There's nothing like seeing new liquid rock flowing down a cliff, especially after an eight mile death march.

There’s nothing like seeing new liquid rock flowing down a cliff, especially after an eight mile death march.

Here’s an observation: fitness is totally relative. What seems like fit to me might not be fit to you. And vice versa. A true test of fitness is engaging in a new activity, not on the normal workout agenda. Did it kick your butt?

I’ve been struggling with my workout schedule, especially regarding circus training, for the last couple of months. Normally, I take circus related classes about two to three times a week. Every class includes some conditioning, circus style, which is nasty but necessary, and the peer pressure makes it doable. Left to my own devices, however, laziness wins out.

By “lazy,” I don’t mean not working out at all. On the contrary; I work out almost every day. Sometimes I go to a sweaty spin class, others I head to the gym for a 30 minute cardio session followed by some upper body work and stretching. Because of my kid’s insane theater schedule, I had to cut the circus classes down to once a week, and even after school let out, I never got my groove back.

Once a week is tough. It essentially means just barely hanging onto decent circus skills without any meaningful progression. Can I still do beat swings? Sure, but my hands aren’t calloused enough and they hurt like hell. Tricks that once seemed effortless suddenly are hard all over again. And the conditioning? Brutal.

So, when I went to Hawaii for our family vacation, I knew I wasn’t in top circus shape, but I figured I was still doing ok. My ACL injury wasn’t bothering me, so I could still walk a few miles a day (running is out of the question). I snorkeled every morning, sans fins, so my upper body did the hard swimming work.

We took the kid to Volcanoes National Park, since she’d never been and it’s one of the wildest, weirdest places. There’s nowhere else where you can see new earth being made before your eyes while not risking death. The earth belches out steam. The rain forest gives way to desolation in an instant. It’s truly remarkable. And when we heard that the lava was headed to the ocean, and it was only an easy 2.5 mile walk to see it, we jumped at the chance.

A word of warning here: be skeptical about the “easy 2.5 mile” estimate. Ask some questions first. We didn’t. We weren’t total fools. We brought water, and wore athletic shoes. We had on sunscreen. We began our walk, just outside of Pahoa, on a desolate lava gravel road, surrounded by pahoehoe (smooth) lava on all sides. We were told it was 2.5 miles to the park gates. Notice: park gates, not lava.

It was about 4 pm when we set out. The incessant crunch crunch of the gravel accompanied our merry band of three: one ACL injury, one plantar fascitis, and one crabby 15 year old girl. It was impossible to visually judge distance on the lava fields. We saw the gate coming up and got excited, but my attitude plunged when a local guy selling water and coconuts by the side of the road told us, “It’s another mile to the park, then one more mile in, and then two miles inland to see the lava.” WTF??

I thought maybe he was messing with us. My husband grandly proclaimed him a liar.

No. It was, indeed, a seemingly endless trudge on a moonscape. Finally, to our right, we could spot little flickers of orange on the cliffside. Lava!

We finally asked a couple who were on their return trip. “You need to leave the road and go across the lava field for about a half a mile,” they said.

Hmmm. It was, by now, getting darker. We started hopping across the pahoehoe fields. Sometimes it was totally stable, and sometimes it shattered a bit under our weight, like glass giving way. We hopped and hopped like lame goats. I watched my husband favor his good foot. I felt my crappy knee hurt. I noticed my kid’s body language, teeming with teen reproach. We could see people in the distance, gathered about what was probably a pool or little lava stream, but it was, of course, impossible to judge the actual distance. Was it a quarter mile or a whole one? And when was the sun going down? And, oh shit, we don’t have flashlights.

It was the lack of flashlights that ended our lava quest. There was no damn way I was going to try to navigate a lava field in the dark. We were not prepared.

We made it back to the road before the dusk half light arrived. And then the hard part began. The walk back was pathetic. It felt punishing, listening to that crunch crunch, feeling the accompanying crunch of my knee, hearing my husband’s stoic intakes of breath. At least the kid was pretty silent.

There was some reward, though. At around the park gates (you know, the 2.5 easy estimated distance), we looked back, and there it was: an orange stripe of molten rock, streaming down the hill. It was beautiful. The picture above doesn’t do it justice.

So we did get our lava view. We didn’t get right up next to it, and we didn’t get to plunge sticks into it like flaming idiots, but we did get to see it in person. That was satisfying.

It took us a little while to find our car in the dark. At that point, my feet, my knee, and, for some reason, my hamstrings were screaming (although the road looked flat, there was plenty of incline, and its uneven gravel surface was deceptively punishing). We were all very, very quiet. We were covered with gray lava dust. We drove to a very good restaurant in Pahoa called Kaleo’s and ate a ton.

The easy walk was a three hour and forty minute constant hike. The rough gravel ripped the toe out of my Nikes. We had to pick up Advil en route to our rental. Thus, I’m embarrassed to say, that a walk kicked my butt.

This has taught me a couple of things. Number one is to always ask questions before setting off on a quest. Number two is, when it says on the signage to bring a flashlight, do so. And number three is to keep striving to get in better shape, because you never know when a new, seemingly innocuous experience might humble you mightily.