Pompeii and Vesuvius, Part II: The Destroyer

Click here for Part I: The Destroyed

"If you stare into The Abyss long enough, The Abyss
stares back at you." - James Cameron

June 30, 2011 — We all kind of have this genetic belief that the Earth is on our side. We think of it as providing us with an abundance of food, water and air; as protecting us from the terrifying deathland of space; as giving us plenty of materials for clothing, shelter, Slinkies, and Legos. We’re made from its dust, and to its dust we’ll return. We call it Mother. We think of it as home.

But then there are those God-damned volcanoes.

I mean, nature has a whole arsenal of natural disasters to throw at us, but nothing like volcanoes. These fiery cones spit the very life-stuff of the planet at us, reminding us that we cling to a very thin film stretched across the surface of an indifferent globe. There’s a reason Christian tradition places Hell at its center in a lake of fire. There’s a reason Lucas chose a volcano planet to Darthify Anakin [Editor: Vaderize?]. There’s a reason why I reference Christianity and Star Wars more than any other cultural touchstones.

I recounted in the previous part of this article about our visit to Pompeii, the 2,500-year-old Italian city wiped off the map by the volcano Vesuvius and then wiped back on by archeologists and tourists. Well, we felt like we couldn’t really call it a day until we’d seen the destroyer close enough to Joe Versus it.

Taking the Circumvesuviana back toward Naples, we got off about halfway there at the Ercolano Scavi stop. From my research, I was under the impression that as soon as we stepped out of the station, we would be mobbed by tour operators, taxis, and shuttles offering us deals to get to the top of the national park that is Vesuvius.

Instead, we found a small, dead-end parking lot covered in graffiti and one insistent guy in a leather jacket trying to corral anybody who exited the station into a small side entrance colorfully labeled Vesuvio Espress. Since we saw no other options and were under a time ceiling with our train reservations from Naples to Rome, we signed up and then waited as the guy fruitlessly tried to talk various disinterested disembarkers into joining the party.

I can’t remember how much we paid, but I do seem to remember the price being pretty reasonable...although that might’ve been because without them we would have gone home volcano-less. About half an hour and a fight between the leather jacket guy and the van driver later, they gave up on maximizing the tank of gas and me, my wife, and our two friends were finally loaded into our own personal van.

Vesuvius is hardly in a secluded area, and the base of the volcano, at least the parts that we drove through, were thickly urban. The way up Vesuvius itself was the usual cliché about international driving, vertiginous roads, and sideswiping tour buses, but we were variously distracted by the strange series of large sculptures that intermittently dotted the route. Also by the fact that we were driving up a volcano.

Finally, we arrived at the dirt parking lot located a little over half a mile from the crater. The rest you have to walk if you want to look down its streppy throat. We settled on a return time with the driver, bought tickets to the park itself, and then took off up the wide dirt path.

Maybe it was because we had already spent half the day deadening ourselves by walking a dead city, or maybe it was the three previous days of walking all over Rome like it was burning, but that few thousand feet turned out to be a few thousand aching feet for us. The path seemed to be as vertical as it could be without actually being vertical. I’m not saying we weren’t past by the elderly, small children, and one guy on crutches, because we were, but it was still a hard little walk.

Plus we could barely see ten feet in front of us.

In the last article I mentioned that Vesuvius was difficult to view from Pompeii because it was wreathed in a demure bank of clouds the entire time we were there. Apparently, now we were in that bank. Clouds are strange things. Pretty as all anything when seen from the outside. Terrifying as all get out from the inside. Actually, that might be true of every beautiful thing, mountains, stars, Mila Kunis.

As a result of the fog, the short, wooden guardrails that lined the trail almost as a joke just ended in nothingness, and even from the top of Vesuvius (when we finally got there), we couldn’t see the view of the Bay of Naples and the surrounding cities that everybody proudly posts on Flickr.

It was a lot like walking around that Stephen King movie Mist, except that we wouldn’t have had to commit communal suicide if things got tragic, as we were always inches away from a precipitous fall over the side. Oh, that was a movie spoiler, I guess. Possibly an article one, too.

Finally, 20 minutes and a few minor ACL tears later, we finally ascended the top, where we were greeted by a majestic tableau filled with gift shops and pagan hoards of school children.

And a gigantic hole.

I’ve been pretty close to Mount St. Helen’s volcano in Oregon, but not on top of it. It’s a way different experience walking on the exact terrain that was basically a playground slide for lava in Vesuvius’s grumpier moments. In addition, Mount St. Helen’s was covered in snow, making it look like a mere mountain, while Vesuvius was covered in the dark, clumpy, porous rock you expect to be the anchor outfit of a volcano’s fashion palette.

Vesuvius is 4,202 feet above sea level and apparently “grew” out of the wreckage of a much larger, pre-existing volcano, Mount Somma, the remnants of which are still technically a volcano, as well. The complex is described everywhere on the Internet as a volcano within a volcano, but that sounds too much like dividing by zero for me to be at all comfortable with the ramifications of such a thing. The interior of the cone descends about 750 feet, and you can step right to the edge and spit down its maw if you’re the kind of person I hate. You can also look down into it from various vantage points along its 2,000-foot circumference.

Along the rim, smooth downward-pointing triangles revealed the location of past rubble falls, while wisps of white cloud floated in and out, or maybe it was steam, who knows. Inside the plugged crater was basically a whole other landscape complete with flora. It was hard to judge the scale, so the few trees that grew down there could have been three feet tall or twenty. What they couldn’t have been, though, is more the 65 years old, as 1944 was the last time Pompeii erupted, destroying entire villages and killing, well, apparently not very many judging by how hard it is to find a death toll from an authoritative online source.

I assume by all the instruments we saw sticking up at the top of the cone like some kind of off-planet robotic outpost that the sciences-that-be are pretty good at detecting eruptions in advance, otherwise we still haven’t learned our lesson and are still pomp(eii)ous about it all.

Even though we were closed in by vague whiteness on all sides, it was still an awe-inspiring sight. And worth all the effort to see both Pompeii and Vesuvius in one day. Plus we were rewarded with some solid shut-eye on the whole three-hour train ride back to our rented flat in Rome.

Although I’ve barely tried in this article, it really is hard to convey the feeling of what it’s like to stand at the crater of a volcano that killed tens of thousands, buried cities, and is in general a weak spot on the surface of the planet. It’s impossible to really absorb the full import of its place in geology and history and overwhelming to even try. I don’t know. Every time I see one of the world’s various wonders, it makes me believe that the planet was meant for creatures with much more complex brains than ourselves.

That’s probably why Mother Earth keeps trying to wipe us all out.