With our surfboards lashed securely to the roof of Steve’s Jeep Cherokee, we made our way south on Highway One, past gently rolling pastures and rich bottomland. Fields green with artichokes and Brussels sprouts dashed past, momentarily obscured by the blur of movement. Herds of dairy cattle grazed lazily amidst fat bales of hay, barely watching us as we moved steadily in the gray, pre-dawn light.
Inside the cab, I sat slumped in the passenger seat, my shoulder resting heavily against the door. I had just opened my eyes, suddenly awake from a deep slumber, and was now blinking them repeatedly, trying to focus on the garish hula doll stuck to the dashboard with a plastic suction cup. The tiny, dark-haired beauty was wiggling and swaying, throwing her hips about salaciously, moving in rhythm to the road.
I ran a hand through my hair and sat up, adjusting myself to a more comfortable position on the slick vinyl seat. A semi passed us on the left, roaring by on its huge, oversized tires. I glanced over at Steve. He was tapping the wheel with his right index finger, drumming out a quick-paced tempo, his curly head bobbing up and down with a barely suppressed energy. Noticing my gaze, he stopped briefly and looked over. His eyes focused on mine for a moment, and I noticed the caffeine-induced haze therein.
“You da man!” he announced suddenly, then, just as abruptly, turned back to the road.
His finger resumed its tapping and his head returned to bobbing up and down. I rolled my eyes. That was going to be his phrase for the day, I mused. You da man. He had a new phrase every day, a little non sequitur that he repeated over and over again. Yesterday it was ‘mine eyes have seen the glory’ and tomorrow it might be ‘Zing! Please go to the next slide.’ It was another of his little eccentricities.
I rolled down the window and stuck out my head, breathing the coastal air deeply into my lungs. The scent of salt was unmistakable and the cold, brisk wind striking my face roused me from my drowsiness. After a minute I pulled back in and looked down at my watch. It was a little past six o’clock. I yawned and stretched. “Dude, are we there yet?” I asked, affecting a gratingly annoying tone.
“No, not yet,” Steve replied, without taking his eyes off the road. He paused briefly, then, in his best Zen-like tone, added: “You must have patience, grasshopper. Patience is the greatest virtue. It is what separates humans from the other animals. Without it, we are naught but creatures of sense and emotion, seeking only after those things that satisfy the immediate.”
I wrinkled my brow at this verbal stream of consciousness and turned to gaze out the window. Green farmland rolled by. To the east, the sun was beginning to crest the Santa Lucia Mountains and the first rays of morning crept hesitantly over the saddles and indentations, spilling rosy light downward. To the west, a field of lettuce, laid out in neat parallel rows, ran to the edge of the bluff. Beyond it and just below, the vast Pacific Ocean lay spread out, stretching like a rippled carpet toward the horizon. The scene was Midwestern bucolic, tempered with an oddly California maritime ambience. From our vantage, we couldn’t see the beach but, occasionally, I caught the pluming spray of a breaking wave and knew what it meant. It was a late summer swell–booming over a submerged offshore reef. Generated from North Pacific storms, carrying enough kinetic energy to light an entire city, these waves rolled down the coast like an advancing army, row after row of smooth, neatly spaced swell, battering the west-facing beaches in an unceasing display of power and ferocity.
We were headed toward a spot known simply as “The Point.” I had never surfed there, but Steve was a regular. It was a difficult place to find, more than a mile away from the highway, across a cow pasture on private land. Steve had been surfing there for years, usually alone.
At 38, Steve Langsford was an odd duck. One look at his long, angular face, hollow cheeks, tightly curled sandy blond hair, and pale, languid blue eyes and you were left with the impression that not much resided upstairs. In reality, however, Steve held a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Berkeley. He had started a company right after school that had something to do with streaming video, though I could never quite remember exactly what. His business was an instant success and he literally made millions over night. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he suddenly sold his share in the company three years ago and retired, a millionaire before age 40. Now he surfed full time. It kind of pissed me off.
Putting thoughts of his success and my own inadequacies quickly out of my mind, I smiled inwardly and anticipated squeezing into my wetsuit, grabbing my board, and paddling through the booming shorebreak as the morning sun sparkled and bounced off the glassy blue surface.
“Mind if I play some tunes?” Steve asked abruptly.
“Go ahead,” I nodded.
Steve thrust a stiff index finger at me. “You da man!”
I settled back as Steve popped a tape into the deck and turned up the volume. The dashboard thumped with the heavy reverberations of a bass guitar and the hula doll waggled her hips suggestively.
After another fifteen minutes of driving, we stopped at a well-known surf spot to make a quick check of the waves. We pulled up alongside several other parked cars, noticing that they all had surf racks. We exited and walked to the edge of the bluff. With the offshore breeze stiff at our backs, we peered over the edge. Several surfers crowded the little break, their forms outlined in golden against the early morning light. They straddled their boards, bobbing slightly up and down in the dark water, their eyes scanning the horizon, waiting for the next set. When one did roll in, they all scrambled to get into position. The first wave reared up like a smoking mountain and began to topple forward. The nearest surfer swung his board around and took two swift strokes. Caught in the wave’s momentum, he pushed up from his board and rose to his feet. Crouching slightly, he dropped down the face and swept into a long bottom turn.
“Go, dude! Go!” Steve yelled from the bluff, cupping his hands around his mouth against the wind. Caught off guard by his sudden outburst, I spun around and watched as my companion twisted and writhed, his shoulders rising and falling as he vicariously followed the surfer’s ride. Below us, the surfer suddenly and deliberately stalled his board, stood for a brief moment, and then fell backward and crashed into the water as the wave swept away from him.
