Sometimes the ultimate trip is about pushing yourself to the edge. In Hawaii, Henry Alford discovers that, where there's smoke, there is indeed fire

Dave Lauridsen A trek across cooled lava fields in Hawaii Volcano National Park.
| Credit: 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?

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.


Volcano House
1 Crater Rim Dr.; 808/967-7321;; doubles from $95.

Volcano Rainforest Retreat
11-3832 12th St.; 800/550-8696;; doubles from $125.


Hawaii Volcano National Park
Tips on how best to see Kilauea, including a Webcam trained on the Pu'u O'o vent.

Hilo Farmers' Market
Corner of Mamo St. and Kamehameha Ave.; Wednesday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon.

Tropical Helicopters
808/961-6810;; tours $142 per person.


Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed
by Andrew Doughty, a valuable (and amusing) insider's guide to the island.

Volcano House

This venue is closed.