Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Arise and Come


Orbital launch vehicles are strange creatures. They are thuggish brutes, rising, roaring upward into the empty sky on an ecstasy of fire. They are delicate, their skin nearly thin as paper, every possible gram of metal whittled and etched away while retaining the faintest positive margin of strength. They are intelligent, able to pinpoint a plane, an altitude, and a speed, an imaginary keyhole past the atmosphere, and drive toward it with ferocious precision. They are dumb, carrying many tons of oxygen blasting through an oxygen-rich atmosphere, too busy to make use of what’s around them. They are expensive, a collaboration of the finest machinations of the stubbornest minds brought to bore on the problems of extreme performance in the last century. They are cheap, cast aside like garbage after doing their work to the bottom of the ocean or the depths of space.

By far the oddest quality of these rockets is their expendability. It’s hard to imagine any other machine of such careful engineering being jettisoned in such a careless way. But the carelessness is a clear product of the physics of spaceflight. It’s hard enough to get from the surface of the Earth to the lowest footholds of space, the argument goes. Why make a hard problem even more hopeless by trying to turn back to save what you’ve created? So we make sacrificial virgins of our launch vehicles, consigning them to a funeral pyre in the upper atmosphere after sending their payloads on their way.

If we’re serious about establishing an enduring, robust, human presence in the cosmos beyond the lushness of Earth, we need to have a better attitude toward rockets that have made the journey. They need to come back. Their tanks need to be refilled. They need to fly again. The economics of reusability are difficult to get right. The Space Shuttle certainly didn’t get them right. It was never cheaper to buy a launch on the shuttle (assuming NASA would let you) than it would have been to launch the same payload on an expendable rocket, despite the fact that most of the hardware that launched on each shuttle flight could be used again. But the economics of reusable rockets are the only method of getting stuff into orbit with any hope of getting it right. After a long hiatus full of scholarship but mostly devoid of action, we’re finally, as a civilization, starting to work on getting this right again, and SpaceX’s stunning return of the first stage of a Falcon 9 v 1.2 last night is a major step along this path.



There’s an eerie, entropy-defying quality to the videos, like somehow the arrow of time got flipped around. In hindsight it all looks so perfect that it’s difficult to remember how uncertain this success was. SpaceX built to this moment incrementally. They learned hard lessons about aerodynamics, retropropulsion, and controls along the way. They came agonizingly close to success only to see the results go up in flames. Last night the mountains of analysis, design, work, and sweat paid off with a used rocket standing on the landing zone pad, huffing and puffing from a 10 minute sprint, exhausted, toasted, but alive.

This stage will probably never fly again. The opportunity to pick apart a machine that’s harrowed the underworld of hypersonic flight into space and returned is almost as rare as opportunities come in the engineering world, and I expect that the people of SpaceX will inspect and document every weld, bolt, and valve before putting the stage on display at Hawthorne or McGregor. The first rocket to make it back will be a well-deserved trophy. The burden of truly proving the concept will fall to her younger sisters.

Space travel is very expensive, even after 58 years of on-again, off-again efforts to advance the state of the art and make it easier to get there. It’s possible to meaningfully reduce the cost of getting to space by making launch vehicles simpler and cheaper and being satisfied with a single launch per rocket. But consider the cost of the propellants that took the 11 Orbcomn satellites carried by last night’s launch to their new home compared to the cost of the vehicle. My naively conservative analysis suggests that SpaceX spent less than $400,000 on liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene, while the list price for a Falcon 9 launch is over $60 million. I don’t believe it’s possible to build a truthful economic case that spaceflight will ever be affordable enough to enable things like commonplace research and manufacturing in microgravity, asteroid mining, and the human settlement of the solar system as long as orbital launch vehicles are one-time use. I don’t think it’s possible to make a machine that can get from the surface of the Earth into orbit cheaply enough. Even if reusable launch vehicles can’t do better than operate at 10 times the cost of the propellant they consume, that’s a factor of 15 improvement over where we are now. That’s where the (relatively) low-hanging fruit lies.

