The thing about lava is that it’s a lot harder to find than the movies lead you to believe. Sure, sometimes volcanoes explode in massive, deadly explosions, and sometimes there is actually some lava involved in such explosions. But more often than not, eruptions of oozy goozy lava are quiet and slow and not that news worthy. The Kilauea volcano on the big island has been erupting since 1983 and although enough lava erupts every day to cover a two lane road for 20 miles1, you don’t see any flashing news headlines, or movie trailers featuring Pierce Brosnan or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as manly heroes up against Hawaii’s worst volcano.2 That’s because most of the lava flows harmlessly to the sea, or globs onto the side of the volcano, building new land quietly, out of the lime light.
I had already hiked over twenty miles in search of lava. That hike was magical, but we had never found the elusive liquid rock, and we were running out of time. Field trips to Hawaii do not last forever. So, our professor did the only thing he could. He woke us up at three in the morning.
Lava is hard to find, because in a place like Hawaii, it’s not bursting from the ground or spewing red rivers across the landscape. Most of the time it is oozing. And it is black. Even knowing that the black rocky hillside has a lava flow on it won’t help because the lava, and the rocks that were recently lava, look the same.
Except at night. At night, the lava glows red.
The blue Jansport backpack I held on my lap was more suited to hold high school textbooks than the snacks, water, notebook, rock hammer, and gas mask I had packed the night before. The SUV wound down the silent roads of Volcano National Park in a tunnel made by the jungle canopy. In less than a geologic instant, this landscape had transform from bare lava rock to the lush and green paradise we sped through now. There were no street lights, no oncoming headlights, no moon visible through the foliage. We cut our way through the night, descending from the side of a volcano, closer and closer to where it met the sea. No one spoke.
The jungle broke open and across a valley the silver black of the volcano was a shadow against the blue black sky. On a ridge in the blackness I saw a line of glowing red as eerie as the gates to the underworld. Lava. I shivered in excitement, channeling the Orpheus inside me. As we wound closer to our destination, the red glow disappeared from view. I tapped my foot anxiously and stared into the darkness. Did the Greek heroes feel this restless before they faced their battles?
Our caravan of cars stopped, pulling off the asphalt on the Chain of Craters Road. We looked at the mass of black rock stretching out above us, not a single sign of life. We could have been transported to the moon and I wouldn’t have known the difference. The red glow wasn’t visible from here.
We started down the road through the night, hardly feeling like the extreme adventurers as we strolled down the man-made pavement. And then the pavement ended. Or rather, the road was swallowed in the mountain, covered in fresh rock.
My companions strode onto the rock, almost skipping with delight. I hesitated. In the balance between man and nature we sometimes think we are more powerful than we are. In this place, there was no doubt. Humanity is nothing compared to the power of the Earth. I stepped from the asphalt onto the virgin rock.
From afar, lava looks black and smooth, like someone got carried away with road building and decided to pave the entire side of the volcano in asphalt, but up close, lava is nothing like asphalt. Lava, called basalt when frozen, is treacherous. Once the liquid rock hits the air it freezes instantly, forming ribbons and ropes and balls and cracks and fissures. A hiker over Hawaii basalt almost needs superhuman ankles to avoid a sprain or worse. But that isn’t even enough. The instantaneous freeze of the rock forms a glass. A silvery black glass that cracks and breaks in razor sharp patterns over the surface of the rock. To step wrong is to send this broken glass slicing through your pant leg, socks, and even a cheap pair of shoes.
As our group hopped, skipped, and hiked our way farther from civilization and closer to the birth of the earth, we passed signs warning, “Road Closed” and “No Trail Beyond this Point” half engulfed in solid rock. Soon, even those were gone and we were in a sea of black, each step precarious.
The sky slowly began to grey. Our professor led us uphill. I stepped just behind him, each foot landing in the exact spot his had just vacated. My eyes stayed on the ground, on the professor’s feet in front of mine. On the shimmering black rocks that felt so other- worldly, even if they were, at their very essence, what our world is.
The sky brightened and we hiked on. We traveled on a hope, lost in the black landscape, praying we were heading toward that glowing red ridge. The glow had faded in the morning light, leaving only a sea of black. We climbed up. Up the side of a volcano.
The morning pressed on, the sun pulling sweat from our bodies. The wind, ever so slight, shifted and we were hit with gas. Volcanic gas can kill you. There are some nasty things deep down in the earth, molecules so foreign to human life that we can’t endure them. The air turned pungent and the deep breathes I sucked into my lungs burned my throat and nose. My eyes watered. Every instinct in my body told me this was toxic.
We continued on. The breeze shifted again and the burning breaths ceased, replaced with fresh, salty island air. Up we went. Up I stepped, focused only on the feet in front of me. One step after another. Up and up and up. And then the feet stopped.
I almost ran into the professor, he stopped so suddenly and I didn’t know why until he proclaimed, “Lava!” swinging his hand in front of him toward the black rock expanse.
It took my eyes a hundred heartbeats to even see it. A lobe of black, shimmering more silver than the rock around it. If I had been in front, I would have stepped on it before I realized what it was. Well, except for the heat.
Lava is hot. Imagine baking cookies. You want to check to see if they are done, so instead of pulling them out you stick your head in the oven. That is not how hot lava is. At arms length, a small lobe of lava is about three times as hot as your oven when you are baking cookies.
Our professor pulled out a rock hammer and hacked into the silvery crust. Red ooze broke out of the crack globing one step closer to the ocean. It began blackening as soon as it hit air, and seconds later all that was visible was another silvery black crust camouflaged on the black slope.
We wend wild.
Everyone took turns hacking into the molten rock and pulling out their very own piece of rock. When it was my turn, the heat was so overwhelming I had to stumble away. I looked at my arms, expecting the tiny hairs to be singed. Then I went back. Two fast blows and I cracked the crust. Red ooze engulfed my hammer’s head. I pulled it out and already it was black, my hammer half swallowed by the newest rock on the planet.
Someone threw a calculus book in the lava, and we watched solemnly as it burned into nothing3.
“That book is going to mess up the chemical analysis of this rock for future geologists.” Our professor laughed deviously4.
My rock cracked and broke away from my rock hammer. I gingerly picked up the still hot rock fragments, one bearing the shape of the hammer. Geologists like to give ages to rocks. The Navajo Sandstone of Zion National Park in Utah is 190 million years old. Give or take a few million years. But my lava rock, the one I created on my hammer, was born in April 28, 2004 at 9:30 in the morning. Give or take a few minutes.
I set my rocks down to let them cool and pulled out the chocolate chip Teddy Grahams I had brought for a snack. At the toe of an active lava flow I had bear shaped crackers for breakfast.
- Information from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Website https://www.nps.gov/havo/faqs.htm
- This is a reference to a couple bad geology films. If you ever happen to watch a natural disaster movie with a geologist, be prepared for interruptions, no matter who the sexy hero is. We tend to consider these movies comedies, and love to point out all the funny parts (i.e. ridiculously untrue parts).
- Geologists hate math and calculus is The Class most likely to stop a hopeful geologist from becoming an actual one. Geologists who don’t hate math become geophysists and never leave their computers to throw stuff in lava flows.
- Geologists may or may not be evil.