I paused, leaned down and placed my hand softly atop the dry magma covered trail. I could feel the heat of the earth beneath my hand, a stark contrast to the cold wind that blew my hair back and motivated me to zip up my vest. I scooped up Cabu, our newest adventure partner, inspecting his paws before placing him on my shoulder. He wrapped himself around my neck, leaning slightly into the top of my backpack. I turned into the wind and continued up the trail.
As I reached the closing of the lava tunnel we had been hiking along, I followed the dusty path up to the top of the ridge, heading straight into the strong wind waiting at the top. Cabu meowed in my ear, his kitten cries making me smile as he ducked back down into the backpack to escape the wind. He was already proving to be a great adventure companion. We hiked along for another mile or so, drinking deeply the incredibly vast views of the mountain valleys filled with forests, lakes and volcanoes of southern Chile. I noticed that some of the leaves on certain trees were beginning to change color already, and although the heat of the previous day felt as though we were still in the full embrace of summer, today had many hues of fall.
We continued along the trail, wrapping around the mountainside until Volcan Villarica sat directly in front of us, its top hidden beneath the thick cloud cover above. The volcano had recently increased in activity, a bubbling lava pool forming at the top of the crater only a week or so before. Being so close to it now I could feel a different kind of energy. Every few minutes a distinct booming sound came from the direction of the volcano. It was exciting, but also a bit unsettling; like hearing an avalanche canon and knowing you are in a place wild enough to warrant the use of that canon, but also the reality of how dangerous an avalanche could be. This piece of earth was alive. It was breathing, hiccuping, gurgling…and all we could do was guess what it was really up to.
I put Cabu on the ground and he trotted along beside me, happy to be able to inspect the ants and wild blueberry bushes lining the otherwise dry, bare trail. Suddenly the wind shifted and a dark set of clouds began to blow toward us. It seemed like a good time as any to turn back, so we looped around and picked up the pace a bit, the wind now at our backs, pushing us forward, away from the dark clouds above, away from the grumbling volcano behind.
The following day we hear stories from those in town who saw lava spurting from the top of the volcano the evening before. Neighbors enjoying the light show from afar, friends of friends planning to hike into El Cerduo that night and climb to get the perfect photograph. The activity was increasing each day, and the alert had been raised from yellow to orange. That booming I had heard up in the mountains, that was the volcano after all. It all seemed a bit surreal, this little town at the base of a volcano, people going about their normal daily activities, meanwhile the massive 9000 Ft. volcano towering above us is speaking up. It’s Monday, and we’re all just going about our lives as usual. But this was not just another usual Monday for our volcano.
We decide that tonight we will see the lava bubbling and jumping from the top of the volcano. Once it’s dark, we’ll drive up the back road behind the house that wraps around the mountain ridge just on the flanks of the volcano. We’ll be far enough away to watch from a safe distance, but close enough to get a killer show. The clouds are heavy as we drive home from work, our chances of seeing anything seem slim to none; but still, we hope.
Darkness settles in and we pile into the car, bundled up against the cool air, a bottle of wine thrown in to keep us warm up top. Cabu meows at first but quickly settles in as the bumpy ride ensues. The drive up is rough and we carefully navigate the deep ditches and drop offs where the road has washed away. The wind has blown most of the clouds away and the nearly full moon shines brightly above us. Stars begin to light every corner of the space above, like fireflies waking up on an early July evening. We park our trusty Super Burro when the road begins looking more like a drainage ditch than a manageable path. It’s time to hike. The night is quiet, we marvel at the stars, the brightness of the moon, and the distinct booming we again hear in the distance.
Up we go, finally arriving at a clearing where we sit down on massive fallen Coihue tree trunks, pass the bottle of wine and watch the clouds atop the volcano glow various hues of red. The sight is wild, unlike anything I have ever witnessed. We let out small cheers when we see bits of lava spurt up above the clouds, burning a bright red orange.
The volcano has a pulse. The red glow disappears, fades fully into the clouds as though it was never there, and then suddenly returns with a crescendo of lava bursting out. It is all quite calm though, the soft moon watching over us, the warm light of the lava filling in the color of the clouds. We laugh and tell stories, marvel at the fact that none of us ever expected to experience something like this in our lives. And yet here we all were, seeing this incredible, rare sight. We finish our wine and turn as the volcano seems to go quiet. It was a lovely show and we were pleased with our little front row seats.
As we walk down to Super Burro we meet Don Jose, one of our neighbors whose house overlooks the volcano. He greets us warmly and tells us how the volcano has been acting up even more around 1am or so. Ale asks if he has a car to escape if he needs to, he says no. He stands tall, wearing a hardhat. They exchange phone numbers, in case anything happens on this mountain we share. We say goodnight and wave goodbye. He stands by his gate, the outline of his hardhat is black against the bright moonlight backdrop.