This matters because whether or not spaceflight becomes something that most people on Earth can take part in directly affects whether the future of our civilization is an optimistic one or a pessimistic one. The settlement of Mars and a widespread human presence throughout the solar system isn’t a flight of fancy. This is a practical, possible reality that’s the only viable alternative to a long-term future where we scramble to find ways to make slightly better use of the limits of Earth, confined to a single lonely mote of dust in the universe. The choice, in the long run, is between growth and discovery, and stagnation and decay. I’m assuming, if you’re not a member of the voluntary human extinction movement, that you’d prefer the former.

What SpaceX did last night is a bold step toward the optimistic future for humanity and Earth. Much more work needs to be done, by many people besides those working at Hawthorne, McGregor, and Cape Canaveral. SpaceX cannot by itself make humanity a multi-planet species. The work going on at my employer, Virgin Galactic, at Blue Origin, and at all the other small entrepreneurial space companies are an essential part of this effort. In no way does SpaceX’s success in their landing last night detract from how remarkable and wonderful Blue Origin’s successful flight was earlier this year of their New Shepard vehicle to the edge of space and back. Anyone who suggests otherwise would do well to tone down their Elon fever and embrace the effort to make spaceflight more affordable throughout the industry. It looks like the more established figures of the industry, from NASA to Boeing to United Launch Alliance, are starting to get on board with reusability, too. With a lot of work and some luck, this will be the start of the first real revolution in how things get to space since Sputnik.

Each night my wife and I read to our son the readings of the day from the Catholic lectionary. Last night’s readings were oddly appropriate given the historic events earlier that evening. The Old Testament piece was from the Song of Songs, and it’s a favorite of mine, one of the readings my wife and I had read at our wedding. It’s a poem that touches on love and hope, eros and thanksgiving. In part, it reads as follows:

“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come!
“For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!"

Most of the universe is full of death. Not in the sense that it’s actually evil, but in the sense that it’s immersed in a dark night of inertness. Life, like light, fills a void, and precious little of the universe we live in has any of the light of life within it. The machines that sever our ties to Earth enable us, the intelligent part of the biosphere that can think of the future, plan for it, and make it better, to bring at least some of what’s out there into the bloom of life. Only if we rise from the Earth can the winter of death in our part of the cosmos end. I think this is worth doing.


So I celebrate what SpaceX has done to move us along this path. I’m glad I can play some part in this effort, too. Seeing what wild lovely celebration engulfed the men and women who made this a reality in Hawthorne, I can’t help but smile for what happened last night, and for what lies in store in the years to come.


Friday, December 26, 2014

To Awaken on Saturday


The Gospels of the New Testament are rich in parables but often terse when it comes to the details of the events they describe. We're given much detail on what Jesus told his disciples in the form of prayer and advice and stories but often the events that happened are reduced to the driest accounts of their facts. A thing happened, we're told, and here's what it was.

Lazarus had been bound, hooded, and deceased for three days when Jesus told him to come out of his tomb. There's no story of resuscitation, no intervention by way of sorcery or technology, just a shout - "Come out!" - and Lazarus awkwardly groping his way back to the world of the living. What he thought and what he felt at being called back is left as an exercise to the reader.

The film Interstellar is blunt in different ways than the Bible, and the personal feeling of resurrection or something like it is explored in more detail here. When Dr. Mann, presumably the last survivor of the Lazarus missions, is awakened from his deep technological slumber he coughs, opens his eyes, and immediately weeps with joy and gratitude in the arms of his rescuers. "You have literally raised me from the dead," he says later, words that speak enough for us to know something of what happiness lives here.

I think I know something like this in my own life, in the bond I'm about to make sacramental with my bride, Sarah. I've written about her before. There was a love conceived in Sarah and me that blossomed and grew and withered and didn't quite die, but for years it fell into a sleep one breath removed from death. A year ago it woke up, and we watched the perennial buds of love grow again.

Why did we choose this baroque cycle, wandering from fascination to love to indifference to (tomorrow, God willing) the love that's stern as death? I suppose it wasn't really a choice - no sane person would choose to repeat all we've done to each other and with each other - but the accumulated knowledge we found of who we wanted to be.

I want Sarah in what I am. I want her kindness, her gentleness, her femininity, her brightness of soul, her cleverness in me. This much is true, but it's not the whole truth. More than all this, I simply want her. I want her in my life and I want to weave my life into hers.

