Until today, it had always been a bit of an effort to go surfing. Growing up in Houston, the trip was an hour or so drive down to the coast where waves were inconsistent and unpredictable to say the least. Later I would move to the East Coast, to the big city, where I was closer to better surf but it required a train ride and 5mm of rubber. It was way easier to just stay out all night.
On surf trips I might have an easier time, just walking out from wherever I was staying and into warm waves, but then the effort had been made earlier – long flights, long layovers, long drives. All of it unpredictable and fraught with the potential for falling apart in any number of ways. And even then, of course, despite all the planning and effort and picking the right place and right time, you might get skunked.
I guess a move to the coast could be seen like these surf trips in a way, a lot of upfront effort to wake up closer to the waves, however packing everything you own instead of just the essentials. Enjoying the journey, one you’ll perhaps never do again – the bar-b-que tour of the south through Nashville and Kansas City, layovers in Denver and Las Vegas. Except the investment would pay off over weeks, months, years, not just days.
A Surf Trip With A One Way Ticket
We had just driven across the country covering every mile of the continent between the East and West coasts, not stopping until we had hit the sand, a one-year-old in the car, and everything else we owned scheduled to show up right after we arrived. Unlike a surf trip, if there weren’t waves that first day or the day after that I wouldn’t be too disappointed. After all, I had time. We could explore the new town, grab fish tacos at Taco Surf, ogling the perfect wave-riding tools at Harbour Surfboards, finding the best place to grab a coffee and enjoying the ability to push a stroller in the cool Pacific ocean breeze.
This surf trip was indefinite, a trip with a one-way ticket, which gave it a feeling of calm unlike anything I had ever felt on any other strike mission to Costa Rica or Mexico where even the relaxing downtime between sessions was twinged with the knowledge that you were here to jam as many waves as you could in the time allowed – the countdown was ticking from the moment you arrived.
My surfboards and wetsuits were packed in the moving truck, but before we even fully unpacked the car I dug out my bathing suit and headed to the water. Any cross country trip isn’t complete until you completely run out of land and fall into the sea, stop short and there is a feeling of the incomplete – staring at the finish line but not crossing it.
From our new home, front patio surrounded by shrubs blooming with pink and white flowers, palm trees rustling in the afternoon onshores, I began the commute that would become a daily, multiple times a day, trip. Down 2nd St. and across Ocean Ave. Up onto the retaining wall of the oceanfront house where, at just the right angle and with a couple of feet of elevation, you could peek over the dunes and check the waves in the river mouth, sailboats drifting by just beyond in the channel to Alamitos Bay Marina. Beyond that container ships lined up for their chance to enter the Port of Long Beach, the revolving door of Chinese garbage arriving in the form of disposable t-shirts and toys and American garbage out in the form of recyclable cardboard.
Hopping down I skipped down the rough last 50 ft of pavement that ramped down to the sand, a chain tied across to block people from driving on the beach, then up and over the dunes where in the coming years I would dig massive holes for forts and play countless games of hide-and-seek, teaching my kids to keep the sand and broken glass out of their mouths and that the succulent flowers held the sand together.
I took my time making my way across the endlessly wide beach, savoring the steps, before finally hitting the water in a cold splashing flip into the shore break. For the first time, I lived here, right on the sand, with no need for driving or even shoes.
I would take my coffee to my perch at the end of the street and peek over the dunes to check the surf. I could do it anytime. I could surf in the morning and again in the evening, maybe even running down midday. I could bring a board with me when we went to play in the sand and grab little shore break waves. The beach was our park, our pool, our backyard.
Since it had taken us a week to drive across the country, taking our time and moving at a pace a one-year-old could handle, our stuff arrived the next day – an unlikely and surprising confluence of planning and timing and luck. We were apartment dwellers though, and even with our new family just starting to combine all of our belongings, there wasn’t that much stuff. The surfboards and wetsuits were first to be found along with bikes and skateboards – things that don’t fit in boxes and are perfect for exploring our new town.
First Surf, The Becker Earns the Nod
I thought it was appropriate that I take my first surfboard, an old, yellowing 6’0 single fin Becker, one that I had bought in Austin, Texas of all places, and dragged to the East Coast, the Caribbean, and now out West, out for my first surf. I felt as though I was bringing this board back home after the unknown journey that led it to that store on Barton Springs Road where I bought it with my first tax return.
