The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Southern California

The scene at Oceanside for the contest. I suppose there are worse camping spots out there.

The scene at Oceanside for the contest. I suppose there are worse camping spots out there.

I’m not a poor planner, because I don’t plan at all. Without a pre-established itinerary, every day is an adventure, Indiana Jones style. I realize that, as a parent, teacher, and business owner, this approach is a bad idea. I can’t help it. I blame surfing. You can’t plan what you’re gonna do on a wave. You drop in, see what’s happening around you, and react. That’s my life. I’m a reactor. Sometimes this gets me in a pickle.

I used to go to California every summer. I’d surf my brains out, stock up on free shit from my sponsors, and surf some more. By 1990, I thought I was ready to quit being a spectator at big pro events and become a player. That summer, I flew out for the Life’s A Beach Klassic in Oceanside.

The event happened to be Kelly Slater’s first as a pro. He probably had fifty people lined up to greet him at the airport, all fighting to give him a place to stay. My arrival was slightly less heralded. I landed at LAX, retrieved my surfboards and duffel, and wondered why I hadn’t done a better job of planning. A rental car wasn’t in my budget, and after a few dollars worth of quarters wasted on potential rides, I realized I was on my own. With the contest starting the next morning, I had to go Greyhound.

"Ooh, Kelly, will you please stay at my house?"

“Ooh, Kelly, will you please stay at my house?”

I took a city bus to the Greyhound station and quickly saw I’d made a huge mistake. The Greyhound drivers were on strike. A few busses were operating, but with 80% of all routes cancelled there was a line of customers stretching around the block. I figured that standing around in perfect California weather was still better than being in humid VB, so I dragged my belongings to the back of the line. What other choice did I have?

“Escuse me, where you trying go?” It was a Mexican dude, middle-aged, decently dressed and looking only a little friendlier than a villain from a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. I looked around and realized he was talking to me.

“Oceanside,” I said. I’d mailed my hundred-and-fifty dollar entry fee, so one way or another I was going to show up for my heat.

Hombre smiled and fingered the toothpick between his teeth. “I take you. Ten bucks.” I looked back at the line in front of me. It was longer than the one for Space Mountain at Disneyland up the road. Not only was he offering me a ride, but he was appealing to my thrifty nature.

A fairly close replica of The Bean Machine.

A fairly close replica of The Bean Machine.

Sold. He helped lug my boards to a nearby parking lot, while I considered how much smarter I was than all those bozos still standing in line. We finally stopped at a dull gray van, not a passenger van with rows and rows of seats like your typical airport shuttle, but a bonafide molester mobile.

“The back door no open,” he said. Sure enough, they appeared to be welded shut. He opened the side doors and told me, “We put boards troo here.” Whatever, I thought. At least I could sit up front and we’d be on our way, or so I thought. He pointed to a seat at the very back of the van. “You wait couple minute. I go get few more people.”

It wasn’t too late for me to run, or at least walk considering my heavy load. On the other hand, if he was going to harvest my organs or make me a sex slave he probably wouldn’t be going back for more victims. Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t come out until the following year, so the image of a dumb girl getting conked in the head and taken to an underground lair in a van much like this one wasn’t yet seared in my brain.

"Would you mind giving me a hand with this couch? What are you, about a size 14?"

“Would you mind giving me a hand with this couch? What are you, about a size 14?”

Sure enough, mi amigo returned, not with a few others but roughly a dozen, all Mexicans. They piled in through the side, gradually enclosing me in the way back beside the welded doors. Then, once we packed in like…well, like a van full of Mexicans, we were gone. I don’t know if the circus was in town, but if we’d pulled up in the middle of it and started to unload to raucous applause I wouldn’t have been surprised.

We dropped a few passengers off in a shady area of Santa Ana, but the rest I assumed were heading for Mexico. I started to doze off amid thoughts of waking up across the border and being forced to sell Chiclets to tourists when the van pulled up at Oceanside Pier. I handed the driver a ten, threw in a “Muchas gracias,” and hauled my stuff down the steps to the beach.

