Ice Cream and Beer

I BREEZED THROUGH northern Baja. My first stop was Ensenada, where I inadvertently attended a church service. The pastor said, “Is there anyone new in the audience tonight?” and after hesitating I raised my hand. He greeted me, several people got up to shake my hand, and one lady gave me a pamphlet about how I could become the person God wanted me to be. It was nice to be there. It was nice to sit. My eyes wandered over to a young girl who was there with her husband. She was gorgeous. In front of her was another girl, also with her husband, also gorgeous. I listened to the pastor, who was holding his bible over his head, talking about how people should read the scripture from an actual physical book instead of on their iPhones or Kindles. “But I have nothing against technology,” he said. Then he started on a rant about homosexuals and I got up to leave.

Stay south. Always south. I wanted to get to mainland Mexico, because I was convinced Baja was only for gringos. Sure, mainland has its gringos, too. But I somehow find the Baja gringos more obnoxious. They come down, stay for 20 years, never learn Spanish, and think they own the place. My friend Corey and I camped on the Sea of Cortez one time at a place called Playa Coyote and were told upon arriving that we had to talk to the “chief” to see if it was OK to camp there. The chief of the camp. The leader. It was infantile.

My first surf stop was a place called Playa Socorrito, just north of El Rosario. I was desperate to get in the water, desperate to surf. I drove down a long dirt road past a sign that said, “Private property: Ask familia Aguilar for permission,” but a guy who seemed preternaturally quiet told me I could just drive down to the beach and look at the waves.

The setup was cobblestone and the wind onshore, but there seemed to be a decent right working. The problem, however, was access. One had to traverse several hundred feet of rocks covered in barnacles and other sea creatures to get to the water. I cut my foot and finally got on my board, stroking for the outside, but I still didn’t have my leash on. I made the first few duckdives scared of losing my board and also of diving straight into a rock. Then, after getting my leash on, I saw fins.

My first inclination, of course, was to soil myself. But the fins seemed too fat, too rounded to be sharks. When I looked closer I saw they were porpoises, sitting almost motionless in the water, probably feeding, making half-hearted attempts to surf waves, and then they disappeared quickly, as if they had somewhere important to be. I sat on my board and couldn’t stop looking beneath me. When you surf alone you have nothing to distract you, so your mind and eyes wander. I fixated on the boulders beneath me, studying their undulations, their pink and beige and black colors. I tried to see if anything was moving. And only after this did I look up to see if there were waves.

I got a crappy left and tried to get some rights but they all closed out. Finally, after much sitting, I got one small right that stayed open, and I rode it all the way to the beach, watching the cobblestones flash beneath me. Back on the beach I looked out at the blue ocean contrasted with white spray and thought, This is the real Baja. This is what you hear about. The complete lack of people. The freedom. I should camp here, I thought, but I knew I wouldn’t. I knew I’d keep going to El Rosario where I’d get a cheap hotel room, take a shower, and then lie on my bed going on Tinder or Instagram or talking to people on Facebook. I packed Wendy up and drove out, past a wretched-looking dog, her teets sagging beneath her, chained to a pole. After passing her I waved to the quiet guy and said “Gracias.” And then I continued toward El Rosario.

I STAYED ONE NIGHT in El Rosario, where I drove out to a place called Punta Baja to look at the wave. The tide was too high. It reminded me of a wave in Morocco called Imssouane, but not as epic. I talked to a Swedish guy and a Norwegian guy making their way by Jeep from British Columbia to Panama. They were nice but didn’t surf. I assumed everyone who came here surfed. I wanted to ask them for a cigarette but didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, so I kept quiet. They were reading. How quaint, I thought, and also, What are you guys doing here?

That night in the hotel, as predicted, I de-evolved into a mess of Instagram and Facebook and ice cream and beer.

Offshore and Jade-Colored

CALIFORNIA SURGES up before me like a dream. The blue sign with the golden lettering, “Welcome to California,” adorned with golden flowers. I start singing the Phantom Planet song “California,” but I don’t really know the words. “We’ve been on the run, [something] in the sun, cruisin’ down the 101…”

For me, all the stereotypes about California are true. The girls are prettier, the sun is always out, everything is glitz and glamour and beach fires and Hollywood. Of course, Crescent City, where I currently am, is not glitz and glamour, unless you consider glitz and glamour to be meth heads riding around on 18-speed bicycles.

