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January 21, 2009

Once a Bum, ...

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I see 'em in Waikiki and I'm seeing a few of 'em this week in South Lake Tahoe. Well, I think that's who I'm seeing.

And who might that be? In the first instance, aged surfing bums and the latter, aged ski bums. In both cases, guys over 60 with lean bodies, unkempt hair and a lot of sun damage to visible skin.

I admit that I have only a vague idea as to what makes such people tick. When one is young and athletic, spending a few years having fun while earning a little money on the side as an instructor can be an okay thing. Yet surely those youngsters see the same sorts of oldsters I do and I find it hard to believe that they can't wonder if a burned-out bumship might not be in their own future.

Actually, most young surf and ski bums probably do come to such a realization and go on to life cycle-appropriate pursuits.

But what about the few who do not? What could they have been thinking while they slowly aged from golden youth into middle age and beyond?

Can any of you offer examples or explanations? I'm curious.



posted by Donald at January 21, 2009


Perhaps this is what they want out of life.

Posted by: work bum on January 21, 2009 5:36 PM

Maybe these aged surfing and ski bums that you are seeing are laid-off Wall Street bankers.

Posted by: kurt9 on January 21, 2009 5:39 PM

If the guy is fit and doing what he likes, why shouldn't he keep doing it?

I don't get why it is lifestyle inappropriate to avoid the corporate rat race if you have another option.

I say this as one of the rats.

Posted by: Lexington Green on January 21, 2009 5:57 PM

Donald, I live not far from Crescent Head, which has a famous point-break - though it disappears much of the time. It's also home to mature-age surfing and those tussle-haired, leather-skinned veterans who ought to be spending the weekend polishing the Toyota Camry.

The answer to how they do it is simple. The Malibu. The Mal! Those boards are long. Looooong.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on January 21, 2009 6:14 PM

I come from a place where those types are a significant proportion of the population. Hell, my Mom being a landlord rented out rooms to a few on occasion.

For the most part, they don't think. They're probably among the most present-oriented people out there in the world. Life isn't anything beyond the day's wave and wind condition, and the night's party. This is aided by the fact that most of them are pretty heavy stoners and/or drinkers. Those that aren't are usually involved into pretty heavy "end-time" fundamentalist Christianity (those ones actually make their bills on time at least).

Usually by the time they're in their sixties, a good chunk of them have racked up some serious brain conditions. I knew one of the guys from the original "Endless Summer" who decided to just stay in Hawaii and live the lifestyle. Between the partying and head trauma that big wave surfing causes, I don't think he was able to string together a coherent sentence anymore. Nice guy, though. He's dead now.

Thing is, you can usually tell who the dabblers are and who the lifers are even when young. The high school I went to was filled with the children of old pro surfers and beach bunnies who settled near the beach. It was pretty easy to see who was actually gonna be able to hold a job and a family while still surfing, and those who'd end up boarding a flophouse, working odd jobs and living to surf for the rest of their lives.

Living up close to them, I could see the appeal of such a life. It's intoxicating... and inspired me to pick up some really bad habits it took me forever to kick.

::Turns on some Dick Del and the Deltones::

Posted by: Spike Gomes on January 21, 2009 7:10 PM

Lex, et. al. -- So maybe it's me who's weird. But I thought the guy I saw this morning was bordering on the pathetic.

One sees plenty of examples up and down the Interstate 5 corridor -- 60-ish hitchhikers and street people who were fresh and youthful hitchhikers and street people 40 years ago. Same deal as what I mentioned in the post, though the setting is less exotic or fashionable.

Please no one think that I'm advocating laws or regulations to prevent folks from being washed up on the far shore of the labor force ages; we should live with the consequences of our actions. Nevertheless, it think its a shame people allowed themselves to let youth go on much too long.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 21, 2009 7:15 PM

To end that way is tragic if...if the 50 or 60 year old has lost the romance of that life. Internally I mean. If he's dragging out that existence out of no more than habit it's pathetic. But if the sun and the beach and riding the waves still give him something that nothing else can, that nothing else can remotely approach...then maybe it's worth leading a marginal life for that something.

Posted by: ricpic on January 21, 2009 8:38 PM

Perhaps this is what they want out of life.

Exactly. And I kind of admire them for at least having the courage to eschew the rat race.

Posted by: James on January 21, 2009 9:28 PM

In the Midwest we don't have such an element.

As a Catholic, I was taught to admire the Monastic life, which is kind of similar to the beach bum. But yeah, I don't get it.

Posted by: thehova on January 21, 2009 9:30 PM

I thought it was the Statler Brothers, but apparently it was the Bellamy Brothers who sang "Old Hippie". Buck Norris (whoever he is) sings the lyrics below here, and the Bellamy Brothers themselves sing a different version with the Old Hippie's age given as 45 instead of 35 and a Clinton reference here. I guess they updated the song as they and the hippie got older.

