(Originally published on The Morning News)
An hour outside of Léon, in Nicaragua, stands the volcano called Cerro Negro, the most active in the country. Most recent eruption: 1999. Cerro Negro is a polygenetic cinder cone, which means black ash and cinders from past eruptions accumulate up and around the central crater; it grows like an anthill, basically. Prevailing winds are east to west, towards the nearby Pacific coast, making the western slope steep and smooth-ish, where the smallest rocks and most of the ash eventually blow and settle.
In 2002, French cyclist Eric Barone came to Cerro Negro to break the land speed record. The volcano’s 720m high, the western slope 35 degrees near the top, increasing to 41 degrees about halfway down. My trigonometry was always weak but never covered how to measure a convex hypotenuse; let’s say a straight-line distance of 1,000m.
Barone broke the record by traveling 107mph. Imagine blinking—and at the same traveling from one end of a football field to the other. I’ve never even been that fast in a car.
Shortly after passing the radar gun the forks on Barone’s custom bike snapped and he ended up 100m past his wrecked frame. During the three-month hospitalization, someone else came to Cerro Negro and broke his record.
A pro calibre cyclist with medical assistance close at hand makes the whole experience seem just sane. I’m less sure about the wisdom of making the same descent aboard a retrofit toboggan wearing safety goggles but no helmet, a cooler full of beer waiting at the bottom for anyone sustaining only minor injuries.
So far as I know, not even Eric Barone has been volcano boarding.
I’m what you might call a post-adrenaline junky. The sort of person who makes decisions based on the potential for epic retelling, for whom the imagined afterglow is enough to justify doing things that are otherwise just scary as hell. Two summers ago, I attended the National Congress of the Ku Klux Klan, which happens in the middle of the Ozarks Forest—the directions to the site include ‘turn off the paved road’, and the closing ceremony features a 20 foot high cross set afire by a dozen hooded Klansman carrying burning torches. I can tell you that the best shawarma in Lebanon is in the Hezbollah controlled southeast part of the country, and also what it looks like inside the Champagne Room at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, where they interrogate people with Lebanese visas in their passports: it’s windowless and filled with steel examination tables (for your luggage), curtained examination closets (for you), X-ray machines, metal detectors, and large men with earpieces attached to wires under their shirts, Secret Service-style. No one smiles, ever, and I wasn’t allowed to close the door to the bathroom.
British journalist John Kay, chief reporter at The Sun, once summarized his personal M.O. as ‘If you don’t go, you don’t know.’ It’s stuck with me ever since and is precisely what’s brought me to Cerro Negro—the only place in the world you can do volcano boarding, our guide said. The sport was created in 2005, by an Australian sand-boarder named Darryn Webb, who first tried mattresses, boogie boards and a mini-bar fridge before settling on the makeshift toboggan. Trips now run daily from the hostel Darryn also founded, called Bigfoot, where just U.S. $28 buys you a seat in the back of a flatbed truck, the use of a homemade board, and on this day the upbeat guidance of a man named Anthony, who is squat and muscly and so agile he can pop out of a hatch in our truck’s cab, swing his body around as we jounce along some seriously unpaved roads, and land casually in the truck’s rollicking bed. He looks like the sort of person who can handle tobogganing down an active volcano, while the 20 of us who will actually undertake the challenge look hot and tired and more like Janes than Tarzans.
Anthony’s patter is practiced, tight, unscripted and pro. He tells us that CNN recently released a bucket list of 50 things to do before you die, on which volcano boarding was number two. (Number one turns out to be flying a fighter jet.) He promises to teach us how to go over 50mph, that no one will call us any names if we want to go slower, but that we’ll probably regret it if we do (go slower). He also promises to tell us about the injuries previously sustained, but on the ride home.
While Anthony is talking, I’m thinking that I really shouldn’t be in the truck right now. Not because I’m too scared but because I’d spent the previous day traveling all the way from Little Corn Island, off Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast, and just horrifically sick. Little Corn is accessible only by panga - literally a Third World motorboat, developed by the World Bank for use by impoverished fishermen - from a bigger, neighbouring island. The ride is a half-hour of three metre swells - waves as tall as the ceiling in my apartment - and doesn’t stop or even slow down when yours truly gets sick over the side, nor when I take a wave in the face and lose my glasses. I spent the rest of the boat trip blind and feverish, then took a beer can with wings 90 minutes to Managua, Nicaragua’s transportation hub, then shared a two-hour taxi with a guy who sells medicinal marijuana in Michigan. I arrived in Léon feverish, delirious, sore, sick, exhausted, and sweating heavily. Not even medicinal marijuana could fix what ailed me, I was told.
