The sides of the cauldron are steep, thickly covered by ancient volcanic gravel. Around the rim of the massive crater, winds can gust to as much as fifty miles an hour. The panorama from the volcano’s rim is of the seared, scorched Death Valley. Downwards, the slope plummets over five hundred feet to the bottom. There is a trail, but running through the gravel is more fun. Walking it, you have to go sideways to keep your feet. Running, the key is to move in short diagonal bursts, to use the gravel to brake yourself. Don’t start falling, you won’t stop until you hit the bottom, and the gravel is sharp.
This is Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley, California. Open to the general public, there are now long lines of people trudging up and down the switchback trail. But when I first remember being there, some fifteen years ago, only a few people did more than look over the rim. Very few went all the way to the white-silt bottom. My family did climb down into the crater. Ubehebe is a small, extinct volcano, but even so, it terrified me. Those early adventures triggered a fascination with volcanic phenomena that has lasted ever since.
Volcanoes are one of the most potent, powerful forces on the Earth. They have crept, over the ages, into our nightmares, our folklore, our speech. Intricate mythologies formed around them. Hephaestus, Pele, Llao, Mafuei, Aetna and Fuji all shook the earth and spewed fire in their rages and passions.
Some mountains have their own mythology, too, becoming gods or forces with their own life, malevolence and force. Even now, villagers pray to Mount Etna for her mercy.
Others were the entrances to Hell, the burial grounds of the gods, or the birthplace of monsters. Often, they were the sites of great battles, most likely because of the great earthquakes that often accompany their eruptions.