Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What writers do when they're not doing anything

A note from Best of Backmarker: Time flies. Six years ago, I moved from Texas back to California. I wrote this column that February, and it appeared on the old Road Racer X web site. Since that's now down, and since I ran across this file while resurrecting an old hard drive and liked the essay, I'm reposting it here. Of course, I've since moved from California to Kansas City, and I'm a long way my old home surf break. That's about all I miss about SoCal, but I do admit that rereading this, I find myself wishing for a little getaway, as the forecast here is for an ice storm...

February, 2007

A while ago, I moved back to California from Texas.  So now I live in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, which is one of the beach towns strung out north of San Diego between Interstate 5 and the coast. The town’s unofficial logo is a yellow “pedestrian crossing” sign, but the pedestrian’s carrying a surfboard. Every second vehicle has a Surfrider Foundation window sticker or a Pray For Surf bumper sticker. There’s a popular local breakfast joint called Pipes, which takes its name from a nearby surf break. There’s a little office building next to the café, and its parking lot is posted with signs that read:

Until a few years ago, Cardiff was mostly little bungalows. But Southern California’s real estate boom has resulted in most of those being torn down and replaced by much bigger places that start at well over a million bucks. So there aren’t many rentals left that archetypal surfers can afford–guys whose work life is so sketchy that they can book off whenever the surf’s up. That doesn’t mean there are fewer surfers. When I walk from my house, straight down Dublin Drive towards the beach, I always pass a few open garage doors. I see a predictable mix of Porsche Cayennes and Lexuses (Lexi?) but there’s usually a quiver of longboards, too. So most of the current residents are rich, born-again surfers.

My street ends at a little bluff that overlooks the San Elijo lagoon. From there, a footpath leads down across the railroad tracks towards Highway 101. Once I’ve crossed the highway, I’m there, on the beach. And I am there, quite often. A writer’s life involves a lot of waiting. (Come to think of it, it often involves waiting on tables, but the terms of my visa won’t permit that.) So in my case it’s waiting for the phone to ring, or for the email that assigns a story, tells a story; as clichéd as it might sound, I do wait for the muse to strike. 

While I wait, surfing serves a purpose; paddling’s a great cardio and upper body workout, holding your head up in that posture closely mimics a sportbike workout on your upper back and neck. Sitting on the board waiting for waves is its own balance exercise, too; without realizing it, you constantly shift your c.g. to keep it above the board’s center of buoyancy. Learning to relax out there is like riding in the rain, and it attunes you to that split-second’s warning you get that before some highsides–where you instinctively transfer your weight from the seat to the pegs, letting the bike rise and break underneath you while you think, No big deal. 

There’s a bunch of overlapping sponsors and a general surf style that’s close to the vibe in a Supercross paddock. But the rhythm of surfing’s more in tune with road racing. Timing waves is analogous to initiating turns; wait, wait, wait for it, then commit totally.

So physically, it’s one of the best possible ways to cross train for motorcycling. All in all, it can’t hurt my riding (there are those who’ve seen me ride who are now thinking, Nothing could hurt it. But maybe some day I will finally teach myself to commit to the turn as fully as I do to the wave.) Anyway, the main benefits are mental. Something about those long waits at sea sharpens one’s powers of observation.  Ask Herman Melville.

The path to the beach skirts the outlet of the lagoon, which looks like a small river, except it changes the direction of its flow twice a day. On dropping tides, it releases sediment into the Pacific. That sediment is carried about 100 yards out to sea before settling. It creates the sandy reef that, in turn, makes for consistently good waves. Not great, but good. That’s my home break. From the time I put my coffee cup down in the kitchen sink to the time I was wading into the waves, it used to take me no more than 15 minutes on foot. So I didn’t even need a car, which was lucky because I don’t have one. 

I say “used to” because now I have to detour around a deep, concrete storm drainage ditch that runs parallel to the highway. For a while, there was a bridge across the ditch, despite the fact that the path follows the railroad right of way and everyone who walks there is technically trespassing.

The bridge was obviously made from construction scraps. It was about ten feet long and thirty inches wide. There were no handrails; it was definitely not up to code. Some of the timbers were painted and others are untreated and rough sawn. But it was solid; I knew right away that it was made by someone who used tools for a living.  

Spray-painted on one of the beams that supported it were the words:


There was a more helpful (though no more welcoming) message on the bridge deck itself:


I was not surprised to see those warnings. (Although logically, they made no sense; the bridge was not visible from any public thoroughfare and connected a small, residential neighborhood with a relatively anonymous beach. Only locals could possibly have used it.) 

Surfers call this territoriality “localism.” It is, to say the least, inconsistent with the laid back surf style that is packaged and marketed all over the world–including places hundreds of miles from the nearest waves. Ironically, the successful marketing of surf culture had the unintended effect of encouraging millions of people to take up the sport. 

Natural forces create surf breaks. There are a finite number of good ones, especially near major population centers. What was once a solitary communion between man and nature now often looks more like a bobbing, floating crowd. Collisions between surfers are rare, but friction is not. Professional surf journalists and photographers have had their cars burned or even been beaten up by local surfers who don’t want “their” still-undiscovered spots popularized. And even people who surf at well-known beaches resent web-based surf forecasters who can spread the word–surf’s up–too far, too fast.

All this proves only that surf culture has invaded the larger popular culture at the expense of popular culture invading surfing. It’s part pure cool, part environmental awareness, part sport, art, and business. It must have been nice, back in the old days in Hawaii, when it was just a religious experience. 

In any case, the bridge wasn’t there for long. Someone tore it out. Not an angry non-local surfer; probably someone from the railroad, or the town council, who didn’t want to tacitly encourage people to cross the railroad tracks far from the nearest level crossing.

Having been spoiled by the short cut, once it was denied to me I bought an old Motobecane “mixte”-framed bicycle and fitted it with a rack that holds a surfboard. That enabled me to get down to the beach along the roads, even faster than I used to get there via the guerrilla bridge. My surf bike also gives me access to a wider range of surf spots, maybe a mile up and down the coast from Swami’s to the rocky headland at the north end of Solana Beach.

The success of the bicycle gave me another idea, which was to build a surf motorcycle. Faithful readers (hi mom) will remember that I once accidentally bought a 1972 Suzuki TS125 scrambler on eBay. It ran–barely–but had a sticking throttle and questionable electrics. (Since it was missing its battery, the question was, did it have anything like roadworthy lights and horn?) The tires, chain and sprockets were pretty knackered too, but it was basically all there and pretty stylin’. 

Until now though, it’s been a bit of an albatross around my neck. I’ve moved it from California to Texas and back again without ever riding it. Since I don’t have a garage, it’s been stored outside; a cozy nest for spiders, a perch for sparrows, sprinkled with fallen pine needles. So it’s definitely time I did something with it. Lately, I’ve imagined buzzing up and down the 101 on it, with my ’board slung alongside. Hmm… I wonder how far I can go before I stop being local?

Somewhere, I have a Clymer manual for it. Maybe in the next few days I’ll roll it onto my little patio, clean it off and see if I can get it to the point where one could imagine licensing and insuring it. I’ll let you know how that goes. Unless the phone rings. Or the surf’s up.

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