A Real Hole in the Wall

Los Angeles Times
August 16, 2005
By Alex Tizon

KALAPANA, Hawaii – Highway 130 runs through the heart of the Puna District, the diamond point that makes up the easternmost tip of the Big Island, gliding straight into what is often called Hawaii’s last frontier. This is a place where mongoose far outnumber people and run free across fields and forests and newly hardened rivers of lava, a region where the planet’s most active volcano, Kilauea, has poured out its molten discharge over the last two decades, enough to fill 200 million dump trucks. Human settlements resemble outbreaks of weeds in a vast moonscape.

Just past Mile Marker 20, a spur road leads toward the coastline and into a clearing before it stops. There, by the side of the road at the end of the road, Verna’s Drive-In restaurant sits as a lone outpost, open seven days a week from 10 to 5. The drive-in was once a social hub for Kalapana, a centuries-old fishing village and home to one of the island’s most scenic black-sand beaches. In 1990, a massive lava flow buried the village, wiping out nearly 200 homes and forcing about 500 residents to flee. But as it approached the drive-in, the flow inexplicably split and moved around the restaurant and a handful of homes next to it, creating a partial doughnut hole in the terrain.

“We call that ke puka, the hole where the lava missed,” says Gilbert Waiau, 50, a native Hawaiian whose house sits next to Verna’s. Such a place, he says, is considered sacred. “Why didn’t our homes get taken? We must be meant to stay.”

The molten rock cut off the highway, blocking through traffic in Lower Puna, and steamrolled into the Pacific Ocean, creating a new coastline half a mile beyond the old one. The seaside neighborhood around Verna’s was now landlocked. The highway became a cul-de-sac. And Verna’s Drive-In eventually became a hub for a smaller and wholly different kind of community forced into a different kind of life.

The people who stayed — residents of eight homesteads around the restaurant — now live at the end of the road. Some are compounds housing a dozen or more people in two or three separate buildings. In one case, three generations of one family share a lot. The end-of-the-roaders are made up of old and young — retirees who lived here long before the lava and younger families that inherited land from relatives. Most are native Hawaiians. A few work for the county and commute into Pahoa and Hilo to the north. Some receive welfare checks.

Although the residents could never have foreseen it, most have come to terms with their fate. Where once the ocean was their front yard, now they can’t even see the water. Waiau summarizes life since the lava came 15 years ago:

“It’s like the calm after the storm except the calm never left.”

At the very least, the people here have a tale to tell. Everyone seems to have a life-and-death story — or just a story — about how they came to live at the end of the road, what made them stay, why they can’t get themselves to leave.

*

The first sounds of morning come from animals: dogs barking, mongoose scampering, roosters crowing at the rising sun. People usually don’t start appearing on the scene until 9 or 9:30. That’s when Bob Newell opens the gate to Verna’s parking lot. The restaurant sits close to the road, and the parking lot is situated on the west side of the building, where the employee entrance is.

Newell, 53, is the sole owner of Verna’s and lives in a small house behind the restaurant. His longtime business and life partner, Verna Miller, after whom the drive-in is named, died of colon cancer two years ago at age 67. Her ashes were scattered in the lava field across the road. Newell built a small altar of black stones at the site, and he says he tries to visit it every day.

Miller, friends recall, had boundless energy. A local woman of mixed heritage — Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese — she once told Newell that three-colored cats brought good luck.

Now Newell lives with a dozen three-colored cats, all of whom at the moment are lying on his front porch. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with these cats,” he grumbles, stepping gingerly around them, a carpet of heaving fur. Neighbors call him Billy Bob.

His story in brief: grew up in Lake Tahoe, spent early life as a ski bum until an avalanche killed several of his friends, fled in grief to the Big Island 23 years ago and never left. He met and fell in love with Miller, and now — graying, stiff-jointed and frequently hung over — Newell’s most important task of the day is unlocking the gate to his true love’s drive-in.

Naturally, the gate squeaks.

The restaurant is a simple, one-story cinderblock building with bright red trim around the order and pick-up windows. The menu, made up of typical burger fare, is handwritten with colored markers on pages taped around the windows, which look directly out at the road and beyond to the lava. Two picnic tables with plastic vinyl sit inside a covered patio. Off to the side, a handwritten sign in bold letters warns: BEWARE OF FALLING COCONUTS. It isn’t a joke. Coconut trees abound, as do mango and avocado trees, but coconuts are the only fruit that hurt.

