(Note: This is long, I know, but well-illustrated, and in my defense, I’ve written longer pieces about mass transit, tax policy and road repairs. Mea culpa.)
On the flight out to California, en route to a week at Endless Summer Surf Camp, I tried to inventory and analyze my fears. You know: Confront your monsters, call them by their names, face them down. In no special order:
** The Big P. I’m a good swimmer, and like most Midwesterners, I’ve been to Florida and the Caribbean, but apart from some dabbling in little wavelets in the Gulf of Mexico or Bahamas, I’d never been in saltwater over my head, never mind contended with riptides, sharks, stingrays or any of the other dirty tricks an ocean has up its sleeve.
** Physical limitations. I’m going to be 59 in a couple months. I’m pretty fit for my age, but my age is eligible for AARP membership and my knees are a mess. Big one, right there.
** Looking like an idiot. We all fear this one, right? The older I get, the less it bothers me. Still, it bothers me.
There were others. But those were the biggies — failing utterly, breaking something, shark attack. I could very easily see a scenario where I spent the week on the beach with an ice pack and crutches, and that was the best case, the one where I wasn’t airlifted home in medical humiliation or a body bag.
It didn’t work out that way, thankfully. For this I can only credit the good people at Endless Summer Surf Camp, which I’m mentioning by its full name again and putting in this post’s tags, because I want anyone like me who might be considering a stay there to find this post high in the Google results.
The first surprise was the camp itself, which is in the San Onofre State Park. I envisioned nights drifting off to sleep to the eternal sound of the ocean. Um, no. I was envisioning a mini-Yosemite, and was brought up short by what it was — a strip of asphalt for camper parking, a belt of chaparral, high bluffs over the Pacific and the beach itself. In fact, it was carved out of Camp Pendleton, the Marine base:
The sound of their ordnance roaring in the hills was sometimes startling, but for anyone who’s camped near Grayling, Michigan? Pretty familiar.
Neither asphalt nor chaparral is welcoming to tent camping, but Jason Senn, the camp’s owner, has made it work — an RV parked at either end of a strip of spaces, grass-colored carpet laid between, and about 20 tents hard by one another, in two rows. If you brought adequate padding and a decent sleeping bag, it was no worse than sleeping on any forest floor. The surprise was the noise from the San Diego freeway, which was, no kidding, maybe 100 yards to the east. So no ocean sounds, but what Realtors call the Detroit river. What’s more, about halfway between was a rail line, and a busy one, although thankfully not near any crossings, so no horns at 2 a.m. After a day it all became white noise. Much like the ocean.
This was where we spent our days:
It’s probably a half mile walk down from the top. Even on Labor Day, when the parking was filled to capacity, we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. I guess even Californians get picky about recreation when you have to walk so far, and then walk back up a steep hill.
For beginners, it’s hard to imagine a more welcoming spot — a long beach break, with waves breaking far enough out that a clumsy oaf like me has enough time to clamber to her feet before arriving back on land. For the more advanced surfers, the waves were long, many of them “a-frames,” like the ones sought by Col. Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” that break with symmetrical right and left shoulders. (The point of surfing is to travel parallel to the wave; perpendicular rides are for coming in or beginners like me.)
But first you have to get “outside,” beyond the breaking waves to the relatively calm ocean beyond. It’s no small thing, because the ocean really doesn’t want you there.
On day one, I and two other total newbies, Adam and Susan, were paired with Romolo, an instructor. He said he got into surfing via downhill skateboard racing, which suggested a certain X-Games fearlessness. Venezuelan, slender and fit, with a cockscomb Mohawk and rapid-fire speech, brown as a bear and so graceful on a board it looked like a part of his body, this guy was put in charge of three middle-aged adults. He gave us a lesson on the beach, and then it was time to paddle out, shuffling our feet through the shallows (stingrays) and following instructions. As we picked up our boards, he crossed himself. It was a startling gesture for someone who’s gone downhill fast on a skateboard, but who am I to argue with a man’s faith? I crossed myself, too, just in case he knew something I didn’t. (Of course he did; I’d never even been in the Pacific Ocean.)
