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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Ramon Molina lives in the Turtle House. The grass and trees grow in a shallow layer of imported soil.

Jeremy says he studied biochemistry at MIT, worked as a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, moved to San Francisco and became a hypnotherapist, and was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. He left the devastated city with a broken back, and came to Hawaii to heal. The place that he’s housesitting belongs to a “lady friend” who lives a few miles away, he says, though calling it a house might overstate the case. It’s more like a deluxe-size, two-story toolshed, with a dirt floor and a propane stove on the ground level. Neighbors call it the Turtle House for its circular mural of turtles swimming beneath a lunar eclipse. Less noticeable, but more structurally important, are the large rocks sitting on the sheet-metal roof to keep high winds from tearing it off.

Jeremy, who has the infinite patience of a graduate assistant trying to explain string theory to a remedial arithmetic class, shares the Turtle House with Ramon Molina, who has a bone-crushing handshake and wears his dark sunglasses both day and night, because they’re his only prescription lenses. Ramon leaves the theoretical stuff to Jeremy, preferring observable reality himself. “If I stab you with this stick,” he says, illustrating his point with a sharp piece of bamboo aimed at my thigh, “you will bleed.”

Still, Ramon sometimes gets glimpses of Jeremy’s 240 eight-dimensional spheres during the rambling philosophic discussions they have after the sun sets and the volcano begins to glow. “Once his work is digestible to the masses and disseminated it could actually have an effect out there,” Ramon says. “But it’s not like they have a melon baller I can use to pull these ideas out of his head. If they did, it would make my job a lot easier.”

Keepers of the Lava Beds

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.

Related links:

VIDEO: Living on Lava, Big Island, Hawaii
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