From Kona to Hilo: The Search for Pele on Hawaii’s Big Island


Pele, in anger, /
dashed fire on dazed earth. /
Slowly, trees tear down.  //

A touch of rust on /
ancient, jagged wounds: sunset /
reflected upwards. //

Cloistered in prayer, /
trees reach to heaven, thankful /
for peaceful old age.   //
– Jennifer Rosenberry, “Volcanic Textures Haiku”


I hadn’t seen the Southern Cross in nearly twenty years.

Back then, I was a junior in college, studying abroad for a semester along the southern coast of Australia, thousands of miles away from family and friends. At twenty years old, on the other side of the planet from all I knew, I looked to the Southern Cross as an object of comfort, keeping me company while I ventured about in the land of Oz.

This past May, when the lights went down in the planetarium of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center during my visit to Hawai’i, I recognized that familiar constellation on the domed ceiling immediately. Hanging low along the horizon, the resident astronomer noted that the Hawaiian Islands are one of the few places in the United States where you can view the Southern Cross.

I could barely contain my excitement. I was committed to seeing those shiny stars again, but I was more concerned about the rocks in my car.

Driving from Kona to Hilo earlier that afternoon, I had passed through the lava fields that scattered across the island. Stopping my car on the side of the road to take in the tropical air, the hills and rocks, the sea spread out below me, I had breathed in deeply – one, two, three – grateful for the moment, grateful for this life. I had leaned over the rocks below my feet as I climbed back into my car, and thought about my daughter. I bet she’d love a few of these. I plucked a handful from the ground, and felt a brief flash of reason, warning, a vague memory of an old wives’ tale. I placed the rocks on the car seat beside me and resolved to inquire once I reached Hilo.

“Ohhhh no,” my host from the tourism bureau advised as we emerged from the planetarium. “You’ll need to send those rocks back as soon as you can. Taking them brings bad luck,” she explained before regaling me with stories of friends and relatives who had experienced unpleasant aftereffects. I jetted from our astronomy session to return the rocks immediately.

The incredible lava fields of Hawai'i, the Big Island
The incredible lava fields of Hawai’i, the Big Island []
The sun had already set, with a thick “vog” – a volcano fog created by the active Kilauea eruption – rolling through the dark. My GPS, which had worked flawlessly during the week, couldn’t find my location as I departed Hilo, instead sending me through neighborhoods I wasn’t intending to visit. A nervous fear welled up inside. I prayed aloud to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, asking her to forgive me, to assist in my journey to return what I had taken. After dead ends and turnarounds, I finally found the highway and headed towards Kona.

Within an hour, I slowed as I approached the lava fields, trying to piece together the events that had occurred that afternoon. I remembered passing a minivan here, I got stuck behind a slow truck over there. Before long, I was descending into Kona without finding my intended destination. A quick break for coffee and a stretch, I turned back to Hilo, determined to find the place where I had picked up the rocks.

As I drove back across the island, I remembered a tower of rocks that someone had built in the place where I had stopped. I weaved through the hills and in a moment, my headlights flickered on the stacked rocks by the side of the road. I pulled to the side and leapt from the car, tossing the rocks to the ground and thanking Pele profusely, ecstatic to put a halt to any bad juju headed my way. I blew a kiss to the stars.

Relief swept over me as I returned to the highway, confident in my quest, the green hills glowing under the night’s full moon. I flew my hand through my open window as I drove, peering briefly out the passenger window, the rugged earth flying past, when I spied the four bright stars of the Southern Cross beaming at me. I felt my chest tighten and tears in my eyes. Aglow in the now-clear sky, a nod that all was right once again.

Kona, Hawaii []
Kona, Hawaii []
‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, Hilo, Hawaii []
Hilo, Hawaii /
Hilo, Hawaii []
A couple of fine folks at the K'au Coffee Festival.
A couple of fine folks at the Ka’u Coffee Festival. []
A volcano! Erupting! Kilauea Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you squint, you can see the erupting Kilauea from the Jaggar Museum in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. []

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii /

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii /
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii []
A sunset view from Huggo's, Kona, Hawaii /
A sunset view from Huggo’s, Kona, Hawaii []

**Many thanks to the wonderful folks at the Big Island Visitors Bureau for inviting me to explore Hawai’i, The Big Island, as well as our host hotels, Royal Kona Resort and Hilo Hawaiian.

~Jennifer Matthewson

Photo credit: Jennifer Matthewson / Daily Blender

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