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.
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Keepers of the Lava Beds
“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.
Photo: Olivier Koning
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.
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 Hawai‘i, 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.’”