On this morning, Newell finds someone waiting for the drive-in to open. It’s a young man, blond and trim with a baseball cap and sunglasses, leaning back against the side of the building. “Morning,” he says. He’s been waiting an hour. His name is Chris Kirkpatrick, 22, originally from the San Francisco Bay Area.

He is there to grab some breakfast — a double cheeseburger and Coke — and chewing tobacco. The tobacco he would buy from the gift shop, which doubles as a mini-mart, in the back of the building. Asked if he came here every day, Kirkpatrick says, “Sometimes twice a day.

“It’s the only show in town,” he adds.

The lava — besides swallowing up a church, a visitor’s center, two beaches and a hot spring called Queen’s Bath — incinerated the nearest competition, Walter’s Drive-In and Gift Shop in the center of Kalapana. Verna’s is now the only restaurant and store on the Lower Puna coast, occupied by a far-flung population of about 3,000. The next-nearest restaurant and store is in Pahoa, 12 miles inland.

Kirkpatrick moved here with his family five years ago and lives “up the road” a few miles, representing the newest of Verna’s clientele. He lives in one of the subdivisions north along the coastline.

The newcomers are mostly haole, or white. They are an odd assortment of recluses, farmers and urban escapees from the mainland. Most live on solar power and rainwater; more than a few cultivate a particularly potent strain of marijuana known island-wide as pakalolo. As a rule in Lower Puna, nobody asks what you do for a living.

Kirkpatrick’s eyes peer over his shades at a pickup driving into the lot. The first of Verna’s four employees has arrived, a 23-year-old fountain of perk named Leimomi Kaaihue. For the next seven hours, Kaaihue’s voice will ring into the distance:

“One Billy Bob Special! One Cheeseburger Boat! Coke and mango shake!”

Kaaihue grew up in Kalapana. She was 8 when the lava came. Like most of the village, her family fled to another part of the island and never returned, although she found a way to come back — at least five days a week.

Today, she has been dropped off by her husband, Kapono Kaaihue, 24, who sticks around just long enough for a hamburger and fries before driving off to his workplace, which happens to be a beach. “I got a better job,” he says, grinning. He catches fish — by net, by spear, by pole — and sells them at a farmer’s market in Hilo, about 30 miles north. On a good day, he says, he can catch 50, mostly reef fish with Hawaiian names that nobody knows how to spell.

As he drives off, the first outsiders pull in to Verna’s lot. Unlike the regulars who fly into the parking lot as if it were their own driveway, tourists approach in rental cars haltingly, as if searching for a lost exit. Some know the story of the village; others don’t.

The road signs along Highway 130 don’t offer any clues. No one has bothered to change the green-and-white placards posting the miles to go to Kalapana: 23 miles, 12 miles, 4 miles. The less-informed could be led to believe that there is still a Kalapana to go to.

At road’s end, these motorists face a simple choice. They could turn around and head back toward Hilo. Or they could pull into Verna’s, grab a Kona Burger and contemplate their options. Just enough people choose contemplation to help keep the business afloat.

“I’m never going to get rich,” says Newell, who has made his way back to his house. From his front picture window, he watches a steady procession of customers arrive at the restaurant. Half are strangers; the others he knows by first name and story.

“That guy there, his name is George,” Newell says, gesturing toward a shirtless brown man sitting on the ground at the edge of the parking lot. “Comes here almost every day. He grew up here, went to Vietnam, got shot in the head. Brain-damaged.”

George lives with his mother near Hilo. The locals all know him and pick him up when he’s hitchhiking to and from Verna’s. Newell keeps a tab for him. George runs it up to $500 a month with orders of Captain’s Platters ($7.50) and Big Boat Fries ($3). George pays off his tab at the end of the month with his disability check, then starts over. He spends many days in the parking lot looking out at the lava. A few of the locals speculate that his mind recalls when all the land in front of the drive-in was a beach, a beautiful beach; now there’s something wrong with the picture. No one knows what he thinks about. George doesn’t talk much.

