My name is Dusty Middleton. I’m 34 years old and was born and raised here on Oahu. I live in an area named Paumalu, though everyone calls it Sunset Beach.
One block from my home lives one of Oahu’s most loved waves. During the winter months I enjoy setting my alarm for the pre-dawn hour, around 5 a.m. in January, and snapping awake with focus. I tip toe from the bedroom, make a hot tea, a bowl of crunchy breakfast, and warm up my limbs and muscles. I’ve got a handy springsuit, not necessary, but quite comfortable. I’ve got my preferred 8-foot mini-gun, a lovely high performance quad-fin that my good friend Captain Freed shaped for me.
I have to move quietly in those early morning hours. Don’t want to wake anyone inside the home. But soon enough I’m walking barefoot through our neighborhood, potholes and mud puddles. It’s still dark, but dawn is happening. The surfboard is cold in my arms, the leash is still damp from the last 24 hours.
At the top of the point there’s a funny drainpipe on the beach. We call it the ‘sharkfin’. I think I’m the only person who regularly paddles out to big Sunset from this spot. It’s not the most peaceful place to enter the water, but it is the closest entrance from my house, and it’s exciting to jump right into the rip and get thrown into the action immediately.
A good winter season on the North Shore is difficult to describe. Swells have personalities. Four or five days of powerful north swell, eight to twelve feet, then a new west swell fills in, eight to ten… And then a fifteen-foot NW swell, all of them piling up on each other, the ocean never having a chance to calm down.
The dedicated riders live these weeks in a state of exhaustion and intensity. Bliss.
We become slaves to all that power.
Our addiction glows.
My name is Dusty Middleton. As I grow a bit older, and find that my life, throughout the year, no longer centers around chasing big surf, I yearn for those climatic weeks in the middle of winter when the big surf chases me, and all I need to do is wake up a few hours before the family and walk with strength down to the beach near our home.
When it gets too big for Sunset, I have Phantoms equal distance from my house. This big wave spot is terrifying and incredible. Those early mornings, paddling out alone on my big board, I still feel butterflies, even though I have more than a decade now of experience and confidence… people, peers, still die each year dancing with waves like these. Being out there alone is heavy. Surfing an outer reef solo is akin to climbing an icy mountain solo. It’s beautiful, meditative, and empowering. It’s risky, challenging, and not the smartest thing to do.
But early on in my surfing career I came to understand that you’re always alone out there. Even with a group of close friends watching out for each other, you’re on your own.
I grew up in Kailua. It’s a suburb of Honolulu. Thirty years ago Kailua was a nice place, not too fancy, not too desirable. When I go there now, 2014, it seems hectic, too fancy, and too California.
When I was a kid I biked, caught the city bus, played on skateboards, and walked. I had a peaceful, safe freedom, and some of my strongest memories from my childhood are of hiking and adventuring with friends, camping, exploring new waves, going wherever we pleased and feeling capable.
As I came into my teenage years I spent long hours by myself surfing windy little waves, sitting out in the ocean and waiting patiently days, and weeks. Shivering and waiting.
I wanted bigger and bigger surf. Kids on the North Shore can find terrifying waves super easy. For me, and my friends, as youngsters we had to really seek out those moments of intensity.
We didn’t have any coaches, or even any parents who were accomplished wave riders. My group of friends were self-taught, and we pushed each other to embrace the power of the ocean around us.
As surf buddies came of age, got driver’s licenses, and bought cars and pick up trucks we began venturing out to the North Shore and getting in over our heads.
It was great.
I have vivid memories of early experiences, pushing my limits, encountering more battle-hardened adult surfers, and somehow understanding that I would be like them one day.
And now, as an adult, when I see kids pushing themselves out there it makes me smile, and makes me proud of our surfing heritage.
Around age 23 my friends Mike Warner and Nick Christensen moved to Pupukea.
I was living in Waimanalo with my brother, attending UH Manoa, without a steady job, without any real responsibilities.
Kohl had already been based on that three acres of jungle for a while. Maybe three or four years.
We called it Third World.
