Studying volcanoes and the dynamics of asteroid impacts, I ended up on Hawai’i, the Big Island, a pinprick through the earth’s skin into a dome of magma not far below. I came looking for apocalypse. And I found it, though not exactly as planned. But isn’t that the case with apocalypse?
First, the crust would need to tear open somewhere and a lava outbreak would have to begin. I’d been watching closely for a few weeks, poking around the lava edges, peering out across an expanse of cooled flows for any sign of a breakout.
Something about flaming catastrophe draws the eye. It tells you that the world may not be quite as stable as you thought.
My wife and kids had been out, and one morning around 3:30, Regan and I pulled those little boys from their tent, dressed them up in coats and boots, and tottered them out toward a fresh flow that had begun exploding into the sea. We wanted them to get a taste for this earth firsthand. It was a brilliant pre-dawn maneuver, the boys’ faces pumpkin-lit with glee and lava-glow. (For any anxious parents, note that we remained a safe half-mile back in a steady upwind the entire time, our exit route duly prepared). But I wanted to get closer, actually walk across the smoldering middle of this active lava shield. I had to ditch the family.
JT Thomas is medium-statured man in his early 40s, olive skin and a brave and Roman face. He has a house back in Colorado where he lives with his dog in the summer growing hay to sell, in the winter keeping the woodstove stocked. A traveling photographer working for stock agencies and for journals and glossy magazines, he is willing to do just about anything. The plan was for JT and me to backpack together across the volcanically active East Rift Zone, something neither legal nor entirely safe. As soon as the lava broke out and started flowing, we’d load gear and head for it.
While crusts swelled, JT and I explored the most-recent fresh flows where half a subdivision had been buried under hardened ropes and whirlpools of lava. We climbed over lobes of slow basaltic forms where charred and fallen trees lay like elephant skeletons. They had burned and fallen over on the hardened lava surface. We were crossing a dance floor in Hell, I with my journal out, JT with camera equipment swinging around his shoulder, his eye fixed in his viewfinder. He circled a street sign raised inexplicably out of a quilted surface of black and silvery lava. Near that was a burned-out car where its flash-rusted chassis must have lit like a candlewick as it was carried along, its seats melted down to metal springs.
We slept a few nights along the edge in the yards of people we met, or out on older flows with sword ferns sprung up through the cracks, and we waited for the glow to appear, signs of the crust splitting open.
For two years, I’d been traveling the planet working on a book about extreme landscapes, deciphering what they have to say about the evolution of this planet. I looked for signs through earth’s history of massive, elemental changes that came all at once.
This particular time, I was trying to replicate the complete annihilation of a major cataclysm, an asteroid impact that would roast the earth. The most active analog I could find was the East Rift Zone, an area resurfaced every several weeks by fresh lava, life extinguished beyond a doubt. When we finally spotted the glow, and lava started flowing, JT and I took off for it with gear on our backs. Our boot soles half melted while nights lit up around us with rivers of molten rock. I was here to see what the earth might have looked like when it was bombarded by asteroids four billion years ago, the world begun again, the ground burned into new rock. Out of the lava, we kept backpacking through a succession of jungles and finally into an ancient tree fern forest on the other side that showed us what ultimately happens after the world ends: it returns.
But once you start looking for apocalypse, you can’t just ask it to stop. It keeps coming.
At night, we watched lava glow in the distance, an outbreak flooding from the East Rift. A kipuka where we had slept several nights earlier went up in flames, a forest at the edge of the lava shooting into torches. Cars lined up to watch, gawkers like me and JT out with binoculars and cameras.
To stand on the dome of an eruptive planet and watching it leak, you wonder what permission we have to be here. What prayers are needed to live on an earth prone to frequently sky-searing volcanic activity, not to mention a global wipeout of an asteroid impact coming every 100 million years or so.
But why worry, really? Who has time to bother with hundreds of millions of years?
JT and I picked up our red Pontiac rental and headed for the beach to unwind after time in lava and jungle. We landed in a little seaside park I knew of, a bit of black sand with a parking lot and picnic tables, local families out dancing around the tide pools, laughter and children all about, a football tossed around. Using my journal as a pillow, I laid myself on a smooth piece of lava half-warmed by the sun. I closed my eyes for a short nap with global ruination on my mind. JT was out talking with families, taking pictures.
Just as I drifted off, I heard an altercation. It was JT. His voice sounded urgent.
“We’ll leave, we’ll leave,” he seemed to be saying to someone.
I sat straight up, seeing JT walking backwards a few feet from me, camera lowered in one hand, other hand palmed forward in the universal sign for please don’t get up.
