Danger and Romance in America: A US National Park Profile

If you could explore another world, would you?


Last year, a staggering 307 million people hiked, paddled, skied and meandered through our 58 US National Parks - the highest number of annual visits in history.  The National Parks Service is in charge of protecting all these marvels, and no group does more to ensure that the natural world remains accessible to all Americans, so cheers to the NPS on its 100th anniversary!  


In addition to their pivotal role protecting vital natural resources, the awe-inspiring vistas and diverse ecosystems of our national parks allow us to experience a different, wilder world that exists alongside our mundane human hustle of flatscreens and fluorescent cubicles.


I fear that too many people have a trite view of US National Parks- conjuring images of cartoon bears pilfering picnic baskets from camping Cleavers. To counter this misconception, I’d like to pay homage to our national parks by sharing an extraordinary adventure I had in one. Hopefully, it will get you wondering about what amazing journeys might await if you choose to step through these portals into other lands.


Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, The Big Island, c. 2000 


Less than 1% of national park visitors venture into Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The annoyance and expense of air travel is surely a contributing factor, but I suspect it also takes a certain type of traveler to see standing atop an active volcano as a fun leisure activity. 


On our throwback Hawaiian honeymoon, my husband and I heard that the night-time lava flows along the southeast rift zone of the Kilauea caldera were astonishing. We decided on a casual viewing after our day on Punalu’u black sand beach. We cruised up Chain of Craters Road at dusk with no jackets, no hiking boots, and no water. No sweat! We'd stroll by some surface flows, amble over to watch lava pouring into the ocean, then head for the hot tub at our B&B.


Three hours later we were hopelessly lost and alone in an utterly black void, praying for divine intervention, or at least an easy death.


Exploring the Kilauea caldera is like climbing around on a charcoal briquette the size of a small town. It looks like someone took a flamethrower to the moon and airdropped you onto the remains. Lava flows are constantly shifting and the landscape has few distinguishing features, so disorientation is best avoided by following the flares that experienced park rangers use to mark the trail. However, as fairytales warn, paths can’t help us if we insist on wandering off them.


Viewing the surface flows represented no problem for us. A 20-minute jaunt from the car won us a close-up encounter with glowing 2000°F ooze that was like whoa.


Disclaimer: Not my husband. You can tell because this stick-wielding maniac was dressed far more reasonably.

Disclaimer: Not my husband. You can tell because this stick-wielding maniac was dressed far more reasonably.


However, the real show was lava from the Pu`O O`O vent pouring over the cliffs into the ocean. I decided a wee diversion from the carefully marked trail to get closer to this once-in-a-lifetime view was perfectly reasonable. My husband disagreed, but as time has borne out, his worst flaw may be his inexplicable tendency to listen to me.

The single extant photo resulting from my profoundly ill-conceived proposal

The single extant photo resulting from my profoundly ill-conceived proposal

Belatedly realizing that to venture closer to the flow would be plainly suicidal, we turned to leave… And found only unbroken primordial darkness before us. Ever the hearty adventurer, I suggested brightly that we simply head back the way we came!


An hour later, our cheap flashlights flickered into nothing, leaving us with a sole point of reference - the hellish crimson glow of lava pouring over the cliff-face, down hundreds of feet into the ocean. The only way to avoid drifting into the vast maze of the crater interior was to skirt as close as we dared to the periphery of the coastline, where thin crust buckled relentlessly into magma gouts streaming over the brink.


At some point, we stopped bickering and blaming (me) and began holding hands, hauling each other over particularly rough bits. Though we hold to different faiths, we prayed together, gallows humor suggesting that maybe our gods would collaborate to save our sorry butts. I cried when I fell and tore my knee open. My new husband picked me up, hugged me and urged me on.


Staggering across the viciously sharp volcanic rock for a seemingly endless stretch, we eventually spied a flickering light. Scrambling desperately, we soon reached the improbable source- three teenage boys in white t-shirts around a campfire. They proudly professed their familiarity with the area and offered to lead us out. My questions about why they were out there in the middle of the night were merrily deflected, and I wasn’t about to press.


Once they had set us in the right direction, they rushed forward in silence. I remember stumbling along behind them, mystified as to how they could move with such ease over the deeply fractured surface. I remember calling, ‘Please, slow down!’ which elicited only laughter floating back to us. I remember that for a few minutes, I could still make out their figures as eerie white blurs, until they disappeared as suddenly as snuffed candles.


We kept as straight a course as we could from then on, emerging a mere half hour later, within yards of our rental car. I only afterwards realized how truly strange it was that those boys could travel so fast, unerringly toward the trailhead, in the pitch dark, with no flashlights. I swear to this day that I never saw their feet touch the ground. 


I’ve had many national park adventures in the intervening years, though happily none quite so harrowing. As far as newlywed bonding activities go, our night in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was a hell of a teamwork exercise. It marked the first time we ran into a no-seriously-for-real problem as a couple, and found a way to pull through. 17 years later, the lesson still stands us in good stead. In other (mostly) good news, it emboldened my husband to tell me to shut my pie-hole when I float some impetuous scheme.


So, to the explorers, the adventurers, to the curious cats and the terminally intrepid – visit our US National Parks! They are very real gateways to other worlds you’ve never imagined, no picnic baskets necessary. Or, hey, you can always keep diving headfirst down rabbit holes while waiting for your wardrobe to morph into a snow-covered wood. It’s up to you.



Tiffany Gasbarrini is Senior Editor for Life Sciences at Johns Hopkins University Press. She promises that she has gotten (marginally) less impulsive over the last couple decades. Follow her on twitter @tiffanypub.