In a lava-locked kipuka, residents learn just how resilient they really are

Oshi Simsarian | Pele's Path: The Journey Home

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - When lava cut off Highway 132 in lower Puna, it created a kipuka in Kapoho ― a little area of land surrounded by lava and inaccessible by car.

Up until very recently, when a bumpy, pitted access road was roughly carved into the lava, getting to the kipuka meant flying in by helicopter or hiking over a lava field.

Oshi Simsarian and her husband are one of very few people who live there full-time.

[Click here to see the full documentary, Pele’s Path: The Journey Home]

Her neighbors ― in all, about 50 properties were spared there ― come and go, trying to keep up their homes and farms as they wait for a more practical way to get in. She stays, living in a landscape so foreign and changed ― and living a life that’s foreign and changed, too.

“Think about it: Everything you eat and need and want, you carry in,” she said, before the access road was opened. “The biggest fear is vehicles breaking down.”

Simsarian is one of those people who doesn’t get flustered by much.

When the 2018 eruption started, she didn’t even do much worrying at first. Kilauea had been erupting continuously since 1983 ― and she’d seen plenty of lava up close.

But she soon realized this was different. And then more homes were destroyed and then whole streets of homes. And the intensity of the flows increased. And the rivers of lava pushed toward the sea.

Before too long, it covered Kapoho, and created the little kipuka where she now lives.

From her lanai, blackened lava is visible all the way to the ocean ― a sea in its own right, covering everything in its path. Communities and forests used to be where the sea now is, within its undulating boundaries. The island’s edge was changed, too. The eruption created acres and acres of new land.

Simsarian was on the mainland when the eruption first started, and nearly went mad checking news updates on the hour for anything that would tell her whether the place she loved so much would survive this disaster.

And then the day she returned to the Big Island, she and her husband were forced to evacuate, and so they stayed with friends in Hilo ― still so desperate for news.

In the end, their home was spared. So was their truck.

And those two things would become lifelines ― for the Simsarians and what was left of their community. Before the restricted access road into the area was opened recently, their truck was among the few working vehicles in the kipuka.

And so Simsarian became the community’s de facto (and unpaid) taxi driver: Picking up those who hike in over a lava field and taking them to their properties with their provisions.

When Simsarian first moved back to the kipuka, she learned a squatter had moved into her home ― made it their own. They took off with her silverware and left things a bit messy.

But “in the realm of squatters,” she jokes, “we had a fairly decent one.”

Once she got settled back into her home, into her new life, she realized that there was a silver lining ― something to savor. Her tight-knit community had gotten even more close.

Neighbors weren’t just offering smiles and waves, but help that made all the difference.

A “guardian angel” offered to help kipuka residents ferry in supplies by helicopter. Those living full-time in the kipuka checked on neighbors’ pets or homes.

And when Simsarian’s coffee grinder died ― a big deal if you love coffee as much as she does ― a neighbor she’d never met told her to go into his vacated home and grab his. It warmed her heart.

“It is nice to go back to the days where you’re looking out for each other and it means so much,” she said. Even the small things, she added, become “very meaningful."

That’s partly, too, because you start to appreciate things more when there is so much loss around you. You appreciate the roof over your head, you appreciate the things that were spared.

You miss the way things used to be, but you realize just how lucky you are.

Simsarian has even grown grateful for her dramatically changed view ― miles of blackened earth as far as the eye can see. “In its own right,” she said, sitting on her lanai on a recent day, “it’s spectacular.”

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