The sun was like a big Winchell’s donut on its way to dipping into the Pacific, and I plopped onto the bleachers that were freshly set up for the contest. Some fellow contestants were getting some waves before dark, but I didn’t feel safe leaving my posessions unattended. It was likely that I’d be snuggling inside my board bag in a few hours, so I didn’t want to risk someone making off with my accommodations.

I was beginning to scope out a camping spot when a familiar face came bobbing past. “Hey Jason, what are you up to?” It was an older guy from home who’d relocated here with his girlfriend.

“Aww you know, just hanging out.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Umm, not really sure.” (Feign puppy dog eyes here.)

“Well, we’re running down to the harbor and back. If you’re still here when we get back, we’ll see what we can do.”

If I’m still here. If they were coming back for me, not even Pamela Anderson bouncing up the sand in slow motion wearing her red Baywatch suit could’ve lured me from my position. For the next week, I surfed though a few heats, watched a lot of Wimbledon from the comfy futon at my friend’s house, and enjoyed many breakfasts cooked by his girlfriend. Through each delicious bite of omelet and Stefan Edberg serve-and-volley, I was learning a valuable lesson: Planning can ruin a great trip.

Before being attacked by plastic surgeons, C.J. Parker was among the top lifeguards in Orange County.

Before being attacked by plastic surgeons, C.J. Parker was among the top lifeguards in Orange County.

*Special thanks to Rich and Mary Brown for rescuing me. I still owe you.


You can’t play a sad song on a banjo

The coveted Phyzeke trophy, crafted by

The coveted Phyzeke trophy, crafted by

I’ve been thinking. Looking back over my posts, I sound like a negative guy, like this whole “not surfing” experiment has made me bitter. Strangely enough, I don’t think it has. I remain a happy person, happier than most at least. It sucks to see other people surfing while I cannot, but I am more aware than ever of the many things I have to be thankful for. School is out, I have a wonderful family that is healthy, and I recently watched as a melting pot of vigilantes rose up to defeat the evil Miami Heat empire and reclaim the NBA crown. Life is good.

Somehow, when I sit down and start pecking away on the Notes app on my phone, words appear that are inexplicably laced with negativity, cynicism, and doom. When I noticed this trend, I thought to myself, I need to write something positive, something uplifting. Then, I came to my senses.

I’m not documenting this warped pursuit in order to inspire, although it would be great if I inspired all other surfers to take a year off beginning next January. That would mean lots of waves for me. But no, I’m documenting my year for posterity and to entertain, not just you but myself as well. Writing these posts has in some strange way provided me with a purpose, an endeavor to try to fill the void left by not surfing.
As far as uplifting blogs go, I can’t stand them. If I have a few minutes to read someone’s thoughts, I want entertainment, hopefully some humor, and the odd bit of insight. In fact, I think I’d enjoy reading my own blog if I didn’t already know what it was gonna say. From what people tell me as I go about this difficult, landlubbing year, others like it too. No one yet has told me, “Dude your blog sucks! It’s unreadable drivel and you should quit writing.” (I’m sure some people are thinking it, and I’d love to hear from them.)

As I approach the halfway point in this journey, I repeatedly ask myself if there’s any reason to continue. With summer’s arrival I find myself surrounded by water and have to be careful not to cheat. This weekend, I attended a surf contest that I started in memory of Zeke Sanders, a good friend who battled with bipolar disorder and eventually took his own life. It’s a free event for local groms, but we also hold a special heat for Zeke’s friends, called the Phyzeke.

I paddled out for the heat in my nephew’s inflatable pool raft so as not to be tempted to ride a wave. For half an hour, I did my best to get in everybody’s way. A few times a wave caught my lil’ ship, so I immediately dove out, each time aiming to remove another surfer from his board. Some onlookers accused me of breaking my vow and riding a wave.

I can say with absolute certainty that those accusations are false. Yes, if you snapped a photo at the right second, it would look like I was surfing. I know I didn’t, and the reason I know is that afterwards, walking back to my car, I had an empty feeling. Sure, I miss my friend, but he’s been gone for almost a decade. It was something else, something much closer.

