Up before dawn, I slip out of the sliding side-door into the walkway between our typical SoCal rectangular duplexes that occupy the entire lot from edge to edge, front to back, save our little slice of heaven that is the patio where we sit and chat with people strolling by on the sidewalk. I’m not sure why they call this Seal Beach I think to myself, as my biggest concern at this exact moment is startling a skunk in the morning gloom.
This has actually happened before, bumping into a skunk in this exact spot at this time, and I’m not exactly sure how I escaped getting sprayed and banished from the house for a few days while I bathed on the sidewalk in tomato sauce or whatever local legend says you can do to get the stink off.
The sidewalk is cold and raw against my bare and barely woken-up feet, my physical senses not yet dulled by a day of activity and exposure to the elements. These feet are still accustomed to their sheets and blankets and carpeted floors and are clearly wondering why they have been so abruptly put to use – and in this uncovered condition no less.
Don’t worry feet. It’s going to get worse, but you’ll get used to it.
I’m only in this space, out in the raw air on the rough pavement for a few steps. Out the side door, then back in the other side door, the one that goes into the garage that we share with our neighbors who occupy the cheaper, smaller apartment in the back with a view of the alley and no slice-of-heaven front patio with its sunlight and idle chatter with neighbors, old guys who patrol sidewalks, other surfers.
The shared garage with its shared washer and dryer highlights differences and commonalities between those who co-habitat the same space. This garage could be placed in SoCal just by its contents – racks of surfboards and skateboards, wetsuits hanging over damp, discolored concrete, musty scraps of carpet to save your feet from the cold floor while you change, a dirtbike and camping gear on my neighbor’s side that I envy, beach cruisers for each adult, mine with a kid’s seat bolted to the handlebars and a wagon pulled behind stuffed full of blankets and hats and littered with crumbs and Goldfish crackers and a spare diaper just in case. A grown-up kid’s toy chest. The cars out on the street that rarely seem to move.
I do this short alley hop in a towel, no sense getting dressed just to undress, my torso goose-pimpled in the brisk air as my sensitive feet begin to adjust to the activity, blood finally beginning to flow.
I stand on my little strip of old carpet and drop the towel, my only protection against the outside air, not worrying about being seen. My neighbor doesn’t surf, a common yet shocking quality I have found in many people who live so close to the sand, here for other things, for the view or nice weather or just because it is where they are lucky enough to be from – the ocean being a thing that has always been there, the postcard-worthy sunset something that has happened every day of their lives. They don’t surf, so there’s no need to be up and moving and outside in the garage so early on a grey autumn morning.
Taking my wetsuit off the hanger in the garage, still damp from yesterday’s surf and now acclimatized to the same temperature as the dank air in the garage, the necessary but worst part of this twisted ritual has to be confronted.
I reach my arm into the cool moist rubber to pull the sleeves right side out, first one then the other, then the same with the legs. I bunch up one leg so that stepping in my skin won’t get stuck against the cold damp, but also to minimize the contact. Hesitating to take a deep breath but not long enough to think too much about it – to think about whether there are even any waves or are they any good, good enough for this part of the necessary routine.
A surf check on these mornings is just an opportunity to talk myself out of surfing – it’s too small, I don’t have that much time anyway. I step one leg in and wiggle through to get the last bit pulled over my heel, a slight squeak and squish as small rivulets of water drip over my feet. Now the other leg and the dreaded part where you pull the wetsuit up to your waist, puffing another breath and giving a little wiggle to get everything in place.
On warmer days I grab a surfboard run out of the garage at this stage with the wetsuit just up to my waist – I’ll do the top when I get to the water’s edge, enjoying the air and maybe the sun on my skin and not wanting the hot rubber on any more than necessary. There is still a small journey to be made to get to the water after all.
But not today.
Today I will appreciate the warmth of the wetsuit once it meets my body temperature. The cold damp chill will only last a moment, like the warming of the sheets I recently left behind.
Once I’m all zipped up I grab my fish and head back out the side door, this time taking a right into the alleyway behind the garage instead of the left I would take to head to the street if I was checking the surf first. I’m not checking the surf from my perch at the end of 2nd Street where I can see just over the dunes and the crest of the elevated shoreline and into the river mouth. Today I already know I’m going out, so the quick jog through the alleyway and down through the public parking lot is faster – smoother pavement on raw feet, no dunes to scale, less sand to cross as the sidewalk takes you closer to the water, past the beachfront cafe.
