“My last neighbor—his place got taken by the lava a couple of years before mine,” he says. “Other people didn’t have an investment like I did, so they’d just leave. People ask me if I got lonely up there. I never did. You can be lonely in the middle of New York City.” But then Jack has always marched to his own drummer. He’s never had a computer, a credit card or even a checking account.
Jack’s love affair with Hawai‘i began years before, when he was 12, he says. “My parents bought an encyclopedia, and there was a nice article in there about [the Kaimu] black sand beach, and that kind of pricked my curiosity,” he recalls. “I always had an idea about going to live there.” Kaimu was a lovely, coconut palm-lined crescent of black sand just up the coast from Royal Gardens—just the sort of place for a rugged do-it-yourselfer to start up. Jack would get to know it well before it disappeared under fifty feet of lava in 1990 during the same eruption that buried the village of Kalapana.
Jack moved to Hawai‘i in 1972 and eventually bought a lot in what at the time was just a grid of dirt roads carved through the rainforest. He set about earning the money to build a house, Jack Thompson style: cash on the barrelhead for materials and framing, sweat equity for everything else. “I saved everything I could save. If I made three dollars, I saved two of them,” he recalls. He designed the house himself. He got a professional friend to do the framing so “at least that was right,” but Jack, living in his van while the house came together, did most of the rest, including the cabinetry, which he joined and polished like fine furniture. He sold that house after a couple of years and started again, building a second dream home from scratch in Kalapana, a three-story beauty with a wraparound lanai and master bedroom at the top: “The best views were up there,” says Jack. “You could control the temperature of the house just by opening the windows, and the breeze would flow up the staircases. It was natural air conditioning, almost.”
All the while he was building his second dream home, Madam Pele was busy at Mauna Ulu, well up the East Rift in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. But that changed in 1983.
“I was putting in the last window, and I saw that glow in the night sky,” he recalls —the unmistakable blood-orange color of lava reflecting off volcanic gas. It was the first of many uneasy nights for Jack. Over the years, he says, “hundreds of flows” came down. One of them stopped just above his house. His photo album holds a clipping from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald commemorating that close call.
The road into the subdivision was buried and reopened several times. When there was no road, Jack would hike to his truck to commute to work at an air conditioning company in Hilo, and he rode his motorcycle out once a week for supplies. Sometimes the easiest access to the rest of the world was from the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park side, so he’d leave his pickup at that end of Chain of Craters Road and hike three miles across the lava to get home. The next morning, he’d hike back out and drive ninety minutes to work. Occasionally he’d have to hike out across the treacherous terrain at night to move the truck out of harm’s way, lest it meet the fate that befell the vehicles of three surfers: “One day when they went to surf and parked their cars along the road, I watched the lava get all three of their cars.”
Sometimes the trek out was even more hazardous. “For a dozen years, from ’98 to 2009, I was riding a motorcycle in and out once a week,” he recounts. “I’d driven over hot lava and cold lava. I even drove over some red-hot flowing lava a couple of times. It never seemed to hurt the tires.” But there was another risk: “I got into a couple of whiteouts. The rain would come down and it would be steaming everywhere. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. You’d just have to stand there because you couldn’t see your feet.” He’d have to wait until the rain stopped so the steam could clear away. “Usually it was just a passing shower,” he says. “If it was raining a lot, it wouldn’t be wise to even be out there.”
Once he witnessed an entire news crew getting caught in a whiteout. “They came stumbling out of the mist, one by one,” he recalls. “I thought it made a great shot, but the reporter wouldn’t let them use it. Her makeup kind of ran.”