Hugo died the day he told me about Stromboli. I hardly knew him. He was a drummer and we’d played a few of gigs together after Tokolosh’s acrimonious demise – the band I’d hoped would make me rich and famous. Over a few beers in Die Krone, where local musicians often hung out, he told me about his recent trip to the volcano. His head bobbed in all directions as he spoke – punctuated by slugs of laughter – sending greasy strands of twisted, black hair across his Lennon glasses and pimpled cheeks, leaving only his long, scimitar nose free and glossy. I hadn’t heard of this fire spewing isle off the southwest coast of Italy and its ongoing activity over the last 2000 years. And I thought it a gross exaggeration when he claimed that it still erupts about every fifteen minutes. I was amused by his effusiveness and vivid descriptions of the eruptions, reinforced by fun facts such as Jules Verne depicting Axel and Otto Lidenbrock emerging from that volcano at the end of his novel Journey to the Center to the Earth. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued. “You should go,” Hugo said, as he left, slapping me on the shoulder.
He hitched a ride home, but didn’t bother to buckle up, as he only lived a few miles out of Schwenningen, in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest. At a hairpin turn, halfway down a hill, the blue VW bug rolled over and crashed into a ditch. Hugo died immediately. The driver escaped without a scratch.
I was between jobs, and instead of attending Hugo’s funeral I packed my backpack, jumped on a train and headed south. I’d pay my respects differently. Besides, now that Tokolosh had broken up, there was really no reason for me to remain in Germany. I’d worry about the future on my return. For the moment it was just good to get out.
After a stop in Milan to view Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and changing trains in Naples, I finally made it on the night train to Sicily. However, after crossing the Straits of Messina, with the entire train shunted onto the ferry, I took the wrong connection and traveled down Sicily’s rocky east coast past Mt. Etna, almost all the way to Catania before I realized my mistake. Getting off at a forlorn station I waited an hour before I managed to catch a packed train back to Messina and finally to Milazzo. I’d missed the ferry and had to spend a night in a cheap hotel, kept awake by pounding disco music from across the road.
The almost six-hour ferry crossing was relaxing and pleasant, except for a short interlude where I almost got into a tangle with some jealous Italians. I was sitting peacefully at a large table drinking coffee, reading up on Stromboli from a guide book, when a gaggle of pretty Italian schoolgirls descended around me. They immediately showered me with questions, delighted to try out their English skills, and insisting I share their delicious sandwiches. I succumbed to their ebullient charm, not noticing a posse of guys approaching who thought I was flirting with their girls. The head honcho rudely and roughly slapped me on the shoulder and hurled insults at me in Italian, arms gesticulating. Immediately the girls came to my defense, which only upset him more. At last he said, “What-sa your name, huh?” I told him, adding that I came from South Africa, ignoring the fact that I now lived in Germany and was also Swiss. At the mention of Africa he broke into a wide smile. He sat down next to me and explained that his uncle had moved to Africa. I was now his buddy and he bought me another cup of coffee. The other three guys squeezed in next to the girls, and after a while I bade the happy bunch farewell. For the rest of the ferry crossing, whenever he saw me, he waved and shouted, “Africa, amico mio.”
In the distance the conical mountain, with a tassel of white smoke on top, rose steadily from the calm blue Mediterranean. I hurried to the ferry’s bow and watched it grow, rapt. Arriving at the port of Stromboli I first made my way to the black sand beach in search of a place to sleep. The ferry was slated to return in two days; a forced disconnect from the rest of the world – a fact I relished. I found a perfect spot between two lava stumps that offered a modicum of shade – rare on this sparsely treed island. Hiding my backpack in the low, but dense vegetation behind the rocks, I sauntered off to the village of Stromboli to get a bite to eat. After a tasty plate of spaghetti al pomodoro, washed down by cool beer, I strolled back to my rocky abode for a good night’s sleep. As I came to my lowly shelter I found – to my annoyance – someone else’s rucksack and rolled out sleeping bag. So much for that, I thought, and went to retrieve my backpack.
