Monday night, Khalil Blake’s gaze was glued to the massive lava field on Mauna Loa’s unpopulated northeast flank as it glowed a brilliant bright red against the pitch black sky.
A towering plume of smoke and other volcanic emissions soared over fissure 3, which featured three fountains spewing molten rock into the air. Once the lava landed, it snaked down the mountainside.
The 39-year-old Blake simply said: “Wow.”
As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, the leading edge of the flow remained at more than 9,000 feet elevation and more than 5 miles away from Daniel K. Inouye Highway, known as Saddle Road. The lava flow posed no threat to communities or infrastructure.
Blake was among the hundreds, and perhaps thousands, who were gawking at the lava and basking in the glow nearly 24 hours after the world’s largest active volcano began to erupt for the first time in 38 years.
The night view of the lava flow is so awe inspiring that soon after Mauna Loa began to erupt at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday, many people flocked to see it, some getting out of bed to do so.
On Monday night, a steady stream of vehicles flowed along Saddle Road, trying to find just the right spot to view the fiery spectacle. For many, that meant Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area, about 35 miles from the upper Kaʻūmana area of Hilo.
Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense on Tuesday reminded people that parking is unsafe and prohibited along the highway. Designated parking areas are available.
In one instance Monday night, a Hilo-bound vehicle was forced to swerve and hit the brakes to avoid another vehicle that had crossed the center of the highway as it traveled up the mountain.
Vehicles parked between the 16- and 31-mile markers are subject to citation and will be towed, according to the Hawaiʻi Police Department.
It wasn’t much of a deterrent Monday, as people watched from different vantage points, including many spots along the highway. Some vehicles were near the blocked-off Mauna Loa Access Road, which was being monitored by law enforcement.
Blake was among those who made the trek to experience the flow, stopping at multiple locales, including the side of the narrow and winding Maunakea Access Road and at the 9,200-foot Maunakea Visitor Information Station.
No matter where people stopped, the mauna did not disappoint.
Standing on Maunakea with a string of headlights visible on the highway below, Blake said it felt like he was in the presence of something big.
He said it was the closest thing he could imagine to a dragon or some kind of sleeping creature waking up. It was different than watching thunderstorms or other weather. The lava flow was “much more still.”
At Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area, people arrived by private vehicles and on a Roberts Hawaiʻi tour bus. Some discussed which flow was which and from where the most lava was being pumped out of the 13,681-foot-tall volcano.
The nearly full parking lot was bathed in an eerie orange hue of nighttime lights, seeming somehow fitting for the situation.
There was a chill in the air, with the temperature ranging from about the mid to upper 50s at the beginning of the ascent from sea-level Hilo to the mid to upper 40s at the visitor information station. There was even snow on top of the mountain, proof that the Big Island can sometimes play its own song of fire and ice.
Some came prepared with long pants and jackets. Others didn’t mind the cold, arriving at their chosen viewing spots in shorts and slippers.
Cameras were a prerequisite, no matter if it was a cellphone or a DSLR on a tripod. Tourists and Big Island residents alike weren’t only taking pictures of the lava, they also were snapping photos of themselves and others in the quest for that perfect shot. It didn’t matter how cheesy their smiles and poses were, they weren’t going to miss their chance at capturing history.
“You’ve got a better camera than I do,” said one man to another while handing the phone back as they stood in the parking lot of the Maunakea Visitor Information Station.
Some people stayed for a few minutes before moving on to another location to do it all over again. Others stayed put for more extended periods just taking it all in — or in true 21st century fashion, glued to their phones to post on social media or send pics to friends.
Notification ringtones could be heard over the rumble of cars passing on the highway. Lights from phone screens pierced the darkness. Several people also talked on their phones, describing to those on the other end the awe of nature they were witnessing.
Everyone who went Monday night to see Pele at work had their own experience. There were a lot of “wow” moments, with nothing else needed to be said. Blake, who has lived in Hilo for just two years and made his first trip up Maunakea that night, could be seen smiling and laughing from time to time as if in disbelief of what he was seeing and experiencing.
By about midnight, his ears popping from the descent back to Hilo and getting drowsy in the passenger seat, he stopped at one last spot, across Hilo Bay at Liliʻuokalani Gardens, to take in the glow. He said as he headed to his final lava-viewing vantage point: “I’ve never felt anything like that.”