I moved up there with a quiver of questionable boards, a small tent, and some big plastic bins to hold my clothes and books.
It was a filthy, muddy life, and we had huge fun. The three of us, Nick, Mike, and myself had all known each other since we were little kids. We were commuting to Honolulu for school, and we were surfing the best waves of our lives.
For my second winter there I built a tiny house, 8 feet by 8 feet, called the Toolshed. I had better surfboards. I got a job at Haleiwa Joes and had cash in my pocket.
We were getting into huge surf. With Kohl as our guide, a small group of us began courting the outer reefs. We’d surf Waimea real early, and then go poke around and see what we could find. It’s cool that all these years later, we’re still finding new waves that come alive when it’s over fifteen feet, each with their own personalities, each with their own secrets.
Ramon came and lived there with us. My memory is a bit foggy on the way roommates came and went, and even how long I lived there at Third World, but after 3 or 4 winters, Ramon convinced me to travel to South America and see his country. I had a little bank account, I had a passport, and it sounded like a great idea.
I dismantled my tiny house, gave the materials to Kohl and Nick, who were looking into buying a raw piece of land in Waialua, and left the island.
I was getting serious with ‘writing’ at this point, and though I was a University drop out, I was becoming a published author, working with a handful of surf magazines and having a good introduction into the world of journalism and publishing and victory and heartbreak and pride and headache.
I spent a month or two in California en route to Chile. It was an interesting part of the adventure. A little solo trip. I had a girlfriend who lived in the hills north of Malibu and she gave me a car to use, and I used it quite well.
It was during this time that some of the first story lines for “The High Line” developed. Ben Churchill came into my brain. I picked up a big old rasta hitch-hiker one day up by Lompoc, and he inspired the character.
Mike Warner called me from Pheonix Arizona and asked me to come get him. So I drove over there, spent the night at his brother’s house and then we drove to San Diego. We traded cars, and drove his old Bronco down into Baja for a camping trip. Luckily we made it back to San Diego, debriefed at Kahi’s fine home there and headed off in our own directions.
I flew solo down to Peru.
I was just a kid. A passionate surfer, but not at all that talented. This was my first real surf trip. My first time all by myself in a foreign land.
I spent two weeks adventuring in Peru, just getting a taste of it. Up near the northern border I ran into strange Hemmingway memorabilia, from his time there filming “Old Man and the Sea”. I nodded my respects and moved on.
I was reading “Atlas Shrugged.” I was meeting new people. I was dealing with the explosive intestinal yoga that gets every foreigner. I was a gringo trying to hone my ears to fast fast Spanish.
I travelled alone, overland south, over the border, into Arica.
A group of Chilenos had rented an apartment, and they welcomed me in as a roommate. Happy to have me. Ramon wasn’t there the first week. I met some new people, re-acquainted with a couple guys who had been to the North Shore, and slipped into a new reality.
After experiencing the two main waves of Arica I emailed Kohl, who had been my silent connection on these travels (he’s friends with people all over), and related my observations on the intensity and danger of “El Gringo” the most consistent wave in the area. He replied that it was one of the most dangerous surf spots he had ever tangoed with.
We spent a month there, shooting down twice to surf big swell in Iquique, and then we headed further south, to Antofogasta and into the Atacama.
It was a month camping in the driest desert in the world, hunting large waves. Exploring new untouched coast. Great times! Beautiful campsites. Ramon and Yasha spearfishing and bringing home the bacon. Fish bacon.
After a month we found ourselves in Santiago. And then into Pichilemu. Surfing Ramon’s home breaks. We got Infernillo good. Big barrels. Broken boards. We pushed a little further south, and then off to Rapa Nui for a month.
What great travels. I hope every kid who wants to see the world can make it happen.
My experiences and observations in Rapa Nui shaped much of my first novel. Though it wasn’t until more than a year later that I began to put down those culminations… (And it has taken 8 years to finish my thoughts).
I eventually made it back to Oahu a bit more furry and feral than before. I put down roots. And I’ve been living happily on the North Shore ever since.