Apr 16, 2009

When the mice are away, the cat will play

I was released from work a few hours early on Monday, around 1:30 a.m. The sky was mostly overcast again and there wasn't much to see up there. All I did the whole evening was hang out in the lodge and imbibe mass quantities of caffeine anyway, so I was feeling restless. The early morning was also pretty gorgeous, and I was of an energetic and adventurous spirit, so instead of heading straight home I went exploring.

Across the main highway from the road leading up to the lodge and eventually to the summit of Mauna Kea where we work is another road making its way up the relatively gentle slopes of Mauna Loa, the neighboring massive volcano. I had never made it all the way to the end before so I've always wondered where exactly it leads to. I'm curious like a cat, and that's why my friends call me Whiskers. My goal that morning was to follow it to the very end, or at least as far as it was drivable for a passenger car.

Even the intersection at the highway is absolutely in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around for over 50 miles in any direction but a small Army field, a distant prison, and a few observatories and the dormitories for astronomers. The landscape looks otherworldly, especially when illuminated by the moon only partially obscured by high patchy clouds. It's composed of mostly barren lava rock, with only a few hardy species of vegetation growing in between the cracks. The terrain is also bathed in fog for what seems like 80 percent of the time, as it was that morning.

By choosing to set out on this route, I was only leading myself deeper into nowhere. No signage existed on this road whatsoever, aside from a preliminary sign warning of "EXTREME CONDITIONS AHEAD." It was narrow, one lane, and barely had any shoulder on either side for the most part. Navigating it felt a bit like riding a roller coaster, since it was constantly twisting and winding with not 50 consecutive feet of straightaway. It also carried on in consistent up and down fashion like a series of sine waves, to the point where anyone susceptible to getting carsick would have preferred to get out and walk. However, it was nicely paved for the first few miles, with two solid white lines defining both edges. It certainly deteriorated the farther I went, though. The pavement became rougher and more potholed, and only one squiggly line remained, appearing as if someone had stood over the back of a slowly moving truck splattering a bucket of white paint down the middle of the road. But even that was a hell of a useful guide, because in the murky darkness the road blended in so well with the rocky terrain, and it would have been all too easy to drive right off it into the lava.

I still hit one deadly 90 degree curve, the only one of its kind, going too fast. There was nothing to warn me to slow down, not even a chevron sign, and I was on it before I knew it was there. Trying to slow down and make the sharp turn at the same time, I went skidding off the pavement onto what was fortunately a wide gravelly shoulder. On the way back down, the corner surprised me just as much. That time I didn't turn the wheel, just slammed on the brakes and skidded past the turn, off the pavement again and stopping short of a bulldozed rock wall. This would have been such wonderful inspiration for a track in Mario Kart.

The experience of just driving the track felt surreal. I had no idea where I would end up or what I might find, as we continued climbing up steeply along an utterly unpredictable and dangerous road. The trippy music that boomed on the stereo only enhanced the dreamlike atmosphere, as did the dense fog and mist I had to navigate through. After awhile, as we rose above the clouds and left the fog behind, I noticed the landscape had become entirely devoid of life, and it resembled a scene one would expect to see in a photograph of another planet's surface. The elevation was marked on the pavement in white chalk at various intervals, and I noticed we had already risen above 11,000 feet.

It seemed to go on and on in a relatively straightforward manner, until after climbing another thousand feet, a sign jumped out at me that read, "PUBLIC PARKING." A hundred feet beyond that, I could make out in the moonlight a heavy iron gate restricting vehicular access. So I parked and got out, suddenly hit by 35 degree mountain air, which felt so pleasant and refreshing. The surroundings were also almost completely silent, save for the humming of machinery originating from just up the hill. I could make out a fairly large complex of buildings beyond the gate. At first, though, I was stricken by the view down the mountain. The entire south slope of Mauna Kea was visible, and I could make out a pair of headlights on the summit. A cluster of amber street lights from a town far, far away and beneath the clouds cast their subtle glow, mimicking a matrix of beacons situated on another planet. I was content to just stand there and take in the beauty for awhile, though I had to move around some just to stay warm.

Of course, I had to see what was going on just up the hill. It attracted me like a gecko is drawn toward an outdoor light. I left Petunia and made my way up the steep slope, walking around the gate, which seemed built to guard a fortress like Fort Knox- from vehicular traffic, at least. I had to take my time trudging up, since the oxygen-deficient atmosphere of such a high elevation can leave even the most fit out of breath quickly. I came upon quite an assortment of bizarre-looking buildings, some of them resembling the cylindrical or circular-shaped domes that house the telescopes I usually work amongst. On rooftop decks reached by rickety wooden stairs were arranged a variety of elaborate-looking instruments pointed towards the sky and the horizon. When I looked through the windows of a couple of the buildings, I noticed expensive-looking laptop computers left open and running in darkened rooms, but there was no sign of anyone around to operate them. Besides plenty of unusual-looking machinery, also filling the space were large electronic wall displays, scrolling all sorts of graphical scientific data. This was beginning to feel delightfully James Bondish, especially with my vivid imagination.

I was able to visually detect a few obvious security cameras, which I took care not to walk right in front of. I had no way of knowing whether they were equipped with night vision or if anyone might be watching. For all I knew, I could have been walking around on live webcam, though I doubt many people would be watching at 3:30 in the morning. The element of mystery was spoiled somewhat when I read a plaque that tipped me off: this evil lair belonged to the [url=http://www.mlo.noaa.gov/]NOAA[/url]. I knew there was an atmospheric research facility somewhere on the island, but this just goes to show how well they keep it hidden. Perhaps it was my fate to discover and foil some evil Blofeldian plot to send all future Atlantic hurricanes away from Florida and into Cuba!

After examining the website, I now recognize that most of those cameras can't see shit in the dark. Only the [url=http://www.mlo.noaa.gov/Live/mlocam/MLO360CAM2.jpg]Tower Cam[/url] reveals much detail at all. Speaking of which, when I first spotted the high steel tower rising mightily towards the moon, I figured I had to climb it. My obsession with climbing things is another feline quality about myself and I can hardly explain. Unlike Catcall Tower, I could see that I didn't require divine powers to climb this one; a series of steel steps led all the way to the very top. The only catch was that the tower's base was surrounded by a high chain link fence topped with barbed wire. I always seem to find an easy way around that sort of thing, however, as it usually seems someone else invaded before me. On one side I found a couple of cinder blocks stacked up, and the barbed wire on the top was mostly undone. So I climbed over without much trouble and began making my way up. It actually proved to be a bit of a workout, as the apex was even farther away than it looked, and I felt like I was climbing into the heavens.

The view for up there was positively jaw-dropping, well worth being out of breath for. I nearly felt as if I was flying, standing what seemed like 300 feet above the ground. I suppose it's no wonder I'm attracted to high places. I just let my imagination run wild for awhile in the cold morning wind as I surveyed from my perch the world I know, or think I do.

After making my way back down, I tripped around the facility and explored some more, until I realized the supply of caffeine in my body had pretty much been exhausted, and the physical effects of running, climbing, and snooping around above much of earth's atmosphere were starting to catch up to me. I still made it home before dawn, though. It's great to enjoy a unique and rejuvenating experience like that in a place where I often feel like I've already experienced everything it has to offer at least a few times before.

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