I’d only spent two nights in Oregon. I surfed twice the first day, once after meeting Ines and Horst where afterward I felt the aforementioned lightness, and then later that evening at an iconic Oregon beach known as Short Sands.

When I was in my 20’s we came to Oregon a lot, it was a mildly exotic road trip for us, new towns, scenery, like home but different. We’d go to the Sleepy Monk coffee shop in the morning to get coffee or tea, sitting in the warmth while a pane of glass separated us from the grey and the cold outside. This separation — sitting with friends in the warmth of cafe contemplating the cold outside — is key to surf trips in the Pacific Northwest. This beauty couldn’t exist, however, if from time to time the cold wasn’t confronted head on.  It is a special kind of beauty to be alone on your board, paddling toward the horizon, surrounded on all side by water and pine trees and grey. 

The walk down to Short Sands is through second growth forest, and it’s like walking through a cathedral. Everything is quiet except for the sound of a brook running nearby, and your senses feel heightened, seeing the way the sun catches a piece of bark on one of the trees or a spider web strung up between a branch and a bush. Then you hear the sound of the ocean, but it’s not an intimidating spot. It’s a welcoming spot, a refuge, a cove set between two big bluffs crowned with fir trees, the smooth rock of the bluffs sloping down into the sand of the beach and sometimes directly into the sea.

This time when I was there it was sunny and I didn’t have high hopes for good waves because of the onshore winds. But somehow, at Short Sands, it was offshore. The first thing I saw when I broke out of the trees and could see the ocean was a peeling, feathering left, the spray getting blown out the back and the whole face of the wave lit up by the setting sun behind it. This was one of the things that stood out most about the session, the sun disappearing behind the wave the split second before it picked you up and you caught it, one of the best sessions I’ve had there. The waves were frequent and fun and where I was there was no one out. I paddled out on the far north by the rocks, giggling with glee as I tromped into the water. My first wave was a good right, and there were some sweeping lefts in which I felt — I felt — like I was just going to crack one off the top and send spray all the way to China, but each time I tried to snap it was too late and the wave got away from me. I love that feeling though, of going left, carving down the face and leaning into it, flexing, feeling like a hooded cobra about to strike at the neck of a sickly water buffalo, your whole body tensed and rippling with anticipation.

One of the most memorable waves was a small right. I stood up and felt completely comfortable, in tune with the wave, and I recognized exactly where the pocket was, that I was in the pocket, and instead of pumping and getting too far out in front because I’m afraid of the wave running away I stayed in the pocket, lived in the pocket, feeling the mounting energy, and just when the moment was right I started pumping, faster and faster, and of course I was thinking, This is how you air. This is the moment when you air, and right when the wave was about to close out I swooped down and then toward the lip, just as I’ve seen the pros do but probably with a tenth of the speed, and if my hopes alone would’ve put me in the air it would’ve happened, I would’ve aired five feet high, but what happened in real life was basically just an exaggerated bending of the knees and a harmless kick out the back.

Still, it was a fun wave.


Heading South

Last night I slept in a rest area. It was wonderful. I’m happy today I didn’t give up and go to a hotel. It would’ve been so easy and it was certainly tempting, to show up at a Motel 6, slide my Alaska Airlines credit card across the counter, and then suddenly be in a room, clean, all my own, taking a hot shower and pulling the crisp sheets that would’ve smelled like antiseptic up to my chin.

I would’ve been lonely.

But instead I kept driving, and I pulled over at a rest stop, where I read a book by John Fante for awhile, a guy Bukowski said was his “God,” and then turned off my headlamp and went to sleep.

I had it in my head that sleeping in a Honda Civic was terrible, based almost entirely off a less than savory I’d had in high school where my friend and I drove around the island all night, looking for mischief or a party, I think this was before I drank alcohol because when I drank alcohol the mischief was always easier to find, the mischief was in a can, and then for some reason we couldn’t go home and so just slept in the car in the senior parking lot.

The key to sleeping in the front seat of a sedan is to imagine you’re in an airplane. If you were in an airplane, it would be luxury! You have a seat that reclines almost 180 degrees, you have your own little compartment, you can get up whenever you want and outside is the fresh air and the stars above you and the sounds of the night, the bugs in the forest, and the whooshing of the cars on I-5. Plus, in the driver’s seat, I had a variety of amenities: tortilla chips, a blend of cruciferous vegetables, Swedish snus (smokeless tobacco), and of course my book.  It was the picture of luxury.

