Kimo Hollinger, whose early gift for big-wave surfing was eclipsed by an even greater gift for short first-person essays that were funny and heartbreaking, casual and self-deprecating and wise, often in the same sentence, died last week at age 84. There is a steady, deceptive 2/4 simplicity to Hollinger’s work. Short sentences, mostly. Some commas here and there but otherwise very little punctuation. Cool tone, almost flat-voiced at times, but here comes a bit of slang (“grinds” for food, “long green” for money) that helps keep things light and hip but also, more importantly, leaves you slightly unprepared—in a good way—when Hollinger inevitably makes his sidestepping detours into hard, dark places.
You’re still smiling at Kimo’s description of stealing watermelons in Makaha Valley as a kid, for example, throwing the melons in the air on Farrington Highway and eating the cracked-open fruit straight off the road, when you arrive a bit further down the page where he says that, as a middle-aged man, he will charge Haleiwa at four-foot but “cower behind a tree” if it’s much bigger. Which leads to this: “I rode 20-foot surf when I was 18, was a lifeguard patrolling the North Shore at 22, and a firefighter at 24. Now at 58, I am afraid of my own shadow. I don’t feel comfortable anywhere out of my sphere unless accompanied by my wife, my daughters, or my sisters. What happened?”
Two paragraphs later, a change of setting and another change of gears, Kimo tells us about a recent colonoscopy where he hadn’t fully completed the requisite cleanse before arriving at the doctor’s office. The procedure is called off almost before it begins. “He withdrew the instrument,” Hollinger writes. “I asked, ‘What’s up, doc?’ He said, patronizingly, ‘Kimo, you’re so full of shit that you’re still full of shit.’”
I was about to say that Kimo Hollinger was the least full of shit surfer to ever slip on a pair of baggies, but that’s not quite it. He was just the right amount of being full of shit. He was full of shit to a level that we should all aspire to, or that I aspire to anyway, meaning that unless you’re Buddha or Greta Thunberg you pretty much have to be kidding yourself, and others, on a regular basis. Not lying, exactly. But faking it, pretending, bullshitting, when appropriate—it’s that or lose yourself in the many-chambered hall of darkness that is always there, just below your feet, as you get older. Bullshit alone does not keep you sane, of course, but it is one of the things, and Hollinger knew this, embraced it, messed around with it, used it to make peace with his demons and shortcomings, and more often than not was able to grin and golf and grind and surf gracefully and with style through the decades.
There is a mixture of truth and bullshit, both, in the paragraph below. Hollinger, I think, plays up the suffering here. But the last sentence is completely 100% bullshit-free.
For the aged, surfing on the North Shore is a constant struggle. Half the time, there are no open channels to paddle out. If you don’t time the sets right, you’re beat up before you even catch a wave. Once you make it out, it’s a fight to stay lined up. Strong, ever-changing currents pull you out of position. This necessitates that you can never stop concentrating or paddling. It wears you down. When you finally do catch a wave, you’re so tired you can hardly stand up and ride. After you complete your ride, you again face the daunting task of making it back out. If you don’t paddle with all your might, the inshore currents will wash you up or down the beach or back to shore. And, this is only in six-foot surf. Once the sun comes out, the wind picks up and blows right through you. If a rainsquall comes down, you’re chilled to the bone. If there is no wind or cloud cover, you bake, and your eyes ache. Nine out of ten days, you’re left gasping. You can barely make it to your car with your board. You live for that one day when everything falls into place, and you get to feel young again.
Thanks for reading, and see you next week.
PS: The excerpt I just quoted, about being an older surfer on the North Shore, is good but not Hollinger’s best work. Try this one, about his terrifying last day surfing at Waimea. Or this one, I think it’s the first thing Hollinger ever published, way back in 1975—nearly 50 years old now and still the finest, most-heartfelt and eloquent piece of anti-competition writing ever penned. Maybe best of all is Hollinger’s 1976 Chubby Mitchell profile, a long, funny, loving but never sappy goodbye to his plus-sized friend, who had died four years earlier, at age 40. Kimo comes out firing: “[Chubby] stood about 5'9" and weighed roughly 300 pounds. When queried by an airline stewardess as to his exact weight, he beckoned for her ear and shouted in it ‘282!’”
I think I singled out Hollinger’s old-surfer passage, above, because it lines up so neatly with my own recent experience in Fiji, which was start-to-finish amazing in every way—the setting, the company, the food; the 360-degree beauty; the total and much-needed separation from the world beyond our tiny five-acre palm-tree carpeted island—except for the wave-riding part, which was indeed mostly frustrating, because surfing itself is mostly frustrating, and because I am every inch the surfer Hollinger describes above, aging and timid and particular. But on a handful of waves, like Kimo promised, everything fell into place and I felt young again.
[Photo grid, clockwise from top left: watermelon; Kimo Hollinger at Waimea, 1967, photo by Tim McCullough; Hollinger portrait, 2006, by Brian Bielmann; Hollinger at Sunset Beach by Don James; Fiji Gold; Hollinger, second from left, and friends at Waimea, 1960. Kimo at Waimea, photo by LeRoy Grannis. Portrait framegrab by John Severson. Hollinger at Sunset, 1963. Hollinger at Makaha, 1958, by Bud Browne.]