The last chapter of a perfect story.
The door to my hotel room is stuck. I have warm pizza and cold beer and I can’t get into my hotel room. I wait in the hallway. My beer warms.
The woman from the front desk in Visalia asks if I’ve been at the surf event. I’m not sure what gave me away. Maybe the Patagonia bag, the cut-off corduroys, the blonde-streaked hair.
I’d love to check it out, she says of the Ranch. And Social D is playing! That’s going to be a great show. But she has to work and she’s envious that I get to be there. My feet hurt and I desperately need a beer, but I try to absorb her enthusiasm. I want to carry it with me when it’s time to do it all over again tomorrow.
I awaken in the dark and pull another lululemon top from the pile I brought with me. Lululemon is my hot-weather uniform. No one can see me sweat. I blend into the scenery. A woman walks by in lululemon. Do you notice? Probably not. Sometimes, it’s nice to slide through the world unnoticed.
I drive toward the sunrise. I stop at Starbucks and slam my two espressos in rapid succession. It’s best not to taste the coffee at Starbucks in my experience. Just get it down. I crank the radio to ear-splitting levels. I’m not a morning person and I need all the help I can get. I find the right exit this time and my spirits lift. I’ve got this Surf Ranch thing dialed.
I pull into the dirt lot that serves as general admission parking. Then I wait for a shuttle that never comes. Eventually a Tachi employee drives up in his maintenance cart. We’re closing this lot today, he says. You have to take the shuttle from the hotel. I repark and ask around until I find the shuttle. I’ve missed the start of the event, but it’s fine. I got this. I totally got this.
It’s not a surf spot until it has a name. I’m not sure I would have chosen The Basin, but no one asked me. The North Basin. The South Basin. Upper Basin. I play with the possibilities. Kelly’s Right. Jackson’s, after the street name. Where’s the drunk in the parking lot? We need the local parking lot drunk to name this thing properly.
I stand against the wall of the Basin and watch the lower seeds fall. It’s as though every wave is the last set of the heat. Everyone’s racing the buzzer, needing a high score to advance. Very few make it through. The stakes add an intensity to the proceedings that was missing during the previous day. Amidst the whirring of the cables and the pulling of the plow, Wilko gives the sport a human face. His hopes and dreams are sucked under. He’s out.
I try to get into the headspace required to compete here. It’s a one-minute effort. You have one chance. There’s no warm-up. You’re sitting in the pool, waiting for the train, facing an all-out, one-minute effort from a standing start. And nothing can go wrong during that short slice of time.
In heat surfing, there are second and third chances. A competitor might come out swinging and nail their best score on their first wave. Or they might “build house” throughout the heat. There’s no building house at the Basin. Some surfers very obviously manage the shift in headspace better than others. Anyone who’s surfed a crowded line-up understands the hassle of heat surfing intuitively. We do a version of it everyday.
I imagine trying to surf here and my brain seizes. No paddle-out. No quick insider or two to get going. Just straight on to a perfect set wave. I get stage fright just thinking about it. My brain spins up a new anxiety dream. I’ve been invited to surf the Basin. I hear the train coming. The count-down. I’m ready. Paddle in. Stand up. Feeling good. Then I take off and go the wrong way, straight into the white water.
The crowd is sparse in the morning, but it fills in steadily by the afternoon. A woman passes pulling a wagon packed with kids. They could be headed to any beach in California. Dad is watching the surfing. The kids are going to the beach. There’s a lake that runs parallel to the Basin and Hurley has set up umbrellas and floated blow-up toys. By late afternoon, there are kids splashing happily amidst the giant swans and flamingos. My bikini is in my car, parked a shuttle-ride away, or I might join them.
I lounge in the shade during the break and then it’s on to the higher seeds. I swim through the crowd along the pool’s walls. They cheer for the airs and groan at the falls. They’re into it — and most of the people seem to understand what they’re watching. They love Julian’s wave with its straight air on the final section. They like Kelly’s barrel on the left, but the airs get the biggest reaction.
From the side of the pool, I watch part of the wave live and part of it on the video screen. Kelly feels overscored, Kolohe under. But I’m not sure if that’s because the judges are wrong or because I can’t see the full wave from my perspective. Kolohe’s angry interview injects a necessary human element. He gives a shit. Maybe we should, too.
Chas shows up and I’m not sure I see another wave for the rest of the day. We stand together and toy with the joke about how we’re supposed to be the same person. Me, in my lululemon. Chas, well, you can see him coming from a mile away. He does not slide through the world unnoticed. We gossip and circulate. We forget about the surfing. I still haven’t seen Nick Carroll.
Then it’s time to go. The heat begins to press. I’ve had my watermelon agua fresca and my avocado toast. I’ve seen some good surfing and laughed with some entertaining people. I’ve napped in the shade and walked until my feet hurt. The coast is calling.
Back at my car, I peel off my sunscreen-crusted clothing and wipe away the dust. I slide gratefully into a cut-offs and a tee. Then I down another espresso and drive southwest across the valley’s flat terrain.
I stop for ice cream in Kettleman City. My phone buzzes. It’s Chas.
Nick Carroll says, Where the hell is JEN SEE?
I laugh and slide through the golden hills to the coast and home.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll go surfing.