When we dated the first time, in the twilight of our teen years as we first grappled with the problems of adulthood, I glimpsed something in her. How do I describe it? It was lovely and resistant to reduction; it was what it was. I saw Sarah for all the beauty and wonder that every human being is. But Sarah was my human, and I could do nothing honest but love her in response.

When we didn't date, I accepted that and tried to move on. We dated other people. We moved away, Sarah to Houston and me to Seattle. We continued building our lives separately, linked by the faintest bonds of friendship. There's more to the story than just this, but the tl;dr summary is that when I became Catholic it resolved the most significant extant conflict between us, and we decided to see if something more than friendship made sense. Suffice it to say it did, and I wept happy tears that our love was breathing the air of life again.

Why do I want to marry Sarah? There are many ways I could answer. I want to make her life better, to help her achieve her childhood dreams. I think she’ll make my life better. There’s no one I’d rather start a family with and see mother my children than Sarah. I love the simple joy of feeling closeness to her in body and soul. These are all true, logical, and rational, but the deepest truth is something less amenable to words. I feel a lightness in the heart, a longing deep inside, a thirst for beauty created at the thought of joining our lives together.

So Sarah is the one for me. I offer all that I am, confident of my strengths, trembling at the knowledge of my flaws, to her. I pray for intercession that I might grow to be the husband she needs and in thanksgiving that I will have her as my wife. For as long as we have to be spouses to one another, let the words of adoration, love, companionship, and caring for her always be on my tongue. My life is blessed with riches beyond measure, and the greatest of them is the woman who will soon be my wife.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Clay Lies Still, but Blood's a Rover

My brother, Matthew Atkinson, died in a bizarre and tragic accident this past weekend, on the night of June 21st. He was cleaning one of his guns after a day of honing the marksmanship he enjoyed so much. The gun fell, a bullet somehow left in the chamber misfired, and Matt happened to be in the wrong place at that one moment in time. Matt was 21 years of age, and left the world a man in love.

He was in love with nature. He loved roaming in the wild, whether it was in the deserts and woods of Arizona or the forests and mountains of Washington. On all his hikes and hunting trips and fishing trips it was clear that he saw the little intricacies in the natural world around him. He just noticed things that others didn’t, and admired things no one else saw. He was going on an internship with the Game & Fish Department this summer which would’ve taken him out patrolling and maintaining often the southwest land he loved. He breathed most comfortably when he breathed the free air away from the cities, and he set up his life so he did so, often.

He was in love with animals. He adopted a rat and a dog from the Arizona Humane Society, and loved them both dearly. His friendships with the animals in his life, whether they were my parents’ cats or butterflies on a hilltop, seemed to show something charmed about him, something that the animal world just connected with. To see Matt caring for the animals in his life was to see a man who loved all the life around him, whatever form it took.

He was in love with people. He was dearly romantic with the woman he loved, and his friendships were deep with his comrades in my family and beyond. His caring for others cast a deep net throughout his life. One Christmas he asked for no gifts, but for the budget for his gifts to be donated to charity. He gave help and food to strangers when they needed it without questioning or hedging. It was the right thing, so he did it. Matt lived with a clarity I envy toward the way he treated the people in his life, however transient his connections with them might be.

Whatever Matt wanted to do, he did. The day he turned 18 he signed the paperwork to buy a motorcycle in Prescott, and with a friend he shipped it to Phoenix in a rented U-haul trailer. It was an operation as complex and clandestine as a bank heist just out of my parents’ attention. My parents returned shocked to find the machine they forbid him to buy in the driveway, surely feeling a bit of pride along with their frustration and surprise.

I didn’t always get along with Matt, in that simple typical way of not getting along that that siblings do. It seems horrifying now that I didn’t appreciate every conversation we had, every walk through the streets and on the desert trails, and every moment we lived under the same roof since he came home from the hospital. I remember that day clearly. The December air was crisp and chilly, the concrete of the driveway cool on my feet, Matt and his twin brother looking as fragile as porcelain dolls but as alive as all the Earth. The memories stand out like afterimages in the flashbulb shock of his absence. Fortunately the good times, when we felt linked together in brotherhood and a shared bliss in observing the world, far outweigh the times we just didn’t understand each other.