This is the closest I've come to surfing in 2014.

This is the closest I’ve come to surfing in 2014.

See you in church

I’m a surfer in a tourist town. I get weird questions. But the one I was recently blindsinded with at school left me reeling, and it had nothing to do with surfing. Upon passing a fellow teacher in the hall, one whom I barely know, I heard, “How’re you and Jesus doing?”

She kept walking and didn’t seem to be looking for a real conversation, so I had only a fraction of a second to process this riddle. All I could muster on short notice was, “Um, I haven’t seen him in a while.” By then the teacher and I had passed one another, but I added, “Let me know if you see him around.” I didn’t turn to gauge her reaction, but I imagine she contorted her face in disgust or began praying for my salvation. Probably both.

This hat in the teachers' lounge gave me a clue as to where He might be hiding.

This hat in the teachers’ lounge gave me a clue as to where He might be hiding.

I am tempted to write a post about religion. I won’t, of course, because people get weird about that stuff. They lose their senses of humor and reason. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone, so I’m not gonna write that.

But if I did, I’d probably explain how, as you might’ve guessed, JC and I are not on speaking terms. It’s not that we had a falling out; I didn’t “unfriend” him. I’ve just never bought his bracelets, much less turned my life over to him. Seems like a solid guy, but I have a hard time with all the miracles. As a man of reason, I lean towards Thomas Jefferson’s version of events, the one stripped of all the Harry Potter gags.

I might include how the closest I’ve come to “seeing the light” was during Tebow-mania. Sunday after Sunday a few years back, I religiously watched in awe as a God-fearing, God-awful quarterback led his football team to a series of unbelievable comebacks. Had I not witnessed the miracles of Saint Tim with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed them any more than I believe the earth is just a few years older than Betty White.

I’d also add that the only times I recall praying were in the midst of one nasty hangover and once when I thought my plane was going down in a storm. In each case, in my fragile state I sent a mental shoutout to Mary’s alleged baby daddy although I knew he was probably too busy fixing sporting events to hear me. I survived, obviously, but I chalked it up to dumb luck rather than divine intervention.

We inherit religion from our parents without question, or at least without answers based on anything more than longstanding stories. My dad attended Sunday school as a kid, but he was “saved” by a paper route at 12. Mom was raised Jewish but only celebrated the big holidays. So growing up I learned that God meant flat, crunchy bread and chocolate coins, and speaking to Him required a little round hat and a throat full of phlegm.

Moses assumes his tube stance and readies himself for an epic barrel.

Moses assumes his tube stance and readies himself for an epic barrel.

My parents didn’t talk about religion. They did go out of their way to help those less fortunate, not because the church told them to but because it’s the right thing to do. As a result, I developed a sense of karma straight out of “My Name Is Earl.”

I’m in no position to help anyone financially, so I “do good” the only way I know how. I take people surfing. Disabled, underpriveleged, anyone who otherwise could not do so on their own. Unlike religious do-gooders, I don’t urge these people to believe in a collection of stories from thousands of years ago; I give them my book on how not to be a kook. I’m not pushing them into turning their lives over to anything; I’m just pushing them into a few waves.

If I wrote about religion I’d definitely include that my church is the ocean, my god Mother Nature. (However, I’m a staunch advocate of the separation of church and surf. Tying any other religion to surfing ain’t kosher.) As pioneer waterman Tom Blake said, “Surfriding is a prayer of a high order…the sea is a beautiful church, the wave a silent sermon.” What my religion is not is organized (unless the wind happens to be blowing offshore).

Me, at the altar.

Me, at the altar.

The sea has been my sanctuary and my teacher. It has taught me how small we all are, how to be self-sufficient, and to respect the earth. I haven’t always been the best student, especially when it comes to respect. I mean, do you know anybody who routinely takes a piss in the middle of their house of worship?

