I first saw Vesuvius from a wobbly plane. The turbulence descending into Naples was so rough that I was trembling when I looked to the left and saw the most majestic, mesmerizing hunk of rock I’ve ever seen. It was more than a mountain and its awe eased me.
It’s no wonder that the people who have long lived beneath its commanding presence have deemed it a god. An unforgiving one at that. Yet they still live here, grow their grapes, and tend their gardens as if they know not the sorrow and trouble those before them experienced. It’s too quiet to suspect this god could be more than a mountain. But gods don’t stay asleep.
We went up the summit on a barely warm day. One of those days when the breeze is just what it claims to be. It’s about 4,000 feet up—not a doable feat after having ambled miles around an archaeological site of unevenly angled streets and a dangerous, dingy city. We went the easy way—if there is one. Vans depart for the summit from Ercolano. This is the modern-day city where sunken Herculaneum once flourished before it was flash frozen in a coat of ash and lava.
Ascending the slope of Mount Vesuvius is like exploring two different planets. There is the lush and green but rocky forest that covers most of the hill. The flora at times appears distinctly ancient and Mediterranean. There are boulders that sit as if they have just dropped from the sky and semi-tropical-looking trees, but the most odd, unsettling image we see while driving the snaking road is how many homes there are. Homes with cars, toys, fences, and yards. Yellow flowers populate the yards as if we could be anywhere other than on a cranky crag known for its eruptive temper.
People live on Vesuvius. They are there for the same reason others have come to the mountain for thousands of years—fertile soil. Never mind that they are living on the surface of a dormant, beastly bomb bulging with a fiery filling. When it goes again, the people may make it out alive. Their livelihoods won’t. But darn if Vesuvian wine doesn’t taste fine, crisp, and clean. Their livelihood has been my liveliness for part of the week.
Our van driver drives like a mad man. This is the Italian way. The narrow road wraps around the mountain like an Egyptian bracelet, tight and coiled. Each turn takes us further away from the city and the sea bringing the Bay of Naples and Isle of Capri into aerial view. And suddenly, the landscape begins to change from earthly to alien. We’ve landed on the moon—a gray, barren, rocky desert. We begin to see lava-streaked scars from the most recent eruption in 1944.
We are dropped off right where the summit starts. Walking up feels like wading against weighty ocean waves. The wind whips and the stuff beneath our feet isn’t stable. The switchback is silty, lined with something in between sand and gravel—slippery yet gritty. The khaki-colored lane contrasts with the more Martian-like terrain that extends up to the crater. Grays, browns, reds, oranges, and blues run throughout the porous, volcanic rock blending together and breaking apart. Some parts are smooth and sandy like the trail. Others are jagged and faceted like a newly exhumed jewel. Whole chunks of rock look chiseled and nicked in an erratic fashion.
The air is thinner 4,000 feet up than below at sea level and it gets harder to breathe with each forced step I take. This is not walking. It’s pushing and prodding with only my will and a walking stick to drive me along. A long-time dream of seeing this wonder has made this a quest for me—something to conquer. Something about its history and mythical ways has brought me to this bastard mountain. What it has done and meant. How it destroys and wastes yet feeds and sustains. Vesuvius is a contradiction to be reckoned with. Its calm and inviting presence belies what it is capable of unleashing on the least suspecting—the fatalistic denizens of its rocky slopes. The ones too close to see or believe the raging tantrums their land can turn loose. I wonder if they’ve been to the summit and stared into the deceptively cool crater. It steams.
We stand there at the crater looking for any sign of unrest. We stare, search, and strain to find something rising up out of this huge rocky depression as if we are consulting the orifice of some great oracle. We finally eye some steam seeping out of a thin crack inside the crater wall. It is small and silent but a mighty harbinger of the things to come . . . some day. Any day. I can’t help but feel the danger and awe standing there on the precipice looking in. It is profound. Then, to turn around and look out over the bay and across the sea and beyond the isles. The contradiction of this volcano brings out a contradiction in me. I am at once envious that people get to live near something so extraordinary and baffled that they would live near something so powerful and destructive. Vesuvius tests, teases, tempts, and takes. It announces nothing in its everyday existence. There may be a rumble here and there to warn it is time to wrestle, but when it blows and bails, it will shock, stun, and spew and, just as it has down before, it will trample on everything in its purging path.
What keeps them here? The land, their family, the immeasurable beauty of a storied volcano that sits at the sea? Many have the mountains and some have the sea. Very few have a mountain at the sea and maybe this is why they stay. To cultivate their vines, take in the sun and sky, and breathe in the salty ocean air.