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Wild West Pahoa Town

Wild West Pahoa Town

Header photo credit Scott Hess; original photo cut and enlarged.

Deep in the forests of the Big Island lies Pahoa Town – a sleepy little cowboy town, its sidewalks made of hundred-year-old planks of wood left over from a bygone time. A few old hippies wander around the streets, also left over from a bygone era.

Pahoa Town’s rustic colorful buildings look like fake storefronts for a western movie, but they are real and still used as homes and businesses. This antique village is 20 miles south of Hilo, Hawaii, nestled in the Ohia Tree forests of the Puna District. Drive 5 miles south of Hilo and turn left at Kea’au town and you’ll find it.

If you can ignore the cars driving down the main street, a town like Dodge City will emerge as funky and dusty as any cowboy town long ago. Store fronts have the filigree carvings across the face of the buildings, the dates 1910 and 1900 are stamped on a few.

There are metal rings embedded in the street where people once tied up their horses.

You will be amazed that in our steel and plastic world a soulful wood Pahoa Town still remains, alive and bustling. When you drive there look out to not run over a hippie, they walk real slow across the street.

Here there is charm and history. The sagging Akebono Theater is the oldest one in all of Hawaii.The town once housed sugar cane workers over a hundred years ago and the camp houses still stand bringing the past to life.

But far from being old and forgotten, Pahoa and Puna District are now known around the world! People as far away as England, Russia and the South Pole have heard of Pahoa and Puna and the Big Island. This is because in May 2018 a volcano popped up 2 miles out of town and grew to 200 feet in 3 weeks! Let me tell you a story about that volcano.

I visited a lady friend in a subdivision Leilani Estates (lay-lawn’-nee). We had dinner, went dancing and had a great time. I called her the next day to thank her and her voice was trembling on the phone as she said, “Sorry I have to go, there’s a volcano erupting in my backyard!” You don’t hear that every day.

She had felt the floors of her house warm to her bare-feet and soon found out that it was the lava flowing underground just under her house! The next day she looked out her window and saw a cinder cone spewing orange lava in her backyard!  She quickly  grabbed her two dogs and few papers and headed to Pahoa.

May 2018 - lava from fissure 7 slowly advanced to the northeast on Hookapu Street in Leilani Estates subdivision.
May 2018 – lava from fissure 7 slowly advanced to the northeast on Hookapu Street in Leilani Estates subdivision.

After that the volcano blew its top! It soon created a river of lava flowing five miles to the ocean covering everything in its path. There is a 200-foot tall volcano on top of my friend’s house. Thank God there was shelter for her in Pahoa Town.

Lava glow over Pahoa Town
Lava glow over Pahoa Town. Photo by @woodlandian16

Please do not be scared off. The volcano has calmed down and pretty much stopped. Pahoa and the whole island would enjoy your company and your business to get started again. During the eruption May through August, visitors stopped coming to town,  because people get nervous around erupting volcanoes.  But now its safe as Anywhere, U.S.A. Time to head to Pahoa Town.

After walking around gawking at the old buildings, the next thing to do is eat. Pahoa Town has some eateries that can rival the best, well, let’s say you will be smiling after your meal.

Within one rustic block on the main street,there’s almost every kind of food in the world. Hawaiian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Vegetarian, and if there is such a category, American Food. And don’t forget to visit the Tin Shack Bakery for a yummy dessert! Best to tell of two restaurants on either end of town. They show the amazing variety of places to eat.

Black Rock Cafe, Pahoa Town

Let’s start with the Black Rock Cafe, a standard-looking restaurant on the right as you enter the town from the Hilo side It has breakfasts from eggs to waffles, everything steaming hot as the volcano. The menu is standard American burgers and fries as well as local Hawaiian food and much more.

We’ll let people on the Yelp website give their opinion of Black Rock. “It’s a cafe in a small town that locals go to, not fancy just good comfort food.” says Chelsea S. from Honolulu. Jamie C. from Reno, Nevada writes, “This place is a gem, everything is spotless. The service was quick. Check this place out, you won’t regret it.”

That’s Black Rock Cafe, and there are country bands and local Hawaiian groups for rocking entertainment.

Kaleo’s Bar and Grill, Pahoa Town

And at the far end of town is the surprisingly elegant, Kaleo’s Bar and Grill.  It is surprising because the outside looks like a regular old camp house but the inside could be in downtown San Francisco. A real trick of interior decorating.

It is more upscale than Black Rock Cafe, but the lunch menu is down to earth and wonderful. Once again we go to Yelp for a comment on Kaleo’s. “A diamond in the rough for sure,” says Shaun O. from Waipahu, Hawaii, “food was delicious. If you are in Pahoa and want an exceptional meal, Kaleo’s is the place to be.” Thank you, Shaun.

Laurie S. from Campbell, California wrote in Yelp that she was seated outside on the deck of the restaurant and had an amazing view of the glow of the lava a few miles away. Hows that? Dining and watching a live volcano! You can’t do that in Kansas for sure.

Pahoa Museum

There’s the food report. But there is even more to this old time town. There is the Pahoa Museum on the main road. A dark and magical place with historical newspapers from the sugar cane days, local lore, and many exotic, carved Hawaiian artifacts. Worth seeing and most educational.

Pahoa Village Museum
Pahoa Village Museum; Photo by Mark

Pahoa Dump

Another amazing sight is the Pahoa Dump. Sound funny? But a ¼ mile out of town is the dump and there you can see a giant 20-foot black wave of dry lava stuck forever in time, splashed up against the back fence of the dump. In 2014 a wide wall of lava was about to cover the town but stopped just above the buildings. Many Pahoa people moved out too soon and their homes and businesses were never touched.

Pahoa Town: a wall of lava from 2014 near Pahoa dump
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Visiting Pahoa Town is  like being in a dream or time warp because a half-mile away is reality. Long’s Drugs, Burger King, Ace Hardware and a shiny new fire station are standing  there reminding you that the modern world is still there, drab as ever. But you’re glad it’s there to buy all the things they didn’t have in 1895.  Aloha, see you in Pahoa.

Photo of Dennis Gregory, a freelance writer from the Big Island, Hawaii

Dennis Gregory is a long-time writer, he lives in Kona, Hawaii. In 1970 he founded the first literary magazine at the University of Hawaii, Hilo. Since then he has published novels, poetry books and writes a column for the local paper in Kona. He is also an artist and musician.

One thought on “Wild West Pahoa Town

  1. Reading this article about Pahoa has inspired me to check my airline miles and bank statements to figure out how soon I can go there. Intriguing and descriptive writing, a pleasure to read.

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