The best place to think about life was on a volcano.
Sophie Ang tried to hold that thought as she held a hand up to shade her eyes, watching Alika Wolcott, ex-MMA coach, friend, and possible lover, pilot the chopper that had dropped her off up and away from the desolate lava field.
She couldn’t suppress a pang of anxiety as she turned to view the plain. What had she gotten herself into now?
Kalapana on the Big Island was a landscape of stark contrasts. The deep blue sky arched overhead, depthless and unbroken. Desolate as a moonscape, acres of black lava stretched away in every direction to the ocean, where a restless sea beat against the fresh stone. The only sign of human presence was the remains of what had once been a two-lane highway, engulfed periodically by shiny black rock that gleamed iridescent in the sun of high noon.
“Come, Ginger.” Sophie’s yellow Lab had been nosing for smells around a rock, and came to Sophie’s side at her call. Sophie attached the Lab’s leash to her belt with a clip and tightened the straps of her backpack once more, settling the weight so that it rested evenly on her hips. She set off toward the area of active lava flow that she had been able to see from the helicopter as they flew over the plain.
All the tourists visiting the lava flow site had made a road of sorts across the expanse. It was easy to follow their tracks. As the morning wore on, Sophie encountered people riding rented bikes, other hikers, and tourists of every stripe, age, and build. Even a quad rumbled past her, towing a flat trailer loaded with tourists.
Sophie reached a crude viewing area taped off with yellow caution tape and found a good vantage point, slightly out of the gusty wind that whipped over the wide flank of the volcano, hitting the ocean like a cat batting the surface with its paw.
The lava ran in a sinuous, slow-moving, hypnotic glowing river to the edge of the cliff of new stone. Molten red chunks of liquid rock dropped into the sea in a relentless stream, causing explosions of steam and a crackling sound like breaking glass as extreme heat met its match in the water.
Sophie watched the majestic sight from beside her stone bulwark, one hand on Ginger’s ruff. The dog whined, but calmed under her hand as hours passed with no sense of time. They watched the blood of the earth ooze forth inexorably, hit the ocean in sizzling bursts, and slowly build the island.
Sunset bloomed spectacularly to the west over the sea in reds and yellows that echoed the colors of the lava. The light faded into purple and indigo. Stars appeared, the moon rose, and the tourists mounted their bikes, shouldered their toddlers, and headed back toward the parking area some miles away.
Sophie ate a couple of energy bars, drank some water, and fed Ginger some kibble, still watching the lava trickle into the sea. The gleaming surface brightened even more as darkness fell.
She felt no urgency to leave. This was all, and it was enough.
Eventually, she undid her bedroll and sleeping bag. She lay down with the dog close against her, still enthralled by the lava’s pageantry.
The soft breath of next morning’s breeze caressed Sophie’s face, waking her. She had come to no conclusions nor had any deep insights about her bizarre and fragmented life, lying there on the cliff and watching the lava drip into the ocean—but she reveled in that elusive sense of freedom she’d been seeking.
Still meditative, Sophie eventually rolled up her sleeping bag and headed out. She didn’t feel ready to deal with people right now, and was glad of the early morning emptiness on the lava plain. She glimpsed a whale spout in the nearby ocean as she and Ginger, unleashed, walked over the raw lava back toward civilization.
The dog gave a sudden bark, signaling her interest in something, and lunged off of the rough path worn by hundreds of feet. Sophie grabbed for her collar, but the Lab galloped away across the razor-sharp rock.
“Ginger, no!” Sophie cried. Ginger’s feet could be cut on the keen-edged lava! “Ginger, come!” She scrambled after the dog, continuing to call as she ran as fast as her forty-pound pack would allow.
Ginger could be impulsive, but this level of disobedience was rare. Sophie dropped the backpack to the ground to gain speed. “Ginger! Come!”
The lava rose in frozen, broken waves around her like a sea captured in black stone. Coruscations of lightweight a’a lava created banks and waterfalls, mounds and shelves. Sophie labored over the rugged surface, gleaming with iridescence and sharp as glass.
Ginger seemed to be heading for a stand of burned trees on a mound of a hill, emerging like an island in the ocean of the rugged black plain. Sophie had heard that these protrusions of unburned land were called kipukas. She scowled with fear and concern, noticing steam wafting up from cracks nearby. They were running around on an active hot zone! “Ginger! Daughter of a diseased warthog!”
Ginger wasn’t even listening to Sophie’s Thai cursing this time. The Lab disappeared into a stand of hardy ohia trees marking the edge of the kipuka. Sophie, a few seconds behind, entered the sheltering forest, her heart pounding with anxiety and frustration. “Ginger! Bad dog! You are not getting off the leash anymore!”
The dog’s answer was a sharp yap, followed by a frantic whine.
Something was wrong.
Sophie crashed through a screen of dense, brittle underbrush made up of ferns and bushes, swatting aside branches. Another time she would have enjoyed exploring the old-growth koa and ohia trees towering around her, the air filled with the melody of native birdsong.
The sweetish rotting smell of decomposition hit Sophie’s nose: Of course! Ginger was so excited about some awful dead animal. Nothing made the dog happier than rolling in a nicely aged piece of roadkill. Sophie had to catch the damn dog before she rolled in whatever had drawn her all this way.
Sophie parted the branches of a hardy guava tree, and stopped short, covering her mouth and nose with a hand.
Ginger stood, tail waving, amid a pile of dead bodies.