“It’s the most beautiful place on earth”, I said to a friend. I was referring to Halina Pali, a great cliff that drops to the Pacific on the southern coast of Hawaii. Each time I visited the place, I said the same thing to myself, but I dismissed the thought as hyperbole, the everyday kind I indulge in to spike routine. But when I heard myself say aloud in company, “It’s the most beautiful place on earth”, I started to believe it.
Before dawn on the morning of my departure from Hawaii, I set out to visit the cliffs one last time. I drove away from the dark coast of Puna, up the side of Kilauea where I passed through a cloud that was filling with light. The sun broke over the horizon as I skirted the steaming crater of Kilauea Iki to glimpse the sheets of lava uplifted and buckled by recent volcanic activity. The floor of the volcano looked like an LA freeway after the BIG ONE and I was reminded how creation and a destruction often look similar.
Once over the crown of the volcano, the road to Halina Pali descended on the southern slope through the Kau desert, which lies between Mauna Loa and Kilauea. The wind was constant and strong here and the smell was fresh. Setting a standard for purity, the air flows from the arctic over thousand of miles of open ocean to arrive here. Nearby, however, poisonous gas spewed from the main crater of Kilauea, forming a violet drift that floated down the rift toward the sea. The stain in the air raised the issue of beauty, an experience which relies on contrast more than perfection. It’s surprising that pollution can be beautiful. A drop of oil in clean water makes rainbows which curl like a nautilus and the effect is undeniably beautiful. Beauty is not a moral thing, a point made clear in the last century by the artists and architects who made stunning spectacles for the Third Reich. No, beauty is just an experience, a compelling, motivating thing that has nothing to do with human notions of good and bad.
Once again the landscape proposed beauty as a topic of conversation. The lava confounded my senses, since it looked like a viscous liquid, but it was in fact crisp and brittle to the touch. The molten forms hijacked waking consciousness, replacing it with a fugue of dreamy associations. “Over there, is that a cranium nestled in rope?”
“And look here, it’s the torso of a Hindu Goddess.” The shapes of frozen lava fired my imagination to see sublime, mundane and grotesque things, transforming a tourist like me into an accidental mystic. And the richness of this experience registered as beauty.
The road ended at the cliffs of Halina Pali, which rose 1800 feet above and ran parallel to a 12 mile stretch of coast, which faced south-south east. To the left were young lava flows which poured down the slope and then stretched out to make a shelf into the Pacific. The shelf of lava is geologically unstable and may someday break off into the sea like an edge of cookie weakened by dunking and falling into the cup of coffee to make a plop so large that the wave will slosh over the rim to deposit sea shells on mountain tops.
Antarctica was straight ahead. Of course I did not see it, but only 6500 miles of empty space could account for a blue so deep and I was compulsive about that color. I found it thrilling. I could not get enough of it. I stared at it and I couldn’t describe the feeling, since it did not remind me of anything. The beauty of that blue was beyond words and I wondered if the sight was stimulating a gene deposited on the long beach of my genetic history by an ancestor with four legs, a set of flippers, and gills that converted to lungs on demand.
I took many photographs but they were all inadequate, since they failed to capture the vault of color that was Halina Pali. Painting may best embody the color of the place, since it can show how rich hues inspire thievery, compelling one to grab, hold and take away. Once again I noted that beauty is motivating, but not a moral force.
Like crochet on the edge of a pillow, a line of white surf stretched to the left, embellishing this, the southern-most coast of the United States. And the prettiness of the scene was contrasted by weird cinder cones that poked up from the distant desert valley like canine teeth from a bottom jaw. Beauty requires a little brutishness.
Vegetation was blonde and spare, since little rain falls on Halina Pali. Uncluttered by surface detail, the beauty of the place was fundamental, derived from the four ancient elements of air, water, earth, and fire. Sound increased my perception of size. Beside the distant rhythm of the surf, I heard the wind filling both the hollow of my ear and the curve of the cliff. A large bee passed my head at full speed to demonstrate the space-stretching character of the Doppler effect. I felt very small here, an experience that was relaxing, since the perfect majesty of the place relieved me of all ambition.
And like the beautiful landscape before me, I emptied out and the cavity of self that was left was scoured and smoothed into a simple bowl, poised and amoral.