He turned thirty-five last Sunday
In his hair he found some gray

But he still ain't changed his lifestyle
He likes it better the old way

So he grows a little garden in the back yard by the fence
He's consuming what he's growing nowadays in self defense

He get's out there in the twilight zone
sometimes when it just don't make no sense

He gets off on country music
cause disco left him cold
He's got young friends into new wave
buts he's just too damn old
And he dreams at night of Woodstock
and the day John Lennon died
how the music made him happy
and the silence made him cry
Yea he thinks of John sometimes
and he has to wonder why

== Chorus ==
He's an old hippie
and he don't know what to do
should hang on to the old
should he grab on to the new
he's an old hippie
his new life is just a bust
he ain't trying to change nobody
he just trying real hard to adjust

He was sure back in the sixties
that everyone was hip
Then they sent him off to Vietnam
on his senior trip
And they force him to become a man
while he was still a boy
and in each wave of tragedy
he waited for the joy
Now this world may change around him
but he just can't change nomore

== Chorus ==
Well he stays away a lot now
from the parties and the clubs
And he's thinking while he's joggin' 'round
Sure is glad he quit the hard drugs
Cause him and his kind get more endangered everyday
And pretty soon the species
will just up and fade away
Like the smoke from that torpedo
just up and fade away

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on January 21, 2009 9:42 PM

Last two times I went to Waikiki, I was astonished at the number of actual bums I saw. These were not surf bums, but the normal "homeless" types I see in Washington DC (i.e. clearly homeless and addled by drink / drugs, or simply insane). It's a nicer place to sleep in the winter than DC, I suppose. Say, maybe we could ship all our bums to Hawaii...

Posted by: Enoch on January 21, 2009 11:41 PM


The left coast states have actually been doing that. It raised quite a stink a few years back. Homeless dudes with LAX tags still hanging off their beat-up bags. They clean them up, drug 'em sane and push them on a plane. Once they get here they just kind of wander off on their own accord. Hawaii has got a wicked bad homeless problem. It's what happens when you got a climate that doesn't cull the population, and decent ways to scrounge a meal and liquor money. Some of the more independent homeless go up into the mountains and basically live in caves, living off of wild fruit. Those dudes are seriously scary looking. There's no real intersection between them and the beach bums, though. The beach bums usually have a place to crash and intermittent employment.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on January 22, 2009 8:22 AM

It's interesting that of 12 responses above, only two (Spike Games and Townsend) offered concrete observational data. 10 offered speculation.

Posted by: jz on January 22, 2009 11:17 AM

There does seem to be a difference between a bum per se, who appears to be purposelessly bummish, and ski bums, surf bums (climbing bums too). Notice the modifier: these are bums who do something. They're purposefully bummish. As Spike noted, many of them are intermittently employed. I don't know much about any of these bum cultures, but scrounging and mooching and panhandling for money to pay for a surfboard or some skis doesn't seem to be part of that way of life. These guys work (just) enough to keep themselves able to do what they obviously most love to do.

There's still something sad and lost about these guys, I think. But it's not the sadness and lostness of a mentally ill former drug addict living off of fruit in a cave and battling the voices in his head day in and day out.

More like guys consumed by a passion that has no vector to gainful employment or career progression--or to life as a family man. My guess is these guys' oddities have much to do with their failure to become domesticated--marriage and kids don't seem to be in the cards for somebody living on 3,000 a year. Guys rejected by women as long-term partners don't age well, and usually end up looking half-crazy by the time their hair starts to turn colour. When it's finished turning, they're full-blown wild men.

But they still don't seem quite like out-and-out bums to me. They still do stuff.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 22, 2009 12:20 PM

Why would a guy want to spend his whole life having fun? Doesn't the question answer itself?

Posted by: Lester Hunt on January 22, 2009 2:23 PM

thehova's comment about monastic life touches an analogy I also thought of.

It may seem pointless to spend one's entire life just surfing... but what is the point of spending one's whole life praying - leaving nothing behind in the world? To the devout, the answer is obvious, but then, to a dedicated surfer, his life may be complete.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on January 22, 2009 2:30 PM

To open a real hornet's nest: How about arts bums?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 22, 2009 5:48 PM


Why is that so interesting? If everyone had concrete observational data on this topic, it would mean everyone lived at the beach or a ski resort, no?

Posted by: Bill on January 22, 2009 5:50 PM

I spent a winter being a ski bum, working at a ski resort so I got a free pass and skied every day during the 3 hours between the morning and afternoon shifts. It was fucking awesome.

I met many older guys (never girls) who had been doing it 10, 15, 20 years. They were happy only when skiing or talking about skiing. Take then out of that environment and they got surly, quick. Their interoperability, to borrow an IT term, was incredibly narrow. Most of them were alcoholics, albeit functioning. They were fun to hang out with as a 20 year old kid, but from what I can tell thinking back on it, would offer nothing to an adult not doing exactly what they are doing.

That said, I can't blame them for being lifers. The life is incredibly seductive. That winter remains as one of the most enjoyable and blissful times in my life, and not just because I was 20 years old.

Posted by: JV on January 22, 2009 8:26 PM

Being a long-term ski/surf bum is not a particularly attractive option for people who think about the future. It may be a decent lifestyle at 35, 45, even 55, but at some point people get just too old to keep going on. And what do they do then, with no pensions or 401K's or home equity? Living out one's life with nothing but (probably minimum) Social Security is not a pleasant thought.