“Hullo, I just went to take a shit.” I spun around and came face to face with a small, stocky young man, wearing nothing but his tidy whities. “I’m Quentin.” He stretched out his hand. “Looking for a place to sleep, are yer?” I nodded, trying to place his British accent, shaking his hand with some hesitancy, hoping he was a lefty.
“Eric’s the name… yeah, and I’d hoped to sleep right here.”
“Be my guest, there’s room for two. Good to meet you, mate.” He scratched his head vigorously with both hands, digging his fingers into his short, thick red hair. “So, I presume you’re going to scale the volcano, yeah? Good, we can climb together… come on, make yourself comfortable.” For the rest of the evening Quentin, a London taxi driver, kept me entertained with farfetched stories of hilarious and harrowing exploits around London Town.
The next morning we took a quick dip in the ocean, after which Quentin insisted on shaving (nicking his freckled cheeks and neck in the process). Refreshed, we set out and found a café, canopied with bougainvilleas, where we enjoyed a cappuccino and Panini sandwich. We didn’t linger too long as it was warming up fast. Asking for directions we found the trail leading up the volcano behind the San Vincenzo church. The path was well worn and snaked through dense macchia, which gave off a fragrant smell that grew in pungency with the heat and sound of cicadas. Soon the series of switchbacks increased and the vegetation gave way to barren steep slopes. We hadn’t brought any water with us and felt a touch thirsty. Both of us wore sandals with little traction, and the solid path became sandy and coarse, causing us to slide back with almost every step we took. But the view was spectacular and we gradually made our way up this massive volcanic cone. A few robust hikers, stocked and well equipped with boots, drink and victuals passed us. As we neared the summit the rising plume became more visible and we could hear the intermittent rumble of the eruptions.
Three hours later and way past noon we finally reached Pizzo Sopra La Fossa, the summit, 924 meters above sea level. The clear sky and blue water almost merged seamlessly at the horizon, and from where we stood we had a 360 degree view of the expansive Tyrrhenian Sea. In the distance we spied the other six volcanic Aeolian Islands of the archipelago. But most riveting of all were the craters with their various vents about 100 to 150 meters below us. Paths crisscrossed and led down to them from our ideal viewing terrace. It was surprisingly chilly, but the large, rounded lava ledge, which was the rim of the original crater, was like a colossal oven, warmed through by the molten mass deep down under. Only a thin funnel of smoke issued and merged from the vents, and stillness pervaded the air, which made me wonder whether the volcano did erupt every fifteen minutes. Soon enough I heard the heralding rumble – sounding much louder, now that we were in full view of the crater. Within seconds, and accompanied by a loud boom, basaltic magma jetted hundreds of feet into the air. Quentin screamed in exaltation, dancing a jig on his stocky legs. “They usually come in threes, or so—.” Before he could finish the sentence, another thunderous explosion, far louder, cut him off. A rush of adrenalin pumped through my system, and I thought of Hugo. The third eruption, though muted, released a thick plume of ash that spread like a dark, menacing cumulus cloud, before dissipating.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon we watched ash and lava blocks spout from the colossal blowhole of this black leviathan. Mostly we had the volcano to ourselves, and those who came only stayed for a few eruptions. One American reached the summit just as it blasted its first batch of slugs into the air after a twenty minute respite. “Is that all,” he said dismissively. “Not very impressive.” I knew better, but kept mum. Seconds later the loudest explosion so far hurled ejecta and ash rocketing sky high – Stromboli was clearly giving the American the molten finger. “How awesome is that!” and he immediately lifted his video camera to his face and filmed the spectacle. “Got it,” he quipped, and without a second glance turned around and jogged back down. He’d stayed for five minutes, tops.
Quentin had gone off to find a comfortable place to snooze, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I considered the island’s mythic origin, picturing the disgruntled master craftsman Hephaestus, Greek God of fire and volcanoes, hurling the island Thira into the Tyrrhenian Sea, resulting in the birth of Stromboli. And I wondered whether Stromboli was the floating Aeolian island visited by Odysseus, home to King Aeolus – master of winds, who’d given the Achaean the sack of wind, which would have ensured his safe return to Ithaca, had he not fallen asleep. From my vantage point the island certainly seemed to be swimming free in the cobalt blue expanse. Like Odysseus I was trying to find my own Ithaca, and though I didn’t know it yet, contrary winds would blow me off course for a number of years to come – it’s hard to remain awake and not be betrayed by the mutinous crew of one’s own shortcomings. But I also thought of Hugo, our chance meeting, why he had to die so young, his spiritual whereabouts, and the afterlife. Was I given another chance? At what?
