Category Archives: Last American Road Trip

Surfing Day Four

Surfer’s log: day 4.

I got one!

Trying out a new beach a little further south we discovered a nice spot where plenty of locals, families and beginners found their spots in the sun. At high tide there isn’t much of a beach left and the ocean runs right up against a line of wooden poles, fences, and cement barriers struggling to hold back the relentless waves. Many of these barriers sit powerless above caverns carved deep into the stone where the the ocean, like a child, has scooping them out like sand.

There are no lines of brightly painted food stands full of colored ice and t-shirts. There are no humans lying like corpses in neat rows as they let the sun burn off their outer layers. There are no brown women in florescent g-strings and roller blades swimming like salmon upstream through the crowds of corn dog munching patrons. In contrast with the manic consumer-centric world of the San Diego beaches, this place felt like the ancient California where surfing began.

The people were friendly and low key. This was their home and it was easy to imagine that this little town consisted entirely of people who had decided that living by the ocean was more important than pretty much anything else in life. Every morning they strolled down the street with smiles on their faces and surfboards under their arms, coming to and from a handful of beach access points. Some of them even said hello. As a particularly outrageous touch, we actually saw a garbage truck roll by trailing tiny purple flowers in its wake.

After the previous day’s beating we were newly enthusiastic about hanging around near shore and riding white water. As it turned out, this not only built up my confidence but also gave me a chance to keep improving my ability to maneuver the big board. Instead of flailing and struggling to stand I was really controlling the ride and consistently catching everything I tried. Of course the better I got, the more I craved stronger waves and longer rides, and this had me walking the board out further and further each time. As I got more determined, I didn’t notice how far out I was going until, toward the very end of the day, I found that I’d accidentally walked and slid my way out past the breaks again.

At that point I certainly wasn’t going to miss the chance to make another attempt. I sat up on the board and waited for a nice swell. As the first one came through I paddled furiously only to have it lift me up and leave me behind, arms digging helplessly into the water. I whimpered and started for the next one. This one caught me, and I felt it lift me up until the nose started dipping in a terrifyingly familiar way. I heaved myself backwards to no avail. The wave curled up over my head and sucked me into the blender yet again.

This time was different, though, and instead of resisting or letting myself panic I simply relaxed and let the water turn me until it was done. I popped to the surface feeling far less the worse for wear and certainly ready to give it another try. I was told later that this beach was less brutal than the last, but I’d also learned to relax and take a solid breath before going under. Instead of fleeing in terror I pushed back out.

This time around I timed things a little better and I managed to paddle enough to feel the force of the wave grab me. I arched my back upwards to keep balanced so that instead of nosing in, the board formed a watery shelf as I was lifted up into the air. I jumped into position and immediately felt myself fall forward as I slid down the wave face for a stomach gripping moment until I realized that this was exactly what was supposed to happen. I was cruising towards land, knees bent and arms out, the power of the wave suddenly mine to control. I was standing on top of the board and the board was on top of the world. I took the ride as long as it could last, only dropping into the water as the wave went completely flat into the sand. I ran up the beach and began leaping and screaming incoherently at Margaret, my heart pounding and my arms flailing like I was trying to call up an ancient ocean god to bear witness. I had caught my first real wave. I could hardly breathe. There was no turning back.

Surfing Day Three

Surfer’s log: day 3.

Today we learned one of the most important lessons in surfing, taught so effectively that it will forever be seared into the soft tissues of our little brains. The ocean is a strict master, with little sympathy, and today’s lesson was about humility.

After yesterday’s success and our constant hungering for bigger and bigger whitewater, Margaret boldly began proclaiming this the day we would push through. “We can do it. I really think we’re ready,” she said with confidence and a serious nod not unlike that of Evel Knievel before jumping a canyon. I myself was getting pretty good at standing and turning and thought that maybe she was right. I mean, it’s just a lot of water, right?

The waves we had been riding were in water about waist to chest deep. Just to get out to ride these, we had to duck under or try to leap over waves that came in well over our heads. The force of these impacts were already enough to rip the boards out of our hands or knock us over. In order to ride “real” waves, the swells before they break, we would have to paddle out to where these waves were really getting serious and the water beneath would be well over our heads. We needed some new tricks.

We sat on the beach watching other surfers paddle out. We noticed that they were either riding over the top with their heads lifted high or somehow managing to duck under the waves. We practiced first in the shallower water. I tried ducking my head down to the top of the board and as the wave hit it felt like I was punching my skull through a sheet of drywall. Riding over the top went a bit smoother until my timing was off and the curl grabbed the top of the board and rolled me backwards.

