Since the great volcano of Kilauea is now spewing mountains of lava all over unsuspecting suburban homes, I thought I’d share with you my tale of coming as close to the molten goo as I dared. You see, I have the most irrational fear of lava of any person I’ve ever met. Closely followed by vampires, volcano nightmares have plagued me almost all my life. Which is strange, given I grew up in northern New Jersey – the farthest place from the Ring of Fire you can imagine.
Warning: Lava Trigger Ahead!
The earliest nightmare that I can remember was of being trapped in a room with pipes slowly spewing the neon magma onto the floor. As it got higher, I would have to climb atop different pipes to stay out of reach. It doesn’t sound all that dissimilar to that game you’d play as kids “The Floor is Lava,” where you’d jump from couch to coffee table while hopping on a tossed pillow to get you out of the room. While I have no idea how this nightmare came to be, I have a sneaking suspicion that the lava tsunami in the Super Nintendo Game Aladdin may have had something to do with it. (After all, there is very stressful music, and you’re flying away on a magic carpet, of all things!)
Through the years my dreams have evolved. From an island paradise that dissolves into a volcanic nightmare, to a family-friendly visit at a dormant summit that involves driving an old hatchback past throngs of tourists clamoring to get out of steaming caves. My most recurring dream, however, is the one where a volcano erupts in my hometown, and all I have to get away is a bicycle that I’ve stolen from someone. Mad peddling ensues.
Needless to say, this situation is highly unlikely to happen, but it’s still terrifying. So when Jon and I went to Hawaii’s Big Island years back, he thought it the perfect time to face my irrational volcano fears. I agreed, assuming a few, distant glances at some slow-moving lava would do the trick. “See how slow it is, there’s no worry,” I imagined thinking to myself. But of course, that wasn’t what happened.
Jon and I stayed in the tiny village of Volcano, not a few miles from Volcanoes National Park. We labored under the assumption, as most young tourists would, that you could basically drive up to see the lava at a distance, take a look, and get back in the car. As we parked the jeep at the viewing area, we quickly realized that this was more like a hike through incredibly jagged, dark and unfriendly terrain. But who cared, we were on vacation, right? With no sunscreen, no hats, little water and nothing much to eat, we hopped out and made our way along the unforgiving wasteland to see some lava. It was noon.
The sun was hot, and my new sneakers quickly started to feel the brunt of the ground. We passed countless tourists scrambling back to the parking lot along the rocky plain all with peculiar white gloves on. I’m still not sure what those gloves were for (maybe to help if they fell?), but my curiosity got the best of me, and I asked the line of returning voyagers if there was any lava. A ten-year-old replied, “YEAH!” Then proceeded to share his recommendation, “You’ll see a bunch of signs that tell you not to go any further, but just keep going. Keep walking until it gets hot. Then stop and look around,” he said. I wish I were joking, but Jon and I said “thanks,” then continued in silence as we both agreed to do just that.
After what must have been three miles of awfully difficult walking, we climbed over the short white rope, taking note of the pictorial sign of a stickman falling into lava and dying. And we kept walking. It felt like forever. In the distance, we saw two backpackers who quickly joined us on our journey. They were Swedish and could barely speak English. We all walked together for a time.
Then suddenly, the wind changed.
The air got uncomfortably hot, and all four of us glanced at each other in anticipation.
Jon spoke first, “LISTEN,” he said. “Can you hear that gravel sound?” It was, of course, the sound of moving rocks.
Then we looked down. And lo, between our feet were cracks of fiery orange lava. There we stood, on rocks that were shifting like tectonic plates a few millimeters at a time.
My adrenaline kicked in, and I completely panicked, running 100 meters back from where we came. I promptly sat on a jagged rock to catch my breath, then watched in horror as Jon and his Swedish companions took photos of their melting shoes.
Now first, I don’t need to tell you how ill prepared we were for this trip – my sunburn the remainder of our vacation was reminder enough. And while I’m happy I didn’t fall off a lava shelf and live my worst nightmare, I did feel like I faced my fear. I stood on lava. Mere inches from it’s devastating, catastrophic touch. And I survived it.
What we didn’t survive as easily, was the walk back. Without water and in dire need of sun protection, Jon tied his shirt around his head for the remainder of the hike. He dramatically collapsed to his knees when we approached the parking lot and reached to the sky like Willem Dafoe in Platoon. My new sneakers were in tatters. It was a rough ride.
Looking back, I can’t believe I followed directions from a 10-year-old kid and completely disregarded the rules of a National Park. It was stupid and careless and could have led to a terrible disaster. But luckily it didn’t. And while I’d never make that mistake again, I will tell you that my volcano nightmares have become much like a lava flow erupting in New York City – that is to say, quite rare.
Have you ever faced a big fear? Share with me in the comments below!