People That Live On The Lava On The Big Island, Hawai‘i; The Most Active Volcano on Earth

By DAVID THOMPSON / Posted on May 10, 2018

Editor’s Note: At least four volcanic vents had erupted through the streets of the Leilani Estates subdivision in Puna on the Big Island. Photos show lava spouting in the air through cracks in the ground, igniting trees, and sending clouds of gas and sulfur dioxide into the air. Earthquakes have knocked out power to hundreds. Emergency workers are going door-to-door to ensure that all people living there and in the nearby Lanipuna Gardens evacuate, as they are not sure what the lava flow will do next. 

The area is just miles away from Kalapana Gardens, where Pele burned and buried homes as recently as 1990. People kept rebuilding. In 2012, David Thompson spoke to some of those residents about why they chose to risk living near Hawai‘i’s most active volcanoes.

The east flank of Kīlauea volcano is a land of fire, sulfur dioxide and rock that cuts like glass. This is Pele’s realm, where the molten core of the planet spills through a slit in the crust, advancing and retreating across the surface in utterly unpredictable ways. It is either the end of the earth or the beginning of creation, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it’s no place for a subdivision. Yet, there it is, Kalapana Gardens, a neighborhood of more than 30 homes spread out across the barren flow field at the end of Kaimu-Chain of Craters Road, where the asphalt melted beneath the lava in 2011. Pele has already burned three houses to the ground, then covered that ground with even newer ground. But new homes keep popping up.

Who is building out here? Why would anyone want to live on the flow field of one of the most active volcanos on Earth? Are these people nuts? To find out, we trek onto the pāhoehoe to meet some of the lava dwellers.

The origins of Kalapana Gardens stretch back to the speculative subdivision bonanza days of the 1960s, when Big Island developers sold thousands of lots in high volcanic hazard zones, often to Mainland buyers, sight unseen. Like other such subdivisions, Kalapana Gardens had no water or electric service, and its grid of substandard streets looked far more substantial on a map than from behind a steering wheel.

One hundred and twenty houses had been built there by 1990. A year later, though, all of them were gone, burned and buried beneath the 50 or 60 feet of lava from the same flow that wiped out the nearby historic Hawaiian community of Kalapana and its famous black sand beach.

One of the tourists on hand in 1990 to witness Pele systematically torching houses was a musician from North Carolina named Bo Lozoff. Seventeen years later, Lozoff returned to the island, drove out to Kaimu-Chain of Craters Road to revisit the devastation, and was surprised to find real estate activity. “I saw a couple of houses perched up on solid black lava, without a bush or a tree,” he says, “and I said out loud, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”

BO LOZOFF LIVES ON THE LAVA, EXULTING IN THE VOLCANO’S “DIVINE FEMININE” NATURE. “IT’S A WELCOMING AND WONDERFUL FORCE,” HE SAYS. “I FEEL LIKE I’VE FINALLY FOUND THE PLANET I’M FROM.” PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING

He used to laugh when he heard hippies say things like: “If Pele doesn’t want you here, there’s no way you can stay. If Pele wants you here, there’s no way you can resist.” But suddenly the words seemed prophetic. He felt Pele wanted him to stay, so he bought a lot in Kalapana Gardens, built a comfortable little house and has lived there ever since. “I’m having an intimate relationship with this force,” he says. “For some reason, it’s called me. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t have to make sense. But that’s the only reason I’m out here.”

Of course life on the lava field is a calculated risk, and Lozoff acknowledges that lava could take his house next week, or next month. But then again, it might not come around for a thousand years. In any case, he feels it’s a mistake to focus too much on Pele’s destructive side. “This is the Divine Feminine power here,” he says. “This is one of the friendliest, most welcoming, hospitable, forgiving, natural forces on earth!”

That’s the recurrent theme of the lava tours that he leads to supplement his monthly retirement income. For $100 a head, he takes hikers out to the active flow to hot-foot it across cooling crusts and prod molten rock with walking sticks. He hikes in his shorts and sneakers, and he packs a cinnamon bun, which he toasts on the hot rocks—the irresistible aroma of toasted cinnamon bun only reinforcing his point about the Divine Feminine.

“You know those old guys on Social Security that Wal-Mart hires to make you feel welcome?” says Lozoff. “That’s who I am. I am the old guy on Social Security who lives on the lava, and I welcome people to Pele’s hospitality. I’m Pele’s Wal-Mart greeter.”

