Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?


After the relatively busy mad dash of the mission week, most of the participants headed back to Guatemala City to board their planes and return to the States. I knew that I'd want a little more time to get to know the country and felt it a shame last year to arrive, work, and leave without a chance to learn about the country or its people on their own terms and at their own pace. To fix this, I got a return flight three days after the end of the mission and contacted a family through who offered to host me in Amatitlan not far from the hospital where I'd worked for the previous week. Before meeting them however, three other missionaries and a Guatemalan who had been supporting the mission logistically all loaded up a tiny hatchback with me and my pack additionally thrown into the mix and puttered up the side of Volcán Pacaya, the smoking and lava-spewing mountain above the clinic site. Though the car was overloaded and has an overheating problem even on a normal day, we managed to make it by adding water and taking several breaks to cool the engine. Paying our entrance fees and purchasing (more like renting) some hiking sticks from local children, we donned our small packs and set off up the trail to see the volcano's "crater" and possibly expose ourselves to dangerous sulphur fumes, deadly heat, unstable and treacherous footing, and falling rocks in the event of a forceful eruption. For a couple of hours we ascended the dirt path, passing other groups of hikers and foreigners, patrol officers, and a cavalry of people attempting to rent us the use of a horse for the ascent. One dental assistant among us took them up on the offer, but the males of the group declined and eventually the equine followers trailed off to encounter other prospects. Eventually we reached the point where the horses are left behind (the fresh lava flows are too rugged, sharp, and dangerous) and continued upwards out of the protective shade of the tropical trees and into a brilliantly harsh sun glaring down on black stone. On this surface the recommendation of the children selling the sticks became clear: the rock was easily sharp enough to slice open any bare skin, and a fall could leave more than a minor scrape. Our group separated as I hiked ahead, hoping to gain a bit more time up where the thermal action was. Arrows painted onto the black lava rock hinted the way to the active flows, and a trail of slight wear on the stone wound up through the jumbled flanks of the mountain, constantly belching and seething with a white cloud of gas. Another twenty minutes of scrambling over rough and uneven stone and I reached a series of broiling hot vents, stained light with airborne minerals at their mouths. The air shimmered in the rising heat, belying the proximity of molten rock somewhere beneath the brittle crust of cooled lava. The trail of arrows had disappeared and I felt close to something incredible, though no other hikers are in sight. Venturing a little toward the direction of the summit, the ground cracked and broke under my shoes, whose rubber soles were already shredding beyond their age. I fell a foot or so through the crust before hitting more solid rock and picked my way carefully back to where I was last on the trail Yeesh.

After sitting with my thoughts for a bit, several hikers arrived from the south, on their way back down and discussing the dangers and wonders they had witnessed over the next rise in the twice-baked inferno. Bingo. I headed in the direction they came from, entering a world of stone sharper and rougher and more unstable than any previous ... the land here was new, fresh, just-minted! Heat radiated from the ground, from the spaces between the rocks, hung thick in the air though there was a decent breeze coming from the south and bringing with it wisps of clouds to wrap around the face of the mountain. Slowly I approached the first sighting of red motlen rock oozing down the slope. A group of other hikers arrived and gathered, commenting on the magnificence of the find. All beneath us was the evidence of plate tectonics eadily moving, sinking, creating on the surface an amazing show that couldn't begin to touch the nature of the power working many miles beneath the Earth. What could I do but marvel in silence, and eventually take off my pack, retrieve a multi-pronged branch and some marshmallows, and look for a place to get some heat?

Eventually the others caught up and we went exploring. "Charlie" our Guatemalan friend and driver climbed above the lava sighting area and we both searched for more oozing vents, but only found a blasted and alien landscape with no sign of vegetation or human visitation. The recently cooled stone had such unusual form to it, with long slender filaments and threads of rock, shimmering minerals reflecting the sun like mirrors, and a ropy, folded look in other places. Heat and gas simmered from below and the heat cooked our shoes and feet. In a few vents the rock glowed red. Coming down, we saw that our companions had started their descent already, but a new group had arrived and was investigating around the side of the flow we'd first seen. It looked possible to get close. Close enough to choke on the fumes, or to lose an arm to 3rd degree burns. Carefully descending to the stone river, Charlie and I got as close as we may ever be to naturally superheated rock. It was a ribbon of fire, a molten serpent sliding down to the green slopes far below, and we were standing over it, the glowing ooze nearly at our chests putting out more than 1000 degrees of nylon-melting heat. We marveled, roasted marshmallows, and watched the roasting stick burst into flames as it contacted the lava.

So what if I puked twice on the way down the mountain and again at the home of my hosts later that evening after getting rained on and soaked to the bone? So what if we all had to say goodbye after that amazing experience - not only of the volcano visit but of coming together to help out fellow people in need, sharing whatever our trades or talents or hearts made possible? It was a struggle at times, it was dangerous and insecure, it was uncertain and uncomfortable, but it was an experience, it was life, and I am grateful to have been a part of it.

Steaming gas vents looking up towards the mountain's summit crater.

A fellow missionary and I atop the fresh lava field.

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