I scrambled to my feet, seeing a very large and obviously strong Hawaiian man bearing toward us. He was shirtless and covered with tattoos, I’d say 250 pounds and around 28 years old. His fists appeared to be tightly clenched, as was his face. He was shouting at JT.
I hadn’t noticed before that we were the only tourists on this side of the beach. I’d camped here with my family, but Regan was often mistaken as an Island girl, and, with kids, you have a sort of automatic passport into unfamiliar locales. I suddenly realized that JT and I — no Regan, no kids — were in the wrong place.
As I came to JT’s side, I spotted an interception from the left where three other large and shirtless young men were approaching shoulder to shoulder at a deliberate pace, their faces just beginning to clinch. I did not wonder what instigated this. I only saw it was happening. To our backs was a field of hard, black lava where an ankle could easily snap if one were to, say, start suddenly running like mad.
The biggest man, the one coming straight at us, was throwing his fists at the ground. He roared, “You fucking took pictures of my mother?”
JT was belting out an apology, repeating, “We’ll just get out of here.”
“You’re leaving all right … I’m gonna kill you.”
I have to admit, I knew this about JT already. He’s a got a trouble-streak in him, even when he’s not trying. JT was one of the most respectful and generous photographers I had ever worked with. He’d be rich if he were doing it for real money, but mostly he is on his own projects, donating his time, one of those rare environmental geographers who would give his life to his work. Which seemed as if it were about to happen.
Big Man went straight into JT’s face. “Who fucking gave you permission? Who said you could take pictures of my mother?”
“I asked her … ”
“You what?” he bellowed, flecking spit on both of us.
“I … ”
“Now you’re calling my mother a fucking liar?”
Even if I had a baseball bat and one free swing, I don’t think I could have taken Big Man down. We were too close, his face twisting with anger. I’d never seen this in a human before, such precise and terrifying rage. He looked like he could break both of us in his two hands.
Don’t deflect, I thought. Don’t fight back.
We were not a physically formidable pair, JT and I. We were Bert and Ernie up against four huge locals who were going animal. We were chicken meat for these guys.
Big Man rose up against JT, his body pushing me out of the way.
This is what it feels like to have the shadow come over you out of nowhere. You look up and suddenly it is happening.
Some huge thing sails burning into view. The sky turns to pure light.
Your mouth is half open, not a moment to pray.
In the spring of 1908, an asteroid or piece of comet exploded over Siberia. Known as the Tunguska Event, this extraterrestrial object slammed into the atmosphere one fine summer’s morning and the entire mass vaporized before touching ground. The mid-air explosion laid waste to entire forests below. An estimated 80 million trees went down as timbers were thrown to the ground all pointing away from the center of the blast. Trees in the middle were stripped, burned and remained standing, a phenomena caused by the explosion’s downward core, marking the trajectory of this bolide as it entered the atmosphere leaving 830 square miles of forest devastated. When an oral history was collected almost 20 years later, an eyewitness identified as Chuchan of Shanyagir Tribe, described,
We had a hut by the river with my brother Chekaren. We were sleeping. Suddenly we both woke up at the same time. Somebody shoved us. We heard whistling and felt strong wind. Chekaren said, “Can you hear all those birds flying overhead?” We were both in the hut, couldn’t see what was going on outside. Suddenly, I got shoved again, this time so hard I fell into the fire. I got scared. Chekaren got scared too. We started crying out for father, mother, brother, but no one answered. There was noise beyond the hut, we could hear trees falling down. Chekaren and I got out of our sleeping bags and wanted to run out, but then the thunder struck. This was the first thunder.
The brothers just amped it up, shouting in Hawaiian, a musical language easily turned aggressive. Quick as a snake, Big Man’s hand grabbed JT’s throat, thumb notched into his jawbone and lifted JT off the ground. As Big Man’s body grazed by mine, I felt skin smooth and cool. It seemed like acres of flesh, tattoos raised like ink on paper. The moment was lucid and slow as he threw JT into the lava, and as JT launched, he handed off his camera, his Nikon livelihood. I grabbed it from his hand and hid it behind my legs.
Before JT could rise from the lava rocks, Big Man had him again under his jaw and was dragging him out where he planted him back first on a boulder.
“Do you know me? You don’t fucking know me?”
JT gasped as he wobbled to his feet, “I would like to know you.”
Big Man boomed, “You want to fucking know me?”
Wrong thing to say.
JT had said it because it was true. He was a chronicler of people and their places, his mission in life to get the story in images. He was experiencing time dilation, as if in an accident, and he had very carefully chosen to say those words. He meant them, although he would have been better off keeping his trap shut.
