There is another methane cannon whump, this one much louder and closer, but Malcolm doesn't twitch.

"My God,†he says quietly.

Malcolm would tell you this if Genesis hadn't stilled his tongue: Before this life is out, you must see lava.

I CAME TO KILAUEA on the Big Island of Hawaii because it is, at this writing, the most active volcano on earth. The current eruption began on January 3, 1983, and, to varying degrees, has been emitting flow ever since. Kilauea actually rests on the flanks of Mauna Loa, the world's most massive mountain (rising 56,000 feet from its base on the sea floor). But Kilauea is distinct, a volcano unto itself, with its own separate magma chamber about two miles beneath the earth. Nature, of course, does not perform on cue, but if you hanker to see lava, few places offer better odds than the slopes of Kilauea. It's as if Madame Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, saw the need for man to reflect on his place in this world: Here, you insignificant scrap. Witness the birth of the planet you stand upon.

Kilauea's flow is often accessible, meaning you can walk right up to the stuff. On the day of my own life-changing introduction, I was joined not only by Malcolm, but a group of energetic, straw-hatted 60-somethings, who, guide in tow, had hiked up the flanks of Mauna Loa from Chain of Craters Road.

Lava aficionados know that flows are best viewed at dusk, dawn, and night (the midday sun blanches the colors), so that's what I did, making the 30-mile drive from Hilo and stepping into the lava fields at the edge of Chain of Craters Road at just after 4 in the afternoon, a fingernail sliver of moon already visible in the sky.