The Lava Dwellers, Big Island, Hawaii
They come for the privacy, the views, the Pele energy and the rock-bottom real estate prices. Never mind that the volcano could torch their homes at any time.
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The east flank of Kilauea 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 pahoehoe to meet some of the lava dwellers.
Pele's Wal-Mart Greeter
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.’”
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!”