The Volcano Next Door

An island-hop from Maui, the forces of creation are putting on a spectacular fireworks show—and you’ve got a ringside seat.

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Jill Engledow | Photography by Bob Bangerter  |  Courtesy of US Geological Survey
Illustration courtesy of US Geological Survey  |  National Park Service

lava flowThe little boat flew up the side of an incoming wave as we left the harbor, then slammed down hard in the trough. My fellow passengers and I braced ourselves and hung on as the boat slid up another wave. Our early morning adventure to watch molten lava pouring into the sea was off to an adrenaline-rush start.

Folks on Maui who seek travel adventures in these days of rising airfares are lucky—we’re right next door to a live volcano. On this trip to Hawai‘i Island, I was stoked: I would be seeing the incarnation of Pele, Hawai‘i’s goddess of fire, in a way I never had before. A few months earlier, I’d hiked across freshly hardened lava, hoping for a close-up look. But the long-distance view of pink-tinted clouds from the official viewing area had not satisfied my longtime lava addiction. So like any junkie, I was willing to push the boundaries for a taste of the hard stuff: an intimate view of fiery rivers flowing into the sea.

I’d arrived in Hilo the day before and cruised up to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Just visiting the park is an adventure. There’s an ever-present sense of excitement at the summit of Kilauea that comes from knowing that, at any moment, the volcano could do something new and amazing. Even on a routine day, steam issues from cracks alongside the road, the great Kilauea Caldera stretches dark and mysterious, still live with magma beneath its floor, and hiking trails cross acres of black lava where twisted trunks remain, ghosts of trees killed by falling hot cinders.

Those ghost trees are remnants of one of two eruptions I saw as a kid. We were dancing cheek-to-cheek at a teenage party in November 1959 when parents suddenly began arriving to collect their offspring. Kilauea Iki had started what would become a record-breaking eruption.

Ever after, my memories of the surging adolescent emotions that dancing evoked have been associated with memories of standing awestruck in the chilly night air as fiery lava fountained hundreds of feet high, so near and so hot that we had to turn away from time to time to let our faces cool.

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