The Lava Dwellers, Big Island, Hawai‘i: These People Live on One of the Most Active Volcanoes on Earth
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.
(page 2 of 6)
Pele’s Wal-Mart Greeter
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
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!”
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.”