People often wonder what I do all day.
If you follow me on social media, it may look like all I do is eat, surf, hike with my dogs and bake butter mochi.
That’s partially true.
But since 1997 — and I’ve just realized this is actually a long time ago! — I’ve been working as a writer. My longest stint (10 years) has been with a daily newspaper, my shortest as a government public information officer (9 months). And for the past several years, I’ve been a freelance writer. Meaning, I write for a variety of outlets, from consumer magazines to travel guides to start-up websites. And meaning, I write all sorts of things, from long-form non-fiction to blurbs in brochures that hardly get noticed.
Last November, I was fortunate enough to get a full-time job doing exactly what I love. As food editor at HONOLULU Magazine, I write about new restaurants, prominent chefs, food trends and local agriculture. It’s really a dream job.
(Interestingly enough, I was talking to a friend about how lucky I feel to get paid to write all day, and she winced. “That sounds like my worst nightmare,” she said. To each her own, I guess!)
But sometimes — and this is when life gets really good — I get tossed a writing assignment that takes me away from the day-to-day. I mean, I love eating white truffle risotto like anyone else, but sometimes every food writer needs a break.
My editor wandered over to my cubicle and asked what I was doing on Saturday.
Usually, that’s never a comfortable question to answer. In other workplaces, I’ve desperately scrambled for excuses — Baby shower! Funeral! Unscheduled appendectomy! — to get out of working on the weekend.
But there was something about the way she had asked — aside from very nicely — that made me think this was different.
She wanted to know if I’d be willing and able to fly to the Big Island to tour the observatories atop Mauna Kea, the world’s largest mountain and the absolute best place on Earth to study the stars.
The Maunakea Observatories and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center partnered to offer free monthly tours of the world-class telescopes atop this sacred mountain after protests erupted last year against the building of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT. (You’ve probably seen the hashtag.)
Called the Kamaʻāina Observatory Experience, this daylong experience allows residents to learn more about what’s going on up there, how science and culture can work hand-in-hand, and what kind of larger impact the research done at these observatories has on the world around us.
My inner geology geek squealed!
“Of course! No problem! I’m so there!”
And so the work begins.
I Googled the tour, which had already been promoted on several news outlets. I made contact with the public relations person in charge of organizing this field trip for me. And I booked my flight — arriving early enough to eat at Ken’s House of Pancakes and with enough time to make the flight home. (I’ve missed many flights in my years of traveling. Sometimes I’m at the airport, waiting, and I still manage to miss my flight. It’s a talent.)
Then it’s time to do research. You never want to walk into an interview — in this case, a daylong tour — without knowing what’s going on. What’s the point of going on this tour? What should I expect? What would readers want to know? These are the important questions I need to answer in my story.
We landed in Hilo at around 7:30 a.m., giving us an hour to eat breakfast before making the hourlong drive to the Maunakea Visitor Information Center at around 9,300 feet above sea level.
I looked over the waivers I had signed the night before. (You have to sign these liability forms at sea level, believe it or not. I found out why soon enough.) I’ll be honest, I just glanced at them. Reading them, though, was a bit eye-opening. I probably shouldn’t have had that glass of wine for dinner — or the eggs, bacon, hash browns, waffles and Diet Coke for breakfast that morning.
I was, however, prepared for the weather.
At the summit, which soars 14,000 feet above sea level, the temperature outside hovered around 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit — and that’s without the wind chill. Luckily for us, the winds were only blowing about 30 miles per hour. It has gotten as crazy as 150 mph, which is just insane.
Inside the telescopes, though, is a different matter. Since the instruments are exposed to the air when the observatories are open, the temperature inside has to be the same as it would be outside at night. So it’s close to freezing inside. Yes, freezing. Layering — and gloves and a beanie and a scarf — were imperative.
So after a very informational — and important — two hours of presentations and safety briefings at Hale Pōhaku, a collection of support facilities for the people who work at the telescopes, we headed to the cafeteria there for lunch.
As food editor, ahem, I felt compelled to, you know, sample the food. All the food. Today’s menu included beef teriyaki, chunks of seared ‘ahi, egg foo young, crinkle-cut fries, salad, rice and four flavors of ice cream.
And to be honest, the food was great. I could eat here every day.
Posted on a bulletin board in the kitchen was the menu for the rest of the month. Pork adobo, shrimp tempura, laulau, kalbi short ribs, fresh corned beef and cabbage, teri chicken, meat jun, TACOS. Sign me up!
After digesting another too-big meal — you want to keep oxygen in your head, not in your stomach — we rode up to the summit in two four-wheel-drive passenger vans. And as we progressed through the alpine region of Mauna Kea lined with māmane trees, we could start to feel the elevation change. I felt like passing out — though I did have a restless sleep earlier that night — and my husband was already feeling lightheaded, a typical symptom of altitude sickness.
I went over the list in my head. Headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, nauseas, vomiting. So far, so good. Our guides told us that most of us would feel something, though only a few might actually get sick enough to need oxygen or be transported back to the visitor’s center.
When we stepped out of the vans, it was obvious my husband wasn’t feeling well. As soon as we get inside the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope, our guides checked our oxygen saturation levels. To put this into perspective, normal blood oxygen levels in humans should be at least 90 percent. If it’s below 90 percent, it’s considered low, resulting in hypoxemia. Below 80 percent, and it could compromise organ function.
My husband was at 69 percent.
He was quickly outfitted with an oxygen tank — as were a few others — and immediately felt better. Better enough to spend the next two hours at the summit, touring two telescopes and even asking semi-coherent questions. (But we did rethink our plans to hike to Everest Base Camp this year.)
I felt a bit lightheaded and disoriented up there, too, I’m not going to lie. But as my first time to the summit, the strange feeling was well worth it. I learned so much about the science that goes on up here. I learned more about the cultural significance of the tallest peak in Oceania. And I learned that there’s no way I could ever get a job at a telescope and have to work at this elevation. Could you imagine my emails?
And that’s what this job is all about. It’s about learning and sharing, and that’s it.
Traveling? Well, that’s gravy.
Read my story on HONOLULU Magazine’s website here.