Feature

Life on the Lava

It takes grit, creativity and a touch of madness to live in Pele’s shadow
Story by Derek Ferrar. Photos by Megan Spelman.

It was a stormy night out on the Kalapana lava flows, and a world-class lightning show was throwing bolt after bolt over the surreal orange glow of magma fingers creeping down the cliff line just a few miles away. As we took in the elemental scene from the canopied bed of an open-walled Airbnb/meditation sanctuary known as the Lava Temple, there was no inkling of the seismic drama that was about to engulf the district of Puna, on Hawai‘i Island’s southeast side—but then, that’s life on an active volcano.

This was February of last year, and my wife and I had come down to Kalapana, a once idyllic seaside village that had been claimed by Kīlauea’s lava flows in the early 1990s, to check out the ad hoc hamlet that in recent years had sprung up, phoenix-like, on the bare rock left by the flows. Like many pilgrims to the lava who had spotted the curious enclave en route, we wondered who in their right mind would want to make such a life for themselves.

At the time, the remote area was the gateway to public viewing of the active lava flows that had been emanating from the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō cinder cone for thirty-five years, by far the longest eruption ever recorded in Hawai‘i. Every evening, a carnival scene blossomed at the beginning of the gravel road bulldozed through the cooled lava rock leading toward the active flow. A proliferation of pop-up stands there proffered snacks, lava-themed art and, above all, rental bikes for a quicker trip to the lava.

One of the most striking structures in the eccentric community is the HGTV-ready Phoenix House, built by high-end treehouse designer Will Beilharz. Building out on the lava was a real challenge, he says, but the result is that “you’re really living with the land, the wind and rain. There’s a sense of wonder and humbleness being that so close to Mother Earth. It’s both really scary and really exciting.”

Little did we or anyone else suspect that in just a couple of months, the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption would come to a dramatic end with a massive earthquake and a plume of pink smoke. Within days the lava at both Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō and Kīlauea’s summit drained away, traveling miles underground to emerge in massive geysers smack in the middle of people’s yards in the forested subdivision of Leilani Estates. From there the magma torrent traveled to the sea, taking out more than seven hundred homes before it was all over three months later, along with farms, treasured tidepools, popular surf spots and the coast’s only boat ramp.

But all of that was yet to be, and not even the Lava Temple’s cosmically attuned owner, spiritual guide Jade Rajbir Kaur, saw it coming. But she was philosophical about the ever-present threat posed by the volcano, commonly referred to by the name of the Hawaiian volcano goddess, Pele. “I feel like Pele allows me to live here by her grace,” she told us. “If she takes it all away, I’m ready for that.”

Born Julie Chen, she grew up the daughter of a SoHo artist in New York City and spent the early part of her life as a stressed-out overachiever managing the family’s art and investment businesses. Then one day the pressure all came crashing down, and she “went on the wellness path and dedicated myself to Spirit.” For a stretch she lived in her truck, roaming around the Southwest studying different spiritual paths. Then she began wondering where she should put down roots and consulted an astrologer, who said she should go to Hawai‘i Island. 

Spiritual guide Jade Rajbir Kaur (pictured here and on the opening with her son Alaka‘i) says she was called to Kalapana’s lava flows by a vision of the volcano goddess Pele. “I feel like Pele allows me to live here by her grace,” she says. “If she takes it all away, I’m ready for that.”

During her first week there, she picked up a like-minded hitchhiker, and they wound up having a son. She was looking for a place to settle down with her child, Jade said, when she had a vision: “I must go to the lava.” She came to Kalapana Gardens and saw this compound for sale, with its large upper story perfect for her spiritual gatherings, “and I knew, that’s it.”

Next door to Jade’s property sits one of the most striking homes out on the flow, a designer tiny house straight out of reality TV aptly called Phoenix House, which Jade also manages as an Airbnb. Tall and slim, the 450-square-foot dwelling was designed by her friend Will Beilharz, a part-time resident who has a specialty treehouse-building company called Artis-Tree. Designed to be hauled off easily in case of advancing lava, the spartan structure boasts a truckload of arty design touches, like the charred cedar and rusted tin siding meant to evoke the volcano’s burnt tones.

Building out on the lava was a real challenge, Will told me on the phone from California, but the result is that “you’re really living with the land, the wind and rain. There’s a sense of wonder and humbleness being so close to Mother Earth and new land being born from the volcano. It’s both really scary and really exciting.”

For Jason Pai, moving onto the flow with his dogs meant returning to the family land where he grew up before the lava came. A mechanic and tow truck driver, he built a shack and started planting coconuts in small cracks in the lava rock. “It takes a special person to handle living out here,” he says. “I’m just a Hawaiian trying my hardest to bring back whatever I can, trying to keep this land in our hands.”