A roaring noise outside wakes me abruptly from my dream. Ale’s phone begins to ring and he doesn’t even have to answer it, we just know the volcano is erupting. Don Jose is calling, I can hear his voice through the line- it is happening, it is really going now! It is dangerous up where he is now. As Ale asks if he is okay and if he needs anything, I make my way out to the deck to listen closer to the roaring noise in the sky.
The sound is overwhelming; it is as though we are standing beside a waterfall, yet the tone is somehow more hollow than falling water, like a blowtorch and a fire hose firing together. I struggle to describe it, but it vibrates with energy, with mass, with vastness beyond anything a human has the ability to grasp. As I look around the side of the house I see a huge tower of red glowing behind the trees, reaching far up into the sky and exploding into a massive plume of dark black smoke and ash that seems to have a life of its own.
It’s 3am. I run outside and wake up Christina and Pete in the cabin. From the tent cabin in the woods Ellie calls out “what’s happening Greta”? “The volcano is erupting!” We all hike up the driveway together and just a few feet from the house we can see the lava shooting high into the sky, a powerful column of red reaching more than 3000 feet above the top of the volcano. We all gasp. The plume of smoke above it is absolutely massive, swirling like the genie in Aladin, dark black against the now clear, deep blue night sky. It looks ominous. The calmness of our earlier viewing is gone, the energy is entirely different, the power is beyond measure. As we walk up the road a little further, we are startled to see the black cloud light up with lightening. It is incredible. I am absolutely awestruck by the hugeness of it all, by the colors the sounds, the feeling of the energy in the air and the shapes of the natural wonder happening before us.
We watch as the tower of lava drops back into the volcano, spilling over the sides, oozing down the cone of the crater, creating long lines of red veins that grasp hold of the volcano’s surface, deforming its face, changing its character, molding its shape and reforming its skin. Eventually, the roaring noise softens slightly and the huge plume of smoke floats above, disconnected from the lava tower and slowly blends back into the sky, taking with it the lightening strikes and blackness that was darker than the night itself.
It is nearly 5am when my head falls back onto the pillow. Around 5:30am I am awoken again by the roaring sound in the sky. As I open my eyes I realize I was dreaming of a huge wave of black flowing lava was coming straight at us, just short of reaching the house before I grasped reality again. We were on a mountain that sat across a deep valley, and although perhaps 8 KM from the volcano, the possibility of lava coming anywhere near us was pretty slim. Yet the mind will do what it wants with what we are exposed to. Mine chose to toy with the scenario of a black magma escape.
As sunlight poured into the bedroom, Tuesday morning arrived seeming like any old Tuesday. It of course wasn’t any old Tuesday, the volcano had erupted only hours earlier. I brewed coffee and Ellie and I hiked up the road to see if Villarica was still acting up. As we rounded the curve of the driveway and the view opened up the volcano sat quietly in front of us, silent and stark, not even a whisper of smoke coming from its center. The sky was a clear bright blue. The sun shone warmly. Birds flittered about among the trees, chirping happily. The roaring sky, the ominous black cloud, the towering column of flying lava, the chaotic energy of the air, it was all gone; it could have all been a dream. The only clue that anything had occurred under the cover of darkness was the marked difference in the shape and look of the volcano. Somehow the top looked different, and where once was snow was now blackened with soot and long lines of hardened charred lava. We drank our coffee. We marveled at the experience, at the sheer wildness of the eruption, and the stark normalcy of life that ensued after it. Nature had taken its course, and moved on. Life goes on. It seemed to be just another Tuesday for our volcano.
It wasn’t just another Tuesday for the rest of us here in Pucon. Thousands of people were evacuated last night as a precaution, roads were closed, military was brought in. The president of Chile walked our streets and shook our hands. Businesses remained closed and although some people returned home, others have taken the time only to gather what they need and get out. In the daylight the volcano sits quietly. But we are told that its not finished yet. When the lava tower collapsed last night it apparently dropped back into the crater, forming a clot of sorts. A temporary clot. The pressure is building, so precautions must continue.
As the sun sinks lower, as the afternoon melts into evening, we now wait to see if Villarica has more to say. If we have yet to see all its might, if we will again bear witness to the remarkable eruption of the inside of our earth spewing out onto its surface. We have gallons of water we’ve bottled and set aside, we have batteries, we have food, we have masks. Electronics are charged and animals are fed. We have the company of one another, stories to be told and laughter to let loose. So here we are in southern Chile, having one of those remarkable experiences in life that cannot be planned, that cannot be orchestrated, that unfolds exactly as nature intends, regardless of what we think we can control. With all that said, with all these words, we’ll see you on the other side of another night with a nearly full moon, a sky full of stars, and an erupting volcano.