The next day my first stop is Safeway in Longview and the Starbucks in said Safeway. I get up from my earl grey tea to look for the bathroom. “End of aisle 13,” the woman in the deli yells at me.

On the inside of the stall is written “Nazi’s get fucked” and also something like, “Love before hate. There is a God.” I think of two things: 1) the curious punctuation in the first phrase, and also 2) the book Catcher in the Rye where Holden finds the writing in Phoebe’s school, someone has written something terrible including the word “fuck” or something, and it fills him with interminable sadness, he imagines it destroying her innocence, this is the climax of the book, and he scratches it off and walks down the hall.

I surfed the Elwha upon getting out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was flat but beautiful. There were some bros on the beach and I felt embarrassed about being all suited up when there were no waves, I avoided eye contact. But then I felt the familiar surge of excitement I feel before any surf session. My soul was pulsating with joy. I looked out over the strait, seeing the mist-covered mountains of Canada in the distance, longing to be there, longing to have a  girl there, but also content to be at the mouth of the Elwa, looking down as I sat on my board and seeing rocks slide by me, waiting for waves that never came.

Except one wave did come. The tide was dropping and in an hour or two it might actually be good, but by then it would be pitch black. I thrashed into the wave, realizing I had to catch it, stood up, pumped right with all of my life force, looked down at the smooth, black face in the dying light, felt the wave taking me, felt connected to it — just for an instant — and then kicked out the back.

After surfing I drove to a campsite off a forest road where my best friend Doug and I had stayed the weekend previous. But right where I planned to camp, there were two logs blocking the road. I sat there for a minute, wondering whether or not to move them and continue, but then I figured there might be people already there, or someone might be mad if I moved them, and drove on. At the next campsite I got out of the car, wedging my car in sideways in the road to make a sort of barrier between the main road and where my tent would be, and I got out to sit on the hood and take in the surroundings. It was quiet. It was disturbingly quiet. My imagination began to run wild. I imagined someone coming up there and attacking me. The terror I’d feel. I imagined a bear coming out of the woods, trying to fatten up before winter, swiping at my skull in the manner that bears are wont to do.

When I was 25 I worked for a summer in Alaska as a housekeeper, and had two encounters with bears. On the first my friend Phil and I were hiking, keeping to ourselves, not making noise despite this being precisely what they tell you to do. We rounded a corner and 40 feet in front of us was a brown bear, a chunk of exposed flesh in its right flank, possibly from fighting. The bear turned to face us, and in that instant both us that it was coming at us.

Many things impressed up us, like the fact that we could feel the power of the bear’s footsteps in the ground, like you can with a horse. The thing that most impressed upon us, however, was that if the bear had wanted to come at us there would’ve been nothing we could’ve done. Nothing. We wouldn’t have had time even to drop to the ground, such was the power and force evident in the creature.

It didn’t attack us; it sprinted off into the woods, and we stood there, our hearts firing, ant it was a few seconds before we dared to look at each other, and even then we didn’t say anything.

This specific incident wasn’t in my mind as I stood at that turn off on the forest road, listening to the muffled sounds of the night, wondering what lurked in the woods, but bears were in the forefront of my mind, as was Bubba, the man I conjectured who liked to get drunk, drive into the hills, and t murder people. Either way, I just didn’t feel right about it. I try to pay attention to these feelings. It doesn’t happen a lot. Usually things feel OK. The last time it happened I was in Lima, Peru, leaving on a series of local buses at night, trying to get to a crucero where more buses passed on their way south. The further and we got the stronger the feeling became, and eventually I just got off and was on the main road in front of a big shopping mall. I found a hotel, a love hotel with a picture of a woman from the 1980’s wearing one of those swim suit bottoms that looks like a deep v and very uncomfortable, but it was nice to a have secure, semi-comfortable lodging, and I walked to the mall and got a McFlurry at McDonald’s and sat in my room watching people play soccer on some lighted fields across the street.

And last night I also listened to this feeling, feeling such relief relieved as I drove back down the forest road. I got back on highway 112, put a snus in, turned on the radio, and drove south toward Oregon.

Friends and Readers

Today I leave on a trip to the coast, a surf trip. Because of this trip, I will no longer be posting everyday. Instead, I’m going to post one long-form piece every Friday, starting this Friday.

I hope all of you are well on this blustery Seattle morning, or wherever this post finds you.