Kai out past the break
In the end we just decided to power through. I walked and hopped as far out as I could and then started paddling and punching my way through the waves one after the other. Each one threw me back or rolled me over and each time I spit water, climbed back on and made a little more progress. My arms started to burn as I paddled for dear life, trying to get as far forward as I could before getting pushed back again until suddenly, everything was quiet. I was still pushing water as hard and fast as I could but the tremendous crashing noise was behind me. My arms slowed and I looked up to see only smooth, flat horizon. From beside me I heard Margaret shout, “we made it! We’re here!”

I pushed myself up and sat on my board. The ocean before us was rippled and beautiful. Swells built towards us like little hills on the water. They lifted us gently up and just as gently rolled under us and set us back down. Behind us they grew to became huge angry jaws who’s white teeth slammed down onto the beach as they relentlessly tore at it one after the other. Here all was peace and love. We sat and looked out over the tranquility, resting and feeling the chest swelling elation of having triumphed.

But there was one thing left to do. I turned my board towards the beach. As a larger swell came towards me, I paddled as hard as I could and felt myself lifted into the air… and set back down. I’d missed it. In the process I’d moved a little further in so I was better positioned for the next swell. Again I paddled as hard as I could and felt myself being lifted into the air. This time I could feel the massive force of the wave starting to take hold and suddenly the front of my board was protruding before me, unsupported, terrifyingly balanced several feet above the water and still rising. I struggled to get control and felt the nose diving forward down the treacherous slope. I threw my weight back as hard as I could but it was too late. The nosed plunged in and I felt my body thrown over my head as I was sucked into an angry washing machine on high. The force was incredible. I had no control of my arms or legs and I was whipped around and around, my chest screaming for air. My lungs were on fire and I couldn’t hold my breath any longer but the water wasn’t done with me yet. Above the roaring in my head I could just make out my brain thinking, “woah dude, maybe this is it.”

I felt a little bit of control returning to my limbs but without air I felt like I was beginning to pass out. I could push a little, but I had no idea which way was up, which way to the air… to air… air… My lips just pierced the surface and I sucked in all the oxygen I could before the next wave hit. I bobbed to the top and struggled to reel in my board, now bouncing at the other end of the elastic leash. I climbed on and, still coughing, started paddling back out. It was a combination of a desperate desire for the peace beyond the waves and for another chance to prove I wasn’t going to be beaten so easily.

Then I saw it. A huge wave, already cresting and towering well over my head. The thought of being hit by it was too much. I had to ride it in to safety. While I saw this as my second chance to prove myself, Margaret, who watched this one happen, perceived it more as a desperate attempt to flee the wave. I turned and used what strength I had left to force my aching arms to paddle again, pushing and pushing with everything I had. The wave lifted me, grabbed me in its fist, and slammed me back into the washing machine. I turned blue and spun and spun again. Again I felt certain I was going to die.

When I cleared the surface I weakly fought my way back to the beach and crawled up onto the shore. Margaret was already there waiting. We sat huddled beside each other, defeated, and looked out at the ocean for a long, long time.

Surfing Day Two

Surfer’s log: day 2.

He was probably in his mid thirties, broad shoulders strengthened by paddling, a head of sun bleached blond hair and the light heart of a ten year old. He waved to his girl and sprinted out into the ocean with his board in hand, diving right into the crashing breakers and paddling his way out like the ruthless, brutal ocean that had been pounding us was his childhood playground and lifelong best friend. He almost immediately took a wave, whipping and carving across its surface like he was dancing in air. After several rides he popped up out of the water with a huge grin and enthusiastically bounded up to his girlfriend. She sat patiently knitting on the beach, her hands continuing to knit and purl as she looked up to give him a smile, having accepted her role as second love long ago.

Kai running with surfboard
To become a surfer I have to learn to love the ocean as he does. I have to learn to know my body rolling and tumbling beneath the waves as an embrace. I have to swallow the saltwater, grin and lick my lips. As the waves hit my face or send me sprawling, this is the playful shove of an old friend, and I need to come up grinning.

We spent today working our way through the beginner process of walking out and riding whitewater back in. Whitewater is the gurgling mush that is left over just after the wave breaks and is the easiest to catch and ride. There isn’t a lot of power left, but it’s enough to stand up on a large board and make a few attempts to turn before gliding onto the beach.

As the sun worked its way out to sea I felt like I was getting up faster and more consistently and Margaret was right there with me. We kept edging further and further out, catching the whitewater closer to the break where it would be stronger. When at last the sun was swallowed up we were strolling back with our huge boards on our heads like proud Indian women, filled with the contentment and satisfaction only an intense day of focused work can bring.

We had just enough energy left to peel off our rubbery wet suit skins and start the drive back along one of California’s ubiquitous eight lane highways, in this case the 5 bound for San Diego. Already I was wearing nothing but shorts, shades, and a thin layer of saltwater. Our conversation consisted primarily of single word pronouncements about the day as we slowly panned our orbs over the palm trees rolling by. “Sweet.” “Nice.”

