Wednesday After

13403970_1509050489121031_6107610005133950721_oI caught the most amazing wave today.

My arms and shoulders were still tired from handstand class, but the waves were peeling long. My friend Mike sent me a note that he was going to Higgins Beach, and in the aftermath I decided to join. I entered the water in full neoprene—hood, gloves and booties even—and hopped my way out as far as I could against the surge. At the last break of whitewater I started paddling. A few waves crested over me, crashed and pushed me under, but after a few surf sessions in recent weeks I’ve developed enough fitness that I got out.

But barely. These were big waves, and by the time I pulled beyond them my shoulders were spent, my arms slapping the water. I sat up, let the ocean roll beneath me. I’d done the hard part, made it past the breakers, and now was recovery. I sat for 7 or 8 minutes, bobbing.

Then I started chasing waves. They were big and loose, I kept missing their pull. They came with enough force, but I was far out and they lacked shape. I kept sitting up and looking for something to carry me.

Then it came. I’m not nearly the surfer as I am a climber, but this wave wanted to teach me. I felt it buck underneath me, steep and rowdy. I paddled to match, pulled with everything left in the marrow of my shoulders. And it took me. Suddenly I was sliding down its face. I hopped up, shooting forward in the gathering maelstrom, turned and grabbed the wave’s shoulder, its crest roaring and tumbling white at my back. I felt it catching up, saw churning in my periphery, but I augured deep, carved into her flesh as the wave rolled forward. I was on the brink, just a step ahead of the tumbling, in the pocket, my board carving a dividing line between blue face and crashing white. I’d landed here before, but never on anything nearly so big—it was taller than me, snarling like a wolf at my feet. But my fingers were in its mane, and I held fast.

I don’t know how long it lasted—like those infrequent moments where I hold a handstand it felt like forever, but it was seconds, 20 or 25 maybe, or maybe only 10. I rode the flashing teeth, danced in their spray, felt the board rock and toss, dragged my fingers against the ocean’s lips. She seemed to rise to meet me, to push me with an angry kiss. I shot forward, ahead of the white and onto a less turbulent elbow. I bounced down these final tendrils to the foam of the beach, where I jumped, leaving the beast to the rodeo clowns.

It was incredible, perfect. It still feels like someone else’s memory.

Shattered Glass Beach

Shattered Glass Beach

IMG_8192.JPGThe idea sounded cool when I read about it a month ago: a beach made of sea glass, stones replaced with ground shards of white, green and brown. Rare specks of blue and rose radiating in the sun, waves lapping the shore, giving the glass below the waterline an even more powerful sense of iridescence. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California. I wanted to see it.

I left Oakland on Saturday, the end of a month sleeping in beds (none of them mine and in four different states, but still). I had two weeks to get up the Pacific Coast to Seattle, where I’ll fly south at the end of the month to Belize. The Plan: surf, climb, paint, read, write and flyfish my way through Northern California, Oregon and Washington before my flight. See beautiful things, beautiful places. Maybe fall in love with one of them and decide to live there forever. You know, the usual roadtrip stuff.

I crossed the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, aimed for Point Reyes National Seashore, where two lanes snake across highlands, surrounded by ocean on all sides. It juts into the Pacific, America’s left-coast thumb. Stiff breezes rake over grasslands and grazing cows, an unceasing roar from the north. Sand beaches stretch for miles, some lined by dunes, others by cliffs. Elephant seals bask in the sun. Seabirds glide on endless thermals overhead.

13497627_1521654587860621_4683670894975756410_oI drove to North Beach and watched waves pound the shore. It was a desolate place. I wanted to stay, to take in the starkness. The sun had warmth, but not enough to fight the wind. I pulled on my jacket, wandered down to the lighthouse at the point, then over the peninsula to a protected harbor. All of it wild, lonely and exposed.

I spent the night in a boat launch parking lot. Coyotes yipped in the dark; the wind carried their calls. I read by headlamp until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I went to sleep still wearing my jacket.

The next morning I work up and drove the beach. The wind had died, the ocean was calmer, more orderly, but breaking against the sand. It would not be a surfing day.

Or so I thought. I got back to my car and saw a slip of white under the wiper. “Live Free or Die. 🙂 🙂 :-)” it said. It was a note scrawled in pen on the back of a paper receipt. “I moved here 21 years ago from North Hampton. No more ice cream headache! Come over to Drake’s Estero, wind will be offshore. Enjoy! Tony Szabo”

Surfing beta. The board strapped to the roof had given Tony the message I might need some direction about conditions. He was right. The estuary—I’d seen signs for it.  I climbed back into the Element and headed that way.