An hour later I descended toward the crater, following one of the many paths to the edge, feeling some trepidation as I recalled more stories from the guide book – of people getting injured, even killed by falling lava bombs (one reason why guides became compulsory a few years after my visit). I was barefoot and it was like stepping across the back of some gigantic, lumbering, prehistoric sauropod, approaching its gaping, fire-spewing jaw and nostrils. As the earth growled from the depths of its volcanic bowels, signaling another burst of gas about to shoot hundreds of tons of matter all around, I felt the earth tremble. When the eruption occurred I could hear and feel the blocks as they hit the ground near to me. I took the hint and walked back to the safety of the upper terrace.
Subtleties can take one by surprise. Up to now the magnitude and sonic volume of the eruptions had impressed me the most, but I hadn’t bargained for the array and nuances of color I now witnessed as the afternoon wore on and the sun lowered toward the horizon. What had appeared as grey-white ash and black ejecta now took on color. The most gentle and veiled pink began to appear midst the ash emissions. The lucid rose red gradually gave way to orange and shades of cherry red, until it turned to a rich crimson and ruby. I wanted to hug Hugo for telling me about the wonders of Stromboli. It exceeded by far the best lightshow and fireworks I’d seen. I felt close to the gods. Each eruption became a prayer, and Gaia’s primal display and guttural ululations became Hugo’s memorial service. I felt his spirit near – I saw his laughter, punctuated by terrific explosions. I was paying my respects – each incandescent fountain of lava was a funeral rite. I had the vision of Hugo giving his last drum solo perched on top of the volcano, beating to the rhythms of the eruptions. My head felt like a ‘spinning top,’ at one with the meaning of Stromboli’s original name – Strongyle.
Now that it was dark, more people had arrived to witness the fountains of molten rock exploding, often simultaneously from different vents. Intermittently, lava flows ran down the far side of the mountain, known as the Sciara del Fuoco. Quentin, who’d wandered off near the crater’s edge sat down next to me. I had almost forgotten about him. He smiled and said softly, “Good stuff.” I nodded. “Want some,” and he offered me a bottle of water.” Seeing the water I suddenly realized how thirsty I was.
“Gee, man, where did you get that from?” I shouted, almost grabbing the bottle from him.
“A girl I met,” and he pointed over to a group of young people to our left. I’ll be seeing her later,” and he nudged me with his elbow and winked.
“You scoundrel, you,” I said, shaking my head, laughing. We sat in silence for a few more eruptions before we got up and descended.
In the light of the moon that rose in the west we ran stretches of the trail, pausing only to catch our breath. We made it down in just over an hour. Quentin accompanied me back to the beach, got his haversack, and with a “See you, mate,” disappeared into another tale in the making. I never did see him again.
I had the entire beach to myself and I stretched out comfortably in my sleeping bag, peering up at the stars and listening to the ocean’s gentle sibilance. The last time I saw so many stars so clearly was in the African Highveld. And it was strangely reassuring to know that almost a thousand meters above me the volcano was still popping like a champagne bottle, mirroring microcosmically the universe with its fountains of incandescent sparks. I felt as safe, alive and fulfilled as I hadn’t in a long while. Hugo, my buddy, I acknowledged appreciatively, thanks for showing me this ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’– may your soul soar in peace.
Eric G. Müller is a musician, teacher and writer living in upstate New York. He has written two novels, Rites of Rock (Adonis Press 2005) and Meet Me at the Met (Plain View Press, 2010), as well as a collection of poetry, Coffee on the Piano for You (Adonis Press, 2008). Articles, short stories and poetry have appeared in many journals and magazines. www.ericgmuller.com