As part of our secondary mission to consume as much ocean food as possible, we’d already had amazing fresh .99 cent fish tacos from a nearby shack. Today Aviva texted us to a Thai place for a mountain of mouth buzzing, forehead sweatening, zappingly hot Thai curried seafood. The muscles were astounding. I’m so happy that the ocean produces such delicious fuel for the riding of its waves.

Sleep came swiftly and was most welcome.

Surf Day One

Surfer’s log. Day 1.

In fear of the swarming, beer toting fourth of July crowds we gave ourselves plenty of time to get lost finding the beach for our first surf lesson. As it turns out, alcohol was banned on all San Diego beaches starting last year. At 9:00 AM the only people heading down the long wooden steps were slinging planks, their wetsuit arms dangling and swinging from their waists like rubbery appendages.

Margaret with surfboard
Our fearless guide was an old surfer who’d probably been hit by one too many waves. He was having a bum day and spent the pauses between instructions semi-coherently muttering about his incompetent employees, one of whom wore a hat with his competition’s logo. He called her on it and she grudgingly stuffed it into a bag.

He explained the various dangers to us, including the dreaded sting of the sting ray. “If you do manage to get stung by one, well, we have a hot pad. Actually, that happened just last week. And the damned hot pad wouldn’t work. You know you’ve got to crack that little thing inside it so that it heats up and… well anyway, it wasn’t working and the kid was in a lot of pain so we called the lifeguards. Of course, they never showed up. This year we’ve got the most damned incompetent bunch of lifeguards I’ve ever seen. That’s the last thing you need. Incompetent lifeguards. Anyway, try not to get stung. But if you do, well, I guess we’ve still got that hot pad.”

Thus reassured that all would be well, we practiced a few rounds of jumping into position on the beach and then hauled our massive foam boards to the water. These surfboards were so huge and floatacious that they pretty much rode themselves. All of our paddling probably did little more than confuse the situation. Because they were so stable, we were actually hopping up onto the boards pretty quickly and the challenge became all about staying up once we’d made the clumsy leap into position.

By the end of the lesson, around 1:00 PM, we were having a blast and starting to feel that elusive sense of control dangling just beyond our reach, our fingers touching it in little moments of thrilling ecstasy. The inevitable wipeout that followed would leave me writhing and struggling to the surface, blowing out saltwater as fast as I could to make way for shouts of delight.

We began eagerly bargaining for rental deals on equipment and our instructor agreed to let out our wetsuits and two boards for the week. We went back to his trailer, grabbed two nine foot foam boards, and scribbled the total amount on the back of one of his release forms. “Oops. Who was this for? Oh well, now you have his address. Here, I’ll add a phone number. Whatever.” We loaded the boards into the back of the van, where they fit perfectly, proving Bebe to once again be the ultimate road vehicle.

“You can pay me now. Or at the end of the week. I don’t care. You look trustworthy. You’re hippies. Sorta. If I’m not here just leave the boards by the trailer and put the money…” he looked around. There were piles of debris stacked in front of the tarp draped between his trailer and the tiny shed that held the boards and wetsuits. He lifted up a milk crate filled with cans of spray paint and a yellowed cardboard milk carton labeled, “Dog and cat repellent. The best available for the prevention of accumulating animal waste. Remove all solid waste before applying the product.”

“Here. Yeah, leave it here. You just, you know, look around, nobody looking, and then slip it under here.”

Kai riding whitewater
We thanked him and headed straight back to the beach. This time we stripped down to just our wetsuits and boards, bringing only a bottle of water and car keys. We didn’t even wear sandals for the walk across the pavement. This time we had to walk quite a ways along the beach to avoid all of the surfers and children that had started to fill the water, but eventually found a clear spot to make mistakes. We rode and rode and rode. It was very much like learning to ride a unicycle. Every tiny perceived breakthrough lead to a rush of insistent energy pushing me back out into the pounding waves to try again. Even though I was using a big foam beginner board and riding the cruft near the shore, I was already feeling like a hero every time I stood up and felt myself flying toward the land, the engine of the wave a massive force that I, a tiny insignificant being, could tap for my own amusement.

After four more hours of riding we finally decided it would be better to wrap up and save some energy for the rest of the week. We met up with my friend Aviva Stand-Luebke and her crew at a sweet beach house near Ocean Beach. After a grilled feast we wandered to the beach that had been covered with blankets and people as far as we could see. The fireworks started north of us and were visible to our right, then fireworks displays started at the end of the pier in front of us and to our left in Mexico. With each particularly bright explosion over the water, I could make out a cloud of little black dots floating on the ocean’s surface: dozens of surfers in wetsuits who had paddled out for the view.

Just before the fire show cleared the sky Aviva stuffed my hands with more marshmallows than I could possibly eat and my puzzled face was suddenly pounded by a hailstorm of squishy white blobs as the whole crowd exploded in a massive marshmallow fight. What can I say. For today: go America!