There’s a temptation to think the world an evil place for allowing Matt to depart so soon. We expect so much, so used to wealth and peace as we are in this country in this time. We expect that we’ll all have decade after decade flowing lazily into the future, forgetting how patiently time waited for life to emerge and blossom on Earth, and how transient life is. It’s a privilege beyond measure to breathe a single time, and that Matt breathed for 21 years is a heroic wonder. It was a privilege to be able to call him “brother.”

Matt believed the world was good, and lived his life accordingly. To live authentically with such love for nature and people requires a belief that there’s goodness at the heart of all that is, and this is the legacy that I think Matt wants us to carry on. Look not on the strangeness and the randomness of his departure then, but on the way he touched the lives he contacted, brief as that contact was. I long to live as Matt lived, full of passion and firmness and joy. In my brothers and my parents and in me, I hope and pray that these parts of Matt may live on.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year of Seattle


Normally I like to close the year with some retrospection about what's been going on over the last 12 months, but I'm in a bit of a bind this time around. The year has about five hours to go in my current time zone, and this will be the second post on this blog since the last time we were on this side of the Sun. The main reason for this is my other blag, which has been taking up a surprisingly-large chunk of my unclaimed time. I've posted quite a bit of content over there (by my standards), about three times as many posts as are currently on this blog, in the last year, so this is reasonable, but it makes it awkward for me to talk about what I've been up to in 2013. Out of context, many of the brief notes I could write would make no sense, so instead I'll talk briskly about some of the things I can be open about and I'll make a note to write more in this space next year. Hopefully.

In January I moved to Seattle full-time. I started my first real, indefinite-length job, and started learning about how engineering happens in practice, rather than the abstract way I learned in school. As the daylight and twilight yawned open for the summer, then contracted again in the fall, I gradually began to feel more and more like I actually work at Boeing, and I've been able to make some reasonable contributions to the work going on in the structures lab. At the very least, I haven't delayed a major program yet, which is cool.

For the first time since 2008 I stayed in the United States all year. I ventured as far north as San Juan Island, south to Houston, east to Bar Harbor, and west to Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula. A stamp on my passport would be nice, but that seems like a rich enough set of travels for one orbit.

My life is at once more open-ended and more stable than it's been in a long time. Things are well at Boeing and in Seattle, and I don't foresee any obvious impediments that might prevent things from proceeding as they are into the future. There's more to life than stability, of course, and the questions about where to go from here with my education, my career, and my personal life remain open and largely unsolved. Given the fact that I'm not yet a quarter-century old, that's probably a good place to be. I expect that the next year will bring at least some resolution into focus. More on that later...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Nothing but the Rain


Friday was an unusual day for February in western Washington. The sky was desert-clear in the afternoon once the Sun burned off the morning fog. From Seattle, Mount Rainier loomed like a titan's throne in the south, and the Olympic mountains were clearly present across Puget Sound to the west. Most days this time of year the western mountains are shrouded in the clouds that dump rain forest levels of rain on the peninsula, but on Friday they rose like the teeth of a saw blade, white with the immaculate reflectivity of winter's snow. This weekend's weather has been more typical. The skies have mostly been gray, and the afternoons filled with the sound of raindrops on glass.


As atypical as the weather was in Seattle, it was much more out of the ordinary in Chelyabinsk than anywhere else on Earth. The largest meteoroid to collide with Earth since the Tunguska Event of 1908 hit the atmosphere with a train of light that outshone the Sun and a shock wave loud enough to break thousands of windows and collapse at least one large building across the city. The energy released by the asteroid was something like a typical ICBM warhead, a level of energy as beyond human imagination as the scale of the oceans.

Some in the media will downplay this event, reminding us that these impacts are very rare on the scale of a human lifetime. This is true. It's unlikely that anyone alive today will live to see a larger collision between a near-Earth object and our home planet. There are other, clearer, more present dangers to our cities and farms than these collisions, and it makes sense that more time and industry has been devoted to understanding and mitigating the effects on civilization of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, and tsunamis than asteroid collisions.

Still, we're doing meaningful things to mitigate those threats because they're real and obvious. The threat from asteroid and comet impacts is less obvious because of the rarity of these events, but it's no less real. Shouldn't we be doing something about asteroid defense, now that we have the technology to make it happen? There are many credible options on the table for how to deflect a large object on a collision course with Earth so long as we have a few years' lead time. Finding objects in time to have that head start is within the capabilities of well-incentivized amateurs. The challenges aren't technical, they're political and financial.

