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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1. Intense heat cooked the paint off of a minivan left in the driveway of a home consumed by lava in January 2011, the neighborhood’s most recent casualty.
2. Anything goes here architecturally.
3. Lawn furniture floated on top of the flow that took a house in November, 2010; the chairs are now locked into the rock.
4. All homes are off the grid, relying on solar panels, wind turbines, and, in this case, an artistically decorated water tank.

“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 Hawaii 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 Hawaii 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.

Jeremy and Ramon

“I’m just a layman with a lifelong curiosity about science and its underpinnings,” says Jeremy Bronner, who came to the lava to housesit for a friend and to pursue his life’s passion: the development of a theoretical framework that will unify the sciences through eight-dimensional mathematics. If that sounds hard, it is. It requires intense concentration, and the ability to hold 240 eight-dimensional spheres in his mind at any one time. Since Jeremy is off the grid and computer free, it also requires a lot of notebooks.

As it turns out, though, Pele’s expansive realm is the perfect laboratory for this kind of work, a place where the mind can trip across the wide-open spaces, manipulating interlocking tetrahedral triangles and bouncing between matter and anti-matter. “Being here in the lap of Her Ladyship helps keep the creative juices flowing,” Jeremy says.

Related links:

VIDEO: Living on Lava, Big Island, Hawaii
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