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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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Om's People

Guardian of the Om Shrine.

Guardian of the Om Shrine.
Photo: Olivier Koning 

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.”


 “They’re not trying to keep up with the Joneses,” Shakti says.


 “Somebody’s going to get a hair up his ass and everybody’s going to get a notice on the door,” says Bobu. “Shit’s gonna start. Attorneys, cops, evictions, lawyers!”


 “Nothing’s built to code, that’s what we’re saying,” Shakti says.


 “You can see how people would want to drop out and start a home down here,” says Joya. “It’s so nice and peaceful down here. It’s very inviting.”


“They filmed Planet of the Apes here,” says Mike, who had been sitting quietly up to that point. The area is so otherworldly that Hollywood did, indeed, shoot scenes from Planet of the Apes II here in 2001, before houses started to appear.


A rain squall hits and we talk about the weather. When the conversation lulls, we listen to the wind and stare out over the lava field, a vast plain of black rock that heaves and pitches all the way to the horizon, like a stormy, petrified sea. Halema‘uma‘u crater, the caldera at the summit of Kilauea and the fire pit in which Pele dwells, is 19 miles away. Pu‘u O‘o vent, the cinder and spatter cone currently at the heart of the eruption, is eight miles away. On a long downslope stretch of the mountainside below Pu‘u O‘o, sulfurous white smoke marks the current edge of the lava flow, which, at the moment, is just three miles away.                        

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Honolulu Magazine February 2020