Less meat, less alcohol, more vegetables, more working out, stretching and breathing exercises. If the world crumbles I can handle it better if I’m fit. Less thinking and more doing, thoughts can’t spin out of control if there aren’t any.
I need to feel wind, hot sun, cold water. Muscles burn and lungs stretch, the taste of salt and the feel of sand and rock. Duck diving beneath the waves, I join the sea instead of fighting it. There’s no one around. My hip slams a boulder just beneath the surface and leaves a bloody bruise, despite a 6 mil wetsuit. I’m grateful, I don’t have to pinch myself to know I’m alive.
I’ve been surfing twice in the last few days and although my secret spot is fickle, it has its moments. Here’s a shot from a few hundred yards down the beach as the current swell was dying out, and just before a gale was coming in, about to blow the coast to smithereens. You can see it coming, the sun filters through a wall of wind, an airborne blanket of spray about a mile out, coming closer, closer..
This is not me, but I have surfed at this exact spot on a similar day, when the waves were just as raw, just as big. This wave is solid 10 foot Hawaiian, which means 20′ crest to trough. It’s the type of wave that can ruin your day if you fall, can turn your limbs backwards at the joints, hold you under until your lungs burn, make your whole world go black, make you pee in your wetsuit. For me it’s a wave that made me realize I’m a big fat chicken, and that being brave has nothing to do with being a man.
This spot is semi-secret and hard to get to. It can be good spring through fall, but winter summons ungodly energy from North Pacific storms and focuses it on the beautiful but remote and dangerous rocky coast of Washington state. For me it’s a 30 minute ferry ride, then three hours of driving on a two-lane road that is prone to washout from landslides. It rains a lot here. The unmarked trailhead starts at an Indian burial ground, then winds through a thick muddy evergreen forest half a mile down to the beach. You can see Canada from here, and sometimes eagles, otters, and whales. Every now and then I see another person. On this particular day, there was someone else already in the water, a girl called Massy. I had met her once before at the trailhead to another spot even more remote, that begins past where the paved road ends, past where the gravel road ends, at the town garbage dump. Here you’re just as likely to see a bear as you are a person, and one day I met her as she was packing her board away into a beat up Subaru, with a Massachusets license plate. She not only knew how to surf, but knew how to get here, knew how to surf here.
She was a solitary human in a big ocean, in big conditions. I paddled out, which was no easy feat, and nodded a silent hello to her as I passed. She seemed too far inside, destined to get cleaned up on the next big set. On a long period swell the sets are bigger, more powerful, but longer apart. It can be a challenge to figure out where to sit and wait, and strong currents make it hard to hold a position. I was sure she was doomed. At some point the horizon went black, and I started paddling out even farther. Climbing over the first wave, then the second, I saw the third, which was the last and biggest. It was a monster, I swung and paddled just to have a look. Twenty feet below me was Massy, paddling to actually catch the wave. I was in a better position so she checked me, and I motioned for her to go ahead and take it, not out of being generous, but because I was too scared. At that moment I realized I would never be cut out to be a big wave surfer, which to me now is laughable but at that time was devastating. I had given years to finding and figuring out new spots, to taking risks and pushing my own limits. But now I knew just where that limit was.
I have found many more limits since then, and realize now that they are not to be feared or dreaded. These boundaries help me figure out my place in the world, to become more comfortable being me. I’m not as scared to push the envelope anymore, not because I’m courageous, but because I’m comfortable with my own limitations, comfortable not being perfect, comfortable being afraid.
I will always be afraid of something or another, like big waves, spiders, and dying after my child. But I won’t be afraid of taking chances, opening my heart to someone new, or living in fear of the corona virus, even if I am pretty much living indoors. Fear is a useful, practical response to danger, but it can feed on itself and become paralyzing. I try to remember to confront fear, to embrace it, to work rationally to overcome the real threat behind it. Without fear there is no courage.
This is a forecast that grabbed my attention. Not optimal by any means but it promised to be a good show. So Saturday I grabbed my board, wetsuit, gloves and booties and threw everything into the back of the truck and headed north, hoping the wind would back off. No such luck. 4o degrees outside and the pouring rain turned to hail, pelting the side of the truck as I approached the coast. There’s a part of the island that looks northwest up the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, wide open to any north Pacific storm that decides to coming barreling down. Half a dozen spots dot this small section of coast where it’s possible to stare straight into the teeth of nature’s fury and hunt waves.
The forecast called for 40 mph winds which I hoped would back off with the incoming tide, instead it was blowing closer to 50 and gusting well higher than that. It was hard to stand still. Sea foam was whipping through the sky and sea water was surging through the parking lot. My front half was soaked and my backside dry. I still wanted to do my due diligence and check my secret spot but there was no trail by the beach, the ocean was pounding the base of the cliffs, grabbing massive logs and old growth stumps, sucking them back out to sea with frightening ease.
I checked another spot that can handle the wind, but the current was pushing 10 knots and the debris was just plain dangerous, no waves for me today. Instead I climbed up a ridge where the wind was funneling up even faster, knelt down and closed my eyes. The hail stopped and the sun came out, the wind blistering my face. It felt like torture, it felt sublime. I was getting my ass kicked and loving every second. My ego was obliterated, there didn’t seem to be any division between what was happening outside my body and inside. The noise was deafening, it was impossible to think. The wind was ripping the pain out, blowing my tears away..