Our woman on the ground!
I am lying on a leather couch staring at a length of canvas that’s been stretched from the roofline to create shade where there is none. It’s mid-day in Lemoore, California. The air hangs weighted with dust, heat, the detritus of industrial agriculture, and the ghost humidity of ancient lakes, now drained. Kelly Slater fakes a phone call in the food line.
I had arrived in the morning for a WSL-sponsored media day. A press conference, interviews, and women’s round table comprised the schedule. I got coffee at the Tachi and looked longingly at the pool. What if I just went to the pool? What if I drove to Lemoore and went to the pool at the Tachi and then drove home? I give myself a stern lecture in responsibility and head to the Surf Ranch.
We assemble for the press conference. I have jotted some questions, because I never can think of them on the fly. There is a blessing from the Tachi natives, on whose ancestral lands the Surf Ranch now sits. Then Dave Prodan, sitting in for Joe Turpel, opens the press conference. Each of the six surfers at the table receives a question, which they answer. Then just like that, it’s over.
I sit in my white plastic seat, genuinely surprised. I have never been to a press conference where media do not ask questions. Generally, asking questions is the point of the exercise. I figure this must be some kind of special surf media ritual that I can’t possibly understand.
Because in truth, what do I know? I’m an imposter after all. I wandered into this house, sauntered to the kitchen, and made myself a sandwich. I laid down on the couch and made myself comfortable. Maybe eventually Chas and Derek will come home to discover that I’ve eaten all the food in the house and fallen asleep on their couch and what the hell is this weirdo even doing here. Until then, I guess I live here now.
I see Dave Prodan, so I ask him why there were no questions at the press conference. It turns out that in fact, this is a strange surf media ritual. During the early years of the present century, media would turn up for press conferences and ask Kelly Slater two hours of questions, while ignoring the rest of the athletes at the table. Everyone involved got tired of this pattern — Slater, the event sponsors, the other surfers — and this is why we can’t have nice things.
(As a side note, this is bad press conferencing, do not press conference like this. Scribble down the question you really want to ask, but also, several generics you can throw to anyone on the panel. If one person at the table has been asked ten questions, throw something to one of the others. Your stories will absolutely be better for it.)
I interview four of the women. More on that in a future dispatch, because I can not live transcribe like Derek, which is a source of great sadness to me. Carissa Moore is happy to have stayed under the radar in the world title race. Sally Fitzgibbons has enough energy to light up a small city. Courtney Conlogue, wearing rainbow tie dye from Lauren, tells me that “she doesn’t fit in anyone’s box,” which comes as no surprise to me at all. Steph Gilmore is her usual poised self and doesn’t give much away.
The women convene for the round table, which includes Sophie Goldschmidt and the five women who have won CT events this year. Jessi Miley Dyer leads the discussion, which focuses on equal prize money and the ways the women feel it has changed the sport. There isn’t much new here, but it’ll make a nice video package. My foot cramps and in deference to the rolling tape, I stifle a scream.
I head for the exits as Julian Wilson shows up for his practice wave. He carries a new board under his arm. Everything about this feels like an exercise in surrealism. He looks like an alien whose spaceship dropped him off at the wrong destination. Expensive-looking sunglasses hide his eyes (Smith, I believe), but can’t conceal the lost look on his face. How did I end up here?
Then I’m on the road, dreaming of that first fresh breath of ocean-infused air. I imagine marine layer and onshores, anything to blow away the heat-spun cobwebs in my head. I don’t bother to hope for surf, that would be far too much to ask for now. Just proximity. If I can just see the ocean, I can survive.
I’m halfway to Kettleman City, when the traffic grinds to a halt. There’s a paving project in progress. One-way traffic only. So there we all sit, a long snaking line. The sun bores down. I live here now. I live here in this shitty rental Nissan Sentra on the highway that should be carrying me as far as fast as possible from Lemoore, but isn’t. We’re stuck here. The No Exit jokes write themselves.
I never thought I’d be happy to see Kettleman City, which is a two-block road stop of a town. There’s gas stations on every corner, a Starbucks, several fast food outlets, and that’s about all. I strip off my Lemoore clothes (lululemon to hide the sweat) in the gas station parking lot and mix an electrolyte bottle. Chas sends me a text, but I’m too busy eating ice cream to reply.
Ice cream understands. Ice cream understands being stuck in a never-ending line of cars on the road out of Lemoore. Ice cream understands having to go to Lemoore in the first place. Ice cream understands your existential dilemmas and doesn’t give a fuck.
I half expect to wake up at home, the cat pawing at my face, to realize that none of this has actually happened. In the heat of a fever, I dreamed of a surf contest in the tules, the heat of a dying planet, a press conference with no questions, a line of immobile traffic on a long, straight road to an invisible horizon.
But no, this is real. I’m still there, standing on the cracked pavement at the Chevron in Kettleman City. I pilot the Sentra west through the blanched yellow hills. Ice cream drips down my fingers and rolls into my lap. I suck down my electrolyte mix, which pairs badly with ice cream. It’s all of a piece, all out of joint.
I tell myself this is the last time and then I laugh. I realize I said this very same thing while driving the same stretch of road a year ago. Someday maybe I will learn from my own mistakes, but not yet, not today.