The world is tenuous this way. At times, there is little insulation left. You are naked, exposed. What you thought of as the infinite blue of a clear, benevolent sky, becomes a flaming gash. Whether you saw the signs or not, the surprise of the impact is inescapable. The Tunguska Event of 1908 was such an event, though, to some dude in a hut in Siberia, there were no signs at all. In Chuchan’s account, which matches the recollections of other eyewitnesses, you can hear in his language how legends are born.
After he was struck by the first pressure wave, Chuchan continued,
The Earth began to move and rock. Wind hit our hut and knocked it over. My body was pushed down by sticks, but my head was in the clear. Then I saw a wonder: trees were falling, the branches were on fire, it became mighty bright, how can I say this, as if there was a second sun, my eyes were hurting, I even closed them. It was like what the Russians call lightning. And immediately there was a loud thunderclap. This was the second thunder. The morning was sunny, there were no clouds, our Sun was shining brightly as usual, and suddenly there came a second one!
Big Man threw JT down again, preparing to drive home the message that there’s a balance here you better well observe. JT and I were disconnected from the place, and we were about to be connected right here and now. We were not as innocent as a young man in a hut thrown to the ground by the blast of an incoming asteroid, but the end result was about to be similar: trees catapulting on fire and Big Man getting ready to turn JT into hamburger. One of the brothers grabbed Big Man’s shoulders. There was a moment of distraction. JT was up and running through the gap. He was no fool, and there was no pride here worth dying for, or at least being seriously mangled over. He sprinted across grass past the concrete picnic tables toward the paved parking lot where sat our red Pontiac. As he checked over his shoulder, heads turned to me and I suddenly became visible. I looked at the ground and snatched up a pack full of camera equipment JT had left.
“I am very sorry … excuse me,” I said as I passed through them, looking at no one. An old man who had shown up was spitting bitter insults at me.
It seemed as if the entire family was on us at that point, a picnic burst into chaos, kids watching with excitement as the brothers and various cousins took off running after JT. Sisters shot out of the picnic surprisingly fast in flip flops shouting obscenities trying to stop the men from making this a homicide scene. One turned to JT and said, “Get out of here. Now.”
JT turned and shouted, “Throw me the keys.”
I fished keys out of my pocket and underhanded them 40 feet to JT, who unlocked the door and was inside in about half a second. I began running as he backed up fast, passenger door halting in front of me. I jumped in with his pack. JT gunned it.
Chekaren and I had some difficulty getting out from under the remains of our hut. Then we saw that above, but in a different place, there was another flash, and loud thunder came. This was the third thunder strike. Wind came again, knocked us off our feet, struck against the fallen trees. We looked at the fallen trees, watched the tree tops get snapped off, watched the fires. Suddenly Chekaren yelled “Look up” and pointed with his hand. I looked there and saw another flash, and it made another thunder. But the noise was less than before. This was the fourth strike, like normal thunder.
“I got permission, I got permission, fuck I got permission,” JT said, checking the rear-view mirror to see if anyone was following us. “I talked to the father, the mother. I spent an hour with them. I showed her my camera.”
The car hummed on asphalt as our hearts beat back down in our chest. JT let his breath slow.
“I missed checking in with the gatekeeper,” he said. “I didn’t see him coming.”
This altercation happened because we were trespassing and hadn’t noticed. We’d stumbled through a web of rules and pre-existing balances, and even though JT had minced his way asking permission, thinking he’d done a good enough job, he hadn’t. He missed the big one. And I, just another poor slob on earth thinking I could happily take a nap, was rapidly reminded that there are no innocent bystanders; we all play a role.
The planet itself is a gravity well. It pulls objects in. The events that happen here like the Tunguska explosion are not purely random, not an intersection of two straight lines. They are where elements are drawn toward each other, a point of contact made.
JT checked the mirror again. No one was behind us. He slapped my thigh and gave it a tight, tremulous squeeze as he laughed, relieved, “That’s one way to learn a lesson.”
Now I remember well there was also one more thunder strike, but it was small, and somewhere far away, where the Sun goes to sleep.
Craig Childs is the author of the highly acclaimed “House of Rain: Tracking a Vanishing Civilization Across the Southwest,” “Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archeological Plunder and Obsession” and “The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild” (a part of which first appeared in the MG). Childs’ newest book, “Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth,” will be out next October. This story is not in it. In 2009 he won the Rowell Art of Adventure Award and in 2011 the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award. He lives off the grid near Crawford, Colorado, with his wife and two sons.
JT Thomas is a photographer/science journalist and contributor to the NY Times, High Country News, Time, Smithsonian Magazine, Christian Science Monitor and Maxim’s Annual Guide to the Inner Thigh & Zymurgy. Along with Cool Paws Luke, his canine sidekick, he keeps basecamps in Paonia, Colorado, and New York City.