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Scale a Volcano

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

Photo: Dave Lauridsen

I got a chill when I finally spotted the Pu'u O'o vent; it's a craggy hell pot. Its broken cinder belches a white, billowy smoke that fairly screams, "Back off, buster." Bewitched, I hunkered down in a field of volcanic rock (I was about two miles from the vent at this point) and ate my picnic. When staring potential cataclysm in the eye, it's best, I've always found, to focus on a specific task. So, pulling my mangoes out of my knapsack, I road-tasted the four varieties at hand in my first annual Mango-Off. The results: Kidney (mild; no fiber; small pit), Hayden (very juicy; semi-fibrous; satiating), Pirie (fibrous; coconutty; sublime), Sweet Cigar (kiwi-like; not for me).

To have lingered at the edges of the Inferno was instantly emboldening. My psychic scarring from Japan now seemed irrelevant; Fuji, Schmuji. Yet the end result of my new confidence was not satisfaction but, rather, a desire for more. I wanted more thrills, more volcano. Two ideas struck me. The first, at six o'clock one evening, was to drive 45 minutes down Chain of Craters Road, the park's winding path to the ocean, to witness the interaction of lava and sea. You park your car by the water—the view coming down from the hill is of miles and miles of hardened, flowing lava that have spilled into the sea since 1983—and then walk about 30 minutes, mostly on pavement, to a spot on the rock beach where a small group is always assembled. The night I went, two miles off in the distance we saw three huge plumes of smoke where the lava dripped into the water. I couldn't see any actual lava, but as it grew darker outside, the lava's glow became more pronounced and started to light up the plumes of smoke in a manner that was admonitory and Oz-like. Stumbling back to my car a few hours later, my flashlight illuminating the way, I remembered reading that Kilauea has created more than 700 acres of new land in the past 26 years. I suddenly realized that I was walking on ground younger than I was.

My second idea was to swim in the "hot pond," a pool set in lava rock and fed by both the ocean and a freshwater spring that is volcanically heated to between 91 and 95 degrees. The pond, called Ahalanui, is located about a half-hour south of the road between the park and Hilo; negotiating the narrow, heavily wooded roads on this part of the island was the only time during my trip that I wished my car were four-wheel drive. I spent a hugely relaxing two hours basking and floating in the becalmed and palm-fringed idyll of the pond; seldom has "pruney" seemed so wonderfully luxurious.

I'd picnicked at the gates of Hell; I'd floated in the balmy waters of Mother Nature's day spa. And yet, something seemed to be missing. I inventoried my trip. Terror?Check. Awesome beauty?Check. Sensation that I had eaten a pack of matches?Check. And then it hit me: hot lava. I'd spent four days tromping around the park and had yet to actually see any. And so, one sunshiny and crisp afternoon, when my mother had arrived from Massachusetts to spend a few days with me in the resort district on the west side of the island, I told her that I had a very, very special treat in store for her. "I've booked us a helicopter tour of the volcano," I said. I added, "And there's an interesting fact about the helicopter." Mom lifted her eyebrows in nervous anticipation. I explained, "It has no doors." Mom's eyes went saucer-shaped and buggy. "That is interesting," she said.

At the Hilo airport, a warm pilot named Joyce escorted us to our helicopter. Mom and I strapped ourselves in with Joyce in the front seat, where half of my right shoulder hung out the side of the craft. We flew over much greenery and the Mauna Loa macadamia nut plantation. We reached the volcano in about 15 minutes, by which point Mom was clutching my left knee with a vigor that caused actual pocking. Joyce, noticing the clutching, said, "Don't worry, Ann. We won't make a human sacrifice today," to which Mom gave a grimace-smile and responded, "Well, you wouldn't sacrifice him. He's not a virgin." The lava was mesmerizing—it oozed into the ocean, puddled on the shore, and frantically streamed underneath the vent. I was reminded of that other combination of catastrophic power and unexpected grandeur, the atom bomb. How could something so ruinous be so entrancing?It's not for nothing that the word devastating has two meanings.

My jaw dropped. The lava looked so lustrous and alive that I wanted to lean out of the helicopter and touch it.

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