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Living Like a Local on the North Shore

Susan Purvis leaves Montana for Oahu and goes full local. Bikinis, turtles and people living like they are 30 years younger than they are. What is life like there when the waves are docile? It's dreamy..... 

Don’t think I’m a pervert. But I find myself curiously looking at the backside of people as they walk away from me. I can’t help but focus on the half-naked women with a thin piece of colored fabric flossed between their firm, golden buttocks. When they run, cream-colored coral sand flies up from their hardened soles. Others wade knee deep in the ocean and throw sticks for their canine companions.  An occasional snorkeler swims by. This is the life.

First Trip

My first morning at Sunset Beach on Oahu, I plop my flabby, white, 60-year-old torso onto the coarse sand. I’m hoping to hide my flaws and folds beneath my one-piece “old lady” swimsuit.  I reminiscence of the days I strutted a thong back before they were popular. That was 42 years ago. Now my pasty skin tone is because of northwest Montana’s smoke-laden skies, the faint rays of the sun barely peeking through. I want to cover up but I don’t. I need the vitamin D. A week prior, an old search-and-rescue colleague asked me to ‘house sit’ his beach condo. “Heck yeah,” I said. No problem to justify my trip. It’s the perfect place to begin a first draft of the next book. Three weeks with no distractions. Easy peasy. 

With pen and paper in hand and ready to write, I’m quickly distracted. I watch an aging couple walking hand-in-hand, and barefoot, exploring the shoreline, occasionally picking up puka shells. Both are lean and with stomachs as flat as the surfboards they ride.  They wave hello and smile, making me feel welcome. If I stay here long enough, I tell myself while digging my feet in the sand, I could look like them.  

Dogs, thongs, and other wildlife on the North Shore.

“What’s the secret?” I shout. 

The bronze-skinned man turns to me. “Excuse me?”

“The two of you are so happy and beautiful. I want to know the secret to healthy living.” 

“We walk this beach twice a day and swim. Eat papaya. Surf and fish,” he smiles. “I’m Rick and this is Nancy.” It’s Covid time so we don’t shake hands and we keep our distance. He’s 4th generation Chinese-American-Hawaiian and 73 years old. “Sort of a mutt. I guess,” he laughs. “I’ve lived on this shore for forty years.” 

The next day, I take Rick’s advice, dig my soles deep into the sand, and venture out a bit further. World-famous for 100-foot waves and professional surfing contests, Sunset and Pipeline Beach post warning signs: STRONG CURRENT, YOU COULD DROWN.  DANGEROUS SHOREBREAK—IF IN DOUBT, DON’T GO OUT. A plaque naming those who have died in its surf freaks me out a little. The list is long and I am alone. But, today, the ocean is laid down, the wind light, the beach quiet. The ‘rad’ surfers aren’t here. It’s the off season on the North Shore. In late August, the beach scene is laid-back like the giant green sea turtle that’s hauled itself out of the water and lounges beside me.  I’m mesmerized by its size — large enough to fill the inside of a VW bug. The morning joggers with their dogs ignore the endangered quarter-ton creature like it’s a washed-up log. 

First Impressions

I’m a beach snob. I grew up on endless miles of clean, sandy beaches and clear waters of Lake Superior. I like Sunset Beach and the humans who use it because it reminds me of home, except for the extreme temperature difference and palm trees. Sunset Beach is remarkably clean. I’m impressed with the locals who wander the shoreline with their dogs, cleaning up after them. 

The next few days, I find myself walking the beach for hours, getting to know locals. There are no fences or “do not enter” signs on the beach. Every couple of hundred yards, there is a trail leading from the street to the beach. I get the feeling that no one owns the beach here and it’s open to all. Near my friend’s condo, I stop at a picnic table and listen to two men playing music. “No surf so we jam,” the native man tells me. 

Before I enter the water for my daily swim (always in front of the lifeguard station), I sit and meditate with a group of surfer dudes. The leader, a lean-mean Hawaiian-surfer machine leads the chant. His tourist clients sink into the sand for a moment of silence before plunging into the 80-degree waters for a beginner’s surfing session. 