I came to Drake’s Beach and watched lazy rolling waves cut towards shore. The swell came north, the wind pushed its way south; a perfect combination. Small, but enough. I grabbed my board and wetsuit and headed for the water.

I’m not much of a surfer, the Pacific is a different animal than the North Atlantic, but it was fun, friendly but cold. After an hour I climbed out shivering, my hands numb. I fumbled my way out of my wetsuit, changed and headed north again.

Dinner, a podcast and a map later I knew I had 100 miles to go Glass Beach. I would be there by the morning.

IMG_8191.JPGThe morning was cloudy when I pulled into Fort Bragg, the ocean calm. I turned left of Highway 1 and parked, following signs to Glass Beach. “Please leave all cultural artifacts,” a note said. I descended cabled stairs to the shore.

And there it was—a beach of mostly seaglass. People were everywhere picking their favorite pieces, dropping them in bags, digging through the glass, mostly white, green and brown, the blues and reds long ago picked out.

This beach is a former dump. Until 1959 residents tossed all manner of trash off the cliff, and over the decades the ocean transformed much of it. Now it’s a park.

But a park with a past. Dig through the glass for a bit and your hands turn dark, grimy. The ocean did what it could to wash this beach clean, but even a half century of rinsing cannot rub the trash truly clean. Instead of a glow, the beach is a dull hue, still has the feel of a refuse heap. Down at the waterline it’s better, with the ocean actively rinsing, but even there bits of metal and old springs show through. The garbage dump is still home to garbage.

A few miles in either direction are more beaches, endless beaches. They are without glass, but they are also without the grime. The waves lap and coat them with salt, nothing more. These stretch in either direction, south to Mexico, north to Canada, broken by more cliffbands than roads. I went looking for the glass, for the one expired trash dump on 3,000 miles of beautiful coast. Thank goodness I made some stops along the way. I will be making many more.

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Outdoors On Sale

Outdoors On Sale

13116472_1487458877946859_7391871088256538032_oI have an idea.

It’s one I’ve been batting around for weeks, something I’ve been brainstorming with friends and trying to figure out how to bring to fruition. It’s pretty simple, but it has roots: I want to use the outdoor industry to change the world. I want to use the outdoors to sell, but not products. I want to sell things currently struggling to make themselves marketable: to use the cultural cache of rock climbing, skiing, surfing and #vanlife to push a conversation about the environment, about climate change, about the plastics ending up in our oceans, the glaciers melting on mountaintops, rising seas and corals slowly bleaching on reefs. I want to use the culture of outdoor athletes to sell more than just jackets. I want it to make a difference for more than just some corporate bottom line. I want it to save the world.

Tall order, I know. But the outdoors sells. In this era of the Instafamous, of Jeep and Subaru ads, Prana and Patagonia catalogs, Redbull and Rossignol videos, this can work. These brands all count on the cultural hook outdoor sports offer to sell their products, so couldn’t the outdoors also sell itself? Couldn’t we use its cool-factor to remind people the world is changing, that it is itself threatened? Couldn’t the outdoors sell something invaluable for once?

I turned down an actual job in the outdoor industry to try this. I want people to hear the word “Patagonia” and think of a place, not a company, even if the company is a responsible one. It’s a concept I would hope even Patagonia would be on board with.

I have long ties to the outdoor industry. I’ve worked in retail, am a guide and athlete and I’ve done stints working as a sales rep. That last one was the hardest—selling outdoor gear. I remember listening to conversations about how some customer would buy whatever was the nice this winter, that a new set of skis had to go with a new kit. The job was to push people to buy a new jacket so they could get into the mountains, even if they already had a perfectly serviceable jacket already.

I couldn’t do it. That was not why I fell in love with the mountains. The outdoors were a step away from consumer-driven culture, a haven in an economy all about growth. Backpacking, hiking and climbing took me away from the blaring images of marketers, away from the constant stream of advertisements. There was something beautiful in that.

But the outdoor world has been co-opted; now it’s part of the pitch. The allure of #VanLife is the adventure, but it’s mixed up with a trendy lifestyle image used to sell things. A huge part is about the gear, about tricking out your rig. Van aficionados pour over websites and forums discussing how best to achieve their van dream, sinking money into solar panels that match the stove. Keeping up with the Joneses moved to four wheels.