It was the affordable real estate more than the Pele energy that enticed Kent Napper and Nancy Lowe to become lava dwellers. A fifth of an acre in Kalapana Gardens goes for as little as $5,000. They paid twice that for their lot, because it’s on high ground, which offers a better view and, they hope, a measure of protection should the molten lava return.

They built a small, two-story house and moved in early this year. It’s rustic but comfortable, with bare wood walls, an outdoor shower and a kitchenette equipped with a mini fridge and a cast-iron camp stove. Like all of the houses in the neighborhood, it’s dependent on solar panels and rainwater catchment. It has just two rooms, a bright and airy upstairs living area, and a dark downstairs bedroom. Each story has a wrap-around deck, but Kent hadn’t gotten around yet to putting up railings during our visit, which added a new way to get hurt on the lava: falling on it from a deck.

“We’re luxuriously camping,” says Kent. “We’ve got cold beer, Internet, a flat-screen TV–and where else in Hawaii can you buy land with an ocean view like this for $10,000?” Through the French doors of their upstairs living area we can see the deep blue Pacific one mile away, across an unbroken expanse of barren rock. The wind howls off the ocean across the flow field, and as we’re sitting in their upstairs room talking, I notice a subtle trembling.

“Is the house shaking?” I ask.

“The wind does that,” Kent says. “You get used to it.”

“You can’t really say it’s quiet here, listening to the wind right now, but it’s peaceful,” Nancy says. “It’s like living in a boat.”

Kent and Nancy moved to Hawai‘i from the rural South, where bad experiences with hurricanes and tornados have helped them put the threat posed by the volcano in perspective. She worked there as a schoolteacher, and he worked on an oil and natural-gas extraction crew, until he got laid off in the economic downturn. Now they both work at the end of Kaimu-Chain of Craters Road. She sells flashlights and ponchos at night to the tourists who come ill-prepared to see the lava. He landed a job as a security guard for the firm that Hawai‘i County uses to manage the nightly onslaught of lava viewers. Kent frequently overhears tourists dumbstruck by the houses on the flow field asking, “Who on earth would want to live out there?” Occasionally he speaks up. “Um, I can answer that,” he says.

David and Charlene Ewing’s spacious three-bedroom, two-bathroom home has high ceilings, broadband Internet, Ikea cabinetry, a full-size refrigerator, a garbage disposal and a dishwasher. It’s got a dog who likes to lie on the porch, a cat who goes where it pleases, and a two-car garage used for storage and where Dave’s rock band practices. It is, in other words, a perfectly ordinary suburban home. And that, in a sense, is what makes it the oddest dwelling out here, more unlikely than the shipping container with windows and a door cut into it, or the place modeled after a birdhouse, or even the architect’s interpretation of a lava tube.

The one, small amenity the Ewings’ place does not have is a television in the living room. That’s where Charlene drew the line. “It would be sacrilegious,” she says. “It would be like pretending that we’re in the real world, and we’re not.” Instead, the Ewings stream movies on a laptop through Netflix.

When they built their place in 2007, it was the fourth house in Kalapana Gardens. They had come from Lake Tahoe, where David worked as a carpenter, and where building codes are taken seriously and restrictive neighborhood covenants are common. He tried to launch a neighborhood association on the lava, but none of the neighbors would join. “I quickly learned that is not the way of this area,” he says.

Nonetheless, before the guy who resurveyed the neighborhood’s main roads and paved them with loose red cinder moved off the island, he handed David an envelope containing a few hundred bucks, the remaining assets of the pre-1990 Kalapana Gardens community fund. The envelope makes Dave the unofficial treasurer of the nonexistent Kalapana Gardens Neighborhood Association. He uses the money to pay the nominal property taxes on Kalapana Gardens’s community park, which was also resurveyed, and which has nothing going for it now besides a few scruffy baby coconut trees trying hard to take root. He’s also toying with the idea of making some capital improvements—a black-sand volleyball court, perhaps.