Rather than dumping the responsibility on NASA, why not charge the world's defense departments with the defense of the world? Most of the objects capable of causing regional damage on impact could be found, and a demonstration mission could be done to prove the concept of asteroid deflection for about half a billion dollars. That's about a thousandth what the US DoD receives every year, sequestration or not. People tend to be reactionary, and don't want to respond to threats until they become too painful to ignore. My hope is that the rain from space over the Urals will get people to react.

Because the one thing we know for certain is that the next one is out there.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Year of Transition



At the end of 2011 I was in denial about the kind of year I’d just had. There were many external suggestions that I’d had a good year. Last year I graduated from college, completed my first internship at Boeing, started grad school, and completed work on what would become my first conference presentation paper. The Space Shuttle program drew to a successful, safe close, an Aggie commanded the International Space Station for half the year, Curiosity departed Earth bound for Mars, and the first 787 was delivered to All Nippon Airlines. Unemployment stayed unfortunately high by American standards throughout the year, but it seemed to be coming down, and the long recovery from the financial madness of the mid-2000s continued steadily if not briskly. Overall, 2011 was a good year for the United States and my academic and corporate alma maters, but it was a personally difficult time for me.

It’s hard to be clear about what exactly was so difficult last year. Partly it was a transition from thinking “This next” to “Now what?” In high school I was fixated on performing well academically so I’d be able to have the best college experience possible, and in college I did the same with an eye toward grad school. Growing up I got the message that I was good at school, that more education is always better, and internalized somewhere deep in my mind that climbing as high as I could on the academic ladder was the most important task I had in front of me. When I got to the last rung on the ladder, grad school, and found that my talents and skills were a poor match for what makes people successful there, my mind’s first response was anxiety.

By the end of the year I realized that my unhappiness with the program I was in wasn’t going away, and took steps to start changing things. I switched advisors, took classes in design rather than theory, and decided to try an internship in structural testing over the summer. My second tour in the Boeing internship program confirmed that I prefer working in the land of experiment to the land of theory, and that I’m happy working at Boeing and living in Seattle.

When I found out that I no longer had funding for my master’s program, the “Now what?” questions flared up again. I wanted to tough it out for another year, at least, to finish my MS, but knew that I was happier working on test programs in the lab than I was in College Station trying to conceive of a thesis topic. The decision to put grad school on hold and start work full time would’ve horrified the immature, high school version of me bent on pursuing formal education to the expense of everything else in my life, but it’s been a convincingly good decision for me. I’ve been able to cool off over the last few months, start the process of getting my priorities straight, and I’ve seen some interesting places along the way.

Externally, 2012 has been an interesting year. Barack Obama was reelected, something I’m rather apathetic about, but there is the historical curiosity that this is the first time since Jefferson-Madison-Monroe (1801-1825) that three consecutive presidents have been reelected. It was the first year since 1987 that no manned spacecraft launched from American soil, due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the epically delayed SpaceShipTwo development. China’s space program did better on the propaganda front, manning their Tiangong 1 space station for the first time (making this year the first since 2001 with two space stations on orbit simultaneously), but more American than Chinese astronauts flew in 2012. SpaceX’s two successful automated delivery flights to the ISS were a triumph for private enterprise and the future of American human spaceflight. By some miracle, everything worked that needed to work on the Curiosity entry, descent, and landing bus, and the rover now has a productive decade of science ahead of her in Gale Crater. 2012 turned out to be a major year of transition in the aerospace industry, too.

Where 2011 was a year of frustration and pushback, 2012 was a year of exploration and renewal. My path’s changed a bit from my plans of the end of the last decade, but I think the trajectory is still good. This was a good year for me, and I’m optimistic about what’s to come. In the next year, I’ll be moving to a new place, starting a new job, and defining what I want my post-college life to look like. Who knows what else 2013 might bring?

Just for reasons, here are a few records and fun facts on my travel and reading for the year:

-Furthest north: Vancouver, British Columbia
-Furthest south: Ka Lae cape, Hawaii (also the southernmost point in the United States)
-Furthest east: The Capitol, Washington, DC
-Furthest west: Barking Sands Beach, Kauai, Hawaii (this is also a personal record for furthest west)
-Highest elevation: Mauna Kea summit, 13,803 ft above sea level (I'm not positive, but I think this is a personal record for highest elevation on the ground)
-Lowest elevation: Sea level (in Hawaii and Washington)
-Longest single-day drive: Phoenix, Arizona to Twin Falls, Idaho, about 790 miles.

