The owner of our rental house left a helpful little binder that includes suggestions for local attractions. One attraction is to watch lava flowing in all of its glowing, oozing glory. It’s a simple drive from the rental house so we decided to give it a go. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend an evening watching earth be created?
The directions lead to the end of Old Highway 130 on the west side of the island. Past the signs indicating the end of the road, the surface turns to gravel, then pavement, then gravel again. All the while you find yourself heading deeper into an otherworldly landscape. Aside from the road you are driving on, the ground is black, smooth, and full of creases–like someone just poured thick earth-batter into a pan for baking. There are a few small trees and plants poking up through the scathed ground every now and then. And, perhaps most surprising, there are houses here.
Rather than ending at a turnaround like our directions had suggested, the road ended abruptly with a barricade. There was a small road of to the side with a hand-painted sign advertising “Lava Info.” We’d already driven all the way out there so we followed the sign and hoped it hadn’t been placed there by a serial killer who preys on unsuspecting tourists.
Down the road was a small house. A grey-haired man was watering some plants out of an old plastic container. He greeted us jovially, and we sheepishly explained that we were seeking lava info. It turns out that the viewing center has been closed, but Gary, our guide for the evening, refers to himself as the local lava expert. After the viewing area closed he realized that people were still driving out here in hopes of spotting some lava so he put up the signs just to help people out.
Gary has lived with the lava for 11 years. His first house was consumed by Pele’s river of fire, but that didn’t deter him from building on the lava field again. Gary loves the lava. He sells dvd’s and pictures that he has put together after going out almost every morning just to watch the spectacle. But, for those of us who might have a more difficult time appreciating this seemingly barren landscape, there is another upside: no rules.
Land is cheap here, and there are no building restrictions on the lava fields. No permits needed. No codes enforced. Gary explained that people by a plot of land out here for $5,000 then piece together any kind of shelter they can afford. It’s not like you need to worry about insulation in Hawaii. Gary himself built his house from the ground up. Unlike some other lava dwellers who have no building experience, Gary worked in construction in Wisconsin before he threw everything he owned into a van that eventually came to a stop in Hawaii. His house looked small, sturdy, and, honestly, kind of charming.
Of course, there are no power lines or water mains out here. The houses are self-sufficient. Gary relies on solar power for electricity and collects rainwater for all of his water usage. Being the rainy side of the island, he is able to collect more than enough water to meet his needs. He also grows his own food, filling crevices in the lava with soil and planting bananas, papayas, and vegetables.
After admiring his photo album, including pictures if his original house burning, we bid Gary adieu. He apologized for his generation failing ours when it comes to the earth, and left us with a piece of advice.
“Don’t let the government tell you what to do,” he said, “but it sounds like you’ve figured that out already.”
I guess we’ll see.