I’ve only spoken about my religious beliefs, or lack thereof, with a few people, so I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a post about it. I don’t mind offending people, but I wholeheartedly support the idea of allowing everyone to have their beliefs. We’re all just expressing our opinions anyway. Our thoughts on the subject are called “beliefs” rather than “knows” for good reason. All I know for sure is, I’m looking forward to getting back to church.

You want to see something really scary?

I don't think this guy is yawning.

I don’t think this guy is yawning.

People who don’t surf think surfing is scary, but true terror is an emotion I haven’t often experienced. Riding waves, once you’ve done it for a while, and unless you’re chasing monster swells around the world, just isn’t that crazy. In Virginia Beach, it can be utterly boring. Imagine my surprise when I went for a swim on a flat day recently and was overcome with real, life-or-death, shit-in-your-pants dread.

I’ve been scared a fistful of times when I was in surf that was out of my league. Once I established my personal limits, I stayed in my end of the pool. I only recall one instance of extreme fear, and it had nothing to do with waves. Consider the following set of circumstances and tell me you wouldn’t be cringing:

1) I was surfing in South Africa, land of the Great Whites.
2) The spot I was surfing is called Seal Point, which is where I’d go for meals if I were a “man in the gray suit.”
3) A boogieboarder had been chomped less than a month earlier just a few clicks down the beach.
4) The sun was setting. In other words, feeding time.
5) After missing a set wave, I found myself alone in the lineup.

Bird's eye view of South Africa's Seal Point. Even the birds know not to get any closer than this.

Bird’s eye view of South Africa’s Seal Point. Even the birds know not to get any closer than this.

I sat there, atop a meager couple inches of foam and fiberglass, and began to hear the theme from Jaws in my head. As you might guess, I felt anything but alone. I was sure that a couple thousand pounds of muscle and teeth were making a beeline for me at that instant.

I lay flat on my board and lifted my hands and feet skyward. I’d seen Shark Week, so I knew that whitey’s got airborne as regularly as a teenaged surfer from the Rio favelas. Still, I figured playing hard to get couldn’t hurt.

I'm pretty sure that lifting my hands and feet out of the water would protect me from an assault like this one.

I’m pretty sure that lifting my hands and feet out of the water would protect me from an assault like this one.

Thankfully, a wave arrived before megaladon did, and I lived to wash to brown stain from my wetsuit. Which brings me to the other day.

The ocean had finally thawed after a brutal winter, and I’d gone for a swim before dark. The beach and surf were empty. I pulled my goggles over my eyes, stroked maybe a hundred yards offshore and hung a left turn. From there, I swam maybe a block to the north.

It’s weird how not being able to see underwater is scarier than having great visibility. In the murky water, even with goggles I couldn’t see past my fingertips. Suddenly, my imagination got the better of me. That, or my spidey sense kicked into overdrive. Either way, I was certain that a shark was bearing down on me, its jaws opening wide in anticipation of gnoshing on my exposed rack of meaty ribs.

I froze. It was infinitely more terrifying than my evening at Seal Point. On a surfboard, being above water provides a sense of security, however false, as only our feet or hands are in the water. While swimming, our entire bodies are within the sights of a hungry predator. In that moment, I understood what it feels like to be a bucket of chum. I understood the 19th Century notion of sea monsters. I turned toward the shore and got the hell out of there.

This happened off the coast of Virginia Beach this spring.

This happened off the coast of Virginia Beach this spring.

After years of scoffing at people who were afraid to surf for this very reason, admitting to this fear is embarrassing. More and more I feel myself turning into one of them. Another week of great waves, perhaps the best all year, went off without me. I’m getting so used to seeing images of Hatteras perfection that it almost doesn’t faze me.

The biggest critic of my self-imposed dry time, my 16-year-old son, said to me last night, “It’s too late now. You’ve gone too far to stop.” He’s right. I think I’m in this for the long haul. Talk about scary.

Proof that I might not have been imagining things.

Proof that I might not have been imagining things.

But you ain’t got no legs, Lieutenant Dan

A bunch of guys and girls who put my little sacrifice in perspective.

