A few months ago in the slender South American country of Chile, the Calbuco Volcano near the southern hamlet of Puerto Varas erupted spectacularly. As this photograph by David Cortes Serey shows in surreal detail, what had long seemed just a sleepy mountain metamorphosed overnight into a cataclysm of fire, ash, and lightning bolts (lightning bolts?!?). I imagine those nearby greeted the following morning’s sunrise with immense relief—it was the first sign that they had in fact been witnessing a fascinating natural phenomenon, as opposed to the harbinger of apocalypse.
They say that it caught everyone off guard. To be sure, no one I met had a clue of what was going on inside that mountain. I was there in the cool and cloudy Puerto Varas two days before it happened, enveloped in my own fog, contemplating both the beauty of the region and my next steps.
I began the CWU project years ago, but shortly after touring the Deep South I put things on hold to pursue a professional opportunity that had come up out of the blue. I moved across the country and leaned the bike against the garage wall, trying not to look as thickening dust faded the steel frame from gloss black to a dull gray. Like an old box of cookies on the back shelf of the pantry the Surly just sat there, tempting but stale—and I was loathe to throw it away.
Hiking in the shadow of Calbuco shortly before its eruption, I had been troubled—not by a fear of spewing brimstone, but by a festering indecisiveness that had pitted passion and a feeling of purpose against expectations and common sense. The question I was struggling with was not whether I wanted to turn a 180 and launch myself back fully into CWU, but whether I should, and whether I could. Very few of my new friends and colleagues had any idea that at one point not so long ago I had felt driven to pedal through wind, sun, sleet, and rain for weeks at a time to learn more about our nation and the people who have shaped it. If my peers knew what I had done and what I was constantly daydreaming of doing again, they would say “Are you crazy?” It would be uncomfortable.
The reason I hadn’t been concerned that day in Puerto Varas is because, embarrassingly, I hadn’t even known that Calbuco was an active volcano. I didn't learn that until a couple of days later and hundreds of miles away when I saw it on the morning news, belching out the innards of the Earth. I bet lots of people had felt the same way I did when I had looked up and through Calbuco's inert presence with a sort of benign indifference. Like me, many of the calm townspeople expected nothing because they hadn't been around the last time Calbuco burned. And even those locals who had been aware of Calbuco's restless past probably never gave the quiet mountain a second thought these days. We have all been taught that fires inevitably go out.