Week Two Is a Repeat of Week One

With my first week over, my writing has taken a back seat as I find myself ‘becoming local’ — walk, swim, eat the local food, nap and repeat. I blame my non-productive state on the perfect 85-degree bluebird days, the intense sunshine, and stiff winds from the east. Now I see why millions of people visit Oahu each year — it’s relaxing. The weather and its people are beautiful and nearly perfect.  

I’m glad I didn’t rent a car. With no automobile at my disposal, I walk to the farmers’ market without shoes and barely any clothes on and buy a week’s worth of fruit and stuff it into my backpack. Am I becoming local? 

My white skin is turning bright red like the peppers I just purchased. I stop and talk to local vendors selling their goods at the Sunset Beach parking lot. The public bus blasts by every 30 minutes during the day dropping off an occasional tourist with beach bags or a working local. The bus is clean and safe and a great way to explore the North Shore. Each day my endurance improves. I swim longer and walk farther. 

Half-Naked, Half-Clothed, Shoes Optional. Leaving Oahu

Just when I’ve caught up on sleep, adjusted to the four-hour time change, and feel ready to tackle my 300-page novel, it’s time for me to catch my $75 Uber ride back to the Honolulu airport. I’m going to miss the people and the canines who call this place home. I appreciate the way the locals treat their canines. Life is simple at Sunset Beach. One doesn’t need much. Back in Montana, snow is falling. Here, I appreciate the sun beating on my back as I walk the beach, salt caked in my hair, sand swirling inside my sheets, and fresh pineapple juice dripping off my chin when I bite into its core. 

My takeaway from the North Shore is this:  It takes the first week to adjust to beach life, the second week to find your groove, but, by the third week it’s time to leave. So, my recommendation is this. Don’t just come for one, two or three weeks. Treat yourself to a month. You might get something done. After only two weeks, I feel beach-worthy-strong; might even shop for a thong.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Nice!!! I need to find a house on the beach too. Thanks for the tip to not rent a car. It’s true, exploring by foot gets you into the local grove much faster.

  2. So nice to hear from my fellow writers on this piece. This story is inspiring me to start my travel memoir. After all, I’ve been to the hottest, coldest and highest places on earth. Wish me luck. Susan

    • Hi it’s Andrea and Gunnison and that was a fun little read about these three weeks. Really, I expected you to rent your place in whitefish and to go back to the north shore for the rest of the winter. Why not? How lovely. I realize you probably have some courses you’re teaching that people signed up for a long time ago. What a lovely three weeks

  3. This is truly a beautiful article, Sue, as it captures island life, you relaxing, tuning in, tuning out, and getting in the groove of a slower way of life. The photo of the dad with the youngun’ on the surfboard is priceless. Take me next time!

  4. Nice piece. My only question: However did you meet that friend with the house on North Beach? Did you pay him or (gasp) did he pay YOU???? And are you compiling a waiting list? Please put me on it!

  5. Hi Sue! I loved reading this article, I’ll add Oahu to my bucket list! Maybe see you in the warm waters this winter 😍

  6. No, you are not “becoming local.” You are the worst kind of tourist possible, with your ignorant cultural appropriation, a complete lack of self-awarness and understanding, spreading lies and misunderstanding to the world and whitewashing reality, ignoring history What a disgusting article filled with racist garbage said the “native man. ” Stay home in Whitefish. Hawaii doesn’t need more Karen’s pretending to be a “local” just cause you have enough money to come spend a few days on the beach and write your observations about people who don’t look like you Get over yourself and have some respect and wake up.

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AUTHOR

Susan Purvishttps://susanpurvis.com
Susan Purvis is the author of the bestselling and award-winning memoir, Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost—And Myself. As an outdoor aficionado, educator, and world traveler, Susan’s mission is simple; to motivate, educate, and inspire you to live your best life. She’s worked at the hottest, coldest, and highest places on the planet. Susan’s lived with indigenous cultures in the Amazon, Nepal, Africa, and Mexico. She's traveled by foot, bike, skis, camel, Cessna, and dugout canoe to capture stories of the human spirit. As a storyteller, Susan has created a broad oeuvre of work across the many cultures of our globe. Currently, she lives in the small ski resort town of Whitefish, Montana.

 

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