Tracks: Journeys in Time and Space
(Signature Editions, 2013)
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Genni Gunn
Excerpt

From "Billows"

© Genni Gunn, 2013
Reprinted by permission. All Rights Reserved

In 1990, while in Hawaii for the summer, I rented a car, and headed towards the Kilauea Caldera to see the lava lake inside the Halema`uma`u crater. Volcanoes have always fascinated me, with their unpredictable nature, their fierce reminders that no matter how much we try to shape the landscape, no matter how many gadgets we invent, we are not in control. Nothing equals the power of molten rock breaking through the earth’s crust to spill uninhibited across the surface.

I had spent the past week with friends of friends on the Big Island, and was aching for solitude. I drove through a cathedral of pines, satin oaks, eucalypti, bushes of strawberry guavas, mangoes, and a gigantic fern forest that made me feel like a Lilliputian. In stark contrast to this were the lava fields — blackened rough lava called a’a or smooth thick elephant-skin lava called pahoehoe, which stretched for kilometres into the sea. I am inexplicably attracted to deserts and desolate landscapes where nature is unforgiving, terrains familiar in recurring dreams, and this terra not so firma suited me perfectly.

The eastern side of Kilauea is located in the district of Puna, which, ironically, has the highest growth rate in the county and 45% of the county’s subdivided lots, despite the fact that it also has the highest risk of volcanic and seismic activity. Many who live on Hawaii say that Puna is the workshop of the tempestuous volcano goddess, Pele, who continually creates and recreates the island.

Past Kurtistown, on the opposite side of the road, odd things began to appear on the black lava shoulder: an easy chair, a dresser, three suitcases, a birdcage. Then further on, a man squatted, suitcases and boxes in heaps around him. Then a woman, two girls, a couple, more, some half-heartedly sticking their thumbs out when a car drove by. One carried a mattress on his back. A mysterious exodus, I thought, slowing, then braking. I rolled down the window.

“The lava’s coming,” a man said urgently. “Taking everything in its path.” He paused. “It’s not safe. Even The Visitor’s Centre has been evacuated. You should turn back.”

I thanked the man for his warning, and continued up the highway until I came to a Road Closed — Danger sign. Having come this far, I was determined to see the lava lake. I backtracked to a side road I’d passed a ways back, and turned down towards the historic Red Road, so called because of its red cinder top, towards the shore. Partway down this road, however, two uniformed park rangers waved me to the shoulder, where I parked behind two other cars.

“There’s no car access beyond here,” one of them said, spreading his arms, as if to forbid entry to the entire tropical rain forest behind him, and beyond that, the ocean. I got out, nodded, and walked around him, down the road. When I rounded a bend and could no longer see him, I ducked into the forest and headed to the beach. I wanted to see the black tongue of pahoehoe, its fiery edges advancing towards me from its molten reservoir 3 kilometres beneath my feet. I wanted to watch the bubbling lava blaze open the earth. I stood among the tall tall coconut palms of Kaimu Bay and witnessed gigantic plumes of steam as the lava flowed into the sea. Flames rose from the water, as if the ocean itself were on fire.
 
I had no way of knowing it then, but this was a historic lava flow from Kilauea, which in the next few days engulfed the town of Kalapana, one hundred houses and the black sand beach I was standing on at Kaimu. This was not the first time Kalapana had been destroyed. In 1986, a lava flow buried the town, as well as Kaimu and Kaimu Bay, beneath 12 metres of lava. Yet people rebuilt on the same location, in the same trajectory of this volcano’s lava flow, which in 2010 flowed once again and destroyed everything in its path. This attraction to danger must be what motivates people to build houses on fault lines, in hurricane zones, in karst topography, at the edge of rivers, below dikes, as if they’re testing nature or more likely, themselves. “Danger,” John Krakauer says in Into the Wild, “bathe[s] the world in a halogen glow that cause[s] everything — the sweep of the rock, the orange and yellow lichens, the texture of the clouds — to stand out in brilliant relief. Life thrum[s] at a higher pitch. The world [is] made real.”
 
This yearning for a higher pitch is what makes me seek out another volcano eight years later, Stromboli, situated north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea. One of the Aeolian Islands — a volcanic archipelago made up of eight islands shaped over 260,000 years by volcanic activity — Stromboli is an active volcano whose written records attest to over 2000 years of continuous eruption. (Continued...)