“Sure, why not,” I reply. I’m sure he’s exaggerating about how long it’s going to take to get to the beach. But then again, I’m the tourist here.
The two a.m. moon is high above Seattle as we roll out toward the coastline with boards and suits barely dry from previous weekends. As town slips quietly into the distance behind us, endless winding pavement fringed with country house nightlights guides us through the back roads.
Maybe it’s the sense of a mission in front of us. Maybe it’s the fact that I know the beach will be empty as they usually are here, but I’m excited. In a few hours we’d be tugging black rubber over our bodies and hitting the water. Right now we’re two hours into the drive with quite a ways to go. I realize he wasn’t exaggerating about how far he travels to surf. “You tired,” I ask, seeing his eyes wearily tracing the road. An hour later I’m behind the wheel forcing my eyes to stay focused and disregarding the imaginary deer and bunny rabbits that keep hopping across the road. A faint golden glow lights up the sky behind me. At first I think it must be city lights, but it isn’t–it’s sunrise. The morning glow begins to color the mountains running along the edge of my view. Fire-orange fog rolls over the ridges, and I feel like I’m in a Slayer video. I’m thoroughly hallucinating now.
“Um, Pete, you’re going to have to keep me awake,” I say as another virtual doe hops across the road in front of me and then vaporizes. He pops up from the back of the van looking barely rested. I want to sleep, but knowing that we’re close to the beach keeps me up, besides I have that road hum pumping through my veins, so I co-pilot.
Half an hour later, morning is in full-force and we’re bumping along the edge of a rugged beachfront. It’s 6 a.m. and there is little moving other than the ocean, the dust from the unpaved road, and a couple of dogs wandering aimlessly in search of scraps. We pull over, slide open the van door, and are immediately frosted by the chilly morning breeze swirling in off the water. At least the sun is out. One of fifty sunny days this coast sees a year. Mr. Sandman takes over as I decide a few hours of sleep sounds better than slipping into cold rubber. Even die-hard Pete decides his passion to hit the surf isn’t as strong as his need for sleep.
By nine the empty parking lot is quickly filling with cars, trucks, and vans loaded down with surf boards of every size. Short boards seem to be the choice for most, but a few eggs and longboards shade some roofs. A full session of hand slapping and bro-greeting takes up the next fifteen minutes. Of course everyone, except us, was smart enough to arrive the night before and get more than a few hours of sleep. But they all nod their heads at us with understanding and respect. Stories about the awesome journey out to the point are swapped. Clothes are shucked for wetsuits complete with booties and hoods.
I can’t help but think about things that go bump in the night or in cold, dark water like this. It seems like Northwest water is only suitable for whales and great whites. And here I am waddling down to the beach like a tasty rubber seal labeled “eat me” with a board resting between my arm and waist.
As soon as my big toe touches the water I understand how truly hardcore they are. I’m not going in. What the hell am I doing here anyway? I live iin California where the water gets warmer than my bathtub. I should surf more there, then I wouldn’t feel the peer pressure to do it here, would I? I’d be satisfied with my girly-warm waves in Cali.
I survey the near empty beach. The group of surfers in the water looks completely out of place against the rugged scenery. Jagged rocks, mountains, and trees replace my California-beach reality of waterfront condos and packs of angry testosterone-filled boys battling for waves. A set comes in. No one charges as it softly rolls by–a near perfect curl. Nobody seems distraught about missing the set. Then there’s another, and another, and another.
Eventually I quit the pansy-ass whining debate I’m having in my head, ease in up to my knees, then waist, and I’m still alive. No sign of Jaws so far. Hypothermia isn’t even nearby. And as much as I hate to admit it, the water feels a lot like California at this time of year. The only difference is that the sun is comparable to weak coffee, the hot kick just ain’t there.
As soon as I start paddling out and realize the school of sharks is feasting elsewhere for the time being, I begin to notice the coastline and the variety of peaks that run down the beach. I choose the smaller waves off to the side of the lineup, sit up on my board, and put the endless ocean behind me. Coastline in its raw form lies in front of me looking uninhabited–even with our wetsuits, Volkswagen Vanagons, and fiberglassed pieces of foam marring the landscape. We are temporary.
In my opinion, there aren’t many places in the world that are worth driving all night to get to. But mix a nearly untouched landscape with empty waves and you have a perfect moment in time. I realize for this crew quietly bobbing in the early morning sun that it’s not even about the activity, it’s the moment they’re in. And for the first time I begin to understand surfing.
Alone in the ocean I’m relaxed and at peace. I’d love to close my eyes, but I’m afraid when I open them I’ll be back in Cali, staring at cars whizzing down the Pacific Coast Highway. So, I float and scan the landscape. Maybe next week I’ll give surfing in California another try.