Sometimes even failed adventures make good stories. My passport also has an unused press visa for Iraq, which I got a year ago last Christmas using a fake letterhead from my university’s student newspaper. (We needed a press visa because at the time there were no tourist visas.) Got as far as the side of a highway in Amman, Jordan, in the back of a white Chevy Tahoe with Iraqi plates and driver. The driver didn’t speak English, and it wasn’t clear he understood the need to stay with us and drive us out the next day. We decided to go to Egypt instead, just 15 days before the Arab Spring, as fate would have it. None of my friends thought any of this was a good idea, but everyone liked the stories of near miss.
I’m hopeful that’s not going to happen with volcano boarding. My stomach’s tense but holding together, no doubt appreciating that if we make it down the slope yesterday’s sickness becomes a tension-y pre-climax subplot. Who needs Tylenol when you’ve got a story you can dine-out on for weeks?
Cerro Negro is part of the Cordillera de los Maribios mountain range, roughly 40 miles long in western Nicaragua. The view from the summit is impressive but the northern part of Nicaragua is where the serious mountains range, and so also the major coffee and tobacco plantations. The countryside around Cerro Negro is mostly small-scale agriculture (I think what North Americans call ‘small holdings’), scrub brush, small forests, and in the distance other volcanoes.
The hike to the summit takes about half an hour, during which we carry our own board and a bag of kit (jump suit and goggles), bottles of water and cameras. Anthony offers to carry the board of any lady who needs assistance, and if any gentlemen are struggling he’ll be glad to talk us through it.
Speaking of which, here is how the board works: it’s a piece of plywood, the underside covered with sheet metal. You sit at one end of the board and hold onto a rope handle that’s tied to a small lip at the board’s front. Underneath where you sit is glued a piece of Formica, with the idea being to lean back as far as you can, keep your feet up, and balance the crook of your body so that all you’re riding is Formica. Anthony promises that ‘if you do this you will go fast.’
Steering and braking are done with the heels. Tap the right heel to turn left, the left heel to turn right, and both heels to slow down. Anthony advises against tapping both heels ‘because that will just make you go slow.’
These instructions take less than a minute, Anthony on his board and the rest of us horseshoed around as a windbreak. The breeze at 720m is stiff; we had to hold our boards perpendicular to the ground for most of the hike, to keep from blowing over. I sit down to don my jump suit and discover that the ground is hot to touch. If you kick your foot down six inches you can see steam. As I’m playing around with this discovery, thinking how it might add to the eventual narrative, the rest of the group assembles and Anthony booms:
Roughly a thousand metres is beyond where most peoples’ eyes can still focus on things that aren’t the outlines of a landscape. I know this because our own truck looks terribly small and fuzzy parked at the bottom of the slope, next to which I can just make out our driver standing with a radar gun. It’s unclear why Anthony is making the four girls in our group go first - two at a time - until they’re all away and he turns around and stops smiling for the first time this afternoon:
‘OK, now that the ladies are gone, I don’t want to see any of you guys being pansies. [He doesn’t quite say ‘pansies’.] No feet on the ground, no sitting up. Let’s put on a good show.’
Recall the earlier mention that Cerro Negro’s western slope is convex. The practical consequence of this didn’t reach the front of my brain until I saw the first two girls descend the slope and disappear from view about halfway down. When only one rider reappears out the flat, Anthony says that means the other rider ‘lost it’. It’s roughly now that my ankles start to really call attention to how much work they’re doing keeping me upright on the 35-degree slope here at the top.
When it’s my turn, Anthony reviews the driving instructions and offers a bit of volcano boarding strategy. ‘Use the first hundred metres or so to figure out the steering, otherwise you’re screwed.’ He’s got his foot bracing my angled sled, quads visibly straining. (Sometimes I wish I didn’t notice stuff like this.) He steps away before I can respond or even nod that I’ve heard him over the wind’s shriek.
The initial descent feels a bit like being in the first car at the top of a roller coaster, just after you’ve crested and you’re tilting forward slowly while the back of the train catches up and then suddenly throws its full weight against you in a rattling downward rush. There’s a crosswind to lean against, hard, and the track of previous boarders is uneven, in places more like a trough. There are serious dents in the bits like a trough. I can’t scream or yell because way too many rocks are hitting my goggles and face. It’s sometimes hard to see. Actually the word for what the wind feels like is ransacking.
