I awaken when a train, less than a block away, blasts its horn as it passes through an intersection. I open my eyes and see a half circle of palm trees leaning over me like ladies leaning over a baby’s stroller.
I sit up in my sleeping bag and, . . . Ow! After having spent seven hours surfing yesterday, every part of me hurts. The back of my neck hurts from holding it up to look forward as I paddled my board. My lower ribcage hurts from lying on it while paddling my board. My shoulders and lats hurt from paddling. I have a rash on my inner thighs — like a spray of benday dots — from gripping my board with my thighs as I bobbed in the surf while waiting to catch the next wave, and the muscles in my back are tighter than a trucker’s camstraps.
It’s early dawn. The sun hasn’t yet breached the horizon, but it’s light enough for me to see. I crawl out of my sleeping bag. I want to gaze upon the dawn sea.
I walk through the campground, which, this early in the morning, is still silent and sleeping, past rows of tents and camp trailers, past surfboards leaning against palm trees, trailers and fences like headstones at every angle of an old New England cemetery.
When I reach the western edge of the campground, I pause at the cliff top and look out across the broad expanse of the Pacific.
A long staircase, built into the cliff wall, leads from the cliff top campground down to the beach. After a few minutes of horizon appreciation, I start down the stairs on my way to the beach. A fine dusting of sand lies upon the steps, light as a September frost. I walk down to the first landing and there sit down and stare out across the vast expanse of ocean and the long, long Pacific horizon, curved like a lens. The dawn-lit ocean is the same sheen and gray-jade color of celadon.
Down here on the steps, the cliffwall that’s now behind me blocks out the noise of Highway 101 and I can hear the soothing “sheath . . . sheath . . . sheath . . .” sound of a sword continuously being drawn from its leather sheath (onomonopeaia at work); the sound of small waves crashing smoothly onto the beach.
I sit on the landing and stare out at the ocean for about 10 minutes, then walk down to the beach and walk along it barefoot through the cold surf for another 20 minutes. I then walk back to my tent, where I find Ice sitting up in the tent.
“Surf’s up dude!” he says sleepily.
“Surf’s up,” I say. “But let’s go get some breakfast first.”
We walk across the street into the tidy, pleasant surfer town of Cardiff by the Sea and find a little bakery where we get some donuts and bananas and eat them while we walk back to our camp.
Our fellow campers at San Elijo are waking up, too. Some shuffle to the bathroom in their bathrobes. Packs of kids ride by on their scooters and skateboards. Two old men walk together down the winding campground road talking and smoking cigarettes. We smell bacon, coffee and pancakes being cooked over campfires, or wafting from the open windows of the camp trailers. It is a beautiful southern California morning.
Ice and I put sunscreen on our faces, replace our t-shirts with neoprene wetsuits, tuck our surfboards under our arms and walk through our snug little cliff top campground, down the wooden staircase and onto the beach.
We pause and stretch our sore muscles then wade into the cool Pacific until we can wade no further, then we jump on our boards and paddle. But even after stretching, when I get on my board and start paddling out to the break zone, my 43-year-old muscles and joints creak, crack and groan like a green lariat being broken in on branding day.
Ice and I reach the break zone, where we join a score of surfers sitting on their boards staring out to sea, watching for the good waves, and I am happy to join them in such a noble endeavor.
Sitting on a surfboard, feeling it rise and fall on six foot sine-wave swells while looking out at the horizon is one of the most Zenful things I’ve experienced in my life. Absolutely euphoric. It’s an experience nearly every downhill skier is familiar with, only they experience it when they ride the ski lift back to the top of the mountain. Same same.
But over the next 20 minutes, while we drift in the break zone, we observe the incoming swells slowly transmogrify from round hills into peaks, like the tail waves of a class three rapid. But spaced farther apart. And then the tail wave-type peaks start growing scorpion tails, and the scorpion tails grow taller and longer and reach farther and farther forward, and then, quite simultaneously, the long line of surfers recognize their long watched-for wave and they turn their boards to shore and start paddling. Seeing the other surfers turn, Ice and I also turn for shore and we too start paddling. Most of the other surfers catch the wave but Ice and I, having made a slow and clumsy start, do not. But, even though we don’t catch it, its sheer size and strength carries us forward quite a ways then passes uncaught beneath us.
We turn around and paddle back out to the break zone, and now broad-shouldered surfable waves arrive every 90 seconds. And we keep trying to catch one. Ice catches a few and has some good rides, which carry him in to shore. The best I’m able to accomplish is to partially catch a wave. I’m not yet a strong enough, efficient enough paddler to gain enough momentum to equal that of the waves.
For the first hour, I don’t fully catch any waves but I still have a wonderful time just swimming around on my board interacting with the ocean on such an intimate level.
