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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“Sometimes we just look at each other, and it becomes sort of indescribable, the sense of peace and sweetness of life we feel here,” says David Ewing. He and Charlene, his wife, run a bed and breakfast on the lava.

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 Hawaii, 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.’”

Om's People

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.”

Related links:

VIDEO: Living on Lava, Big Island, Hawaii
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