*

Newell’s neighbor to the west, on the other hand, lives, as Hawaiians say, to talk story. A widower and retired county road worker, Robert Keliihoomalu, 66, describes himself first and foremost as “101% Hawaiian.” He is a big-boned man with a white beard and skin as brown as the bark of the mango tree he sits under much of the day. Everyone calls him Uncle Robert. He has lived here longer than any other resident and probably feels the loss of Kalapana more than anyone. He is considered by locals as one of “the originals,” a label for native Hawaiians whose ancestors lived on the Big Island before haoles took over in the 1800s.

The first Westerner to explore the Puna region, the Rev. William Ellis, reported a population of 2,000 souls in Kalapana in 1823. That number would decline, but the region resisted Western ways up until the middle of the last century.

Keliihoomalu grew up in Kalapana when it was still at least partially a traditional native village, a place where men spent their days catching squid or “throwing net” or hunting wild boar, and the women wove mats and tended taro patches and took care of the children. Pigs and dogs and chickens had free range.

He recalls the first big wave of outsiders moving in to new subdivisions in Kalapana in the 1960s and 1970s. He remembers the day in 1970 when workers first started laying the cinderblock that would become Verna’s Drive-In. All 11 of his children would eat there.

He remembers when Kilauea volcano first started spewing lava in 1983. At the time, the crater seemed far enough away — 20 miles — to not worry about it. But seven years later, the lava had reached the outskirts of the village and what followed, he says, “seems like a dream now.”

“People say ‘the lava came’ like it happened at once,” he says. “It wasn’t like that. It was not a river of water. It was rock, glowing and moving. It would come and burn, and stop. It would start again and stop. It took a year. Spring, summer, fall. We were not afraid for our lives. But it was sad and very terrible to watch.”

Groves of coconut trees were flattened, road signs and cars were swept away, entire neighborhoods burst into flames. Keliihoomalu and a band of parishioners uprooted and carried off their Star of the Sea Catholic Church just ahead of the advancing lava. The Congregational church burned. By the time the lava reached his neighborhood, the county had long evacuated the village, but Keliihoomalu and his wife could not bring themselves to leave.

“My wife said, ‘Daddy, if it’s going to go, I want to see it go.’ ”

The couple placed Catholic amulets on each of the four corners of their property, and, from behind a low stone wall, prayed and watched. When the lava reached one of the corners and turned — away from the house, away from Verna’s — toward the beach, the couple rejoiced, convinced that they had witnessed a miracle. Where a geologist might explain the swerve by topography, Keliihoomalu says God had answered their prayer. A year later, his wife fell ill and died.

Kilauea is now in its 22nd year of continuous eruption, and everyone in Puna knows that they haven’t seen the last of the lava flows. The region lies in the volcano’s volatile East Rift Zone, which has poured molten rock onto the Puna Coast for millennia, continually changing the coastline.

Once, Keliihoomalu could practically fish from his front porch. Today, he has to hike over half a mile of cooling lava just to see the ocean. The interplay of God and topography on that fateful day when the lava split is chronicled in a series of fading snapshots — taken from Keliihoomalu’s property — posted on a board a few feet from the entrance to Verna’s parking lot.

A carload of visitors has stopped, and some of them have wandered over to look at the photographs. One tourist snaps photos of the display. Keliihoomalu sits back in his chair, takes a swig of beer and laughs under his breath. There’s a mountain of lava a dozen feet away, the newest land on Earth, and that fellow is taking pictures of pictures.

Tourists!

Keliihoomalu watches a parade every day from under his mango tree. His legs, angled in repose, are almost as big around as tree stumps, and his heels have worn holes through his flip-flops. From a distance, he could look organically attached to the ground. Like Waiau, his neighbor across the parking lot, Keliihoomalu says he feels fated to stay at the end of the road. He’s come to like it. When he was younger and rowdier, he says, he might have been bored by the quiet that descends every night after Newell locks the gate at Verna’s.

By early evening, the tourists have returned to their hotels, the locals have settled in front of their televisions, and the mongoose have scooted back to their dens. Only Newell’s cats prowl the premises. Occasionally, neighbors hear Newell stumbling over one of them and grumbling.

Mostly, there is the white noise of the wind and, if Keliihoomalu listens closely enough, the ocean. The shore has moved, but the sound of waves still carries. It’s the sound of the old village. “Hear how peaceful?” he says. If there was anything he could listen to for the rest of his days, he says, it would be that.