MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — Little lives up here except whispering hopes and a little bug called Wekiu.
Three miles above the Pacific, you are above almost half the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere and every step hurts. A few minutes in the sun will fry your skin. Brains and fingers go numb. At night, the stars are so close they seem tangled in your hair.
Two years ago, this mountaintop was the scene of a cosmic traffic jam: honking horns, vans and trucks full of astronomers, V.I.P.s, journalists, businesspeople, politicians, protesters and police — all snarled at a roadblock just short of the summit.
Abandoning their cars, some of the visitors started to hike up the hill toward what would have been a groundbreaking for the biggest and most expensive stargazing machinery ever built in the Northern Hemisphere: the Thirty Meter Telescope, 14 years and $1.4 billion in the making.
They were assembling on a plateau just below the summit, when Joshua Mangauil, better known by his Hawaiian name of Lanakila, then 27, barged onto the scene. Resplendent in a tapa cloth, beads, a red loin cloth, his jet black hair in a long Mohawk, he had hiked over the volcano’s cinder cones barefoot.