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Scale a Volcano

Dave Lauridsen A trek across cooled lava fields in Hawaii Volcano National Park.

Photo: Dave Lauridsen

Are you familiar with the emotional cocktail that is composed of equal parts fascination and terror?That's how I feel about volcanoes. My schizophrenia started in college during a trip I took to Edinburgh. When I learned that Edinburgh Castle sits atop a volcano, my brain sputtered: a volcano. In the middle of a city. With a castle on top of it. Ten years later, I spent a trip to Sicily staring down a smoke-billowing Etna, in awe of its brute presence and intimations of violence. So two years ago I finally decided to tackle the beast by climbing Mount Fuji. But it all went horribly wrong: a case of altitude sickness felled me mid-ascent—and I spent a teary night in a bodies-packed hut along the trail, spooning with an older Japanese man who looked like Ernest Borgnine.

Fuji had defeated me and exacerbated my fear, and now I needed to overcome this dread. If the volcanoes of my past had been extinct or inactive, what better way to overcome my fear than to visit the world's most active one—a firebox that daily oozes between 300,000 and 1,000,000 cubic yards of lava?Two and a half million people a year visit Hawaii's Kilauea, drawn to the prospect of seeing land being born. (As we know from the Discovery Channel, it's like watching an animal birthing, only the animal in this case is Earth.) Here was my chance to even the score. Fuji be damned.

Located in a 333,000-acre national park on the southeastern edge of the island, the awe-inspiring and ruggedly beautiful Kilauea is called the drive-in volcano because paved roads allow you to traverse it by car. So, on my first morning in the park, I eased myself into the volcano-viewing experience by driving the 11-mile road that circles the roughly six-square-mile caldera, or crater—a mostly barren expanse of rock dotted with steam vents. It's big and blackish brown and mottled, the world's largest pan of burned brownies. There's no molten lava in sight here—it lurks 300 feet below the surface—and so my psychogenic state was what health professionals might call "resting comfortably." My anxiety level ratcheted up slightly, though, when I pulled my car over to see Halema'uma'u, the quarry-like and sulfur-stained 300-foot-deep crater-within-the-crater where Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, is said to live. Light breezes bodied forth a fug of sulfur; by the time I'd walked the 200 or so feet from my car to the viewing area, I felt like I'd eaten a pack of matches. The rim of Halema'uma'u is ringed with offerings to Pele that visitors have brought: leis, rocks wrapped in ti leaves, bottles of gin.

Reaching into my jacket pocket, I pulled out my own offering: a sesame-seed bagel I'd bought at a deli back home. I placed the doughy orb near the rim and whispered, "For you, Pele. From your New York son." Positioned next to the giant circular fissure in the earth, the bagel looked like a tiny echo—a Lifesaver in front of the Astrodome, or an opera diva's nostril.

Having secured this strange form of life insurance for myself, I decided the next day to go on an 11-mile hike toward Pu'u O'o, Kilauea's currently erupting vent. But to allay my mounting anxiety, first I drove a half-hour to the farmers' market in Hilo—a waterfront town whose sleepy, down-at-heel center feels Caribbean. I mostly remember the speargun store and the tzzzt-tzzzt-tzzzt sound emanating from the tattoo parlor. Although the meals at Volcano House (think hunting lodge, but with a lot of carpeting) and at various establishments in the park-adjacent town of Volcano were serviceable, my best meals necessitated trips to the farmers' market or the Hilo Bay Café. Stocked with water, a four-cheese focaccia, a butter avocado, and four kinds of mangoes, I drove back to the park's visitors center. Here I told a friendly, mustachioed park ranger in his forties that I wanted to hike toward Pu'u O'o—a name I was unable to pronounce without sounding like a debutante lamenting the death of her small dog. Handing me a release form, the ranger told me, "This is the most eruptive part of the volcano. We might get two hours' notice and need to helicopter you out of there." I signed the form; it stated that no search party would be initiated upon failure of my return. After driving 20 minutes to the trailhead, I proceeded to climb for about an hour over volcanic rock that was by turns jagged and blobtastic, then for another two hours through a lush forest of 25-foot-tall tree ferns. The excitement of getting ever-closer to the vent was like a kind of voodoo, erasing all memories of Fuji: I got to a sign on the trail reading, "Danger: Do not pass this point. Trail undercut" and kept on walking. If I told you that feral pigs are said to roam these woods, but that this fact gave me no pause, would you think me too startlingly masculine, too Mennen for Men?Anyway, what was a little tussle with angry pork compared to being encased in white-hot magma?

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