Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hawaii - Day eleven

Friday, November 7

Jane’s 70th birthday adventure: A Trip to the Mauna Kea Observatories

After breakfast we drove to Janet Arizumi’s house, where she introduced us to her neighbor, Mr. Tanaka, who works for Subaru Telescope. His job involves maintaining the equipment on the infra red sensor that can be attached to the telescope. He spends much of his time in an office in Hilo, but makes the trip to the summit three or four times a month. He joined us in our rental car, and we drove up the Saddle Road, turning right onto the road that leads to Mauna Kea.

We stopped for an hour at the Elison Onizuka Space Center, acclimatizing there at the 9,000 foot level for awhile before driving a few hundred yards farther up the mountain to the place I’ll call the Mauna Kea Village, a place where people who work at the various telescope facilities at the top have dormitories, a cafeteria, offices, etc. We signed release forms acknowledging the risks inherent at traveling to very high altitudes, put on sweaters and jackets, and transferred to an official four wheel drive Subaru Telescope car (no, it wasn’t actually a Subaru!) so that Mr. Tanaka could complete the drive to the summit.

Just beyond the village, the paved road ends, and the washboard surface takes a noticeable change in pitch, becoming much steeper. Very quickly the last stubbly vegetation disappears. As we looked out of the car windows we could easily imagine ourselves on the surface of Mars. The volcanic soil in many places is a vivid red, and large chunky rocks like scattered across the surface. I think that here, as on Mars, the larger rocks were deposited simultaneously with smaller rocks, cinders, and dust. Over a long period of time the finer material gets blown away, leaving the big rocks sitting on the cindery surface, looking as if they had been carefully placed there.

The road twisted and turned, zigging and zagging back and forth through a series of hairpin turns, skirting large cinder cones that bulged up a hundred meters or more above the main steep slope of the volcano. In some spots the edge of the road was marked with big lava rocks that had been placed there, but in other places only a small lip of piled up cinders showed the edge of the road where the ground dropped away at a 45 degree angle. The rear end of the car occasionally fishtailed a bit as the wheels bounced around on the loose bumpy surface, diverting our attention briefly from the spectacular vistas opening below us.

White fluffy clouds embraced the top of Hawaii’s active volcano Mauna Loa, but farther down the slopes, many miles away, we could see veils of grey smoke rising above the surface along a line from the summit to the sea where lava has been flowing continuously for more than two decades. Visible off in the distance was the thousand foot high column of steam where the hot, viscous lava pours into the ocean. Half hidden by puffs of low lying fair weather cumulus clouds, the top of Haleakala on the island of Maui showed its head in the distance, the intervening miles turning it blue.

The air temperature hovered just above freezing as we climbed out of the car at the base of the Subaru Telescope, the powerful winds making it seem even colder. We hurried for the door. Inside we were given yellow hard hats to wear while visiting. At about 14,000 feet it is not wise to move anywhere quickly. After just a few steps, Jane was feeling dizzy, and sat on a bench while Mr. Tanaka went to get a portable oxygen tank that could be worn on the belt, and tubes that ran up just underneath the nostrils. That worked well, and we proceeded to the floor of the telescope to see the working end of the huge machine. We were glad for the coats and sweaters, since they keep the inside of the building as close as possible to the outside ambient air temperature to minimize problems with the equipment when they open the dome for the night’s viewing. We went up several levels to view the telescope from high up, and considering the wind whistling around the building, passed on the offer to walk around the outside perimeter of the dome. We ate lunch in the dayroom before heading across the summit by car to take a quick look at the Keck multi-mirror telescope.

The trip back down was as slow and cautious as the trip up, the vehicle jouncing and whining along in the lowest gear range to save the brakes during the steep descent. It was almost completely dark as we entered the outer edges of Hilo.

After dropping of Mr. Tanaka with heartfelt thanks, we stopped for dinner at the Ice Pond Restaurant a block from the beach. Tables situated right next to wide open windows look out over the amazingly transparent waters of Ice Pond, so called not because any ice ever forms in Hilo, but because the spring-fed water in the lake is icy cold.

After dinner and a quick stop at Arnott’s Lodge to change to cooler clothes in our room we headed back down to the waterfront to investigate “Black and White Night”. Sponsored by all the businesses along the waterfront Kamehameha Avenue, it was a wildly popular super-block-party. Almost everyone from children in arms to teenagers and adults to tottering seniors was wearing some sort of clothing that reflected the theme of black and white. Jane wore a white T-shirt birthday present from the Subaru Telescope, and I wore a black T-shirt with the planets of the solar system on it while we strolled along the sidewalk with hundreds and hundreds of other people, looking in shop windows, listening to various bands that were set up about every two blocks, and generally gawking at all the other people milling about or dancing to the music. Probably the most interesting person we saw was wearing a black and white checked jacket, a black fedora hat, his face painted white, and a pair of black trousers with an inseam measurement of approximately 92 inches! Of course the man had five foot long stilts strapped to his lower legs, covered by the long trousers. The stilts went no higher than his knees, which gave him remarkable agility. He cold stride along the pavement with four foot paces, pause to dance for a bit, kicking back his stilt-legs one at a time so far that the ends almost touched the back of his head!

We stopped in a furniture store where they had set up a karaoke microphone, which wouldn’t seem all that unusual except for the fact that almost everyone sitting watching and everyone performing was Japanese.

After a couple of drinks and some more strolling, we headed back for our last night at Arnott’s Lodge.

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