PUNA, Hawaii Island – Pele is threatening the “Punatics.”
After decades of successfully shunning Hawaii’s increased regulation and unaffordability to pursue alternative lifestyles seemingly only possible on an active volcano, this district’s hippies and other free spirits now find their beloved counterculture under volcanic siege.
They are among the thousands displaced by an expanding Kilauea eruption that has created a 6-mile-long path of destruction to the coast, claiming cherished swimming areas and about 700 homes since May 3.
Some evacuees have the means and mainstream values that will ease the trauma of relocating. However, those who live, whether by choice or necessity, in unpermitted structures, enjoy swimming nude and have other nonconforming values likely face greater difficultly replacing what could be Hawaii’s last hippie haven.
“I can’t think of a place in Hawaii that would be as welcoming or affordable for them,” state Sen. Russell Ruderman of Puna said of a demographic that includes him.
“I know I’ve got short hair, but I’ve been a hippie for a long time,” said Ruderman, a Democrat who started his political career as a member of the Green Party, has twice been arrested for protesting geothermal development and still plays in a Grateful Dead tribute band.
“It’s a social and cultural loss because there’s no place like it in the state,” he said of the popular counterculture lifestyle, adding Lower Puna has been called the “yoga coast.”
Although Puna’s coastal region is a “ghost town right now” due to regulated access and ongoing volcanic threats, Ruderman said his recent helicopter flight over the inundated area confirmed that many scenic spots remain beautiful.
“I think it’s too early to write the obituary of the Lower Puna hippie,” he said, citing the eclectic Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers Market that continues operating, albeit on a reduced scale, at the edge of an older lava flow in Kalapana.
Still, Ruderman said the current eruption’s impact on “us” hippies is an interesting topic he had not yet considered.
“I do care about the future of these people because socially and culturally, they’re my tribe,” said Ruderman, a Woodstock attendee who runs a chain of health food stores.
Puna’s rare combination of cheap land, mesmerizing beauty and relaxed enforcement has created a hippie enclave that has endured. While Hawaii counterculture communities like Kauai’s Taylor Camp dissolved decades ago, lower Puna has continued growing, bolstered by a new generation of barefoot hippies joining their tie-dye-wearing ancestors.
“Puna attracts a unique assortment of free-spirited characters who enjoy living on the edge,” is how the Lonely Planet travel guidebook describes a district that’s bigger than Oahu:
Del Pranke is a 30-year Puna resident and U.S. Marine Corps veteran who doesn’t meet the definition of a hippie, but is proud to call himself a “Punatic.”
“I’m much more relaxed here,” said Pranke, who for years was known for testifying before the County Council while wearing T-shirts bearing witty, if not sarcastic, slogans he had printed.
Although lava has engulfed his Leilani Estates home and forced him to stay at the Pahoa shelter, Pranke said he has no plans to leave the district.
From outcasts to outlaws, Puna’s remote jungles and rocky outcroppings have provided comfort for many characters. There’s the woman who claimed she gave birth in the ocean so her newborn could bond with dolphins swimming nearby, the guy who rode his dirt bike through molten lava and marijuana activists who distributed hemp seeds during the town’s Christmas parade.
Many are just quirky, like the friendly man who still bicycles around town looking for bottles while his pet chicken rides on his shoulder.
Then there’s Eugene “Jezus of Cinderland” Andrews, a self-described prophet whose efforts to get his followers to build a doomsday ark was the subject of an hour-long CNN special on religion in America. Andrews for years has run an “experiential sustainable community,” according to his Facebook, on an old quarry located less than a mile from active lava. Police say he was drunk when he recently crashed his truck into a wall of hardened lava after driving through the jungle to avoid their roadblock. Andrews said in a video posted online that the 55-mph impact left him with a ruptured lung, cracked rib and facial lacerations.
Pahoa, the district’s largest town, “is also known as the Big Island’s hippie capital, a place where New Agers, hippies and others living an alternative lifestyle reside,” states the travel website to-Hawaii.com.
On Sundays, hundreds would gather for a weekly drum circle at Kehena Beach, a remote stretch of black sand beach where both swimsuits and partaking are optional.
“Everyone’s on their own journey here – whatever that might be,” David, who did not provide his last name, told Civil Beat while at the beach last October.
Many Puna residents now face new journeys after molten rock covered famous gathering spots like Green Lake and Kapoho’s thermal heated Waiopae Tidepools, which the state designated a marine life conservation district.
Some are unwilling to abandon the region’s live-and-let-live attitude that has earned Puna a “Wild West” reputation.
“We should be allowed to live our lives here, in a place like no other, certainly not like Hilo or Honolulu, in a manner that is safe, and appropriate, and not have bureaucrats in Hilo or Honolulu dictate the terms,” a person who goes by the alias HereOnThePrimalEdge posted on the website punaweb.org.
New temporary housing units are nearly ready for their first occupants, while state and county efforts are underway to identify, fund and develop replacement communities.
But will they appeal to people accustomed to living off-grid?
“I doubt it will be (appealing), but it’s really up to them,” said County Councilwoman Jen Ruggles, a Puna native and daughter of marijuana activist Mike Ruggles, who is awaiting trial on felony charges for operating what he claims was “Hawaii’s first medical marijuana collective.”
Jen Ruggles said she knows some evacuees – people who rely on welfare assistance or worked as “woofers” trading agricultural labor for room and board – who are moving to the mainland after being unable to find local housing they can afford.
She noted the district is home to many Native Hawaiians who also favor living off the land, yet have certain values that differ from those of hippie culture.
“I think wherever they end up, they will continue to not compromise on their values and their lifestyle, Ruggles said of the evacuees. “A lot of people came to Puna because they needed a sense of belonging for this alternative lifestyle, and they found it, and now wherever they go they can take that with them even if that means not going back to Puna.”
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