What lava junkies often fail to mention in their ardor for the grail itself is the journey. Hiking through a cooled and set lava field is a lovely, though focused, experience. I say focused because there are two kinds of Hawaiian lava. One is called pahoehoe. It hardens smooth and ropelike and, other than the fact that it sometimes breaks away underfoot like panes of glass, it offers easy egress. The second lava form is aa, which likely has some profound Hawaiian meaning, but ably ­mimicked the sounds I mouthed as I moved, as quickly and delicately as possible, over its jagged surface.

The cooled lava gave off a lovely crystalline sheen, the dark rock often delicately glazed with a silver burnish. It had solidified in infinite shapes, phantasmagoric moldings one might grasp remotely if one had ever dabbled in hallucinogens. The lava stretched away in all directions, a dark, undulating sea with nary a mast on the horizon.

To reach the flow, I hiked for roughly an hour, ascending a portion of Mauna Loa's great flank. Once there, I stood reverentially with my fellow acolytes, gazing upon a sight new to most of us and old as time.

Life changes are not always dramatic. My own came to light simply. Hiking back in the darkness, my eyes rose to the moon. It was no longer merely a fingernail sliver. It gazed down upon Genesis and my own trivial form with a Cheshire-cat smile.

safe lava

a few simple tips to keep your lava encounter from morphing from life-changing to life-threatening.

before you go, check the current activity level of your volcano of choice via the activity reports at the smithsonian institution's global volcanism program, www.volcano.si.edu/gvp.

consider hiring a local guide. a good one will know the volcano, and its risks.

be prepared for weather. volcanoes generate their own weather, and it can be sudden, schizophrenic, and severe.