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One Last Dinner in Pāhoa

He told me I was going to have a dinner that I might not be able to indulge in two weeks from that day. Already slightly blurred by an early morning drive from the Kohala Coast to Hilo—and picking up a dormant friendship after a year, I suspected a seasonal crustacean or rare crop of taro would be on the menu. Whatever was in store for me, I assumed it would be memorable.

Though aware of a lava flow, the size of a 20-lane highway, baring down on the town of Pāhoa, it had not occurred to me that he would tour us on a potentially last visit to a potentially non-existent town.

The USPS in Pahoa, Hawaii, United States.

Only a few moments after turning off Highway 130 our conversations quickly changed—from catching up with each other to the tangible sights of a town nearing its end. Questions mounted audibly between us while many remained in my head as we turned around the controversially placed not-local-enough Long's Drug (that many might say is in Pele's sights) to head toward the much more 'organic' strip of Pāhoa's shops and cafes:

  • How do people figure out when to pack up their wares and skip town?

  • What will happen to the infrastructure; the utility lines and water mains with valves sticking above the street?

  • What will the people down this Highway do if the lava overtakes their main artery to Hilo (and the hospital and airport)? Will they drive all the way around through the National Park—if the formerly lava-destroyed Chain of Craters Road is rebuilt fast enough?

  • Why is road construction still being completed on a highway that might not be open in a few weeks?

  • Will the lava leave any house or business standing? Will it stop short of the town?

  • Will people live in their houses if the lights go out and their water is taken by the lava?

  • What will become of all those high school sports teams who will have their autumn season diced in half? 

  • Would I stay or would I go?

The legend of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire who makes her home in Kilauea's Halemaumau Crater, survives long past the ancient Hawaiian religion's demise in 1819. To this day, those who illegally take rocks from the Big Island are said to be struck with such poor luck by Pele that the National Park Visitors' Center actually receives returned lava from the "cursed" people who stole souvenirs. Pele has been boiling and scheming under the Island of Hawaii since humanity landed the Big Island and regardless of religion, everyone still talks of her. Some say she is coming after Pāhoa because the town has been naughty—a sort of judgement on those souls. Others appear more content to let her pahoehoe fingers take what they want—afterall, it is her space that they are occupying beneath Kilauea. Still others fervently pray to their God that she cannot reach the Village. Most prepare to make way for Pele's slow destructive flow by moving their belongings elsewhere and contemplating the options they have after the molten rock no longer poses a risk to the Puna District again.

Sacred Heart Church in Pahoa, Hawaii.

Pāhao, a small town in the Puna District on Hawaii Island's windward and easternmost coast, provides homes to more than 900 residents—many have kept a home in the area for years. Of those folks, a majority will remember the last time Pele came down from Pu'u O'o Crater to destroy the towns of Kalapana and Kaimu in 1990. Generally, people acknowledge their houses and livelihoods have always been within Pele's reach. The town's location on Highway 130 makes it a nice stopping point for locals and a few tourists to pull off for a bit of lunch or to pick up supplies for a day at the beach. Pāhoa has been the last stopping town for several privately organized lava tours like the Aloha Lava Tour. A sleepy tropical town, Pāhoa is full of character and charm that can only be attributed to the people who reside there.

Main Street in the town of Pahoa, during the anticipation of the 2014 lava flow to reach these shops.

We slowly drove down through the small Village while I snapped a few photos from the car window before we found a parking spot at the base of the main street. Strolling through several small stores, the first sign we saw read, "lava sale." Moving inventory through sales or by a moving truck was a priority for some while others hope to relocate and improve their online business platforms.

Despite the understandable uneasiness, the atmosphere was much livelier than expected. With so much time to prepare for Pele, there was a feeling of excited anticipation in the air—perhaps it was a mix of that reorganizational "spring cleaning" feel, with a reinvigorated will to survive, and the fruition of an event that most everyone knew could happen "someday." As the evening's shadow grew longer, even more people stepped onto the Town's wooden walkways. Hawaii Island residents along with a few tourists, had the same weekend idea we did—to say one last goodbye to the town and support a community facing a difficult time. The visit showed solidarity to the Town's residents—and the visitor's purchase power provided one last economic boost to the townspeople.

A Pahoa curiosity shop selling items ahead of the potential lava flow inundating the town.

