Trail By Fire

Several years ago when the last volcanic outbreak almost took our little town of Pahoa, our entire seed crop was in the path of the lava. Lucky us, the lava stopped just a mile or so short of wiping us out. At that time we saw we needed to spread out a bit, just in case the shit hit the fan again. Why do we continue to plant in the most volatile area of the entire island? Because our planting area is all relatively fresh lava and no fool has ever planted ginger or turmeric anywhere near this area, hence we have a far better chance of having a disease free seed crop to offer our customers. In response to that close call with the lava years ago, we not only relocated but expanded our operation and moved the bulk of our plantings to Opihikao, eight miles away from Pahoa. Now we have five small farms spread out over 5 miles or so. I have lived in Opihikao near thirty years and my partner Dan recently built his shack on my road too.


What did this latest eruption do?  It followed us! This time the lava outbreak was less than a mile from us. This eruption was HUGE! Dan lives on the lower turmeric farm where the gas was most severe and he often had to leave home to keep from asphyxiating. My wife Elvira and I were far more fortunate, as was our seed crop, since we were a couple miles further away from the eruption site. However Elvie’s fruit trees defoliated and her coveted grass died. We never saw the sun for near three months as the toxic plume from the lava went from horizon to horizon. The sun would drop out from the plume about 4 pm daily. The lava plume created its own eco system and we got pounding rains at random. We were forced to run our generator daily to charge batteries when normally we go weeks and weeks on just solar. It was wild! The nearby erupting lava sounded as if jets were breaking the sound barrier all day and night. Tour and government choppers pounded us with shades of Viet Nam! The threat of brush fires was imminent. Our road was closed off and the Police and National Guard manned the barricades. We were required to get special passes for our employees to get past the barricades to the fields. As you can see from the photos, the night sky was always red. Earth quakes rattled our homes day and night.

The majority of our neighbors just up and left our hood. The work traders were the first to go and went to our little Pahoa town just 6 miles away, where shelters had been quickly set up. The street folks came into the shelters too. Soon the folks that lost their homes or had been evacuated due to toxic gas and the advancing flow, were in the shelters as well. Between the chronically homeless, the street folks, the runaway work traders and finally those who lost their homes or could not get to them due to lava, well hell, it was a packed house. The ones of us that stayed home were armed in anticipation of the rippers. Fortunately the presence of the police and the National Guard at or roads entrance kept most of the punks away. Dan lives next door to a big Krishna vegetable farm. Shotgun toting, pig killin’, vegetarian, Hairy Krishna’s (hairy as they are bearded and shaggy like most of the rest of us) patrolled our road. Most everybody drank more and some to excess. Damn, due to the diminished light it seemed like five o’clock at mid-day so it made us all want a beer by noon.

In Pahoa, the cops were too busy to deal with the influx of street folks, the transients and the new homeless, so they paid little mind to the street drama. Folks drank openly, traded drugs, and smoked reefer on Main Street. It was not uncommon to ride through town and see people brawling in the streets. A little while later the same folks were sitting on the curb sharing a doobie and a 40 while making plans for another fine meal at the shelter (prepared by local restaurants). Hieronymus Bach would have relished in the chaos, debauchery, chicanery and the raw sulfurous decadent stench of Madam Pele that permeated everything. It smelled like Hell, literally!

Our ginger/turmeric team mates stayed sober for the most part. They worked with respirators when needed and kept an eye out for lava bombs. When respirators were in short supply the team made their own with baking soda laced sanitary napkins! Dan’s sister in California sent us 100 respirators for our workers and the folks in our hood. Pele’s hair (needle like slivers of lava) pierced double layers of shirts. Fist sized cinder would rain from the sky! It was quite an ordeal getting our turmeric crop to market while planting a new ginger seed and turmeric crop at the same time. But what else could we do? We had made the down payment on our new land, paid the bulldozer to clear it, our fertilizers and media had been delivered, our seed selected, so we had little choice. If we did not plant then there would be no crop and we would be screwed. If we planted and lava got us, no crop and screwed again. So we planted like crazy and hoped for the best…That my friends is why I say this season’s crop was Trial by Fire as this ginger and turmeric was kissed by Madam Pele herself! (Oh by the way, Pele is our volcano goddess. Pele has a relationship with Kamapua’a, the hog man god. Recently there have been sighting of piglets with vaguely human features, rumored to be off spring of Pele and Kamapua’a. Let’s not forget Pele’s sister, Kapo. Her claim to fame is her detachable flying vagina, but lets’ save that tale for another time.)


Often during the recent lava event, I was out at night checking for pigs in the turmeric or pineapple field. Standing silently in total darkness, flashlight off, shotgun in hand, listening for pig sounds when on two separate occasions, I was slapped in the face by something wet and wild. Was it a startled roosting guinea fowl, an owl in search of prey, a coconut fond, or perhaps Pele’s sister Kapo? Friends, in these rare and strange time and during such catastrophic events, rumor has it that legends come to life. This one wild sow I shot had a piglet that sure resembled one of those mythical pig boy creatures. I brought the tiny abnormally home with me and Elvie tried to bottle feed it. But these abominations, which occur only when Pele is on a rampage, rarely if ever survive. Now the little sucker resides in the compost pile.