The water was warmer than I expected, maybe 70 degrees, but I was still grateful for my wetsuit. We shuffled through a few knee-high crashers, then it was time to go belly-down on the board and paddle. Within seconds, a wall of whitewater was bearing down on us. “Turn over!” Romolo called, but I couldn’t process the command — he was calling for a turtle roll, where you roll off onto your back, holding the board over your face and letting your legs trail. The wave hit me smack in the face, a HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT moment, but I stayed on the board.
“Celia! You have to roll over!” I heard Romolo calling. (Adam’s name he mastered, but Susan and I became Sonya and Celia.) I knew he was talking to me, but rolling over just wasn’t in my skill set yet. The next wave was bearing down. I hung on tight. SMASH. Honestly, it wasn’t too bad; later in the week I learned a different strategy for getting through, but for my first trip out, I committed to punishment, even as I gave Romolo every reason to be grateful for his religion. Finally, after a few more direct hits, we were there, outside, and we sat up on our boards. Romolo scolded me; you can’t just power through like that, you can get hurt, if the waves were bigger, etc. I was honestly just letting it all pour over me, like the waves; I felt a fugue-like disassociation. Where the hell was I, and what was I doing out here? Is this the ocean? Are those bombs? And more to the point, how the hell was I going to get back to the beach?
I’ll spare you the details of every ride. Romolo spotted the waves for us, and gave us the push we needed to get up to speed, because none of us had any idea how fast you have to paddle to catch them. For the first, I couldn’t rise from my stomach, again because it was just so strange and disorienting. The second, I got to one foot and knee. There were wipeouts galore along the way, and those taught me as much as the fleeting successes — that the ocean might throw me around like a rag doll, but I wouldn’t drown or lose my board (thanks, leash), that each one would pass, that I could still swim, and that this rolling and tumbling was useful. Stressful, too, with a whirl of unfamiliar feelings and emotions, including fear but also the dawning exhilaration of what we were all working toward. When I think of that first day, I don’t remember moments so much as a slide show of images and sounds — white water overhead, smashing down; Romolo’s face, worried under his wet Mohawk, lips white with zinc oxide; the blue ocean beyond; the way the waves outside lifted and lowered us as we sat our our boards; “Celia! Paddle-paddle-paddle! Faster-faster-faster!”
I was grateful to walk back up the hill at the end of the day. But inside, I was also itching to get out again.
Day two brought a new instructor. I figured I had ai-yi-yi’d Romolo into enough of a tizzy that when an amiable Brazilian ambled up to me on the beach and introduced himself as Rafael, my first thought was: I see I’ve been bounced to the special class. But Adam and Susan were still in the group, so maybe it was just the rotation or something. In any event, either Rafael was a much better fit or it was one of those when-the-student-is-ready-the-teacher-will-appear things. His accent was drawling, his mood chill, his encouragement gentle. He had a “two-step pop-up” that seemed made for less-nimble people. And I knew what to expect now.
I also had a bigger board, a foot longer and noticeably wider. This may be what made the difference when I finally wobbled to my feet and stood, more or less upright, and stayed up, almost all the way to the beach. It was different from my first belly ride in many ways, but mainly the illusion of being just a tad more in control and the pressure on the bottoms of my feet, all of which said: So this is what a flying carpet feels like.
For the record, this is what a flying carpet feels like. And I couldn’t even steer it yet:
So. Thus reassured that I could, and would, eventually be able to do this thing, it was possible to relax a little and pay more attention to my fellow surf campers. Besides Susan (who is from Grosse Pointe, and traveled with me) and Adam, there was Rusty, an instructor, seen here making breakfast:
When I met him I said, “You look like you were sent here from central casting.” He laughed, because he’s Australian and everything amuses him. He introduced me to the Cosmic Psychos, an Aussie punk band responsible for this song, which tells you a great deal about Aussie punk bands. When I was showing my pictures around the office last week, one of my colleagues took a look at Rusty and said, “He looks like he was sent from central casting.”
