Highway 130 runs through the heart of the Puna District, the diamond point that makes up the easternmost tip of the Big Island, gliding straight into what is often called Hawaii's last frontier.
This is a place where mongoose far outnumber people and run free across fields and forests and newly hardened rivers of lava, a region where the planet's most active volcano, Kilauea, has poured out most of its molten discharge over the past two decades, enough to fill 200 million dump trucks. Human settlements resemble outbreaks of weeds in a vast moonscape.
Just past Mile Marker 20, a spur road leads toward the coastline and into a clearing before it stops.
There, by the side of the road at the end of the road, Verna's Drive-In restaurant sits as a lone outpost, open seven days a week from 10 to 5. The drive-in was once a social hub for Kalapana, a centuries-old fishing village and home to one of the island's most scenic black-sand beaches.
In 1990, a massive lava flow buried the village, wiping out nearly 200 homes and forcing about 500 residents to flee. But as it approached the drive-in, the flow inexplicably split and moved around the restaurant and a handful of homes next to it, creating a partial doughnut hole in the terrain.
"We call that ke puka, the hole where the lava missed," said Gilbert Waiau, 50, a native Hawaiian whose house sits next to Verna's. Such a place, he said, is considered sacred. "Why didn't our homes get taken? We must be meant to stay."
The molten rock cut off the highway, blocking all through traffic in Lower Puna, and steamrolled into the Pacific, creating a new coastline half a mile beyond the old one.
The seaside neighborhood around Verna's was now landlocked. The highway became a cul-de-sac. And Verna's Drive-In eventually became a hub for a smaller and wholly different kind of community forced into a different kind of life.
The people who stayed -- residents of eight homesteads around the restaurant -- now live at the end of the road. Some are compounds housing a dozen or more people in two or three separate buildings. In one case, three generations of the same family share a lot. The end-of-the-roaders are made up of old and young -- retirees who lived here long before the lava and younger families that inherited land from relatives. Most are native Hawaiians. A few work for the county and commute into Pahoa and Hilo.
Although the residents could never have foreseen it, most have come to terms with their fate. Where once the ocean was their front yard, now they cannot even see the water.
Waiau summarizes life since the lava came 15 years ago:
"It's like the calm after the storm except the calm never left."
At the very least, the people here have a tale to tell. Everyone seems to have a life-and-death story -- or just a story -- about how they came to live at the end of the road, what made them stay, why they cannot get themselves to leave.
The first sounds of morning come from animals: dogs barking, mongoose scampering, roosters crowing at the rising sun. People usually do not start appearing on the scene until 9 or 9:30. That is when Bob Newell opens the gate to Verna's parking lot.
The restaurant sits close to the road, and the parking lot is situated on the west side of the building, where the employee entrance is.
Newell, 53, is the sole owner of Verna's and lives in a small house behind the restaurant. His longtime business and life partner, Verna Miller, after whom the drive-in is named, died of colon cancer two years ago at age 67. Her ashes were scattered in the lava field across the road. Newell built a small altar of black stones at the site, and he said he tries to visit it every day.
Miller, friends recall, had boundless energy. A local woman with mixed heritage -- Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese -- she once told Newell that three-colored cats brought good luck.
Now Newell lives with a dozen three-colored cats, all of whom at the moment are lying on his front porch.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with these cats," he grumbles, stepping gingerly around them, a carpet of heaving fur.
Neighbors call him Billy Bob.
His story in brief: grew up in Lake Tahoe, spent early life as a ski bum until an avalanche killed several of his friends, fled in grief to the Big Island 23 years ago and never left. He met and fell in love with Miller, and now Newell's most important task of the day is unlocking the gate to his true love's drive-in.
The restaurant is a simple, one-story cinderblock building with bright red trim around the order and pickup windows. The menu, made up of typical burger fare, is handwritten with colored markers on pages taped around the windows, which look directly out at the road and beyond to the lava.
Two picnic tables with plastic vinyl sit inside a covered patio. Off to the side, a handwritten sign in bold letters warns: BEWARE OF FALLING COCONUTS.
On this morning, Newell found someone waiting for the drive-in to open. It was a young man, blond and trim with a baseball cap and sunglasses, leaning back against the side of the building. "Morning," he said. He has been waiting an hour. His name is Chris Kirkpatrick, 22, originally from the San Francisco Bay area.
He was there to grab some breakfast -- a double cheeseburger and Coke -- and chewing tobacco. The tobacco he would buy from the gift shop, which doubles as a mini-mart, in the back of the building. Asked if he came here every day, Kirkpatrick says, "Sometimes twice a day."
The lava -- besides swallowing up a church, a visitor's center, two beaches and a hot spring called "Queen's Bath" -- incinerated the nearest competition, Walter's Drive-in and Gift Shop in the center of Kalapana. Verna's is the only restaurant and store on the Lower Puna coast, occupied by a far-flung population of about 3,000. The next-nearest restaurant and store is in Pahoa, 12 miles inland.
Kirkpatrick's eyes peered over his shades at a pickup truck driving into the lot. The first of Verna's four employees had arrived, Leimomi Kaaihue. For the next seven hours, Kaaihue's voice will ring into the distance:
"One Billy Bob Special! One Cheeseburger Boat! Coke and mango shake!"
Kaaihue grew up in Kalapana. She was 8 when the lava came. Like most of the village, her family fled to another part of the island and never returned, although she found a way to come back -- at least five days a week.
The road signs along Highway 130 do not offer any clues to unknowing tourists. No one has bothered to change the green-and-white placards posting the miles to go to Kalapana: 23 mi, 12 mi, 4 mi. The less-informed could be led to believe that there is still a Kalapana to go to.
At road's end, motorists face a simple choice. They could turn around and head back toward Hilo. Or they could pull into Verna's, grab a Kona Burger and contemplate their options. Just enough people choose contemplation to help keep the business afloat.
"I'm never going to get rich," Newell said. Newell's neighbor to the west lives, as Hawaiians say, to talk story. A widower and retired county road worker, Robert Keliihoomalu, 66, describes himself first and foremost as "101 percent Hawaiian."
He is a big-boned man with a white beard and skin as brown as the bark of the mango tree he sits under much of the day.
Everyone calls him Uncle Robert. He has lived here longer than any other resident and probably feels the loss of Kalapana more than anyone. He is considered by locals as one of "the originals," a label for native Hawaiians whose ancestors lived on the Big Island before haoles (whites) took over in the 1800s.
Keliihoomalu grew up in Kalapana when it was still at least partially a traditional native village, a place where men spent their days catching squid or "throwing net" or hunting wild boar, and the women wove mats and tended taro patches and took care of the children. Pigs and dogs and chickens had free range.
He remembers the day in 1970 when workers first started laying the cinderblock that would become Verna's Drive-In.
All 11 of his children would eat there.
He remembers when Kilauea volcano first started spewing lava in 1983. At the time, the crater seemed far enough away -- 20 miles -- to not worry about it. But seven years later, the lava had reached the outskirts of the village and what followed, he says, "seems like a dream now."
"People say 'the lava came' like it happened at once," he said. "It wasn't like that.
"It was not a river of water. It was rock, glowing and moving. It would come and burn, and stop. It would start again and stop. It took a year. Spring, summer, fall.
"We were not afraid for our lives. But it was sad and very terrible to watch."
Kilauea is now in its 22nd year of continuous eruption, and everyone in Puna knows that they have not seen the last of the lava flows. The region lies in the volcano's volatile East Rift Zone, which has poured molten rock onto the Puna Coast for millennia, continually changing the coastline.