The Ewings have seen three of their neighbors’ houses destroyed by lava (not counting Jack Thompson’s place, the last remaining home in the Royal Gardens subdivision, which was four miles away and which burned in March). They stood vigil the night a lava flow slowly encircled their neighbor Gary’s place, finally igniting the house at the front steps. “She came right to his front door,” says Charlene. “It gave me goose pimples.”  A bunch of Gary’s friends came over that night, bringing wine and food. The atmosphere was sad yet festive, like an Irish wake, except with a house burning at the end. That same year the lava came within 50 yards of the Ewings’ back porch, and they too, after loading their belongings onto a flatbed truck, had a gathering, with friends and wine and live music. “It was a surreal kind of day, but everybody was in good, positive spirits,” David says.

While the constant existential threat associated with living in an active lava field might make some people neurotic, it only seems to have made the Ewings more philosophic. “Either the journey remains right here, or we pack up and begin a new journey somewhere else,” David says. “And it’s all predicated on nature. Sometimes we just look at each other, and it becomes sort of indescribable, the sense of peace and sweetness of life we feel here.”

The Ewing’s house doubles as a bed and breakfast, Lava Beds Hawai‘i, a basecamp for lava trekkers who want to sleep as close to the flow as they can get. Spending a few nights on the lava can apparently change the way people think of the volcano. ”This one couple came in,” Charlene says, “and all they could see was the desolation of it. ‘Why would you want to live here?’ And after two days, they were like, ‘Oh, we get it.’”

For historic perspective, Dave and Charlene send me to talk with Joya and Bobu Folger, two long-time area residents and enlightenment seekers who watched lava inundate the old Kalapana Gardens in 1990. They live in a forested area nearby, but they’ve built a lean-to on the lava, which they call the Om Shrine in honor of their late son, Om. I find them there unloading from their car dozens of old wine jugs filled with water, which they’ve brought to irrigate the cactus, ti plants and other foliage growing in the red dirt that they’ve hauled to the shrine over the years. Their daughter, Shakti, and her husband, Mike, came with them.

Om’s shrine—which is filled with pillows, benches and chairs, and which some of the newer residents simply call The Party Shack—has become an unofficial public space.  Three Hawaiian guys from Kalapana, who had been kicking back there when the Folgers drove up, put down their Bud Lights to help with the watering. When all the wine jugs are empty, everybody hangs out for a while, talking story and sharing a smoke. Then the Hawaiian guys drive off to find some steaks, with plans to return later that night to cook them on bruddah Om’s grill, and Bobu, Joya and Shakti reminisce about those exciting times when 1,600-foot fountains of lava rose from the mountainside and molten rock engulfed everyone’s homes.

“We had one rule,” says Bobu, who has a gray pony tail and a braided beard, and who does not look like someone who puts up with too many rules. “Park the car pointing downhill. You get a quicker start then, because when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”

“Our friend drew the best picture,” says Shakti. “Everybody’s evacuating, and he’s running down the hill and the lava’s running down the hill behind him. He’s got a pot plant in one arm, and his baby in the other—everything you need to regrow your next life. Pot plant. Baby. All your keiki. That is the picture we grew up with.”

Joya says she’s amazed at how many people have built houses out on the black lava in the last few years. “Most of them are newcomers,” she says. “They’re all independent kind of characters.”

“They’re not trying to keep up with the Joneses,” Shakti says.

“Somebody’s going to get a hair up his ass and everybody’s going to get a notice on the door,” says Bobu. “Shit’s gonna start. Attorneys, cops, evictions, lawyers!”

“Nothing’s built to code, that’s what we’re saying,” Shakti says.

“You can see how people would want to drop out and start a home down here,” says Joya. “It’s so nice and peaceful down here. It’s very inviting.”

“They filmed Planet of the Apes here,” says Mike, who had been sitting quietly up to that point. The area is so otherworldly that Hollywood did, indeed, shoot scenes from Planet of the Apes II here in 2001, before houses started to appear.

A rain squall hits and we talk about the weather. When the conversation lulls, we listen to the wind and stare out over the lava field, a vast plain of black rock that heaves and pitches all the way to the horizon, like a stormy, petrified sea. Halema‘uma‘u crater, the caldera at the summit of Kilauea and the fire pit in which Pele dwells, is 19 miles away. Pu‘u O‘o vent, the cinder and spatter cone currently at the heart of the eruption, is eight miles away. On a long downslope stretch of the mountainside below Pu‘u O‘o, sulfurous white smoke marks the current edge of the lava flow, which, at the moment, is just three miles away.

• • •