The North Shore Turns Boys Into Men, Men Into Wild Animals

illustration_1Illustration by Noa “I Kind Of Hate Your Dog” Emberson

I’ve only been in one fight. I was 12. He was 12. He started dating my very serious ex-girlfriend and the idea that he needed to fight me seeped into his handjob-crazed mind. We met at a park and my skinny, hairless hands paraded across his face until a pitiful stream of blood dripped from his left nostril. I won. It didn’t feel very good.

And I’ve never been one for working out. When I was in high school and the waves were somehow less appealing than a Bowflex, I’d humor the idea of going to a gym with friends who were into the more trainable sports. “Paddling? You’ll like the rowing machines,” they said. No, I didn’t.

And I’ve never been into barbecues. I was born to a family that mostly avoided red meat, and whenever I ordered a steak I was just in it for the mashed potatoes. They are so smooth and creamy and they didn’t bleed when I prodded at them with my fork.

But when I was 21, I went on a two-month trip. And on my trip, I boxed — gloveless — with a friend until my now thick and furry hands forced blood to truly spill from his nose. I went for regular jogs and I swam around big reefs and I did pushups and pullups and grunted and growled and when I was done, I grilled Portuguese sausage and drank Bud Light. I did all the manly-manly-hoo-rah things that I never liked, and I loved them all. Why the sudden change of heart?

My trip was to the North Shore.

The place brings out the beast in a man and that wasn’t a typo. There’s something intangible — but very alive — about the place. It quakes with testosterone. With love and with fear, both of them disguised as anger. And it transcends the old “when in Rome” cliché. When you’re in Rome, you make a conscious decision to visit the Colosseum, drink overpriced Chianti and stumble through the five phrases you know in Italian. But when you’re on the North Shore, you become Roman naturally and without any viable alternative.

Go to Foodland and you’ll feel like you’re encountering a lion and not just Toucan Sam. You’ll want to make eye contact with any passersby, but not too much. Offer a verbal greeting, but not too explicitly. Walk chest out, steeped with confidence, yet never too fast. It’s a delicate line, a primal dance. And which way to the ground beef?

Go to Turtle Bay and you’ll see the grim faces of the heartland grappling with the surreal loss of entitlement on their one vacation of the year. Because even Middle America can sense the quake.

And most importantly, go surfing and you’ll find grown men and women wearing stern faces in the same sea where other faces are sometimes smeared with blue zinc oxide (I’m looking at you, Southern California). It’s a different sport and it plays by a different social rulebook. Nobody in the lineup at Pipe is talking about the funny thing their dog did the other night. And I dare you to surf on a proper day while wearing blue zinc.

All this energy is inescapable and all-encompassing. That happy-go-lucky marketing guy you saw blackout drunk at the US Open? Yeah, that’s him solemnly running the soft sand at 6 a.m. The chubby, washed-up pro surfer you already forgot about? After his training session with Kahea Hart, he’s hitting you up for a vest to surf Phantoms tomorrow. And as far as everyone else goes, well, didn’t you get invited to the pig roast?

Things aren’t edgy. They’re past the edge, around the corner where change has already occurred. And maybe that’s what makes it so special.

Maybe that’s why, year after year, people shove the limits of life at outer reefs. Maybe that’s why guys eat shit on 8-footers, plunge face-first into reef and come up laughing. Maybe that’s why the Pipe Masters consistently inspires the best performances out of the guys on tour, why Alejo Muniz can beat Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning there when they’re contending for the world title. Maybe that’s why it’s the mecca of surfing and nothing less.

Because on the North Shore, you accidentally feel as though you’re too closely related to an ape to go down without a full-swinging fight. You accidentally summon that intense, primal, pound-your-chest-and-act-like-a-f–king-black-bear attitude that exists someplace in all of us. You’re accidentally tough.

It’s more powerful than any performance-enhancing drug in the world. Lance Armstrong could have simply trained on the North Shore. Hell, there’s a bike path and I’m pretty sure the Tour de France doesn’t test your blood for chocolate haupia pie. Old men should consider a North Shore vacation before Viagra and Alejo Muniz should just move there.

Because, if nothing else, it is a great place for a barbecue. —Brendan Buckley