“The Point is going to be pumping,” Steve cackled, as giddy as a schoolboy. He grabbed my shoulder and urged me back toward the jeep. “C’mon.” We piled back in and Steve hurriedly started the engine. Glancing in his side mirror for oncoming traffic, he swung out onto the road.
We drove southwards again and I noticed that Steve’s foot rested heavier on the gas. He had ceased his finger tapping and was taking the turns a little faster than usual. We eventually turned off onto a dirt road that cut away from the highway. It led down a slight decline, through a stand of eucalyptus, and eventually up to a gate affixed with a combination lock. With the car still running, Steve hopped out, unlocked the gate, and hopped back in. We drove through and Steve stopped the car again. He nodded in my direction and this time I hopped out, closed the gate, and hopped back in.
“How’d you know the combination?” I asked, slamming the door behind me.
Steve shifted into low and grinned conspiratorially. “Cause sometimes, grasshopper,” he said, “I da man.”
We sputtered across a cow pasture, wet from recent rains, and then bounced down a potholed road. Eventually we came to a turnaround. Steve parked under a eucalyptus, turned off the motor, and set the handbrake. He stepped out and immediately began to untie the straps and take down the boards. I sidled around the car just in time to have my board thrust at me. He shoved it into my hands with a grand gesture, as though bestowing me with a precious object. “Here is thy rod and thy staff,” he said. He stood his own board upright against the hood, reached into the jeep, and gathered his wetsuit from the back seat. He stuffed the suit into his goofy little flowerprint backpack and then threw the contraption over his shoulders. He stood with his board under his arm, itching with a barely controlled urgency, waiting impatiently for me to hurry.
When I had finished my own preparations, I noticed him scrutinizing me with a bemused smile. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
He continued to look at me quizzically, then slowly shook his head from side to side in a gesture of exasperation. “You’re going to wear that?” he asked, pointing at my clothes.
I looked down. I was wearing my usual attire: T-shirt, surf trunks, and sandals. I glanced back up at him. Steve was dressed in blue-jeans, hiking boots, and a T-shirt.
“Dude,” he said, still shaking his head, “I told you, we have to cut through a forest. There’s going to be poison oak.”
“I’ll be all right.”
Steve shrugged and turned around, clomping toward the barb-wire fence. We slipped underneath and crossed another pasture, taking special pains to avoid the heaping piles of manure. Cows stood on either side of us, munching grass with a rhythmic grinding of their lower jaws and watching us with large, vacuous eyes. The sun was a quarter up in the sky, washing the hills around us with golden, slanting light. At our feet, pink fuchsias with large drooping petals mingled with clumps of Easter lily, wild mustard, and broom-shaped stokesia. Willows lined a small creek over to our right. And on the slopes above, coastal live oak, gnarled and twisted, looked down on us, allowing trespass through their domain.
When the field ended, Steve led me through a forest of cypress trees and Monterey pine. We picked our way through the dense foliage, following a path that led between the dark trees. The sun slanted through the canopy, filtering down in golden columns of light, sparkling off a million suspended dust particles. The trail seemed to go on forever and my board grew heavy under my arm. I was getting tired of clomping along but I followed doggedly, fortified by Steve’s constant urgings.
After another ten minutes, however, we finally emerged from the forest and found ourselves in a large clearing at the edge of a small but precipitous sandstone bluff. The vast Pacific stretched out before us and I felt a shiver of excitement. Steve hadn’t led me astray. Below us, the sand was clean and white and the water was clear. Just to the north of us, a small headland jutted out into the Pacific. Opposite, a long curving beach stretched endlessly southward, dotted here and there with dried kelp and wave-scoured driftwood. There wasn’t anyone around for miles.
As we admired the simple, resonant beauty of the place, a set rumbled in from the north. It wrapped around the headland, and, feeling the drag of the bottom, began to peel in flawless lines toward shore. Out beyond the surf zone, a long line of pelicans raced by, their perfectly synchronized flight low over the water.
Steve grabbed my arm and gave me a vise-like squeeze. “This, little grasshopper,” he exclaimed, his eyes glistening with an inner enthusiasm, “is Nirvana, Heaven all wrapped into one.”
Steve found a water-cut ravine and hurriedly plunged down it; in a few moments he emerged on the beach. I scrambled after him, nearly tripping in my haste. I set my board down against a large piece of driftwood, kicked off my sandals, tore off my shirt, and squeezed into my wetsuit. Bending down, I wrapped my leash around my right ankle, pulling on the cord to test its fit. Then I picked up my board and slowly stood up, peering seaward, waiting for the next lull.
Steve stood at my left shoulder, cradling his board under his arm, the offshore breeze gently rustling his hair. “Hey, Tom,” he said abruptly, glancing over at me, his voice suddenly serious. “Everything’s right here, right now.”
Surprised at his sudden change in tone, I turned my head to look at him and squinted for a moment, searching his face inquiringly. His eyes were calm, however; they held neither affectation nor mockery–he was completely earnest.
“I mean it,” he reiterated, looking at me gravely and steadily. “This is what life is all about.”
I nodded a silent understanding.
“Anyway,” he laughed suddenly, reverting to his old pixie-like self, “you da man.”
When the lull came, we pushed through the shorebreak and began paddling seaward. I noticed that the sun was sparkling and bouncing off the glassy blue surface.
photos by Thomas S. Garlinghouse