I don’t see anyone else in the alley, I never do at this time. People in Seal Beach don’t seem to go anywhere, and it’s no wonder why. I rarely want to leave unless it’s flat and there are waves down in Bolsa Chica or Goldenwest, just a quick ten-minute drive in the factory teal Tempo down the road. Here I am content, this jaunt through the alley and across the sand a well-worn commute.
Exiting the alley to the north, looking across the empty real estate that will one day be developed and into Long Beach, I see my first signs that there are other surfers, the ones who park on the street instead of paying for the lot that’s just a bit closer to the sand. These are the ones whose cars and faces I recognize, the regulars who I will become one of over the years and will exchange nods as I scamper past.
Across the Sand
Down through the parking lot, into the cool grass where the kitesurfers set up for the afternoon on-shores, over the two-foot wall that divides sand from concrete and onto the flat expanse of the beach. I can no longer see the break as I have sunk below the level of the shoreline where sand builds with each wave before receding behind.
Sometimes, on large swells combined with high tides and full moons, the waves will top the shore and fill this basin like a shallow lake, but this is a rare combination of events. Most days it is 100 yards of sand and swarms of seagulls taking shelter from the wind in the subtle lee of the shoreline.
I begin getting a sense of swell and tide from how the water moves in the river despite not being able to see the break. The San Gabriel River that flows 58 miles from the San Gabriel Mountains to the east all the way through Los Angeles and Orange counties creates the natural border between Seal Beach and Long Beach, LA and Orange counties, before flowing into the Pacific.
The history of the San Gabriel River is one of Native Americans, fertile alluvial plains, abundance, but now reads more of flood control, dams and reservoirs, aggregate supply for construction. Today, the river mostly deposits antifreeze runoff, car batteries and shopping carts from as far as Downey and Cerritos onto the beach, it’s powerplant-discharge-warmed water creating an unnaturally vitable habitat for stingrays.
Still, fisherman prowl the jetties and I play with my kids at the low-tide beaches in the river – adventuring on the rocks, learning balance, searching for critters and treasures that the river’s floods and tides deposit in this modern estuary. The river also rearranges the sand and provides a break from the monotonous Orange County shoreline and makes the wave here more special in its own way, different from the miles of beach break to the south.
Still jogging short quick strides across the sand, I’m now warmed up though my feet are still cold and wet from the dew on the grass, and breathing a little harder, a perfect transition from sleeping to surfing to let your body know that you are about to be moving.
The older guys that dominate this particular break don’t jog. I’m racing, but not against them with their older out-of-the-house kids and established routines. I’m racing against a well-defined if vague definition of how long I can be out of the house before the day needs to switch into family time, the time where I used to come back from a surf and sleep on the couch but now will be a coffee fueled bike around town or hide and seek on the dune and some requisite swing pushing.
I jog by these older guys. They have all day. I do not.
Reaching the edge of the beach, I stop at the uninhabited lifeguard stand, the iconic architecture of California beaches, that stand guard, lifeguardless, over empty beaches for most of the year. From here I can see the break again, now closer and without the downward angle that can distort wave height, and get a first good look at what is on offer for the day.
A quick post-warm up jog stretch and putting the leash on while I take in this new information – how many people are out, did I catch a set, or am I between. It doesn’t really matter, I know I’m paddling out and I now know exactly where I need to paddle to be in the right spot, the spot where you catch wave after wave while people not in that spot wonder why they aren’t catching any.
I walk in the water, sticking close to the jetty not because there’s much danger of being caught in waves here unless the swell is really big, but just the shortest route. People say to shuffle your feet here to kick the stingrays out of the way. If you step on them they retaliate. They call this Stingray Bay now. In my years here I’ll be stung twice.
So I shuffle to kick stingrays but kick mostly garbage, the plastic detritus that washes out from the river and across the ocean – six pack holders and water bottles, shopping bags, tampon applicators. Launching over the shorebreak and into the water, wet just on the front but welcoming the cool freshness after working up a clammy warmth on land, I could paddle out without getting my hair wet but take a quick duck dive just to complete the wake up, tasting the briny salt water despite not really trying to drink any.
The long paddle out, easier now than when I first arrived, into the line up of the familiar, the right spot, where I’ll catch waves before most people are even awake.
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