Posted by: Peter on January 22, 2009 10:28 PM

I think many of us may be underestimating what activities like surfing, hiking, rock climbing (and even the arts) mean to some people. I don't think they're just "fun." I think they're more like drug highs, or maybe even religious experiences. While people who are in the normal range find (say) hiking to be "fun," there's a small percentage of people who are hyper-responsive to it -- who are really transported by it, who feel really alive while doing it, who maybe *only* feel really alive when they're hiking ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 23, 2009 5:35 AM


Most of 'em don't get to that state, and when they do, they don't last long. They literally lose the will to live and croak after a couple months. They also tend to be the kind who die doing the thing they love. When it came to surfer deaths, it was always inexperienced youngsters and grizzled old hands who ended up riding the big pipeline to the sky. But again, most of them don't make it to real old age. They don't live lifestyles conducive for it.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on January 23, 2009 8:22 AM

Michael Blowhard writes:

"I think many of us may be underestimating what activities like surfing, hiking, rock climbing (and even the arts) mean to some people....While people who are in the normal range find (say) hiking to be "fun," there's a small percentage of people who are hyper-responsive to it -- who are really transported by it, who feel really alive while doing it, who maybe *only* feel really alive when they're hiking ..."

I think that's exactly the case. Every year for the last decade or so I've gone on a guided whitewater trip. A lot of the guides, especially for one company, are in the late forties or older and have been on rivers for twenty or thirty years. They work at ski areas in the winter or travel down to South America and work rivers there. They work really hard, but to them, being on the river is what it's all about. Guiding is a means to that end. Every year (especially when I first started) I come back feeling like I ought to sell most everything off, load the dog in the truck, and start rowing. However, pension, expensive tastes, and general conservatism hold me back. I can really see the attraction to the lifestyle (simplify, simplify), at least until you're pushing seventy and the body starts to really limit you.

On the other hand, I love to hunt and fish above all other activities and spend a lot more time doing that stuff than most hunters or fishers I know and, despite spending most my life in an office, I wouldn't be happy if I couldn't pick up a rod or gun and get outside regularly. The steady job just allows me to do that in different places.

Posted by: mdmnm on January 23, 2009 11:35 AM

There was an article in INC magazine about a year ago about people who live such a "bohemian" life, yet have productive, professional careers. If I could find it, I would post a link to it here.

"I think many of us may be underestimating what activities like surfing, hiking, rock climbing (and even the arts) mean to some people. I don't think they're just "fun." I think they're more like drug highs, or maybe even religious experiences. While people who are in the normal range find (say) hiking to be "fun," there's a small percentage of people who are hyper-responsive to it -- who are really transported by it, who feel really alive while doing it, who maybe *only* feel really alive when they're hiking ..."

In other words, trying to get "normal" people to understand this behavior is like trying to explain to a person who has been blind since birth what the color red is like. There is simply no basis for communication or understanding.

Likewise, it is the same for those of us who are into transhumanism and radical life-extension. Those of us who are into this simply think different than those who are not into these things.

As long as people who choose to live their lives differently than others do not make themselves into a burden on others, there is no legitimate reason to criticize people for their choices in life.

There are a zillion different dreams and goals that one can have in life and a zillion different life style choices. We are living in the age of the long tail. The idea that there is a single "correct way" that everyone must live life is an anachronism that has no place in modern civilization.

Posted by: kurt9 on January 23, 2009 11:37 PM

What is correct, is what is correct for you. Know thyself. How many reputable-looking people have delved inside? I'd reckon most people substitute the off-the-table brand of knowledge, known as Christianity (or any other dogma.) Get a wife, mortagage and 1.8 kids, and mix. Got a life.

I've known some "bums", but not street people. The bums get by by working enough to make ends meet, whatever that is for them. They survive. And if they can ply a passion while doing so, all the better for them. They're not fighting wars. How many people live their passion?

The letter that began this thread inquired of "fit-looking" tanned older men. They may not be on the Coppertone ad anytime, but what older man would mind being able to ride a wave at 60?

Anyway,maybe they're really 30, but sun damage makes them look older. And that's the fault of all you industrialists burning fossil fuels and destroying the ozone!

Posted by: Lisa on January 29, 2009 12:35 PM

Follow-on: someone said the topic had no merit; Donald said, "its a shame people allowed themselves to let youth go on much too long"

Another: "(it's) tragic ...if the 50 or 60 year old has lost the romance of that life." many people have lost the romance of life? How many ever had it? Why do Wall St. financiers take a tumble out of their windows when the markets crash? Money was their god. Who's god is best, and do we need one?

Maybe we lose youth too soon. Maybe that sense of wonderment would keep us healthier and happier.
Much provocative thought here.

Also, psychologists are looking at the phenomenon of men who hit bottom and never rise back up. Women faced with dire situations often have more resources, at least while they're still in child-bearing years. Not so, men. It is a tragic thing, worthy of understanding.

Posted by: Lisa on January 29, 2009 2:10 PM

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