Plus the sound is horrible: one long jagged scrape across the earth. Shattering, god-awful and everywhere, noise to cancel all other noise. The whole experience sounds like a car crash but without the car, and if you can imagine yourself making the kind of noise only seriously large machines can make you’re well on your way to feeling appositely unnerved and freaked.
Steering proves simple enough. But I can’t seem to lean back with my feet up and stay balanced. With my feet in the air the board starts to twist. My stomach’s failing to stabilize the pivot - understandable - plus the board’s rattling hard enough to hurt my shoulders. I’m going uncomfortably fast but not really flying like Anthony promised I could do, so I pull in my feet to rest directly on the front of the board.
The ambient screech resolves into a sort of dirty swoosh. I’m thinking this is what it must feel like to fly. The Formica reduces sub-board friction to a level fairly close to what a regular sled would get on snow, taking maximum advantage of the natural give in the slope’s granular base. Current velocity = outrageous. I’m feeling light enough to float up and off the slope but also intensely, emphatically present, because what’s happening right now is all me: the decision to forego brakes and even steering for the chance to fly right by that radar gun and into the day’s record book. (The record is 55mph, and the reward for breaking this record is Anthony buying you five mojitos back in town.) Five more seconds and I’ll be past our driver, if I can just lean far enough to the left to prevent the board from listing, keep my rear from getting too far around towards the perpendicular, leaning back but now also sideways and the board’s shaking or more like shuddering and I’m trying to do anything other than—
It turns out that a person can barrel roll fast enough to not actually feel like they’re rolling at all. It’s disorienting, like your body is whirling around a stationary mind. Plus in retrospect I’ve discovered a blank space in my memory between hurtling forward with a starboard list and tumbling in this strange disembodied way after crunching my face, neck, and shoulder into gravely softness. The impact is like a memory unattached to any actual sense experience. I lose my safety goggles and bandanna somewhere in this vacuum, possibly about the same time my hands and arms appear in front of my face, because that’s just where they are, cradling my skull, when my memory cuts back in.
When the rolling finally stops I lay still, listening to my ears ring. It turns out that volcanic ash and crater taste like regular dirt. There’s no wind at the volcano’s base, and whatever gravel chased me downward has settled. Quick body scan: much pain but not like something’s broken. It occurs to me no one back at the top can see what’s happened, which means Anthony won’t have witnessed my epic spill. I sit up slowly and hear the people who’ve already boarded erupt in cheering that’s a bit too loud for pure appreciation; I’m thinking it’s also cathartic, thank God he’s OK.
On the way home Anthony reviews past injuries: just last week, a Norwegian girl flew over her board and broke her collarbone. Wrists and arms are broken monthly, and there’s lots of road rash. The best road rash is when bald guys face plant, tearing up their forehead and pate.
Tomorrow my left arm won’t go above the shoulder and I’ll have to turn my whole body to look left or right, but on the ride back to town I’m actually annoyed that the only visible signs of crash are medium scratches on my left arm and shin. One of the guys who came down after me spilled almost mundanely but further along the slope, where the bottom’s bigger rocks ripped into his leg but good. He’s visibly bleeding, the blood streaked with soot and grit. Why couldn’t I have suffered an injury like that?
The post-adrenaline junky in me is reluctant to mention this other guy in the story, or that Anthony was the last to come down but didn’t wear a jump suit, which is just ridiculous. When I get home and start telling this story, I’m going to assume no one else in our truck was suffering gastro-intestinal plague.
Speaking of things that are ridiculous, that’s often what my friends and family say in response to one of these stories. I’ve also heard insane, dangerous, stupid, immature, just asking for it, outrageous, childish, naïve, and to be fair it’s easy to be bold-seeming and brave in the wake of a risk that doesn’t materialize. (I wonder what some of these people would call a guy like Eric Barone?) As a post-adrenaline junky I thrive on situations that are just dangerous enough, meaning enough to make for a good story - probably - although it turns out much of the world is only outrageous seeming. (Had we been in Egypt fifteen days later, I imagine that would have been a much different story.) That’s the trick, really. Even things like life modeling for an all female drawing class, or heading deep into a forest to see how the KKK is managing to maintain morale in a country that just elected a black president.
Then again, if you don’t go, you don’t know.