-2012 was the first year since 2007 in which I never went to Florida.

-I traveled to Virginia and the District of Columbia for the first time in 2012. This means that I’ve now been to exactly half of the 50 states, and puts me on track to visit every state by 2035.

-I’ve now accumulated more than three weeks in Hawaii, meaning that Hawaii is sixth on the list of states I’ve spent the most time in (after Arizona, Texas, Washington, Illinois, and California).

-I visited two new islands for the first time: Kauai and Hawaii, both in the state of Hawaii.

-My record for furthest west was broken in November, during my trip to Kauai. The previous record was set in 2007 at Pearl Harbor on Oahu.


-My first flight of the year was on January 4, between Phoenix (Deer Valley) and Page, Arizona.


-My last flight of the year was on December 12, between Honolulu and Phoenix (Sky Harbor). There were more people with me this time.

-I read a number of surprisingly good books this year, so picking a best is difficult. The Spirit of St. Louis and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are both excellent, but my favorite was Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge. Everything about O’Connor’s writing, from the imagery to the character interaction, to the basic prose just works to make an intense but delightful experience.

I hope you had, on balance, a good 2012, and best of luck in the year to come.


Seven Days in the Garden


For obvious reasons, I didn't take this picture. It was taken by a person who was living on a space station at the time. I took the rest of the pictures in this post.

In the Hawaiian creation mythos, Haumea, the goddess of fertility and childbirth, plays a prominent role. The gods and goddesses who regulate the wild and rugged nature of Polynesia’s geology, plants, and sea life all hail from her, and according to legend she renewed herself several times, taking the form of a new young woman to bear the next generation of gods and demigods. Though the mythmakers of Hawaii couldn’t have known it, the story of Haumea echoes the creation story of the islands themselves. As the Pacific Plate slides west by northwest, a hot spot just south of the Tropic of Cancer weeps liquid rock upward, building a vast mountain chain one runny eruption at a time. Many of the old volcanoes, built long ago and carried far into the distance toward Japan and Russia, have been worn until only seamounts and atolls remain. Only the eight major islands of the Hawaiian chain still stand tall over the surf line.

Kauai is clearly the eldest of the major apparitions of Haumea. Only Niihau is further west, and Kauai dominates over the eroded lowlands of her smallish neighbor. The character of the island is very different from the virgin volcanic forms of Hawaii and Maui. Below the human scale, erosion polishes rocks smooth into pebbles, but above the human scale it cuts jagged canyons into the landscape. It’s been about six million years since the peak of Kauai first rose above the long waves of the open Pacific. That’s not much, compared to the age of the old rocks of the continents, but it makes Kauai the spinster to Hawaii’s maiden.

Kauai is a place where water is in perpetual motion. Clouds shroud the inland peaks and plateaus, transfiguring the calderas into swamplands. Parts of Kauai take in over 40 feet of rain in an average year, and this harvest from the sky plows downward through deep V-shaped valleys characteristic of fast, water-driven erosion. All the prominent features of the island, from Waimea Canyon in the west to the Kalalau Valley in the north, to the Wailua River basin in the east, are furrows sliced by this relentless liquid plow into the frozen lava of long-dead volcanoes.


Walk along the northern beaches of Kauai, and another voice of moving water becomes clear, that of the surf. Winter is high surf season in this part of the Pacific, and the waves breaking on the shoals at Kalalau and Ke’e are breathtaking in scale. Watching the waves reveals the breath of a sleeping giant. Water goes out, rises. Crest forms, white curl across the top. The crest crashes back toward the beach to the rustling roar of energy pounding through humid air. This all takes about 20 seconds, then the next pipeline monster emerges from the teal-blue water.


Moving through the Kalalau Valley, every time scale is apparent. The shortest is that of the insects and leaves. Butterflies twitter and leaves pirouette through gusts of winds lasting a second or two. Next there’s the thrice-a-minute rhythm of the waves. Beyond that, the longer cycle of Earth’s rotation is shown in the shifting sunlight, the most accessible scale to people. Accelerate a few orders of magnitude, and the island and valley themselves bear witness to millions of years of volcanism, rain, wind, and waves, and the Earth beneath is the product of billions of years of planetary evolution. The scale and wonder of the universe is written plainly in Kauai for all who pause long enough to see the writing in the walls of the canyons and mountains.


