At places like Foodland supermarket, Ted's Bakery, and Sunset Pizza, all on Kam Highway, young surfers—baked by the sun and dressed in board shorts and slippers (local slang for flip-flops)—lounge about with the self-assurance of pop idols. They never get old, or fat, despite living on malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) and breakfasts of fried rice, gravy, potatoes, and slabs of Spam, a delicacy in Oahu. Fame and fortune are as close as 13-year-old John John, a Sunset Beach boy who now models for Vans. He has the look down: the feral child in Road Warrior made camera-ready with the kind of amped-up, sun-bleached hair Dyan Cannon would die for. As with the trappings of punk, another phenomenon of youth and rebellion that lends itself to commercial exploitation, the ineffable cool of surfing defies commerce and the outside world.
On the North Shore, heroes and mortals alike confront the limits of paradise day after day, the uneasiness that comes with finally reaching the island that dreams are made of and discovering that Valhalla can be as confining as it is freeing. There's always an itch of alienation at the end of the road. Crystal meth burnout cases on a jag occasionally stumble into breakfast joints, and placards that read NO ICE IN PARADISE are sprouting up.
Paradise also has a few other troubles. Billboards are—thank God—banned in Oahu, but native Hawaiians wage wars against tourist shops and general mainland imperialism with huge signs in their front yards: GOVERNMENT OF AMERICA…SELLING OUT THE KANAKA MAOLI INHERENT SOVEREIGNTY FOR A T-SHIRT. The Da Hui, born-and-bred North Shore boys who sometimes thrash mainlanders trying to snake in on choice waves, guarantee respect for local surfers.
In the end, the bohemian heart of the North Shore beats strong—even the smallest aesthetic misstep in the public realm is fought tooth and nail—but it's always under siege. And so, pioneer surfer Darrick Doerner can be forgiven a note of where-have-all-the-good-times-gone exasperation: "This was a fresh and clean place once for watermen, but now it's full of money and aggression, too crowded and hostile. But I guess the North Shore has always been the Wild, Wild West."
Tom Austin is a T+L contributing editor.