A stunningly beautiful Hawaiian fishing village going back many generations, Kalapana began to change in the late 1950s during Hawai‘i Island’s subdivision development boom, when many rural tracts were sold and converted into grids of unimproved house lots. A Honolulu developer bought about 160 acres just west of Kalapana village and managed to get the area zoned as a resort, thanks to its spectacular black-sand beach. In those days Kalapana wasn’t at the end of the road at all: The ominously named Chain of Craters highway snaked down from Kīlauea’s summit through Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park to run straight through the little town toward Hilo. As a result, locals and circle-island visitors alike flocked to the beloved beach. A couple of decades later the volcano would put a literal end to all that, repeatedly burying the highway under successive flows.

Despite the fact that just that same year lava had fountained up in the middle of the farming town of Kapoho only about fifteen miles away, the Kalapana Gardens lots were aggressively sold in ads as“a sound investment.” According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the 7,500-square-foot lots went for about $1,500 to $2,400, with many Mainlanders buying parcels sight unseen. In the end no resort was built, and the developer defaulted on the entire project. Eventually the land was purchased by Hawai‘i Island developers John Duff and his wife, Ruth, who put in roads, water lines and some electricity. Even so, only about a hundred of Kalapana Gardens’ 738 lots actually had homes built on them.

Kamehameha Schools hula teacher Piilani Kaawaloa, whose family homestead in the Kalapana Gardens area was spared by the 1990 flows, remembers a peaceful, tightknit neighborhood with a community park and friendly neighbors. “Everybody was family, and that included those from outside who purchased property in Kalapana Gardens,” Piilani says. “Nobody locked their doors, and everybody was always helpful to one another.”

After moving down to Kalapana Gardens from Puna, Craig Self built one of the few actual county-permitted houses in the neighborhood. “My philosophy about building in an active lava zone,” he says, “is to have really good insurance.”

Piilani recalls that when the lava was at her family’s driveway and they could no longer avoid evacuating, her grandmother made everyone tidy up the house and yard: “She said that’s what you do when you have an important visitor coming, and if Tūtū Pele was coming we should show her respect.” Miraculously the homestead survived, although it was years before the family could move back into the house.

When outsiders started to arrive in the ‘60s and ‘70s, many of them hippie types seeking an unregulated tropical utopia, Kalapana gained a reputation as a place where locals and newcomers could coexist in relative harmony. “The whole black-sand area was just a beautiful place, so welcoming,” Piilani remembers. “Even though many people came there, they had so much respect and aloha. I can still see it all, the house of each family, the drive-in, the parking lot where all the braddas would hang out watching everybody surf. Families fishing, catching a meal for evening.”

After the flows, there was no thought for more than a decade of rebuilding on the bare new rock below the ever-threatening Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō cone. But eventually owners were able to get their former property lines surveyed and marked out on the lava, and almost all of them then sold to new owners for a pittance. Some simply donated their parcels to the county to avoid $25 a year in property tax. Then around 2006 the last of the old Kalapana Gardens community association’s leftover bank balance went to bulldozing a loop road through the lava, and people started to come in and build.

Piilani Kawaaloa, pictured with her daughter Hinano, recalls the magic of old Kalapana before the village and black sand beach were wiped out in 1990 by a flow that just barely spared her family’s homestead.

Down the bumpy cinder street from Jade’s place, past the worn station wagon with the “Pele is my home girl” bumper sticker, we met a tall guy with a trim beard named Curtis who was unloading lumber with his friend Jen to build each of them a teensy shack. Curtis told us he had been a teacher in the Bay Area but had lost his dream home in the housing crash and his beloved wife to illness. With nothing left to lose, he said, he bought a lot out here for just a few thousand bucks about five years before, but he hadn’t been able to build until now. It was going to cost him about five grand to build his twelve-by-twelve shack, he told us, which fit the need to “live and invest lightly here.”

Working in a sleeveless shirt and surf shorts, Jen told us she’s from Alaska, “like about half the people down here. I think it takes the same kind of hardy, rugged type.” Even the fringe dwellers of Puna’s dense rainforests known as “Punatics” think the Kalapana lava people are really out there, she said. “They call us ‘lavatics.’”

A couple of lots down, Craig Self was sitting shirtless, wiring up a solar panel in the driveway of the large home he was building—one of the few officially permitted dwellings in the area, he said. It was actually his second house in Kalapana Gardens, where he’d been living for the past eight years after moving down from the forest of upper Puna. Up there, he said, “it rains so much you’re drowning.”

Craig had a funny story to tell about getting his building permit: The people at the county told him they couldn’t issue one because there was already a house on that spot. “Yeah,” he said, “but that house is burnt to ash and forty feet under solid lava.” Nonetheless, the clerk replied, he would need to pay for a demolition permit to knock down the nonexistent old house. “It only cost me like twenty bucks for the demo permit,” Craig told us, “but it was just pretty ridiculous.”