Moving along the highway toward the east and civilization (such as it is on Kauai) does not disappoint. The land is less rugged than the off-scale-high unfriendliness to roads that the Na Pali coast maintains, but it’s no less stunning to behold. Look south, and you’ll see sharp mountains and cliffs rendered in every shade of green the electromagnetic spectrum offers. There are lime greens, forest greens, neon greens, olivine greens, fern greens, emeralds, jades, teals, and aquas coating every visible face of the interior in impressionist swirls of color. Blossoms, red and magenta and royal blue, scream their presence toward the retina, saturating the eyes with color. There’s a bridge just east of Princeville that curves three-dimensionally through a thicket of every imaginable variety of tree. A bridge through the jungles of Pandora would look no less exotic.


As the road curves to the south, the mountains and valleys of the north shore give way to lowlands in the east shore. There are fish ponds and taro fields in the plains, and cliffs in the interior. There are no steady flat horizons on Kauai, even in the plains, due to the presence of the inland mountains, so the sphere of view isn’t so much divided between ground and sky as it is between green and white. Below the altitude where the air temperature drops below the dew point, there’s terrain and outcrops in a patchwork quilt of greens, and above that altitude there’s the shifting white and gray undersurface of clouds. On the rare occasions when a cloudless sky faces the northeast corner of Kauai, Mount Waiale’ale is visible from here, the wellspring of the rivers of Kauai.


Travel inland from the coastal towns of Kapa’a and Wailua and it’s easy to forget that you’re on an island. Erosion hasn’t been so savage that there are no hills left in Kauai even after six million relentless years of rain and wind, and after climbing a few ridges the ocean seems distant as the mainland. The Wailua River is the tamest of the Hawaiian islands’ watery veins, and from overlooks it winds through lush valleys upstream and downstream of the great eastern waterfalls of Kauai. I picked the wrong day to try to rent a kayak, Sunday, and all the rental shops were closed. With better timing there are many options to choose from touring up and down the river.

The road winds south, then west, through Lihue and Omao and Kalaheo. Kauai is unique among the Hawaiian chain in the level of agriculture it’s retained, and the route travels through plantations growing sugarcane, taro, coffee, cocoa, and vanilla. The soil is red like that of Sedona and Alabama. The ground is rich with iron and the water rich with rain and sunshine. Only elsewhere in Hawaii, between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, can such a bounty be harvested from US ground. Over the week I spent on the island I sampled coffee and rum produced from the fruits of Pacific lava and showers, and was not disappointed.


Detour south toward Poipu and the road winds through a thicket of eucalyptus trees known as the tree tunnel. It’s a good place name, simple and descriptive. The tree tunnel is a microcosm of the overall atmosphere of Kauai, at once wild with living energy and cultivated for the tourists speeding down the road, hemmed in on both sides by the tangling branches and trunks. The south coast is leeward of the trade winds, and its beaches are less complete than those of the north. Much of the southern coast of Hawaii is jagged piles of lava right up to edge of the water. In some places, hard rock was laid down on soft rock, and the lower, older lava flows were eroded into the Pacific long ago while the young hard flows atop them remain. At Spouting Horn, waves rush into the tunnels etched through this alternating process of laying up and tearing down, and water surges upward through gaps in the rock like a geyser with each crest of energy.


People had lived on Kauai for a millennium by the time Captain James Cook arrived at the Waimea River estuary, but his crew were the first Europeans to lay eyes and feet on the island. There are high-voltage pylons and electric lights in Waimea town now, but other than that it seems little changed since the Discovery and Resolution sheltered in the bay. Today the roads are paved with asphalt and there’s now a post office, a Subway, and a statue commemorating the arrival of Cook in 1778, but there are no high-rises and most buildings seem as worn as the island itself. Charitably, Waimea is a place that looks quaintly aged. Less charitably it seems almost as worn as the ruins of Fort Elisabeth across the river.