And it’s not just the vans. I know people who revel in the breadth of their climbing rack. Others boast about their gear closets and post pictures to Instagram. The bikes, boards, kites and ropes are called toys, and he who owns the most toys wins, even if you barely have the time to use any of it. There are outdoor magazine articles and Instagram feeds dedicated to this stuff, and people surf the pictures from their office computers.

The dedicated outdoors people I know, meanwhile, don’t care about gear. They use whatever is around. These are guides, pro climbers, the people who make their living in the outdoors; they aren’t fussy about carabiners or climbing ropes because anything will do. Whatever is cheap and will get them outside is what they want. To them climbing is about action, not accessories, and as a result they spend more time and less money on the thing they love.

But that vision for the outdoors isn’t sexy, and it isn’t what dominates the outdoor industry today. The conversation is all about what is newest and latest and lightest. What is the best gear of this year?

Who cares? What piece of gear actually gets you outside? Your feet mostly, something you already own. Maybe you need a bike or a paddleboard, but what about all the knickknacks they sell alongside them? Some basics are usually useful, but most are useless. They are ways to make money off your desire and your passion. Most outdoors people wind up with a closet overflowing with stuff they never use, stuff they bought because they heeded the whisper of consumerism, stuff that could have been turned into time off, time outside, or plane tickets had it never been purchased. But modern American outdoorspeople are caught in the same consumer frenzy as other sectors, and they buy in. We buy in. We let ourselves get pulled back, let the consumerist urges we originally sought to escape return. They never let us stray far. They waited for us to put down our guard, and then they pounce.

That was feeling I had when I was offered the sales job, and it’s why I turned it down. It just didn’t fit. Selling to get outside stands exactly opposite of why I go outside.

That feeling was present this Sunday as well. It was my first real dive in the Pacific: Point Lobos, south of Monterey. A daytrip alongside a handful of other freedivers, all of them more experienced than me. I showed up with a surfing wetsuit, $5 dive fins I bought off Craigslist and a cheap mask and snorkel. It’s the stuff I’ve used since the day I started a year ago, some I accrued, some I sought out, some I borrowed. It is cheap, and it works. Everyone else had $200 freedive fins, top of the line low-volume masks and dedicated 7mm freedive suits. I got suited up, no gloves and no booties, and attached my bright yellow snorkel to my mask. The crew looked at me and laughed. “You did a course with those?” my friend Mika said, pointing to my short little U.S. Diver fins. “They let you do that?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

“They’re not freedive fins,” he said. “If you can keep up you must be twice the diver of any of us.”

He was right, and I was not. I watched the other three speed beneath the surface with each drop, kick after kick sending gushes of water upwards. Their equipment far outpaced mine, and they got deeper because of it.

But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t there to set records, I was there to explore the Pacific, to see the kelp forests and learn more about freediving. I was there to meet new people and to keep practicing this sport I’d discovered a year before, to get a glimpse of the underworld aquarium we call the ocean, to take a step outside of climate controlled and see the world in its raw state. There was no race. I wanted to be outside, in the water, and $5 fins were fine for that.

“I love the gear,” Mika told me later. “Half the point of any sport is getting the gear.”

Consumerism has found us. Going into the outdoors is no longer an escape.

But the originals, guys like Yvon Chouinard, Ed Hillary, Royal Robbins, they didn’t buy in. They may have made millions from the outdoors, but their own adventures were about making due. They figured out how to survive and adventure with what they had, never bought their way in. There wasn’t even the option in those days. They pressed things not intended for adventure into service, made them fit the fight. The first climbs of Royal Robbins were with a clothesline. The first ascents of Yosemite bigwalls required pitons carved out of stovelegs. Those were the hours of adventure, the moments of invention.

Not that we need to go back to stovelegs though. Without modern ice tools, screws, ropes and gear I would probably quit climbing—the risks those pioneers took were too much for me. Were I to attempt a grade five ice route with the equipment of their first ascent I would cower in fear. I know that. It is part of what makes original ascensionists so inspiring—they did it, and they did it with less. They did it when the oceans of rock above them were still a mystery, when there was no guidebook, no topos. They have shown us what original mettle looks like.I can only chase their accomplishments. There is something beautiful about that, something the advances technology can never equal.

I will eventually get freedive fins, and I will eventually get a dedicated freedive suit. But they will always be secondary, the necessary accessories rather than the point. Consuming is a part of existing—the lion eats, as does the mouse, and we are no different. It is neither good nor bad. But it is a pursuit in itself that remains without a purpose. Consuming for the point of consuming—I strove to escape. I went into the woods so I could live deliberately. And it has followed me here.

