Mauna Kea, a mote in God’s eye
A completely unexpected trip deep into our galaxy launched from the summit of a Hawaiian Volcano.
Editorial travel writing by me on the topic of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii
(Please also find my other travel and food related photography and writing in other galleries here on my BeHance main page)
A Bus Tour into Space
2009 had been one of the worst years in recent memory for my family, so my mother decided to invest in turning it around for us, via a trip to Hawaii to celebrate our birthdays. For my birthday we chose to celebrate with a bus tour, at sunset, to visit the observatories at the top of the volcano, Mauna Kea.
This experience turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be life changing for me. I am fascinated by science in general, and particularly astronomy, so I was excited to visit the funny dome shaped buildings I’d only seen in photos. What I didn’t realize was that the “bonus” night sky viewing experience, on the way back from exploring the observatories, would change my perspective of reality forever.
These tours stopped after sunset, just below the summit, to observe the stars through telescopes on tripods assembled by the guides. I wasn’t really expecting much from this portion, because I had looked through bigger, better telescopes with my father at my family’s home in Colorado; and I had spent many hours in planetariums looking in greater detail at the “night sky”.
But, at the top of Mauna Kea, the sky itself was truly spellbinding. I don’t recall looking through the telescopes at all. Color and detail I’d never imagined filled every inch of the sky’s expanse. The tiny window of a telescope’s magnification, no matter how powerful, could only detract from the mind bending spectacle wiping away all of my preconceived notions of Earth’s orientation to the Milky Way Galaxy.
With the sunset turning to twilight, the ecliptic became clear. A row of planets pointed towards the bright spot on the horizon. I fully grasped, for the first time, that a “sunset” is when the star at the center of our solar system passes beyond the Earth’s curvature, which shades us from it’s light.
We live on a tiny planet, a collection of matter in space, on the edge of a whole galaxy of mysterious and beautiful objects. Of course I had always known this. I even had a special interest in astronomy as a child. But, here on the top of this volcano, I could see it with my own eyes.
I stood there next to my sister, gazing toward the center of our galaxy, and felt that I was standing on a mote in space situated between a nearby star and it’s galaxy. Clouds of dark dust obscured in intense glow emanating from the thickest part of the galaxy, and meteors streaking through our invisible atmosphere were the only evidence that anything insulated us from outer space. It seemed to me, that something magnificently alive and luminous lay just on the other side of those dust clouds.
I did not know, when we got back on the bus to warm up from the freezing, barely existent atmosphere and travel back down to Earth, what consequence this revelation would have on my day to day life.
At home in Austin, Texas I had begun to practice Kundalini yoga, which had already been very healing for me physically. But, from that revelatory moment onward, every time I lay down to meditate after my yoga practice, and the gong played, I was under that sky. I felt that I was laying on the thin surface of a liquid planet at the edge of a galaxy with an incomprehensible light at the center of it.
I expected this perspective to make me feel small and insignificant, but instead it instilled me with a sense of expansiveness and safety that has never gone away.
One of many observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea. You can walk right up to them. They even make neat little beeping and whirring noises just like you’d expect.
A dormant flank eruption cone shrouded in cloud cover below the unpaved portion of the bus tour to Mauna Kea’s observatories.
Looking South at an observatory nearing sunset
That mountain in view behind me, is not a mountain at all, but the shadow that Mauna Kea casts upon the sky at sunset. Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on Earth, many times the size of Mount Everest, rising 44,000 ft from the sea floor.
My sister took this photo of me at sunset, on my 30th birthday, in the shade of an observatory at the top of Mauna Kea.
Four observatories at twilight, with the crescent Moon visible. I believe that bright spec next to it is Jupiter in the constellation of Aquarius.
Observatories above the clouds.
To show scale, here is one of the smaller observatories with tour buses parked nearby. Some are several time taller than this one.