some of them who listen just a little longer stop rolling their eyes when they hear about the field trips I went on for practically no money. I am not joking. Geology is the best major so stop rolling your eyes, and read on.

Hawaii. There. Are you convinced yet? I went on a field trip to Hawaii as a sophomore in college. It was a weeklong adventure in paradise where I experienced idyllic green and black sand beaches, wet, cool jungles, and miles of jet black lava flows, including the once in a life time experience of standing at the foot of a lava flow and creating a brand new rock from the lava, shaped like my rock hammer.

Finding lava is not actually always as easy as you might imagine, and nothing like the movies (Volcano, Dante’s Peak) would have you believe. In the course of the week long trip we hiked about forty miles, over half of it in search of fresh, hot, glowing, red lava. The longest of these hikes was about twenty miles and was not successful since we did not find any fresh lava, but was a cleansing and empowering experience for me. You see, I was new to geology. I didn’t know anyone yet. I hadn’t taken many classes, made lifetime friends, and learned my abilities. Quite frankly I assumed every single other person on the trip was the next Bear Grylls and I was terrified they’d figure out I was just a twenty-year-old girl who grew up in the very unnatural environment of a southern California suburb. I’d never rock climbed, never hiked more than a couple miles at a time, and I’d only just bought my first rock hammer for this trip.

So I was trying to keep a low profile as we started a cool, wet hike that would hopefully lead us to lava in ten miles or so. It didn’t. We hiked through forest that matched my childhood fantasies of what a magical jungle should be. We hike of miles of twisted frozen lava flows, as barren and black as they were beautiful. We didn’t find lava. Some of the rock was so recently made it shimmered, but it was no longer hot and glowing and that was what we were after. Eventually we had to give up.

The hike back was to end not where we started but at a different location known as the Pizza Hut. (Not a real Pizza Hut, which would have been wonderful after all that hiking, just a hut that vaguely resembled the Pizza Hut logo.) A couple cars had been left at the Pizza Hut but the rest were at our starting location. So when we were three or so miles from the end the professor in charge asked for volunteers to run on ahead with the keys, so they could shuttle the rest of the cars back to pick everyone up.

Like I said, I was keeping a low profile, hanging near the back of the group. I had no idea what these volunteers, the future Bear Grylls of the world, were going to do, but I certainly wasn’t going to volunteer to keep up with them. Still…

I had plenty of energy, and the idea of going fast was exhilarating. I made my way toward the front and as the volunteers started off, I decided to stay with them. The worst that could happen was that I wouldn’t keep up and have to stop and wait for the main group.

We started at a fast walk that soon turned in to a full paced jog. The forest gave way and we were in horizon to horizon black basaltic lava flows, the kind that dare you to try and not roll your ankles every ten feet. Despite miles of hiking, I was not tired. I did not feel out of breath. We passed a road literally half buried in new solid rock. If anything our speed increased. I found myself smiling. I was flying. I could have gone on forever.

Eventually some of the volunteers began to fall away. After all day hiking they could not keep up. These future Mr. and Ms. Grylls had reached their limits just as I was beginning to feel I had no limits. I could run until the Earth fell away from my feet.

The reason I run is so that moments like these can exist. Most runs are not euphoric (most are not in Hawaii either) and many people do not understand why it’s worth all the work. But if you can run the last three miles of a twenty-mile hike in Hawaiian lava fields, and you can feel like flying, then you know why it’s worth it.

I was one of the first three people to the “Pizza Hut” (no pizza waiting) and maybe the least worn out. Not only had it been one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life but I realized something about myself. I wasn’t just some suburban rookie that needed to stay in the back of the pack and let others take the lead. I could do this. I could be a geologist. I could go anywhere and do anything. Forget Bear Grylls. My feet could carry me on whatever magical and amazing path I chose.

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