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.
It’s doubtful that such a massive transformation from static to kinetic could occur, literally, overnight, without any clues that an awakening was imminent. It may have been that the locals had just failed to keep their ears to the ground. Surely there were occasional signs that offered themselves to notice: a puff, a cough, a groan. And Calbuco itself, of course, would have known all along what was on the way. It would not have been able to ignore the rumblings inside.
The catalysts that serve to trigger eruptions are poorly understood, and only vaguely defined. Volcanologists spread out all manner of seismic equipment and other devices to try and predict what will happen, to try to plan for and even avoid the inevitable, because they know what most do not: if the mountain has gone before, and not too much time has passed to dull its flame, it will probably go again. A volcano might slumber for a while but it is, after all, still a volcano.
I think about Puerto Varas’ volcano, and wonder how much it secretly trembled in the weeks and months before it went, mulling over its next steps, contemplating the upheaval and tumult that it knew would result should it choose to follow through. I try to imagine what the source of those subtle temblors would have been. Anxiety? Trepidation? Excitement? Yearning? Maybe shudders of self-doubt, as Calbuco sought the courage it would need for a renewal of itself and its explosive, unavoidable duty.
A volcano is a volcano, even if it presents itself as a sleepy mountain. Even if it lies dormant for years, even if it takes pains to conceal and suppress the thing that it is meant to do. I would like to think that as Calbuco allowed itself to consider, prepare for and finally decide to unleash what it had kept at bay for so long, those almost imperceptible seismic precursors—the ones that only Calbuco itself knew were taking place—were sighs of relief, or the flutter of a lightened heart.