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Field Notebook

January 15, 2007
Trespassing on Mauna Ulu

I needed to piss, pretty badly. But this wasn't the place. I had just reached the top of a volcano, its crater pluming with steam that smelled like sulfur and rusted metal. It had not blown in thirty years, but when it did it buried all the surrounding land in a silver-black sheen of lava, entirely consuming two nearby volcanoes, nothing left of them to be seen. Though I would love to witness an eruption, it seemed too much like tempting fate to climb Mauna Ulu then piss on its smoldering summit. Even ancient Hawaiians who were not royal would not come anywhere near these places, such sacrilege, such hubris. I could feel why, the earth tense beneath me as if I were a moth resting on a great iron bell, this buckled edge of rock above Mauna Ulu's crater, a hollow mouth of hardened, steaming lava open beneath me. I should not be here. The park service would have my ass in a sling if I was caught. I had walked a long way to reach this point, no trail, just fat rolls of lava, hardened whirlpools and falls, narrow chasms cracked open and stewing with vapors. Still, the place belonged to the National Park Service, Department of the Interior; people with ranks of laws much like the regimented Hawaiian kingdom before them. One thing I did not want was to be found out, caught on the wrong side of the fence, forced to answer for myself. I pulled out my journal and wrote, 'I hardly want to piss in this vast blackness for fear I might violate an ancient pact, I might wake something with my trespass.' I shielded my journal with my body from a hard wind and a misting, blustery rain. The tip of my pen rested on the word trespass. Maybe it was the wind, or maybe I just needed to urinate that badly, but I did not hear the helicopter when it swung around the backside of Mauna Ulu. I did not see it until it was right there at eye level, directly in front of me. The black park service patrol helicopter, a dark beast cruising the clouds. My heart froze. A singular, icy fear cascaded through my body. I did not move, still as a fawn. I was utterly exposed, my back to the rain, journal at my chest, helicopter floating just across the crater. Were they watching me? I couldn't see through their rainy, tinted windows, officers inside with radios affixed to their heads. Perhaps they did not see me through all the steam and clouds, or they merely radioed in my position, and finally turned away to look for some other fool atop some other volcano. As soon as the helicopter had its back to me I ran. I ran through an outpost of monitoring equipment, windspeed indicators, and radio antennae howling maniacally in the wind. I sprinted all the way down Mauna Ulu, hounds on my heels, crashing though roofs of lava, cutting my legs and hands, leaping across open wounds of fissures until I was down in the vast lava shield below, safe in these black gates of hell where no one could see me. I unzipped my pants and urinated on hard basalt. I walked from Mauna Ulu into its endless fields of lava, ropes of rock braided together, places as curved and gently chambered as the inside of an ear. For miles I carried the fear of the black helicopter, rubbing it between the fingers of my imagination, wearing it smooth among steam vents and bottomless crags. I even wrote it on my palm with a Bic pen: remember this fear it is the one you keep at the center of your life. Fear of getting caught, being a trespasser, sitting in a chair and having to explain your actions. I walked across miles of newly created earth, pahoehoe lava that once flowed like molten glass, hardened like a cat curling up to sleep. Every shape was embryonic, rudimentary forms of things to come, the first scapula, the first fishhook, the first telescope. When this new earth emerged it did not know of any earth preceding it. In its dense, glowing mind it knew nothing of oceans or fiddle-necked ferns. Each protuberance of lava was the word itself. Let there be stone.All along the way I mulled over my fear. The black helicopter became my father's voice. It became God enthroned. It became juries, throngs of millions, taxi cab drivers shouting at me out their windows. By the time I crossed twelve miles of lava and reached a paved road I had compared everything in the world to everything else, at the center my fear of being judged like a sun around which all my planets revolve. I reached the visitor's center just before closing. I walked up to the desk and with a controlled, counterfeit voice asked the ranger if one could walk to the top of Mauna Ulu. I wanted to hear how much trouble I might have been in. The ranger said there is not rail and I wondered if she had heard of me, if every ranger in Volcanoes National Park had been given a hazy description of a man seen through clouds, a hero-villain spotted atop the steaming summit of Mauna Ulu. Certainly I would not be recognized by my face. Before I could ask my next question the ranger said, 'But there is nothing to prohibit you from going up there.'I plunged into icy water, feeling it brimming around my throat, feeling the fear within the fear, the one that says, you are making all of this up. You are pouring molten and glowing onto the ground as if creating the world right here, when the world has been here all along. I am a sorcerer creating a universe no larger than my own skull. Still I smiled, showing not a bead of sweat, and I politely said thank you to the ranger. I walked out the door in damp jungle air and the faint smell of sulfur, the world boiling beneath me, hissing up through the cracks.

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