I promised that my second story would be cheerier than my first, so I’m going to tell you about one of the best days I’ve ever had. It was that time I got to spend my birthday on a volcano.

I went to college on one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. Yes, this was a deliberate choice. Pursuing my love of geology, I hopped on a plane for the first time ever and moved 5000 miles from home to attend the University of Hawai’i at Hilo.

Being an extremely academic type of person, I would take up to 21 credits a semester and not do much but study. Between classes, I would hang out around the geology department. I sprang on every chance I had to take field trips to the volcano with geology professors and students. We students would be invited by scientists from the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory to help carry equipment into the field and soak in as much information as we could. We were actively involved in monitoring and surveying projects.

Because of our involvement with these projects, we had access to passes into areas of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that most people weren’t allowed. On my 20th birthday, a small group of students grabbed one of those permits and invited me along to explore the current activity at the volcano. I don’t think this was planned because it was my birthday, but maybe it was. That detail isn’t clear in my memory, but I was thrilled to be included. I’ve always been an outsider. I respected and cared deeply for the students in the geology department, but I never felt like one of the gang, so this inclusion was a very sweet moment for me.

We gathered the gear that we took on all excursions to the volcano: gas masks, hard hats, orange vests, flashlights, lots of water, proper boots, and a video camera. We were all very safety-minded, and very well-educated about the dangers in the area. We set out in the late afternoon, and it was dark by the time we got to the active lava flows.

At the time, lava was traveling many miles from the Pu’u O’o vent through lava tubes down to the coast. We hiked up the pali (cliff) near the coast and found a couple of amazing skylights, where we could look down into the lava tubes to see lava gushing by. One skylight had hot gas whooshing out of it at high speed, so we kept our distance and donned our gas masks. The second was more quiescent, so we were able to walk right up to the edge, and peer down to see a beautiful lava waterfall. We took video of all of our observations, like the good little scientists that we were.

After exploring the lava fields, we hiked down the pali to the beach. We found a lovely little cave on the black sand beach, and the other geology students made a fire and cooked dinner. Knowing I was a vegetarian, they had brought a Dutch oven to cook veggie chili and cornbread. That definitely one of the best meals I’ve ever had! We spent the evening gathered around the beach chatting until late, waves lapping at the shore, moonlight, warm breeze… a perfect Hawai’ian night. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a birthday.

This is a memory I’ll always treasure: a day spent in one of my favorite places with extremely thoughtful and warm people. What could be better?