The traveler is offered a choice driving through Waimea. Proceed north on 550 and the road climbs the western rim of Waimea Canyon. Go west on 50 and it curves north along the coast to the end of the line. Waimea Canyon is the centerpiece of the western geology of the island, and I elected to scale its rim to the southern edge of the Na Pali coast.

The road rises quickly up the old igneous flank of Kawaikini, weaving back and forth through switchbacks as the climate shifts from coastal to alpine. Blue skies are rare in the highland interior of Kauai, and the cumulus shimmers quickly between partly cloudy, brokenly cloudy, overcast, drizzling, and pouring rain. Every once and a while the road veers off into a parking lot and an overlook, and the views of the canyon merit contemplation.


Mark Twain described Waimea Canyon as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and unlike most quotes attributed to Mr. Twain, it seems he actually said this as he tagged along with the western whaling fleets shortly after the end of the Civil War. The simple canyon of Kauai evokes memories of the compound canyon of Arizona, and it’s almost as deep though it’s much shorter and narrower than the true Grand Canyon. The faces and bluffs are painted in shades of rust and brown, like the walls of the canyons of the North American southwest, and the river winding far below is muddy and turbulent like the Colorado. Something is missing from the analogy, though.


“Verdant” is not an adjective that comes to mind thinking of the Colorado River basin. In the land of Waimea, it seems truly appropriate. The green of the east coast is nearly as ubiquitous here where the rains don’t have time and altitude to turn to virga. There are trees and bushes everywhere the slopes are shallow enough to allow root structures to latch onto the soil. Green shades of life compliment the red shades of rock. Though the scale of Waimea Canyon is an order of magnitude less than that of the great canyons of Arizona and Utah, it’s still well beyond the human scale, and its epicness is in no way diminished by the size of things ashore.


The road continues through the high plateau of Koke’e State Park and terminates at a pair of overlooks of the Kalalau Valley. Whether viewed from above or below, the scale of the valley is clear, but the view from cliff’s edge allows a better understanding of the island’s context. At the beach, waves as well as walls tower over the visitor, but up here the waves are diminished to noise on an otherwise peaceful expanse of ocean. The ocean yawns onward to the horizon, where blue water merges with gray sky. Climbing to nearly a mile above the water renders the unimaginable distance to America a little clearer, and the island’s place among the ocean is put in its proper perspective. Either way, its beauty is obvious.


By car there’s nowhere to go besides turning back, but on foot the traveler has the option of hiking through the Alaka’i Swamp. I’m not sure what I expected to find based on the name of this place, but the experience was exactly as advertised – swampy. The trail was all mud and rock, the mud thick, slurpy, and filthy, the rocks slick and smooth. Even in the interior plateau of the island the trail rarely stayed two-dimensional. Where it’s flat, potholes the size of bowling balls threaten to swallow your feet in mucky opaque water, and where it’s steep the only option is to reach out to the overhanging branches to stabilize yourself as your feet slip and slide across the rocks. Properly equipped with boots and a few fellow hikers I could’ve easily pressed on, but I wanted to save my shoes from the worst of the wear, and elected to turn back after a mile of rough going through the great mudhouse of the Pacific.


Back on the perimeter highway, there’s only one more town counterclockwise of Waimea. Kekaha is passed quickly, yielding to Barking Sands beach, one of the longest in the archipelago. Even here on the leeward side of the Kauai, the waves have broken down long expanses of the lava into powder mixed with broken coral. Only Kauai is aged enough to have lush strips of sand that go on for miles and miles. Barking Sands is a particularly long beach, and is particularly well-suited for sunsets. It’s an ideal place to feel fine sand between your toes and crisp foaming seawater around your ankles on a long walk. Gazing over the surf, the plateaus of Niihau are a ghostly silhouette in the mist.

Once the road reaches the Pacific Missile Range there are few options to press on. Continuing on the highway requires getting past the guards at the range, the road to Polihale Beach requires four-wheel drive, and the narrow road inland quickly ends among the sugarcane plots in the shadow of the Koke’e plateau. From the end of the line it hits home how little of Kauai can be reached by car. The steep gradients of the eroded valleys are hostile to road building, and nearly the entire interior of the island is off limits to vehicle traffic. Hiking trails provide some access to the places where cars don’t go, but that’s a difficult and muddy option that strips the close-up perspective of the island from any meaningful context. The only way to truly understand Kauai is from the air.