Even as we swim and paddle through them, Ice and I perceive the waves growing larger, then larger still. By 10 a.m. they are much larger than the waves we negotiated yesterday.
But the waves arrive as regularly as socialist buses, so as soon I propel my board back into the break zone I pause for a minute to rest my shoulders, then once again turn my board shoreward and try to catch another wave. And this time it happens! It’s the exact same feeling as riding headfirst down a snowy hill on a Flexible Flyer® — and then a feeling like 10 burly Samoans lift my board and carry me, like a king on a sedan chair.
I’m riding a big wave!
Catching a wave is tricky enough; standing up on my board is even trickier. In my attempt to do so, I first rise up into something roughly resembling the cobra yoga pose, and my board immediately starts wobbling back and forth laterally. I adjust my balance and get the wobbles under control, still sliding deliciously down the face of the wave, and from the cobra pose rise so I’m kneeling on my left knee and pull my right leg forward and plant my foot on the board. Moving into this new position rearranges my balance and the lateral wobbles start again, and this time, having raised my center of gravity, the wobbles grow more pronounced. I attempt to fine-tune my balance enough to stand all the way up, but the wave carries me to shore before I can do it.
I am completely exhilarated! My body flushed with adrenaline, and serotonin. Every cell in my body is vibrating like a damp finger rubbed over the lip of a crystal wineglass.
I wade back out into the ocean and start paddling back out to the break zone. But by now, the waves have grown into eight to 10 foot giants, and I spend a lot of novice-skill energy just making my way through them. As each big wave reaches me I hold my breath and let it crash-wash over me. Each powerful wave, even though I duck beneath it, still pushes me back two or three feet. When I resurface, I am able to paddle only another six to eight feet before the next wave reaches me, and I again hold my breath and dive under it, and I again lose a significant amount of ground. Since I lose two to three feet for every six to eight feet I gain it takes me a while to swim back out to the break zone.
But I build upon the little lesson I learned when catching the last wave, and I now start catching waves on a regular basis. Ice and I surf until lunchtime, then we carry our boards and our exhilarated selves up the staircase to the cliff top campground, where we lean our boards against a rail and eat lunch at a cliff-edge taco bar overlooking the ocean.
After lunch, we detour back to our camp and take off our wetsuits. The day has grown warm enough that we no longer need them. My arms and shoulders, after paddling for the last four hours, are too tired to peel off my wetsuit, which is stuck to my body like sweaty thighs to a vinyl seat. Ice has to pull it off for me.
We return to the splendid waves and spend the afternoon trying to better our best ride of the morning. Sometimes we catch a wave and have a great ride, and sometimes the wave breaks over us and roughly tumbles us, like gravel in a cement mixer.
After seven hours of duck-diving under waves the size of Little Cottonwood Canyon avalanches as I paddle and battle my way back out to the break zone, my muscles are spent. Every hour in the water has added a stone of fatigue to my body, until by four in the afternoon, I have accrued a cairn of fatigue that’s simply too heavy, and unwieldy to allow me to perform with any degree of efficiency.
I turn to Ice and say, “I think I only have one or two more rides left in me today.”
Ice nods his head, “Yeah, same here.” Which is a good thing because Ice is so sunburned his skin looks like its 90 percent lutein.
We get back on our boards and duck-dive our way back out to the break zone. After 10 minutes of paddling, we arrive at the break zone and discover that the waves have temporarily calmed down.
Ice and I sit on our boards and just look out at the western sky and catch our breath and gather enough energy for one last bursting ride to shore, as the long-spaced swells pass beneath us. My spent muscles — especially my shoulders and upper back — are twitching of their own accord, like the keys of a player piano.
A cloudbank has engulfed the entire western sky and the sun behind it has backlit it a soft orange-gold. The surface of the ocean, reflecting the orange-yellow cloudbank, gleams with the soft, yellow-gold translucent glow of candlelight seen through a shoji screen.
I have been greatly blessed to have experienced many different kinds of joy in my 43 years upon our magnificent Earth. One of my favorite joys is embarking on a journey to a new place, to experience a new thing. Another favorite brand of joy is having successfully accomplished the goals of that journey. This journey has accomplished both of those goals.
I am — to quote Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote — of a pacific disposition. Now, whether that’s due to having, after 25 years, at last accomplished a long-sought after goal, or after having spent three straight days soaking in the Pacific, I have been infused with its essence . . .
I think it’s probably a combination of the two.
Ice and I look out at the shoji-surfaced ocean, the lens-curved horizon and listen to the roar of the ocean. And somewhere, not too far away, a wave is on its way to carry me on one last exhilarating ride to shore. And somewhere beyond the beautiful horizon, tomorrow’s waves are on their way.