Naples – At the base of Vesuvius

This is where we abandoned our bony steeds. The one carrying the fat and genial doctor was called ” the devil,” and he was worthy of the name. Getting off the animal with painful deliberation, the wise and learned physician remarked, ” Well, that settles a question I’ve had on my mind for forty years. The Devil has a backbone. I know this to be a fact, for I’ve ridden on it for the last five miles or more, and a mighty sharp spinal arrangement he has, too. Why, for the past hour I’ve been in imminent danger of being split into a clothes-pin.”

We were not any of us in prime condition to climb, and therefore we improved the opportunity to stand still for awhile and gaze out over this sea of lava, part of the flow of 1794, whose petrified billows seem almost ready to break at our feet. Many a time have I stood upon the seashore and watched the waves roll in, playfully yet majestically, each succeeding one being higher and mightier than those that have gone before ; and that, you will observe, is the case with these waves of stone, from whose curling crests you half expect the feathery foam to fly. The one nearest us, on which the boy is sitting, is the smallest; the one back of that, on which you see a man reclining, is higher; and back of him you see still another which is higher yet.

From this point one gets a good view of the summit of the mountain ahead there at the east. The summit rises and falls like the tides of the sea ; that is, the height of the mountain varies with the eruptions, being sometimes thirty-nine hundred feet and again forty-three hundred feet. ( It lost about six hundred feet during the eruption of 1906.) In the distance between us and the cone of Vesuvius, notice two mountainous waves of lava. Now by looking directly over the man whom you see reclining on the lava to the right in front of us, and above those great ridges of lava back of him, you may see more plainly the railroad extending up the side of the cone and clinging to it like a huge serpent. That is a wire-rope railway. It is twenty-seven hundred feet long and the upper end is thirteen hundred feet higher than the lower, so that the height it attains is nearly half its length, having an average grade of about six inches to the foot. The ascent or descent is accomplished in twelve minutes.

Near the top of the cone is a plateau, about five miles in circumference, which is bounded by a craggy ridge. There are really two cones, the lower of which, the old crater, was active in prehistoric times, and is called Monte Somma. It lies a little farther to the left than we can see, being three thousand seven hundred and thirty feet in height. It was once crowned by a temple dedicated to Jupiter. A deep valley, rapidly being filled up, called Altrio del Cavallo, separates Somma from Vesuvius, which is four thousand three hundred feet in height. The latter was formed by the eruption that overwhelmed Herculaneum and Pompeii; before this, the part of the mountain now called Vesuvius was hundreds of feet lower than Mt. Somma. The ancients called this new cone Vesevus and Vesvius. With the exception of Stromboli, in the most northern of the Lipari Islands, Vesuvius is the only permanently active volcano in Europe.

Long before we were ready to begin climbing we were besieged by a crowd of men and boys, who urged us to avail ourselves of an ” aruto or strap, which was to be placed about the waist of the tourist and then one of these attendants would go ahead and pull, the cost of this ingenious assistance being two francs. When, at last, we began our onward march these ” helpers ” would run alongside and in front of us and, unsuspected by us, would steer us into streams of cinders and ashes, where, with every step we tried to take forward, we slid back two. It did not take more than a half hour of this sort of thing to use us up completely, but we resolutely re-fused to take the strap, especially when we learned that an American lady unaided had made the ascent the year before. The doctor was so exasperated at the poor success that attended our labors that he looked as though he was thinking in very emphatic language ; and he confessed a day or two after, when he was in a condition to be about again, that if he had expressed his sentiments when he was floundering among the cinders, it would have imperilled his eternal happiness ; but the constant view of the volcano belching forth fire and smoke, which was ever before him, furnished him with a motive for self-control. At last, one of the party saw through the trick which was being played upon us and left the ashes and made for a stream of hardened lava which extended down the mountain side, and began to climb on that. The rest of us followed him, to the total destruction of the shoes we were wearing, but so far as ascending the mountain was concerned, the plan was a perfect success. It required an hour and a half of almost the hardest work any of us had ever performed to make the climb, but we got even with both guides and volcano on the way back. The credit of the discovery belongs to the doctor, for we all started to come back on the lava, thinking that what had been a success in the ascent would serve equally well in the descent; but, by some good fortune, the doctor made a misstep and stumbled off the lava and into the cinders, which he struck in a seated posture, his feet spread wide apart and, before he was aware of it, he was shooting the Vesuvius ” chute ” in a terrific way, sliding down fifteen hundred feet in a surprisingly short space of time. The rest of us did not stay long on the lava, but followed the doctor’s example, and, as a result, we were very sore from the operation.

Did the sight we beheld at the summit of the volcano repay us for our arduous journey? It most certainly did. And what did we see? You may look for yourself.