A bunch of guys and girls who put my little sacrifice in perspective.

A few years ago Larry had his version of a rough day at the office. The burly Chicago native was perusing Baghdad for some of his missing coworkers when he took a fateful wrong step and heard a click. He had a brief instant to consider that the step he just took was a horrible mistake. We’ve all had that feeling at work, where we realize we’ve made a bone-headed move and are about to lose some business or get a scolding from our boss. Larry’s realization was different. In that instant, he knew that his young, totally intact body was about to be no more. He was having, as the kids’ book calls it, a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” The worst day ever.

Today, Larry had a great day. He went to the beach with his lovely wife Desiree and her parents, and they all went surfing, along with forty-eight of his fellow wounded soldiers and their families. The tide was too high, the wind was a nuisance, and the water was cold. Regardless, not a complaint was uttered all day. If you wanted complaining, you should have been here last weekend for the surf contest.

Today, Larry and Desiree playfully talked trash and tried to outdo one another in the surf, but it was all in fun. Desiree yelled, “Laying on top of that board, you look like a seal!” Larry responded, “You just mad cause I rode that wave longer than you.” Larry had indeed enjoyed a long ride, but he hadn’t stood up. He couldn’t. That click he’d heard at work was an explosive device, and he’d lost both legs and one of his hands, not to mention incurring a bevy of other injuries. Today, that didn’t matter. Today he was just a surfer.

Desiree can only gawk as Larry executes his best Buddha pose.

Desiree can only gawk as Larry executes his best Buddha pose.

For seven years, this day has been the highlight of my summer. I’ve marveled at the soldiers’ positive attitudes, camaraderie, and bravery. I’ve been amazed by their families’ dedication and support. I’ve been in awe of the team that spends so much of the year hammering out all of the critical details, and I’ve beamed as the best people in my town have shown up and given their donations, their expertise, and their Saturdays to make it all happen.

Of whatever I’ve accomplished in my life, I’m most proud of this day, the Wave Warriors Surf Camp, of getting the ball rolling with just fourteen warriors at Camp Lejeune the first year, and of having the privilege of passing the surfing torch to hundreds of injured servicemen and women since then, hundreds of Larry’s and Desiree’s. Nobody earns a penny from the event, and as far as I can tell everyone leaves with a smile. The warriors see that their disabilities cannot define them, and we more inspiration than a million Oprah episodes could provide.

Desiree styling while Larry looks on from behind.

Desiree styling while Larry looks on from behind.

Aside from our little camp at the jetty, the city is having its annual Patriotic Festival, a grand weekend of concerts, airshows, and other military-themed celebrations. For the festival, the military has parked a massive, ten million dollar hovercraft on the beach in front of the hotel that is housing the warriors. After dinner, I walked down to check it out, and I immediately felt like a little kid. The thing travels at sixty knots and can pull up to any beach loaded with assault vehicles ready to annhilate anything standing in its way. Freaking cool.

As I stepped off the hovercraft, the cool factor vanished. There, on the handicapped ramp, sat one of our warriors, an amputee even more fucked up than Larry, admiring the craft from his wheelchair. The sobering reality of war was not lost on me, and as I stood for a few moments I saw that others felt the same way. Kids who had swarmed the hovercraft like it was a giant toy were walking off and seeing what I had just seen, and their wide eyes grew even wider.

I plan to take my grom down to check it out tomorrow. It’s too cool not to. Hopefully there are some warriors around, because I want him to see that there’s nothing cool about war.

Volunteers line up to escort the other "Larry Legend" up the beach.

Volunteers line up to escort the other “Larry Legend” up the beach.

Please visit our site,, and give.

On a lighter note, I hucked Larry’s mother-in-law, Monique, into a wave and she rode it halfway in. I needed to get in to help her back out, and there was another wave coming. I figured the quickest way to get to her was to bodysurf in. I took a couple big strokes, the wave started to lift me up, and I went, “Oh shit, I can’t do this!” and pulled through the back at the last second. Close call.

All images courtesy of Eddie Compo and The Wildlyfe