You can't drive up to the edge of the cliff. Obviously. So we park our car in the makeshift lot, and direct our way through the many signs warning us to bring water, to watch our step, to mind the sulfur levels in the air, and to mind our bladders now, because there are no restrooms beyond this point. As we get closer to the start of the trail, the signs start screaming at us that it's a mile and a half walk to the viewing area, and that we shouldn't attempt to get out there if we aren't of able body, and seriously, there are no bathrooms out there, so go now or don't go at all.
There's a congregation of tourists gathering around the security shanty, asking the same questions and adjusting their fanny packs. I wonder what the neighbors must think.
Yes, though it looks like the wasteland from some forgotten 80's disaster flick, there are people living out here. It's strange to see the houses out here, perched delicately on top of the hardened lava flow. There's no ground for gardens here, just black rock as far as the eye can see in every direction. Every now and then you'll see a spot of green where baby trees have heroically pushed their way through the cracks and crevasses, reaching for the light of the sun. I wonder when they built here. I wonder what they lost.
"It's better at night," one of the volunteer security guards says from her temporary lean-to. "Then you can really see the glow." (We do come back that night, and she's right. When the sun sets the angry red glow lights up the lip of the cliff, and we can easily see when the explosive meeting of lava and water rockets cooling fragments up into the air. It's also raining furiously, almost hard enough to sting. Our shoes squelch dangerously over the uneven trail, and even with umbrellas our pants are still soaked up to the knees. And still there's a strong handful of watchers when we get to the viewing area, and more a pulling in to the parking lot when we're getting ready to leave. We tourists are a hearty bunch.)
The hike feels a bit like a pilgrimage, all of us following the signs, knowing where we're going but not quite sure how to get there. The hardened lava is not all-together tricky to navigate, but you do have to watch your step - the toe of my shoe clips the rock more than once. It's a miracle I never landed on my face. And at the end of it all is the tall, white, billowing pillar of smoke.
Technically, I don't think it's smoke. It's steam from the lava hitting the cool waters, and there's a lot of it. I've never seen a cloud that big in person. Not even when that gas line exploded and a fireball ripped through my old neighborhood. That was big. This is bigger.
Looking up, I can see little black specks circling the plume. Birds? No. Helicopters. Full of tourists, probably. Any opportunity to take your money, I suppose. Back in town, we find that a boat will take you to see the lava spill from sea level for a cool thousand. I can only imagine what one of those copter rides would cost us.
We're only allowed to get so close. It's for the best, I suppose. Otherwise we'd all be falling to our deaths, trying to get the best picture of the lava flow. If you stand at the very edge of the viewing area, and crane your neck like this, you can only just imagine you can see the rush of lava flowing out of the earth and into the water. The island is growing with every passing minute. Under the roar of the wind, we can nearly hear the hiss of molten rock in the air. Every so often there's a brief flash of brown at the base of the cloud, when the cooling rocks explode up the side of the cliff. It's all a bit hypnotic.
"They say it's better at night," someone says, and we all agree that when the light goes away, it must be quite a sight. So we'll go back to town for dinner, we decide, and drive up here again after the sun sets. We drive back down the mountain, never noticing the storms clouds gathering above our heads.