The black mountain crackled beneath our feet with every step. 10,000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, we were climbing Europe’s most active volcano.
I hadn’t seen Doug in nearly a decade. The last time we met, I was a pizza delivery boy; and Doug was a college kid nervous about driving on the interstate. Somehow, in the years between Memphis basketball games and now, we’d both managed to see our share of the world—Doug aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer, myself through some strange twist of literary fate.
“Hey Doug,” I shouted, as we scrambled up a trail of loose lava rock. “Remember that time we were at the game, and we said we’d climb that volcano?”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “Totally.”
But of course he didn’t. The idea of it would have been ridiculous at the time. The idea of climbing a mountain, let alone a volcano, let alone a volcano in another country halfway around the world, couldn’t have crossed our minds. Back then, we were just two young idiots wandering the streets of Memphis with a small group of other idiots. We had no real goals and not much ambition.
Now, we were two young idiots hiking up a Sicilian volcano. And we did have a goal. In fact, we had two: see the smoking summit, and get down alive.
It’s hard to know just how far we climbed. It wasn’t that far, for sure. Doug’s wife Annie was able to easily track us with a pair of binoculars, before wandering off on her own adventure just down the slopes. We didn’t reach the summit. We didn’t have the time or the gear to get there—but that doesn’t really matter.
We climbed further than we thought we would, making it up the crumbling slope, onto the windblown ridge, and far away from most living humans. We looked out over the barren, smoldering landscape and saw the Mediterranean twinkling through the clouds below.
We were a long, long way from Memphis.
Later that night, bellies stuffed with a five-hour Sicilian dinner, our roving group gathered back at Doug and Annie’s seaside apartment, 10,000 feet below the crackling mountain’s rocks. There on the balcony—the surf in front, volcano behind—we talked a lot about home. We pilfered through Doug and Annie’s collection of Memphis barbecue seasonings. And then, we talked a lot about the view.
“Think it about it dude,” I said. “Think about all of the greats that have seen this view. Ptolemy, Archimedes, and Caesar probably did exactly what we’re doing. Maybe even Hannibal, Napoleon, and Patton.”
As a lighthouse flickered in the distance, and an orange crescent moon rose over the tides, a final thought entered my mind: most of them were a long way from home, too.