There was also Margery and Tony, Canadians, who come all the way in from Whitehorse, in the Yukon, to surf at Endless Summer every year. They’re both in their 70s, and meet up with their son and his partner. And they get in the water, yes. Paul was a childhood friend of Jason’s, a quasi instructor, quasi because he was rehabbing from a terrifying motorcycle crash a year ago that sounds like it could easily have cost him a leg. Here’s Paul and Susan, Paul elevating his leg because it was swelling. But yeah, he surfed, too:
Irish Mike came all the way from Dublin:
That robe he’s wearing is in every surf shop. I thought it was maybe some sort of cult garment until I figured it out — it’s a modesty coverup so you can change into your wetsuit commando, which I guess a lot of people, especially guys, prefer. The driftwood stuck in the sand behind him was the wicket he and Rusty set up for a cricket pitch they made. He surfs year-round in Ireland, in frigid water, requiring dry suits with hoods, gloves and booties. I’d say he earned this kelly-green tattoo:
There was Daria from Montreal, Cara from New Jersey, Preston the Navy dentist on leave, Ron and Marisol from L.A. and Cristophe, French by way of San Diego. Many others. We socialized on the beach and in the camp, watching surf movies on TV — there was a lounge, with couches, a nice perk for asphalt campers — and sitting around the fire, where we talked about Donald Trump and Detroit and all the places they were from.
And day by day, I got just a little better. I started to recognize the tides, asked Preston about the Marine watercraft sitting far offshore, watched a school of baitfish fling themselves out of the water a little farther outside. (I tucked my arms and legs onto the board, unsure what, exactly, might be chasing them.) Three pelicans flew by in formation 20 feet from my face. The waves rolled by in moving pyramids, the wind whipping their tops into spray, a beautiful sight. And this happened:
Dolphins, not sharks.
And then it was over. Susan and I made our way back to Los Angeles, via the same rail line that ran through the camp. (It kills me that LA, a city perhaps more associated with cars than even Detroit, is so far ahead of us on mass transit by rail.) I was working my way through a burger as big as my head in Marina del Rey on Friday night — and please, feel free to file that under “sentence fragments you hoped you’d never read here” — when it struck me why I was feeling so buzzed by the week just concluded: It was all so very unfamiliar.
My vacations have always fallen into one of two categories. There’s the kind where all you want is total sloth and torpor — lead me to a beach/pool chair, put a drink in my hand, refill it at regular intervals and point me to bed hours later. And there’s the kind where you embark on an adventure, a dive into a new culture, a strange place, and go-go-go until it’s time to board the plane home.
Some people are partisans of one or the other. A true moderate, I enjoy both. This summer, I took two vacations, at the beginning and end of the season, and both were the latter kind. Iceland was a world away, San Clemente on the other side of the country, but both are places so different from my usual routine that they left me feeling …bigger, somehow. Expanded. More open. Wider, maybe, although that may be all the granola bars I ate on the beach. But different somehow, a little wiser about things I thought I was smart about but it turned out I was dumb about. And isn’t that the point of this journey? To enlarge ourselves, to encompass more, to get out of our ruts and see the world? We’re all just visitors here, so we might as well try new things once in a while.
So until next year, Adam, Romolo, Susan and Rafael:
I leave you with a bookend to the other pictures I shot all summer — sunrise in Grosse Pointe. Here was the first-day sunset over the Big P, with the tiny crescent moon coming down on its own journey:
This is the new lock-screen photo on my phone. Reminding me it’s out there, waiting for me next summer.
Some photography by me, most by A.J. Mcclintick.