Another Volcano Beckons: Sicily’s Mount Etna
My fascination with volcanoes began more than three decades ago, with the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. As the only major volcanic eruption in the contiguous U.S. in 65 years, it was a huge TV event. Before our eyes, mudslides turned hundreds of square miles of forest into piles of pick-up sticks in split seconds. Fifty-seven people and thousands of animals lost their lives. In the aftermath of the blast, which was equivalent to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, images revealed a desolate landscape that resembled the surface of the moon. The enormity of it was so inconceivable that when Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument opened in 1983, I hopped in the car to see for myself.
In person, the destruction was even more staggering. The newly paved road snaked through miles of giant splintered tree stumps protruding from a deep carpet of ash. Mammoth tree trunks lay like thousands of naked cadavers, lined up in painfully neat rows pointing away from the mountain, as if awaiting proper burial. Aside from the crystal blue sky, everything was endlessly and shockingly monochromatic gray. The inconceivable power of the volcano held me in its spell.
Fast forward to the Big Island of Hawai’i in 2002, where the volcano gods once again beckoned. On the Kilauea Iki trail, I descended 400 feet from the rim to the still steaming floor of the Kilauea crater. Signs stuck in fissures warned not to stray off the trail, as still-cooling magma lurked beneath areas of thin, unstable crust, yet the way was marked only by cairns of black rocks, set so far apart that they were difficult to locate. I picked my way across carefully, stopping at each rock pyramid to scan the horizon for the next one, before taking a step that might plunge through to super-heated material. Four miles later I climbed the opposite rim, elated that I had just walked across an active volcano. Later that same night I stood on a jagged field of razor sharp lava on a moonless night, watching a fiery red stream of molten lava pitch over the end of land into the ocean far below.
Five years later, I fled from a rickety hotel in Tanzania during a 7.5 earthquake caused by the dormant Mount Kilimnjaro. In Bali, I witnessed how alarmingly close the last eruption of Kintamani had come to wiping out the town on the flanks of the volcano. Three years ago, in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, I stayed at the foot of Arenal volcano, which completely wiped the town off the map in 1968. In Banos, Ecuador I thought I might finally achieve my goal of seeing a volcano erupt. Mount Tungurahua, which means “Throat of Fire” in the indigenous Quichua language, had been erupting more or less regularly since 1999. Unfortunately, it waited to erupt until the day after I left. So far, the volcano gods had not cooperated, but I had high hopes when I headed to Italy this past April.
Even though Mount Vesuvius had buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in a spectacular explosion in 79 AD, it was officially dormant. Considering the number of people that live at its base, I was thankful that this particular volcano offered little possibility of an eruption, however when I reached Sicily, Mount Etna was quite another matter, as it has erupted almost every year since 1990. In Taormina, I hopped aboard a bus for a day tour to Etna. Anticipation mounted as we rounded a curve and the snow-capped peak of the volcano came into view. Clouds rolled in as we climbed the bleak, unvegetated flanks and snow was swirling around as I rode the cable car to the top. By the time I arrived at the plateau where 4×4 vehicles would normally carry visitors the rest of the way to the crater rim, conditions were so bad that the trucks were not running. Instead, I hiked part way to the most prominent crater, but the freezing temperatures at the 9,100 foot elevation drove me back to the warmth of the snack shop, where I settled for watching a documentary about the most recent eruptions.
To my disappointment, there wasn’t even a hint of volcanic activity while I was in Sicily, yet since July 18th, Mount Etna has been erupting so violently that it has disrupted flights in and out of the Catania airport (the Daily Mail has some spectacular images here). It seems I am still jinxed. If the most active volcano in all of Europe refuses to cooperate, how can I ever hope to see a volcanic eruption in person?