In California I picked up a hitchhiker.
“You want a ride?” I said.
“I’ve got a lot of crap in my car, but we can make it work. Only thing is: I have a surfboard.”
“I’ll put my stuff in my lap.”
I looked down at his stuff.
“No no, we can make it work.”
His name was San Jin and he got in and started telling me about his life: Living on an island in the middle of Lake Baikal in Russia; trying to write a novel; island hopping in Indonesia; hitchhiking all over Africa.
I was driving slow. We came to a stop light where they were doing road work and I asked San Jin if he had any cigarettes and he said yes and gave me his last Marlboro 100.
This is going to destroy me, I thought.
I took a long drag and the nicotine invaded my lungs and brain. I felt relaxed and cigarette memories came rushing back to me, nights out in Mexico City and Spain, sunsets and soft afternoons. The light turned green and we followed the winding coastline, the sun slipping lower and lower in the sky and finally below the horizon. San Jin suggested just pulling over wherever, he said he’d been doing what he called “wild camping,” so we found a side road that had plants growing up the center line where wheels didn’t tread and branches encroaching from all sides, obviously out of use. I eased Wendy in, the branches making a screeching sound down the length of the car and the undercarriage assaulted by foliage. San Jin and I went to setting up camp and I took out a bottle of Fin du Monde I thought I might save for the end of the trip, but not having to camp alone seemed like a good enough occasion to celebrate so I popped the cork and we sat on the ground and drank while San Jin cooked ramen with fresh garlic and his special blend of spices.
When we finally went to sleep I had a dream in which someone was telling me: “Mark, wake up. You have to wake up. Something important is happening in the outside world.”
I ripped myself awake there was a truck idling just above us. Its lights were right on our tents. My heart slammed.
I was just about to say something to San Jin, to see if he was up too, when there was the sound of the truck being put into gear and it started to reverse. The sound got smaller and smaller and I lay back down, feeling my heart, waiting a few minutes to see if it was coming back, and then sleep finally claimed me.
THE NEXT DAY I surfed Moat Creek, just south of a town called Point Arena. There was one other guy looking at it when we pulled up to the spot and I immediately decided he wasn’t very good, just by the timbre of his voice. He sounded soft. I was almost shaking as I put my wetsuit on and then said, “See you in a bit,” to San Jin and ran off down the trail toward the beach.
The water was cold and the offshores strong. I had been thinking a lot about sharks the last few days, because on almost every spot description on the forecast site it said, “Watch out for white sharks.” But once I was there in the water and not reading about it on a computer, the reef to my left, the waves breaking, the kelp heads bobbing and someone else out, the fear evaporated.
It was a shifty peak, but a predictable shift, like a marching band taking steps to the left in unison. The first wave I got was the best. I clawed into it, the waves were deceptively hard to get into, and then stood up and looked right and saw the best sight a surfer can see (well, second best), the face of an unbroken wave lining up in front of me. I pumped a few times but then sat in the pocket since it was mushy. Toward the end I crouched down and dragged my hand in the face, the spray blown out the back by the offshore winds, the sun shining. I almost screamed with delight.
AT THE SAME SPOT we also met Mary, who told us she’d be camping in a place called Bodega Bay Dunes State Park later that night, and San Jin and I said we’d try to find her. We yearned for company. When we got to Bodega Bay we bought some ingredients for making stew at the awfully expensive local grocery store, and then grabbed our stuff and headed to the park so we could use the hiker biker sites.
At the site San Jin and I made our stew, a mash of onions, garlic, cilantro, potatoes, and every spice San Jin carried with him in his bag. Afterward San Jin took a shower, and then we smoked a cigarette on the picnic table near the bathrooms, me lying back and looking up at the stars, San Jin for some reason sitting down, craning to look up.
Then Mary showed up. She looked bedraggled and stoned. Apparently she had made camp in a day use park just before Bodega Bay and one of the rangers had kicked her out. We talked for a few minutes, the conversation petering, but I wanted to keep hanging out, and Mary looked expectant as well.
“Should we smoke?” I said.
She looked relieved. I hate smoking, but wanted to keep the night alive. Of course, I got too high. Mary took a few drags to start it off, and then passed it to me. I took two drags, passed it to San Jin, and around it went again. My world started to fragment, as happens with me and marijuana. I’d get focused on one thing, like the way the sand felt underneath my butt, and then realize I was in the company of other people and that they were having a conversation and it felt like an hour since I’d said anything. I tried to pay attention. Tried to participate. But kept losing myself, thoroughly concentrated on trivial details.
For some reason Mary looked like she was glowing, or like the background behind her was glowing Then this image changed, and suddenly I could see the real Mary, Mary at her core, which was disturbing because the real Mary was a 20-year-old drug addict, and also male. Again I tried to focus, to participate in the conversation, but it was impossible. Every time I hauled myself back to reality I would slip away again, consumed by another detail. Eventually I stopped worrying about filling the silences or contributing to the conversation, and the end result was a stream of monologue from Mary, followed by a silence, followed by more monologue.
We sat there for probably 20 minutes but it felt like several millennia. Afterward I asked San Jin if I had been normal, and he just said, “Mary kept talking!”
We giggled and bumped into each other trying to find the way to our tents, still extremely high. In my tent I struggled to get comfortable, but thoughts consumed me, and images, too. They came in waves, ripples. I was flying over a vast Aztec jungle, the sun shining, mist rising from the trees. There was an eagle, and everything rippled.
Meanwhile, outside the tent, the eucalyptus trees groaned.