While the people of this town are scurrying out of the disaster disaster's way, the lava itself moves quite slowly. One day Pele moves forward 160 yards, the next just 60. For several days she even stopped before resuming her crawl again. There is time for those who are affected—time that those touched by hurricanes and earthquakes are not afforded. The townspeople in Pāhoa can plan and move their belongings (even their entire house, in some cases) out of the way of the flow. They can prepare in advance to protect themselves and reorganize their business elsewhere. They can work as a community to help each other and keep their governing systems in place, their kids in a school, and buildings open as long as possible to collect revenue. In the end, though, it is only time. We have not come up with a force that rivals a flow of molten rock. Time will never replace what they had in Pāhoa. If Pele takes their home or business, their place will be gone regardless of how much work and planning has been completed before she arrived, the property will still be Pele's snack and the laborious job of sorting out life after the flow will commence.

A shopowner points out that his business made it in the Hawaiian newspaper, the Star Advertiser.

Live music spilled into the street from a small band that was set up near the pizza place. Shopkeepers happily chatted with patrons and their neighbors—though nearly every conversation turned to the lava—if they were prepared, how they were feeling, and how long they hoped to keep their business open. We ducked in a clothing store, strolled by a tattoo parlor, and perused over the items on walls and shelves in a colourful curiosity shop selling handmade goods sourced from Hawaii to Turkey. The shopkeeper mentioned he had just been on the front of the Honolulu Star Advertiser the day before. Perhaps he will attract some extra patrons through the article before he considers closing his doors. We moseyed into the LocaVore Store where natural and local products including coffee, jack fruit, photo prints, and soaps are sold. And, then we casually walked back down the boarded walkway along the storefronts. Each place was filled with small town ambiance and independent spirit that stood tall in the way of Pele.

Kaleo's Restaurant where we had a what could have been a last meal in this town.

We toddled past the Thai food place that caught our interest, but finally settled on dining at Kaleo's, a Honolulu Magazine Award Winning restaurant. The establishment was packed beyond our ability to secure a choice seat on the lanai. We did get a table, though, and observed the buzz around us as each table hosted a volley of volcano questions and comments amongst themselves. The poor hostess must have been tired of listening and responding to lava enquiries. I wish I had been hungrier, but enjoyed the refreshing cocktail and light meal with my friend. That dinner seemed less about our food, even less about our conversation, and much more about being a part of Pāhoa's last weeks before the lava flowed through the area.

I returned to Hilo that evening with an appreciation for the resilience and community-mindedness in the people of Pāhoa. Their determination to be educated in the dangers heading their way while making the best of their disastrous situation gives them remarkable hope to move forward. A Pāhoa Pele Party was even held at the end of September to express some gratitude that Pele had seen fit to stall her flow for a short amount of time. This place is more than a travel destination—it is a breaking news story; one few people are really aware of outside of Hawaii. Like most things in life, when we meet people in an area and identify with a certain shop, or sign, or even a mud puddle in that place, that tiny corner of the world becomes important to us. So I continue to stay updated on the place and the story. No matter how much of Pāhoa stays put next to or disappears under this lava flow, the town is more than its buildings and infrastructure—the heart of Pāhoa is in her earthy, small-town, friendly people. I wish all of them the very best while they wait for Pele to pass over, around, or nearby them—and a future that is as rewarding as the volcanic minerals that are added to the land and their properties.

Post Script. Pāhoa was actually spared from this slow-advancing lava flow. It stopped short of downtown, but did manage to eat a good amount of property and a couple of structures. Still, the damage could have been much worse. Even after the 2018 fissure eruption with hundreds and hundreds of homes and farms destroyed in the Puna area, this town has been spared thus far. Happily, I may be able to enjoy a meal in the quaint and eclectic town.


references: | Pele Hawaii 24/7 | Chain of Craters Road to be Rebuilt as a Two-lane Road | Hawaii Volcano Impact to Living in Hilo Big Island Video News | Pahoa Party Held | ongoing updates Hawaii News Now | Puna Lava Flow Less than One Mile from Pahoa Town | 09 October 2014 Big Island Now | Hundreds Gather at Puna Lava Flow Meeting | 10 October 2014 Pahoa High and Intermediate Schools

Unless noted, all images and content © 2014 - 2018 The Earth Ink | Andrea Rip

*Orginally posted by the same author on 11 October 2014 at

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