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 3 of 6)
The Low-Cost Land Buyers
“We grew up mainstream,” says Kent Napper, pictured with his partner, Nancy Lowe. “But we are open to a new, alternative life out here on the lava.” The two-story house they built offers a front-row view of Kilauea’s ongoing eruption.
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING
It was the affordable real estate more than the Pele energy that enticed Kent Napper and Nancy Lowe to become lava dwellers. A fifth of an acre in Kalapana Gardens goes for as little as $5,000. They paid twice that for their lot, because it’s on high ground, which offers a better view and, they hope, a measure of protection should the molten lava return.
They built a small, two-story house and moved in early this year. It’s rustic but comfortable, with bare wood walls, an outdoor shower and a kitchenette equipped with a mini fridge and a cast-iron camp stove. Like all of the houses in the neighborhood, it’s dependent on solar panels and rainwater catchment. It has just two rooms, a bright and airy upstairs living area, and a dark downstairs bedroom. Each story has a wrap-around deck, but Kent hadn’t gotten around yet to putting up railings during our visit, which added a new way to get hurt on the lava: falling on it from a deck.
TOP LEFT: 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. TOP RIGHT: ANYTHING GOES HERE ARCHITECTURALLY. BOTTOM LEFT: ALL HOMES ARE OFF THE GRID, RELYING ON SOLAR PANELS, WIND TURBINES, AND, IN THIS CASE, AN ARTISTICALLY DECORATED WATER TANK. BOTTOM RIGHT: LAWN FURNITURE FLOATED ON TOP OF THE FLOW THAT TOOK A HOUSE IN NOVEMBER, 2010; THE CHAIRS ARE NOW LOCKED INTO THE ROCK.
PHOTOs: OLIVIER KONING
“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 Hawai‘i 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 Hawai‘i 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.