Hugh's tractor pig lava.jpg

We live way in the country, off the grid, in a sparsely populated area. Certainly not an affluent stretch of road, mostly just organic farmers, pot growers and hermits. Often during the full moon, over the chatter of night time coqui frogs that rattle the jungle, you can hear a distant party, Krishna’s chanting or some lonely Punatic howling at the moon. That changed during the eruption as we did not see the moon for almost three months and the coqui frogs were silent. But what we did hear was a new rumble in the jungle. I soon realized what the new night time sounds must me, as late at night, I had begun playing my own favorite tunes; the Stones, Sympathy for the Devil or Nathaniel Ratliff’s, SOB, and I was up past my usual bed time doing the nekid hippie dance! Friends, that new rumble in the jungle was all those other Punatics doing the same damn thing as me. Some fueled by alcohol, pot or shrooms, others by anger, fear and frustration, some even in worship of Madam Pele, that rumble in the jungle was the discordant cacophony of every ones favorite song and the thumping vibration from hundreds of Punatic bare feet pounding on plywood floors in rickety recycled shacks!

So what is a PUNATIC? Punatics are what other islanders call us folks that live in lower Puna. Puna is a district on the SE side off the Big Island> This is one place you better not judge a book by its cover as most of us are a little rough around the edges. Punatics are an eclectic assortment of folks. Many came here long ago for a fresh start; artists, farmers, ex-cons, successful business people, a few Trustifarians (trust fund Punatics who’s hard working folks left them a little something) and a disproportionate share of folks that just ain’t quite right. Some of us I suppose, were run out of town on the mainland and some are left over pot growers from the 70’s and 80’s. Many of our school teachers, business owners and politicians came here as dope growers decades ago and got hooked on the big island and ended up raising families here. Now, there is a whole bunch of new age hippies taking their turn. No doubt many will sprout roots here just like we did. There is a popular bumper sticker that some of the local populous sport with pride, it says; PUNATICS, We’re are all here, cause we’re not all there! For the most part, Punatics are a diverse bunch of hardworking, sometimes depraved and /or eccentric beings. The only damn thing we all have in common is that we all live in lower Puna. I suppose a good anthem for us punatics might be Die Antwoords; I Fink You Freaky and I Like You a Lot!


Out of Pele’s inferno rose local heroes. Like any small town in America in crisis, the fortunate helped those less so. Local restaurants cooked for the folks in shelters and anyone else that wanted to show up for a free meal. The Hub was established in Pahoa to receive donated money, goods and volunteers. Go Fund Me’s were rampant. Uncle Roberts, down at Kalapana, was the distribution center for folks in that neck of the woods that needed drinking water and other donated items. (I will point out that on our little corner of the island we count on rainwater catchment for our water source. The bad air and acid rain made our water unfit for drinking, even our pets would not drink the foul water.) Daily government reports were minimal so local musician and boat operator, Ikaika Marzo, become our go-to guy for the up to date lava report. Ikaika, his side kick Phillip Ong and their crew, braved lava entering the sea to bring us fresh lava footage daily with a host of scientific data from experts as well. Other unofficial film crews snuck past barricades and brought us up close and personal with the eruption. The local tour chopper company posted aerial videos often. It was a most honorable response from our little Punatic community. But wait there is more! Soon after the lava stopped flowing, a hurricane brought us 65 inches of rain in a few days! Hilo our largest town on this side of the island was flooded. Rock slides and road closures were abundant. But the rain was a mere hiccup compared to the recent eruption and our Big Island residents took it in stride.


In early August, the lava subsided, and thing have settled down a bit for us. We are still picking out Pele’s hair buried in our feet and skin. But the weekly nude volley ball game is back in full force across our road at The Isle of You. The street people are back on the street or have moved on, the work traders are sheepishly drifting back in, the chronic homeless are back in their enclaves and FEMA has helped those who lost homes by subsidizing places to rent. Folks are picking up the pieces and making do best they can. There are a lot of folks who lost their homes and life will never be as it once was for them. The news says nearly a thousand homes were lost to lava. However that was only the permitted structures. For every permitted home there was an unpermitted one. Some families have homes inaccessible as they are surrounded by a 50 foot wall of lava and even if they had insurance they can’t collect because the home did not burn.  Our little town of Pahoa is suffering. Every ones business is down by half. A big part of our more affluent Punatics have relocated as their homes were in Kapoho was wiped out. Leilani was our largest subdivision and it is almost all gone. Those of us with mortgages are “under water” as property values are in the pits. One can get some really good deals on land now but the “for sale” signs will not come down anytime soon as there will be few takers. Some of us are in denial, some demoralized and some delusional, but by and large, defiantly we stand and are ready to face the new challenges Pele has laid upon us.

Obviously Dan and I are real lucky, our homes are still standing. Our fresh market turmeric crop will be short this season as much of it was burned by sulfuric acid gas. Fortunately, we have a bumper ginger/turmeric seed crop to help get us through. You farmers know how it is. Sometimes you struggle to break even and sometimes things go just right so you make a few bucks. Farmers have to be eternal optimists. Even in the face of a bad crop, we all look forward to the next season so we can try again and we relish in the fact that we are healthy and able to put for another supreme effort.

The sun came out today, there’s a new crop in the field.

You all know as farmers, every spring,

like our crops, we are born again.

Good Luck and Aloha, Biker Dude

Disclaimer: This is my story and I am sticking to it. I was here for the duration and to me, this is how it went down.  Please don’t hold my partner or team mates liable for my reflections. I imagine most every other Punatic has a different tale to tell, as few of us see anything the same. Remember; we’re all here, cause we’re not all there!  Biker Dude                                      p.s. I will use this last bit of space to promote my lovely hardworking wife, Elvira. She is cutting the grass while I play on the computer. Like many small farms in Hawaii, we rely on tourists to help make ends meet. Elvie has a couple cute little cabins and a retreat center. Her summer retreats were cancelled and the cabins sat empty for near three months. Vacationers are drifting back in, but it ain’t what it was yet. Please visit Elvie at and maybe if you visit the Big Island someday, you will stay with us. Mahalo!