Previously: On Top of the World (Part 1)
Once we piled back into the vans, they drove up an even steeper road, zig-zagging up the mountain. Now the landscape was barren, looking more like a moonscape than earth. In fact, our tour guide said, the Mars rovers were tested on this rocky land, since it was similar to the makeup of the ground on Mars.
We kept driving, and soon we saw snow. Then more snow, then hills with ski-marks on it: our guide told us that people who work here (scientists and tour guides alike) sometimes bring their skis or snowboards, drive to the summit, and ski to the bottom of the snow.
We also learned that there is archeological evidence that ancient Hawaiians used to live up this far up, even though there is no underground water source. Apparently this is where priests and royalty went to commune with the gods, and there was a small community of people, completely dependent on food and water from the outside world, who lived their lives on the summit as gatekeepers to the gods.
We knew we were getting closer to the summit when we started to see the observatories, more modern gatekeepers of the heavens. We stopped at the Caltech submillimeter observatory and walked around it, and I got an idea of how incredibly enormous it was.
There was snow on the ground, and I was bundled in my parka, but Ray still hadn’t given into the cold. He was wearing a light jacket and still sported his flip-flops even though I had brought some socks and an extra pair of shoes for him.
The van then took us to the summit just in time for a glorious sunset. Two crazy people (not on our tour) took off their clothes and jumped around in the snow in their bathing suits. Ray just took off his flip-flops.
It’s difficult for me to come up with words to describe how I felt standing on the top of the world at an altitude of 13,796 feet, looking at the sun setting into the horizon. I felt an incredible sense of euphoria of being in such a magical place, and I could understand why the Hawaiians felt like they were communing with the gods up here. And maybe it was the lack of oxygen making me think this way, but maybe, just maybe, there really was something mystical about the summit.
After the sun set, we all crowded back into the van to drive back to the visitors’ center. Across the road, they set up two 9-millimeter telescopes and gave us a stargazing presentation as we sipped hot chocolate. We all got to look into the telescopes and see several different star formations, ending with a finale of a fantastic view of Saturn and its rings. Some of the people had gotten tired and cold about halfway through the presentation and had gone back to the van, but I was riveted.
As soon as the van pulled away, Ray turned to me and said, “Okay, that was the best thing we’ve done this whole trip.” I heartily agreed.