Issue 15.4: August/September 2012

Jack Versus the Volcano

Story by Alan D. McNarie

Photos by Leigh Hilbert


“The longer you keep something, the more likely something’s going to happen to it,” muses Jack Thompson while he leafs through a couple of photo albums from his nearly thirty-five years living in Royal Gardens, Puna. “A fire, flood, an ex-wife … something’s going to get it.”


And in some cases what gets it is a volcano. The Royal Gardens subdivision was built in the southeast rift zone of Kilauea, the Big Island’s most active volcano. After the mountain started its current eruption cycle in 1983, several communities in the path of the lava were consumed house by house, street by street. Much of the village of Kalapana disappeared under the lava in 1990, leaving behind road signs sticking mournfully out of a black desert. Part of the Royal Gardens subdivision was also obliterated then— but not Jack’s house.


Lean, tanned and weathered, 50ishlooking though he’s actually in his 60s, Jack wouldn’t look out of place in a cowboy hat or a coonskin cap. Had he been born in the nineteenth century, he’d probably have ended up in some frontier cabin. Instead he found his way to lower Puna, where he built his own home—twice—in the district’s most remote subdivision. When lava started moving in, his neighbors started moving out until Jack was the last man standing. He remained there alone, living a life mostly cut off from the outside world, hauling in supplies on his motorcycle or on foot after lava buried the last road to civilization. Solar panels supplied power for his lights; when he wanted to watch movies on his TV, he fired up a gas-powered generator. Two steel catchment tanks supplied rainwater. With no working refrigerator, he relied on canned goods and on fresh fruit from his yard. He held out for as long as he could, until last March when the lava finally took his home.




Jack Thompson

“My last neighbor—his place got taken by the lava a couple of years before mine,” he says. “Other people didn’t have an investment like I did, so they’d just leave. People ask me if I got lonely up there. I never did. You can be lonely in the middle of New York City.” But then Jack has always marched to his own drummer. He’s never had a computer, a credit card or even a checking account.


Jack’s love affair with Hawai‘i began years before, when he was 12, he says. “My parents bought an encyclopedia, and there was a nice article in there about [the Kaimu] black sand beach, and that kind of pricked my curiosity,” he recalls. “I always had an idea about going to live there.” Kaimu was a lovely, coconut palm-lined crescent of black sand just up the coast from Royal Gardens—just the sort of place for a rugged do-it-yourselfer to start up. Jack would get to know it well before it disappeared under fifty feet of lava in 1990 during the same eruption that buried the village of Kalapana.


Jack moved to Hawai‘i in 1972 and eventually bought a lot in what at the time was just a grid of dirt roads carved through the rainforest. He set about earning the money to build a house, Jack Thompson style: cash on the barrelhead for materials and framing, sweat equity for everything else. “I saved everything I could save. If I made three dollars, I saved two of them,” he recalls. He designed the house himself. He got a professional friend to do the framing so “at least that was right,” but Jack, living in his van while the house came together, did most of the rest, including the cabinetry, which he joined and polished like fine furniture. He sold that house after a couple of years and started again, building a second dream home from scratch in Kalapana, a three-story beauty with a wraparound lanai and master bedroom at the top: “The best views were up there,” says Jack. “You could control the temperature of the house just by opening the windows, and the breeze would flow up the staircases. It was natural air conditioning, almost.”


All the while he was building his second dream home, Madam Pele was busy at Mauna Ulu, well up the East Rift in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. But that changed in 1983.


“I was putting in the last window, and I saw that glow in the night sky,” he recalls —the unmistakable blood-orange color of lava reflecting off volcanic gas. It was the first of many uneasy nights for Jack. Over the years, he says, “hundreds of flows” came down. One of them stopped just above his house. His photo album holds a clipping from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald commemorating that close call.


The road into the subdivision was buried and reopened several times. When there was no road, Jack would hike to his truck to commute to work at an air conditioning company in Hilo, and he rode his motorcycle out once a week for supplies. Sometimes the easiest access to the rest of the world was from the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park side, so he’d leave his pickup at that end of Chain of Craters Road and hike three miles across the lava to get home. The next morning, he’d hike back out and drive ninety minutes to work. Occasionally he’d have to hike out across the treacherous terrain at night to move the truck out of harm’s way, lest it meet the fate that befell the vehicles of three surfers: “One day when they went to surf and parked their cars along the road, I watched the lava get all three of their cars.”


