The “Big Island”, Hawaii, is dominated by two relatively new volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Mauna Kea is the shorter and less active of the two, rising to just over 13,000 feet above sea level. Observatories dot the top of Mauna Kea from which you can see galaxies and supernovae and meteors that jettison across the nighttime sky.
A trailhead at the visitor center, located at approximately 9,000 feet, leads hikers up the side of Mauna Kea to its top. Not particularly confident of making it to the top for any number of reasons (altitude, climb, etc.), I nonetheless started hiking straight-up at just past noon, several weeks ago. The ranger at the visitor center looked me over suspiciously when I told him my plan but seemed satisfied when I added my intention to start back down the trail at 4pm regardless of whether I’d summitted. I might not require rescuing, after all, he no doubt considered.
Piles of stone, thigh-high, mark the trail. These piles of stone and other unmarked altars (my word) are ancient Hawaiian monuments – not sure that the word, “monuments”, is the best word – most having religious significance, as though climbing the mountain is a holy exercise, sacred.
As I climbed higher and higher along the rocky path – with very few plants and certainly no trees marking the way – I walked deeper into solitude, step by step. I was alone; nobody else was hiking the trail that day. Nobody, that is, except for one man.
This man was hiking down the mountain, which suggested he had started at dawn, for by now it was only 2pm – too early to have submitted and be returning otherwise. For balance, the man walked using both purpose and two hiking sticks. I may have been the only face he saw that entire day, and, according to the law of lonely hikers, we stopped for a minute to chat.
How far along am I? I inquired, already exhausted and ready to turn around.
A third, I’d estimate, he answered.
Oh. I felt spent, my legs tired and my lungs, at 10,000 feet, were already burning. Is it worth it? He shrugged his shoulders. I had hoped he’d throw me a bone. Why hike to the top if not to enjoy a mountaintop experience? Why did you hike, then? I asked him.
The man looked at me evenly, and I understood. To check it off the list, I answered my own question. He nodded. The man was about my age, and he like I obviously stretches himself. Sometimes it is nice (by a certain age) to feel one’s body still fully alive!
The man left me hiking up as he quickly dropped out of sight. By 3:30pm, at perhaps 2/3 of the way to the top, finally spotting the peak off in the distance, I sat down. Drank some water, ate an apple, and knew, just knew, I wasn’t going to summit before 4pm. Or at all.
I was so close ….
Only I was not close because of being so near the top of the mountain. Rather, I was close because of thin places. Those celtic connections where the distance between this world and the next is spare. Thin. And don’t you know? Jesus on the mount, Moses with God, and so often the rest of us, ancient Hawaiians included who built the shrines of lava rock along the trail, connecting along mountainsides.
There is nothing at all on Mauna Kea, along its slope, nothing at all, save spirit. Nothing to block the way, nothing to occlude the occluded soul. Jesus walks with you in thin places, sometimes at the top, but mostly just along … and I’m wondering, where might you find a thin place today?