As the day wore on, carload after carload of eager tourists began pulling in along the beginning of the gravel road to make the four-mile trip by foot, bike or shuttle van to the viewpoint at the end where crowds in the hundreds came nightly to see lava dripping—or sometimes pouring—into the sea. Among the bike rental stands and other vendors lining the roadside was a tent with a checkered Finish Line Bikes sign, where a down-to-earth couple named Stretch and Sammy were hawking trail bikes with their signature stuffed animals strapped to the handlebars. “We tell people it’s their spirit animal,” Sammy joked. “And it helps them find their bike among all the other ones at the other end.” 

Stretch and Sammy, too, had come to Kalapana Gardens from Alaska, although Stretch, who could pass for a less bulky Hulk Hogan, is originally from Texas. He confided that they were looking for a change of scenery after Sammy lost both of her sons. “I came here on vacation a few years ago and saw this place, and thought this is about as different as you can get,” he said.

They bought a lot in the middle of the subdivision for about $4,500 and built a relatively spacious two-story place. When the lava-viewing carnival got rolling in 2016, Stretch said, he started out selling t-shirts, “then one thing led to another and we started up with the bikes.” Hypersocial, Stretch reveled in the lava-show chaos. “We’re out here every day, talking to people from all over the world, making their lava dreams come true.” he said. “But if I had a reality show out here, lemme tell ya, there’s some crazy stuff that goes down.”

“Like what?” I wondered. “Oh, it just seems like every day there’s some drama out here, or this one has some kind of beef with that one,” Sammy answered. “The lava business can be kind of tough.” As we left, Stretch flashed us a big shaka and yelled after us, “Lava you!”

It was a Wednesday night, and Puna’s various tribes were packed in shoulder to shoulder, living it up at the weekly night market jamboree in the Uncle Robert’s compound at the end of the ocean road in Kalapana. The rocking Hawaiian house band had everybody boogieing. The hippie contingent, radiant in tie-dyes and dreadlocks, were working the craft stalls. Sun-reddened tourists, wide-eyed and beaming, merged into the scene. Onstage an auntie in a cowboy hat with flashing lights danced with a lasso.

The eight-acre compound, with a restaurant, store, open-air dance pavilion and more, is run by the family of the late Uncle Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu, a revered Kalapana kupuna (elder) and community leader. After the homestead was barely spared by the 1990 flows that took out most of their neighbors, Uncle Robert, a longtime highway worker for the county, decided to open a small market selling sodas, shave ice and other necessities. At the suggestion of a friend, he opened an ‘awa bar on the compound, serving bowls of the earthy traditional Polynesian sedative known elsewhere as kava, and the family started offering cultural tours of the area.

Before the long-running Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption ended with a bang in the spring of 2018, crowds flocked to Kalapana every evening to see the flowing lava, giving rise to a pop-up industry of rental-bike stands offering a quicker trip to the viewing site.

A few years later one of his eight sons, Sam, moved back home and came up with the idea of the night market. He built the pavilion with the stage, got the band together, and the rest is Puna legend. Since Uncle Robert passed in 2015, Sam has kept the market going as a one-of-a-kind weekly happening.

Powerfully built, with a silver ponytail and trim goatee, Sam reminisced about life in Kalapana before the lava came. “Back in the day it was all local ‘ohana (extended family), just fishing and living on our own with the land,” he said. “Even when out-siders started to move in, it was a close community. But then Pele came down and changed everything.”

He showed us the rocky spot by the corner of the stage where a finger of lava from the 1990 flow came within feet of their home before turning and sparing the property. “The house was OK but the beach was gone,” he said. “The beach was everything: surfing, fishing. This was a beach community.” Today several hundred yards of barren black rockscape—save for hundreds of small coconut palms planted on the flow by volunteers at the compound—covers the area where Kalapana’s famed black-sand beach once curved along Kaimū bay.

Uncle Robert was a strong believer in Hawaiian sovereignty, and the family considers the compound sovereign territory. When we asked if the nightly crush of lava tourists ever got a bit overwhelming, Sam said, “This is the 2000s—you gotta go with the times. You still got to keep your traditions, but you can also welcome people from all over the world to share in them.”

At a coconut-oil stand at the night market, we met a mechanic named Jason Pai who lived even farther out toward the flow in a shack with a small school bus parked out on the lava. Bearded and wiry, he told us he had grown up on his family’s land at that spot and had finally returned to its new landscape about three years ago after “the price of land kinda skyscraped around here. So I decided to come back home.”