I didn’t know if it was from California, but I felt like it was. I wondered where else it had been.
I did the walk that was already becoming my daily ritual, wetsuit half on, out through the front patio, doors already open to let in the seabreeze, and took the right as I would do again and again. Across Ocean Ave., up on the retaining wall for a quick peak, not that it mattered what I saw. I was going out no matter what. Out over the sand in that surfer trot, the only time you see a surfer move quickly on land, and into the water.
The paddle out into the river mouth is long, and my untrained arms burned before I even reached the lineup, but I knew this would change. Eventually, as the number of surfs, jogs on the beach, swims out around the buoy, and long training sessions paddling over to the pier added up, I would be able to paddle with the best of them, and do circles around the day-trippers I had once been one of.
Going Local in Seal Beach
This was my first day in the long process of becoming a local at my local break, of knowing what it was like to dial a place in.
Ironically, none of my neighbors even surfed, and as I met people in town, other dads at the daycare, people wandering by on the sidewalk, I would find out that they didn’t surf either. I thought everyone in California surfed. It was like when I lived in the Caribbean and I met people who couldn’t remember the last time they had been to the beach.
What are you even doing here?
So I came to know the (mostly) guys from the break. I would come to recognize their cars and schedules. This guy drives the classic car, surfs single fins, and surfs sunset every day – his after-work routine. This guy has the van, a 70’s era Chevy, painted primer grey with Crager mag wheels, and is only here when it’s too big and is closing out at Bolsa Chica.
Our patio was in the front of the house on the sidewalk – the opposite of the American dream of privacy, walled off from your neighbors and sidewalkers. I would come to love this patio, sitting on the stoop like a New Yorker, music playing softly, ocean breeze blowing, the kid (soon to be kids) eating mud from the planters, saying hi to everyone that passed by, getting to know the regulars.
Some of those surfers would park right in front of my place since I was always either there or out in the water. How’s it look? Knowing I had surfed that morning and probably checked it multiple other times throughout the day. Some of the old-timers that shuffled along the sidewalks for their daily exercise would stop and chat, watching our little family grow just as I was, first one crawling little girl, now two.
My girls would learn to walk in that sand, holding hands as they climbed over that chain that blocked people from driving on the beach, stumbling down that last bit of rough pavement before climbing up and over the dunes, building strength in the deep footprints and eventually chasing the flocks of seagulls.
We would explore the rocks of the jetty, looking for treasures and creatures hiding in the crevices between the boulders. They would push to go to the park, away from the beach with its sand and wind and lack of swings or slides, but the dunes always proved just as fun.
We would drag the whole crew down to the water’s edge, across that wide beach that seemed infinite to a toddler’s steps. They would learn to not be afraid of catching a wave in the face or being knocked down, but then maybe would get scared every once in a while when their confidence brought them out a little too far. This lesson that the ocean was in charge would serve them well.
While this was an infinite surf trip, a one way ticket, that doesn’t mean that it would last forever. Other trips would come up, other one way tickets. They wouldn’t last forever either, but you just never knew how long it would last when you arrived – a year, more? But living on the sand like that was the only time I could remember living in the present, in the now.
The zen that people search for is there when you are in the right place. But it can be lost. You move on for other reasons, jobs, family, but then you are looking for the next thing, or even back to the old thing, just for something else. When you live like this you aren’t in the present, you are grasping for a future. But you can go back. You can learn this lesson, that there is a place where you don’t worry about what is next because there is no next, this is it.
When you have found your place in the world then you don’t look for the other thing. There is no other thing.
We would go on to leave Seal Beach, and then come and go from a few other places. We had only put down shallow roots there in the sandy soil, and they had become uprooted by the wind, by life, by changing priorities, but we would come then to know in hindsight what we had. We would live for the future while thinking back to that time when I never looked elsewhere. I was content for the only time in my life.
I’m ready to find that feeling again, maybe not in the same place, for you can’t always go back to the same place. It won’t be the same and neither are you. But you can try to find the same feeling, and it’s worth the effort. The next time I feel like that I’ll know it, and put down deeper roots, the kind that passing winds can’t carry.
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