10/30/2013 11:54 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2013

Extreme Research

I'm on a ferry, the Pincoya. It's midnight, and we're chugging along off the coast of Chile at the nautical equivalent of a blistering 8 miles per hour. The Pincoya is a working ferry. Passengers are an afterthought. I'm in a square-ish, wood-paneled room jammed with airplane seats set so close together, there's less leg room than a commuter jet. The cabin is bright, noisy. A wall-mounted television blares 80s Spanish-language music videos. I don't know the words, but I recognize the hair. It's like a party. Everyone seems to know everyone else. Everyone is speaking Spanish but me.

My Lonely Planet guidebook advises there's no food or beverage service on the Pincoya, so I have a large bottle of agua sin gas and some snacks for my breakfast crammed into my backpack between my feet.

Breakfast, because aside from the occasional stroll on the passenger deck or a trip to the head, I'm going to spend the next 13 hours in this chair. This after an 11-hour red-eye from Detroit to Santiago the previous night. All told, it will take 33 hours to travel 7,000 miles.

My destination: Chaitén Volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile.

My purpose: researching the setting for my next novel.

I write science thrillers. My first novel, Freezing Point, is about a solar energy company that wants to melt Antarctic icebergs into drinking water to alleviate the world's fresh water crisis, but then things go horribly wrong. I've never been to Antarctica, but I lived for 30 years in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, so I know snow and cold.

Boiling Point is about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher and a radical scheme to end global warming. When I first proposed the idea to my editor, I knew nothing about Chile or volcanoes. All I knew was what I'd seen in the amazing photo of lightning slashing Chaitén's gigantic plume that was making the rounds of the Internet. So when my editor bought the novel, I quickly set off on my research trip.

Now I can tell you that Chaitén Volcano came to life in a major eruption on May 2, 2008 for the first time in 9,000 years. The plume climbed 12 miles into the stratosphere, covering much of South America with ash that drifted as far east as the Atlantic. Scientists have since determined that the magma blasted 3.1 miles to the surface in just four hours, giving the people living in the town at the volcano's base only 30 hours to evacuate. No one lost their life in the eruption, but heavy winter rains ten days later washed the ash that covered the ruined mountains into the river and destroyed 90 percent of the town.

Since that time, Chaitén has never stopped erupting. I stayed in Chaitén four days, even though the town remained evacuated and the volcano was still on Red Alert. The town had no electricity or running water, but conditions were far more comfortable than I thought I'd have to accept. My guide arranged for me to stay at Cabanas Pudu, which has its own well, so I had the luxury of cold running water and indoor toilets. Electricity was generated between 7 and 10 every evening, which meant I didn't need the extra batteries I'd brought for my electronics. After a day trekking about in the cold and rain, my cabin was warm and cozy thanks to a fire Juan made in a small wood stove. And the meals Juan's wife cooked for me were fabulous: salmon, chicken, beef, potatoes, rice, fresh bread and salad.

The destruction in the town was staggering. Entire neighborhoods suffocated under several feet of mud and ash. Ruined buildings tilting at impossible angles. Horses left behind when their owners relocated wandering the streets nibbling the grassy medians.

My primary objective, however, was to see the volcano. Normally, the plume is visible from Chaitén town. But late April is early winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and the weather was persistently rainy and overcast. When the last day dawned more of the same, I had to reconcile myself to the idea that while I was now just 6 miles from Chaitén Volcano after traveling 7,000, I might not get to see it.

Hoping the weather would improve, my guide and I headed out. The road north of Chaitén was closed because of damage caused by the eruption, so we drove as close to the volcano as possible, then parked and walked. After two miles, we came to an open area of stark dead trees that reminded me of the swamps in Northern Michigan. My guide stopped. Smiled, pointed.

And there it was. Seeing the volcano's steam vents, hearing the mountain crackle and rumble, watching the plume build into gigantic cumulonimbus like clouds while standing in a valley that was devastated by a pyroclastic flow was an incredible experience. On the slopes closest to the volcano, the trees were simply gone -- incinerated during the initial eruption. Farther away, the trees lay in rows. Where I stood less than a mile from the lava dome, the trees were stripped of their leaves and secondary vegetation by the initial blast of debris and hot gasses and had never recovered. Ferns and mosses were beginning to reclaim the area, but aside from these, I could have been shooting my pictures in black and white.

We spent four hours in the vicinity. During that time, I heard explosions that sounded like gunfire -- pop pop pop pop POP pop -- accompanied by a low rumbling, and felt a small earthquake. The Chilean government reported an average of 18 quakes per day while I was there.

People ask if I was afraid. I can honestly say that I was not. While I knew another pyroclastic flow was a very real possibility, I felt nothing but awe. There's a sense of enormity in the presence of an active volcano, a keen awareness of forces unimaginable that's difficult to convey. To be in an area of both destruction and creation and observe firsthand the forces that shaped much of our earth engenders a feeling approaching reverence. I understand now why the ancients worshiped volcanoes.

My Chilean research trip truly informs the new novel. There's nothing like hands on research. It elevates an author's prose, so that the reader absolutely knows the author knows what they're talking about. Boiling Point's story events take place during Chaitén's initial eruption, and much of what my guide told me about his experiences that day made it into the book. Along with my book material, I brought back ten pounds of Chaitén obsidian -- some to give away as door prizes Boiling Point, and some that I had made into jewelry as mementos.

And in case you're wondering, yes, my characters spend a night on the Pincoya.

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