So I want to turn it around. I want the world to look at beauty I discovered in mountains, on cliffs, on the ocean and in the woods and see what I see. I want people to see the rawness of it and instead of thinking about buying think about saving. Think about the places so precious and rare, so tenuous and so perfect. I want them to think about those places as places, not brands. I want them to want the places to survive more than they way the goods to explore them.

I believe that is what the outdoors truly sells. I believe there is a market for that too.

5 a.m.

5 a.m.

13403970_1509050489121031_6107610005133950721_o5 a.m. The wind and rain from the night before had died. Low tide would hit in an hour and a half, the same amount of time it would take to drive to Higgins Beach.

“The waves look better tomorrow,” Nick told me as we pulled off our wetsuits. “Want to come back?”

I did. We’d spent an hour in the Maine water, riding small waves and slicing across foam. It was the kind of day that leaves you smiling after weeks away, but also the kind that leaves you wanting more.

But the ocean heard our call: the remains of Tropical Storm Bonnie, the second named storm of the season, were still churning the North Atlantic, throwing waves due to hit Northern New England the next day.

So this morning, at 5 a.m., I woke up. I rolled out of bed, pulled clothes on (no need to shower when the first appoint of the day is an ocean), grabbed a biscuit and orange juice carton and started driving.

“Morning,” Nick said, still in need of coffee. “I looked at the webcam. It’s a bit mushy.”

“The tide just switched,” I said. “Maybe it’ll be fine.”

We shoved boards and wetsuits into his SUV and drove the last leg to Higgins. It was still early. A grey light hung over the ocean, clouds unwilling to abandon the morning turned the water dark. Waves barreled toward shore in haphazard fashion, smashing and grinding into each other.

“Oh, this should be fun,” I said. Nick sipped a coffee from Higgins Beach Market .

We parked, suited up and headed for the water. There were a dozen surfers in already. I strapped on my leash and headed in. Nick did the same.

When the first wave hit, a wall of foam and white, it pushed me off my board, spun me and slammed me down. Then another. And another. My board, too big to push under the surface, became a launchpad with each blow. I gasped for breath, regrouped and paddled as best I could, but there was always another wave, and then another.

I watched Nick flip and go under. A wave slammed his overturned board. He popped back up, paddling hard, water churning around him. He got slammed again, but he kept pushing. He was making it out. I was not. Another wave-wall came, pushing me back further. The next one flipped me. I groped for my board, gasping for breath. Then another came. Then another. My arms were left slapping at the water. I was barely moving. They kept coming in fast and from every direction, spilling into each other. I wasn’t making it, the wall had me. So I turned.

It’s a strange thing, giving up. It makes sense sometimes, like when your breath is slowly running dry, but it doesn’t feel good. And if you don’t keep diving into unknown challenges it’s easy to forget what it’s like. In rock climb I don’t often back off a route without at least an honest try. But surfing isn’t rock climbing, and “honest try” means different things in different places. The ocean is something I know far less about. This wasn’t the mountains, wasn’t the dance of movement over stone. So I turned around.

I caught the whitewater of the next wave and rode it in. I was on the beach in seconds, still panting and heaving from the effort. I turned around and watched the surfers in the distance rising and falling, rising and falling. Nick was among them.

Sometimes the waves are just too big. But there is something wonderful in stepping up to the plate at a new challenge, something special in trying while not knowing. When the dance is not endlessly rehearsed there are bound to be failures. I sat on the shore watching the churn.

Then, as I looked out, a pattern emerged. The waves to the right were breaking in chaos, but to the left there was less white, less overlap, not a gap but more quiet. It wouldn’t be enough for an unobstructed paddle, but it offered one with fewer hammer strokes. I kept watching to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. No, it was there. I could get out that way. Or I could at least try.

I waded in up to my waist, still fighting whitewater, popping above it when I could, but watching as I went. I worked my way slowly, waiting for the moment the sea would open for me, the pause that would allow me passage.

Then it came: I saw a gap, pulled my board underneath me and paddled hard. The waves rose but not as high, crested but didn’t break. My arms held, tired but able to pull through the lull. They carried me far enough; I glided past the kill-zone and into the calm. Nick was there, his wetsuit hood pulled around his neck. He waved, then turned back to the ocean. I did the same.

There is something wonderful in movement unrehearsed, in a dance of not knowing. Maybe it makes you give up. Maybe it drowns you. But sometimes it lets you through. Those time are special.

 

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