Sometimes the trek out was even more hazardous. “For a dozen years, from ’98 to 2009, I was riding a motorcycle in and out once a week,” he recounts. “I’d driven over hot lava and cold lava. I even drove over some red-hot flowing lava a couple of times. It never seemed to hurt the tires.” But there was another risk: “I got into a couple of whiteouts. The rain would come down and it would be steaming everywhere. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. You’d just have to stand there because you couldn’t see your feet.” He’d have to wait until the rain stopped so the steam could clear away. “Usually it was just a passing shower,” he says. “If it was raining a lot, it wouldn’t be wise to even be out there.”


Once he witnessed an entire news crew getting caught in a whiteout. “They came stumbling out of the mist, one by one,” he recalls. “I thought it made a great shot, but the reporter wouldn’t let them use it. Her makeup kind of ran.”




There were rewards for his risky and isolated lifestyle. “It was so nice and peaceful—typical Kalapana magic,” he recalls. “No coquí frogs.” In ‘Ainaloa, where he’s been living since his house was consumed, “you can’t even talk on the telephone outside, they’re so loud. It was so quiet you could hear a leaf fall across the street when the breeze was not blowing.” Living so close to the vent meant he ironically had the cleanest air on the Big Island. “When the trades blew, [the volcanic fog] blew to Kona, and when the Kona winds blew, it blew to Hilo.” And, of course, he had a front-row seat for Pele’s theatrics. “She does a lot of amazing stuff,” he observes. “I’ve seen her face in the fountaining, just as plain as in any of the pictures in Volcano House.”


And he wasn’t always a recluse. Jack got to know the Hawaiian community in the surrounding area, for instance. “They’ve got something no one else has,” he says. “They’ve got aloha in their DNA. They’re such loving people —I’m a product of the Mainland, and I don’t have it no matter how much I try. I got the pleasure to know all of them.” There were frequent musical get-togethers: “Just about every night, somewhere they’d be playing music and singing.” And the Hawaiians often would visit Royal Gardens to pick maile and gather fruit. When they did, he offered them drinking water and showers.


And then there were the visitors from outside. “It was a pretty special house,” says Jack’s friend Cal Dorin, who owns a local helicopter tour company. “There was something very relaxing about standing out on his lanai and looking out on the ocean. Sometimes there would be a lava flow on the flats, and we could look down on it in the evenings. There were a lot of people who went out there and felt tied to his house and had a soft spot in their hearts for Jack and his place.”




The day before the end, one of Cal’s choppers had flown a group of photographers out to Jack’s house. “I had a house full of people the last night,” he recounts. “Everybody slept there the night, and the helicopter parked on the street. The next day, me and another guy walked up behind the house. There was this ravine that the lava had gotten into, and it was leading the lava right toward the house. I could see it wasn’t going to last the night. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, so I knew I was going to have to get busy if I was going to get all the stuff out of the house that I was going to take,” he recalls.


Jack had long since resigned himself to losing most of the house’s contents, but his friendship with a chopper pilot at least allowed him to rescue a few personal belongings. He got on his cell to Cal. “A couple of helicopters were going to Kona, and they stopped by and helped me out.” Jack left everything heavy behind, but it was still a close thing. “The lava was going in the back when I was leaving out the front,” he recounts matter-of-factly. “We did a couple of circles [around the burning house]. It was getting pretty late, though. From the air you could see how much lava there was everywhere.”


About a week later Cal flew Jack back out to the house to see what remained. The water tanks were visible though partially filled with lava. A few scraps of roofing tin creaked in the breeze on the lava’s surface. A dead satellite dish poked out of the lava’s surface like a steel flower, along with the dead tips of some of Jack’s fruit trees. In the top of a submerged date palm, he found the live roots of some orchids; those might survive. He left them in place on the tree.


For the time being Jack’s getting reacquainted with life on the grid, coquí frogs and all. Will he return to build a third dream house? He smiles. “Madam Pele was delivering all the building material there for years. I could build a rock house. You can do anything out of rock, anything you can imagine—everything from a simple house to a Bavarian castle.”


But, he adds, it will “have to be after the lava stops.”