Jason said he had been planting trees in cracks in the lava to try to restore some of the greenery he remembers from his youth, although he admitted it’s a harsh environment to live in today. “I’m just a Hawaiian trying my hardest to bring back whatever I can, trying to keep this land in our hands,” he said.

Did he worry about Pele coming back this way? “She’s always gonna come back sometime,” he shrugged. “But if she comes back again I’m gonna do it different. All the times she came before, I went run away. Not this time; I’ll be staying till she’s right at my feet.”

Epilog:

One day just a couple of months after our visit, all the magma suddenly drained away from Kīlauea’s active craters. The thirty-five-year Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption had come to an abrupt end, and the brief but devastating Leilani Estates eruption was beginning. Kalapana Gardens wasn’t directly threatened, but the new eruption sent noxious sulfur fumes wafting its way. 

Steaming cracks opened in the highway as lava moved underneath, raising the specter that Kalapana residents might get cut off. As a precaution, authorities restricted the area to residents only and bulldozed the far end of the lava-viewing road where just weeks before the crowds of bikers had been, so that it once again connected to the old Chain of Craters highway as an emergency exit. Somehow it seemed ironic that the former source of threat for the Kalapana community had now become its path to safety, but again, that’s life on an active volcano.

The gathering ground for lower Puna’s tribes is the Keli‘iho‘omalu family compound at the end of the road and its rocking Wednesday night market. During the eruption, the compound served as a supply point for those who stayed.

In February, a year after our first visit and about six months after the Leilani Estates eruption ended, my wife and I returned to Kalapana to find out how some of the people we’d met weathered the eruption, and how the place has changed. The most striking thing right off is the total absence of Pele’s fire burning anywhere on the blackened cliff line, something that had hardly happened in over a generation. And the other thing is that the nightly lava circus had left town, leaving a much quieter settlement out on the rock.

Jade is at her lava sanctuary. She tells us she’d been living in a rented place in Leilani Estates when the eruption started just a few blocks down. As cracks opened in the ground under the house next door on one side and sulfur bubbled up on the other, she had to evacuate in a hurry—though in the end the house survived the eruption. She tried staying at her place in Kalapana, but the fumes were too intense. When the big 6.9 earthquake hit, she says, “the whole lava expanse was moving around, and you couldn’t even see straight.”

Her son’s school was overrun by the lava and had to relocate to temporary digs miles away. Finally, they wound up camping out on a friend’s macadamia nut farm. For a while, she says, “Puna was a ghost town.” But people have slowly returned to Kalapana Gardens, and bookings picked up again at her Airbnbs, though not quite to the same sold-out levels as before. “I still love it here but it is intense,” she now says. “I thought of selling but I can’t; this place has too much meaning for me.”

Stretch and Sammy are still in Kalapana Gardens, too. Stretch weathered the eruption there, fumes and all, but Sammy rode it out on the Mainland. On the day of the big quake, Stretch says, “I spent the day in my truck with the dogs.”

A new generation of lava babies grows up on the Kalapana Gardens flow, as their mothers gather at sunset to talk story. Even the fringe dwellers of Puna’s dense rainforests think the Kalapana lava dwellers are really out there. “They call us ‘lavatics,’” says one resident.

With the bike rental business a thing of the past, Stretch got a job for a while “banging hammers” in Hilo, and now they’re focusing on making souvenir crafts“to find us some new cheese,” he says. Surveying the neighborhood from his second-story porch, he points out that the former lava-viewing industry is being replaced by a new economy out on the flow, with a growing number of white-domed medical marijuana greenhouses now dotting the subdivision. As for all the bikes, Stretch says they’ve got a few stored under the house, but most of the operators just sold them off dirt cheap. “Pretty much everybody in lower Puna who needed a bike has one now,” he laughs.

An earnest guy with a ponytail and a clipboard named Will stops by seeking donations from fellow residents to patch up the rutted streets. Stretch introduces him as a kind of unofficial mayor for the neighborhood, but Will denies it. “A lot of good people out here just want to be left alone, and I respect that,” he tells us. “But if something happens to any of us, we need our neighbors to help one another out. I have a vision of Kalapana Gardens as an example of a great community looking out for each other, but that takes work and communication.”

Uncle Robert’s night market is still rocking every Wednesday, lava or no. During the eruption, the compound served as a supply point for those who stayed, and Sam’s nephew Ikaika Marzo, who had run the clan’s lava tours, emerged as a Puna community leader and social media star for his organization of relief efforts and live video updates from the flow front.

True to his promise, Jason Pai has stayed in his school bus way out on the flow, and Craig Self is back in Kalapana Gardens after escaping the eruption on the Main-land. He tells us he’d just bought a house in Leilani Estates “about three months before the fun,” and it became part of the first group of homes to go. “I gambled in Leilani and lost,” he says. “But I’m still super lucky to live here.” HH