10 10

When we were here last, Morrison had just told us it was the end. But now we start fresh again, with a surf session that is tainted by the feeling of being watched.

Humqaq, part 3

By Jeff McElroy

I woke to a warm sage wind and an orange sky to the east. I was a little hungover, nothing a duck-dive in the icy Pacific couldn’t fix. I hopped out of the camper shell. Smoke rose from the fire ring and blew west. Offshore. I ate a granola bar and washed it down with a swig of water before heading over the small dune to the ocean. I beheld a pristine theater of empty peaks, a phalanx of emerald swell lines. The lips pitched and blew smoke off the backs. It was pushing double-overhead with nobody out.

Ran back to my truck and popped in the Bob Marley. Lively up yourself! Stretched into my wetsuit and jammed my feet in my booties. Fetched my 6’3″ round-tail from the dirt under the truck. Stashed my 6’1″ and 5’11” squashes in the camper shell and locked it up. Hid my keys behind the tire, pried a glob of molten wax from the rusted tailgate, squatted with the board over my knees, and rubbed the wax over the crusty bumps. I looked around for my friends from last night, but saw no cars in the entire campground. Then I noticed a bunch of overlapping coyote paw-prints in the dirt around the truck. At the same time, a weird feeling of being watched from all directions crept into my head. Remembering the waves, I said screw it, and headed back over the dune.

I jogged south towards Tarantulas with my board underarm. Freight lines marched in from the north, peaking, heaving, throwing, peeling, grinding—left and right. Big dark lines. My jog became a sprint. The salt-bleached cliffs to my left echoed the rumble of the sea and claps of barrels. The air was cold in the shadows of the cliff, but I was warming up quick in my 4/3 wetsuit. The air was healthy with the smell of fish and kelp. Welcome to Central Cal.

But I swore I was being watched. The beach was empty in both directions. Couldn’t see anyone on the cliffs.

The tide was low. I walked out on the reef, one foot cautiously in front of the other. The reef was slick with purple moss. I held my leash above the water so it wouldn’t snag on the barnacles. Whitewater surged over my knees and I set my board down to float. I combed the wax with my fingernails and scoped the waves. They seemed monstrous now at sea level, with no lulls. Made my stomach a little sour, like I had to take a shit. I figured it was best not to look. One wave at a time. One day at a time. I pushed off.

Made my first duck-dive. That shit was cold. With a frozen dome, I made a second duck-dive and ice water flushed inside my wetsuit along my spine. My shoulders were weak and stiff with the first paddles, but I put my head down and dug. Duck-dive, duck-dive, duck-dive. I pushed the board deep, arched my back, kicked with my booties, and shot out the back of wave after wave. I didn’t look back.

Made it outside and sat up on my board, chest heaving. I bobbed like a buoy over the muscular lines. A seal popped up, stared at me, and disappeared. I looked back at the coast. The mild late-autumn sunrise made italic shadows in the gullied cliffs. The Steinbeck hills were golden and dry. The lighthouse far to the south at the tip of Point Conception looked like a toy. To the north, the satellite towers at Vandenberg Air Force Base rose above the hills. I inhaled the warm wind of sage and manzanita. My face was numb, but my body was warm. I was calm, but alert.

There was still nobody in sight. Nobody. No surfers walking this way. No Filipino fishermen with cigarettes and rubber boots and bloody buckets. No old men searching for memories with metal detectors. No spastic dogs or staccato barks. No joggers. I was alone. Bob echoed in my head, There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air.

A thick wave grew on the horizon. I turned and paddled hard, matching power with power. Up. Up. High above the sea. Then the cradle. The scoop. Jumped up to my feet and leaned forward. The wind held me up in the face, so I leaned forward more, keeping my body low and tight. Then I dropped in a weightless freefall. I saw the reef under the shallow water and trusted my board would be underfoot upon landing. I landed straight into a bottom turn. Dragged my hand and stood up tall inside the crystal chamber. I faded deeper until Point Conception was framed by the tube. I made baby pumps until the barrel spit me onto a wide open face with speed to burn. Don’t screw this up, I thought. Laid down a long powerful arc back to the foam-ball and snapped with knees bent and my back propped up by the foam. Then I set up for a whole new drop down a whole new face.

Dropped in and set my line for barrel number two. But before the curtains closed, something on-shore caught my eye. It looked like a group of people watching me, hundreds of people. What the hell? I lost concentration and caught the heel-side edge of my board in the water. Fell backward and got wrapped up like a burrito. The board thumped my lip hard. I was deep underwater seeing stars. My ears rang and I tasted blood. I swam in the direction I assumed was up, searching for light.

*Photos by Josh Gill

To start from the beginning or catch an installment you missed:

Humqaq pt. 1

Humqaq pt. 2

Signup for our curated weekly newsletter to discover affordable, fun and rewarding solutions for thriving in wild times.

Signup for our curated weekly newsletter to discover affordable, fun and rewarding solutions for thriving in wild times.