Editor’s note: We recently asked Xpress readers and writers to share their own true tales of adventure for possible publication in our special Adventure issue. Here is one of those stories.
In 1979, I hitchhiked from New York City to Mexico; en route, I passed through the Asheville area on Interstate 40, having no clue that I’d end up moving here seven years later. Several months into what turned out to be a yearlong stint in Latin America, I ill-advisedly took it into my head to spend the night atop a highly active Guatemalan volcano.
After riding in the back of a truck over dusty roads, I disembarked somewhere near Pacaya. A fellow passenger obligingly brought me to his hut, where his wife served up a simple meal. He then accompanied me to the base of the volcano, doing his best to persuade me just to come back down to his place. I politely declined, saying I needed to do it “para la aventura.”
The upper slopes were loose volcanic soil, and by the time I summited, it was almost dark, so I focused on figuring out how to survive the night.
I had no tent, and the wind would have blown my sleeping bag clear off the mountain; but some parts of the recently congealed lava flows could simply be snapped off, and I placed enough “stones” on the bag to hold it till I could crawl inside. After that there was nothing to do except wait and listen to the ground sheet’s ceaseless flapping.
It was perhaps the longest night of my life. One minute I was enveloped in sulfur; the next a particularly fierce blast of wind cleared it away, momentarily revealing a panoply of stars. This sequence played out endlessly, hour after hour, but with never any sign of the fiery light show I’d imagined. Happily, the ground itself was warm, compensating for my cheap sleeping bag.
Still, the unutterably bleak setting, and my inability to escape, evoked the classical Hades, and images of everyone I’d ever loved (including my father, whom I’d spent 18 months caring for while he was dying of cancer) paraded before my mind’s eye.
At the first faint pink blush, I stashed the bag (no mean feat with the wind still screaming) and plunged down the barely visible slope, more skiing than hiking, till I reached the tree line, supremely grateful to be out of there.
Days later, I described my adventure to filmmaker friends in Antigua. Stunned, they said they’d recently been filming on those very slopes when the mountain erupted and, clutching their cameras, they barely outran the lava that was melting the soles of their shoes.
These days, though, I’m content to summit one of our non-fire-breathing WNC peaks, savor wave on wave of shimmering blue ridges — and then head back down to grab a beer somewhere. Why tempt fate?
— Peter Gregutt
Xpress contributing editor